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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Guest Post – Deacon Sue Bonsteel

You can read the readings for Lent IV by clicking here.

img_20161029_165133434Every so often I am startled by how unaware I am of my surroundings. There have been times when I get behind the wheel of my car and wonder how I arrived at my destination safely. If you’ve experienced it (and I know many of you have), it’s unnerving.  There’s a name for it – it’s called a dissociative state – a split in awareness between the normal conscious mind and other thought processes. It can range from mild to extreme, from normal to seriously disruptive. An example is when we carry out a normal motor task absent-mindedly – anything from knitting to pulling weeds to driving. We operate on “auto pilot” until something snaps us out of it – a phone call, a neighbor shouting hello, a red light. Dissociative states are very common when highly practiced motor skills are involved. People who work on assembly lines, for example, can let their minds wander and yet complete the task. Have you ever gotten “lost” in a book or a movie; or found yourself daydreaming? These are all normal, short-lived processes. We just “lose touch” with our immediate surroundings.

There are other explanations as to how we distance ourselves from what is around us that have nothing to do with “spacing out,” as we like to call it. Over our lifetime we cultivate practices that enable us to become unseeing people.  The routines we create in our life involving school, work, chores, family responsibilities can cause us to develop tunnel-vision – a single-minded concentration on one thing while ignoring others. So we focus on the task at hand or what is going on in interior selves and lose sight of the world in all its richness. We stop being mindful of the colors and sounds of creation and the diversity around us. Our vision becomes clouded by the repetitiveness of our day.

The risk for each one of us is when we become comfortable in our blindness – when it becomes all we know – and like a cocoon – keeps us protected from the world around us. We withdraw and see little outside our chosen field of vision.

It’s not a great place to find ourselves if our desire is to live fully as God’s own. Just consider the story of the blind man.

Many in the walked passed the blind beggar over the years but apparently few truly saw him. It wasn’t because he wasn’t always there; they knew that he was blind from birth. But it was because those who passed him on their way stopped seeing him as a human being. Rushing off to their destinations, they became increasingly blind to his humanity. Perhaps there was once a time when the community did wonder about him; perhaps they occasionally glanced at him; but before long they developed tunnel-vision and simply stopped seeing him as nothing more than a nuisance.

The disciples saw him – but as a convenient person whose situation made for an interesting theological question to pose to Jesus. They wanted to know: whose fault was it that this beggar was born blind? They asked Jesus, was it is his fault or his parents? Their question comes from a long-held but mistaken assumption that misfortune and illness came into one’s life as a result of some sin. So their concern was not the well-being of this man; they saw him as nothing more than a teaching moment.

In demonstrating God’s power, Jesus healed the man and his sight returned. It was more than the community could handle and so they retreated to what they knew. It was far easier and less dangerous to cling to their own understanding of power and rules and boundaries over the truth before them. They simply refused to see what was right before their eyes.

We can understand this reaction because fear does that to all of us. When we are afraid, our own tunnel-vision keeps us from seeing a larger reality and from living a larger vision. We deny what is right before our eyes and retreat to our old ways of thinking. For the truth is, if we do choose to open our eyes, then we have to confront the blindness within us in all its manifestations. That’s daunting and it can feel overwhelming. Yet if we wish to see God and the richness of life and live with others fully then we must pay attention to what is going on within us. There’s no other way. True sight begins in the heart and not the eyes.

Each of us is the blind man in this story. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest and author, puts it this way: Our sight is not about the quality of our vision or even the condition of our eyes. It is not about the lack of light around us but rather the amount of darkness within us. How we see others, how we see the world, the way we see life is less about the objects and more about our hearts. Until our eyes are opened by Christ, our seeing is just a reflection of ourselves upon the world. These are words worth considering this Lent.

If we wish to see God and live life fully with others then we must look deeply at what is going on within us. And as soon as we begin to acknowledge and accept our own fears and beliefs that live within us, we can begin to understand how they have impaired and distorted our vision. Fear narrows our world view, closing our eyes like the mud Jesus’ places on the blind man’s eyes. And if we cling to our fear, we lose the opportunity for conversion in order to be the Light in a troubled and fractured world.

Let’s put it in the context of something going on in our world now: the past several months there has been a growing movement in our area to confront the cruel deportation of undocumented people from marginalized communities. It’s a fearful time for many of our brothers and sisters; they have reason to feel unsafe due to the harsh rhetoric coming from some of our elected leaders and the constant threats leveled at them. Undocumented people are under attack and are afraid to leave their homes. Latino churches are reporting low levels of attendance. Latino children are showing signs of anxiety disorders, afraid to go to school for fear their parents may not be home when they return. It’s a terrible time for many in our own neighborhoods. Families are being torn apart; many who have no record of criminality. We – the larger community – must not be blind to their suffering. Yet it seems too many of us are.

We’ve all heard these comments: “They are illegal. “ They broke the law.” “They deserve to be deported.”  Our eyes are blinded by our fear. We hear a story of a crime committed by an undocumented person and we begin to see all people of color as threats. The restaurant workers we once greeted with a smile, we begin to ignore. We start making generalizations about the men and women who harvest our food, tend our gardens, and provide cleaning services to our homes and offices and whose children attend school with ours. We become suspicious of all who entered here from our southern border. We have stopped living in God’s world where all are valued and loved and welcomed. Instead, we begin to live in a dark world that we have created in our minds and not our hearts.

It needn’t be this way. We can choose to be people of the Light, with a vision to resist evil in all its forms including racism, sexism, homophobism, Islamophobia and those institutionalized structures that target the vulnerable.

Faithful people everywhere are finding ways to challenge the injustices. There is a resurgence of a Sacred Sanctuary movement throughout the nation. You may have also heard it called Radical Hospitality. To some extent, it is a public reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. It’s a pledge to stand with anyone under attack and to resist the evil that oppresses them. There are degrees of involvement in Radical Hospitality but may include providing safe space, food, transportation, moral and financial support to aid those being targeted as well as those left behind.  It’s a movement modeled after the early Judeo-Christian concept of sanctuary, where persons fleeing persecution could find protection in religious houses. It is a movement also founded on the religious values of compassion and love for all people.

Of course some will find this too difficult, saying this is a political issue and should be addressed by the courts. They may not see it as their concern. But it is, of course, much greater than a political issue. It is a moral issue and people of faith are being called to be moral voices in the wilderness in which we now find ourselves.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs the community to live as children of light; to find out what pleases the Lord; and not to take part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather, to work to expose them. The church therefore is to act differently: to tell the truth, to push for justice, to uphold goodness regardless of the norms of the society at large. This is the challenge all of us face today. These are difficult conversations to have but they need to happen, here in church and in our homes. Our eyes must be opened to the immoral and broken systems in our society that demean the dignity and preciousness of every individual. We need to do our best and perhaps it still may not be enough, but we must try. For if truly we are to be people of the Light, then we must be willing to be changed for the sake of faith. We must be willing to see things as they are, and not as we wish them to be.

This is our work of Lent: to cast off our blindness, and to turn from our old ways of seeing ,that we may help be the Light of Christ that shines in our world today and in the days to come.

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