An Idle Tale?

Preached on Easter Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scriptures, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

The story of the Resurrection is one of symbol and meaning, mystery and enchantment:  The first day of the week at early dawn.
An empty tomb with its stone rolled away.
A group of confused followers, who happen to be women.
It’s a strange tale.  Not what you’d expect from a story in which the main character has just died a violent death.

The story of the Resurrection is also the Christian story of salvation.

It’s the story of how God helps us come to understand just how devastating the world can be and how life-giving it is when we are not beholden to worldly power.  Delivered by the men in dazzling white, the message of the Resurrection is: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And then, it began.  At that moment, the world began making a choice:
Do we believe?  Or is this just some idle tale?

Do we believe that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death?
Do we behave as if we believe that to be true?
Or do we choose to think that this is just some idle tale?

But first, what does it mean that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death?  Let’s look more closely at the story Luke gives us.

The timing of the story is important.  This is a new day, a new week.

We know that Jesus breathed his last and gave up his spirit.  We know that Jesus died and was put into a tomb.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Because, at sunrise we begin anew.  Death, pain, suffering… they don’t have the hold on us that we think they do.  They don’t have the hold on us that the worldly powers want us to believe.  What if we lived as if this were true?  We are beginning, not ending.  God’s Hope comes to us in the midst of our worldly death.

In the midst of the nightmare that this world can sometimes be, God’s Hope arises like a new day.  A first day.

And that we have an empty tomb is curious, I’ve always thought.  Jesus could have arisen and stayed in the tomb to greet his friends.  But he didn’t.

It helps to understand the burial practices of the time.  When a tomb was sealed, it wasn’t just a huge stone that was put in front of the tomb entrance.  There was much more to it than that.  As theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman tells us in his book Seasons of Faith and Conscience:

“I grew up with a… notion that to seal the tomb was a matter of hefting the big stone and cementing it tight. The seal, in my mind’s eye, was something like first-century caulking–puttying up the cracks to keep the stink in. Not so. This is a legal seal. Cords would be strung across the rock and anchored at each end with clay. To move the stone would break the seal and indicate tampering.”

In other words, it was the Roman Empire who declared legal death by sealing the tomb or… sealing the fate of a person.  The breaking of the seal by anyone but an official of the state, would be considered illegal.  This means, the Resurrection was illegal.

Worldly power has been undermined.  God is refusing to cede to the empire, refusing to allow the empire to tell the story.

And then we have Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women.  Who, expecting to find the body of their friend and teacher, come upon this empty tomb, the seal broken and stone rolled away.  They were “perplexed,” the Gospel says.  Of course they were.

But more importantly, all 4 of the Gospel accounts go out of their way to explain that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb, who first understood the implications of what took place.  It was women who were there at sunrise on the first day of the week and witnessed, in varying ways, the Resurrection.  They were given the message from God, via the messengers dressed in white: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but is risen.”

Women at that time and in that place, and for most of human existence really, had no rights outside of the home.  That the Gospel accounts would put women front and center as the first witnesses of the resurrection, is remarkable.  Even revolutionary.  It was such an alarming notion that the larger church, basically, ignored that particular element of the Gospels and refused women’s leadership for nearly 2000 years… and much of the church still does.

These women, who became the first evangelists, the first people to proclaim the Good News, is itself the Good News.  In the Resurrection, the ways of the world have been emasculated, literally.  This is a new day.  A first day.

The ways of the world: The empire.  The purity codes.  The social mores.
These are the abominations where God is concerned, because they maintain worldly power and incite us to raise walls between us and the people who, we believe, want to take away what we have.  We point fingers.  We become jealous of what we want to keep.

And this plays out in all the ways you might expect – racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, classism.  All of the ways in which we marginalize and bully and oppress and conform.  These are an insidious kind of violence that is, literally, exposed by Jesus in the Resurrection.

As Richard Rohr says, “There is no redemptive violence.  Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys – in both the short and long term.”

Jesus takes away the sin of the world because the Resurrection demonstrates that the real sin, is this violence we do onto one another through believing in the power of the worldly powers.

Why do we look for the living among the dead?
In other words, why do we believe that the worldly ways will save us?
Why might we prefer to think that the Resurrection is just an idle tale?
That hope is just nonsense?

The larger story of Jesus’ ministry is one in which he was continually bullied, challenged, and threatened.  Why?  Because he was constantly challenging the way things were.

He exposed the purity codes as, not only meaningless, but heartless and cruel.  And, rather than try to fit in, Jesus made it his goal to refuse to fit in.  He healed on the sabbath.  He ate with sinners.  He associated with all people who were marginalized.

And he explained that the point of the law was 2 things: To love God with all your strength and your mind and your spirit.  And the second, is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.  On those 2 things hang all the law and the prophets.

And this is the Good News of the Resurrection!  That Love, not violence, is redemptive.

The larger story of Jesus consistently articulates a clear vision of God’s Love.  Summed up in the message of the Beatitudes: God’s Love is found with the powerless, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized.  And not just the people who are disenfranchised and marginalized, but the parts of ourselves that feel disenfranchised and marginalized and oppressed.

It is Christ, the incarnate Love of God, who gives comfort to the powerless, strength to the vulnerable, belonging to the disenfranchised, and connection to the marginalized.  And it is Christ that we, as Christians, become.  We become God’s Love incarnate in and for the world.Resurrection

This is what baptism means.  It means we believe that God’s Love conquers worldly power and death.  It means we have decided that we will pray and read the scriptures so that we become more and more like Christ in our lives, endeavoring to remove from ourselves the addiction to and desire for worldly power, worldly gratification, so as to remove ourselves from participating in worldly violence.

And so, Baptism means that we become what we behold at our Eucharistic Table every week. what we receive at the Eucharistic Table:  The Body of Christ broken open for the whole world.  Because in the Resurrection: God’s Love is the final word for the whole world.

And, in the case of a young one like Alivianna, it means that she will be brought up by people who believe this.  And who can hold that belief for her until she is old enough to believe herself.

This day we celebrate the triumph of God’s Love over worldly power and death.  What better way to help us remember this, than to gather around the sweetness of a little one, such as Alivianna, and baptize her into the membership of Christ.

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Dcn. Sue Bonsteel’s Sermon for Lent II

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C.  March 17, 2019; two days after the massacre of 50 Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, NZ.
At 8 am, after we shared the Peace, the congregants broke into spontaneous conversation about the sin of racism, spurred on by Deacon Sue’s sermon.  Then, at 10am, we started worship by lighting candles in remembrance of the 50 Muslim victims of the massacre in Christchurch, NZ while we sang our introit, “What wondrous love is this.” It was so very moving to watch everyone come forward to light a candle. Our Deacon Sue Bonsteel preached a powerful sermon about having the courage to call out evil for what it is, despite the fear of offending someone’s politics. We finished the morning w a Rector’s Forum on Anti-Semitism and Christian Scripture.

50victimsThis is not the sermon I prepared on Thursday. It is not the message I intended for today. But upon waking on Friday to the horrendous news of another terrorist attack – this time in ChristChurch, New Zealand – I was brought to my knees in sorrow and anger. “Not again” was my – and I suspect yours – first thought.

By now you are certainly aware that 50 Muslim men, women and children were gunned down in separate incidents at two mosques, just a few miles apart. Another 39 people, including a 5 year old child, were shot…some critically. It was another carefully planned despicable attack upon innocent people doing little more than praying in their houses of worship. Initial news reports identified the shooter as a male in his 20’s apparently steeped in the culture of white nationalism. And authorities have in their possession a manifesto believed to be written by the shooter that describes his desire to drive cultural, political, and racial wedges between people across the globe. His hatred of immigrants and Muslims fed his desire to create more violence between races.

And we are faced once again with that age-old question: what drives someone to kill so randomly but determinedly – to willingly shed the blood of innocent people as they kneel during prayer? What causes that kind of hatred to fester inside human beings? For it is impossible to understand how a child of God could do this to another precious child of God. Yet we have seen this happen in places much closer to our own home – in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville and Charleston. And we gasp at the violence and weep at the number of lives lost  but we seem to be unable to do much to prevent it. So we pray.

So I prayed as I know many of you did as well…until I heard of a statement in the young man’s manifesto that actually singled out our president as a model of white supremacy and nationalism. That statement, in the midst of a rambling document of pure evil, must cause us great concern both as American citizens and as people of faith. For some time Americans of all political slants have expressed their concern about the harsh and often racist rhetoric that has come out of the mouths of the President and other members of our government. Their harsh rhetoric seems to have no purpose other than to drive us further apart. It is intolerable.

As Christians who vow to serve God before all others, perhaps it’s time for us to re-evaluate just who it is we are choosing to follow. It is past time for faithful people to repudiate all racist and hate-filled language by our elected leaders.

Nationalism is not some sort of patriotic flag-waving. Nationalism is an ideology that places one country’s interests above all, even at the detriment of other people and nations. American nationalists believe that other races are inferior to the white race. They place great importance on a person’s particular heritage, culture and language. We’ve all seen the You Tube videos of whites berating dark-skinned people for daring to speaking Spanish instead of English in public places. They are displays of ignorance, fear and bigotry.

The proliferation of racist attitudes displayed by public officials only contributes to the rise of militarism and white nationalist groups in our nation.  Can we ever forget the images of white supremacists marching with torches and angrily yelling anti-Semitic chants in Charlottesville? And to have our elected leaders deny or diminish this behavior is abhorrent to good people everywhere.

When intolerance for the rights and dignity of others becomes part of our national identity…and we witness the pain and suffering inflicted upon our brothers and sisters as a result, then we…as Americans…as citizens…as members of the Church…must rise and make our voices heard.

Whenever a tragedy occurs, whether it is inflicted by human beings or by Mother Nature, our first instinct as Christians must always be to respond with love, prayer, and care for those who are affected. The political whims and intemperate words of those in authority that claim to speak on our behalf do not act in the best interests of this country. Bigotry and special interests rise to the surface and people of other ethnicities, races, or cultures are seen as less worthy of our compassion and support. Funding is erratic, needs are ignored, and those without power find themselves also voiceless in the rooms where life and death decisions are made. We don’t need to look too far back in our history to find examples.

Consider Puerto Rico and the appalling response of our government to our own citizens whose lives were devastated following Hurricane Maria.

Consider the shameful words chosen by our president to describe the suffering of the impoverished countries of Haiti, El Salvador and parts of Africa.

Consider the inhumane caging of immigrant families fleeing violence and poverty near our southern border.

These words and attitudes from our leaders must be condemned for what they are – heartless and shameful.

And above all, they do not represent the Way of Jesus.

Recently I ran into an acquaintance and we ended up chatting over a cup of coffee about our respective churches and about the things that in which we were involved. “I don’t think the church should be political,” she said, when I mentioned some of the justice issues we were addressing. “We don’t want to offend anyone.”

Now we’ve heard that said many times and perhaps we have even said it ourselves – that the job of the church is to take care of people’s spiritual needs…that faith and public life have nothing to do with one another.

But that’s actually a rather narrow view of a faith that is – according to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – “committed to living the way of God’s unconditional, unselfish, sacrificial, and redemptive love.” What God is calling us to do is to practice love in many different ways, including confronting public policies and language that are clearly contrary to the Gospel.

So…that’s not being political. That’s modeling our lives after Jesus.

Consider what separation between the church and state means today…for it is actually not at all how society during Jesus’ time thought and behaved. During Jesus’ time, public life and faith were knit together a lot more closely than they are today.

There was no such thing as a secular society. The Roman government generally allowed the Jewish people to practice their faith without much interference. As long as Roman authority wasn’t challenged, the religious practices of Jewish people were tolerated.

Yet we know that Jesus’ mission on earth was to be much more than a faithful Jew. And we know that he broke most of the religious rules of his time…by eating with outcasts and lepers and working on the day of rest…by teaching that the poor should be always be fed, clothed and sheltered…and by treating women as equals.

Certainly Jesus was not content with the status quo, for what he preached was radically different from what life was actually like under Roman rule. He challenged the injustices of the social order and the rigid class structures. He also took on the Pharisees, a pious and certainly influential class of Jewish religious leaders, and challenged their greed and their complicity with a corrupt government.

Jesus certainly wasn’t too worried about offending people.

When he directed them to “go and tell that fox (Herod),” that the government was failing its very own people, his message was loud and clear. God’s glorious reign would bring justice, mercy and equality for all people only if they reconciled themselves in love with one another and with God.

I’d like to sit down again with my friend and remind her that, like Jesus, each one of us is being called to deeply listen to the concerns of those around us. Yet listening is but the beginning.

For a Jesus-centered life means that we must also GO and cross those boundaries that make us uncomfortable or unsure of ourselves. It means that we, the Church, must use our voices to identify those areas where our public life is not where God intends it to be. It means speaking loudly when we need to be heard over the racist and nationalist rhetoric that comes from our highest levels of government. And it means accepting personal responsibility and repenting for the mistakes we may have made along the way, such as our own inaction or indifference to the suffering around us.

The Church simply cannot be silent in the face of any form of evil.  Daily heartfelt prayers for guidance and wisdom and strength are necessary if we want to tackle the justice issues that confront our nation. But we need to act as well, in whatever ways we are equipped.

As a group or as individuals,  we must work to ensure that our nation gets back on track to a holy place where all lives are valued and all people are treated with respect and dignity. We cannot – I will not – sit quietly and mourn another death or another attack upon our brothers and sisters of color and of other faiths. Our call is to love one another just as we too are loved.

It’s the Way of Jesus. And there isn’t anything offensive about that.

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God’s Promise of Liberation

A sermon preached on the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, year C on February 17, 2019 at St. John’s in Kingston.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture click here. If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below… coming soon!

The scene: Jesus has just been up on the mountain praying after being rejected by the Jewish leaders.  He names 12 apostles (Greek: apostolos, “those sent”) and then he comes down the mountain with them, to a level place, where a great crowd has gathered.  They seek renewal and inspiration.  They seek restoration and healing.

Now, for the people who are hearing this story, for those whom Luke is writing, this scene has layers of meaning.  Luke calls to mind Moses, who also came down a mountain to deliver God’s message.  So, it doesn’t matter that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus.  God has ordained this person standing before them.Jesus Teaching

Only Jesus isn’t delivering commandments, a list of rules that sets God as a distant judge.  Jesus is offering this huge crowd, these people in need of healing, a description of the Reign of God.  He’s is painting a picture of God’s promise.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  (conflating Lk 6:20-26)

 This promise harkens back to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, to the beginning of Jesus’Black Madonna life, which is to say, the beginning of God’s incarnation, the beginning of creation.  In chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel, it is Mary who sings her song of deliverance, her song of God’s promise, the Magnificat:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his humble servant…
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation…
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy…  (Lk 1:46-55)

God’s promise.

Jesus begins his public ministry by echoing the Magnificat, the words of the great mother who gave birth to us all.  The song is an image of the Reign of God that helps us understand with absolute clarity what exactly it is that is in need of healing in this world.Border Wall

And what is in need of healing?  The oppression, deprivation, victimization, and enslavement of God’s creation in order for some to gain power and hoard wealth.

It is this, in the eyes of God, in the Reign of God, which constitutes a state of crisis, an emergency.BLM Face

We could spiritualize this passage because, after all, we all have experienced states of feeling a sense of poverty, or even anxiety about how we are going to pay the bills.  We have all experienced moments of hunger or thirst for renewal, if not real hunger.  And certainly, we’ve had moments of sorrow and deep grief.  We have felt like the outsider before, excluded and reviled. Rape Culture Pyramid

And Matthew’s Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount does talk about being poor in spirit, being meek, being merciful, pure in heart.  These are more qualities of spirit than they are aspects of concrete, material life.

But Luke is clear here in his Sermon on the Plain.  His Beatitudes are different than Matthew’s; there is no parsing the meaning of these words.  Luke is talking about actual poverty, actual hunger, actual grief.  Real oppression at the hands of those who have power and privilege.hunger

But the Gospel passage doesn’t say that only poor people came to hear Jesus.  The crowd traveled from all over to listen to him speak that day, there must have been people who had at least some wealth to have traveled that distance.  Yet, Luke is clear, all of these people sought healing, and all were healed.

What is it that makes these words, which actually could be read like works of chastisement and condemnation, what makes these words, words of healing and liberation, for everyone?

I think it starts with what gets in our way… and Jesus knew this.  Jesus knew that we are so often unable to see how our lives are interconnected with everyone else’s lives.  We only know somewhere in the pit of our stomach that we don’t feel fully free for some reason and we end up seeking worldly ways to free us – more money, more indulgences, better, bigger, faster things and experiences, ways of proving ourselves to gain approval, acceptance, and love. Prison Cell

We can confuse true liberation with the ability to do whatever we want, whenever we want, to get whatever we want.  But that’s not liberation.  That’s immaturity at best, addiction and abuse at worst.  Jesus points to those who have everything and he says, “woe to you” so we know this healing isn’t about having what we want.

It’s about something deeper, something more essential, more life-giving than satisfying a craving.  Again, Moses is helpful here.  It was Moses who delivered the original law of God, a life-giving discipline, a liberation discipline.  And it is Moses who is being evoked here, not so that Jesus can erase the law or replace it, but so that Jesus can fulfill it, pointing to the completion of God’s promise.  Which is liberation of all life so that all life may flourish.

Liberation from the systems of oppression and victimization.
Liberation from the lie that says the way things are is the way things are.
Liberation from the false belief that abundance is a zero-sum game so we’d better limit how many people can be free in order to protect our own interests.
Liberation from the perceived need for plastics that kill and maim God’s creatures in our oceans and the myriad destructive forms of environmental abuse that we reap on a daily basis.AURORA24
Liberation from the cultivation of fear that tells us we need to arm ourselves with guns that are created for no other reason than to kill another life.  And worse, that there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

The fulfillment of God’s promise is liberation for the flourishing of all life.  The flourishing of all life.

This means that my needs do not trump your needs.
This means that privilege and worldly power have absolutely no place in the Reign of God except to bow at the feet of the most vulnerable.
This means that compassion, vulnerability, kindness, equanimity… these are essential life-giving, life-connecting qualities that we are called to cultivate, most certainly as disciples of Jesus.

But how do we cultivate these in a world that seems to thrive on competitiveness and fear and desire?  How do we learn to see?  How do we begin to liberate ourselves?Mountaintop Meditation

Remember the scene here:  Jesus had just been up on the mountain praying.  He spent the whole night in prayer to God, Luke says in verse 12.  A full night in prayer to God and I guarantee you that he wasn’t talking… he was listening.

All throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his practice of prayer.  And he doesn’t stay in prayer.  He come back into the community, in relationship with people – teaching, healing, advocating.  And then he retreats and prays some more.

He grounds himself over and over again in his relationship with God, silencing himself, submitting himself, learning to know God more intimately as Abba, and inviting God to rest within himself more completely.

Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Christian mystic said, “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.”Stained Glass 7

In other words, ministry and prayer must be intertwined.  Because the purpose of prayer is to change us and deepen our relationship with God, not to attempt to direct God’s actions on behalf of our interest.

If we truly seek healing and restoration, if we want to live into God’s promise and participate in bringing about God’s Reign on earth… we have to be willing to listen for God’s voice… which, believe it or not, does not sounds like our own voice.

When we do this, when we surrender ourselves to God, we may find that we are better able to respond, to see more clearly what needs to happen because we are more interested in the lives of others and less concerned about what we have or don’t have.

Then, this liberation that we experience becomes liberating for others as we learn more about what we can do to be of service.Banner

Essentially, this is about practicing love because we worship a God of Love.  Learning how to love ourselves so that we can learn how to love others.  This is actually how we love God.  And, as our banner out front attests, this is how we change the world.

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Revelation In Human Form

A sermon preached on the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, year C, on February 10, 2019 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can click here to read the scriptures for the day.



The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Thomas Saunders Nash

We are in the middle of the Season after Epiphany, the season of revelation.  We celebrate the stars guiding us, revealing to us the path.  We celebrate the magi traveling great distances to bow down in service to the most vulnerable.  We celebrate the revelation of baptism and how it calls us to salvation through ministry.

And, perhaps, most importantly, we celebrate Jesus himself as revelation.  In his Gospel, Luke goes to great lengths to teach us that Jesus is revelation in human form.

Luke’s revelation begins with telling a deeply moving and extensive account of Jesus’ birth and the story of his baptism – our Nativity Story.  Then Luke gives us a long, all-encompassing genealogical history that goes all the way back to Adam.  And finally he tells us about Jesus’ ministry as a teacher and a healer, which he points out, begins at age 30.

And in today’s passage from chapter 5, Luke tells us: “Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him…” demonstrating his popularity and the range of his influence.

Jesus as revelation is off to a good start – miraculous birth, extensive and important lineage, gifted healer, and popular teacher.

But what is it that is being revealed in Jesus’ invitation to these Galilean fisherman though this miraculous catch?  What is this revelation?

The fishermen are doing what they always do, tending to their nets on their boats so that they can fish and make a living.  Everyday things.  But then something they weren’t expecting happens to them, something they couldn’t explain, and their lives change completely.  In the middle of doing everyday things.

What are the things you do every day?  Take a few moments and consider, what are your “everyday things?”  Get up.  Get dressed.  Coffee.  Breakfast.  News.  Work.  Driving.  Shopping.  Facebook.  TV.  Phone calls.  Texts…

What is revelation in the midst of these?  What might revelation look like?  What would Jesus sound like?  What would it take for you to interrupt your daily activities enough to stop and be willing to put it all aside for a greater vision, a bigger hope?

I found a story that, I think, illustrates this from Joan Chittister’s Welcome to the Wisdom of the World.  Joan is a RC nun who lives and ministers in Erie, PA.

WttWotW ChittisterIt was a cold day, one of those late fall days along the banks of Lake Erie when the rain is heavy, almost snow, cold to the bone.  The Soup Kitchen is always overfull on those days.  If the guests are not hungry they are chilled to the marrow.  On those days, homeless people, jobless, come of them sick, all of them living out of shopping carts or garbage cans, come in off the streets and stay till it closes.  It is, if nothing else, a place to warm up and talk a bit to the longtime staff, who call each of them by name before they leave the kitchen to face the long damp night alone.

The sister at the counter that day didn’t really know the man in the long black overcoat all that well.  He had come by a few times before with leftovers from an office party.  A few times he simply walked up the steps, handed one of the sisters an envelope at the door and left.  Some days he dropped in and did some of the heavy work of filling the pantry shelves.  This day he came in carrying hams to donate and, seeing the size of the crowd, stayed to fill plates in the serving line.

But it wasn’t the sight of him serving salads that was so surprising that day.  After all, some people make a regular ministry of it.  Whole teams of them have come one day a week for years.  Without them, the kitchen couldn’t possibly survive.  But this was different. 

Just as he got ready to leave for the afternoon, coat on and scarf tight around his neck, he noticed that one of the guests sat at the end of the table, his legs pressed against the heating element, his summer sandals wet.  Summer sandals.  He was wearing summer sandals.  He was wearing summer sandals with open toes and sling back heels over his bare feet.  On the fringe of winter.

In a heartbeat, the man in the long black overcoat and silk scarf reached down took off his shoes, handed them to the sister at the counter, and walked out.  In bare feet.  “Wait,” she ran after him, “you can’t go like that, without these.  It’s cold out there.”  The man kept moving down the street. 

“I know,” he called back, “that’s why I left them.”
(Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, Joan Chittister)

This business person on a cold day doing everyday things.  Jesus as revelation in human form appeared to this person and he responded – a simple act that made Christ real.

You see, Luke is teaching us that revelation comes to us in the midst of our everyday lives.  It’s a matter of responding as simply and directly as we can.  And ministry is a practice that forms us, opens our hearts and readies us for the revelation, sometimes in subtle moves and sometimes like a hammer on the head.

Because it’s not like the disciples got it right.  It’s human nature to ignore God’s call to us because we get caught in our ways, stuck in our comfort zone.  Simon complains when Jesus asks them to put in their nets… “Master we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the net.”

 What makes it more interesting for Simon is that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law in the previous chapter, so you’d think that Simon might be more attentive, more willing, more grateful.  But he’s human.  He forgets.  Like we all do.

We get self-involved, focused on our own lives and goals and errands.  Or we convince ourselves that we are lacking… we don’t have enough money or time… or enough of ourselves.  Or we lose belief, forgetting that, in our baptismal vows, we said we would seek and serve Christ in all persons and don’t trust that the person standing before us in need is, indeed, Christ.

Whatever our particular way of avoiding the revelation might be, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that we come to a place where we begin to accept God’s revelation in human form that comes before us in the midst of our everyday lives.

What scripture teaches us, what it reveals to us, and, most certainly what Jesus teaches us through the Gospel witness, is that is that God could care less about whether we say our prayers or sing our songs.  Don’t get me wrong, those things are good but they are for us; to help us find comfort or inspiration or to express our praise.

What God cares about, is whether we respond when Christ is standing before us in wet sandals on a cold, wintery day.

It is we, when we refuse the revelation, when we refuse Christ in front of us… it is we who will not turn to be healed, like the words from Isaiah tell us today.  This revelation is for us, so that we might be changed, be transformed.  To free us “from the bondage of sin and give us the liberty of that abundant life” as today’s collect says.

We are warned in Isaiah, of our tendency to refuse the revelation:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”

The more we refuse, the more we deny God’s love for us. Soup Kitchen

When might we actually learn that serving the most vulnerable is not about whether people deserve our help, but whether or not we are willing to be saved by God’s love ourselves?

The Good News is that God never gives up.  God is always calling us to Godself.  We are always being invited by Jesus to accept God’s revelation to us in human form, to make our journey through whatever land we live in and come to kneel at the foot of the most vulnerable.

The Good News is that we do have this time of worship to renew ourselves and offer ourselves, again, to God.  To come to this Table of Reconciliation and remember our belovedness so that we may become what we receive – the Body of Christ broken open in love for the world God has made.

May it be so.  Amen.

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A sermon preached on Christmas Eve at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture, click here.

Merry Christmas!
We’re here tonight to talk about a miracle.

The person of Jesus, who some Jewish people came to know and follow over 2000 years ago, became, for them, the manifestation of God’s Love.  After Jesus died, they kept telling the story of the love he shared, the love he gave.  Those people became the first Christians.  And one of them, a man named Paul, traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to teach others about this man Jesus so the news of what God’s Love looks like spread to thousands and thousands.  And those people told their children.  And their children told their children across generations and generations. 

And here we are tonight, in this place, over 2000 years later, talking about this person named Jesus and the miracle of Love that he was and continues to be for us who follow these teachings.

The word “miracle” is one of those words that tends to evoke skepticism.  It’s not easy to believe in miracles, I know.  Because a miracle is something that comes along and changes your entire life for the better.  But it’s not anything that you could have previously imagined.  And, because it’s nothing we could have imagined, it seems to turn everything on its head, redefining our world and redefining us along with it.

The other thing about miracles, is that they are always about Love.  They change us for the good.  They remind us who we are and whose we are, helping us to come home to ourselves, come home to our own heart.  And this, more than anything else, is what God wants for us – to know our heart, to live in our heart.  To live in tenderness, and in do doing, attend to the tenderness of others.

It’s is why a miracle comes along when we need it most, when we find ourselves in a place of fear or pain.  When we can only see the world from a narrow and particular view.  When we can only see ourselves in a particular way.  When we have become so convinced of our own story and so influenced by the world’s story that we don’t believe anything else is possible.

For who would have thought that a baby, vulnerable and powerless, lying in a manger, filled with the smell of barnyard animals, carried by his parents to a foreign country… who would have thought that in this scene, a scene of danger and filth, lies the salvation of the world?

When our ideas of power and comfort are so particular, so dependent upon what the world would have us believe… who would have thought that this, is something that would change us?  And, in changing us, would change the world?

Wouldn’t it be easier to pass it by?  Wouldn’t it be easier to keep trying to live by the world’s demands?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just not witness the miracle?

People do it all the time.  And it’s not that people are “bad”… but it’s so much easier for us to stay lost than to realize that this miracle is for us, to open us up and remind us that this life we live is deeply connected to all of life.  Love comes to us as a miracle, changing our entire life for the better and in ways that we could not have possibly imagined.

But it’s as if a part of us has always been waiting for this.  A part of us has always known that Love is what is real.

We use the word “king” for Jesus because it mocks worldly power, because the reign of God is not the same as the reign of earthly kings.  Earthly kings use power and privilege to control and maintain.  Earthly kings build walls to separate instead of inviting people to a table of abundance.  Earthly kings destroy the earth so they can suck everything they can and make money from it.

The God of Love uses miracles to inspire and liberate.The God of Love desires that everyone live in abundance and has given us an earth capable to feeding us all.  The God of Love is the God of all Life.

Our Christmas story is a story about a miracle because when we realize that God’s salvation comes to us as incarnate love in the form of a human heart, it really is a miracle.  It’s not something we would have expected… that God’s love would come to us through a human heart, through human hands and feet.

Jesus lived and breathed and reminded us all that the way of earthly kings is not the way of God.  Love.  Love is the way of God. 

So, tonight we come to the manger again to be reminded of God’s love for us and reminded that more than anything else, God wants us to know our heart and to live in our heart.  So that, in living in this tenderness, we might attend to the tenderness of others.nativity-color

The words of poet Christina Rosetti remind us:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

This love is for us.  This love is for all.
And w
hat a miracle that is.

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Love: Advent IV

A sermon preached on Advent IV, December 23, 2018 at St. John’s in Kingston, NY.  You can read the day’s scriptures here.


We sang the Magnificat today, a deeply loved poem.  This is Mary’s song, reverently prayed and sung by people all over the world because its message is one of the most comforting and most powerful in all of scripture.  These words offer us an image of God that opens us to the understanding the God of Life… the God of Love we worship, is also the God of Liberation.  And that liberation, therefore, is inherently the focus of love and the promise of life.

Listen, again, to the words we sang:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

Black MadonnaMary identifies herself as a lowly servant, not as someone who has power.  There is no entitlement, no privilege.  She experiences no worldly value.  Yet, she is joyous, praising God.  And she tells us why:

God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy…

At the end this is defined as “The promise he made to Abraham,” the ancestor identified in scripture as the one who first understands God as the God of Love, the God of all Life, rather than the god of a specific people or place.

The Magnificat tells us that Love is defined as liberation, the liberation of all life.

Think about when you have felt loved in your life.  It has to do, usually, with feeling like someone has taken care of you or they have really seen you, really seen your heart, your tenderest place, and they have held that softest place with such deep care and kindness that, suddenly, all of the things you’ve been carrying, all of the ways you’ve been hiding from yourself, from the world… you are freed from them.  You can lay your burdens down.

You are liberated from the weight of protecting yourself, from the enormous task of proving yourself worthy… and you can just be.
You can just be exactly who God created you to be.
You are liberated from the shame others might place on you, the shame you place on yourself. And you have a feeling of belonging.

We often associate this feeling with the task of mothering, which is why we name this song of Love as the song of a mother, of Mary.  But this love doesn’t always come from mothers, it comes from others in our lives who inspire us, who hold a space for us and encourage us.

However, we experience others also, as we grow and mature, who may be so lost themselves that they use our vulnerability to take advantage of us or use it against us, or thoughtlessly betray us.  And so we learn to hide.

We don’t come into this world shrouded in shame, but we can learn it quite easily as we may be teased or bullied, or told once too often that we need to be like other people.  We’ve seen this before.  I have a feeling we’ve all experienced this in some way ourselves.

And this Love, it’s not a love that lets us off the hook when we’re stuck in unhelpful or unkind behavior.  Because that’s not love and because liberation is not self-indulgence.  Liberation is learning how to be free from that which keeps us bound in unloving behavior – either to self or to others.

Love is that which sees and knows softness of our hearts and helps us to live so that we can find the strength in that softness.  From this Love, we learn that the very thing we thought was wrong about us, is our gift to give this world.  This is how Love liberates us, transforms us.

It reminds us that our Creator is the same Creator that made the stars to shine and the earth to nourish and we, these human creatures, who so often struggle so much… we, are beautiful, beloved, children of God.  And when we can finally learn to love ourselves, to hold our own softness and know it as our strength, well, then… we can truly love others.  When we are there for ourselves, we can be there for others.

Mary’s Song is God’s promise of liberating love.  This is why these words are at once so comforting and so powerful.  Because this self-emptying Love, this Love that seeks the liberation of life, is the salvation of the world.  This Love knows that if you are more free, then we all are more free.

Ana and I have been watching this amazing show lately on Netflix called Big Dreams, Small Spaces.  It’s a reality show out of England in which this well-known gardener named Monty Don, works with people who want to turn their plot of land into a beautiful garden.

Now, stop and think about that for a minute… what an incredible and perfect metaphor that is – to turn a plot of land into a beautiful garden.  For we are all plots of land, really.  We are all made of the earth.

And this person Monty is one of the most loving people I’ve ever seen on TV.  Here is someone who knows everything about gardening and when he meets with these people, he doesn’t tell them what to do.  No.  He sits and he listens to what they want, what kind of garden will reflect their heart’s desire.

And, he may have a suggestion or two.  He may actually think they are completely crazy to do whatever it is they are doing.  But, as he always says… what he thinks, doesn’t matter.  What makes a garden a success is whether or not the people who create it are happy with it.  And you can tell he genuinely feels this way.

The other night, we saw an episode in which the person he was working with was a pretty negative and indecisive person.  And this person had a friend who had agreed to work with them on their garden.  Watching this person was just driving me nuts.

But I watched how loving this person’s friend was… moving plants around… big, heavy plants and pots… moving things over and over again and listening to this person complain and whine.  But the friend was just there waiting patiently for this person’s heart to emerge, steadily working alongside them.  Helping to carry the weight of the earth for them until, finally, their heart came to rest.

And when Monty came back to see the finished garden, this person was transformed by it.  By the love shown in the friend’s help and in Monty’s selfless encouragement.

Love does this.  It sees a plot of earth as God’s garden waiting to emerge in another and prods and carries and walks alongside until we can come home to tend to God’s garden- this amazing display of liberated life, growing and blooming and becoming exactly who it was always meant to be.

Mary’s Song is this song of Love – reminding us that our tenderness, our softness is our gift to the world.  This gift is what liberates us because it is what liberates others.  And the more we offer this, the more we become the mansion we are asked to prepare for God.  A liberated heart is a heart that becomes a sanctuary for others, indeed, a manger for Christ’s light because it can learn to see through God’s eyes.

Love is God’s promise.  Always.

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Joy: Advent III

A sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture passages for the day, click here.


Every year as we prepare for Christmas during Advent, we hear the voices of prophets – Baruch, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Micah.  It is in these voices that we hear God’s promise speaking to us across the eons, through the centuries and centuries and centuries of generations of people.  These prophets belong to us as Christian people.

And how we have come to understand God’s promise as Christians, is through a human named Jesus.  A person who healed and, in so doing, taught us to look more deeply within ourselves for God’s light so that we could shine it brightly for others and Love.  A person who, as a Jew, reminded the religious leadership that following human laws wasn’t as important as following God’s law – to love God and love one another as we love ourselves.

Because we hear these prophets, these Hebrew prophets, speak to us about God’s promise and because we have come to understand God’s promise as the person of Jesus, many strains of Christianity have conflated the two.  They have conflated the Hebrew prophets with the advent of Jesus, with the coming of Christ.  This conflation has resulted in a very narrow reading of the Hebrew prophets, insisting that the prophets were all talking about Jesus.

Let me be clear – for us, they are talking about Jesus.  For us, Jesus is God’s promise.  For us, Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one.  Jesus is our messiah, our Savior, our Rabbi.

But that doesn’t mean that for Jewish people, the prophets can’t be talking about someone else, something else.  The Hebrew prophets don’t belong to us alone.  And we must be attentive to this.  Because God’s promise isn’t for us alone.

This time of year it’s very important for us to be mindful of the tendency to think God’s promise is somehow restricted to the birth of Jesus.  Because this limited understanding of the Hebrew scriptures has twisted perceptions and resulted in evil attempts to erase a whole religion and, with it, a whole people.

We cannot forget how easy it is for religion, for God, actually, to be coopted for worldly purposes and used as a weapon by people and turned into a nationalistic god who only serves “my people.”  We cannot forget because we have seen its ugly resurgence all too recently.

But why is this important to hear this time of year?  For the same reason that John the Baptist’s message is important this time of year – to remind us that preparing for Christ means opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s promise:  Unrestricted Hope.  Uninhibited Life.  Unbounded Love.

This joyous message, interestingly, starts off with John the Baptist offering chastisement – “you brood of vipers – who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.”

John, who stood at the bank of the Jordan river, calling people to a baptism of repentance(remember that the Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia”… literally, a “change of mind”).  John is reminding people that it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you’re related to.  It doesn’t matter that you can claim some inherent right based on the laws of the land.  Nations rise and fall.

Change your mind, John is saying.  And bear fruit that is worthy of God’s promise because what matters is how you live your life.  What matters is how you treat God’s creation.  What matters is how you love others.

John tells these people, who believe they are God’s chosen people simply because they can claim Abraham as an ancestor, that God can create children of Abraham out of the very rocks, out of the earth… because being a descendant of Abraham is not about lineage, not about bloodlines.

Being a descendant of Abraham is about worshipping the God of Love, the God of Life… who’s promise is always about the flourishing of all life because God is the ground of all being.

The God of Love is not a God of nationalism.  The God of Love is the God of all Life.

So, the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?”  And what does John say?
He says:  Give somebody your extra coat.  Give somebody the food they need.  Give out of your abundance because that’s how God works in the world – through us.  This is what repentance looks like.

When you think that others are somehow undeserving you are in need of repentance (metanoia – a change of mind).  Because those trees, the trees of greed and hate and entitlement and corruption, those are the trees that will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

This giving, this love, this care of life… this is joy.  This is God’s promise in action.

Last month, after the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue, a number of us from St. John’s and from religious communities all around town, attended shabbat services that Friday at Congregation Emanuel.  I spoke about it in my All Saints sermon, but it bears repeating here.  Rabbi Yael said something like this:

When we use the phrase “God’s chosen people,” we are careful to understand its true meaning.  It was never meant to be used to mean that some people are better than other people.  It’s meant to be understood that our “chosen-ness” is in our unique-ness.  When we live deeply into who we are called to become, we are God’s chosen people.

Paul says to his friends the Philippians, “Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  This is when God is near.”

He says to stop worrying about what you might not have or what you might want.  Put it out there as a prayer to God, if you need to.  But worrying about it, only keeps you focused on making sure you have enough and that is not joy.

JOlsen The Bicycle Boys Rejoice 1955

Bicycle Boys Rejoice (1955) by John Olsen

Joy is found in loving the God of Life by taking care of your neighbors, by tending to God’s holy Creation.  Besides, nothing you could want is more satisfying, more nourishing than the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.  This is Joy.

This, as Paul says, is what will keep our hearts and minds in Christ.

God’s promise that we hear echoing across time from the words of the Hebrew prophets is a promise of Light – of shining a light into these places that make us feel small and needy, places that make us feel like we need to protect and defend and withhold and grasp.  We prepare for this Light by changing our minds, remembering that spark that knows we are loved beyond all our imagining.

This is the place, like Rabbi Yael says, where we find our chosen-ness, our unique-ness.  This place that may feel tender and vulnerable in a world of grasping but that has been waiting to be seen and shine forth.

It’s from this place, John reminds us, that we can offer everything we have to the God of Love.

We become Joy.  We become Peace.  We become Hope.  We become the manger where Christ comes to live once again, where Love comes down and illumines the whole world.

Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”

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Peace: Advent II

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) on December 9, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the day’s scriptures, click here.  If you’d like to listen along as you read, click the play button below.


Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.   (Baruch 5:5)

These are words from the Book of Baruch.  This book called Baruch is a patchwork of readings.  Biblical scholars believe that the chapters all came from various sources and were put together into one book by Jewish editors and writers sometime after Rome had occupied Israel.  The book was named in honor of Jeremiah’s friend and assistant, Baruch ben Neriah.


Marc Chagall’s Jeremiah

Jeremiah, if you recall, is one of the major prophets, the prophet who led the Hebrew people while they were in exile in Babylon.  And these readings that make up the book of Baruch, talk a lot about the experience of exile – words of sorrow, pain, suffering, fear.  But also hope, comfort, peace.  They are words filled with the knowledge of being split in two, as if living apart from one’s own soul.  And then finding God again.

Worldly exile is a consequence of war.  And war is about exerting power.

I’ve told the story of Ancient Israel before:  How the 12 tribes decided they needed a king to keep themselves safe from the invasion of surrounding nations.  How the kingship didn’t last long before a thirst for power caused a split in among the people of Israel.  How the split made Israel susceptible to surrounding nations who invaded them.

The thing they thought was going to save them is what split them in the end.

Babylonia was the final nation to wage war on Israel and, when Jerusalem was captured, when it had finally fallen, the Babylonians sent the Jewish leadership into exile – in Babylonia – to ensure that the Israel could not raise an army to fight back.

In other words, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its leaders, meant the end of Israel.
At least, that’s how the story of war goes.  But that’s not what happened.

The most miraculous thing about the story of Israel, which is the story of our ancestors, and the story of our Jewish siblings, is that war was not the end of Israel.  Defeat, exile was not the end of Israel.

If we stop to think about it, these are stories that should belong to history, but they belong to faith.  So, why are they a part of our story of faith?

The Hebrew Scriptures are an account of how people came to know God.  How people have come to understand themselves in relation to God.  The Hebrew scriptures give us the narrative of those who were left behind under the rule of other nations and those who were sent into exile and how both peoples remembered their true identity in the midst of all the turmoil.Babylonian Empire

In other words, it was who they were as people who lived and breathed in God that mattered to them, not who ruled over them.  Their identity was about who they were in relation to God, not in relation to a nation.

And this is so hard for any person to remember because we often take great pride in our nation, and rightly so much of the time.  But the larger story, God’s story, is that nations rise and fall.  Empire is just that… empire.  Empire is not of God.  It never was and never will be.

The larger story of God is that God alone will always be.  God’s reign is the reign of Life.  As long as life breathes, God loves.  We belong to God, not to a nation.

This is a very appropriate lesson in the world – especially now because it’s such a divisive time in the life of our own nation with so many people having such wildly divergent opinions about what it means to be American, that we seem to have lost a sense of who we are and faith in ourselves and one another as a people.

But what is real, what we are called to remember, is that our true identity rests in God alone.  And just as this is so important to remember right now as we consider the world around us, it is, perhaps, more important to remember and understand this in relation to ourselves and our own heart.

For all of us have a part of our self that we feel like we need to hide away, a part of us that we have some sense of shame about or tenderness towards, a younger part, a more vulnerable part.  And in some way it feels like we must make war on our own heart, exerting power over the most tender part of ourselves because we’re so scared to bring it out and let it be seen. And so we send that piece of our soul into exile.

Each Sunday during the season of Advent has a distinct theme, all of which focus on different aspects of God’s Love as we prepare for the Incarnation at Christmas: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

Last week, we appropriately heard Roddy’s story from Deacon Sue – a story of freedom which demonstrates God’s Hope.  Roddy, who has been a prisoner on Death Row for 19 years and is being released soon.  He has always maintained his innocence and, in that, keeping a sense of freedom – God’s Hope – alive in his heart.  Roddy’s story reminds us how Hope is about freedom, how we keep ourselves free in the midst of our worst nightmare even if it lasts for 19 years.

This Sunday the theme is Peace.  And how, when we finally accept that we belong to God and not to a nation, that we belong to the Eternal Love and not to this warring transitory world, this is when we find true Peace.

When we lay down our belligerent tendencies, when we drop our defenses, when we refuse to take sides, when we learn to see God’s Holy Love in every aspect of this amazing Creation, even when a member of this Creation is acting in hateful ways…
When we see God’s Love infusing every single cell and God’s Spirit breathing over all the earth, then we know that God is indeed the Ground of all Being.  We all share one God.

Fabric of the UniverseAnd when we see the world from this vantage point, nations and borders and walls and wars become utterly meaningless.  They make no sense.  If we see the whole universe as made of the same fabric of God’s Love, and if we know ourselves to be an intrinsic part of that fabric, then how can we possibly hate a part of ourselves, a part of that fabric, a part of God’s Love?  How can we make war against a part of ourselves?

It’s not some ridiculous pie-in-the-sky notion.  This is basic theology and we forget it all the time.  The real world is that which is of God and of God alone.  All the rest of it… is humans forgetting.  Humans being human, nothing more. Trying to exert power, trying to wage war.  And exile is always a consequence of war.

Baruch’s message to us today comes from a place that knows the pain of being in exile and the profound peace that comes when we suddenly realize that God has never sent us away and that this exile is of our own making because we have forgotten.  It is a message of Hope and Peace because it is a message of repentance.  Repentance, not a word we necessarily associate with hope and peace but that’s what this is really about – returning to God.

Arise, O Jerusalem (we are all Jerusalem) stand upon the height;
look toward the east and see your children
(see us all)
gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One
as we hear God’s whisper to return to God, that we are wholly beloved members of a Holy Creation)
rejoicing that God has remembered them.  (Baruch 5:5)
In fact, God never forgets us.  It is we who forget God.

From the HeightsThis is what John is talking about in today’s reading from Luke – repentance.  When John preaches a baptism of repentance, the Greek word here is “metanoia”… literally a change of mind. The invitation to remember who we are and whose we are.

No matter what the state of the world is, as along as life breathes, God loves.  And this is the remembering of the reality that in God alone we have our reality.  This is what brings us peace and helps us to be more peaceful people in and for the world.

Our neighbors at Congregation Emanuel, our Jewish siblings, use a beautiful prayer book called Mishkan T’filah, the words mean “dwelling place for prayer.”  And every week at Centering Prayer here at St. John’s we use a prayer from that book to end our time together.  I’d like to use that same prayer to end today’s sermon.

Let us pray:

May we find peace with those we love,
growing together over time.

May we be at peace with ourselves
and with the labors that fill our days.

May we fashion peace in our world
with wisdom and gentle patience.

Blessed are you, God, who blesses us with peace.


(Mishkan T’filah, pg 97)

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Guest Post: Deacon Sue Bonsteel – First Sunday of Advent C

Preached, as you might have guessed, by the Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Advent I, December 2, 2018.  You can read the scripture for the day by clicking here.


“Give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

img_20161029_165133434At this Advent time of the year – as the chill of autumn becomes more pronounced and winter approaches – we find ourselves searching through boxes for wool sweaters, long underwear, and hats and gloves we had carelessly tossed aside last spring when they were no longer needed. Flannel sheets and down comforters come out of storage and surround us in warmth at night. The furnace is cranking away and fires are glowing in the fireplace.  We light candles as the daylight fades. We try to hold off the darkness by turning on more lights or throwing another log on the fire. We are determined to hold back the night as long as we are able.

Yet the season of Advent is the ideal time to welcome the cold, the silence, and the darkness. For these coming days are more than a pause between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas; these days offer us a holy space in which to settle…to rest…and to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child. Advent offers us an opportunity to look deep within ourselves and ponder the darkest places where Jesus is most needed in our lives.

So it’s particularly poignant then that we recently received the news that a dear friend Roddy Johnson will soon be released from prison after over 20 years of incarceration, 16 of which were  served in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s death row. It’s the advent of a new life for him.

If there are any of you left who don’t know the story, I will tell it for the last time. For Roddy will soon be writing a new chapter in his life story as he prepares to enter the world once again.

Roddy and I became friends shortly after his incarceration through the Death Row Support Project, a pen pal prison ministry of the Church of the Brethren. The program’s aim is to connect those on death row with people on the outside, offering friendship and support to men and women discarded or shunned by society.

Looking back last week at the pile of letters from Roddy, I came across his initial request for a pen pal. He had simply asked for someone with a friendly heart who was willing to listen. And tears came again to my eyes when I realized what a simple “yes” to Roddy’s request came to mean to him, to me and so many others.

What is so admirable about the Death Row Support Project is the way it supports the often abandoned men and women behind bars and helps them make a connection beyond the prison walls. Its ministry is one of compassion and love, forgiveness and redemption. The letters exchanged become a glimmer of light in a world where darkness prevails and too often justice is denied. Roddy and I began as strangers in 2002, but it wasn’t long before we came to understand that God had truly led us to one another through this ministry.

Building a relationship with someone behind bars is, as you can imagine, a serious commitment…one that requires perseverance and a willingness to cast aside preconceptions and prejudices. I certainly had my share. A middle-aged privileged white woman writing to a young black man caught up in a drugs and gang culture of New York City brought us both frustration at times… but also laughter. Often Roddy wrote using street slang that might as well have been a foreign language to me.  I sent him classic literature that I thought he’d enjoy when all he really wanted was the latest trashy novel.

But there was also a sweetness in our weekly correspondence. Long handwritten letters about mundane things brought a bit of normality to our relationship. Roddy wanted to hear about the day-to-day events in life – the trips to the grocery store; vacation plans; memories of my childhood; the visits from grandchildren – anything that helped him connect to a world that he was no longer part of. These letters were eventually accompanied by 15 minute phone calls and then finally email. We stuck together during his many years in the wilderness of appeals. And at times it was truly hard work. At Roddy’s request I contacted national anti-death penalty groups as well as The Innocence Project. I spoke to lawyers who listened politely but regretfully said they could not take on any more pro bono work for capital cases. Roddy connected me with Linn Washington, a Temple University professor of journalism, author,  and  political activist who had interviewed Roddy and included him in several mainstream articles. Dr. Washington suggested I contact 2 colleagues of his, notable newspaper journalists Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald and Bob Herbert of the New York Times. Both were  interested in Roddy’s story and had their interns contact him. And two of our own bishops, Mark Sisk and Andy Dietsche, were gracious in their support, helping fund some of the expenses I incurred. It was through Bishop Sisk that I became a regional deacon for prison ministry.

Despite the many people familiar with Roddy’s case, we were, however, reluctant to say aloud to one another that there was but a glimmer of hope that Roddy’s sentence would ever be overturned. We all understood that getting an innocent person off death row would be an uphill battle.

The darkness had to be overwhelming at times for Roddy as the years passed. As a father of young children when he was sentenced for the deaths of two men, Gregory and Damon Banks,  he was often worried that he would become mired in the grief and anger that consumed so many around him. His faith in a generous and loving God was tested over and over but it never seemed to waver. Roddy truly believed that the Righteous Branch in Jeremiah would ultimately execute justice and not death, even when those around him were skeptical.

Oh, he came close to death on two occasions soon after arriving at Greene Correctional Facility. Once he was but 24 hours away from a scheduled execution before he received a stay. It’s horrifying to realize that Pennsylvania came that close to executing an innocent man. It’s also horrifying to realize that innocent people have – in all likelihood – been executed in our nation – in our name -despite claims to the contrary by those who support capital punishment. The work to end the death penalty must continue….

Despite the reality of this, Roddy would sometimes say, that even in the midst of the darkness and cold of the prison system, there were glimpses of light in the faces of people who refused to bend to a system that sought only to enslave and punish. It was, he said, in those people that he saw the face of God.

Some of you have asked if he were exonerated so I wrote to Roddy, asking him to explain it in his own words. This is what he wrote to you:

I know this is confusing to all. The Appeals Court did not exonerate me. Rather they declared the Capital Case a “Wrongful Conviction” saying that my constitutional rights to a fair trial were violated by the district attorney who hid evidence and lied to the court. Therefore the convictions could not stand. There was also the issue of double jeopardy – meaning that you can’t be tried for the same crime twice – so the life sentence I was given at the same time as the death sentence was also thrown out.

My lawyer explained that the State argued against dismissal based upon my actual innocence because the State would then open itself for additional lawsuits – not only from me – but from anyone else convicted through the actions of the same corrupt police department who were involved in my case or by the same District Attorney’s office. My lawyers said the State was more concerned about a lot of appeals by others on death row and not about absolute justice for me.

When I asked him how he felt about this decision he wrote:  After all of this, I can only say…Thanks be to God! I have been given my freedom and I will make the best of it.

Roddy is ready to cast off the works of darkness at long last. The years of watching and waiting and wondering what is to come are almost over. While he is eager to begin his new life, he is not surprisingly anxious about all that has changed and all that he must learn anew. Just think about the changes in the world today and the one he left behind 20 years ago.

Long ago you and I welcomed Roddy into our Beloved Community here at St. John’s. He’ll need our prayers and support more than ever. He’s hoping to visit us one day and thank us personally for all we were able to do for him and his family. I know we will greet him with joy.

Luke’s gospel this morning – and Roddy’s own story – remind us of the need to always be prepared…to understand that while we may never know what the future holds for any of us, we are called to live with love and hope. For the kingdom of God is everywhere, even in the darkest of places. It can be a struggle to move through the darkness to the light.  Yet when we discover that we can cast off all that weighs us down in our lives – whether it be fear or cynicism or isolation or whatever burdens we bear – only then will we be able to rejoice and put on the armor of light that is Jesus Christ.

May we all have a blessed and holy Advent.


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Love is the Final Word

A sermon preached on the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28, Year B) on November 18, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can read today’s scripture here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

We’re finishing up our reading of Mark’s Gospel today.  We’ve read as Jesus sought to teach his disciples how Love, not power, is God’s way.  How the ways of the world will be undone by the Love that is God.  And we read how the disciples struggled mightily with that understanding, as we continue to do to this day.

Then we read how Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem.  And Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers and pointed to the oppression of the poor by the temple leadership.  Jesus performed these actions to help us understand that the temple had exchanged Love for power.

And this power is the very subject of today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel.  Because Jesus promises that this power won’t last.  “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Because true power comes from Love, not from violence and oppression, not from acquiescing to the ways of the world, not from vengeance or spite.Pauls Love

Love will always be the loudest voice.  Love will always throw down the stones of the temples we build.  Love will always be the final word.

Although, Love is sometimes a difficult path that requires much from us.  It requires us to give up our desire to blame and our need for vengeance.

I remember when a white supremacist with a gun walked into the prayer meeting of a church in Charleston SC about three years ago.  And I remember being horrified and stunned upon hearing of the crime he committed – the massacre of 9 black men and women.  And I remember, in the aftermath, hearing the voice of one of the survivors saying, “I forgive you.”

In a world where violence and death reign, Love is the final word.

In today’s reading, Jesus takes his disciples and sits down opposite the temple – in opposition to what the temple represented.  And he says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.”

Now, remember that Jesus lived and taught during a very fearful time.  Jewish people had been living under an occupying force known as the Roman Empire for several generations and the tensions were heating up in and around Jerusalem.  The people were desperate for a warrior messiah – one who would conquer their enemy and expel them from Jewish lands to reign as king of the Jewish state so that Jews could be free from oppression.

When we read historical accounts of first century Palestine (or, rather, what would come to be known as Palestine), we learn that there were other people claiming to be the messiah at the same time as when Jesus was teaching and gathering followers.  There were many others ready to take up the call to build a Jewish army and lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire.  There were many others who were willing to use violence.

During desperate times, we all know the desire to seek vengeance, to react out of a fearful place and exact pain, impose death, to meet violence with violence.  It can be tempting to think the answer is to build walls and buy guns and draw lines in the sand, especially when our leaders speak words of hate and terror designed to whip us into a frenzy of fear.

This is not all that different from what Jesus was experiencing.  And instead of trying to lead an armed rebellion against the occupying force, instead of hunkering down and hoping it will all go away… Jesus goes out, unarmed.

And he heals both Jews and Gentiles.
He feeds both Jews and Gentiles.
And he teaches both Jews and Gentiles.

And then he sits his disciples down in his final teaching and warns us, saying, “Many will come in my name… and they will lead many astray.”

Voices of fear.  Voices of shame.  Voices of hate.  Voices of anxiety.  Voices of death.  These will all come.  Indeed, they have all come.  They all tempt us.  And they all lead us astray.

It is Love Incarnate that always brings about the Reign of God.

Being a disciple of Jesus means that we commit ourselves to Love.  And I don’t mean nice thoughts and prayers… I mean an active love that is Love Incarnate.  The Body of Christ alive in the world, living into the way of Love.  Acting in love, being in service, reminding ourselves that we are all here to take care of one another… these are paths that lift us up as much as they lift up others.

If you think you have nothing to offer or if you believe that the world owes you something, I invite you to stop listening the voices of fear and shame.  Because if we don’t commit to walking the way of Jesus, we risk losing ourselves to the god of hate or indifference.

And, my friends, those are gods that have far too many followers right now.

It is Love that is the final word.

I’m not sure I could muster the kind of love that looks at the face of a white supremacist terrorist who has just killed 9 of my friends and family and say, “I forgive you.”  I’m not sure I would be able to rise above my own pain.

But that’s the task, isn’t it?  That’s how Jesus leads us, isn’t it?  To rise above our own pain because it is Love that will ultimately heal us.

When society wants to seek revenge, Jesus tells us to love, to forgive, and to heal one another.  When the culture says to make a profit, we are called to make sure people have enough to eat and a place to live.  When the self-important and conceited run the system at the expense of the poor, Jesus explains the system must be thrown down.

The way of Love, which is the way of Jesus, is one of crossing borders, feeding hungry people, welcoming the stranger, lifting up the lowly, offering forgiveness, healing our pain, and helping to heal the pain of others.

Jesus offers his final teaching in the Gospel of Mark in today’s reading, telling us that in the midst of the world and all its ups and downs, changes and chances, beginnings and endings…
when we have mass shootings almost every day and devastating wildfires caused by the changing weather patterns of climate change and all the other daily occurrences that bring us to a near-constant level of outrage…
in the midst of all the fear-mongering…
our messiah, our true messiah is found in a very simple teaching,
“Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

In this we will find solace and healing.  In this we will find hope.

I saw an interview a few months ago where 3 of the survivors from the Charleston massacre were interviewed. One of them was the wife of the pastor who was murdered that day. She was asked where she was on her journey of forgiveness.  And she admitted that she goes back and forth – sometimes she gets angry but she keeps working at it.  She keeps working at it because she knows that one day Love will be the balm that will finally heal her heart.

Love is the final word.

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We Believe In Love

A sermon preached on the Feast of All Saints (transferred), November 4, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  To read the lessons, click here.  To listen along, click the play button below.  I forgot to start recording right at the beginning, so the first paragraph or so isn’t there… sorry!

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
These are Jesus’ words to Martha, and to all those who crowded in deep mourning for their friend, their brother… this man Lazarus.  Lazarus, whose name comes from the Aramaic word El-azar, meaning “God is my help.”

Fire heart“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
Jesus says this to Martha and it’s not meant to be comforting.  It’s not what we say to people who are grieving the death of a loved one. Jesus himself is weeping in this scene and instead of comforting his friends, he is confrontational.  Challenging them by saying…

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus wasn’t more distraught over the lack of faith he was witnessing, than over his friend’s death.  But then, what is the difference?  Isn’t it just as painful when you witness the death of someone’s faith?  The death of their wonder?  Their belief in their own inherent goodness and worth?  Their reason for being?

Don’t we also grieve when we love someone and we watch the life leave their eyes?  The joy vanish from their soul?  Isn’t that just like a death?

And when that happens, when we see that happen to someone – especially someone we love – it’s as if a little part of us dies too.  And we become fearful because a part of us loses a little hope. A part of us steels up for some more disappointment.  A part of us gives in to death.  And that part is lying in the tomb with Lazarus.

So Jesus doesn’t comfort us in these moments.  Jesus challenges us, confronting us in our moment of fear… so that we don’t give in to death.  And he says…
“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

This is a most apt question for us in these times.
Some days, it’s so hard to see the possibility of the Revelation to John:  That God’s home will be here among us mortals.  That God will dwell among the peoples and be with us.  That God will have the capacity to, indeed, wipe every tear from our eyes when we cry so much… and death will be no more.

When every time we turn around there is another act of terror… another mad man kills women at a yoga class or black people in a grocery store.  Sends bombs through the mail to people who have different political views.

Where is God in this madness?  The bigger question, I think, is, where are we?
Where are we?  Locked in fear or living into love?

I was so deeply humbled and heartened to see so many from our community of St. John’s at Shabbat the other night over at Congregation Emanuel. It was a sweet and meaningful worship service.  And so many others from the Kingston churches were there too.  The place was filled as we all demonstrated our love and our sense of community by showing up in support of our Jewish siblings.

And Rabbi Yael was inspiring.  She said something like this (at least this is how I remember it):  When we use the phrase “God’s chosen people,” we are careful to understand its true meaning.  It was never meant to be used to mean that some people are better than other people.  That is not what “chosen” means (and, I would add, it’s not what the word “elect” means in our scriptures today).  It’s meant to be understood that our “chosen-ness” is in our unique-ness.  When we live deeply into who we are called to become, we are God’s chosen people.

And this, as we celebrate All Saints’ today, is what sainthood is really about.

When we live into our reason for being, when we come to the heart of ourselves and learn to give ourselves over to something bigger than our own needs and our wants and our fears, this is when we live fully into Love.  And we become our full selves, our true selves.  We become saints.

It happens in little moments, if we’re paying attention. We all know those moments when it seems that some miracle has taken place because we surprise ourselves.  We do something we’ve never dared to do. We find ourselves opening up to others despite ourselves, letting our guard down, taking risks, leading with love and realizing just how liberated we feel when don’t let our fears control us.

We feel more connected.  We feel more whole. We experience deeper joy and we offer ourselves more to others.

The Communion of Saints that we celebrate today is an assembly of people from across time who chose to live the Way of Love.  They are people that believed deeply in their own belovedness and chose to become the Beloved Community.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

What exactly is it that Jesus is asking us to believe?

We believe that the lessons our rabbi Jesus gave to us in his teaching and in his ministry are meant for us and we continue to learn what they mean and how we can live into them.  We continue to engage with the stories and we continue to come to this Table, the Table of Reconciliation.

We believe in the power of forgiveness – for ourselves and for others.  Because death is not the final word in the Kingdom of God.  And therefore, sin is not the final word in the Kingdom of God.

We believe that we have been gifted with all we need to do the work God has called us to do.  We aren’t looking for what’s missing, we look at the abundance of what we already have and we offer it in thanksgiving.

We believe in our own discipleship, that we are the hands and feet of Christ in this world.  And as such, we strive for justice so that the dignity of every creature of God, every person is upheld and honored.

We believe that we are the ones who are now called to roll away the stone and open the tomb and release Lazarus from his death.

Because we believe in Love.

Love is that which gives life.  And the way of Love means that we live lives that offer proof of God’s love to others.  Proof that God does, indeed, make his home here among mortals as the Revelation to John prophesies.

When we live into our chosen-ness, as Rabbi Yael says it, we come to know… for certain… that we are beloved children of God and every day we give a little more of ourselves over to that Love that is God and God’s glory shines through us.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

What part of you might be in that tomb with Lazarus?  Waiting to be freed?  And… it’s time for you to call on that part of you that is ready to roll the stone away and holler, “Lazarus, come out!”

You are needed in this world.  Your heart is needed in this world.Fire heart

We all have both of these parts.  A part that is afraid, that would rather stay in the tomb, fearful, convinced of our own nightmares.  And we all have a part that yearns to be free of the fears and the burdens we carry, to be resurrected, to be made a new creation.

This resurrection happens when we believe in the way of Love.  And as we live into that Love, our faith in that love grows every day.  We stop believing our fears and we become more confident in the knowledge that Love gives us life.

Because it is Love that will resurrect.  It is Love that will make all things new.  And God’s glory will indeed shine forth.

And now, let us remind ourselves of our baptismal vows:  Vows of Love.  Vows of Life.

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Invitation to Love

Preached on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Oct 14, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  To read the scripture passages, click here.

Last week, I taught a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery.  And they have a tradition for all their meals.  When people come into the refectory they come in two lines to form a large circle with the table of food in the middle, the first people meeting at the top of the circle and the last people sometimes straggling in after or during the prayer and forming the bottom of the circle.

Yet, when the line forms to receive the food, these stragglers, these last people, are invited to move through the line first.

ReversalA beautiful way to live out Jesus’ words: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Now, I promise to you that when the Stewardship Committee planned this year’s Pledge Campaign, we didn’t know that the Gospel reading would be one in which Jesus says, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”  But here we are.

This isn’t the only time Jesus talks about money in the Gospels.  And this isn’t the only time Jesus refers to money as the thing that gets in the way of God’s Love.  In the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus uses the word mammon in reference to money.  He says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

But the word “mammon” does not mean “money.” Mammon is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic word that means, “that in which one fully trusts.”

That in which one fully trusts.

Money is a big part of our lives.  Money.  Bills.  Wealth.  Property.  Debt.  Credit.  Savings.  Pledging.  Budgets.  Investments.  Banks.

Each one of us has a relationship of some kind to every one of these.  It makes me wonder how much of our lives do we spend talking about, worrying about, thinking about money?  We can get so wrapped around our identity with money that we define our own inherent worth by it.  And we judge other people because of it… either for having too much or for not having enough.

It becomes mammon to us, in this way… a thing in which we fully trust.  A thing that we think will save us.

But money is not the only thing that can become mammon to us.  It’s just one of the most common forms of mammon.  Jesus talks about this when Peter starts to get defensive.   Peter says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age…”

Jesus is talking about a long list of things that, to us, feel scandalous to leave behind. All of our property… houses, fields… well, that makes some sense because of their relationship to money.  But all of our family?  Brothers, sisters, mother, father, children?

What does he mean here?  And how can this possibly be equated to money?

It’s a way of thinking about all the things that we form attachments to.  By going to the extreme and suggesting that even our family is what we need to leave behind, Jesus is demonstrating that it’s our attachments to worldly things – even and especially to our most cherished relationships – that can prevent us from experiencing God’s Love.

Because to follow Jesus means that we follow an ethic of Love no matter what.  It means we continue to seek ways in which we offer Love.  It means that we always seek a higher purpose, a higher plane, because we realize what the larger story of scripture tells us about how God works in this world.

And the definitive narrative of this in the Christian tradition is found in the narrative of the manger – the Christmas story.  I realize we’re 2 months from Christmas but the manger is the foundational story of how God works in our world and it echoes throughout all of scripture.

God comes down to earth in the form of the most marginalized, most humble, most vulnerable… and in that, is the salvation of the whole world.

“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Pledging is, of course, a way for any church community to pay for the things we do.  But the spiritual component is so often overlooked.  And the spiritual component is this:  the practice of letting go of the things we think will save us and doing so in an intentional way, a reflective way with the discipline of a regular pledge.

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler23nkjasc90The young rich person in today’s Gospel reading tells Jesus, “I’ve followed all the rules.”  You can almost hear the pleading in the young person’s voice, “What must I do?”

And Jesus looks at this confused, young person and responds in love… not contempt or judgment.  But Love.  Jesus saw in that moment that this young person was like all of us who have learned the worldly message that we have to hold on to something.  And the loving response is to invite us to give it up.

Because we are not able to see this thing we have to have… whether that’s money or property or status or the right relationship or the way we present ourselves or the things we do or the things we know or the ideology we subscribe to… all of it…
The loving response is in the invitation to surrender that, the very thing in which we have placed so much trust.

Isn’t it strange to think that the invitation to Love isn’t: “Here, have more.”
The invitation to Love is: “Here, have less.”

And aren’t we all that young person?  In some way?  It’s true, we cannot serve God and mammon.  Can we see that the invitation to surrender mammon, is the invitation to come to the manger?  Where God’s love comes down and finds a home in our own heart with the most vulnerable, as the most humble.

“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

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Miracles of Love – The Wolf of Gubbio

A sermon in celebration of St. Francis, transferring his feast day from October 4 for our Blessing of the Animals event on October 7, 2018.  Click here to read the scriptures for today.  You can listen to the sermon by clicking the play button below.

Today we celebrate St. Francis as we join him after worship today in our Reflection Garden to bless our pets and honor the lives of our furry friends who have shared this earthly walk with us.  St. Francis is known as the patron saint of animals.  A person who still teaches us the importance of uncovering the divine spark in every part of creation.

francis-and-wolfOne of the more famous stories of Francis is called the Wolf of Gubbio.

When Saint Francis was living in the town of Gubbio in the Italian region of Umbria, a large wolf appeared in the town, so terrible and so fierce, that he not only devoured other animals, but also preyed on people.

Like with any menace, all the people were in great alarm and would carry weapons with them, as if going to battle.  They sought ways to kill the wolf and lived in fear, failing to take care of one another, allowing friends and neighbors to be devoured, proud that they themselves weren’t killed.

Francis, feeling great compassion for the people of Gubbio, resolved to go and meet the wolf, though all advised him not to.  So, he went out to the margins of the town, taking some of the townspeople with him. But they became scared at the edge of town and refused to continue so Francis went on alone toward the spot where the wolf was known to be.  People followed at a distance, however, curious to see what might happen.

Suddenly, the wolf ran towards Francis with his jaws wide open.  But Francis, standing peaceful and with serenity spoke calmly to the charging wolf: “Come hither, Brother Wolf; do not harm me nor anybody else.”

And a miracle occurred.  The wolf closed his jaws and stopped running.  He slowly walked up to Francis and lay down at meekly at his feet.  Francis spoke to the wolf:

“Brother wolf, you have done much evil in this town, destroying and killing the creatures of God; the people cry out against you, and all the inhabitants of have become your enemies.  But I will make peace between you, my Brother Wolf, if you would promise never to torment them again, and they shall forgive you all your past offences so that they shall not pursue you any more.”

Having listened to these words, the wolf bowed his head, and, by the movements of his body, his tail, and his eyes, made signs that he agreed to what Francis said.

Francis made a further promise: “Because you are willing to make this peace, I promise you that these people shall feed you every day as long as you shall live among them.  No longer shall you suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made you so vicious.  If I do this for you, Brother Wolf, do I have your word that you will never attack these people again?”

And putting out his hand Francis received the pledge of the wolf who lifted up his paw and placed it familiarly in his hand.

Francis said to him: “Brother wolf, come with me now so that we can confirm this peace and show these people your pledge.”  And the wolf walked by his side to the great astonishment of all who were witnessing.  Now, the news of this miraculous incident spread quickly through the town.  All the inhabitants flocked to the market-place to see Francis and the wolf.

When all the people had gathered, Francis got up to preach words of compassion – teaching those commandments that Jesus taught about loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself.  And he reminded the townspeople that we are all our brothers’ keepers.  That even when it seems our brothers and sisters aren’t keeping us, we are still their keepers.

And he paused and looked slowly at each person saying, “Listen my friends: our Brother Wolf has promised and pledged his faith and desires to make peace with you and terrorize you no more.  And so I ask that you demonstrate faith as well, by promising to feed him every day.  For it was his hunger that drove him mad.”

Then all the people promised with one voice to feed the wolf to the end of his days.

Francis, turned to Brother Wolf and said again: “And you, Brother Wolf, do you promise to keep the peace, and never again to offend God’s creatures?”   The wolf bowed his head and lifting up his paw, placed it in the hand of Francis.

The people of the town, relieved and joyful, became devoted to Francis, both because of the novelty of the miracle, and because of the peace that had been achieved with Brother Wolf.  They lifted up their voices to heaven, praising and blessing God, who had sent them Francis and restored to them their friendship with Brother Wolf.

Brother Wolf lived on in Gubbio, visiting from door to door without harming anyone.  And all the people received him as a friend, feeding him with great pleasure.  No more did they carry their weapons as if they were going into battle.  No more did they live in fear.

At last, after many years, Brother Wolf died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly, burying him as they would any of their beloved.  For when they saw Brother Wolf going about so gently amongst them all, it reminded them of their own gentleness and of their God-given call to love one another and be keepers of all our brothers and sisters.

This story may, in fact, be a legend or a metaphor.  But it’s hard to find a more compelling tale that so swiftly helps us understand forgiveness, mercy, and redemption.  In short, it’s a story of restorative justice.

Every human being has a story of hurt.  Every one of us.  We’ve all been terrorized by the wolves at the edge of town, sometimes devoured by them in some way.  But what we don’t often pay attention to is how that story ends up turning us into fearful people, carrying weapons, failing to take care of one another.  Our personal stories of grievance and pain keep us locked in our own prisons of fear.

The real miracle of the story, you see, is not that Francis tamed the wolf.  The real miracle was that the town was transformed, reconciled to God and reconciled to one another.  Through mercy.  Through forgiveness.

Redemption is about healing and restoring God’s peace to all.  And for this to happen, all must examine their actions and come to terms with all the ways in which we are not acting as peacemakers, all the ways in which we are not being one another’s keepers.

But it it’s always the light of Christ that helps us to see.  And Francis carried with him the light of Christ, that opened up the way for mercy and forgiveness.  Francis followed Christ and stepped into the places the townspeople weren’t willing to go.  Instead of creating a scapegoat out of the wolf by killing him, Francis reconciled the townspeople with the wolf.

And this enabled the people to remember and live into God’s peace, to become better caretakers of one another and, ultimately, of themselves.  Even though we often think its foolish to do so.

Today’s passage from Matthew has Jesus saying, “I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.” 

We often think it’s foolish to offer mercy, to forgive.  We become enamored of the methods we develop for protection and safety… the ways in which we ensure that we will not be seen as the fool.

But, in the end, they are prisons for us.  They are the burdens we carry.  And it is mercy and forgiveness that releases our own hearts from the prison we’ve created.

This is the meaning of Jesus’ invitation in today’s Gospel:  “Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

This rest comes in laying down our stories of fear.
This rest comes in offering mercy and forgiveness.
This rest comes as we remember our task to be our brothers’ keeper.

This rest is the peace of Christ.

May we all live into this peace.  May we all remember our call to be one another’s keepers.

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Rollercoaster of Love

A sermon preached on September 9, 2018 (Proper 18) at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read the day’s scripture.

Gods PlanI saw an image on Facebook yesterday.
It was a young woman and a small child on a roller coaster… probably one of those kiddie roller coasters.  The woman looked forward towards the coming hill laughing with smiling excitement as she held onto the child’s hand.
The child, however, had that look of clenching and fear on his face as he gripped the safety bar in front of him…

And the caption read…  God says: “I have a plan for your life.”
The woman was labeled as “Holy Spirit.”  The child was labeled as “You.”

It’s a hilarious image, of course.  God’s Holy Spirit grabs us by the hand sometimes and takes us on a scary ride.  Why is the Holy Spirit laughing?  It’s not because she loves your pain.  The Holy Spirit laughs because God is excited for you…
how you will be opened, how you will be moved,
how you will be transformed,
how you will be resurrected into a new creation.

We can’t always see what God sees, however.  So it feels scary to us.  Change always does.  So we resist.  We lose the ability to listen because we are certain that we know the right thing to do.  We lose the capacity to be taught anything new because we already know the answers.  And we lose the willingness to become anything but what we’ve always been.

In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus entered the region of Tyre.  To the hearers of Mark’s Gospel, this means Jesus entered enemy territory.  The people of Tyre struck fear into the hearts of Jews because, for centuries, Israel had been invaded by people from this region.

These were not simply unsavory neighbors they had to put up with.  The people of Tyre were seen as dangerous terrorists – completely untrustworthy and immoral beasts that one could barely call human.

And Jesus, for some reason is called to cross the border into the region of Tyre.  From the safety and familiarity of his home into a place of danger and risk.  Facing the repellent, despicable creatures he has feared since before he can remember… because he was taught to hate them.  He was conditioned to fear them.

We’re halfway through Mark’s Gospel and this is the first time Jesus comes into contact with non-Jews, or Gentiles.  Jesus is meeting people who don’t know and follow Jewish law because it’s the first time he’s crossed that border.

Why does he do this?  Why should he do this?  Why should he bother with these people?

The original hearers of this story know that Jesus is a Jew and his teaching is for those who understand what he’s talking about.  Jesus’ healing is for his people – the people oppressed by Roman occupation.  He has come as a Jewish messiah, for the nation of Israel, so that Israel might be free.

So, why does Jesus, a Jewish man, go into enemy territory – a place of fear and unknowing?  It’s clear how he feels about these people because he insults the first person he meets.  He encounters a brazen woman who begs on her knees before him that her daughter might be healed.

And he says, “God’s children deserve God’s healing love, not you – you who are a dog.”

A dog.  This is a huge insult.  Even worse than it sounds to us because Jewish people saw dogs as filthy, unclean, pest-ridden, disgusting animals.  They were not kept as pets or even as working animals.  They were scourges and scavengers.  They were garbage.

Jesus has told the Syrophoenician woman, she is garbage.
Think about what Jesus is doing here.
Think about how Mark is telling this story.

Here’s our Lord and Savior – this person we put on a pedestal, this person who gave us two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself – calling this woman who is desperately begging for the life of her daughter a dog.  He’s calling her garbage.

Without thinking, he dismisses her.  Out of his conditioned contempt for her people, because of what he has been raised to believe in his context which tells him she is not worthy to receive the grace of God.  He doesn’t see her humanity at all.

And this woman, whom Jesus finds despicable and easily dismissed, looks up at him, a person of power, as she’s vulnerably kneeling in front of him and she defies his dismissal and claims her place as a child of God.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.  Even my Syrophoenician life matters.”

Deacon Sue’s beautiful sermon last week reminded us of our call to walk with people who are stuck in poverty.  The stories are heart wrenching as we watch what our society’s systems of power do to people who don’t have privilege.  We see it most readily in places like People’s Place as we witness the cycle of poverty.

It’s heartening to know that our Outreach efforts make real differences in people’s lives.  And, as Sue reminded us, that these efforts are more than just ways to help other people – they are important to our own spiritual health as we learn to share God’s providence with our neighbors.

They are ways for us to cross the borders into places we might find scary. They are ways for us to be opened up by God’s Holy Spirit.  When we are in real relationship with the people we serve, we find ourselves being changed.

Perhaps that’s why we might find it hard to be of service sometimes.  We might find ourselves on that roller coaster, being asked by the Holy Spirit to learn something new.

The question, as it always is:  Are we able to be opened?  Are we able be taught by God’s Holy Spirit?  Are we able to listen, really listen?  Or do we shut down and refuse to be in real relationship with people who live lives unlike ours?

Syrophoenician LivesJesus’ first response to the Syrophoenician woman is so human.  He’s defensive and judgmental, unable to see her as human and unable to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit because he’s so weighed down by expectations and cultural conditioning.

Even Jesus cannot see the Kingdom of God kneeling in front of him in the face of this Syrophoenician woman.  And because of that, he calls her a dog.

And the Syrophoenician woman responds, “But my life matters.”

Something inside of Jesus decided to listen.  Some part of Jesus opened his ears so that he could hear the Holy Spirit whisper in the voice of this woman.  So that he could go on and teach others how to be opened.  Something helped him to refocus his eyes and see the Kingdom of God kneeling on the ground before him.

Jesus demonstrates for us what it means to be opened, to be awakened out of our certainties.  Somehow he dropped his expectations and his prejudice, his thinking shifted, and he moved in compassion to heal this woman’s suffering little girl.  And when he saw the humanity of the one he feared and dismissed, he released both himself and the woman’s offspring from the shackles of hatred and fear.  Both became free.

Jesus is never more real to me than in this story.  And it is here that I find great comfort, that I find immeasurable healing.  For the message I glean from this story is one that tells me beyond a shadow of a doubt that God’s Kingdom is indeed boundless – it extends to all people regardless of my personal issues with them and any cultural conditioning I might have been raised with.

If Jesus, our teacher and our healer, is brought up short by the words of this “despicable” woman…
If Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is opened by her – telling him, teaching him, reminding him that God’s Reign has no boundaries, no borders…
Then I too might be saved from my own prejudices.

I might be made a new creation if I am but willing to be taught… to open myself up and listen.  If even Jesus needed to be opened up, then there is hope for me too.

Can I be that vulnerable?  Can I surrender my certainty long enough to be taught by that which is right in front of my face?  Can I… can we listen?  Or will I be like that little child on the roller coaster, clenching and holding on for dear life, resisting the whole ride.

The implication here is a challenging one for us to bear because it requires us to be as vulnerable as Jesus was in that moment.  The implication is that we need one another.  It’s that simple.  We need one another so that we can be freed from our presumptions and our certainties.

Jesus crosses the border into a land of people he thought to be brutal, wicked terrorists so that he would come to know their humanity, to know there is no border, no boundary to God’s liberating, life-giving love.

May we follow our Savior so that we may we be opened too.  And may we enjoy the ride.

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Guest Post: On Being the Body of Christ

A sermon given by the Rev. Deacon Susan Bonsteel on September 2, 2018 (Proper 17, Year B) at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston NY.  You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.

Backpacks1 2018She was perhaps 5 years old…a tiny little child quietly holding her mother’s hand, waiting her turn for a new backpack. Mother and child stood to the side, away from the raucous confusion, as parents and children lined up in single file. Each parent had to show their identification to the women seated at the table as proof of their need for assistance. There were probably 20 or more people in line to begin with, most of them quite familiar with the routine.

And for those of us volunteering, it was a bit overwhelming at first…the numbers of those seeking help steadily grew along with the noise level. So many people picking up boxes of food; so many children getting free haircuts under a tent set up outdoors…and then the long line for backpacks…a few people inevitably became impatient and demanding…it was a very hot morning and people were standing for long periods of time…and we thought how very difficult it must be to always be on the receiving end, asking for help from strangers and trying to follow the rules set by the agencies upon which they depended.

As a nation, we certainly don’t make it easy on the poor. For the most part however, folks seemed resigned to the wait but also appreciative for all that People’s Place could offer them.

The young mother standing with her little girl lightly touched my arm as I made my way through the crowd and asked me about a backpack for her daughter.  Her information card with the child’s gender and grade had never made it back to where we were working. The two of them had been apparently been waiting for their turn for a long time. She asked if someone could help her.Backpacks2 2018

I’m sure that you have also experienced that emotional tug at your heartstrings when you are moved by something or someone. It was such a touching scene…this little girl holding her mother’s hand patiently waiting amid the chaos around her. It brought a few of us to tears. The mom’s anxiety showed in her eyes as she looked around her at the large number of people gathering. “Please,” was all she said.

Now Michelle had just dropped off a second pile of new backpacks from St. John’s and we searched for something special for this child. Hidden among the pile was a sparkly pink backpack with a smiling cat’s face on the front. And we quickly filled it with crayons, paper, glue sticks, markers and all good things that were needed for kindergarten. How I wish all of you had been there to hear the sounds of delight from both mother and daughter as we came around the corner.  To the eyes of some it may have seemed to be just a sweet little backpack…but truly…it was so much more. That moment was a reminder of what you and I are called to do… and to be… in the world. We become more than just helpers…more than just kind volunteers…we become tangible signs of God’s love in the world…handing God’s love out in the guise of notebooks and rulers to children in our community.

And it all began with your backpack donations collected right here in this room.

Food collections, hygiene product collections, winter hat collections may seem rather pointless to some who wonder how a few bars of soap or a can of soup or a single winter hat will be much help in the midst of the needs around us.

Backpacks3 2018And perhaps we wonder at times if we’re actually helping…if we are changing anyone’s life for the better.

Let me say this: seeing the happiness in the face of that young child and the gratitude and relief of her mother convinced us that these moments matter more than we might ever fully appreciate.

Relationships begin to be nurtured when we meet the women, the children and the men being served by programs such as People’s Place. By standing with those who may in difficult circumstances, we begin to understand more deeply the challenges that confront these – our brothers and sisters – on a daily basis.

And how important it is…to our own spiritual health… to understand that we’re doing more than simply packing up a box of food or stuffing a backpack with school supplies. We’re sharing God’s providence with people in desperate need – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the immigrant. We get to know them by name…who they are…where they come from…where they live…and their hopes for themselves and their children. And…as some of us learned this past week…their stories are often very difficult to hear.

One father walked from Hurley Avenue to People’s Place on St. James Street pushing his baby in a stroller on one of the hottest days this summer in order to get formula and some food. The infant was in distress when they arrived and the good folks at People’s Place jumped into action, offering medical assistance and supplying the food and transportation the family so desperately needed. Even the volunteers, who see a lot in their work, were deeply upset by the seriousness of this father’s circumstances.

Another day a grandmother appeared, along with several of her grandchildren, wondering if she could get shoes for the tallest boy. They had no money to get him sneakers to begin school and he was wearing well-worn flip flops. We watched as the boy was taken aside by one of the male volunteers. Moments later a smiling teenager came out of a back room showing off a new pair of sneakers. The volunteers gathered and we watched as they whispered among themselves. Quickly 2 gift cards for a shoe store appeared and were handed to the grandmother so that she could buy her other grandchildren shoes as well. One volunteer quietly wiped tears from her own face.

A pile of clothes for a young girl hung near the backpacks. They were for a homeless child who was starting school next week. Volunteers were waiting for her to arrive so that they could help the youngest one try on what they had. They didn’t know what if anything would fit her.

The next day we were told that the child arrived in a dress that was way too large for her, the only suitable piece of clothing she owned. One of volunteers offered to go shopping for the child that evening while others continued to search through bins of used clothing for socks and underwear.

Over and again we watched as more than just food and shampoo were given out…compassion and love for others was offered in abundant amounts.

Standing among the many volunteers this past week served as a reminder that acts of compassion do not need to be heroic. Simply showing up…caring enough to give of one self and willing to take a risk and cultivate a relationship with one of our neighbors in need is God’s call to us.  And our response may be the most priceless gift we can offer.

James tells us that every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. There is a monumental shift in our hearts every time God stirs us into action. For many of us watching those in need standing in long lines with their reusable bags, collecting whatever food items were available, it was a painful reminder of the huge problem of food insecurity in our own city. The faces of those living in dire poverty within our very own community became imprinted upon us. And, for some of us, people we knew from our own neighborhoods, our children’s schools, even our own church – appeared seeking assistance. The poor are everywhere.

Be doers of the word, the Letter of James continues. By choosing to stand with our brothers and sisters in need… God will show us the way to use the blessed gifts God has given us so that we might act as agents of change in this broken world.

If we could imagine God’s voice at this moment, we might hear something like this:

Use your eyes to see the needs of your brothers and sisters around you…and simply love them.

Use your voice to speak up for those who are powerless. Protest the injustices that continue to allow your brothers and sisters to live in poverty…and simply love them.

Use your hands…to reach out and lift up the oppressed who have been worn down by circumstances beyond their control… and simply love them.

You can do all of these things. You can do them because you have done them before.

We have an abundance of love and compassion within these walls. Just consider what has been done these past few weeks! Over 50 beautiful backpacks were collected and more were purchased from our parish Outreach budget line. Fourteen parishioners joyfully gave of their time, delivering and sorting and filling backpacks on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That’s quite a powerful display of God’s love!

I was asked to thank all of you by the staff of People’s Place…for your kind and generous hearts and for caring so deeply for those in need. And before Wes and I left on Thursday, the staff gently reminded us that People’s Place will soon begin preparing for Project Santa, their Christmas toy drive.

As we departed the building, heading to our cars, we looked at one another and said… I’m ready. How about you?


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Love’s Dwelling Place

A sermon preached on August 26, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can click here to read today’s scripture.

Dwelling places – that’s what we’re talking about today.
Take some time to consider the places where you dwell, where you spend your time – work, home… places you hang out, where you “feel at home.”
Consider the places where you spent your time growing up, other cities/towns in which you’ve lived and worked.

How do they feel to you?  Are there places that bring negative feelings, bad memories?  Are there places that bring a sense of peace and happy memories?

The places in which we dwell are more than just places where we spend time.  They become homes for us.  We know them, develop attachments to them, forge memories in them.  Our sense of self is influenced by this because we know ourselves in relation to the places in which we spend time.  They become a part of us.  Where we dwell is an important part of who we understand ourselves to be.

The last of the “bread” readings from John Ch. 6 this month features Jesus’ capstone teaching about the living bread.  What does he mean when he talks about feasting on him, on the living bread?  He tells us that it’s not about the physical act of eating bread, it’s about what we choose to feast on.  He’s talking about where we dwell.

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”Table

Jesus tells us by partaking of the feast of Love that we are called to, we become more and more aware of its presence in our lives.  That we live in God and God lives in us.

The spiritual practice of the Eucharist, in other words, is to finally come to understand that we are never separated from God, except in our troubled thoughts, in our worst beliefs about other people and about ourselves… which are always connected in some way.

Jesus teaches us that we become God’s dwelling place in the world, when we dwell in Love, when we feast on Love.

Jesus’ teaching here is not an easy one.  As a matter of fact, it’s so radical that Jesus lost many of his disciples because of it.  John tells us that they complained about Jesus’ teaching, that they said, “This teaching is so difficult; who can accept it?”… that many of them turned back and no longer went about with him.

So, why is it so difficult?  You would think that accepting Love is easy, right?  That’s what we all want, really.  You would think that dwelling is Love is effortless.  So, why isn’t it?

Because, in some way, the wisdom that we are created in Love… that wisdom is knocked out of every single one of us… by being mistreated by other individuals who have forgotten it – sometimes even those who love us.  It’s clobbered out of some of us by systemic oppression and institutional sin.  It’s chased away by truly tragic things that happen to us.

And for some, it’s incredibly difficult to find our way back to the wisdom of Love.

We are given glimpses sometimes, but it feels impossible to live in a place of Love, when love and hope and freedom seem to be so far away from us, so remote from our experience.  Even though we are built to have Love dwelling within each of us, sometimes it stays hidden until we are strong enough to remember it again.

Perhaps you’ve read the book or seen the movie called The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.  It’s a story about a group of people who have learned how to access the place in themselves that has not forgotten about Love.Secret Life of Bees

This is a group of African-Americans in the American South in the mid-20th century who, for decades during slavery and after the end of slavery when Jim Crow laws were still enacted, they found an icon of Love in a wooden statue, who they came to know as Mother Mary.

As she dwelled with them, this statue of Mary… as they told stories about her boundless heart and as those stories became their own… Mary became a way for them to access their own fearless Love – the Love that heals our own broken hearts and allows us to become stronger… to become who we have been created to be.

This strength comes, not because we’ve never been hurt.  But because we learn how to stop dwelling in the hurt.  And we remember how to dwell in Love instead.  We learn how to feast on Love.  Jesus tells us this is where life is.

Mary’s heart is known in the Christian tradition as a place in which we learn to heal our broken hearts so that we may love again.  Because Mary holds our love for us when we are so hurt, when we experience such shame that we are not able to hold Love for ourselves.

And when we’re finally ready to know Love again, we come to realize just what it is that we’ve been longing for, that all of creation is longing for – a reconciliation, a reunion with God… who actually never left us.

We long for a return to the Love that was always dwelling within us waiting for our homecoming.Winter Forgiveness

The Psalmist today gives us the words for this longing:
How dear to me is your dwelling, O God of hosts!
My soul has a desire and a longing for the courts of God;
My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God…
Happy are they who dwell in your house!
They will always be praising you…
Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room,
And to stand at the threshold of the house of God
Than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

So, where do we dwell?  Where do we spend our time? In Love?  In thoughts of Love?
Or… in thoughts that take us away from Love?
What do we spend our time thinking about?  Where do we dwell?

Do we spend our time being suspicious?  Or skeptical?  Do we allow ourselves to think a lot about what we don’t have or what we didn’t get?  Do we believe we need to solve the world’s problems?  Or do we worry so much that we lose hope?  Do spend our time trying up to live up to other people’s expectations of us?  Or extreme expectations of our self?  Living with some kind of shame because someone else made us feel small or helpless?

Because those places… those thoughts we have, those imaginings and stories we pursue and revisit time and time and time again… can take us down some extremely dark paths – some where we come to hate others and some where we come to hate ourselves.

And, yet, these thoughts can seem like home to us because we have spent so much time with them, breathing them in, dwelling inside their poisoned and wicked tents.  They have taken up so much space in our lives that we are literally haunted by them. They feel comfortable… like the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know.  They feel more real than Love.Keith Haring

So, of course it’s hard to leave those thoughts, to believe that Love is what we are, to believe that Love is what we are called to embody for others, for ourselves.  It’s such a difficult teaching, that we don’t always get there… just like the disciples who left.  It’s just easier to believe that we have to earn love in some way.

But we don’t.  We don’t have to earn Love because the truth is that we ARE Love.  Love is our birthright.  Love is our purpose for being.  Coming to remember this is what Paul means when he says to put on the whole armor of God.  It’s an unfortunate military metaphor but somewhat useful because it does feel like a battle.  Not an earthly one, as Paul articulates, but a heavenly one, one in our own hearts and minds, where we do struggle against the spiritual forces of evil… those lies that tell us that we are not capable of the Love that already dwells within us.

It takes some discipline to practice dwelling in Love.  Discipline, that has the same root as the word disciple.  Disciples are people who are disciplined in practicing Love.

This armor of God… it is the longing we have for living bread, the longing to experience and to dwell in God’s Love for us.  It is the part of us that has never forgotten…
Never forgotten that God’s desire for us is joy.
Never forgotten that God’s hope for us is freedom.
Never forgotten that God’s dream for us is Love.

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Yes.  When we feast on Love, we abide in Love and Love abides in us.  Yes.

As St. Augustine tells us, the Eucharist is our very own mystery because we see what we are on the Table every time we come: The Body of Christ broken open for the world God has made.  When we receive it by saying Amen, we are learning to return, to come home to God’s indwelling Love.

So let us Behold Love.  Let us Become Love.
So that we may dwell in Love as Love dwells in us.


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Becoming Love Incarnate

A sermon preached on August 12, 2018, Proper 14 for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston NY.  You can read the scriptures for the day by clicking here.


When Jesus talks about being the bread of life, what is he talking about?  It might be helpful to talk about what is life-giving, what is sustenance.  On today’s cover, 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer gives us a very simple, yet powerful image of sustenance in The Milkmaid.JVermeer The Milkmaid

A bare room with only subtle decoration at the bottom of the wall.  A narrow table under a window where daylight spills through.  A few baskets hanging on the walls, ready to be used.  A woman, a kitchen servant, dressed simply, is intently pouring milk into an earthenware vessel.  And bread overflows the basket that sits on the table.  The scene, although spare, has a sense of abundance to it.  It feels inviting, life-giving.

You may have noticed I have begun using a new invitation for Eucharist over the past few months:  Behold who you are.  Become what you receive.

But it’s not really new.  It’s a revival of one of the oldest invitations to Eucharist in the church.  It comes from St. Augustine, from one of his sermons written about Eucharist.  St Augustine of Hippo was a bishop in North Africa and the originator a problematic doctrine called Original Sin, which stated that human nature is inherently sinful.  At least, that’s how many people read it and how the church has used it to keep people, especially women, oppressed.

However, I read something a little different.  I don’t think Augustine really had such a dim view of humanity.  I think he loved people very much.  But I also think he understood just how lost we can become when we focus too much on the bread of the world instead of the bread of life.

In other words, when we spend our efforts trying to live up to the world’s standards… trying to live by our own self-will becoming the gods of our own lives, trying to get it all together and feeling shame for when we lose control of things, trying to manage everyone and everybody… because we think that is what will save us.

We learn from a very young age just how much of a risk it is to be vulnerable and so we stop doing it.  We keep vigilant and alert as we try to navigate the dangerous world and we seek to control rather than surrender, try to know rather than to ask.  So before long, we’ve forgotten how to open our heart, how to be our authentic self.  We forget how to stop managing the world and just let ourselves be, surrendered to God’s Will.

Yet, every week we’re called back:  “Lift up your hearts…” the invitation is offered before we begin.  And we respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.”

And as we say the Lord’s prayer before we partake we offer, “Your will be done… on earth as it is in heaven…”

The Table of Reconciliation is one of healing, you see.  For us.
To receive love so that we may become more loving.
To receive mercy so that we may become more merciful.
To receive grace so that we may become more grace-filled.

To open us up to receive what we are: the bread of life broken open for the world God has made.  To become Love incarnate.

Jesus said:  “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.”  He says: “I am the living bread. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

We think that the bread of the world, this manna, will save us… this striving that we do.  But it is the bread of life that is more nourishing because the bread of life is about love – about receiving love and giving love.  It is about becoming Love.

In his sermon that I mentioned earlier, Augustine says:St Augustine
What you see on God’s altar… is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter… My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit…

So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table!

 It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith.

When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.”
Therefore, behold who you are; become what you receive…
(St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 272)

What we receive at this Table is mercy.
What we receive at this Table is hope.
What we receive at this Table is true freedom.
What we receive at this Table is Love.

In order that we may become: mercy, hope, freedom, love.  That we may become compassion.

We are reconciled to God in coming to the Table with our hearts lifted and open, ready to surrender our worldly fears and desires so that we might fully receive, might fully become what God would have us become – the Body of Christ, divine Love incarnate.

I was reading the Big Book this week on my Sabbath day.  The Big Book is another term for the Alcoholics Anonymous book, first published in 1935.  And, although there are some dated ways of saying things, the spiritual wisdom in that book remains unparalleled.

One line struck me in particular: “The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success.”

The wisdom in the realization that our worldly attempts, our anxiety, our insistence on seeking the worldly bread… whatever that looks like for us… our worldly attempts are often a thin veil for our fear, the fear that we aren’t enough, that something is wrong with us, that something is missing.

But nothing is further from the truth.

We are whole, beautiful, exquisite, beloved creations of God… just as we are.
God made creation and called it good.  God called us good!

When we give up the striving and the certainty and come to rest in our vulnerable, seemingly imperfect selves, we find such an abundance of love… that it overflows.  Just as the bread in that basket overflows in Vermeer’s painting.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told this story but my conversion experience was not about converting to Christianity.  It was about converting to God’s Love.
I was at a workshop with about 30 other people and we had been sharing and reflecting with such love and vulnerability that at the end, I experienced this moment of total freedom from self-judgment.  And when all that self-judgment was gone, in its absence, my only experience was of God’s Love filling me up.  So much so that it overflowed in tears that would not stop flowing.

Vermeer didn’t paint a scene with lots of finery and decoration, with meats and fish on a table filled with fancy plates and beautiful glassware.  He gave us a scene of simplicity that, because we have all we need… because we are all we need… it is already abundant.

The bread of the world keeps us striving for more. But the bread of life… in that we will never be hungry, never be thirsty.

In finally coming to rest in our own belovedness, we are able to live more compassionately as Paul implores in his letter to the Ephesian church:

“Do not let your anger stew so it will fester into resentment and revenge.  Encourage those who struggle to share with others.  Only say what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  Find ways of living without bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted.  Forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, [our offertory sentence each week] and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  (Eph 4:25-5:2, paraphrased)

May we open our hearts.  May we rest in God’s Will.
May we become mercy, hope, and freedom.

In St. Augustine’s words: Behold who you are.  Become what you receive.

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Life Follows Where Love Leads

A sermon preached on July 22, 2018, Proper 11, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can read today’s scripture by clicking here. 

We began today’s worship with the hymn – “In Christ there is no east or west… no south or north.”  Instead, there is a fellowship of love that extends beyond any borders or definitions that the world puts in place.

This isn’t a hymn about the institution of the church, which does go beyond borders.  This is a hymn about the fellowship of all of creation established in God’s unbounded love.  It’s a hymn about how, regardless of our human need to define and divide, Christ – God incarnate – dissolves all boundaries, not by force or aggression, but through love and compassion, through joy and hope.  Inviting all of us into abundant life.  Because life follows where love leads.

Today’s Gospel from the 6th chapter of Mark is a split reading.  If you’ll notice, we’re missing verses 35-52, which is quite a chunk.  Verses 30-34 is an invitation for the disciples to “come away” after the hard work of their ministry – the teaching and work that they had been doing after Jesus sent them out.

It says, “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”  And so they went away in a boat, crossing over the Sea of Galilee where Jesus finds a great crowd of people he didn’t know who seem to be desirous to learn.

Then, we skip over the story known as the Feeding of the Multitudes as well as the story where Jesus walks out to the disciples in their boat across raging waters at night.

And we jump to verse 53, when the disciples have finished their journey back from feeding the multitudes and they come to a place called Gennesaret.  A place where Jesus is known, and he and the disciples continue the work of healing.

Now, next week, Sue will preach on the Feeding of the Multitudes from John’s Gospel.  And, while it might make better sense for us to read the story in its entirety, I think the point the architects of the lectionary are trying to make is this:  Jesus teaches through action.  He takes his disciples (us) with him, as he crosses the boundary of the water over and over again throughout Mark.  He’s trying to teach them where life can be found.

Because in each place they land, the healing presence of Christ disregards the rules set by ignorance and suspicion and power, and demonstrates that the love of God invites all into life.  Even and especially, those of us who would erect walls and draw lines in the sand because we think these borders we create will save us.  But, in the end, the walls actually destroy life.EIshigo Boys with Kite

The image on today’s cover, is a water color by an artist named Estelle Ishigo.  Estelle was born in California in 1899. She married the son of Japanese immigrants, Arthur Ishigo in 1928. Thirteen years later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Estelle and Arthur lost their jobs after that and Arthur was forced into an internment camp in Wyoming.  Estelle followed him there and she painted as a way of documenting their imprisonment.  When they were finally released after the war, they lived in poverty for years.

The image, however, depicts something quite beyond the despair and hopelessness of their imprisonment due to Arthur’s Japanese heritage.

The title is appropriate: Boys with Kite.  There are 2 little boys, both in blue overalls, white t-shirts, and black shoes.  One is at the top of a barbed-wire fence, looking backward over his shoulder as he climbs the post.  And the other seems to be smaller, arms outstretched above his head as he stands on tip-toes, almost in a position of praise, as he holds up a bright yellow kite.

You can see a green valley beyond the brown hill the fence sits upon and you know that’s where they want to go.

The boys are clearly very taken with the idea of flying this kite, caring more about this than what the fence might mean. Indeed, they only see the fence as something in the way of flying their kite because they’ve discovered that the wind, the breath that will carry their kite, has no care at all about the fence.  So, quite naturally, they only want to follow the wind which will breathe life into their kite.

Like God, and like the wind, these boys don’t really care about the boundary.  Why would politics and borders mean anything to a child who wants to fly a kite?

I read an article yesterday about a young person named Jaequan Faulkner.  Jaequan is 13 and he’s been selling hot dogs in his Minneapolis neighborhood for 2 years as a way to help pay for school clothes.  He has since decided that he just likes doing it because of the community it creates and how he is a positive part of creating that life in his neighborhood.Jaequan

This summer, however, the city received a complaint about his makeshift hot dog stand, forcing the health department to investigate.  Even though his hot dog stand is directly in front of his own house.

Now, this could have been a situation in which the fences and boundaries drawn by human society were more important than the life generated by this young person.  They could have shut him down and shamed him.

Instead, the health department, not only helped step him through the process to get a license, but found a non-profit to cover the $87 and train him on some safe-food handling practices.

The people in authority could have used power to keep this young person in his place, binding him to the letter of the law.  Instead, people used their power to lift someone else, to empower a young person, to encourage someone who was outside the system.

Someone reached across the border and said, I’ll walk with you.  Life follows where love leads.

When Jesus invited the disciples on the trip across the water, he wasn’t planning another day of work.  Remember, Jesus was trying to call his disciples into prayer – a retreat in which they could rest and be refreshed because they had no time even to eat.

I think this is key to the point of the Gospel today because it’s the moment of scarcity.  The disciples are feeling depleted and it’s so easy in this moment to lose hope, to lose connection, to lose a sense of love and care for another.  It’s so easy to pull back and become self-centered.  This is the moment when it’s so much easier to keep fences in place and even erect new fences and walls and boundaries that weren’t there before.

But Jesus teaches us Christ’s compassion in this passage.

The compassion of Christ is one that is experiences as a response from the gut – like the phrase, “gut-response.”  Our gut usually tells us when we need to protect ourselves.  But Jesus helps us to understand that our gut also tells us when respond with action.  Christ’s compassion responds from the deepest place inside of us.  And life follows where love leads.

Do you remember what it was like to be a stranger or an outsider?  Were you ever the one left out?  Made-fun-of?  The one on the receiving end of prejudice?  Do you have a memory of being prevented from doing something simply because of who you are or what you look like or who you love?

Many of you have lived in Kingston for quite a long time so I wonder what your memories are of the experience of being an outsider.

I wonder because the compassion of Christ comes from that place, that deep place that remembers being the outcast.  And instead of responding in fear, the Christ presence inside of us responds with an outstretched hand that reaches across the border and says, “C’mon… I’ll walk with you.”

Jesus leads us beyond the borders we create and the fences we build because the breath of God doesn’t stop for either one.  Life follows where love leads.

Jesus asks us to get into the boat with him and cross over to the other side because he knows that life is always found on the other side.  Jesus opens his arms to welcome all because God will simply have it no other way.  All are welcome.  All are invited.

So, where are the fences in your life?  The places where you think you have to refuse someone else’s participation?  And how can you allow Christ’s compassion to lead you across those boundaries?Border Wall

Jesus stretches out his arms to all of God’s children.  I’ve said this before, but every time we draw a line in the sand, Jesus is always on the other side.  Not standing in judgment, but standing in invitation.  To us.

Jesus is on the other side, not because he takes sides.  But because he’s looking back at you with arms outstretched, asking you to tear down the wall you’ve built and let lose the compassion of Christ.

Jesus is on the other side, asking us to join him because that’s where love is, is where life is.  Where the breath of life blows the kites of young boys and hot dogs are sold to anyone who wants one and life is truly abundant and unbounded.

May we all accept his invitation and join him there.  Life follows where love leads.

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Love In Action

A sermon preached on the transferred feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston.  To read the scripture, click here.  To listen along, click the play button below.

This passage from Isaiah is one of the most powerful messages in all of Judeo-Christian scripture.  It’s used during Advent to proclaim the coming of Jesus.  It’s used as the text for Handel’s Messiah, sung so often as a celebration of Easter.  It’s used because it reminds us that, in our despair, the God of Love responds as our hope.

Isaiah is lamenting about the people of Israel – their inconsistency, their withdrawal from God and their pain and suffering as a result of their actions.  The story of Israel, you see, is the story of humanity.  It’s the story of us.  How we get lost in our human need to control.  How that need to control inevitably results in despair.  And how the God of Love saves us every

Isaiah’s lament is that there is no hope in Israel.  That they have reached the point of no return.
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of God blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.

Even in the midst of despair, there is hope.  Because the word of our God will stand forever… Isaiah says.

And this hope is pointed to over and over again throughout scripture.

  • The covenant of Noah: humanity had become violent and corrupt, God wiped out all life in a flood, but saw a spark of goodness and so, had Noah build an ark. Then God made a covenant to never destroy life again.
  • The covenant of Abraham: after Abraham’s never-ending faithfulness to the God of Love, God promised that this loving faithfulness would remain in humanity and that these people – the people who claimed the God of Love, would be called descendants of Abraham. And these descendants would be as numerous as stars in the sky.
  • The covenant of Moses: God spoke to Moses through the burning bush. Moses who didn’t think he had the capacity to lead, yet there was God setting his heart on fire so that he would go and lead the people out of Egypt.  So, when people are oppressed, God will always send us, causing our hearts to burn and lead others to freedom.

God’s covenants tell us that:

  • God will never destroy us.
  • God will plant within humanity the capacity to be servants to the God of Love, the God of Life, so that we may be servants of one another through our compassion.
  • And God will ensure that our own hearts will be set on fire to lead others to freedom because God desires for all of us to be free.

And, as Christians, we believe that Christ is the final covenant.  Love incarnate.  A self-giving love that reconciles the whole world to God.  We believe that the sacrament of Eucharist has the power to reconcile us to God because we become what we receive in that moment.  We receive the Body of Christ and we become the Body of Christ broken open for the world that God has made.  We become Love in action.

Not a sentimental version of Love that has us at the center.  But a love that risks all that we have and all that we are.  A love that has God at the center.

Isaiah’s words reflect something that all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures came to understand – standing in the breach.  Something that Jesus also understood.  And that is, as a descendant of Abraham and, more specifically for us, as a Christian… we are continually called to stand where we can see the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time.  And point people toward Love.NWilson Crossroads

Our patron saint John the Baptist stood in that place.  And I believe that we have so sanitized scripture that we forget just how “political” John the Baptist was.  John was leading a protest.

Under oppressive Roman rule for nearly 70 years and in the midst of uprisings, John stood in the River Jordan, a boundary between the desert and the Promised Land, between the wilderness and salvation.

When all around him people were shouting for a warrior messiah to rise up against the Roman rule, John was standing in the breach seeing the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time.  Calling people out to the desert to join him and then pointing to love.

And John saw love incarnate in the form of Jesus and said, “This is love.  This is what will save us.  Because it is love that is anointed by God.  It is love that we are called to serve.  And it is love we are called to become.”

When we really see what’s going on, I know it’s easier to tune things out.  And we all have so much going on in our lives that we sometimes just want to be able to get through the day.  I get it.  The good news is that we’re not in this alone.

And all of the trappings of our civilization will, at some point, cease to be.  This is guaranteed.  Isaiah reminds us that this world is withering grass and fading flowers.  And, as shocking as it may be to hear this, our nation will someday no longer exist… because all nations rise and fall.  Every one of them. That is the manner of worldly things.  I’m not trying to be depressing or outrageous or anti-American.  That’s just what happens over time.

As Isaiah reminds all of this is nothing compared to the word of God.  The comfort we are given is that God remains constant throughout all of it.

God’s word arises as a response to nothingness.
God’s hope arises out of despair.
God’s Love descends during times of fear and hate.

The way policies are being enacted in our country right now is immoral.  Immigration is a complex matter, but I believe our task as Christians remains the same – to stand in the breach with our brother John the Baptist, where we can see the state of the world and God’s Reign of love at the same time and continue pointing to Love.  Love becomes incarnate when we live it out.

So, if you feel your heart burning in anger, just as Moses heart did, don’t tune out, my friends.  Don’t think you unworthy to serve either. This is a difficult time and we are being asked by the God of love to move beyond our complacency and comfort and become the Body of Christ.  I ask you to spend time in prayerful silence, listening for God’s voice instead of opinions, and then do what God is calling you to do.

This Table we come to every week is where we reconcile ourselves to God and become what we receive – the Body of Christ broken open for the world God has made.

“Out of a great need
We are all holding hands and climbing.
Not loving is letting go.
Listen, the terrain around here
Is far too dangerous for that.”
14th century Persian poet, Hafiz

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Love Over Law

A sermon preached on Pentecost II (Proper 4) on June 3, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read the scripture.  Press play below to listen along.

Mark’s Gospel is my favorite version of Jesus’ story.  It’s succinct with a focused message, yet it’s full of mystery and metaphor to unravel. Every single word seems to have meaning and purpose. There is no extra flourishes or over-explanations.  Nothing more than what you need to go deeply into the mystery of Christ.  It doesn’t let language get in the way of the message.Grainfield

So when we read today’s passage from Mark, where Jesus is walking along in the grainfields with his disciples we don’t know exactly why Jesus and the disciples were there in the first place.  And we have no idea why the Pharisees were hanging out nearby watching him.  Or perhaps they were among the disciples, walking with them for some reason.  We have no idea.  But that’s not what matters

What does, matter is the message: the rules we make, even and especially when they are about God, can sometimes get in the way of actually serving God.

To answer the Pharisees concern about doing the work of picking on the Sabbath, Jesus reminds us of their celebrated ancestor David, who broke the rules – rules about worship, of all things – so that he could feed hungry people.  It wasn’t an act of disrespect.  It was an act of Love.

And what Mark offers us in this passage is that Jesus stood in contrast to the Pharisees in this way:  Jesus was trying to free people from the constraints of the rules to care for each other, trying to help us understand that the God of Love would rather that love be the way, trying to teach us how to practice being loving.

While the Pharisees, who were known to be so devoted to God, were really just devoted to the rules.  By contrasting Jesus and the Pharisees this way, Mark is telling us being devoted to the law is not the same as being devoted to God.

And to drive this point home, Mark quickly moves us to another scene – the synagogue.  So, now Jesus is in the “territory” of the Pharisees.  Again, we don’t know why or how he got there.  Perhaps Jesus did this specifically to make a point, or perhaps he was there for another task.  Again, we have no idea.  And, again, that’s not what matters.

What does matter is that the Pharisees are waiting to catch him in the act of breaking the rules and, upon seeing someone in need of healing, in need of God’s love, be ignored by the Pharisees, Jesus becomes angry and grieved at their refusal to act in Love.  At their refusal to hold the rule of Love above the rules.Jesus Heals Sabbath Chora Church

What’s more, Jesus realizes what’s happening.  He realizes that the Pharisees are just trying to catch him in the act of breaking the rules and he doesn’t care because what is important is love.  What is important is healing.  So Jesus listens for the law written on his heart and heals the man.

Why do we want to hang on to the rules?  Why is the law so important to us?  Why do we get ourselves hung up on why and how other people follow the rules we set in place?

I happen to love the rule about using turn signals.  And I judge people who don’t use their turn signal.  I believe this rule keeps us safe but, really, the reason I judge people is because it inconveniences me when a driver doesn’t use their turn signal.

How often do we do something like that?  Use a rule to make judgments about someone else.  Or when someone doesn’t follow a rule, we take it personally?

Most rules and laws are there to keep our selves and our neighbors safe.  This is a very loving act.  But what are the Pharisees doing here?  They aren’t paying attention to the reason for the rules – that’s what Jesus is doing.  As he says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

The Pharisees are using the law of the Sabbath to destroy Jesus, to destroy love, to destroy what he was doing.

When laws become more important than the people they are meant to serve, we have to stop and ask: do we value the law or do we value the life they are meant to protect?  Do we worship the law or do we worship the God of Love, the God of Life?  What are we practicing in our day to day lives?

Laws are good.  Following rules and laws are good.  But when the law is followed for the sake of itself, it becomes tyranny.  The law becomes the thing we serve, instead of the law serving us.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks about the law that is written on our hearts. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me.  Jeremiah 31:33-34

Paul talks about this same law in his letter to the Romans: When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; Romans 2:14-15

And this is what Jesus means when he says, “Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The law written on our hearts is Love.  The love of God shining through us and becoming the love of Christ.  A love broken open for the entire creation.breaking-bread2

And this is what Christian formation is all about.  This is why we come to worship.  I mean, there’s a lot about learning about scripture and church history, etc.  But our formation in Christ comes through the process of learning to obey that law written on our hearts.  We learn to obey the Love – both for our neighbors and for ourselves because we love God.

And when we do that, we become a new creation.

When we talk about the love of Christ, it’s not some empty phrase. The Love of Christ forms us so that we may become more and more aware of the truth.  We slowly become followers of the Gospel instead of worshippers of the law.

It’s not that we necessarily break the law on purpose, but we may have to on occasion if we find a law to be unjust, to be against the rule of law written on our hearts, which is the Love of God.  And we slowly become attuned to a different frequency as we do these acts.  We attune to the love of God written on our hearts.

How do we love and care for the other?  How do we move in the world that manifests that?  How do we offer compassion?  How do we advocate for God’s justice in this world that is sorely in need of it?

This “becoming” is Christian formation.  This is the love of Christ forming our hearts so that we may become what we receive at Eucharist – God’s Love broken open for God’s creation.

Are we always going to get it right?  No.  We may still yell and scream at the person who doesn’t use their turn signal.

The bigger question is, are we willing to practice?  Are we willing to practice love instead of worshipping the law?

The church is a community of practice whose purpose is to live out the mission of Christ.

So, we practice listening for the law written on our hearts.  We practice becoming more devoted to the Gospel than we are to the worldly ways of being.  We practice Love and what it means to be loving.  We listen and we practice and we listen and we practice some more.

This is the way Jesus gave us to follow.  Because this is the way of life.

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The Trinity – Experiencing God’s Love

A sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  Click here to read today’s scripture.

The Sunday after Pentecost is also known as Trinity Sunday – a feast in honor of the Holy Trinity.

Most of Christianity states a belief in the Triune God – the Trinity.  We recite the Nicene Creed each week.  We baptize in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Or, in more contemporary parlance, God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer.  We offer prayers and give blessings in the name of the Triune God.  We say that God is three-in-one.celtic-trinity-knot

There have been many different ways of imagining this throughout the centuries: as a hierarchy, with God the Father/Creator at the top.  Another is as a set of interlocking circles, complete in themselves but interlocked, all of whom have equal importance.  We’ve also used a three-cornered Celtic knot, a symbol of life.  We gave this out last fall as a charm to the kids when we blessed their backpacks.  Some theologians have used the metaphor of a movement of Life or a community of Love.

Meanwhile, there is no statement in the entirety of scripture that tells us God is a trinity.   There are lots of ways in which God is described throughout scripture.  But the formula, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” is not one of them.

The Doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t developed until the fourth century, after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire.  And attempting to understand the exact nature of the Trinity has proven to be problematic.  It has actually gotten people into trouble before with words like “heresy” thrown around.  The Trinity is hard to pin down.  Because God is hard to pin down.

Rather than get lost in the theories about the specific nature of the Trinity, I’d like to focus, instead, on the activity of the Trinity – which is, the action of God, the action of Love.

Last week, we basked in the glow the fire that was Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon during our Feast of Pentecost.

He has had the world enraptured all week long with his message of God’s self-sacrificial love in and for the world – being on several morning talk shows and then helping to lead a silent march on Washington.  And this Love that Bp Michael talks about is present in the world in many ways.  The Trinity helps us wrap our minds around what it means to experience the God of Love alive in the world.

I’d like us to spend some time this morning considering the question, “How have you experienced God’s Love this past week?”ARublëv Trinity

Perhaps it was in a kind word or gesture, not necessarily directed at you, but something that you witnessed.  Or something that flowed through you to another person.  I think kindness is most often how we experience God’s Love.  It’s immediate and intimate.  But, if we’re honest, it has us at the center, not God.  Still, kindness is incarnate love.  How has kindness been a part of your world this week?

Perhaps it was an epiphany, a moment of enlightenment in which you came to a new understanding about something or someone that opened your heart in some way, stopped you from sitting on a throne of judgment.  How has compassion been a part of your world this week?

Perhaps it was delight or joy, an experience of beauty – not like the covers of fashion magazines or Hollywood – but something that takes your breath away when you see it or hear it or smell it or taste it or touch it.  How has beauty been a part of your world this week?

In work or ministry, perhaps?  The generosity of someone’s effort and the satisfaction of doing something and in the appreciation of watching someone else do something with skill.  Or simply stepping up to do something that needs to be done.  How has work or ministry been a part of your week?

In silence.  When all the other noise calms down – the busyness of the world and your smart phone and your own thoughts – when there is a moment of complete silence or serenity, it’s as if it’s just you and God and God is at the center.  How has silence been a part of your week?

In the rhythm of Creation… mourning doves and turtles as they make nests and lay their eggs and flowers appear and trees bloom with sweetness.  The tides roll in and then out again and rain follows hot humid weather to clear the air.  How has Creation been a part of your week?

These are all wonderful, generative experiences of God’s love.  But contrary to what we might think, God’s love is not always full of warm fuzzies.  Sometimes God’s love shines forth as truth telling or clarity.

This week, we learned about horrific new policies that separate children from their parents at detention centers along the border and how nearly 1500 children have been lost so far.  This is not easy to hear.  It’s not sweet or kind.


But the hearing of it was God’s love.
Not the fact that it’s happening – no, that is truly and literally demonic.

But that we have learned about it and can make a choice to do something about it… that is God’s love reaching out to us. In his dream, Isaiah has given to us a deeper understanding.  Isaiah sees a vision of the incarnate reality of the Love of God – angels, messengers of God are telling him that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.

And Isaiah’s response is, a confession of his willful ignorance.  “Woe is me! [I have not understood this until now.] I am lost, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah became willing.


Isaiah’s Call by Marc Chagall

And so too can we become willing.
Willing to take action.  Willing to be sent.


When we learn of unloving action in this world, it’s God’s Love – the voice of the Lord – that is reaching out to us and asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And we say, “Here am I; send me!”

When we finally see how the whole earth is filled with God’s glory…
we can no longer deny God’s glory in the immigrant family trying to escape horrific circumstances in their homeland.  The loving response is to act, to change what’s happening here so that people are treated with dignity and respect.  We say, “Here am I; send me!”

When we finally see that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory…
we can no longer deny God’s glory in the school children who have to participate in “active shooter drills.”  The loving response is to act to change so that children can be children and not live in fear of being gunned down in their school.  We say, “Here am I; send me!”

When we can no longer deny God’s glory in the poor, the farmworkers, the families living on minimum wage who can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment and could easily be bankrupted by a hospital bill.  We act in Love to change policies that keep all people locked in poverty.

When we can no longer tolerate the racism that still infects our culture.
We respond and we say, “Here am I; send me!”

The love of God is reaching out to us, enabling us to see differently and this, I believe is the action of the Trinitarian God.  The Trinity is not just some construct made up by theologians.  The Trinity is a very real experience of God’s presence as the center of the universe:

God’s love as the foundation of our very being.  God’s love in the beating heart of the person we are called to serve.  God’s love in the desire to act on behalf of our reconciling messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

God’s love connects us to one another in the very fact of our flesh, every one of us made of the same elements of the earth, in the sharing of breath as fellow creatures of God, and in our acts and responses of care for one another.

Irish poet and theologian, John O’Donohue, says “We are children of the clay, who have been released so that the earth may dance in the light.”

Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

And our messiah, Jesus of Nazareth tells us, “Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What Jesus talks about in his secret, nighttime conversation with Nicodemus isn’t some brainteaser or theological puzzle when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus is telling Nicodemus about a rebirth that moves us beyond a life that focuses on our self as the needed recipient of God’s love and into a new life where God’s Love is at the center and we are conduits of it.

This is what changes the world.  When we are moved, not by what we can get for ourselves, but by what we are called to do for one another.  This is God’s redemptive, self-emptying, reconciling Love made manifest through God’s holy Creation, which is us.

We are God’s holy Creation.  We are God’s love incarnate for one another.

May we dance in the light.  May we remember we belong to one another.  And may we truly come to love one another as we love our self.

This is what changes the world.

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Love Is the Way

A sermon preached on the Feast of Pentecost, May 20, 2018, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

The story from Acts is miraculous. pentecost-icon-458

The disciples were all together in one place.  And there came like a rush of a violent wind that filled the entire house – it must have felt like the walls would burst open.  And they were given the gift to speak God’s Word in many ways to many people.

The Feast of Pentecost is considered to be the birthday of the church.  Jesus has been midwifing the church by teaching his disciples.  Telling us that Love is the most important thing. Telling us that it’s ok to doubt sometimes because there will always be incarnate proof of God’s Love in the world.  Telling us that it’s ok to be fearful sometimes because there will always be the voice of God, the Good Shepherd, calling us back.  And telling us that the most important thing we are to remember, is to Love God and to Love our neighbor as ourselves.  Love is the way.

With these lessons, Jesus has been coaxing us out of our inertia, been inviting us out of our safety, been preparing us to receive this rush of violent wind that fills our entire house.  A wind so strong that we don’t know exactly what will happen.  We don’t know how we will be changed.

Because the Holy Spirit will have her way with us and just might give us a miraculous gift to speak God’s word of Love.  And what would that be like?

But surely Pentecost is just a story that can be dismissed as some fantasy, right?  Something so far beyond imagination that it must be some kind of dream, right?

Except… that I watched Pentecost happen yesterday.  And maybe you did too.


Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached at the royal wedding.  An African-American charismatic preacher from North Carolina, whose ancestors were enslaved by the same imperialist society overseen by the British royal family. This is the person invited to preach at the royal wedding.

And, he was his charming, loving, reconciling, effervescent, disarming self.  Plain-spoken yet eloquent.  Personable yet profound. He wasn’t exactly what many would have pictured at a royal wedding so they labeled it as “unconventional.”  For so many, this was a scene beyond their imagination.

And, as if blown open by some violent wind, all day long the articles flew across the internet about this amazing preacher named Michael Curry.  Articles, literally, from all over the world. (Google: Michael Curry Wedding Sermon)

And the articles didn’t focus on his race, being black.  The articles didn’t focus on his nationality, being American.  The articles focused on what he said.

Time Magazine reported: “The Internet Is Raving Over Bishop Michael Curry’s Royal Wedding Sermon.”

Normally, you hear about the bride’s dress… or someone’s dress.  But something else happened, something beyond our imagination, beyond our wildest dreams… people heard the word of God yesterday.

It was a Pentecostal moment.  The Good News really did become the Good News.

People heard the word of God and the word they heard was Love.  The word they heard was Love. Fire heart

Because, as Bp Michael told us yesterday, “There’s power in love.  Don’t underestimate it.  Don’t even over-sentimentalize it.  There’s power in love.”

The word of God given by God’s Holy Spirit is Love. The word of God shown to us in Jesus the Christ is Love. The word of God that is the Creation itself is incarnate Love. Love speaks a language all its own and all languages at the same time.  And this is what Pentecost is about.

Maybe Pentecost seems like a fantastical story because it’s hard to imagine ourselves in the room where we are swept up by that kind of Spirit, that abundance of Love.  Where our hearts are so opened that we become something that we could not have expected. But what if it did?  What if we did?

Because God’s Love is already pouring down upon us, waiting for us to accept it, to open our hearts and simply receive it.

I wonder if we get scared to open our hearts because so many times we’re carrying something heavy… helplessness or anger or shame or fear or worthlessness or disbelief… and we hide this something away so that no one sees the chink in our armor.

But God already knows these things.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.  As God told the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

There is nothing that you cannot bring to God because God accepts all, and God transforms all, and God redeems all.  Because God loves all.

God can take your anger.  God can take your fear.  God can take your most painful moment, your deepest sorrow, your most shameful secret.  God can even take your hate.  God takes it all as your sacrifice to Love.

We sacrifice these burdens we carry, these false understands of ourselves, these wounds, these lines we draw in the sand… we sacrifice them all to God and what we receive is such a surprise that it can knock us off our feet on the Day of Pentecost.

Because we think that offering this pain to God would only bring more pain.  But what we receive is Love.

God’s Love is transforming and redemptive.  God’s Love is healing and reconciling.  God’s Love flows into all the parts of your house, your heart, and, like a violent wind, bursts open the windows and the doors and airs all of the pain out of that place and replaces it with Love.

This is the miracle of Pentecost.  That we are in that room and that we realize God’s love is for us too.  And in that, we cannot help but become the Love that we are given.

And God is speaking to us in the language of our own heart, whatever it is we need to hear.  We are the disciples in that room and, having heard the lessons from our teacher Jesus over these 50 days, we come to finally understand that God’s Love includes us.

All of us.  All of me and all of you.

And what can we do with a Love like that?  Anything.  Everything.  All things.  Beyond our wildest imaginations

Paul says to the Romans in his letter, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly…”  He says, “Hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  And he says “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…”

In other words, Paul is reminding us that our hope lies in what we cannot see.  Our hope lies in something that we cannot fathom.  Our hope lies in the already but not yet Reign of God.

In this Pentecostal moment where we might come to realize that God’s Love for us just might transform us and we don’t know what that will look like.  But Paul reminds us that the world is waiting for it to be born into the world.

So, perhaps, if we allow ourselves to believe in this Love, if we surrender ourselves to it and let it fill us, we might begin to imagine what this Love might look like.  We might grasp, if even for one millisecond, a sense of God’s redemptive, transformative Love for the world.

Because this Love is not some sentimental thing that has us at the center.  We’re talking about a Love that puts God in the world, that reminds us that God is here in the center of the world… A Love that changes the world.  Because it’s not that we receive Love, we become Love.  We become Love.

Jesus says, I am the way and the truth and the life. Because Jesus was Love incarnate in human form.  Giving us a way to be in the world but not of it.  The way of Love.

Bp. Michael said, Think… and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down, down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we treat each other like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.

So, my friends, on this Day of Pentecost, let the wind of God’s Love fill the houses of our hearts.  Let this violent wind come and burst this house wide open so that we might be given the gift of speaking God’s Love to whomever we meet.

Let us walk the way of Jesus.  Let us surrender to the way of Love.
Behold what you are, my friends.  Become what you receive.


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Practicing Perfect Love

A sermon preached on Easter V, April 29, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  Click here to read today’s scripture.  Click the play button below to listen along to a recording.



Rhizome by Malcolm MacDougall.  Click here to view his website.


The image on the front of your bulletin today is a photo of a sculpture by a Westchester County artist named Malcom MacDougall called Rhizome.  You can see individual members rising above the surface, while you can also see that they are all attached to something larger, below the surface.  This something larger also puts out roots that travel downward.

The word rhizome comes from botany.  It’s plant in which the root is really an underground stem that sends out roots into the soil underneath and shoots through the surface above from nodes along its length.  Ginger, iris, hops, bamboo, asparagus… all examples of this kind of creature.

It’s also called a rootstock or a creeping rootstock.  What is unique about a rhizome is that it’s one big organism that lives underground.  What we see above ground are the singular shoots that arise to receive sunlight and release oxygen.  And underneath the surface of the earth, these shoots all come off the same organism.  You can see this in the cover image.

Aspen groves are commonly known as the largest organisms in the world because their


The Pando Aspen Grove in Utah.

root structures are rhizomatic.  Even though we see individual trees above ground, each aspen trunk is connected into the larger root structure below the earth’s surface.  This means that, although the individual trees may only live for up to 150 years above ground, an aspen colony can live much, much longer.   For example, it’s estimated that the Pando aspen grove in Utah is somewhere between 80,000 – 1,000,000 years old.



The shoots of an Aspen colony, known as “suckers.”

I think this image is helpful in opening up today’s scripture a bit.  This image of individual members connected to and sustained by the nourishment offered by the greater colony or community.  This image of individual members gathering nourishment, not for themselves but offering it to the larger community so that the community can continue to thrive.


I find this image helpful because this is how God’s love works.  When we abide in God’s love and allow ourselves to be nourished by God’s love, what we come to realize is that God is found in and through our love and care for one another.  This is the perfect love that casts out fear.

The First Letter of John contains some of the most beautiful language in all of scripture. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment… those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Considered to be a part of the Johannine writings, this letter is attributed to the community of John.  This means it’s written, not necessarily by the same author as the Gospel of John and the Revelation to John, but through the same school of teaching as those books of scripture. The entire letter is only 5 short chapters, but it contains the most essential teachings of what a community centered in Christ is called to manifest for one another and for the world – this connective force which is God’s Love.

And in today’s Gospel, we learn that it is through Jesus we are able to do this.  Jesus reminds his followers that he is the true vine, the manifestation of self-giving love in the world.  Jesus, the one who teaches us that to offer oneself in love is the greatest way to receive love, because it is in giving that we receive.

It’s a mature understanding of what love is about.  We don’t measure love by what we receive, but by what we give… that is, if we can measure love at all.

As Americans, I know we have trouble truly living into this.  Well, as humans, really.  I know I have trouble with this.  The message of God’s love runs counter to what the culture around us tells us we’re supposed to get.Proof

We want a return on our investment, right?  We want more for our money.  We tend to feel foolish if we don’t receive something for what we give and we feel gullible if we believe in people.  Cynicism and skepticism give us a sense of control, so we won’t look stupid if someone proves to disappoint us.  We demand punishment if someone does something wrong, thinking that, unless
someone is made to feel bad, weFool me once won’t feel better.  We don’t believe in God’s power to transform others so we certainly don’t believe in God’s power to transform us.

This is fear, not love.  And fear kills community.
Because when we are too busy in our fearful wanting and protecting, we withhold what we are asked to give. It’s almost as if we say, “You want me to give?  Prove that you’re worthy first.”  And sometimes we say that very thing.

And this is exactly how we cut ourselves off of the vine that is Jesus.  Every time.
We think we’re cutting other people off, but we’re really cutting ourselves off.  How can we expect to receive nourishment from a vine if we’re not willing to be fully a part of it, if we’re not willing to fully abide in it?

When we abide in Jesus, he abides in us.  When we offer ourselves to one another, when we stop living in the fear that we won’t have enough, we are given so much more than we could possibly imagine.

Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  Now, this isn’t about thinking of God as a vending machine because God is not a vending machine who does our bidding.  We don’t pray to God to get what we want.  God is not Santa Claus.

Jesus is saying that the practice of offering yourself, which is what it means to abide in Empty BowlJesus, will change us, will fill us up, will complete us.  And we will have all we need and more.  We will have all we could possibly ever want.

John’s letter to us reminds us that God’s love is not about personal salvation.  God’s love is about salvation through community, through loving one another as fully as we can.  As we abide in God, God abides in us.  And this is not done individually, this is done collectively – through loving one another, through being a part of the whole.

This letter was written to a community, not to an individual. “Since God loved US (not “since God loved YOU) so much, WE also ought to love one another… Love has been perfected among US in this… because as he is, so are WE in this world… WE love because he first loved US.  Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

And we’re back to our rhizome.  What we see are the individual members… above ground.  And we make the mistake of believing that each individual person is just that, disconnected and separate.  And that means we believe that we are disconnected and separate.  We get upset if we don’t “feel” connected… manifesting as sorrow or loneliness or anger or resentment or envy… but remember that all feelings are transient, fleeting.  Feelings don’t make the connection any less real.  It is God’s Love that is constant and eternal.

So perhaps remembering the image of the rhizome, may help us to remember the truth.  That we are all connected, and it has never been otherwise.  And, because of that, we are responsible to the greater whole to stretch our leaves up, allowing God’s glory to shine forth through us, gathering nourishment and giving ourselves fully to the larger community, to love one another through Christ.

This is the perfect love that casts out fear.  For why would we fear when we know for certain that we are connected to something larger than ourselves?  And why would we fear giving of ourselves as completely as possible if we realize, truly realize, that we will receive whatever it is that we give away?

This is not an easy task, to always remember, to always give so completely of ourselves.  We have so much in this world that tells us otherwise, that brings us back to fear again and again and again.

But take heart, my friends, because more than anything else, Christian community is about practicing this love – this perfect love that casts out fear.  It’s not that we will ever be perfect, but we practice.  We practice living into this perfect love.  We practice abiding in Jesus.  We practice loving one another.

And what we learn here at this Table every week in our practice together, we take into the world around us, the community we serve, becoming a bridge of God’s Love – connecting, inviting, sharing, and serving.

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A sermon preached on Easter III, April 15, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read today’s scripture.  Click the play button below to listen.

“You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; how long will you worship dumb idols and run after false gods?”

In today’s psalm, God asks us a very pointed question: How long we will dishonor the glory of God by worshipping dumb idols and running after false gods?

The glory of God.
We use the word “glory” a lot.  We devote the beginning of our Eucharistic liturgy to proclaiming the “glory of God” – when we sing or say the Gloria together.
Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to God’s people on earth.
… we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.

What exactly are we talking about when we use the word, “glory?”

“Glory” is one of the most common words in all of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  In the Greek scriptures, the word we translate into “glory” is the word “doxa” which carries the connotation of splendor and brightness, value and wonder.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the word is “kabod” which originally meant “weight” or “heaviness”.  In our modern American English tongue, I think this translates to our word: “gravitas” – a dignity or weightiness, a quality that calls forth intrinsic authority and respect.  It’s not magnetism or showiness, but more like wisdom, centeredness, and depth.

So, we use the English word glory to articulate splendor, dignity, brightness, and wisdom.  These aspects of God that we praise and respect because of their inherent value and wonder.  And we intrinsically respond to this glory with our adulation and devotion… our worship.


A few weeks ago, I preached about how God’s glory shines forth in and through us when we are living into our true purpose as creatures of God.  That is, when we are giving ourselves to something greater than ourselves.  This is the very covenant written on our hearts in the book of Jeremiah, that we are called to give ourselves in love.

When the church is at our best, this is who we are.  The Body of Christ, broken open for the world – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving the diversity of God’s creation.  And we do this as broken and forgiven creatures of God. Extravagantly and wildly loved by God.

God’s glory shines forth in us as we lift up others in our midst.

The concept of “glory” often gets confused with “vainglory” which is closer to “vanity” or “pride.”  Vainglory causes us to boast, seeking victory.  It’s arrogant, fame-seeking, and pretentious.  Vainglory arises from a misguided need to prove our worth because we have forgotten just how loved we are.

Vainglory is a striving for adulation of ourselves, a striving to be seen, to get what we think we need.  A striving to belong.
While glory is a surrender to God that happens when we focus our attention outside of our self – because when we see God out there, we feel seen by God in here.  A realization that we already do belong.

So, glory is not about golden chariots and pomp and medals of honor and celebrity – that’s vainglory.  Glory is about authenticity and surrender and life-giving shared power in service.  Glory is about relationship with others and seeing Christ in one another, the Christ worthy of adulation and praise.cslewis1

To unpack this a bit more, I want to quote a bit from C.S. Lewis, who is best known for writing the Chronicles of Narnia.  He was known as a theologian in England in the first part of the 20th century and wrote a sermon called The Weight of Glory in 1942 in the middle of the horrors of World War II.  And here’s what he says:

“I turn next to the idea of glory… Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all… Glory suggests two ideas to me… either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity.

 Perhaps it seems rather crude to describe glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God.  We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other hand, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

 And this brings me to the other sense of glory—glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star… We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

Sometimes, we get a little lost.  Because the world is a difficult place.  It doesn’t make sense many days.  And, lately, it’s hard to make sense of it at all.  I have trouble listing all the ways in which the world doesn’t make sense to me.

And this doesn’t begin to speak about the personal concerns we go through – the illness and grief, the pain and fear.  It’s ok to get lost sometimes.  It is nothing but completely understandable that we find ourselves despairing or depressed from time to time.  When we’re in this state, it’s so easy to reject others because we’re so busy thinking that we are rejected.

When we call out to God: Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard-pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Because, like Lewis says, we long to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off.  In other words, we long to belong.

But being lost isn’t the whole of who we are.  God’s response to this petition is to stop running after false gods and dishonoring God’s glory.  Because the mistakes we make don’t define us.  The grief we carry, the ways we have been hurt, the struggles in our lives… this is not who we are.  We are so much more.Mom Show

I’ve been watching this show called Mom lately.  It’s about a group of women who are in AA and how they support one another in the program.  The oldest character, Marjorie, who has been in recovery the longest, is always reminding her friends of the importance of service, that serving others is not only a good and helpful thing to do, but it lifts us out of our own struggle.

Because when we stop focusing on ourselves, service reminds us of our greater purpose – to give ourselves in love.  In other words, to let God’s Glory shine forth though us.

As we move into relationship with others, we stop focusing on what we aren’t getting or how we aren’t seen, on what other people are or aren’t doing.  The voices of judgment quiet down.  Depressive and dark thoughts drift away.  And as this happens, we begin to realize, that not only do people need us, but we love being of service.

There us a mutuality in relationship because relationship is a real and costly love.  The cost being that we give up the illusions that keep us locked in stasis.

C.S. Lewis continues:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, [these are worldly]. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses… (s)he is holy in almost the same way, for in her/him also Christ the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

You are no mere mortal.  I am no mere mortal.  The people who live in this neighborhood are no mere mortals.  The undocumented immigrant, the person who receives welfare, a child in Syria, a person who drives us crazy, the addict, the homeless person, the police officer, the young black man who gets shot at by his neighbor for asking directions… None of them are mere mortals.

We are all beloved holy creatures of God, blessed with the desire to be seen by God and therefore, blessed to shine forth God’s glory simply because we are children of God.  We are luminous by our very nature.

And when we forget, it’s being in service to one another that helps us to remember.


Today’s second reading from John’s first letter says, “we should be called children of God; and that is what we are… what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when Christ is revealed, we will be like Christ, for we will see Christ as Christ is.”

We don’t enter into glory by ourselves.  We don’t achieve glory.  We enter into glory by bearing witness to Christ in our midst. We enter into glory when we serve Christ in our midst – when we are of service to one another – to our neighbors – to the other in the course of our day. We enter into glory when we take the time to witness glory in another.

Because when we see God out there, we feel seen by God in here.  This is when the Kingdom of God is present, when the Reign of God becomes real and tangible.

When the church is at our best, this is who we are.  The Body of Christ, broken open for the world – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving the diversity of God’s creation right here, right now.

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We Are Hope

A sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Click here if you’d like to read the scripture.
Hit the play button below to listen along… sorry about the recording.  I missed the joke at the beginning (which I got from the Vicar of Dibley) and I wasn’t at the pulpit when it was over so it goes a little long.  Still, you get the gist.  🙂

Given that Easter has fallen on April Fool’s Day this year, I thought it best to start with a joke.  And I didn’t know this until this year because it’s not something they teach in seminary… or, if they do, I missed it.  But there is a tradition to start every Easter morning sermon with a joke.

The idea is that God has played a joke, you see, but not on us.
Because Christ defeated death, every Easter morning, the joke is on the Devil – the diabolos, the spirit of division, that which splits us apart.

But people still die, as we know.  Death hasn’t really been conquered in the way we think it’s supposed to be.  We still live in the midst of enormous pain and suffering.  How can we possibly say that death has been defeated once and for all and the world has been redeemed through Christ?

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who is well known for her amazing preaching ability, puts it this way:  Christianity is the only religion that confesses a God who suffers.  It is not a popular idea, even among Christians.  We prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God we’ve got.  What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.  It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them – not from a distance, but right close up.

Think about that… “we prefer a God who prevents suffering”  How true that statement is.  I can’t tell you the number of conversations where someone says, “Well, if there is a God, why does he allow…?” And just fill in the blank.

Why does God allow war?  Why does God allow people to be enslaved?
Why does God allow racism, misogyny, abuse, homophobia?
How about global warming, enormous islands of plastic floating in the ocean, toxic drinking water.
Why does God allow poverty?
Why does God allow me to personally suffer… death of a loved one, illness, relationship loss, estrangement, financial problems, or just plain fear.
Why does God allow the violence… never-ending violence.

But Taylor reminds us: God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.

I took a poll of people on Facebook last week.  I asked them to tell me how they were disappointed in Jesus.  I said, I invite your thoughts on how Jesus is (or would have been, had you been a first century follower of his) a disappointing messiah for you.  I said, ignore Christian theology and speak from your humanness.

And, I was heartened to see people respond honestly. People offered all kinds of ways in which they were honestly disappointed in Jesus, in God:
That healing doesn’t look like we need it to look.
That, in all his power and popularity, he wasn’t able to employ anyone.
That he was too political.
That he wasn’t political enough.
That he was unorthodox and too much a radical hippy-type.
That we feel abandoned by his leaving.
That he isn’t intimate enough.
That he didn’t just get up and leave the garden so he was safe from death.
That he died too soon.
That he continues to allow injustice and cruelty.

Of course, we have a laundry list of expectations for God.  But, if we learn anything from the story of the Resurrection, we learn that God does not conform to our expectations.

I mean, there was Mary, Mary, and Salome… preparing the herbs and spices to anoint the body of their friend and teacher.  They must have been angry and depressed and sad and, resigned.  This teacher they had been following, gave them reason to hope after all.  But now, he was dead.  Their expectation, dead along with their messiah.  It felt like God had abandoned them.GRichardson The Empty Tomb

And they get there, and nothing was as they expected.  Instead of the burden of removing a stone so they can get to the dead body of their friend, there is some young person in white who tells them something that completely freaks them out.  So much so that they fled in terror and amazement.
They were told: Don’t be alarmed.  The person you seek is not here.  He is in Galilee.  Go and tell the others.

What a strange thing to have come upon that morning.
But God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.  As Taylor says, It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them – not from a distance, but right close up.

Yes, we still live in the midst of war, and enslavement, racism, misogyny, homophobia, poverty, global warming… all of it.  The Devil, the spirit of division, is alive and well and we see it every day.
And… God is here with us in the suffering, not forcing human choices, but helping us in the midst of all this so we can find the way through.

We may wish to believe that God abandons us when things get bad, but the God of Life, this incarnate God, never abandons us.
I have proof because I hear the peepers return every spring.  The birds find their way back and the earth warms and the sun keeps rising every day.

Death is never the final word.  Life finds its way through, sometimes in the most inconvenient of ways.
Because God doesn’t prevent pain.  God stays with us in the midst of it.
Finding, with us, the ways to help.
Discovering, with us and through us, the ways to make things brighter and better… not just for us, but for the whole of creation.

Does that mean that we might be uncomfortable?  Yes.
That, perhaps, we may be asked to give something up so that all life may continue?  Yes.

Because, and here’s the really important part… In giving our life, we receive life.  As we give up our expectations… as we give up our disappointments…
As we give up the thing that we hold so precious – our anger, our sorrow, our pain, our fear, our cynicism, our self-judgment, our self-indulgence…
As we give these things up, we receive so much more, more than we would have ever received if our expectations been played out.
We receive life.  And that means death is never the final word.

So, like the person in white, sitting there at the edge of the tomb, I say, don’t be alarmed, my friends.  In the midst of your pain and suffering, when God helps you find a way back to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy of them… don’t be alarmed that you lose the thing that you held onto.

God is just doing what God always does… giving you new life.  Giving you new breath.  Giving you Hope.

I say, embrace this new life, grasp this Hope, and run with it.  Flee the tomb and go!  Run all the way to Galilee, where the world is waiting for the Hope that you bring, for the Love that you are.

Hope is the primary Christian vocation.  All Christians have a vocation to be people of Hope, people of Love.  This is the core of who we are.  The Body of Christ is nothing more than a group of people who are devoted to being Hope in and for the world.where-the-church-is-830px-708x541

It’s not about what God can vanquish from the world on our behalf. It’s about what God can do through us when things happen to us.  That is the joke God plays on the Devil.  That the people of God do not succumb to the ways of the world but, instead, we become what we receive – the Body of Christ, broken open for the world.

I say, don’t accept the terms of death the world gives us.
Be healers and justice seekers.
Be people who feed and nourish others.  Be climate activists.
Be artists and supporters of artists who tell the powerful truths.
Be helpers.  Be friends.
Be change agents in this world.
Be a sanctuary for God’s creation.

Why?  Because the God we worship compels us to pull together the shattered fragments the world so often leaves behind and, in doing so we become co-creators with God, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to life here and now… right close up.

That’s the joke on the Devil.  We are the punchline.

The Reign of God is not something that happens when we die.  The Reign of God is something we are capable of bringing to life right here and now in this place.  As we give our lives over in service to Hope, in service to Love, we are capable of bringing the Reign of God to bear.  That is hope.

Ooh Child by the Five Stairsteps

Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
Someday we’ll get it together and we’ll get it all done.
Someday when our heads are much lighter
Someday we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Someday when the world is much brighter


Repeat as your heart desires…

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The Edge of Hope

A sermon preached on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read today’s scripture click here.  If you want to listen along click the play button below.


Jesus, when you rode into JerusalemODix_Entry_Jerusalem
the people waved palms
with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that when the shouting dies
we may still walk beside you… even to a cross.
 The Collect for Palm Sunday from the New Zealand Prayer Book

This prayer captures today’s lesson so beautifully. It speaks to the precipice of Hope, the razor’s edge of choice that we face everyday.  Can we walk with Jesus?  Or do we offer our messiah something else?  Can we walk in Love?  Or do we offer our fear?

Today, in this drama, it’s clear: We offer Jesus our disappointment in him.  Our thoughtlessness.  We offer Jesus our laziness and our self-righteousness.  Our stubbornness and our nostalgia for an easier life.
Today, on Palm Sunday, the lesson is that we offer Jesus our privileged comfort and our skepticism.  Our judgment.  Our sarcasm.  Our gossip.  Our cynicism.  We offer Jesus our refusal to participate.  Today, we offer Jesus all of our forms disappointment.

The Passion narrative illuminates with almost frightening clarity the interweaving of our personal spirituality and societal responsibility.  How our personal salvation is directly connected to our participation in the common good and how deeply, deeply important it is to remember this.  Even though it’s the easiest thing to forget and the one thing we most want to deny.

On a social level, Jesus was the leader of a protest.  It’s that simple.  There is no other way of reading the gospel, try as you might.

Rome was an occupying force.  The Jews had been trying to wrestle free from Roman control for decades and many people had been labeled “messiah” before Jesus was even born.  And each time the people got their hopes up that this one would successfully raise an army and drive out the Roman oppressors.

But part of the problem was that the Jewish authorities were enabling the Roman leadership so that they could continue leading their religious services, a special favor offered to them by Rome.  Otherwise, they would have had to bow to the worship of Caesar instead of God.  This deal-making between the Jewish leadership and the Roman authorities, of course, caused deep corruption.

Which got worse over the decades.  So, when the Jewish leadership turned Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor, it was pretty much expected that they would.

Still, the people tried to raise a messiah… one who would free them from the oppression they were experiencing.  And lots of zealous leaders claimed messiah and attempted violent revolution.  And those people were all crucified by the Roman state. NIKOLAI_Ge_Crucifixion

Along the most well-traveled pathways, Roman authorities used to have rows and rows and rows of posts lined up. Posts prepared to receive a person nailed to a cross-beam.  Sometimes there would be hundreds at a time.  People implicated in a crime against the state.

This was Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome for the non-citizen.  Oppression.  Intimidation.  Crucifixion.

Our scripture tells us that God will always upend the powerful from their thrones.  So, of course there was protest.  When people’s lives are being trampled on, there is going to be some kind of backlash to that.  There always has been and there always will be.

And then we have Jesus.  Our scripture also tells us that he was a messiah like no other.  And I believe this to be true.  And this is where our personal spirituality leads to social responsibility.  Because the way he spoke, the things he said, the support he offered, the actions he took…
He taught something completely different than violent upheaval.
It wasn’t about making Israel great again.
It wasn’t about meeting force with force.
It wasn’t about the human desire to take an eye for an eye.

It was about meeting force with resistance to force.  Instead of the Peace of Rome, a militarized peace, Jesus teaches us the peace which passes our understanding… beyond our understanding.

This becomes personal because it requires each one of us to recognize something that we’d rather not pay attention to.  That inside ourselves is a part that is capable of going down an extremely dark path that slowly and violently robs us of own humanity, our own holiness.

And the decision to allow violence, to turn a blind eye to violence in any of its forms, regardless of the excuse we use, is the first step down that dark path. And so we pray rather than react violently.  We find a way to listen to God to listen to each other instead of seeking vengeance.
We strive, we act, for justice instead of shrugging our shoulders and walking away wishing it were more comfortable.

God’s peace, the peace which passes understanding…Nonviolene Sculpture
Jesus taught that this kind of peace is healing and is how change really happens.  This kind of world is what God really wants.
The kind of world where power is brought to its knees at the foot of a manger, not at the end of the barrel of a gun.
Where force is met with resistance to force.  Where violence is met with non-violence.

But if we are to make that real, if we are to follow our Saviour and be the healing agents Jesus teaches us to be, then we must pay attention to that need for retribution in ourselves and practice our own resistance to that violence.
Practice the peace of God, not the Peace of Rome.

But it’s hard.  It’s hard for me.  It’s hard for all of us.
It’s easier to want someone to do battle for us, a show of strength to prove something.  It’s more convenient to mock and gossip and judge, rather than to think we might be wrong.  Or, perhaps, it’s just hard to be on that edge of Hope, where we might dare to believe in ourselves so deeply that we could be become a new creation, a source of true healing for the world.

To follow Jesus is to believe that God chose incarnation and made the whole creation holy.  And that requires us to treat the whole creation as if it were actually holy… starting with ourselves.  To walk in love as Christ loved us.

Perhaps it’s easier to be cynical and stubborn because hope, real hope, can be so hard.  I mean, what if I put myself on the line and things didn’t get better?  What if I fail.  Isn’t it better to just never try?  Never believe in the first place?  We don’t want to be disappointed and so maybe that’s why we offer our disappointment as a preemptive strike against the possibility of real peace, real love.MLKJr Nonviolence

And perhaps that’s why we are asked to remind ourselves every year just how hard this walk with Jesus is, to be on the edge of Hope.  On Palm Sunday.  And in our walk through Holy Week.

Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem the people waved palms with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that, we, when the shouting dies  may still walk beside you… even to the cross.

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New Jerusalem

A sermon preached on the 5th week of Lent, Year B on March 18, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below:

It was 50 years ago.  It was 1968, 50 years ago, when Martin Luther King Jr. was


by Randal Huiskins

assassinated outside a hotel in on April 4 in Memphis, TN.  The life of the Rev. Dr. King was remarkably like that of Jesus – one of leading people, not in a war, but in peaceful protest until the point at which he knew he was being targeted.  The point that he knew he might die because he stood in a place of righteousness, in a place of love, that made many people uncomfortable.  And yet, he went on, knowing that the cost for his love would likely be his very life.


I offer this today, because this particular anniversary is a little less than 3 weeks away and we have such powerful readings that remind me of this man who, at this time 50 years ago, was preparing himself to go to Memphis.  And because he was a person of deep faith, I know Dr. King must have been reading today’s Gospel passage as he was making the decision to go to Memphis… not because he knew what was awaiting him there, but because he knew it was awaiting him somewhere:

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Most of us don’t lead such dramatic lives.  Rarely is our actual life required of us.  But I bet each one of us has experienced a time in our life when we had to muster our courage, when we had to do something that we didn’t really want to do but we knew that we had to do.

It’s a point of no return.  A moment in which we lose the innocence and comfort of a simpler way of being, an easier time.  And, in a way, that is like losing our life.

I’m convinced that this is how God’s Glory works in us, shines forth in us.  We read in our scriptures that God has known us since before we were born.  In Psalm 139, we praise God saying,
3 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end
*—I am still with you.

And when we come to those moments for which we were born, the moments when it feels as if we are giving over our lives to something greater than ourselves… I’m convinced that this is how God shows forth God’s glory through us. Dying Seed

Because, as John’s Gospel today says to us, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 

Now many of you know that I am a devoted fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In case you’re not aware of this show, it premiered 21 years ago and ran for 7 seasons and it has an enormous following, even to this day.  The show itself is a bit campy and, obviously, quite fantastical because it deals with superpowers and daemons.  As a matter of fact, when it originally came out, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.  I thought it was too weird.

But it was one of my seminary professors that convinced me to watch it because he referenced it in a class I took.  It was a class on pop culture and religion and how religious themes inevitably find their way into culture – into visual art, into music, film, poetry, dance, and… even into TV shows.Buffy_Grave

The scene that my professor showed us from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the moment that Buffy chose to willingly give her life in the name of love.  Even though she is constantly in a battle for her life throughout the 7 seasons, it is the choice she makes to willingly give her life in the name of love that brings her to a sense of completeness and wholeness.

The journey she makes to that decision is not an easy one.  Along the way… she loses love, she loses her mother and has to become he adult of the household, she’s forced to stand up for herself against coercion, and accept the growth of her friends… all the while doing battle with a god, because we all wrestle with God in our own ways.

And all of this is a maturing, a growing-up, if you will, so that she may step forward into the moment in which she knows exactly what the ultimate purpose of her life is.  To give herself in love.

And, again, unlike the Rev. Dr. King… unlike Buffy… unlike Jesus… many of us don’t have such a dramatic moment in our life.  But we all face moments in our lives when we are called by God to live into a purpose, a sense of something greater than ourselves.  And, in that moment, it can feel like we’re losing everything.

It can feel like we’re losing our very life, all that we’ve worked so hard for.  We may mourn its passing.  We may yearn for a simpler time.  We may be angry that we feel forced to live into a new reality.  But this is how God’s Glory manifests in us – when we become willing to give up our ease and our comfort in the name of love.

Throughout Lent, the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures have focused on covenant.  We heard about God’s covenant with Noah, which came about after God flooded the earth because humanity couldn’t stop its war mongering ways.  And when Noah responded with obedience by saving the larger creation, God entered into a covenant saying never again would God wipe humanity from the face of the earth.

And we heard about God’s covenant with Abraham, which came about after Abraham pronounced a new faith – belief in the God of love and abundance, the God of all life.   And God responded by covenanting with Abraham that the descendants of him and Sarah would be as plentiful as the stars in the sky. That is, the descendants of faith, who also believed in the God of all life, regardless of particular religious expression.

And we heard about the covenant of the law (the 10 Commandments) and how living by the letter of the law rather than living by the spirit of the law, can become oppressive.   Because, God’s law is always going to be one that leads us to care for each other, the particulars of which change from age to age.

In today’s reading, Jeremiah tells us about a different covenant, one that is much more intimate, much more individual.  It’s a covenant that is written on our very heart.  It is the purpose for which we were born.  It is the very meaning of your life.Fire heart

So, as we approach Holy Week this year, I wonder how this covenant that Jeremiah talks about might be speaking its words to you.  I wonder what roads your life is leading you down right now.  What your life is asking of you, how your is life forming you, and preparing you for God’s purpose of sacrifice in love.  How are you being prepared for Easter and new life in Christ?

Because while it’s true Jeremiah weeps for Jerusalem (which is the image on today’s bulletin cover) the Jerusalem he weeps for is the Jerusalem that was.  For many people, it was seen as great and mighty.  For others, it had become deadly.

And so, we might begin to realize that Jeremiah’s lament is for something that has passed away so that a new Jerusalem may arise in its place.

What is that new Jerusalem for you?
What is being asked of you in the name of love?
What is the covenant written on your heart?

Because what should we say, “God save me from this hour?”
No, it is for this reason that we have come to this hour.
It is for this reason, we are here.

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A sermon preached on Lent IV, Year B at St. John’s Episcopal Church on March 11, 2018.  You can read the scripture by clicking here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,Dickinson Hope
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

This poem by Emily Dickinson (“Hope is the thing with feathers”) gives us a vision of Hope.  The thing with feathers… like a bird that perches and sings… it has a lightness.  Hope is an experience of a lifting or of being lifted from the heaviness that weighs us down.  A ray of light in the dark or blue sky on a grey, cold, stormy day.

We experience Hope as an opening, a deep breath where there has been only shallow respiring before.  Or a sense of calm or warmth.  A sweetness that sinks into our being to nourish and fill us. A smell of earthy spring warmth.  Or a breeze that blows through our hair.Hope 1

And Dickinson says that Hope asks nothing of us.  It’s just there for us to see, to experience, to know.  Because it never ends.  Even when we don’t know it’s there, even when we’re not able to see it, it never stops.  Hope remains.

The movie Shawshank Redemption is a movie about hope and how it remains, even in the darkest prisons of our lives.  The main character, Andy Dufresne, is sentenced to life in prison after being falsely convicted of 2 murders, one of which, was the spouse who had just left him.  He is a person who has every reason to be embittered by life and the circumstances in which he finds himself.  A person who has been devastated by the harshness of the world.Shawshank

Many of the people in prison with him have lost their hope, or they have forgotten how to see it.  Cynical.  Hardened.  Andy’s best friend Red goes so far as to say that hope is a dangerous thing, that it can drive a person insane and has no use in a prison with people who have no expectation of being released, no promise that anything will ever change.

But Andy eventually reminds Red that “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.  And no good thing ever dies.”

Hope always remains.  It may not look exactly like we’d like it to look, which is why it’s so hard for us to see.  We confuse Hope with expectation.  And this is why we are given signs and symbols of Hope – to help us remember, to help us return to that fluttering place where the thing with feathers is perched and sings to us its sweet song.

Today’s scripture is about Hope.  This passage from John is often quoted out of context so we easily forget that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus here.  Nicodemus is a Pharisee, the kind of religious leader who is so focused on rules and law, that the law becomes conflated with God.

The Pharisee is that part of us that gets irritated when people don’t use their turn signal or don’t load the dishwasher the right way.  We want everything to be done the way we want it done.  And when we take that to extremes, we have extremists, needing the world to follow a rigid set of rules, making an idol of the rules themselves.

Our Pharisee Nicodemus is searching though. He comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to seek out answers.  He comes in the darkness to find the light.  He has chosen to walk away from the prison of his rules.nicodemus-jesus

And Jesus tells him that what he seeks is right in front of him.
Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things…”  And then he reminds Nicodemus of their ancestor Moses and how Moses offered a sign of hope.

“and Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

The passage from Numbers that Jesus refers to, reads a bit like Moses is performing magic.  But it’s much more than a magic trick.

As we know, Moses is leading the people of Israel out of slavery, yet they grow impatient because they thought freedom would look different than wandering around the desert for a bunch of years.  They grow bitter and resentful.  Soon, they are able realize that their bitterness is a mistake that brings them to death and they ask for forgiveness, which they receive. Moses Broze Serpent

And as a remembrance, Moses constructs a symbol of Hope out of their bitterness and resentment so that when he lifts it and people see it, they will remember their mistake and remember the forgiveness, so they may be healed of their impatience and hostility.

Hope comes to us in the memory of forgiveness, in remembering the feeling of being lifted up out of the heaviness by the thing with feathers, being freed from the darkest prisons of our lives.

Through this action of the memory of forgiveness, the bronze serpent becomes a symbol of Hope.  Because we remember the temptation to indulge in our narrow, hopeless thinking, as well as we remember the experience of being freed from it.

People do this all the time, keep a symbol of something they have been freed from, or liberated from, something they have survived so they can remember.
It’s a touchstone, a tangible, incarnate memory of this part of their lives.

Sometimes members of 12-step groups keep a bottle cap or beer tab.  Sometimes people who have been injured keep a cast or crutch from a fall. For a while, I kept pieces of the broken window after I totaled my car 15 years ago so I would remember to be more attentive to changing my tires in the winter time.

It’s a way of honoring the new life.  A way of thanking God for God’s saving Grace.

These, of course, are different than trophies.  They don’t celebrate the event themselves but they are the remembrance that there is always a second chance. That God loves us beyond our mistakes and on the other side of the shame we carry for whatever we’ve done wrong… is another world.  It’s a resurrected life that awaits us.

This action of remembering – remembering the mistake and the forgiveness of it – is the essence of Hope.  We have lots of words for different aspects of this experience – forgiveness, mercy, grace, favor, charity, blessing, kindness, liberation.  Salvation.

Salvation, the focus of John’s mystical Gospel.  The cross we carry as Christians, the cross we bear, is not one of shame, as in “we all have a cross to bear.”  The cross is the memory of forgiveness from a mistake that is so devastating, so incredibly inhumane… so we might be healed of the impulse to ever indulge in such a barbaric act again.

We place the cross in our worship spaces, not because we love gory images, but so that we might look at it and remember the life of Jesus and never do that to another one of God’s children ever again.NIKOLAI_Ge_Crucifixion

We might never sacrifice another for the sake of a greedy institution.
We might never sacrifice another because its more convenient to have them expelled from our lives.
We might never sacrifice another because they challenge our comfort.

So that we might, instead, offer kindness.  Offer sanctuary.  Offer Hope.
This is our Christian salvation.  Our Christian Hope.

We remember the Resurrection, which is the incarnate act of forgiveness.  We remember that the God of Life will always return us to Life, always return us to Hope even in the darkest prisons of our lives, the worst mistakes we have made.

And as the Body of Christ, we are called to offer that to one another whenever and however we possibly can.  Forgiveness.  Mercy.  Sanctuary.

I know I’ve had times in my life, when I was feeling so hurt by what someone did, I desperately wanted them to learn their lesson.  Certainly not injury or death, but I wanted them to experience shame or regret for what they did to me.  There is a sense of satisfaction in that, after all.

And I cannot say that I’ve been purged of this tendency completely because I don’t think we ever really are.  But there’s no hope in that.  And there is certainly no love.
And so we continue looking for the path.  Because we are broken humans, we continue looking for the path, like Nicodemus.

This is how Hope functions in our lives.  It’s a place that holds forgiveness for us until we can forgive. Because these places where we’ve been hurt, where we store anger and pain and shame… they are the darkest prisons of our lives.  And they spawn same the bitterness and resentment and hostility as the people walking in the desert with Moses.  They bring death.Hope 2

Because sometimes the hardest thing, when standing in one of these prisons, in one of these deserts… is to make the choice to walk out of it.  Instead of holding on to our resentment, we look for the path or the tunnel that will lead us out.

We relieve ourselves of the expectation that the world must be right and follow rules and laws, like the Pharisees.
And, instead, we forgive the world its mistakes.

And we forgive ourselves our mistakes… for not meeting everyone’s expectations or needs.  For, not being the person we wish we were. For not living up to whatever yardstick we measure our worth by.  Because Hope asks nothing of us, even in the darkest moments, and the strangest seas.

The choice to walk out of the narrow prison, is the choice to return to the Hope that is already waiting for us.  Where we come to know, once again, the lightness of our being.  To return to the experience of being lifted from the heaviness that weighs us down.  This is liberation.  This is salvation.

The ray of light in the dark or blue sky on a grey, cold, stormy day.  The deep inhalation where there has been only shallow breathing before. The calm and the warmth.  The sweetness that sinks into our being to nourish us.  The smell of warm, spring earth.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without words,
And never stops at all.

Hope remains because God remains and waits for us.  Always.

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Guest Post: A Sermon from Deacon Sue

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lent III, March 4, 2018 by the Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel.  You can read the day’s scripture by clicking here.

img_20161029_165133434….and Jesus went into the temple. There he found people illegally selling guns, dealing drugs, and trafficking humans and the money changers were seated at their tables, gold coins stacked high around them.  And angrily calling each one of them out by name, he overturned their tables and drove them out of the temple. He told those that were selling opioids and heroin, assault weapons of all designs, and who profited in the exploitation of children, “Take yourselves from here and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

It’s jarring, isn’t it, to hear this part of John’s gospel using contemporary societal issues. It unsettled me even as I wrote it for sounds so harsh and there’s always a danger of offending someone. In many ways the story of the cleansing of the Temple embodies the active, social justice ministry to which Jesus calls the church. This gospel story reminds us that the Jesus we love and follow was a renegade in his time; he was a man on a mission. Jesus used the political and social climate of his day to challenge the status quo and to call attention to the failings of its leaders. He took risks far greater than worrying about offending someone’s feelings.

The cleansing of the Temple is among the most important events in the life of Jesus. Because of its significance, it’s included by all four Gospel writers, albeit somewhat differently. The Synoptic gospels suggest that Jesus’ public action in the Temple was one of the main reasons he was arrested and put to death. The Roman rulers saw his behavior and words as capital offenses and a great danger to their authority.  One contemporary writer describes it this way – “Imagine Jesus walking into the massive Temple run by the Jewish religious elite (who, by the way, had been put in place by their Roman oppressors). This was tantamount to someone walking into a federal government building and blowing it up.”  For Jesus, it was that perilous an act.

What was going on in the Temple that upset Jesus so? The Temple in Jesus’ time was a busy place where money changers prospered. The rabbis had determined that Roman coins with the image of Caesar needed to be exchanged for Tyrian coins, the currency required in order to purchase the animals used for sacrifice during the 8 days of Passover. The Temple complex was huge and, in many ways, it had been turned into something similar to a bazaar where merchants sold their wares. The Temple had become a business enterprise. It had ceased being an inclusive place where pilgrims would enter and worship God. Only a very select few were permitted into the inner sanctum where it was believed heaven and earth met and where God might be encountered.

When Jesus entered the Temple, instead he found the bankers taking advantage of the poor, demanding outrageous conversion rates, and making huge profits to line their own pockets. This did not sit well with Jesus.

His strong reaction to what the Temple had become was more than a display of anger. It was a confrontational act of speaking truth to power in the face of injustice taking place within his Father’s house.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus would teach his followers that there was much more to life than simply being good people. He would teach that societal reforms were necessary if the values passed on in the Law of Moses and the Word of God as spoken through the prophets were to be honored. All of this was to prepare the world for the new Covenant that was to come following Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It was very clear that the religious, political and social institutions of his day needed a major wake-up call.
We might say the same for our institutions today.
What do we do? Can a social justice ministry be effective against the status quo? Are we courageous enough to speak truth to power?

In the chaos that surrounds us these days, it is easy to lose sight of the power we have as people of faith. We have the ability to speak from a place of strength and confidence, for we have learned from the One who confronted the injustices of his time. We must be part of the solution.

The oppression of our black and brown brothers and sisters through harsh and unjust immigration policies is heartbreaking; but shedding tears is not enough to stop the cruelty that tears families apart.  A response by the Body of Christ is demanded.

The power of a gun lobby that ignores the faces of the dead and wounded and instead seeks to protect its own pocketbook needs to feel the pressure of Christians empowered to create change.

The brutality of human trafficking and the greed of those who sell flesh and blood into forced labor, sexual exploitation and slavery is a violation of all basic human rights. The Church does not stand idly by while people are abused and exploited.

The wanton production of drugs and greed of those that market them devastates not only the addicted and their families but the communities in which the drug culture thrives. The Body of Christ must offer more than thoughts and prayers to the children of God trapped in a cycle of drug abuse.

It is often too easy to feel disheartened, powerless, and bewildered by the overwhelming need around us. It is easy to slip into moral outrage.

But moral outrage is not always helpful when we speak of social justice issues. Anger at an injustice or a wrong initially may fuel us; but unless we have the ability to listen to one another and to try to understand one another’s perspective, we may never see the change that is needed.

Just consider the gun violence debate. I think it’s safe to say that we all share in the belief that something must be done to curb the deaths at the hands of people armed with military-style assault weapons. To some of us there seems to be an obvious and straight-forward solution – just ban assault-style weapons except in the hands of law enforcement and the military. But others of us see any restriction on our understanding of the 2nd Amendment as an infringement on our Constitutional rights. So our moral indignation grows until we end up shouting and turning over tables and acting in ways indistinguishable from those that aroused our anger. We rage at the greed of the gun manufacturers and the elected officials who benefit from financial contributions, and who pile up gold coins around them; yet we remain at an impasse.

Consider immigration reform and the concept of creating places of refuge for people targeted for deportation. This deeply divides our nation. To display compassion and kindness and offer assistance to the exiles and immigrants among us is the least the church can do. But when national and religious leaders engage in inflammatory and racist remarks, the fear and resentment felt by too many in our country is fed. In order to comprehend the complexities of the immigration issue, we need to understand that this is more than an economic, social or legal issue, it is ultimately one that is both humanitarian and spiritual. For the Body of Christ, standing with the immigrant means we are standing with Jesus who hung out with the “wrong people” and challenged the “right people” to reexamine their priorities and prejudices.

Any social justice ministry that we choose to carry out must be a ministry of inclusion and empowerment. This means making the poor and marginalized welcome in our lives and in our Church and taking the time to listen to their stories. This is part of the work necessary if we wish to confront the systems that seek to diminish the dignity of oppressed people.

Jesus’ own words inform the call to social justice: I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.

We see in these words a call to building relationships – not only to feed those who are starving, but to prevent others from going without food. We are called not only to give water to those who are parched, but prevent others from becoming thirsty. We are called not only to cover those who have inadequate clothing, but to prevent others from becoming naked.

What Jesus does in the gospels is to refocus our attention on the things of God. He reframes the conversation. To be the Church is to be the true Temple, the Body of Christ; to stand strong and confront the systems that seek to diminish and destroy.

Should we choose not to respond – not to accept the call to love another  and to work for the dignity of all people – then we fail in our mission of continuing Jesus’ ministry on earth. For it is Jesus’ own example that teaches us the importance of being faithful; and of opposing the idolatry in our culture whenever profit, privilege, racism and unlimited consumption corrupt our human behavior.

As lovers of justice and peace and followers of Jesus Christ, you and I have the power to turn over tables and to make our voices heard.

Hear the words of Alan Paton, the late South African author and anti-apartheid activist:
O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the needs of others
Open my ears that I may hear their cries;
Open my heart so that they need not be without comfort;
Let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong,
Nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.
Show me where love and hope and faith are needed,
And use me to bring them to those places.
And so open my eyes and my ears
That I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for you.

Deacon Sue Bonsteel
March 4, 2018

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And a Child Shall Lead the Descendants of Abraham

A sermon given on February 25, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in honor of Emma Gonzalez and all the children of Parkland, FL who are calling us to listen.  You can read the scripture lessons by clicking here.

LapofAbrahamOn today’s cover, we see an illustration from an illuminated Christian manuscript, Abraham and his descendants. In the front, we see the Christian on the left, the Jew in the middle with a yamaka on his head, and the Muslim in a turban carrying the Quran.   Abraham himself looks like he is in deep need of a couple weeks of vacation and sleep.  After all, the people who claim to be his descendants haven’t always played together very well.

The stories of Abraham are quite significant in Christianity, as well as to the religions of Judaism and Islam.  These 3 religions are known as the Abrahamic religions because we all claim Abraham as the ancestor of faith.  In the Muslim scriptures of the Quran, Abraham’s (or Ibrahim) story is a well-developed account, second only to Muhammed.   The tales of Ibrahim mirror those in our own scriptures but focus heavily on the compassion and kindness of this character and how these qualities are the most important to live a life in union with God.

Since we share the Hebrew Scriptures with Judaism, we share the same narrative and, to a large degree, our religions understand this character the same way – the ancestor of faith.  The one who led us all to understand God in the way we understand God today – the unbounded, ever-present, omniscient loving presence… the God of Love, the God of all Life.

The character of Abraham articulated belief in a God of all – monotheism.  The stories of Abraham all reflect this in both the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the Quran.  Abraham is the model, the archetype, if you will, of an aware life, an enlightened life, a life in union with the God of Love.

Modern Biblical scholarship understands Genesis not as history the way we understand it today, but rather as a set of stories written to help remind ancient Israelites of their common ancestry during a very divisive time in their history.  These stories offered a way to help people remember that differences were not as important as what they shared in common.

And the most important thing they shared is their relationship with the God of Love, the God of all life.

As we know, this is hard for humans to remember.

Abraham first appears in Chapter 11 of Genesis as Abram, the son of Terah.  And, like last week’s readings, where Jesus went immediately into the desert, the first story about Abraham is one of desert journeying – God sends Abram away from his home of Haran into the desert.

Abram built altars to God in the desert and lived in Egypt as an alien, he traveled extensively and received direct messages from God – one, in particular, a dream in which God offered Abram a vision of his descendants:

“‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions.”  (Gen. 15:13-14)

But if Genesis isn’t an historical account, how do we understand these passages?  Who exactly are the descendants of Abraham?

As I was coming to Christianity in my 30’s.  I had many conversations with my first priest, Bill Ellis, as I struggled with this religion.  His responses were never about learning rules or quoting scripture.  Instead, they always offered space for me to let God in.  In other words, he taught me about faith, rather than about religion.  And I am profoundly grateful for that.

My particular struggle in finding my own home in Christianity is that I see truth in many religions.  And this was related to the trouble I was having as I tried to reconcile this call to be a Christian with the more extreme fundamentalist versions of Christianity.  I couldn’t and still cannot claim to be practicing the same faith as these people.  So, of course, I spoke with Bill about this.  And Bill’s response was so filled with grace that it has stuck with me.

He said something like this, “I’ve come to understand that I have more in common with people of other religions that I do with many other Christians.  Because it’s not about the particulars of how we worship God, it’s about the God we choose to worship. And so I find I have more in common with people who actually worship the God of Love, regardless of how that is expressed, than with people who are more interested in judging others or twisting God to fit their own image.  Because they don’t worship the God of Love.  They worship the god of fear or, even, the god of hate.”

So, I’d like to return to the question: Who exactly are the descendants of Abraham?  Because I believe the answer to be: those who worship the God of Love, who is the God of all life.

It is not Abraham’s DNA that we are invited to inherit.  It’s not even Abraham’s religion that we are invited to inherit.  What we are invited to inherit is Abraham’s faith, Abraham’s belief in a generative, life-giving God that knows no boundaries.  And this faith is found in all religions, in all peoples, in all walks of life from the beginning of time.

Abraham, the original believer, the exemplar of compassion and kindness.  The one who knew God to be the God of all life, rather than a localized deity who only loves certain people.  Abraham, the one who continually gave his life and his heart to God rather than insisting that God do his selfish bidding.

Abraham is the one who understands that this journey with God is a covenant that human beings must actively participate in.  We give of ourselves and God gives us what we need.  It is a faith that calls us to service of God to one another.

Abraham’s faith acknowledges that all comes from God and all belongs to God so all we have and do is offered to God.  The truth articulated in this faith is so basic and deep, so expansive and generative that it is beyond the walls of nation and religion, and the limits of tribe and law.Abrahams Covenant.jpg

And God promised that multitudes of peoples would learn this truth and come to exemplify the same compassion and kindness that Abraham did.  God promised that leaders would arise from this awareness, that God is the God of all Life, which is what Abraham taught us.  God promised that this covenant would be everlasting.  And so it is.  Because here we are – the inheritors of Abraham’s faith.

And what is most helpful to remember is that the stories of Abraham were written for a people who were divided to help them remember the deeper truth as articulated in God’s covenant with Abraham:  It is the God of Love that binds us all together.  It is the God of Love who will find a way to return us to Love by turning worldly power on its head.

Remember God speaking to Abraham about his descendants? … your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed… but I will bring judgement on the people who enslaved them…

This is the same declaration given to us in the Magnificat:
God has brought the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

It’s the same message given to us by Jesus in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the merciful…

It’s the same prophecy given to us in Isaiah chapter 11:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.


Young person Emma Gonzalez speaks out after the Parkland, FL massacre.


The stories of the Hebrew Scriptures aren’t about things that happened a long time ago or entertaining myths we can toss aside.  These stories are about us, about what we are experiencing right now.  And it is at our own peril If we refuse to find guidance in them.

When we are deeply divided and we find ourselves in untenable, tension-filled times… and then we try to look for safety in the echo-chambers of our opinions… it’s because the powers that be have us all rattling our swords. This is when the God of Love lifts up the lowly and blesses the peacemakers and the merciful.

This is when the God of Love lays low the rich and powerful and cuts through the cacophony of the world by speaking through the voices of children, the truly powerless in any society.  “A little child shall lead them.”

For a descendant of Abraham, these are beacons of hope in a dark world, calling us back to the God of Love, back to compassion and kindness.  The God of Love will always call to us in our disparate, lonely places, inviting us to accept our inheritance and become Abraham’s descendants in faith once again.

Because when the world has stopped making sense and we’ve grown staunch in our opinions, refusing to listen to each other, the voices of children will always rise above the din and lead us back to God.

Are we listening?  Will we follow?

This is the covenant that is everlasting:
We are each other’s keeper.  We always have been. We always will be.

May we listen to the voices of the children.
May we accept our inheritance.

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Listening for Transfiguration

A sermon preached on Last Epiphany to celebrate the Transfiguration on February 11, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read the scripture.
Click on the play button below to listen along.

In today’s collect we ask for God to change us “into his likeness from glory to glory.”  I think sometimes we forget that the Transfiguration is for us.  That it is a map for us.

Jesus, upon that mountain with Peter, James, and John offered them a vision of what is possible.  I think it’s easier to believe that only Jesus could be transfigured, because that lets us off the hook.  But here we are, praying for ourselves to “be changed into his likeness.”

Bowman Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Bowman 

This vision that Peter, James, and John saw was fantastical. It was unbelievable.  This kind of transformation, this kind of revelation belongs with the top echelon of Hebrew prophets – with Moses and Elijah.  Moses who brought Israel out of slavery and Elijah who defended the worship of YHWH over the more popular god Ba’al. This is the who’s who of prophetic Jewish leaders.

This mountaintop theophany (or direct encounter with God) is used throughout Hebrew scripture.  Moses receiving the 10 commandments in the book of Exodus on top of a mountain.  Elijah receiving instructions about who to anoint as the leaders of Israel in the first book of Kings on top of a mountain.  And here, Jesus shows us that God’s dream for us is more than rules to follow and more than rulers to bear power.

In this theophany isn’t Jesus receiving anything.
This is Jesus becoming something.
This is Jesus becoming Christ in full form.
And this is what is possible, not just for Jesus, but for us.

We had our Vestry Retreat yesterday at the Rectory.  The leadership of St. John’s all met to spend time in each other’s presence to offer ourselves to one another.  And as these amazing leaders talked about how we will work together as a group, the first thing they brought up wasn’t about emails or timekeeping or reports.

The first thing they talked about was the importance of listening to one another.  And they were clear, we’re not talking about listening to wait for our turn to speak so that we can make a point. We’re talking about a listening that is focused on attending to one another.  Listening with an open mind and an open heart so that we might be willing to be changed by what we hear.

A theorist named Otto Scharmer talks about 4 levels of listening:

He says the first level of listening is when we listen from our habits.  We listen for what we already believe.  And the result is that we confirm our opinions and judgments.
If we’re honest, this is what Facebook and Twitter is largely used for.  Echo chambers where we feel better because we’ve gotten plenty of likes for the things that we already think and believe.

The second level of listening is when we listen with an open mind so that we are listening, not to confirm what we believe, but to take note of new or different things.  It’s scientific observation. The result is that we learn and discover new things and we may learn to apply those things. This is good.

The third level is called empathic listening, listening with an open heart that enables us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what life might be like for them.  We listen from somewhere other than our own locus. Or we connect to a part of ourselves that may remember a similar experience in our own life.  We put our self in someone’s shoes.  Like a Wounded Healer, which we talked about 2 weeks ago.
The result is that we connect with someone in a real and authentic way and we are able to offer a healing presence and be healed.

The fourth level is called generative listening, which is listening with an open will.
This is a place of surrender, a willingness to be truly changed by what we hear.  The result is that we become a new creation and because we become a new creation, the person to whom we are listening also becomes transfigured before our very eyes.

This happens because we see Christ, we see what is possible is becoming what already is.  We see the Kingdom of God before us.

KHinkle The Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Kenyatta Hinkle

This doesn’t happen when we keep the world at arm’s length.  It cannot.  It may feel safer to keep the world at arm’s length.  Our opinions and our fears usually rule over us and we only listen for that which confirms what we already believe.

But when we welcome others into our world, not only are we likely to learn something new, we are likely to experience deeper connections and we are likely to become changed by the experience.  It all depends on our willingness to surrender to what’s in front of us.

This kind of welcome is exactly what we are asked to do in our Baptismal Covenant that we said together at the beginning of the Epiphany: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

Can we do it all the time?  No.  We’re human.
Some days we have bad days when the world is too much with us and we’re tied up in knots because we don’t know how we’re going to pay our bills or we don’t like what someone said to us or our physical health has deteriorated of we’re sick or we feel bad about something we did or we’re hurt because someone doesn’t love us the way we would like them to.
On these days, it’s hard to get past level one, quite frankly.

But we practice.  Because Jesus has given us this image of Transfiguration, we practice.  And we have 40 days of Lent given to us as a gift in which we practice.

SHaque Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Sabina Haque

We practice opening our mind and maybe we realize that learning new things may feel a bit chaotic, but it increases our capacity and gives us new insights.  And so that might inspires us to go a little bit deeper.

We practice opening our heart and perhaps we realize that connecting with another person may feel a little risky, but it, ultimately brings joy to our lives as we share ourselves with friends.  And so we might go even a little bit deeper.

And we practice surrendering our will so that we might be reconciled with God, transfigured, “changed into Christ’s likeness from glory to glory.”

This Reconciliation happens because, having bent our own will, having arrived on bended knee before the manger just like the magi who followed the star and found themselves in a smelly barn full of animals and poverty and filth at the Epiphany, we are changed.
And what we see before us, isn’t the dirt of the world, but it is Christ.
This person standing before us is Christ.

And, just like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, we ask, “How may I serve you today?”

In this moment, we realize that the world is just the world with its laws and its power and that we will find no salvation in those worldly means.  But the true revelation is that God is with us, in this person transfigured before us.  Christ in dazzling white.

Transfiguration mosaic

A mosaic of the Transfiguration

Coming in Lent we have some opportunities for listening.

      1. Centering Prayer 5:45 every Wednesday, a new practice for us as we learn to listen to God in the silence.


    2. Lenten Soup Supper Learning Series: Understanding the Sanctuary Movement 6:45 every Wednesday.  We’ll listen to guests and to one another.  See the flyer in your bulletin.

It’s just listening.  Not making decisions.  Just learning to employ the 4 levels of listening.

Today as we celebrate with the final Alleluias before we begin our journey of Lent, may we know that this Transfiguration is, not only possible, but this vision that Jesus gives us is our birthright as children of God.  To welcome another, not hoping that they will be like us and agree with us, but to welcome another in the hope that we might surrender and be changed.

My friends, may we be changed by our Lenten journey into Christ’s likeness… from glory to glory.


The Transfiguration by the Rev. John Guiliani

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On Healing and Service

A sermon preached at St. John’s in Kingston NY on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 4, 2018.  Click here to read the scripture. Click the play button below to listen along.

Isaiah paints for us a picture of God – a God of comfort, renewal , redemption:
God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  (Is. 40:28)

There are several feasts we celebrate this time of year on the Christian calendar – the Feast of Saint Brigid, Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation) feasts which appear here in order to mark the mid-point of winter.  blue-green-light.jpg

It’s mid-winter when we start to see a shift in the light, when we can see, perhaps, a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.  I have several of my lamps on automatic timers in the Rectory and I’ve noticed this past week that, as they come on, the light they offer is not yet needed because the sunlight is still filling the room.  And I feel a sense of delight and relief that the light is lasting longer.

I think this is a wonderful metaphor for healing.  There are times in our lives when we are called to put forth a little more effort, keep the light on just a little bit longer, moments when we need to pay closer attention to the light in our lives, to cultivate it.

There is a list of the most stressful events that typically cause illness if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not taking the time to take care of ourselves:  Death of a family member, moving, change in job, major illness, additions to the family or the or leaving of partners/spouses, being incarcerated… and the list goes on.

These are the moments in our lives when it can be difficult to tend to our light because we’re so focused on taking care of the crisis or so shaken by it that we lose our self for a bit.  This is understandable.  Life is sometimes quite difficult.

It’s during these times when, if we’re not able to kindle our own light, we may need to rely on our friends and family members just a little bit more, so we don’t get completely lost in the darkness.  So we learn to be of service to one another to be one another’s hope, to be one another’s light in the darkness.

And Isaiah says: “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless… but those who wait for God shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

This part of Isaiah – chapter 40 – starts out with the words: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Tenderness

It’s the announcement of deliverance, the promise of imminent redemption.  This chapter is one of the most quoted of all of Isaiah’s words because this message of God’s Love is so easily forgotten, yet so desperately needed:

Because the light will always return.  Even when we lose our way, especially when we lose our way, in the darkest moments of our lives, the deepest dream in our hearts, is that God’s light will return.

There are times when all seems lost and it’s so hard to remember God’s Love, when we believe we might just be beyond redemption, beyond hope.  In those moments, we think our heart is shattered, irredeemable… broken beyond recovery.

And there are some for whom this is a nearly constant experience. The ones on the margins.  The ones whom we would rather ignore.

What we often forget is that healing depends less upon what we do ourselves and more upon what God does.  Taking care of ourselves often means giving God the space to do what’s needed… through prayer or silence, through quiet walks or simple activities.   Allowing time.  And allowing space, usually the space to welcome others in.

I believe I’ve mentioned the movie Groundhog Day in a sermon here before.  Well, since Friday was Groundhog Day, I spent Friday evening watching this funny but poignant movie.

Bill Murray plays a weatherman in Pittsburgh, PA.  He’s someone who is convinced of his own greatness and puts forth enormous effort in shoring up his own self-esteem.  Like all of us, Murray’s character is a flawed human being.  But he’s someone who is so disconnected from himself and the people around him that each person he meets is just an object in his world – he either gives them attention so he can get what he wants from them or he ignores them because they have nothing he wants.Groundhog Day

From this worldview, everyone moment looks the same – on the lookout for objects that I can use.  Every interaction feels the same – did I get what I needed or not?  Every day seems to be a repetition of the day before – get up, get what I need from the world, be disappointed by what I didn’t get, go back to sleep.

In the story, Murray’s character actually lives the same exact day over and over again.  At first, he panics and tries to fix the problem.  Then he decides to relax and just enjoy himself, using each day for his own personal gratification.  Then he realizes just how empty that is and dives deep into despair, successfully killing himself over and over again only to wake up to the same Sonny and Cher song on the radio again and again.

Finally, he begins to surrender and starts to see the beauty in the world, beholding it with awe in the simple, little things. He decides to use the time to study, learn ice sculpting, and the piano.groundhog-day service

But the last step in his healing is when he realizes there are ways he can help other people – he shows up to catch a kid who falls out of a tree everyday, even though he never gets thanked.  He cares for a homeless man he sees everyday, trying to save his life.  He changes a tire on a car he sees everyday.  He saves someone from choking everyday.  He buys tickets for a honeymooning couple he meets everyday… and on and on and on.

In other words, he’s fallen in love with the world, with these people that he used to see as only objects in his world.  Which is to say, he’s fallen in love with God, the Creator, and made himself God’s servant, showing up to serve the others in his life everyday.  Welcoming them into his life as creatures of God, instead of just objects from whom he might be able to get something he wants.

When he finally wakes up on a new morning, the evidence of this healing is found in his genuine question: “How can I be of service to you today?”

And this doesn’t come from a need to be needed, or some desperate craving to be seen as good. This question comes from a simple desire born of awe, as if to say, “I see you, beloved child of God.  How can I be of service to you today?”Rest here bench

When is the last time you turned to someone in your life and simply asked, “How can I be of service to you today?”

Think about it for a minute.  Imagine yourself asking someone that question, someone you love or someone you don’t even like…
Does it make you feel vulnerable?  Does it make you wonder if they will ask it back so you’ll be taken care of too?  Do you think that, if someone needs you they will let you know so you don’t ask?  You don’t risk being laughed at or rejected?

These are typical human responses.

I think you’ll find if you ask it, people won’t know what to do with that… at least at first.  I’ve tried it before and so I know that people find it more than a bit disarming. But what if we asked anyway and meant it? What if we kept asking and eventually started getting answers?  How would that change our world?  How would that heal our hearts?

This theme of healing and service is the point of today’s gospel message from Mark.  When Simon’s mother-in-law was healed, she began to serve them, healing and service going hand in hand.Healing Hands of Service

Like last week’s gospel, Jesus, the Wounded Healer and Welcoming Stranger, is able to reconcile the community… “the whole city was gathered around the door…” by helping these people find their hearts again they can once again be in service to one another and be a part of healthy community.  They begin to welcome one another again.

Welcoming instead of needing.  Allowing God to heal what needs to be healed within us and through us, surrendering ourselves in service to God’s Holy Creation.

The whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, the whole of the Old Testament, has a simple storyline to it.  God gets angry when we forget that we are responsible for one another, not as a tribe, but as the whole Creation.  As a matter of fact, tribalism is identified as the exact causes of the divisions in the first place.

And so, if this is why God gets angry, because we are so focused on ourselves and our own tribe, then salvation must come through the healing of the larger community by the restoring of those on the margins – and this is exactly what Jesus comes to tell us – through the care of the poor, the destitute, the oppressed… the ones who Murray’s character in our movie would ignore and deem unworthy of his time and attention.

The ones who live their lives in the darkness.
The ones who we would rather ignore.
The ones who Murray’s character learns to, not only see, but to serve and to welcome… as if he’s welcoming those parts of himself.

As Isaiah reminds us, Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

This is how God works.  This is how God redeems.
This is how God reconciles us to Godself.
The restoration of Jerusalem occurs through service to God, in service to one another which is the healing of the whole community.

May we all offer one another healing, as we offer ourselves healing. May we all welcome the one we would rather ignore, especially those parts of ourselves. May we all offer ourselves in service to one another and learn to ask, “How may I be of service to you today?”

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Wounded Healer, Welcoming Stranger

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany on January 28, 2018.  You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.
Click on the play button below to listen along.



The image on today’s bulletin cover comes from a Finnish artist named Hugo Simberg who painted at the turn of the 20th century.



We see 2 young people carrying a third figure – the angel who has been wounded – The Wounded Angel.  The young person at the back gazes directly at us, the viewer, demanding our attention and drawing us into the painting.  And just like that, we are no longer innocent bystanders because we see what’s happening.

Today’s gospel reading comes from the beginning of Mark.  It’s the first miracle in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel.   Mark starts off  with John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan and the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness.  Immediately.  Where he spent 40 days and nights meeting his own demons, coming face to face with the fears that arise in any human experience.   As the scripture says, Jesus needed help with this, “angels waited on him…” it says.

When Jesus has done this work with the angels, when he has recovered his own heart and remembers himself as one who carries within him the hope and love that is the Kingdom of God… then, he goes to gather the fishermen as disciples and then off they go to Capernaum.  That’s where we are today.  In a synagogue in Capernaum, where Jesus teaches and casts out demons.

Now, it would be easy for him to ask someone to remove from the synagogue, this person who began shouting.  This is, after all, Jesus’ very first-time teaching.  And in front of his new followers.  Can you imagine the pressure of having someone so disruptive come and mess up your plans on the very first day?

But that’s not how Mark writes the story.  Because Jesus’ power is not a worldly power that keeps all the right people in and all the wrong people out.  Jesus is teaching his disciples in this very first lesson, that there is no “other.”  And there never was.
Because we’ve all been the young person at the back of the painting, carrying our wounded heart, asking for someone to know us and to walk with us.

Mark tell us that Jesus teaches with authority, rather than from the legalistic “who’s in, who’s out” perspective of the scribes.  And the amazement of those who watch comes from their disbelief that the demons are silenced, that healing happens rather than judgment, and so, even the demons seem to know this Holy One of God.

How is it that Jesus knows these demons so well that he can silence them?

Theologian Rita Nakashima Brock has done extensive work on the theology of healing, especially those who have been traumatized by war – veterans, soldiers, and civilians – who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  She sees in Jesus, not someone who exorcises demons because he is better than everyone else, but someone who is only able to understand what is needed because he’s been there himself.

Brock says,
“The image of Jesus as exorcist is someone who has experienced his own demons.  The temptation stories point to the image of a wounded healer, to an image of one who, by his own experience, understands vulnerability and internalized oppression.  In having recovered their own hearts, healers have some understanding of the suffering of others.

Naming the demons means knowing the demons… The Gospels imply that anyone who exorcises cannot be a stranger to demons… To have faced our demons is never to forget their power to hurt and never to forget the power to heal that lies in touching brokenness… Jesus hears, below the demon noises, an anguished cry for deliverance.  Through… [this] community is co-created as a continuing, liberating, redemptive reality.”   (Journeys by Heart, 80-81)

The wounded healer – the one who has recovered their own heart and can, therefore, have some understanding of the suffering of others.  We call this empathy.

Jesus knew the demons, knew how to help this suffering person, because he had done the work of recovering his own heart in the desert.  And, from the abundance that flows from that wiser place, Jesus casts out these demons, he silences them.

This recovery of our own heart is an important part of the ministry we have as Christians.  Otherwise, we keep looking to heal ourselves by what we do with and for others.

kintsukuroi – the Japanese art of mending pottery with gold to highlight the understanding that a piece is more beautiful having been broken.

This healing doesn’t all happen at once, not for most of us.  But it’s the steady progression of becoming more and more aware of the haunted places in our lives, our own demons that possess us and drive us far away from ourselves and far away from the Love of God.  As we allow the light of Christ to shine in our own shadowlands, we come to know our demons and the shame lifts and melts away.  And the wounds they have created are healed.

It’s not the bearing of our wounds that enables us to be a healing presence, but it’s also not the hiding of our scars.  Shame offers nothing.  Nothing.  It only serves to prolong our own healing because its purpose is to cover things up.  Our scars are the very conduit through which we are able to offer Christ’s love in this world.  When we are willing to show our scars, we are willing to share the evidence of God’s presence in our own lives.

The wise poet Leonard Cohen, who just died a little over a year ago, talks about this in his song, “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

These cracks of imperfection, this is where the Light of Christ finds its way into our hearts, helping us to recover our heart once again.  And this, then, is where the light shines forth from us.  Not through the cracks but through the scar that is the love of Christ.

When we attempt to heal another from our wounded place, we end up trying to get what we need and we end up projecting all of our anger and hurt and fears onto the other person, insisting we know what they need or, worse, insisting that they need to act as we did or as we wish we had.

We say things like:
protect yourself
pull yourself up by your bootstraps
suck it up
get a job
In other words: I want you to do what I need you to do so that I’m not saddled with your pain in addition to my own…
So we don’t have to pay attention to them so that we are not pulled into the painting and we can remain innocent bystanders.

We end up saying: “Just take care of yourself by doing what I need you to do because I’m too busy holding on to my own pain to offer you any space to deal with yours.”

This is the message of the world, my friends.  This is not the message of Christ.
Because in Christ, we are no longer innocent bystanders.

But when we allow ourselves to be healed by the love of Christ, when we begin to see that through Christ there is “no east or west or north or south,” there is no “other.”
When we open our own heart to be healed by that unbounded Love, then all that we offer to another is born of something generative, something life-giving, instead of our own needs.

And healing happens simply from our presence, not from anything we do, but from our willingness to walk with them, journeying alongside them.  It’s our heart that is with them, our heart aflame with God’s love.

We offer ourselves to that person and ask what they need or help them discern what they need if they are in that dark of a place.
We walk with them instead of blocking their path.
We accompany instead of prescribe.
We offer friendship instead of knowledge.
This is the heart of welcoming.  This is what it means to be welcoming.

If we’re honest, the way Christianity presents itself in America is moralistic and self-righteous.  Preachers make their name selling solutions:  offering toothy smiles, telling people what is wrong with them and how they need to fix themselves.  If we wonder why people don’t come to church anymore, we need look no further than this.

Because the true path of Christ is as a wounded healer.
Someone who accompanies instead of preaches.
Someone who listens instead of tells, who loves instead of judges.
This is the path of the welcoming stranger.

Welcoming and healing are intertwined.

Throughout all of scripture, welcoming the stranger is presented as a gesture of healing – not just the healing of the individual, but the healing of the entire community.  And it always comes with the reminder that we, too, have been strangers before.

We welcome the stranger and all that they bring, honoring the whole of who they are as a gift to become known regardless of language or papers or anything else we might put in their way.  Because we also want to be known and remembering this enables us to remember that we were once strangers too.

We walk with them, not from a place of needing to belong ourselves, but knowing that we do belong and they too belong. Remembering what it’s like to feel like an outsider or a foreigner – that’s the place we can welcome the stranger from – the healing of the welcoming stranger.

In our painting today, this is the ministry of the young person at the front – journeying with and helping to carry the broken heart of their friend.  The one who has given up the right to claim innocent bystander.  That’s the path of Christ.

I’d like to end today with an illustration from a common teaching story:

A man falls down a hole, a hole with such steep sides that there is no getting out.  He sees a doctor pass by and calls out, “Hey, Doc!  I’m down here in this hole.  Can you help me out?”  The doctor writes out a prescription and throws it down and yells, “Good luck!”

Then he sees a priest walk by and he calls out, “Hey Pastor!  I’m down here in this hole.  Can you help me out?”  And the priest writes out a prayer and throws it down and says, “God be with you.”

Then he sees his friend walk by and he calls out, “Hey, John.  I’m down here in this hole.  Can you help me out?”  And John climbs down in the hole.  The man says, “What did you do that for?  Now we’re both down here!”

And John replies, “Yeah, but I’ve been here before.  And I can be with you in this place.”

My friends, may we come to know ourselves as wounded healer, so that we may offer ourselves as welcoming stranger to all.

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Come and See

A sermon preached on Epiphany II, January 14, 2018 in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.

Click here to read the scriptures.

Hit the play button below to listen along as you read.


Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth was a small agricultural village that wasn’t too far from the Great Silk Road, an ancient trading route where people from all over the world came and went.  Nazareth was too far away from the major cities along the trade route to be of any real consequence and too far away from the centers of Jewish worship to have any real importance amongst the Jewish people.  Jesus’ mother was from Nazareth and this is likely where he spent his formative years.  With about 2000 people who lived in simple dwellings with courtyards and animals amidst the fields where they worked.

No one thought much of it, except to make fun of it.  Why should they when it had no worldly importance?  It was irredeemable in the eyes of power.

Scholars agree that Nathanael’s point in asking his question was to speak contempt.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nathanael voices the contempt that arises from fear and a need to diminish others as a defense.  The sarcasm and derisiveness that speak from ignorance and cowardice, not love. The hatred that wails from the littlest part of ourselves when we’re afraid we aren’t going to get what we need from the world.

What is interesting is that John chooses to use Nathanael as a vehicle for revelation in this Gospel.  His scorn turns to awe before our eyes when he realizes even he is known by God.  Even in his obviously fearful state, where he offers no guile to hide his contempt, Nathanael is known, here, by God.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  And Philip says, “Come and see.”

Today, we’re are celebrating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


by Randal Huiskens  at

The opening hymn that Terry chose, Lift Every Voice and Sing, is a song of redemption that speaks of coming through the darkness with dignity.  Later today, our friends at Point of Praise will be offering a concert in Dr. King’s honor and then tomorrow, I’ve been honored to offer a prayer at the Interfaith Community Breakfast.  And so as we speak about this person of deep faith, I want to start with the story of Haiti.


Haiti, located on the island of Hispaniola, is a country born out of the enormously tragic institution of slavery.  Hispaniola was the first place in the Western hemisphere to become a part of the slave trade at the moment that Columbus’ Spanish ships landed there.  It became a major port for the sale of human beings as it was invaded and inhabited by the Spanish colonists.  Hispaniola

Later in the colonial period, the island was split between Spain and France.  Then, centuries later, the French Revolution inspired the slaves and free people of color to throw off their oppressors and claim independence.  They revolted in 1791 and, after more than 10 years of war with Napoleon’s army, established the nation of Haiti in 1804.

Haiti remains the only nation in the entire world to be founded as the result of a slave revolt.  Why?  Because the colonial powers-that-be learned their lesson of power.
They forced the country of Haiti to pay the richest countries in the world for their losses during the revolt, burying the fledgling nation in poverty and instability for 150 years.  And then they developed systems of segregation and apartheid in their other territories so that as slavery was gradually outlawed, a slave revolt would never happen again.

Entire countries made irredeemable by the arms of power.

This is how American segregation developed.
Haitians emigrating to the American South, mostly to Louisiana, told stories of what happened and plantation owners conspired with law-makers to prevent an uprising in the States. Segregation

Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in this segregation, as we know, forced to use specially labeled bathrooms and water fountains, sent to separate schools, encountering innumerable barriers to voting, property ownership, and economic advancement.  Although he was a deeply faithful, intelligent, well-read, and charismatic person, Dr. King suffered from dark depression in the knowledge that the system in which he lived felt insurmountable at times.  It seemed irredeemable.

Many people in the American South who claimed to be Christians, used their religion to justify the racist laws, just as they had used it to justify slavery.  Many others didn’t even bother applying their religious beliefs to their public lives at all, compartmentalizing their spiritual lives from their political, economic, social, and communal lives.

The prevailing sentiment at the time among those who held power was that black people were to be feared.  Furthermore, the narrative of power claimed that keeping black people in their place was for their own good and it was ordained by God because the men of science at the time concluded that “[black people] were inferior and “riddled with imperfections from head to toe”… that they didn’t know true pain and suffering because of their primitive nervous systems… ” therefore, keeping them subjugated was for their own good.  (Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington)

Irredeemable by the laws of power.

The voices of worldly power speaking through Nathanael’s contemptuous question:Rough Draft
Could anything good come out of these people of color?
Could anything good come out of Haiti?
Could anything good come out of El Salvador?
Out of Syria?  Mexico?  Nigeria?
Or any of the other places that claimed to be irredeemable?  (click to read a story that’s an example of how to resist this narrative of power)

And Philip says, come and see.

It’s less than a month after our celebration of the Incarnation – the Festival of Christmas where we are called to the manger every year.  To bring our pride, our power, our worldly riches… to a manger, of all places.  Asked to offer ourselves to the knowledge and the hope that God comes to us in the most vulnerable of forms.

The so-called wisdom of the world kneels at the foot of the needy, defenseless one, acknowledging the depth of connection in our responsibility to one another and the silence in that realization of love is deafening.

And it always brings me back to a quieter part of myself.

I don’t know if you’re like me… despite my best efforts along my own spiritual journey, I’m always finding myself in need of beginning again.  Always being brought up short, being reminded that I have much to learn despite what I prefer to think otherwise.  Always in need of rebooting my own spiritual practice.

It’s like God taps me on the shoulder and I respond with, “oh yeah.  I’m supposed to be practicing my spirituality.”  I’m supposed to be practicing what I believe.

Epiphanies can sometimes be euphoria-like experiences.  But usually, they are the moments when we realize that we are humans just doing the best that we can and we must always begin again our practice.  The good news is that we always have the opportunity to begin again in the love of God.

Nothing we do or say or believe removes us from God’s love.  It can’t.
God knows you and God knows me… so intimately.  The whole of who we are.
God loves us simply because we breathe.  This I believe.
And this I know because this is what sustains me in my own darkest spaces when the light feels so far away and I think the worst things about myself.

Because in the darkest moments of our lives, my friends, we don’t need to be told what to do or be chastised for not being better, or to be fixed or handled or imprisoned or challenged or ignored.
Because these moments are when Nathanael is bringing the voices of the world crashing into our own thoughts, demanding, “Can anything good come of me?”

In the darkest moments of our lives, we simply need to be known. Charleston 1
Just like Samuel was known in the Hebrew Scriptures from today.
Just like Nathanael was known in today’s gospel passage.
We just need someone to say, “Hey, you’re ok.  Let me walk with you a little while so you can come and see for yourself.”

Come and see.  This invitation is the Light of Christ.

And this is the deeper wisdom found in today’s scriptures.

Like Paul tells us, people don’t exist for the sake of our own amusement and use, for us to fix and condemn and mold and enslave.  We exist for one another because we are meant to accompany each other regardless of worldly laws and power.

Accompanying the stranger in our midst because being a stranger is a dark path:  Bus Stop Hospital Discharge
The refugee forced to leave their home.
The woman stranded on the streets of Baltimore in nothing but a hospital gown by the staff in the dark of night.  (click to read the story)
The one who grieves.  The one who is sick.  The one who is lonely.
The one who is trying desperately to hang on to their dignity and not take another drink.

We are here to remind each other that, indeed, something good does come from the places the powers-that-be have named irredeemable in their sneering contempt.

We are here to remind each other that, even in the hell that worldly greed can sometimes rage upon the world, we are known and we are loved by God.  And, as such, we cannot separate our spiritual lives from our political, economic, social, and communal lives.  It just can’t be done.

On the contrary, the ability to take this out, past our doors and into the world, is what we are here to cultivate.  Here.  At this Table. 2017-07-02 09.49.08b

The Sacrament of Eucharist is, at its core, an act of reconciliation.  It is through our thanks, through our gratitude for the breath of life that God offers us a remembrance of life beyond our own borders, And it’s there that we realize that one life, our life, is connected to another life is connected to another life is connected to another life.

This reconciliation that we practice teaches us that to reconcile with ourselves and the parts of our own lives that we believe to be irredeemable, is the core teaching.

Because only when we do that, when we reconcile with ourselves, do we have the ability to we realize that nothing and no one is beyond God’s love.
Those who have been displaced by worldly powers and laws.
Those who are in prison or in danger, hungry or in need.
Those who are struggling to regain their own dignity through no fault of their own.
Nothing is irredeemable.

The Rev. Dr. King himself said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

No one is irredeemable.
All are known by God.  All have inherent dignity.

And so we practice. We practice here so we can take it into the world.
We practice at this Table and learn to say again, if only to ourselves, “Come and see.”

My friends, come and see.

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Opulent Hope

A sermon preached on Christmas Eve – December 24, 2017 – at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can read the scripture by clicking here.

Now, this may be the wrong way to start off a Christmas sermon when we are expected snow later tonight, but I used to live in Berkeley, CA… where it never snows.
I was walking through my neighborhood one December day, as the sun was beginning to set.  I walked around my neighborhood in a section I’d never walked before.  And there, tucked in the midst of several blocks of homes, sitting on a corner lot, there was a synagogue I hadn’t seen before.

At first glance, it seemed deserted for a Friday, when people should be buzzing around the property, preparing for a Shabbat service.  A porch light shone on the steps but there were no lights on inside.  There was one sign and it told me only the name of the congregation Chochmat HaLev – the name means Wisdom of the Heart.

I walked up the sidewalk along the side of the building.  And, as I approached the side door of the building where a porchlight shone from the ceiling of an alcove, I saw it.Chochmat Halev Bed

Lying across the porch blocking the double door was a simple bed.  A few layers of foam with a couple of blankets and a square blue throw pillow.  Someone at the synagogue had prepared a place for a traveler, a person without a home.

It wasn’t much, really.  It wasn’t a four-poster bed.  It wasn’t a soft, downy mattress with lots of pillows.  It wasn’t even a cot in someone’s guest room.  It was just a few layers of foam with a couple of blankets and a square blue throw pillow.

A place for a stranger to lay his head.  A soft bed waiting, welcoming… intentionally made for someone without a home.  It wasn’t much.  But as I stood there looking at it, it somehow felt opulent.  Chochmat HaLev – the Wisdom of the Heart.

We’ve heard the Nativity story before, from much better storytellers and interpreters than me.  Mary and Joseph traveled from where they lived to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem.  Mary’s labor started and they had to find a place to rest, a place where Mary could give birth.  Anything would do.  And they were given permission to bed down in a stable because there was no place at the inn.

It’s hard to imagine less opulent, less hospitable circumstances for the birth of this child.  For unlike the bed lying in wait on the porch of the synagogue, the preparations for Jesus’ birth were anything but intentional.  Mary and Joseph were traveling, strangers in a land that wasn’t theirs.   Maybe not refugees, but definitely migrants.

For sure, no one sought them out, or welcomed them.  I’m sure they were met with suspicion and wariness. There was no room indoors for them and no one had laid a bed out for them in expectation of their arrival.

Is this how the light of Christ is supposed to be welcomed into the world?  Perhaps that’s the wrong question.
Perhaps a better question is, is this how the light of Christ IS welcomed into the world?  And the answer is… yes.

For the light of Christ comes to us regardless of preparation, regardless of whether we think we are worthy or ready, regardless of what we think is our ability to receive this blessing.

There we are… shopping for gifts, wrapping presents, baking cookies, trimming trees, buying that last minute quart of eggnog… tending our flocks.  We function, plan, accomplish, achieve goals, cross things off our to-do list.  Often, these are good, necessary things – taking care of ourselves and the people we love to the best of our ability.

Yet this is when it happens, when we are tending our flocks.  This is when the light of Christ is born.  The Light of Christ comes as Love that just shows up, unannounced and in the most ordinary way.

And this is the essence of Hope.  We say things like we hope and pray… but often that’s laden with expectations.
But God’s Hope for us has nothing to do with expectation and all the ways we try to make sure things happen just the way we want them to.  Hope is the movement of God surprising us in the least expected place, the place that has somehow been forgotten or overlooked, often places that are not wanted.

A place that we have not planned for or a person that we have not looked at before.  Hope arises, not in the things we want, but in the things and the people that become a blessing to us.  Chochmat HaLev – the Wisdom of the Heart.

And this Hope, when we experience it, it feels opulent.  Because it’s completely unexpected.  We can get so focused on the things we think matter, that we can forget about the Love just waiting for us when we stop and take a moment to breathe.

Perhaps we become suddenly aware of the beauty that surrounds us – in a leaf, or a smile, or a dog’s panting, or a child’s Christmas pageant.  Or maybe we catch another person’s eye and laugh knowingly together.  Perhaps we just take in a nice, long breath and feel how the oxygen feeds our cells.  Something catches us unawares.  It’s not much, when this happens, but it always feels opulent.

We suddenly realize that whatever we are doing is not the point of the whole thing.  We see how connected we are and somehow instantly know that we are not, that not one of us is alone.

And this… this is the manger – these moments of opulence.
This is the manger.  This is where God breaks down the walls of expectation and focuses us, even if just for one moment, on the thing we’ve been forgetting, the one we’ve been overlooking, the numinous yet mundane reality.  Chochmat HaLev – the Wisdom of the Heart.

The manger is the place inside of us that we often try to hide.  The manger is the person or place that seems most inconvenient.  Because that is always where God will be found waiting for us to see. And this is always where we are called to kneel – the unexpected, least hospitable, most inconvenient, overlooked place in our own neighborhood.

And despite what Good News this is, it can be terrifying.  Just like it was for the shepherds, this message that we are not alone, that God is with us, is an earth-shattering reality.  Because it can be hard to hear that you don’t have to do anything to be loved by God.  There is nothing special that is needed to be the precious beloved child of God that we are all born to be, which is the very essence of the Incarnation.

It can be hard to accept that you are good simply because you breathe, to realize that the bed in the alcove of the synagogue has been laid out for you.

This is how Christ is born into the world.  This is how God makes Godself known to us.  This sudden, unexpected invitation to love, to a gift that we happen upon on our walk through our own neighborhood.

It isn’t much, but somehow, it’s always opulent.

The nativity story tells us that despite the lack of hospitality, the world is changed on this night when Jesus is born.  Because on this night, the world is reminded that God is with us.  God makes God’s home amongst us.

So, here we are, my friends.  Here we are.  The wait is over.  Our only task now is to stop for a moment and take a breath, to rest in God’s invitation that is the Christ light.   Because God is here amongst us, no matter what we have done or what we have not done.  God is with us in this manger.

What a gift.  What an unexpected gift of Love.

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Into the Silence

You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.

Click the play button below to listen along.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Today’s image on the bulletin is from a mid-20th century American painter named Edward Hopper.  It’s his most famous work and is one of the best known paintings in all of American art.  It’s not really a seasonal painting but I think it reflects some important themes of Advent – space, light, simplicity, and quiet.

This image is that of an all-night diner in New York City where 4 people have

EHopper Nighthawks C

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper (1942)

congregated.  The scene has a quiet feel. There is no action implied except that of the waiter.  The dark street is motionless even as the artificial light spills out onto the dark sidewalk around it.  The colors are muted and the shadows long. The people don’t appear to be talking to one another.  There are empty stools at the counter, just waiting to be filled. This feeling of quiet is echoed in the large empty space.  The lines are straight and shapes are simple and clean.  There is minimal decoration, even in the closed shops across the street.  And even if there was any noise in the diner, we wouldn’t be able to hear it, as we are standing on the other side of the glass, looking in on this small congregation.


The whole image seems to be one of waiting and watching.  The space waits for movement to fill it because it is motionless itself.  The people, the nighthawks, watching for something new to cross their paths, something that will stir them into motion in the middle of the night.

So many people read this painting and think it looks lonely and depressing.  And I wonder, what is it about space and silence that unnerves us so that we want to fill it?  What are we afraid of?  What do we want instead?

It’s like one of those sleepless nights where we can’t seem to get our mind to shut off.  It’s almost as if the silence is so unbearable that we will fill it, even with the most disturbing thoughts.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

I once led a meditation workshop during which a group of about 15 people experimented with different types of meditation.  Each experiment was met with curiosity, except for silence.  When it came time for us to try silent mediation, the people became agitated, even as I spoke about it.  And when I suggested we sit in silence for 12 minutes, one participant, who had been previously still and silent, burst into nervous rambling and began shaking.

And it’s not just silence, it’s the quietness of prayer in general.  I always catch myself thinking all kinds of thoughts – wondering why someone said something or did something.  Wondering how I should respond or fix… or what I need to remember.  It’s as if I think that my thoughts are the most important thing.

And before we dismiss the importance of cultivating silence in our lives, let me ask you this:  From where else but silence do you hear anything besides your own thoughts?

Our minds are so filled with television and radio and smartphones and videogames and to-do lists and gossip and griping and anxiety and thought after thought after thought… sometimes layers of thought that we aren’t even aware of… how on earth do we ever hear God’s voice in the cacophony?

Mark’s Gospel is calling us to “Keep awake.”  And I can think of no more important time for us to be listening for God than now.  There is a great unveiling happening in the world and some days it feels as if everything is falling apart.  We are lost.  And there is no worldly messiah who will come.  Indeed, the real danger is in wanting for one to come and fix everything.

Because our salvation lies in God, in listening to God for guidance, and in taking action that is loving and compassionate, just and merciful.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Today’s Gospel passage uses the trope of the householder going on a journey and leaving his servants in charge to watch after things.  We’ve seen this before in a parable – two weeks ago.  It’s woven into all the Gospels and is used in other mystical traditions.

The householder that goes on a journey is a metaphor for us getting lost.  Getting lost in our own stories and needs and wants.  In our beliefs and fears and desires – things we want from the world and how we might go about getting it or why we didn’t get it and who’s to blame.  Getting so lost that we forget how to be quiet enough to listen for God, how to pay attention enough to watch for God.

My own journey of lostness wasn’t that much different from others.  I somehow arrived in young adulthood and, of course, had some picture of what my life was supposed to be like.  I got pretty close to it but, it turned out that I had just borrowed someone else’s picture.  I wasn’t happy and I didn’t know what to do about it.

So, I ate, and I withdrew from my friends, and I hoped that things would just get better on their own because that’s the coping mechanism I knew.  After 7 years of living like that I knew I needed to make a change in order to save my own life.

I moved to another city, joined the YMCA, and started a gratitude journal.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just started my spiritual path.  However, the moment that really awakened me was my first retreat.  At one point, I got so scared that I ran out of the room and into the woods until I couldn’t run anymore.

PyramidMountainTentacles1But a few days later, at the end of that retreat, I had cultivated enough silence that the fog of my own self-judgment and criticism momentarily parted.  An enormous space opened up inside of me, all the thoughts disappeared, and what took their place was this overwhelming sense of Love.  It was as if light was had filled me up and was shining out of me.  I couldn’t speak.  All I could do was cry, I was so filled with gratitude.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

And after that, I wandered again, as we always do.  I found new ways to criticize myself and met new people to try and get approval from.  And I still work at these things every day.  And when I have the most trouble with anxiety, that’s usually when I recognize that I’m not giving myself enough silence.  Or rather, I’m not giving God enough space.

Because the Good News is that God is there in the silence.  We think we have to wait on God, but God is always there waiting on us.  We think God has hidden Godself from us, but it is us who have hidden ourselves from God… in all the expectations and judgments and fears and anxieties and blame.  God is just waiting for us to awaken from our own trance.

This is the hope of the season – that God remains.  In all our comings and goings, we can always return to God.  Always.  God the Master of the house, who comes at the most unexpected hour, in the most unexpected way, God is there to meet us when we simply find a way into a silent place.

It will feel like the world is ending because, in a way, it does.  For a time.

This time of Advent is a time of cultivating the space in which we can hear God speak.  A time of preparing the manger.  We cease from our wanderings and find our way back to our origin, the place of our birth.  Where we find God’s Hope, not in the ways of the world, but in our tenderest, most vulnerable self, our real self.

This is where we come on bended knee.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

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Homeless Jesus, King of Kings

You can read today’s scripture by clicking here.


Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz notes the ironies in his creation, “Jesus the Homeless,” a bronze sculpture depicting the Christian savior huddled beneath a blanket on an actual-size park bench. Only the feet are visible, their gaping nail wounds reveal the subject.

A few weeks ago, we baptized two beautiful little ones – Ella Mae and Eleanor.  All of 2 months and 15 months, these little ones, as they always do, strike a familiar chord in our beings.  Something we learn to leave behind or cover over because we’re scared it will be hurt.  Something sweet and tender and vulnerable – the part of ourselves that saw the world with awe and wonder, where everything is something to discover.

And in that baptismal service we said aloud our Baptismal Vows.

  • We vowed to continue our prayers and worship.
  • We vowed to try our best and offer forgiveness to ourselves and others when we miss the mark.
  • We vowed to teach others about God.
  • We vowed to seek and serve Christ in those we meet.
  • And we vowed to strive for justice and peace because that is how we honor the dignity of every human being.

That 4th vow – to seek and serve Christ – I’d like to highlight that one today as we mark the end of the longest season in the church year, the Season after Pentecost.  Today, we come to the ultimate message of Jesus’ ministry:  That true power is found in Love.  True “kingship” is found in stewardship.  True divinity is found in the least among us, the most vulnerable, the weakest, most defenseless people, the most tender and vulnerable part of ourselves.

Today is Christ the King or the Reign of Christ.  Each year on this day we have a Gospel reading that uses apocalyptic end-of-the-world imagery to highlight the reversal of power.  But this day acts as a threshold, not an end.  A transition from one thing into another.  We begin a new church year next week as the Season of Advent begins and we commence our preparation for the return of the Light, the coming of Christ into the manger of our hearts.

The wisdom of the liturgical year echoes the wisdom of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere.  We learn about God through the cycle of life in this creation called Earth.  The end becomes the beginning of the next.  The darkness is pierced by the Light.  Winter turns.  Death is never the last word because there is always new life.

This is the God of Life that continues through all the comings and goings.  The rising of the sun in the East is all the hope we sometimes need to know that life continues past even the darkest, most painful of moments in our lives.  God persists.

God is the Hope, the Light that shines in the shadows of our lives.
God is the Forgiveness that moves us through pain.
God is the Mercy that frees us from shame.
God is the Glory that calls us out of hiding.
And God is the Love that reconciles us with ourselves and one another.  Over and over again.

The world that we create comes and goes.  Institutions and even nations rise and fall.  Ideologies grab our attention.  Objects and money captivate and, sometimes, enslave us.

But Light, Forgiveness, Mercy, Glory, Love.  The constancy of God is eternal.
And we know this most intimately in the tenderest part of ourselves.
We remember that part when we meet little ones like Ella Mae and Eleanor.  The question is, can we remember it when we meet those who trouble us?

The focus of Matthew’s Gospel, indeed all the Gospels, is the reversal of the notion of “kingdom.”

There is the obvious meaning of kingdom – the wealth and privilege of those who have wealth and privilege in society.  Christ’s presence can never be measured in worldly numbers and it’s problematic when we try.  Yet, because the church is a worldly institution, we cannot exist without money and some degree of privilege.

But how we use this money and privilege makes a difference.
Even if we think we don’t have enough.
How we live out our lives in the world makes a difference.
Even if we think we have no power.

We believe in the Incarnation, in God’s in-breaking into the world we have created.  Therefore, the spiritual life we live must be lived out in the world.

Do we offer one another Light and Hope?  Do we encourage our friends to Forgive?  Do we ask for Mercy?  Do we take the time to witness Glory?  Do we kneel at the feet of Love?

As humans, we struggle so much with needing to be seen or known in a particular way.  To have some kind of meaningful identity in the world… caring, smart, capable, attractive, unique, good, or right.  Sometimes even weakness or invisibility are ways we prefer to be known in the world.

There is something about these identities that feels safer to us in a world that is scary.  It’s a protection, a role we play to make our way in the world.  Sometimes we’re so entranced by this that we have forgotten the truer, more tender part of ourselves.  The Divine Spark, the Christ within us all.

And this is where that Baptismal Vow I mentioned earlier, becomes so vitally important.  To seek and serve Christ is not just about charity and being kind.  It’s also about looking for the Glory of Christ in the people we meet.  Seeing past the behavior that usually gets our attention and looking for something deeper and truer – the Glory of Christ waiting to shine forth.

To seek and serve Christ in one another means that we actually do the seeking, expecting to witness Glory and kneeling before it in awe and wonder.

The purpose of Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture is to remind us of just that.  Homeless Jesus is seen as distasteful by many and has caused controversy in many of the places it has been installed.  Because the worldly part of ourselves doesn’t like to recognize the Glory in someone we would rather ignore… or express our outrage or pity over.

Why would we worship a homeless person?  It’s almost blasphemous to suggest the notion, even when we read a Gospel passage that tells us this is exactly what we are supposed to be doing.  The cynical side of me wonders if it’s because we would so much rather worship a worldly king, someone from whom we can curry favors.  After all, what can a homeless person give us?

In Kingston, I’ve noted that homeless people don’t sleep on the streets so the enormous housing problem that I know we have in Ulster County is all but hidden from our sight.  So ask yourself, who are the people you find to be troublesome?  The people you avoid?  Who are the outcasts?

At one time (and this is still true to some degree) it was people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS.  And St. John’s created a beautiful ministry, amid some controversy from what I understand, because people here recognized that in seeking the person with AIDS, you were seeking Christ.  Angel Food East not only fed people, but crossed a worldly boundary of going to visit people who were stigmatized.  That is the beautiful, yet disturbing witness of this congregation.  After all, what can a person with AIDS do for us?  There is no worldly power there.

I use the word disturbing, not in a pejorative way but to highlight that the Gospels disrupt and disturb our worldly understanding and sensibilities. In the same way, Matthew’s Gospel offers a disturbing metaphor for God – the Thief in the Night.

God, who comes into our worldly creation suddenly and without warning to steal our imagined kingdoms away from us.  God comes at our most tender hour, when our defenses are down, to change our world and show us the truth.

The truth that we are Beloved.  You are Beloved.
And we never needed what the kings of the world could offer us.  We never needed to be special or right or smart or witty, beautiful or capable… or any of the other things we think we need to be.  These efforts we make in “the world” to get something from “the world?”  They are the kingdoms we create.

What would it be like if we stopped trying so hard?  What would it be like if we just learned to accept ourselves?  What if we saw Christ when we looked in the mirror?  Would we be able to see Christ when we look at the homeless person?

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’  Mt 45

This is the ultimate speech in Matthew’s Gospel and it is meant to be ironic, turning our worldly notions inside out.  Written to help us realize that we are not to bow down and submit ourselves to worldly power, or to the parts of ourselves that make us feel powerful or smart or capable or any of the other things we think we’re supposed to be in the world.

But to use our gifts in the world to endeavor to make the Reign of Christ present.  Here and now.  Because as we learn how to honor the most vulnerable part of our self, we also learn to honor the most vulnerable among us.

The constancy of God is found, not in worldly kingdoms, but in the act of bowing down to the powerless, the wretched, the lonely, the lost, the penniless, the homeless, the outcast.

The spiritual path of being a Christian cannot be separated from this image on today’s worship bulletin.  Because how we live our lives in this world makes a difference.

Hope.  Forgiveness.  Mercy.  Glory.  Love.
This is the eternal Reign of Christ.

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Wisdom and the Choice to Serve

You can read today’s readings here.


Our readings today are about choice – the choice to serve God.

Joshuas 12 tribesThe Book of Joshua picks up where the Exodus leaves off – as the 12 tribes are entering the Promised Land.  For many, the Promised Land is a metaphor for coming home, for returning to God, for coming back to ourselves after having been lost in a desert, a sense of healing and resting now that the search is over.  It’s a metaphor for the spiritual journey.

And these 12 tribes now gathered after their journey, become one people – the nation of Israel.

To extend the metaphor, the parts of ourselves gather and we become whole again when we find our home, when we find ourselves.  We’ve given up the other gods that take our attention and our time and our money – those things we think will bring us peace but never do: addictions, possessions, unhealthy relationships; behaviors like blaming, gossiping, complaining; beliefs and ideologies that are really just ways to excuse selfish behavior.

Whatever it is that has taken us from ourselves… from God… we’ve given it up.  We’re ready to make a different choice.  We’re ready to serve God.  We’re ready to return from the wilderness and be home.

Everyone’s spiritual journey is different because everyone’s wilderness is different.  But it’s always about coming home, about knowing more clearly the choices to make, hearing God’s voice above the noisy din of the world.  This voice is Wisdom.  The Wisdom of God.

The Wisdom of God isn’t about learning to navigate the world or figuring out how to work the system.  It’s not about manipulating the world or investment strategies or computers or getting a lot done every day.  No.



Sophia, Chisinau, Moldova

The Wisdom of God is the voice that expands our awareness beyond ourselves while also helping us to be more aware of our inner weather, our self-talk and our fears.


The Wisdom of God is Sophia, depicted on the cover today.  In the color image, she is depicted as a red winged woman who descends wherever and whenever she is needed.

Found throughout Proverbs and the books of Wisdom and Sirach, Sophia, or the Wisdom of God, is finally heard by us when we’ve given up on the ways of the world and ready to come home, to serve God.  She’s always speaking to us – always, even in our darkest moments, even when we are so lost in our own stories and fears and routines – Sophia speaks, she whispers God’s wisdom.

But when we’ve finally decided to turn to God, we hear her and, like a balm for our soul, we know how to serve God.  And we make different choices.

AVares Parable of the Bridesmaids

Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, Ain Vares


Wisdom is portrayed in today’s parable as bridesmaids – wise women who have learned about the choice to serve God on their spiritual journeys through their own wildernesses.  They’ve learned how to prepare themselves, prepare their own hearts and minds to be ready to hear God’s voice speaking to them.  They’ve learned how to be of service to God.

And Wisdom is not selfish, although it appears from this parable as though it might be.  But, frankly, Wisdom cannot be given to those who aren’t ready to receive it.  We couldn’t give it even if we wanted to because each person has their own spiritual journey.  Everyone has their own deserts and wildernesses to go through on their way home.  Sophia speaks to each of us differently.

My own spiritual journey took me on quite a path.  I didn’t come to Christianity until I was in my 30’s.  I had been spiritually seeking for many years already and had learned many things about myself and had developed a passion and yearning for spiritual work.  It wasn’t until I was utterly dependent, when I was living in a friend’s house in the middle of Oregon, had an exceedingly low-paying job, had just totaled my car, and had several broken ribs.  That’s when I realized I was ready to serve God in some way.

I had no idea what that meant.  All I knew is that it felt good to be in an Episcopal church on Sunday mornings where the priest was patient and the people were kind, letting me find my way for well over a year until I could figure out just what I was doing there.  They didn’t need me to be a member.  They didn’t expect me to sign-on or get involved.  But they cherished me as a guest in their midst.  It was as if they knew they were enough and God would do the rest.

And that’s exactly what happened.

The choice to serve God is often what opens us up to the truth – that we are enough and we have enough.  Whatever we have is enough.

I offer this message today because, as the leadership of this amazing congregation goes through the hard work of creating a budget, knowing that we’ll need to rely on our reserves again this year, and as we all look at the task of stewardship of this congregation, I want you to know that even in all of the horror that the world is, and there is a lot of it right now, the most important thing you need to know is found at that Table.  In the Sacrament of abundance called the Eucharist.

Walter Breuggemann says, “The Eucharist is the great sign of God’s abundance.  It’s the only place in our lives where it’s just given to us and it is given to us regularly.”

The TableEvery week we gather together and celebrate this Great Thanksgiving.  We bear witness to the abundant love of God, made known to us in the simple elements of bread and wine as we remember Jesus’ ministry and sacrifice.  And we come to the Table to share this meal that reconciles us to God, to one another, and to ourselves.  This is the grace that comes to us in the form of the Sacrament.

Think about that for a moment – this unbounded, abundant grace that comes to us again and again and again.  It never runs out.  It’s hard for us to imagine sometimes because it’s a very human tendency to think that God’s grace is limited, to think that it will run out and there won’t be enough.

Some questions for reflection:
What are the ways that you believe you’re not enough?
What are the way that you believe we don’t have enough?
What if we stopped focusing on what’s not here and focused on what is here?

Of course the foolish bridesmaids took no oil.  It wasn’t about planning, it was a lack of awareness.  They never acknowledged the importance of or took responsibility for what they already had.  They never opened their eyes to see God’s abundance, or their ears to listen to God’s Wisdom.

They never made the choice to serve God.  They were just along for the ride.  They were unaware.  And life does this.  It pulls our attention away from God by listening to voices that make us feel so small and ill-equipped, so unlovable and damaged.  Sometimes it’s all we can do to go along for the ride.  But Sophia continues speaking, waiting for us to choose to listen.  “You are beloved.” She says.  “Come take your place at the Table.”

This meal of thanksgiving is a sign of God’s abundance and like any Sacrament, it is meant to change us.  As we receive this meal we are called to a life of gratitude and generosity, learning to lovingly share who we are and what we have, living into the assurance that as we offer, we will also receive from that flow of abundance.

Stewardship is a practice of awareness of and gratitude for this flow of abundance.  It’s a practice of caring for community and for ourselves as we offer our time and talent for the common good.

You see, the world fools us into thinking that there isn’t enough, that we are not enough.  And off we go into a wilderness of shame and self-judgment.  We leave behind a memory of Belovedness in hopes that we can somehow fill ourselves with the world’s schemes.

And the Eucharist calls us home to remember our Belovedness in God’s abundance.  Can you hear God’s Wisdom above the din of the world?   Can you hear Sophia?

The Promised Land isn’t somewhere far away – it’s here.  Right here.
We have enough here.  We are enough here.  Your lamp, my friends, is already full of oil.
The question is not one of means, it’s one of choice.

And so the question is: Are you ready to serve God?

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Clothing of Belovedness

You can read the scripture for today by clicking here.

Today’s Gospel lesson is pretty challenging and it brings up a central issue about salvation: What exactly is it that saves us?  Are we saved simply by believing in Christ?  If so, what does that say about people of other faiths?  Or are we saved by our works, by good deeds in our lifetime?  If so, exactly how high is the bar on that?

What do we mean when we talk about being saved?  And what does that mean about what choices we make?

Matthew has Jesus using another parable to highlight the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership at the time.  I’ll get to Matthew’s motivation in a moment.  For now, let’s open up the parable a bit.

DRivera Dance of TehuantepecThe King (God), is giving a wedding banquet for his son and the people who are invited, (the Jewish leadership or the people of Israel), would not come.  And even though God sent people to come after them (the prophets), the people make light of the invitation, refusing to go, even killing those who have been sent.

And in answer to this violence… God seeks vengeance.  The king destroys the murderers and burns the city.  Then goes and seeks different guests for the wedding, both good and bad.

Let’s stop here for a moment.  Let’s consider what Matthew is writing and why.

Much like John’s Gospel, Matthew is writing for a group of people who were Jews and had been telling stories for several generations about this man named Jesus who had been put to death by the Roman authorities.  Both John and Matthew were writing for these kinds of communities whereas Luke and Mark were writing for more mixed communities that included non-Jews.

We know that about 30 years after Jesus died, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, forcing the grief-stricken and traumatized Jews into a new way of life.  No longer having the Temple at the center of their faith, Jews began following various teachers called rabbis.  Today, there is no Temple Judaism, there is only Rabbinic Judaism.

And this leads us to the differences in the storytelling of the Gospel writers. You see, it’s not just a matter of style, but the common stories are told with different emphases and slants.  Because each community was dealing with the fall of Judaism in different ways in different contexts.  Each community was developing its beliefs and telling stories that helped them to form those beliefs, to form their identities, their sense of belonging.

The Matthean community had come to understand Jesus as the messiah and the divinity of Jesus became very important to them, to offer legitimacy to their movement in the face of the other Jews in the area who didn’t believe.  Thus, the stories of the Matthean community were purposely divisive, blaming the Jewish people for killing Jesus, giving themselves a sense of self-righteousness, a sense of belonging to God.

And in this series of parables that we’ve been reading over the past month or so, Matthew intensifies the divide with each parable, increasing the violent imagery each time.  Blaming the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.

I said this a few weeks ago and I want to reiterate it because it’s incredibly important.  For centuries, scripture has been deeply misused by Christians to provide a reason to hate Jews and has created the misunderstanding that Christianity is the sole inheritor of Judaism.  All of these parables are in danger of being read this way.  And, it’s an improper reading of them.

And this brings us back to the beginning of the sermon and the point of this parable – exactly what is it that saves us?  Are we saved simply by believing in Jesus as the Christ?  If so, what does that say about people of others’ faiths?  Or are we saved by our works, by our good deeds in our lifetime?  If so, exactly how high is the bar on that?

As we continue to move through Matthew’s parable for today, we can discern that this is not just about believing in Jesus as the Messiah.

Those that were invited, the Jewish people, are now destroyed because they were unworthy.  They did not believe. So, the king invites everyone else to the banquet and they all come, both good and bad.  But here’s the thing: even this isn’t enough for the king.  He wants everyone to wear the right clothes, kicking someone out saying, “many are called, but few are chosen.”

God invites everyone to the Table but if you’re not doing the right things, even though you’re coming to the banquet, you still might be tossed out.

It’s a mixed message but worth examining a bit more. And it has to do with how we receive what is offered at the Table.  Whether we are willing to drop our armor and allow ourselves to be changed by God’s grace at the banquet of Love.

Nouwen BookI’ve invited the people of St. John’s to read a book called Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen, a professor, a priest, and a writer.  Life of the Beloved begins by defining the spiritual journey as learning to avoid the temptation of self-rejection.

Nouwen says that we are constantly looking for ways to legitimize or prove that we are loved or esteemed.  And when we fail or when something happens, we usually don’t examine the circumstances and take an appropriate measure of limitations of the situation.  Instead, we listen to the darker parts of our inner dialogue, the daemons, the parts that tell us we deserve to be abandoned and forgotten, punished and rejected.

And lest we think that some people are immune from this because they are so incredibly arrogant, Nouwen reminds us that arrogance is nothing but the need to put ourselves on a pedestal because we are so afraid of being seen for what we fear that we are.  Arrogance, you see, is just another form of self-rejection.

The deepest spiritual problem, Nouwen says, is that “we succumb to the belief that we are not truly welcome in human existence.”
Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.”  And being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence… Aren’t you like me, hoping that some person, thing or event will come along and give you that final feeling of inner well-being that you desire?… But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied.  You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run.  (pg 35-36)

But, he says… it doesn’t have to be this way.  The truth of our existence is that we are the Beloved.  That when the dove descends upon Jesus and God speaks, “This is my child the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  God is speaking about all of us as creatures of God.  We are all the Beloved of God, known by God before we are even knit in our mother’s womb.  And we belong to one another because we all belong to God.

This is the work of the spiritual path – to find that voice that reminds us, that calls us back to remember this.  From this place, we have the strength and wisdom for our ministry.  From this Belovedness, we are able to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And so the lesson of today’s Gospel, although particular to what Matthew’s community was going through in its grief and pain, still points us to the confusing reality of the spiritual path:  We’re always looking for something outside of ourselves that will save us, some experience that will make us feel better.  But it’s this inner work of accepting the banquet’s grace, really allowing it to change us, that will actually save us.

And, hopefully, this opens today’s parable up for us because we come to realize that Matthew was trying to articulate, even in their slanted story, just how widespread the invitation to the banquet actually is – that all are invited.  Even those who laughed it off, they were invited.

But that it’s also not always easy to allow the banquet to change us, to give us new clothes to wear, so to speak so that we learn to rest in our true identity of belonging, as the Beloved.  We are so tempted by self-rejection that we can end up refusing the teaching of the banquet and we never learn how to show up for one another, how to treat one another, how to be in community with one another.

Paul often refers to this “clothing ourselves with Christ.”  The clothing that we learn to put on, is not one that legitimizes us over and above others it’s not about self-righteousness.  It’s the clothing of grace that we receive, the clothing that reminds us of our Belovedness, our truth, our deepest identity.

Because the Table’s salvation is this grace, this reminder, that we are Beloved, that we belong, we are invited in this human existence and those voices of self-rejection, those wolves of our psyches, that tear at our clothing, are lies and they are the most deadly of all sins.

Those voices are what we are called to leave behind as we are absolved from our sins.

All are invited to the banquet of Love.  All.  No exceptions.
And we, as Christians, find our sustenance at this Table, the Table of Reconciliation.   Where we are first reconciled with God so we might be reconciled with ourselves.  Where we come to remember we are the Beloved so that we might learn to stop being tempted by self-rejection.  Where all are welcome at God’s Table.

Where each one of us is invited and where each one of us is, hopefully, changed by this invitation, by this experience… changed by the truth that we are Beloved.

And salvation lies in this: that we are so changed by this truth, that it becomes the clothing that we wear whenever we come to the banquet of Love.  That we come to know we are Beloved so deeply that we wear this clothing all the time, as we carry this banquet, this Love, with us out into the world as the Beloved of God.  To be Christ’s hands and feet in and for the world.

You are the Beloved of God. This is the simple truth.
May you remember.  May you always remember.

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God’s Peace, Our Willingness

You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

You can listen along by click on the play button below:

There’s an Indian writer named Arundhati Roy.  She penned one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever heard for a 2003 speech.  She wrote: “Another world is not only possible.  She is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.  She is on her way.”

I used that same opening last year in a sermon I offered from this very place.  It was the Sunday after the Orlando massacre.  I haven’t been with you all two years yet and this is the second time I’m preaching after a major national tragedy involving guns. 

Another massacre.  Another reason for our hearts to be broken.
Another opportunity for us to grapple with the world’s violence.

I struggled a great deal with this sermon, mostly because I’m so tired of this.  I’m so tired of mass shootings and massacres.  And I’m tired of hearing people talk about gun laws and gun rights and reading articles, watching people get self-righteous and angry, speaking our opinions as if that solves the problem when, I think, we’re all just scared out of our wits.  And I’m tired of all the conjecturing and theorizing and postulating and lobbying and the blaming.  I’m so tired of the blaming.

Because nothing is changing.  We can say all the things we want and we can say them as many times as we want and we can be as indignant and as angry and as fearful as we want… but nothing is changing.  People are still dying.

So I stand before you today, a very worried priest – your worried priest. 

I worry that the sheer magnitude of dreadful and vile stories coming across our newsfeed on a daily basis will have a long-term effect on our congregation’s collective mental, emotional, and spiritual health… if it hasn’t already.
Many of us are going through a lot in our own personal lives: aging, relationship issues, family divisions, financial burdens, health concerns.  And now, almost daily, the news gives us something enormous to worry about.  It’s all a lot for us to shoulder.  I’m worried for our health.

I worry that maybe the part of us that earnestly wants to live into another world, a peaceful world of God’s love and justice, is being overwhelmed by the part of us that remains unwilling, for whatever reason, perhaps it seems hard or inconvenient, or we might offend or anger people we like/love, or it might just scare us to get too involved in things that seem political and beyond our abilities.  I’m worried for our souls.

I worry that just talking about the massacre in Las Vegas is going to make some of you feel uncomfortable.  I’m aware that many people come to church with the expectation that it will help them feel good, that it will be something they enjoy.  And I hope that on most Sundays we enjoy our lives together.  And, believe it or not, I don’t like it when people feel uncomfortable.  My personality seeks to be a people pleaser.  Making people feel uncomfortable is not fun or sporting for me.  It’s actually quite painful.  I’m worried for our relationships.

I really don’t want to talk about things that make people feel uncomfortable.  But I have to.  Or rather, I’m compelled to.  Because the Gospel doesn’t really give us a choice when we are faced with the circumstances of “the world.” 

“The world”… this world… can be a nightmare, so loud in its horror that it drowns all the quiet.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  I believe with all my heart, with all that I am… that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Otherwise, there is no way that I could be a priest.  There is another world.

The Gospel talks about “another world,” about the kingdom of God, a world of love and justice.  We know that Jesus was a Jewish man who talked about the in-breaking of God’s Love into the world.  And through his ministry, he came to be known to us as the Rabbi, the teacher, sent to teach us, his disciples… to teach us what that that world is, what it looks like, how we will know it. 

He taught his followers about this other world by using parables – stories that spoke about God’s dream of peace for all of Creation.  Matthew’s parable today is about the unwillingness to recognize and accept the in-breaking of God’s Love, the unwillingness to produce the fruit of the harvest, the unwillingness to give ourselves over to God’s dream of peace and justice.

In this parable, the landowner is God, giving the vineyard – giving Creation – to people, to tenants, to watch over it with the intention that they will cultivate a fruitful harvest, a harvest that belongs to the God of Love, the God of Life.

When it’s time to gather the harvest, God sends two groups of people, slaves as it says, who are the prophets – the former prophets and the latter prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.  And the people refuse to acknowledge the teaching of the prophets.  Instead, these people have decided, “No. The vineyard is ours, to do with as we please.”

The vineyard, intended for the purposes of God’s love and justice, is being used for other purposes.1 percent

Then, God sends the son – for us, as Christians, we believe this to be Jesus the Christ, the anointed one.  And the people reject the son, killing him on sight.  They continue their prideful insistence that it’s their vineyard.  The people have refused to recognize and accept the in-breaking of God’s Love into the world.

The result is that rejected becomes the cornerstone.  And those who rejected the cornerstone are unable to participate in the Kingdom of God – not because God seeks punishment, that is not the God of Love – but because they are unwilling to participate in God’s Kingdom, God’s dream of peace and justice. 

They have turned Creation into their world.
They have turned themselves into gods.

I was over at Congregation Emanuel on Friday night.  Rabbi Yael and her Sukkotcongregation invited all the houses of worship to join in their Festival of Sukkot – the Festival of Tents.  People from Holy Cross were there, people from Christ the King were there, people from Vida Real were there, people from the Kingston Muslim Mosque were there… all there to pray for peace together. 

I listened as Rabbi Yael reminded us that praying for peace is so important, but what’s more important is that we have to be willing to live into our teachings.  And we must be willing to make hard choices sometimes in order to do that.

And when the world becomes the nightmare it can be, hope can be hard to imagine.  This is where prayer is vitally important.  But let me remind you of something: 

Mthr T PrayerChangesUsThe power of prayer is not that it has an effect on something out there… the power of prayer is that it has an effect on our own hearts, on our own souls and bodies and minds.  The power of prayer is that we are changed and we become willing servants, devoted tenants of God’s vineyard who seek to reap a harvest of justice and peace, not for ourselves alone but for the whole of creation. 

Prayer is meant to change us because it is we who change the world, who are Christ’s hands and fee in the world, who usher in another world.

I agree with Rabbi Yael that peace needs our willingness in order to become real, to be made manifest, to be made incarnate among us.  Our hope is in our willingness, in our devotion to something greater than ourselves, greater than the world we have created.  Our hope is in our commitment to participate in being shepherds for Another World.


CRCancel St Francis

Painting by C.R. Cancel

And St. Francis knew this too.

Today’s cover image is a depiction of St. Francis, surrounded by animals, bowing his head in humility and reverence.  Francis has become known to us as the Patron Saint of animals because he had a deep awe for God’s Creation, believing nature to be the mirror of God, the God of all Life, and calling all the animals his brothers and sisters.


Born into wealth, Francis grew up enjoying all the fine things and spent money lavishly.  He saw the world as his own and was unabashed in his enjoyment of what his wealth could buy.

But a meeting with a beggar opened his heart and gradually, he became a willing servant.  Because of this, he was mocked by his friends, and scolded and rejected by his father.  And yet, he started a way of life that hundreds of thousands after him would come to follow over centuries and centuries on all continents around the world. 

Franciscans are noted for living a deeply simple life, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in recognition that their lives and all their work in the world belong to God.  In this way, they are icons for us, a way for us to remember our place as tenants, not owners, of God’s Creation. 

Because of his willingness, Francis became the rejected cornerstone.  One who felt as if he owned the world, came to see another world that was different than the one he grew up in, a world in which he didn’t need what the world told him he needed and he led others to see the same world.  He is sometimes called “another Christ” because his life so closely resembled the ministry of Jesus.Giving water

Not all of us have the same dramatic calling that Francis had.  But I bet most of us, if we allow ourselves to, can imagine another world. 

Take a moment now.  Close your eyes and imagine another world.  What does it look like for every creature to have exactly what they need?  Tg3What does it feel like to not be scared, but to trust that all will be well?  What does peace sound like?  Taste like?  Smell like?

I suspect that each person sitting in this room, in this holy sanctuary, has a dream of peace that is much, much bigger than we Climate March IIare but we just don’t know how to make it happen, how to speak it into being.

Here’s what I know: Even in the midst of the nightmare that the world can sometimes be, it is our willingness to serve God’s dream of peace that matters most.  There lies our hope.  Devonte HartOur willingness to try, our willingness to show up, our willingness to give ourselves over to becoming what we are called to be: Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

Because we all have ministry.  Even if our bodies are not as capable as we’d like them to be, even if our minds are not as sharp as we want them to be, we all have something to offer in service to the in-breaking of God’s Love.  cville-5-clergy-via-twitterEven if we’re scared and feeling a sense of scarcity, we all end up having more, the more we offer ourselves.


And so today, let us do something radical in the face of terror and violence:  Let us celebrate the God of Life, the God of all Life – especially as we honor the love we have and have been given by the animals in our lives.  Communion summer 2017
Let us refuse to give in to terror and violence, denying it’s power to hold us in chains.
Let us, if only for one moment, allow ourselves to dream of another world – one that is filled with God’s Love, in which all life is honored and respected.
Let us surrender ourselves to that harvest, a harvest of peace and justice, for these are the fruits of the kingdom.
And let us be willing servants of this world, this other world that we dream with God.

May we hear her breathing.  May we know she is on her way.
And may we have the courage to make it so.

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In This Sanctuary

Click here for this week’s scripture.

The end of Matthew’s Gospel today references the presence of God that we experience when we are engaged in various forms of prayer.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 

God dwells among us when we are gathered together as prayerful people – prayers of song and of speech, prayers of silence and of laughter.  Studying, worshipping, healing, serving.  God is always with us.  And when we are focused and receptive to God, wholly occupied with God, we experience a deeper aspect of God.

What Matthew is talking about is not a passive, “just show up to church and the magic will happen.”  Matthew’s words come from the Jewish understanding that God dwells where people are participating and engaging together in prayer, a particular form of God’s presence when we share the time and space to be in community together.

The Hebrew word for this is shekhinah. And Matthew, who was writing for a JewishShekhinah Hebrew community coming to know themselves as followers of Jesus, knew shekhinah to be the aspect of God which rests between and among people who are occupying themselves with the joyful adoration of God that happens in the midst of all that takes place in our lives… good, bad, hard times and easy times, our worries about friends and family in places of fire and flood and hurricanes, our grief and frustration about racism and deportation, and our joy in new births, deepening friendships, successful operations, and serving others… all of it.

The shekhinah comes to dwell as we open ourselves in joyful adoration in the worship of God.  And so it actually matters how we bring ourselves to one another, how we offer ourselves here… in our sanctuary.

IMG_20161221_132120369Today we return to our beloved St. John’s sanctuary after spending 2 months in our “summer chapel.”
This sanctuary that was reshaped to include a center aisle when the church was moved stone by stone from its location on Wall St in 1926.
This sanctuary that is graced by these amazing windows depicting the beauty of creation given in honor of people who lived well over 100 years ago.
This sanctuary that is decorated by the beautiful woodwork of George Huber, an immigrant to the United States, installed in the 1940’s during WWII.
This sanctuary where the baptismal font was moved from the private baptistry in the 1990’s so it could take its proper place in the public space of the church.
This sanctuary where people have been married and baptized, where we’ve cried and prayed and celebrated, where we’ve held funerals for our friends.

In this sanctuary, shekhinah has been with us, is with us, will remain with us – the spirit of God that flows among us as we sing the hymns of our tradition, as we speak the words of prayer, as we sit in silence, as we share the scripture, as we focus on God, as we bring ourselves fully to this place where we, as a community meet the living God with receptive, open hearts and minds.

In this sanctuary.  This home for the community of St. John’s.

This spirit of God, this shekhinah, is an angel that hovers sweetly as a mother… gently nudging, and sometimes pushing, helping the community along.  It listens and it speaks.  It hears what is on our hearts and whispers hope.

shekinahIt listens to our lives and brings us to new perspectives of what it means to Love each other.  It attends to our pain and cracks open doors of forgiveness and new life… always leading us to the Table of Reconciliation.

This shekhinah is the angel of this place, the angel of our community that dwells among us and, as we open to it, refreshes our souls in this sanctuary and longs to be carried with us as we leave this place and offer ourselves in ministry to the world.

We come to this sanctuary to hear the stories of our tradition, to listen deeply and connect them to our own lives.  To find meaning in our lives through the stories that have been handed down to us.

How does the story inform and instruct us?  How does the story challenge us?  Comfort us? How does the story invite us to the Table of Reconciliation at the center of our sanctuary?

When we hear Jesus today, through Matthew’s Gospel, talk about responsibility, what does the Angel of this Place have to offer you? As it hears what is on your heart, how is it informing you and instructing you?  How is it opening you up to the Table of Reconciliation?

Take a moment now and rest in the knowledge that this angel is here with us and rest deeply in these questions. Open your mind and your heart.  Rest yourselves in this Sanctuary and listen to the Angel of this Place.  Just listen. Let any remaining hisses of fear and division drift away.  And just listen… for the whispers of hope and of grace and of love.

Here’s a parsing of today’s lesson from the Gospel

Matthew is structured with 5 discourses; 5 sets of interactions that occur after major parts of the story, in which Jesus is speaking with the Disciples, with us, to instruct us.  If we consider it, Matthew’s technique is masterful.  He offers a story and then helps the readers interpret the events through Jesus direct interaction with us, the Disciples.

Today’s passage comes from the 4th discourse, on the communal responsibilities to one another.  In chapters 15 and 16, Jesus comes into conflict with the Jewish leadership – the Sadducees and Pharisees – and they have accused him of being evil.  He can see what’s coming.  They can all see what’s coming.  In last week’s Gospel, we know that Jesus understands his fate is one of great suffering in Jerusalem.  Peter objects to this and so he chastises Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!”

And, knowing that he must take the opportunity now, he starts instructing them on how to carry on this movement that he’s started in his anticipated absence, first emphasizing humility earlier in Chapter 18.  This doesn’t come in our readings this year, but it’s worth reviewing:
‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He’s talking about the humility of one who is receptive, who is listening and learning, not to leave our brains at the door, but to allow our pride and our know-it-allness to take a back seat.

And he goes on to say, “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!” (Mt 18:1-6)

 Take a moment again and tune in again: What does the Angel of this Place have for you today? How is this presence of God informing and instructing you?  How is shekhinah inviting you to the Table of Reconciliation?

The word “disciple” which is what we are as followers of Jesus, has the same root as “discipline”… discere, to learn.

After “humility,” Jesus talks about “responsibility” in today’s Gospel and in the readings for the next two weeks.  The responsibility we have for one another in building the church, the ekklesia (from the Greek) – those who are called out into mission.

I was speaking about this with someone earlier this week – the importance of pastoral care, of caring for one another because the larger task of mission is hard work.  So, to one another, we offer kindness and extend forgiveness.

And we engage in spiritual work so that we become more mindful of the ways in which we might become those stumbling blocks Jesus is talking about, those traps of unhelpful behaviors that are the ways of the world, not the ways of Christ.

This pastoral care is something we are all responsible for because it is how we are responsible to one another. It is the building up of the community, the lifting up of one another, extending the benefit of the doubt, offering mercy and tolerance and acceptance, disciplining ourselves because we are disciples…Be kind

Something I endeavor to remember: Be kind.  Everyone is going through a hard battle.

All the ways in which we make of ourselves a joyful offering so that the community and not get lost in the minutiae and the drama so that the community can become the Body of Christ broken for the world and live out the Easter command, the Great Commission given to us on Easter morning:  “Go to Galilee.  Go to Galilee where Jesus has already gone ahead of you.”

Humility and responsibility – the qualities necessary in a community named the ekklesia.  Two weeks ago we talked about this word that Matthew uses – ekklesia.  We translate that as “church.”  In the original Greek, the word means those who are called out by someone for something for a purpose.

Our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls this the Jesus Movement.  And when he became Presiding Bishops a few years ago, he spoke to the whole church in a video filmed in our own Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC.  And here’s what Bishop Michael says:


“When Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words “Follow me.” “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.”  Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be.  Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.  Jesus came and started a movement and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.”

 Coming our sanctuary every week is a homecoming.  Not just a homecoming to our physical space but to our own souls, remembering our own souls – the sanctuary that we carry with us, where God is always present.  The world can a wearying place.  We know this now more than ever.
And as people of faith, we find rest as we gather together here with the Angel of this Place who whispers to us as it nurtures our souls so that we can be agents of healing in and for the world.

Take a moment again:  What does the Angel of this Place have for you today?  How is this presence of God informing and instructing you?  How is shekhinah inviting you to the Table of Reconciliation?

As Bishop Michael finishes his talk to us in that video, he reflects on an interaction he had with a Mennonite pastor who had been sent by his church to organize a community of faith in the streets, a community without walls.

He said the Mennonite community asked him to do this because they believed that in this environment in which we live, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it, the church must go where the congregation is. 


Bp. Michael continues: Now is our time to go.  To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ.  To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation.  To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

May it be so.

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You can click here to read this week’s scripture.

I am. I am.
How often do we make that statement? I am.

We all tend to use these words as a precursor to something else.
Our state of being: I am excited. I’m disappointed that it’s a rainy day. I am scared. I am sleepy, frustrated.
Or our current activity: I am writing a letter. I’m playing with my children. I’m going to the store.
A descriptor of some kind: I am gentle. I am not so gentle.Munch

We identify ourselves with how we feel, with what we do, with our experience of ourselves, as well as other people’s experience of us.
And, most definitely, we identify ourselves with our roles:
I am a mother. I am a father. I’m a daughter, a son. I’m a priest, I’m a nurse, a teacher, a musician, a waitress, a salesperson, an administrator… the parent of an honor roll student, as our bumper stickers say.
With our names and what they mean: I like mine, actually. I’m Michelle. It means God-like.

And, most especially in our culture, we identify ourselves with the products we use: I’m a Honda driver, a Costco shopper, an iphone user. We identify ourselves with organizations and causes we support: I’m an animal-rights activist, a democrat, a republican, a Yankees/Mets fan, a member of the ACLU.
By what we’re against: I’m anti-war, anti-big government, anti-abortion.

With our culture: American. Which gets conflated with religion: I’m a Christian… forgetting the fact that Americans are also Muslims and Jews. I’m Episcopalian, Roman Catholic.
Which can get conflated with race and ethnicity… I’m white, I’m African-American, I’m Latino, I’m Arab.
We identify with our body or our body image… I’m skinny, I’m tall, I’m short, I’m handicapped, I’m fit, I’m fat.
And as if this wasn’t enough, we heap on some incredibly negative identities: I’m a loser. I’m stupid. I’m worthless. I’m ugly. I’m wrong. I’m bad.

It’s astounding. We have so many competing identities, no wonder we forget who we really are.  Our mind is full, so busy articulating ourselves, defining ourselves, creating faces for ourselves, no wonder we fail to remember who we really belong to.

Without noticing, we separate ourselves from one another and we forget, seeing only what we want to see in the other and hoping that they will only see the faces we present.

So, we have Moses.
Moses – an Israelite in Egypt. Just few verses before today’s passage, Moses names his son Gershom. ‘Ger’ is Hebrew for ‘alien.’ He passes on this identity to his son and says, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.”

Here’s what we know about Moses. He survived genocide, we know this from last week’s reading. By order of the Pharaoh, the baby boys were supposed to be put to death and the midwives defied the law in order to see through God’s will, which is sometimes necessary.

Because Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised in the home of his enslaver and attempted murderer. When he grew up, Moses killed an Egyptian for beating his own Hebrew kinsfolk and became an outlaw, forced to hide in Midian.
While in hiding, Moses defended a group of women at a well and was taken in by a priest. He married Zipporah and fathered a son.

Moses had many, many faces. He was a survivor, a victim, a killer, an outlaw, an advocate, a son, a brother, a father, a man, an Israelite, an alien. Moses understood himself in a very particular way with a variety of identities. As we all do.

And one day, Moses, this alien, went looking. The scripture says he went beyond the wilderness (in scripture, the place of being lost), beyond the state of being lost, beyond the state of forgetting, beyond the identity-laden, confusing, day-to-day wilderness of who we take ourselves to be.  And Moses went to Horeb, to the mountain of God.

Moses had become curious, you see, longing to hear God call his name.

Have you ever experienced that? You just want to leave all you think you are and all you think you know behind because of a yearning to know something deeper, something truer about yourself?

Is there something else to this? Am I something bigger, something deeper, something more?

When we are really ready to experience the truth, God shows up.

For Moses, it was the voice of God calling to him out of some magical, unconsumed, burning bush.  And in the presence of the holy, the eternal, in the presence of the Almighty and everlasting God of all, the ground of our being in the presence of that awe, the identities we have taken such care to create, mean absolutely nothing.

And so, Moses hid his face. Moses hid his most identifiable feature, his worldly identity. Because he knew.Burning bush

All of these things that we think we are… all of these affiliations, identities, preferences, descriptors, all of these faces mean nothing to God.

No longer victim. No longer killer.  No longer advocate or husband or son or outlaw. No longer alien.

So, there is Moses… stripped of his identity, everything he thinks he knows about himself, everything he thinks he knows about God… gone.
And he asks, “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
God tells him, “I will be with you.”
In that one phrase, God is saying, “You are mine, Moses. That’s who you are. You belong to me.”

And there even in the presence of God, even hearing God tell him who he is, Moses in his glorious humanity, still can’t fully trust, still can’t fully believe this astounding, humbling, overwhelming truth.  That who he is, is enough.

Because he asks, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

And God responds with: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. I AM WHO I AM.

Now, when God names Godself, this is a big deal. After all, naming is a form of power. Being able to name, to define, to constrict another into an identity is a form of power over them.

Think about it. Isn’t it an infuriating thing when someone tells you who you are or what you’re feeling? When after spending just a few moments listening to you, someone puts a label on you and proceed to treat you in some particular way.

We do this all the time. We give people a name, a label.  We reduce other people to a simple identity to feel safe so we know how to deal with them. We turn people into known quantities, like characters.  We put them in a box on a shelf in our consciousness and refer to them by the identity that we have afforded them.  We narrow the field of our understanding to simple stereotypes, caricatures of people.

And here’s the thing, when we do that, we stop being curious. And this is how we stop loving people.

label-jars-not-peopleHow many times has it been easier to explain-away a confusing or a negative experience – they’re an idiot, a loser, a narcissist.
How often is it easier to make assumptions about people because of their weight or their gender? Their sexual orientation or their age?  The language they speak or their religion?  How often do we make assumptions about people because of the color of their skin or the way they dress or act or which street they happen to live on?

And just like that, we’ve traded love for power.  Because the way love is most genuinely, most often manifested as curiosity.

When homeless people are asked “what is the most dehumanizing thing about being homeless?” They reply that it is being ignored, as if they don’t exist. When their fellow humans demonstrate indifference, a lack of curiosity in them.

Curiosity.  Love.  This means that we are willing to put aside what we think we know about ourselves, about one another.
We choose to go beyond the wilderness of all the faces so that we might remember our true identity and in doing so remember theirs as well – which is something that cannot be contained by human thought or words, cannot be enslaved by human identities.
Because our identity rests in God, and in God alone.

EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. This identity isn’t easily defined.
On the contrary, it’s full of mystery.  EHYEH. I am.

What if we looked for this mystery in one another? What if we saw the Christ in one another, the spark of God that is the divine nature?  That is the “I am.” That’s what we bring to God – the part of ourselves that is difficult to define, that has nothing to do with the world.

What if we simply offered ourselves to one another in our authentic, raw, human truth. What if we found the courage to stand before someone without the need to present any identity and just say, “Here I am.”

Would we be able to drop our expectations of others and just see the divine mystery alive, waiting to be spoken? Like a baby does?

awe_childBabies are great for this, because they haven’t yet learned how to be shy, they haven’t yet learned how to protect themselves. They just keep shining. And they just keep expecting us to shine right back. And we do.

We may think we have to be something – good, or strong, or smart, or helpful, or loyal, or self-sacrificing to be loved by God.  But what God loves, is something so basic, so intrinsic to each of us that we have forgotten it because we have gotten lost in the wilderness.

EHYEH. It’s like breathing. It’s that basic.
It’s that intrinsic to us.

EHYEH, the Hebrew word for I am.

Moses, whose name, interestingly enough means “out of the water”, is an alien, a person without origin.  Moses approaches God and when God called him, he responded the only way he could in the presence of God, with the knowledge of his own true identity. “Here I am.” EHYEH

But as Moses demonstrates, so beautifully in this story, even when we get it once, we continue to get lost in the wilderness. Even when we’ve experienced the presence of God, we forget.  As we move through the Exodus story this fall, you’ll notice that Moses questions, worries, demands, denies. Just like us.  He’s tempted by the human need to define, to characterize, to label.

Douglas Let My People Go

Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas’ Let My People Go


Moses is the character who leads Israel out of slavery for this very reason. Because he has glimpsed the truth but is still confined by the world. He has tasted the liberation from the wilderness of identities. Moses has experienced the truth of who he is. EYEH. Like breath.

The ones who have experienced liberation on some level are the ones who are called to lead others to liberation.

This is what Jesus means when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Mt 16: 24-25

The part of ourselves that Jesus is calling us to deny is this persona we’ve created. These faces. This “life” that we have built based on the ways of the world. This need for the power to define, instead of the call to love.

He demands that we refuse the tempter both in our own voice and in the voice of our loved ones… “Get behind me, Satan.”  Instead, he’s calling us to remember. EHYEH
To remember who we are and whose we are.  To hear the call and to respond simply and clearly, “here I am.”  Taking our full place in relationship to God.

And we’ll forget because we do. We’ll find ourselves in the wilderness. We’ll sin. We’ll miss the mark as we continue to do.

But Jesus continues to call us back to the heart of God again and again.  The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we offer here is just that, a calling back, a remembering. This is why we come to church every week, to come to remember to show up at this Table and say, EHYEH, Here I am.2017-07-02 09.49.08b

The Table of Reconciliation is not just for us to reconcile with one another.  It’s also to reconcile with ourselves and to be able to bring ourselves fully to God. Because that’s who we belong to.

You are a mysterious child of God, full of the mystery of the divine, called good from the moment the universe sparked into being. Please don’t forget this.

You are.

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This Is Your Ministry

You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

Click on the play button below to listen along as you read.

I watched a movie recently, called Thanks for Sharing.  The movie was about addiction and the miraculous work done by people in 12-step programs.  Miraculous because it changes lives.  Work because it’s not easy – it’s the hardest thing that these folks have ever done in their lives.

And, as I watched the movie, I realized that the significant part of the 12-step program, the most important thing… is that these people have surrendered any notion that they are in control of anything and are at the mercy of one another’s commitment to each other.

In their darkest places, they call on one another.  And, they are there for each other.  Answering the phone at all hours of the night, racing across town at a moment’s notice… to save their friend from slipping.  Because they know that, in helping someone else from slipping, they are saving themselves from the same fate.

As one of the characters, new to the program, remarked to her new friend after he had shown up for her in her dark moment, “Y’know, as soon as you picked up the phone, I felt better.”

It’s transformational… to be that vulnerable and yet that powerful at the same time.  To be that invested in someone else’s liberation.  To know that we need one another so much and yet know that just showing up for one another is the most powerful, the most liberating act anyone in this world could ever do.

In today’s gospel reading, we have a strange and iconic encounter between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus asks the disciples, these people who have been following him and calling him rabbi, Jesus asks these followers, “Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Both titles, one a Hebrew title, the other a Roman title, are royal titles, describing a ruler or divine leader.  The Messiah, of course, meaning the anointed one.  And Jesus announces that his church will be built upon this foundation – the foundation of Peter’s faith.  And he will give that church the keys to the kingdom.

I think it’s important to understand that the definition of “church” here, is not how we define it 2000 years later.  It’s not this massive institution and it’s certainly not this building.  The word in Matthew’s gospel that is translated to the English “church” is the Greek word ekklesia, which is a word that means “those who are called out.”


It’s like that children’s rhyme – Here’s the church, here’s the steeple. Open up the door, here’s the people.

It’s the people part.  This is what Jesus meant when he was talking to Peter.  This is the Body of Christ.  This is ekklesia.  The people called out to do God’s work in the world.  God’s work of liberation.

It’s why we have a dismissal at the end of our worship, “Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord.”   What we’re really saying is, let us go forth and get busy with God’s work of liberating one another.  Because this is what it means to be the church.

And, as a community, St. John’s has discerned a call to a particular mission – the Body of Christ moving in concert at this time, in this place, with these resources.  Now, I’m the first to say that Mission Statements are meaningless unless they give us a clear sense of what we are called to do as a group of people, unless we know them well enough that they inform our imagination of our congregation’s ministry.Mission Shirt

So, we have been saying a special Collect for Mission since the Feast of Pentecost to call upon God’s Holy Spirit to inspire us for this mission.  We have new t-shirts that reflect the 4 basic tenets of our mission – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving.  And the Mission Statement is printed in our bulletin every week.

We are called to know all our neighbors and be a bridge of God’s Love; connecting, inviting, sharing, and serving each other and the diverse community of Kingston.  We will do this by:

  • Sharing our physical space and resources
  • Being stewards of the arts
  • Advocating for social justice
  • Participating in inclusive and intergenerational worship
  • Affirming everyone has a place at God’s Table

And to be formed as the ekklesia, those who are called out, it matters that we come to church, that we have a place to be called out from.  It matters a lot – especially right now because there are forces at work in our culture that are truly evil and that, to be blunt, require exorcism.  Hate and bigotry have no place when God has formed us all in the very image of God.

But more than simply coming to church, I think it matters that we understand our directive “to be called out” from this place and we take it to heart.  I think it matters that we leave worship, we leave this place, and we remember our baptismal vows – to pray, to worship, to forgive and repent, to love, and to strive for justice.

I think it matters more that we truly grasp, that we read, mark, and inwardly digest the responsibility we have to one another.  To show up for one another, to liberate one another from the darkest places of our lives.

And Paul tells us today, in his letter to the Romans,  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.

And Paul goes on to tell us that we have been empowered, not to be God but to surrender ourselves in service to God so that God may act through us.  Because we are called as Christians, to recognize our vulnerability and our power.  We are called as Christians, to show up for one another.

And here we are centuries later, the church.  The people who are called out.  Fire heartThe Body of Christ.  Who do we need to show up for?  Who are those who are experiencing their darkest moments?  In your heart, where are you being called?

  • Is it African American people, Jewish people, gay people, immigrants… anyone currently being targeted by hate groups across the country?
  • Is it Syrian refugees who are seeking asylum from the ongoing war like so many of our own ancestors came here?
  • The suicidal veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder?
  • The hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly girls, who are sold into slavery every year?
  • The young person, one of so many, who is addicted to readily-available opioids?
  • The homeless person? The bullied kid?  The bully?  The criminal in prison?

The list is endless, even in a culture as wealthy as ours… or, perhaps, because our culture is so wealthy… we have an endless list of “others” – those who are left out, an endless list of people who we believe are just on the short end of the stick.  Who just need to work harder.

But Paul tells us not to be formed by the culture but to be formed by the Gospel.

Whether it’s a belief in karma or the prosperity gospel, sometimes I think we believe if God wanted them to be better off, God would have made sure that happened.  And, so we leave it to God instead of taking a place in someone else’s life.

Or, worse, we believe that we are in control of our own destiny… and we have no responsibility to anyone in our lives but ourselves.  And, if these “others” could just take control of their own destiny, if they would just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they would also be doing ok.  That’s the cultural ethic, right?

And Paul says, “do not be conformed by this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”

 In today’s reading from the Book of Exodus, the beginning of the Moses narrative – the midwives defied the law in order to serve God.  Sometimes that’s what’s required.

This is why 12-step programs are so miraculous.  Because these people have been transformed by the renewing of their minds, coming to recognize the liberation in surrendering their power and taking responsibility for one another.  Because these people know what truly dark places are.  Because these people know, “as soon as you picked up the phone, I felt better.”

My point is this, my friends: We are Christians.  We believe that the Son of Man is the Son of God.  We believe the incarnation actually matters and the power we have to show up for one another as incarnate beings actually matters.  We believe that God works through us and that we are called out as the ekklesia, as the church, to be of service to one another.

I had a professor in seminary named John Kater.  He preached a sermon that still sticks with me.  He said our call as Christians, is to stand in the crossroads.  To stand where we can see both the broken state of the world and the blessed Reign of God – at the same time.  We are called to stand here and witness and to participate in reconciling the one with the other.

Because we have decided to follow a person named Jesus who commissioned his followers to be the Body of Christ broken for the world.  And we have willingly taken on the mantle of disciple.

So, we are called to actively participate in in the liberation of one another’s lives.  Jesus told us in the Gospel of John that we will do greater things than he ever did.  So, what are we waiting for?

It’s an enormous task, I know.  It’s an endless list, as you know.  And sometimes it’s all we can do to get through our own day.  But Paul says, “do not be conformed by this world…”

Because you are called to ministry as a baptized member of the Body of Christ.  You are called to carry on the work of Christ in this world, to make God’s mission of liberation a true possibility.  To show up for others in their darkest places.

So here it is: don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture of all of it, just focus on one thing as an individual person.  We have a mission as the community of St. John’s.  And we have leadership that will drive us through the living out of our common mission.

But as an individual, you are called to a particular ministry wherever your heart beats.  What is it that brings you to your knees?  The idea of working with prisoners, with refugees, with kids?

What is it that breaks your heart wide open?  The possibility of changing the way we view the mentally ill or the treatment of women or fighting white supremacy?

What would make you feel powerless if you were in someone else’s shoes?
This is where you start. Keith Haring
This is where liberation always starts – love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.
This is where you stand as a witness in the crossroads, where you can see the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time.
And this is there you offer yourself to your brothers and sisters.
This is where you offer yourself as a sacrifice to God.
This is your ministry.

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Accountable to One Another

You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.

Author and speaker Brene Brown is an Episcopalian who works as a researcher in psychology and has written several books about shame and vulnerability.  She’s also done many presentations and videos that are posted all over the internet.

I bring her up because, as I was preparing to write this sermon this week, I stopped to watch a video of hers on Facebook where she talks about empathy and the importance of showing up for each other in the aftermath of Charlottesville and the continuing discussions about race as we listen to more stories than just the one about the history of our country.

In her work, Brene talks about being authentic in our relationships with one another and in community.  She also talks about accountability – how we are accountable to one another because we live in relationship to one another.

What does it mean to be accountable to others in a community?  What does it mean to hold each other accountable or to hold ourselves accountable to others?
Sometimes what this means is we help them in some physical way – feeding people, clothing people, assisting them with the everyday tasks of their lives.
Sometimes what this means is we stop telling our own story long enough to hear their story – completely and fully, without interrupting or editing or reinterpreting what they’ve said.
But always, it means that we consider the repercussions of our actions on others and take responsibility for those repercussions, even if the results were unintended.  This means that we sometimes need to correct our behavior, even if we think we didn’t do anything wrong.

Because we don’t live in a vacuum.  We live in relationship.
As humans, we always live in community.

Our readings today point to this accountability we have to one another.

The tale of Joseph is a metaphor or a mythical story that helps us understand the larger narrative of the ancient Israelites.  Joseph is the youngest son of Jacob, who was renamed Israel because he wrestled with an angel of God.  This is a story about the nation of Israel.


Joseph Cartoon

The story of Joseph is also told as the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat… sort of.

If you recall from last week, Joseph was hated by his brothers because he had prophetic dreams and they plotted to get rid of him, a few wanted to go so far as to kill him.  They finally decided upon selling him into slavery.  Then, they lied to their father about their deed, letting Israel think that wild animals killed his son.


8 chapters later (the story of Joseph is quite lengthy), we have today’s reading.  In those 8 chapters, a lot happened to Joseph but in the end, he rose to prominence in Egypt because of his prophetic dreams, eventually becoming the closest advisor to the king.

In his dreams, Joseph foresaw a famine and ensured that the king’s storehouses were packed with seed.  Once the famine started, people from neighboring nations came to Joseph asking for help, this included his own family who were still living as aliens in the land of Canaan.

Which is where we find ourselves in today’s story of reunion – Joseph’s brothers have come to ask for seed and Joseph knows he is accountable to them, even though he has reason not to help them because of what they did to him in the past.

Eventually, Jacob’s whole family, the whole nation of Israel, comes to live in Joseph’s house in Egypt, which is how the Israelites came to live in Egypt.  They received sanctuary from the very brother whom they had thought about killing, the brother they had sold into slavery.

Although this is a tale about the nation of Israel, it’s really a story about how we, as humans, are accountable to each other.  Responsible for each other.Libertarian Logo

And it’s also a critique on our culture.  We like to say “live and let live” in the US.  To each his/her own.  “I will do what I please and I’m sorry if you can’t deal with that.”  But we’re seeing the unintended consequences of that ideology played out to its extreme for us in living color.  What we do over here to feel safe, has an effect on people over there.  What we did or failed to do in the past, has a cumulative effect on the lives of whole populations of people.

We are responsible for our actions.  We are accountable to each other.  We do not live autonomously.

Covenanted Self BrueggemannOld Testament professor Walter Brueggemann talks about this as being covenanted.  In his book The Covenanted Self, he says this covenant is lived out through two things that happen simultaneously – the assertion of self and the abandonment of self.  And if they aren’t happening in relationship to one another as corrective forces, then we lose track of the covenant, and relationship and community are destroyed.

The assertion of self is when we are taking up space with our words or our property or our demands or our needs or our opinions or even our physical self.  When this is functioning well, we are showing up for each other in supportive, authentic ways.

But when it’s not balanced by the abandonment of self, we filter everything through our own lens and insist that the way we see things is the only way to see things and the rest of the world is there for us to use in some way.  We even end up insisting that God sees things the way we do (if we believe in God at all) and that we are the source of our own power devolving into what Brueggemann calls “praiseless autonomy” where there is no gratitude and “self-sufficiency becomes a law unto itself.”

The other edge, abandonment of self, is when we are willing to be taught, to learn, to give ourselves over to an idea or narrative other than our own, to consider that truth might be more complex than what we previously thought.  When this is functioning well, we are still showing up for each other, supporting one another, and our presence isn’t about our own needs.

But when it’s not balanced by the assertion of self, we give up our agency and allow everything to happen, looking the other way if things are difficult or challenging, accepting everything as God’s will, offering no grace to ourselves or to one another.  Brueggemann says that this devolves into “graceless obedience” in which we let the forces of the world have their way without confronting evil, correcting unjust systems, or seeking ways to heal the wounds that inevitably happen.

Brueggemann tells us that both edges are crucial for the covenant we have as God’s people.  Our lives as Christians are not solitary, singular existences.  We have inherited from our Jewish ancestors the understanding of covenant – we are in a covenanted relationship with God and with one another.

I will admit that reading the Hebrew Scriptures can be challenging sometimes.  God always seems to be angry about something.  But the reason God is upset is because people keep forgetting the covenant.  They keep trying to dominate others, keep trying to make themselves great, keep trying to deny that they are responsible to one another.

This is exactly why Jesus says that the whole thing boils down to love God, love your neighbor as yourself.  That is our covenant as Christians, given to us as sacrifice in the Eucharist.

We can neither give up our assertion of self, nor the abandonment of self.  The two must balance each other.  We have to show up for one another and act in this world and we have to realize that the world is not for our taking and we are not the sole arbiter of what is supposed to happen.

This is what living in community is.  This is what accountability is.
Our actions have an impact on others, but that doesn’t mean we stop acting.
It means we continue to learn about how our actions effect other people and we humbly make corrections whenever we can where they are needed.
It means we listen when someone says, “Wait a minute.  You’re treating me unjustly.  My life matters.”

Which is exactly what happens in Jesus’ meeting with the Canaanite woman.

Canaan was the land Israel lived in.  It was the land they took for their own, calling it the promised land and in the process of taking it, the Israelites sought to exterminate the Canaanites.

As a Jew, Jesus grew up around people who used the term Canaanite as a catch-all for anyone who was unworthy of notice, unworthy of treating justly, someone who had no rights in Jewish law, someone who was inferior.

Germain-Jean Drouais_Jesus and the Canaanite Woman_1784_LouvreWe like to think of Jesus as someone who was unblemished by his upbringing.  But it’s clear from this passage, that he was not.  He carried prejudice and brought it to bear in this interaction.  He called her a dog.

It’s important to understand just what kind of insult that was.  Jews didn’t keep dogs as pets.  They thought of dogs as mangy, disease-ridden, unwanted, filthy pests.  They thought of dogs as scum.  So, Jesus, our loving comforting messiah, is dismissing this woman, calling her scum.  Think about that for a moment.

He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Meaning that his healing, the nourishment he offers, is meant only for those who are viewed as the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob.

Her Canaanite life and the life of her daughter don’t matter.

And this woman, this piece of scum, says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
This Canaanite woman reminds Jesus that her life matters. BLM Face

And instead of feeling angry that this woman dared to challenge him, instead of being annoyed that she shoved her story in his face, instead of defending his first response or rationalizing his refusal as the fact of history, instead of listening to his disciples who just wanted him to ignore her… Jesus stopped in that moment and realized that he was accountable to this woman.

That he was responsible for her and her daughter and his behavior had an impact on them both.  And he healed them.

And he healed centuries and centuries of sin in that moment.

Jesus stopped telling his own story long enough to hear her story – completely and fully, without interrupting or editing or reinterpreting what she said.  He made himself vulnerable by listening to her story and abandoning his self to a greater truth – the one that was kneeling before him.  At the same time, he asserted his self, acting in service to justice to heal the centuries of sin and hurt and division.

Leaving behind the prejudice of his heritage, refusing to be shackled to it and refusing to allow her and her daughter to be shackled to it any longer.

So, here’s what I believe:  If Jesus can stop to listen to someone besides himself, perhaps we can too.

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The Hope of Miracles

You can read this week’s scriptures by clicking here.

Click the play button below to listen along.

It starts with Peter.  It always seems to start with Peter.  Of all the disciples, Peter seems to be the one who epitomizes the humanity of Jesus’ followers.  He’s not particularly great.  He’s not wise, nor brave but neither is he stupid nor completely fearful.  He’s an average person trying to figure out this faith thing.  Sometimes he gets it.  Sometimes he fails miserably.

Perhaps that’s why he’s named as the head of the church universal.  Sometimes we get it.  Sometimes we fail.  But we are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

The Gospel story comes to us from Matthew.  Jesus and his disciples have just participated in a miracle together – feeding the multitudes.  And, instead of basking in a job well done, Jesus sends the disciples away: “Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat…” 

Immediately, Jesus sends them out into the unsafe sea where they are at the mercy of the winds and waves.  The sea is the symbol for chaos, where we are deeply uncomfortable, where we are in fear for our lives because the sea is not something we can control.  It’s unstable and, more than the earth, responds to forces beyond our control – wind, moon, air temperatures creating currents and riptides underneath the surface.  The sea is uncontrollable.

Meanwhile, Jesus sends the crowds away and goes to pray.  Later, he comes to find the disciples some distance from safety, being tossed about by the wind and the waves and in clear distress.  In the middle of the night, in the middle of chaos, the disciples are scared out of their wits.

They are so scared they don’t even recognize Jesus at first.  They don’t recognize the presence of God who is with them.  And Jesus responds with “Take heart!  Do not be afraid.”

Peter Walks on Water Coptic iconAnd that’s when Peter shows us why he’s the head of the church universal.  He gets it right and he gets it wrong at the same time.  His love, his devotion inspires him to ask for the power over his fear – to master his nerves and do the miraculous… walk on water.

And one might think that Jesus should tell Peter to get over himself – to stop thinking he has the power to do such a thing, to reign in his ego. But he doesn’t.  Jesus looks at Peter and says, “come.”  In the midst of the raging sea, Jesus sees Peter’s Love and says, “come.”

Of course, Peter gets scared and nervous when he’s shaken from his devotional trance and starts to slip into the drink.  But the point is that a part of Peter knew.  The indestructible part of Peter knew that he could survive the chaos and join Jesus in the midst of it.  Peter’s unbounded, eternal Soul led him to follow Jesus, follow our Emmanuel, in the face of death.


I opened a book on my vacation a few weeks ago and the first line of the intro said, “We live in turbulent times.”  Indeed.

We’ve been through quite a bit this summer as a congregation because people have decided to leave the community of St. John’s. As hard as that has been on me, I’m very mindful that it’s been just as hard if not harder on you.  It’s incredibly difficult when people decide to leave, regardless of the reason.  We feel rejected.  Sad.  Disappointed.  And we might question if we’re doing what we should be doing.

I’m deeply grateful for Sue’s excellent sermon last week. She helped us to all remember our sense of purpose and common voice, the Spirit that has been guiding St. John’s for nearly 200 years. This is something that theologian Walter Wink calls, the “angel” of a congregation, the communal consciousness who reminds us that we are here to serve God’s mission, not our own.  And God’s mission was here before us and will remain after we are gone.

So, our parish life has felt some turbulence recently.

And then, there’s the turbulence felt in the larger culture around us through the detestable saber-rattling between our government and North Korea, both militaries having the ability to launch nuclear strikes.  And the pastor from Texas who has announced that “God has given him the authority to take out Kim Jong-Un.”  This, by the way, is blasphemy.

All of this on top of the everyday fears and challenges of our lives… as we age, have health concerns, hurt by friends or family, as we try to see to the demands of everyday life, and some days we just need to rest.

So much turbulence.  It can be hard to find a sense of hope when all we can see is the raging sea.

On Friday evening, I started hearing reports about what was happening in Charlottesville – white supremacists marching with torches, surrounding a church where clergy and others were praying.  The white supremacists chanted “blood and soil” a racist ideology that focuses on ethnicity based on purity of blood and territory.  It’s a phrase that was used by the Nazis.

And then… even more devastating reports on Saturday.  The same white supremacist protestors armed with semi-automatic weapons, more hate-filled chanting, riots.  And death and traumatic injury as a car purposefully plowed into a group of peaceful counter-protestors.racism-text-straight

Some people are shocked at these events, that the white supremacist movement still exists.  Others are not shocked, but scared that it was so boldly expressed. But for those of us who are white, we must acknowledge that people of color have been telling us this for a long, long time. If we haven’t paid attention yet, it’s time to start.

Because the sin of racism targets our brothers and sisters.  We are all made of the same flesh, from the same earth.  The human race began as brown skinned and olive skinned and black skinned people in the Middle-East and Africa.  We are, in no way, disconnected from this violence born of hatred, fear, bigotry, and ignorance.  Our blood and flesh are bound to it.

So, where is hope to be found?
It starts with Peter, the head of the church… teaching us about faith.

His devotion inspires him to ask for the power over his fear – to master his nerves and do the miraculous… walk on water.  Demonstrating who the church can be and what the church can do in the midst of raging chaos:  We are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

There is Jesus, standing in the chaos of the world, where he always is.  And Jesus encourages us to be faithful and to know that “faith” means we are to step out into the chaos of the wind and the waves and join him there – in the chaos.  And he reminds us that he is going to be there with us when we falter and lose our faith, when we forget that we are as strong and as good as we are.

Jesus is Emmanuel, a word that means “God is with us.”  Jesus didn’t come to prove that he alone is the most powerful healer.  That, too, is blasphemy.  Jesus came to help us understand that God is always with us, the ground of our being, the spark that is our indestructible Soul.

The point of the story is not that Jesus saves Peter.  The point of the story is that Peter offers us a beautiful example of faith in the midst of chaos.

In our fear, we cry out and Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.”
In our devotion, we look for Jesus and he calls to us, “Come.”

What are we called to do as the church in response to the evil of white supremacy?  How is the church complicit in this evil? And what can we do to transform it?

These are hard questions.  But Jesus is standing in the raging sea, patiently waiting for us.  Saying, “Don’t be afraid. Come.”

Because hope is not outside of us.  Hope is found within us and works through us.

There is no savior coming to save us.  Our Savior already came and he gave us very clear instructions.  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  That we believe this and we live it – that is what it means when we say that Jesus saves.

Jesus tells us that Love of God and Love of neighbor is what all this is about… all the law and the prophets.  Everything that Moses was talking about.  All the justice that the prophets proclaimed.  Everything that’s in the Bible is all about love of God and love of neighbor.  Love in action.  And that Love will give us the power to walk the raging sea and reconcile us to one another again, to reconcile the world to God.

Because if it’s not about Love, it is not about God.

Peter walks out onto that water out of utter love and devotion to God. He’s not particularly great.  He’s an average person, like you and me, trying to figure out this faith thing.  Sometimes he gets it.  Sometimes he fails.

But what is remarkable in this story is that, for a moment, he forgets his smaller, fearful self.  For a moment, he forgets the possibility that the others in the boat might mock him or pressure him to stay inside the boat. He forgets, even, that the world is a raging sea around him.

Because he remembers the most important thing.  He loves God.  And when we love God, when we put that first in our lives, we become the hope that we seek because we can indeed perform miracles.cville-5-clergy-via-twitter

  • Hope is the counter-protestors in Charlottesville, many of whom were clergy, willing to stand arm in arm in prayer in the face of the white supremacists who came in riot gear armed with semi-automatic weapons.
  • Hope is the people who ministered at the scene and in the hospital when that car plowed into the crowd.Cvill TEC
  • Hope is every person who is now taking a deliberate oath to boldly stand up to white supremacy and the sin of racism wherever it rears its head.
  • Hope is the action that we take, in the place that we choose to stand in the middle of the raging sea.
  • Hope is the change of heart that comes.
  • Hope is this Table of Reconciliation.

The hope, you see, is us – you and me.

And I look at the people in this room and I know.  I know that we are willing to respond to Jesus’ call to love in action.  I know that we are capable of continuing to deepen our faith in the God of all life.  I know that we have the compassion and sense of justice to tend to the unbreakable connection we all have to one another, regardless of skin or shape or gender or orientation or ability or age or nationality or religion.

Our hope is in us, in our devotion to something greater than ourselves and our fears and opinions.  Our hope is in our devotion to God, in our commitment to love God and neighbor, and in our faith in the ability of that Love to carry us across the raging sea and reconcile us to one another once again.

We are the church.  We are followers of Jesus and we can perform miracles.

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The Transfiguration – Guest Post by Deacon Susan Bonsteel

Today was the Feast of the Transfiguration and our Deacon Susan Bonsteel preached this beautiful and deeply meaningful sermon for the life of our community.  She got some big AMENS afterwards.
You can find the readings for today by clicking here. 

Six years ago on my birthday, I climbed into a 1958 DeHavilland 7 – passenger plane and had a thrill of my life. On a beautiful and clear sunny September day, our Vietnam War-era fighter pilot flew us over the mountains of Denali National Park in Alaska and within 4 miles of the summit of Mt. McKinley. He mentioned that we were quite fortunate to have such great weather since there are few days each year that the summit could be seen so clearly. We wore headsets in order to communicate with one another and with the pilot, but I don’t recall a great deal of conversation other than an occasional “WOW!” We were enthralled by the majesty of what was below us and around us, as far as we could see. Huge and broad and snow-white covered peaks extended in every direction for miles. Looking down and outward from my window seat, I wondered if there was another soul out there or if were truly alone. And the thought was not at all frightening; indeed I wondered if heaven could compare to what was before my eyes. How could anything be more beautiful, more serene, more perfect? It was an intensely spiritual experience.

Seeing things in a different way can change us. How I viewed the world and my place in it was altered in those 2½ hours. I had been on commercial planes many times before but always surrounded by strangers, noise and the stresses that inevitably come with air travel. Flying had stopped being fun a long time ago. So I didn’t expect my flight that day in Denali to be transformative. At the very least, I had hoped it would be worth the hundreds of dollars we had paid. But looking back, I can say that my sense of self was greatly impacted – for I came to fully understand that I was just a tiny speck on an expansive and glorious planet. Seeing the world from such a place – that so few others get to experience – was humbling. And I could feel the warmth and the glow that emanated from me as we started to head back to the airport.

For me, this was a “mountaintop” experience – a spiritual high where things seemed to fall into place and I understood and experienced God in a way I hadn’t before. I had seen beautiful shorelines and canyons and mountains and forests but nothing quite as spectacular as Denali. Everything seemed to be good and right and meaningful. It was a time that I didn’t want to end. I felt this great desire to stay in that place and prolong those feelings of completeness and peace.

Perhaps my feelings were similar to those felt by the disciples in today’s gospel reading.  On this day we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus – that moment that Jesus’ true nature – his divinity and godliness – was revealed to Peter, John and James while Jesus still walked on earth. Mountaintops in the scriptures are often places where people meet God in some way. Luke describes how Jesus takes three of his dearest disciples up a mountain with him and is transfigured right before their eyes. As if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets. Yet the disciples don’t know what to do or say, it so far beyond their comprehension. Peter is compelled to offer to construct three dwellings – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Perhaps at some level he senses the holiness of it all and wonders if this is where all might dwell. But the Transfiguration story doesn’t end there. For a cloud appears and overshadows them all and from it God’s voice is heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then, just like that, it’s all over and the disciples find themselves alone again with Jesus, heading down the mountain, with clear instructions not to speak yet of what they’ve just experienced. So we are left to wonder what James, John and Peter were thinking and feeling as they returned to their life on the ground. Were they overwhelmed and frightened by the experience? That would certainly be understandable. They had just had an intense and holy encounter – experiencing God in their friend and teacher Jesus in a way they had never before. Were they at all reluctant to return to the crowds who were waiting below for Jesus? Or did they yearn to remain longer on the mountaintop?

Anyone who has had a religious experience of any degree knows well the power it can have over us.  We don’t want the connection to God to end or our feelings of connectedness to the world around us to dissipate. We want to find a way to keep these feelings alive in us. We have been transformed and perhaps we want others to feel the way we do. We want to stay just where we are. But life isn’t like that.

Like many of you, I have been struggling with the sadness that is in our parish since several members have chosen to leave. Each of us here this morning arrived at St. John’s in a way unlike the person seated next to us. Perhaps we were baptized or received here; or our parents brought us here as children; maybe we were invited by a parishioner; perhaps we were going through a difficult time and were searching for a safe place to rest. Perhaps we simply were seeking God in the midst of community. Each one of us has our own story – and together – our stories form the Body of Christ here at St. John’s. No one’s story is more important than anyone else’s. Each one of us here possesses a gift that enriches us all; and we are called to use our gifts to build up and strengthen the body of Christ.

Healthy churches are made up of people who are eager to welcome others with diverse backgrounds and perhaps different but no less authentic ways of worshipping.  So it’s is unrealistic to think that one church can meet everyone’s needs, but all churches can strive to be welcoming places. Part of our mission is to seek and serve Christ in all persons. The church that goes off-track is the one that loses sight of its mission and becomes more like a club where only people just like themselves are invited in. Looking inward and finding those places where change is needed may be difficult for many; for we become quite comfortable in our routine and start to assume all feel the same way. It’s important for us to remember, however, that a church that serves only itself will never grow.

As we’ve discovered, change is more challenging for some of us than it is for others. A new hymn, a new prayer, shouldn’t throw us into a tizzy, as my grandmother liked to say. The hymn that is new to me may not be new to the person next to me. The prayer that I find rich and meaningful may not resonate with someone else. The beauty of any new experience is that it can transform us if we are open and willing.

I have no doubt all will be well. Churches all over are going through challenges like ours. Certainly the political atmosphere around us is charged with negativity and we can’t help but be affected by it. It doesn’t mean, however, that we Christians need to accept it as the norm in our dealings with one another. And so, my wish is that we would see this as an opportunity to look ahead in hope. Our faith isn’t static. Why then should our church be?

One our greatest strengths as a parish family has been our generosity. Our focus on community outreach and social justice issues over many decades has been a shining light to the community around us. The suggestion that we are focusing too much on social justice bewilders me. I’ve been in many churches where there is little connection to the issues of poverty, homelessness, literacy, and food security and wonder how Christian communities can isolate themselves from the needs around them. Our own ECW has had a long history of supporting programs that ministered to women and children, Native American and indigenous communities, literacy, and for the mentally ill. For years, the women of the ECW were leaders who guided us to new and important social programs.

All of these issues encouraged us to look beyond ourselves and into a broken and imperfect world we helped create. As Christians, we profess that we have a deep yearning for the perfect community – the communion of all humankind with God. And I believe that is why we continue to confront peace and justice issues on a daily basis.  St. John’s may be a small group of people in the grand scheme of things – but we have the ability to continue to do big things. So how would we ever measure how much of a commitment to social justice is enough?

 If you were around in 1992 to see Angel Food East open its doors to our neighbors living with AIDS, you might remember the resistance we felt from some in our own church. There were concerns about bringing AIDS to the midst of own community.  Some local area pastors claimed our ministry was not in keeping with their understanding of Scripture. Hateful phone messages and threatening letters were all too common. Yet St. John’s persisted.

If you were around when we began For Whom The Bells Toll, then you remember that there were some in our parish who would not pray for the men and women on death row. There were others who would not participate in the tolling of the bells on the day of an execution; who could not accept that the executed named in our Prayers of the People were also children of God. Yet St. John’s persisted.

The Transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek

Even the widely successful Carpenter’s Kids program had its resistors, folks who wondered aloud why we were engaged in efforts beyond our borders when there was great need within. Like Angel Food East and For Whom the Bell Tolls, patience, compassion and education were the keys to alleviating misinformation and anxiety. Our involvement with Carpenter’s Kids eventually connected us in a profound way to global mission.

And it will be the same for any mission effort to which we agree to commit ourselves in the future. Wherever God leads us, it is apparent that we are not a church that wants to stand still, simply admiring all that has gone on in the past. We are people who believe that the God we worship is a living God, an active God, a God always doing a new thing in our lives.  It’s why Jesus calls us to be disciples that follow, that don’t simply stand still. Jesus’ own life teaches us that by engaging with others, by living our faith in communion with the world, we can heal and transform the world. May our prayer be – that in the process of living our faith – we will also be healed and transformed.  Amen.

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Just Listen

You can read this week’s scripture by clicking here.


I remember when I first arrived here a little less than a year and a half ago; it was the beginning of March.  I was excited to get to know you, the people I would be serving.  I wanted to know who you are and what you care about.  I was thankful that many of you took the opportunity to have a meal or coffee with me so I could learn more about your lives.

And I remain always thankful for the opportunity to listen to what’s on your hearts because I’m here to be your pastor and to help this congregation of St John’s grow into what God is calling it to become.  I’m here to help St John’s discern how to live out its mission of serving God by serving our neighbors.

SnowdropsSo, when I arrived here in early March, the ground was still frozen and most of the plants in the yard were dormant in some way – either brown or underground. Some small plants had just begun to pop their heads out, however – crocuses, snowdrops, the beginnings of all the tulips that Janet Vincent planted over 20 years ago.  It was a feast during those first couple of months.  I went out and walked around nearly everyday taking pictures, posting them to Facebook and Instagram.

As I got to know you and as the spring breezes warmed the air and the soil, all manner of things started growing.  Now, I love houseplants and I’m pretty good with things in containers.  But outdoor gardens are new to me simply because I’d always lived in an apartment – even as a child.

So, I watched as green things grew and I slowly started to realize that not everything was meant to be a part of the garden: some things were weeds and some things were “supposed” to be there.  However, by this point, everything in the garden was growing so fast and my attention was focused on you – still getting to know everyone, still getting my head around everything that happens in the life of St. John’s.Weeds and Not

So, I let the weeds grow.  As you might have noticed.  It’s a lot of space and a lot of garden for one person to manage. But still, it was only once things came to maturity that I could tell exactly what was happening.  Now, we could argue whether this is patience or procrastination on my part. But I think the lesson is important: when we only know a little bit about what’s happening, we really have to wait and see before we go uprooting things.

So, we watch and we listen.  And we wait patiently to see what will happen.


Celies Breakfast

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in The Color Purple.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie The Color Purple is when Celie, a person of infinite patience, cooks breakfast for her cantankerous houseguest, Shug.  Another character named Albert tried to cook Shug’s breakfast and he did such a bad job that Shug threw the breakfast out the door of her bedroom so that the food ended up on the wall of the hallway.


So Celie cooks a scrumptious breakfast, slowly slides it into the bedroom and jumps back out of the way, saying “I just stand back and I wait to see what the wall goin look like.  See what kinda color Shug’s goina put on there now.”

We watch and we listen and we wait… until we have more information, until we can see a clear path, until we truly know the difference between the weeds and the wheat.

Wheat and WeedsThe parable of the weeds and the wheat, as articulated by the Gospeler Matthew, is an allegory, where each thing in the parable correlates directly to something else.  As you heard Sue say when she read the Gospel, what we know is: the wheat is good and the weeds are bad.  However, rather than jumping in too soon, it’s best to wait.

In order to preserve the wheat and gain the best possible harvest, it’s best to wait until things mature to discern the good from the bad.

Unfortunately, this is usually applied to people in a wholesale way – that a person is either good or bad.  We end up calling people “bad eggs” or we believe that there is no redemption for people who have done bad things.  That is, quite frankly, blasphemy.

It’s true that it’s hard for people to change, but they do.  It is possible for people to stop thinking in immature, selfish ways and realize the impact of their behaviors on others and to live in ways that uphold the two greatest commandments:  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

But even besides all of that conjecture about people being able to change, God never gives up on anyone.  No one is ever beyond the love of God.  I’ve often said, whenever we draw a line in the sand, Jesus is always on the other side of it.  Every single time.

So, when it comes to interpreting this allegory, I believe the more truthful understanding is that we have both good and bad tendencies within us.  (Harry Potter fans will remember that Harry’s godfather Sirius said this exact thing to Harry… not that Harry Potter is the gospel…)

Or, to be more generous, we have both helpful and unhelpful tendencies within us.  Some days we are the weeds and some days and we are the wheat.

Much like the parable of the sower from last week, we always have the potential for goodness because we are inherently good.  The whole of Creation is inherently good. We always have, within us, the possibility for being good soil.  Often it comes down to the choice we make.  And to make a choice, we need to discern.

If we apply this understanding to this week’s parable that we have, within us, the ability to be both the wheat and the weeds, then it’s incumbent upon us to continue maturing in our spiritual life so that we can better discern which parts of us are the unhelpful, toxic weeds and which parts of us are the fruitful wheat, capable of feeding others as well as ourselves.

This means we continue our efforts to learn to see through the eyes of Christ, rather than solely through our perceptions and limited understandings because preferences and opinions are often full of weeds.  We never have the whole picture.  But when we wait and listen and watch with faith in Christ, we are often surprised at the result. Something happens that we would have never expected.

And I know we don’t like it, but yet, we are sometimes asked to move through uncomfortable situations or be in relationship with people we label as “irritating” or “stupid” and listen and watch and learn rather than react.  The situation always opens up.  The other person always offers something that we haven’t thought of.

This is discernment.  What do we do when things are unclear or uncomfortable?  What else do we need to see?  Who else do we need to listen to?

Rather than react out of fear or anger, how do we move thoughtfully, respectfully, and lovingly… holding the tension of a difficult situation?  How do we hold a generous space to see what else might arise in us and in the situation we are facing?  This is fruitful discernment.

Because while we are called to act in the world, we are called to listen more than speak.  We are asked to watch for acts of goodness and kindness in others and recognize that sometimes we are wrong in our assumptions because we don’t have the whole picture.  Not one of us has the whole picture.  Because not one of us is God alone.

Things happen that we don’t like.  People act in ways that feel hurtful and are disruptive to our sensibilities.  But how do we respond rather than react?  How do we hear a voice other than our own when we are truly lost, which is to say, when we are cloaked in our certainty?

There is a prayer in our prayer book on page 833.  It’s a prayer that is always attributed to St. Francis because, as he spoke to birds and listened to animals, St Francis was the very icon of listening and watching, and waiting and hoping.

St FrancisLord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

And, just to reiterate something that I said a few moments ago, because it’s deeply, deeply important:  I will always be thankful for the opportunity to listen to what’s on your hearts.  It’s a holy thing to listen to others.

This prayer that I just said… it’s not just words to me.  It’s how I try to live my life.  It’s how I strive to be with others because I believe that when we listen deeply, when we seek to understand, it offers something that we aren’t often given in our current context of tv news and political pundits and opinions and reactions and snarky comments on social media… and that is the invitation to go beyond the weeds, those places of opinions and preferences, to go deeper into our hearts so that our inmost concerns and fears and hopes might be spoken and held as sacred.Heart flame


How often are we given the space to be truly heard?


Being the priest means that I’m given the pulpit, that I’m called to teach and guide and continue to point to Christ but it’s never a one-sided conversation.  I am well-trained and have experience but offer what I have and who I am in profound humility because I don’t have all the answers and this is God’s Table, not mine.

Listening to you and what’s on your heart is, ultimately, the only way I can be of service to you.  So, just as I did when I first arrived here, I continue to welcome and cherish each opportunity to listen.  Because I’m here to be your pastor.  And I’m here to help guide this congregation of St John’s as we grow into what God is calling us to become.

May we all seek to understand.  May we all seek to console.
May we all strive to see through the eyes of Christ.

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Truth and Good Soil

For this week’s readings, click here.
I saw a movie this week called Beatriz at Dinner.  Ever since I saw the trailer for this movie several months ago, I’ve been waiting for its release.  It’s a powerful movie about money and privilege, oppression and racism, capitalism and the plight of the earth, our home.  So, there is a lot going on.

I was mildly annoyed at the end of the movie, however.  It didn’t have a typical Hollywood ending.  I won’t spoil it for you, should you wish to go and see it.  But I wasn’t alone in this. I read some reviews and spent time in conversation with others who had seen it and we were all kind of scratching our heads.

Some of us liked being left wondering.
Some of us stayed annoyed, preferring to have a story make sense so that we clearly know the lesson we’re supposed to learn and move on.
And some of us, just wanted to be entertained, not to think too hard.

It seems a common set of responses to a story:  we like to get the point of the story or we like to keep chewing on its meaning or we just want to be entertained.

We have the same problem with parables.  Often, they aren’t what we want them to be.
There are layers of meaning that we would rather not have to deal with because we want easy to digest lessons.

Now, I can appreciate that.  I’m learning to cook vegan dishes right now with a program called Purple Carrot.  I’m deeply grateful that the recipes aren’t written in parables.  There are no metaphors.  No poetry.  No imagery.  No wordiness.  The instructions are clear, concise, descriptive, and straightforward.  I am learning a lot as I execute these recipes.  They are written well and offer some explanation for the why behind what I’m doing.

Unfortunately, God isn’t as simple as that.  The Kingdom of Heaven is a little more involved than a vegan recipe. As a matter of fact, the nature of God is mysterious – like a lemon seed on a counter.  You can never quite grasp it because it slips from your fingers as you try.  You can see it.  You know it’s there.  But it’s illusive and slippery.

Another way to think of this is to recognize God’s nature as Truth – truth that is startling and bright.  Poet Emily Dickinson says that the best way to tell truth is to tell it on a slant.
She says:
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
… The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –“

The Gospel Truth is, indeed, a difficult truth to take in.
If it were easy, the Kingdom of Heaven would be realized, Christ would have come back again and this moral coil would be over. God’s peace would be reigning and there would be no oppression.  Everyone would be liberated and we would live in equanimity.

And so, to help us hear the Truth, our teacher Jesus uses parables.  He teaches people by using extended metaphors that are grounded in their every day life.  He’s not exactly talking to us, however.  He’s talking to first century, illiterate peasants who were being ruled by an occupying force – the Roman Empire.

Their everyday life was one of oppression under Roman rule.  This is an important piece to understand if we’re going to understand Jesus as Messiah, to truly know what it meant to these people that this person Jesus was going to lead them to liberation.

For us, we like to put Jesus in a purely spiritual box.  But the kingdom Jesus was talking about – God’s kingdom – was one of real life liberation from real life oppression.  God’s peace was much more practical than a mystical sense of peace, of feeling good.  It was a balancing of power.

That is not to say that there is no spiritual component to this.  Not at all.  Jesus taught us how to pray, how to confess, how to heal… how to be in relationship with God.  Because this is what leads us to care for one another rather than live a self-serving, isolated life.

And this is the real point of today’s parable: if leading a spiritual life is just about feeling good, then we’ve missed the point.

To help illustrate this, we might glean a little from the missing verses in today’s Gospel reading:  verses 10-17.  What we miss is the disciples questioning Jesus about his choice to use parables.  And Jesus responds saying:

The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.

Another WorldIn other words, he was trying to find another way to reach people because plain language was no longer going to work with them.  These were people who were tired and disheartened.  For nearly 100 years Rome had become a military presence in the area, gaining full control about 25 years before Jesus started teaching.  For nearly 100 years these people had been hoping that the Romans would leave, that someone would come to liberate them.  Many just gave in to despair, losing hope and accepting the circumstances.  Or finding a way to profit from them.

For nearly 100 years, the Jews had heard leader after leader, speech after speech, promise after promise.  None of them knew what life was like without Roman presence.  It had become the air they breathed.  So, Jesus used a different way of talking to them to get them to see that the way things were was not how they should be.

The “vast majority of the population, about 70 percent, were peasants who worked the land and lived in the towns and villages that dotted the countryside.”  That is to say, they provided the labor.  They didn’t own the land. They just went with the land, as animals of a farm might go with the farm should it be sold.  (Herzog, pgs 63-64)

The people to whom Jesus was speaking knew little else besides agrarian practices.  They didn’t know how to read or write.  They didn’t travel or have much leisure time.  They weren’t necessarily unintelligent.  But they were limited in their experiences.

Jesus used what they knew to teach them about how was trying to work through him – to liberate themselves from tyranny and oppression.

And his first lesson is a bit of a challenge to the listeners.  He’s asking them to place themselves on a continuum.
Where do you belong, he asks.  Which one are you?

  • Are you going to be the well-trodden path?  The kind of person who is so hardened against hope that your heart has no place for the Word of God to land?
  • Or are you going to be the rocky ground?  The kind of person who likes an easy fix but won’t be bothered to stick around when the Word of God asks too much of you?
  • Or are you going to be the thorny soil?  The kind of person who knows full well what the Word of God is saying but if it conflicts with self-interest, will refuse to act upon it?
  • Or are you going to be good soil?  The kind of person who hears the Word of God and allows themselves to be transformed by it?  To be liberated by it?

And here we are in 21st century New York.  Members of the Episcopal Church, sitting in an air conditioned room on a lovely summer day.

Some of us may garden, but we don’t need to.
Some of us work, but many of us no longer have to.
Some of us have experienced oppression, but most of us have never lived with bombs dropping around us or feared deportation or wondered if we were going to make it home at night if we were stopped by police.

Liberation.pngSo, if Jesus was speaking to oppressed, illiterate, Jewish farmers who spoke Hebrew or Aramean and lived about 2000 years ago halfway around the world… what could these words possibly mean to us today?

How are we supposed to be liberated by the Word of God?
How are we being asked to be transformed by it?

Consider that for a moment.
What kind of world is God asking you to imagine?  Not what do you want, that’s a trap that will just keep you confined.
What is God asking you to consider?  What is God asking you to give up so that you will be transformed?  What is the message God is trying to get you to hear?

And remember, it may be something that has never occurred to you before because we are so used to breathing the air of our circumstances – just like the Jews were so used to the Roman presence that they couldn’t imagine an existence without that.

What is the wildest thought that you think is impossible because you’re too conditioned by the world to imagine it might be the Word of God?  What is God’s hope that you are scared to let take root in your heart?

Now, here’s the Good News.

Parable of the Sower ShirtsWe are not one or the other… on Jesus’ list, we are not one or the other.
We are not either the hardened path with absolutely no hope or the rocky ground that just wants things to be easy.
We are not either the thorny overgrowth who is too self-interested or the good soil who finally gets it in some transformational ah-ha moment.

We are all of them.  At different points in our lives, we have been and will continue to be all of them.  And that’s Good News because there is good soil.
There is always good soil.

And God is always sowing seeds in us.  Always and forever.
Never giving up on us.
Never ceasing Her Love for us or His desire for us to hear the Word of God that is Christ.

But the challenge of this parable is always going to be there.
What kind of soil are we today?

ListeningAnd so I return to the questions: What is God asking of you right now?
What is the Truth that Jesus is asking you to consider, perhaps, for the first time in your life? What is God asking you to give up so that you will be transformed?

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You can find this week’s scripture readings by clicking here.
Something miraculous happened to me about two weeks ago:  I got a cpap machine.  (cpap=continuous positive airway pressure)

For the past 3 years or so, I’ve been in this seemingly endless cycle of feeling overwhelmed and never feeling like I had enough energy to attend to things.  All my attempts to improve my health just made things worse – more exhaustion, more weight gain, more feelings of being overwhelmed… and my blood pressure creeped up.  In March, I was finally able to schedule a physical with a new doctor here in town and I asked her to prescribe a sleep study.  And that’s what did it.Lion resting

There was nothing more I could *do* to feel better.  What I needed was rest.
What we all need… is rest.

So, I’m reading Jesus’ invitation with this deep appreciation now:
Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  (Matt. 11:28)

And it reminds me of a poem by William Wordsworth, echoing Jesus’ invitation to rest from the world that can make us so weary:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

It’s the “world” we humans create that both Jesus and Wordsworth are speaking to:
The distractions, the addictions, the stuff,
the wars, the fear, the power-mongering,
the judgment, the comparison, the disparity of wealth,
the pundits, the politics, the bombs, the money, the greed,
the unkindness and name-calling, the positions and controversy,
the self-righteous opinions, the gossip,
the hate, the borders, the walls,
the nations, the governments, the guns.

The things we think are right and the things we think are wrong and the belief that we alone have the authority to discern such things.

The world is too much with us, indeed.  We have given our hearts away.  And we are carrying heavy, heavy burdens.  We really think it’s all up to us – that we carry the judgment of God on our shoulders, deciding what is right and what is wrong.
Is it really any wonder we struggle to get through the day sometimes? Are we really surprised that we reach for some way to quiet the swell of panic or fear or pain that arises in us?  We keep trying to plug the holes when what we really need is rest.

Because in all of this, we can so easily forget our blessed nature.  We can forget that we are created and good.  That all of Creation was made from the same elements and God called it all good at the beginning of the beginning.

We are good.  We are holy.  We are the beloved children of God all formed of the same earth, breathing the same breath.  Jesus is asking us to remember this and attend to it.

Rest here benchCome to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Matt. 11:28-30)

This yoke that Jesus talks about refers to spiritual discipline.  Not a discipline of doing, but of releasing.  To lay our burden down, the burden of trying to be God.  And, instead, remember ourselves and return to Love.

This word yoke is translated from the Greek word (d)zugos, refers to the heavy wooden bar that would join a pair of oxen in the field, enabling them to work together to pull a single plough.  So, in the minds of those who were listening to Jesus, they picture this wooden bar that they have lain on the necks of their beasts of burden, meant to join a pair together, to work together.

This is not a harsh yoke.  But it is a yoke, something that joins us with another.  He is asking us to accept a discipline, to be joined with Jesus in this discipline so that the work of being in the world is easier.  We don’t have to do it alone.  This discipline will bring rest to our souls.

Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans this week: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  (Rom. 7:15-25)

He’s talking about undisciplined behavior.  He’s talking about the ways in which we temporarily forget who we are and whose we are. We forget that we belong to God and we mistakenly think we belong to ourselves alone and that we have no need to rely upon God.

And we stop praying.  We stop listening.
And we surround ourselves with only those voices who agree with us, who reinforce what we already believe to be true.
This is far from discipline.  This is indulgence.  This is addiction.  And this is when substance abuse can kick in.

Most people think that addiction is all about the substance itself.  But ask anyone who has dealt with addiction, really dealt with addiction, they are actually dealing with the thoughts, emotions, beliefs, prejudices, and patterns that lead to reaching for the substance itself.

It’s why the 12-steps are not a checklist about removing temptations, but about learning how to respond differently to the world, how to form new habits of thought, new emotional patterns, how to find a sense of rest in the chaos of the world.  And it requires confession.  Steps 4-7 get directly to the point:

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  3. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  4. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

It sounds a lot like our Confession.  I’ve spoken about the act of Confession before in sermons and in one on one conversations and other places.  Confession is not a part of our worship because the hierarchy of the church thinks we need to spend time feeling bad about ourselves.

prayer 2The purpose of confession is exactly the opposite, actually.  Its purpose is to offer rest.  Deep rest.  Think about where it is in our worship:  We have just heard the Word of God and then we pray for the world… offering our compassion, our hope, and our love for the world.

And then we have the Confession.
Before we share the Peace, we have Confession.
Before we come to the Table of Reconciliation, we have Confession.
Because we have to pray for ourselves.  We have to be at peace with ourselves before we can be at Peace with one another.
We have to spend time reconciling with ourselves before we can be at a Table of Reconciliation with everyone else.
This is the discipline that Jesus is talking about. This is the rest that Jesus offers to us.

He says, Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  prayer

Confession is the time we pray for ourselves and our own restoration. To acknowledge that we have missed the mark this week in our efforts to follow Jesus… and to be brave and be as specific as we can.  Did I speak badly about another person?  Did I treat people with respect?  Did I blame someone else for my reaction?  Did I act in anger?  Did I do what I could to help other people?  Did I respect myself?  Did I love myself?  Did I take care of myself?

Confession is the time in our worship when we rest deeply in God’s Love for us.  When we recognize that: I’m deserving of my own compassion.  I’m deserving of my own hope.  And I deserve to act in accord with God’s holy law.  Because I am God’s beloved, holy Creation.

Jesus doesn’t give us a set of laws – rules to keep us in line that we just use to keep other people in line.  Jesus gives us 2 commandments and trusts us to figure it out from there:  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s not that we are called to do nothing, my friends.  On the contrary, the Gospel is very clear… we are called to mission, to be in the world.  This rest that Jesus offers us is not a perpetual vacation from the world… that’s addiction.  This rest that Jesus offers us is found in the discipline of continually laying our burdens down and returning to the Law of Love and then acting in the world from that place.

The place where we stop trying so hard to master the world and just rest in the heart of Christ.  Where we are freed from the burdens we’ve been carrying for so long.  The place that reminds us of who we are and whose we are.  Where we know a sense of peace without the ideas of right and wrong, where Love is the only thing that is real.

Keith HaringBecause we are only called to Love.  And to spread that Love to others.  It is from this place and this place alone that we humans discover our creations and our efforts are not burdensome nor wearisome, but are generative and productive.

Because we are doing our work in the world, not alone, but yoked by Jesus’ law of Love:  Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

May Love be our discipline.  May Christ be our home.  May we find rest.

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Offering Ourselves

Abraham must have been very certain about what he was doing to risk the blessing that God had given him.  He must have thought he was right.

Abraham was told that he would be the father of many nations.  God had said: “No longer will you be called Abram, your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”  Abram and Sarai were very old when they were told they would be parents – long past the age of conceiving.  And then Abraham and Sarah had Isaac, a name that means laughter.  So Isaac was Abraham’s legacy – his progeny.  Abraham is referred to as blessed because of this.

It’s clear from the passage that God is testing Abraham… but why?  For what purpose?  Is it this test that gives Abraham the descriptor of “blessed” – he has passed the test so now he is blessed, he is deserving?  The scripture certainly does read that way.

A lot of ink has been spilled on interpreting this story – the Binding of Isaac.

  • Some scholars argue that Abraham was righteous, focused on God’s Will. Willing to sacrifice everything, even his legacy – his own flesh and blood – to obey God.
  • Others argue that he was a fool, stupid. Focused on his own salvation, on what he thought was God’s Will.  Blind to what he was actually doing, saved from himself only at the last minute by God’s angel.
  • Still others argue that this is a metaphor for Abraham’s willingness to surrender his dearest treasure, his son to God’s purpose. In essence, giving up his fatherhood, his rights over his son.

My question for Abraham is: “Why are you so certain about what God is telling you this time?”  I remember that it was Abraham who had questioned God about the destruction of Sodom… questioned God’s decision to destroy an entire city, the righteous and the sinful together.

So, I want to say to him: “Y stopped God from destroying a whole city and you’re going to surrender your son?  You’re not going to question God about this?  This relationship that means everything to you, that you cherish beyond measure… you would rather be right and destroy this relationship than to stop and question your own certainty?”

And I wonder, what is it that creates that certainty in us that we are willing to replace righteousness for relationship?  How often have we done something that indicates we’d rather be right than be in relationship?  Why are we so concerned with our own justification?  To make sure that we are deserving of God’s blessing upon us? And how do we know who is deserving of God’s blessing?  Because we say so based on our standards?

Depending on how we see ourselves and our relationship with God, we may be convinced that our trials in life are what make us deserving – the long-suffering servant from today’s psalm: How long, O Lord?  will you forget me for ever? how long will you hide your face from me? But I put my trust in your mercy; my heart is joyful because of your saving help.
Or perhaps it’s our piety/faith makes us deserving.  If we do the right thing.
Or if we just believe hard enough, we will be blessed.

But what we fail to see so often is that we are already blessed.  We forget that God blessed all of creation when She made it.  When He formed us from the earth, God called us good.  We have already been given life.  Breath.  This flesh.  This incarnate, finite existence… to feel joy, love, to celebrate… to share with one another.  To bless one another as we have been blessed.

Today’s passage from Matthew is a part of a long set of instructions Jesus gives his disciples as he tells them to go out and preach.  To go from this place into Galilee and preach.  And since we are his disciples, we are called to listen too.  Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

In other words: Whoever welcomes you, effectively welcomes the Christ in you, which is to say, welcomes God.  Welcomes us as blessed people.  It’s the relationship we have as incarnate, finite human beings.  Enfleshed and created.  Called good by God from the very beginning.

Those who are truly hospitable to God, will be those who receive the disciples well.  Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and welcomes the one who sent me.

Granted, it’s not always easy to welcome the people who show up on your doorstep, who show up in your life.  Especially those who are unbidden, who interrupt us from the daydream we have of who we are, the people who challenge us in our lives.  We don’t want to be challenged.  We don’t want to be told that we’re wrong or mistaken about what we believe.  But we’re called to welcome them anyway as prophets.

Sometimes we become empassioned about our opinions and when people don’t agree we fold up our tent and go home.  We sacrifice again and again and again because the relationship is less important than being right.



Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac

And so, we’re always standing there holding the knife, just like Abraham, willing to slay the very relationship that God has given us – the relationship that God called good because of the sharing of the incarnate breath.  Just to prove we are right?  Deserving?  Is that what being blessed is about?  That we get to say… “See?  I was right?  Sorry, that I failed to acknowledge your blessed nature, but I was right!”




Instead, what if we remembered ourselves.  What if, in that moment of sacrifice, we actually heard God’s angel saying to us:  Stop!  You silly human!  That’s not the way to honor God’s blessing.

Because if we saw ourselves as God’s beloved child, wouldn’t we be better able to receive without feeling the need to be deserving of it?  The need of prove our own righteousness?  The need for others to prove theirs?

Would we better understand that the innate blessedness of God’s creation, that God’s love that formed us in the womb is what makes us “deserving” in the first place?  Would we continue to demand that others are “deserving” of what they receive?

We have to look no further than this country’s debate over health care to realize that we have forgotten this truth.  I realize that it’s a contentious discussion about the right way to do it and the wrong way to do it.  But at the core of it is a very direct question about how we understand ourselves in relationship to God:  If we truly saw all people as God’s children, saw the entire creation as blessed and beloved (most especially ourselves) why wouldn’t we want to ensure everyone has access to good healthcare?  Our very bodies are made from the same earth by the same God.

Why would there be a need to say some are more deserving than others?  Healthcare in a tiered system.  You deserve this level.  You deserve this level and so on.

But, we all have the same incarnate flesh.  We all breathe the same air.
Why wouldn’t we want to offer what we have received? Is it because we think we need to deserve something in order to receive it so we need others to deserve it based on our standards?
Because those standards are arbitrary – different for every single person, country, system.  Are we afraid of losing it if we give it away? Do we forget that God has already called us good?

Here’s a different way of thinking about blessing:
If we start from the place of truly knowing that all of Creation is blessed and is therefore a blessing unto us… if we remembered that more often, it would enable us to be better hosts to the Christ in one another, better hosts to God in our midst.

Maybe, then, we would be less willing to fold up our tent and go home.  Less willing to lay Isaac down on the altar and sacrifice the relationship for the points we might score from being right.

When we realize that we are hosting God in the person we’ve been given that day is when the true blessing actually happens.  Because we are blessed when someone receives what we offer.  Not when we receive but when we are received.  We are seen.  When we offer love, offer kindness, offer compassion, offer ourselves as an audience.  And that is received.

We offer and we offer.  And then offer again.  This is the self-emptying we are called to do as Christians.

When we make of ourselves and offering and sacrifice to God… that’s not just a request to put money in the plate.  What we’re offering is ourselves at this Table of Reconciliation every week.  Ourselves in prayer.  Ourselves in connection, in relationship with one another. We are emptying ourselves.

And in doing so, we are host to God in Christ – if just for that moment every week and we practice this and eventually we remember to offer ourselves when we go out every week.  This is what Jesus is talking about when he calls us to go out and peach: Leave here with what you learn and go and do likewise out in the world.  To be a blessing is to receive a blessing.

This is what Jesus is saying when he says: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

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