My niece and my dad share a moment during his last week. (c) A. Scheff, 2012

My thoughts on the Second Sunday of Advent, with the theme of love.  As the frenzy now kicks up for Christmas Shopping (quick, only two weeks!), I offer some thoughts on what we all really want.  Surprisingly, it’s not a gadget from Apple.

 Based on Philippians 1:3-11

I’m a lover of the English language.  I like the way words can convey meaning, and how when they are cleverly put together you can actually see the beauty of a scene the writer is describing.  A friend this week wrote, “I almost didn’t go for a walk.  It was positively GRAY out, and likely damp. Still, I gathered the dogs, and set out… My reward: being met by a mingling of salt and balsam, listening to the surf crashing against the rocks. The bell buoy called ‘Come!’ while the limbs of craggy old trees, perfectly crooked, framed my path. The mossy stones greeted me, with the lichen, and the gulls. The gray, I thought, is a good walk after all.”  It’s not often that you can be enchanted by a Facebook status update.

Words have the possibility to carry great meaning, yet one of our words often gets diluted in our culture: “love.”  I know I love Indian food, but I know I love my family a heck of a lot more.  I could swear off curry (albeit reluctantly) if I had too; my family can never be out of the reach of my love.  Don’t worry; this isn’t one of those yawner sermons on the three kinds of love as shown in the Greek.  I’ve heard plenty of those myself (and if you’ve not heard that sermon ever, you can find a bunch online by searching “Three kinds of love sermons,” albeit at your own risk).

Having said that, I am struck by Paul’s language in his letter to the Philippians when it comes to love (and for you Greek fans out there, this is indeed agape).  We may say that love is blind, that it can overlook things.  But notice Paul prays for quite the opposite, petitioning that their love may grow in knowledge and even insight.  Paul asks God to allow the Philippians to see fully and understand about love so that they could discern what is the best way forward, and see to it that they are both pure and blameless on the day of Christ.

And that line scares the living bejeezus out of me.  Pure and blameless?  Is that even possible in our world?  We know when we are to blame, when we let down the ones dearest in our lives, or, if we can be honest enough, when we let ourselves down.  At times we get upset with those we live with and love, do something really thoughtless, or even sabotage our own goals and desires.  Pure and blameless often don’t seem achievable when we look realistically and critically at our own lives.  We like the blindness that love can afford us in the times when we are at fault.

But maybe sometimes we aren’t so blind when it comes to those that we love, especially when we are hurt by them.  When we are the recipients of someone’s ire, we are quick to point a finger.  The blame game is no good.  We know that, well for all you 80s music fans out there, it spins us right round, baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round, right round.  Blaming can engulf our lives like a spinning vortex of water, but we’ll hold on in the middle of that raging flood if we believe we’re the one who is right.  In those cases, there’s often no love to be found whatsoever.  And the problem with the blame game is that it becomes a death spiral sucking us down to our demise, with the power to hurt us permanently.

St. Augustine said, “Love and do as you like.”  On the surface that statement seems so trite and naïve, but, dear God, if we love as we are called to love, then the actions we do will grow out of that love.  We’ll hold open our hands and our hearts to those most dear to us.  We’ll notice with a holy insight when someone is struggling and then respond with love and compassion.  That powerful prayer of Paul’s invites us into the heart of Christ, into the very love of God, where there is more compassion for each one of us than we could ever imagine.

But what does that look like?  What does that word mean since love no longer carries the depth that it once did?  We toss it around so much, it’s become worn down from overuse.  I want you to hear that passage again from the Message Bible to see if that adds a bit of color to this monochrome understanding of love.

“So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.”

How does one love, not only much, but well?

My dad’s cousin, Bob, is a Capuchin Friar and Catholic Priest.  One time when I was five or six, Fr. Bob came over to visit with our family.  The grown-ups were talking at the kitchen table, and I wanted someone to play a game with me; I was that kid with the constant refrain of wanting to play a game (every family has one).  My parents informed me that the adults were all talking and didn’t have time to play.  With my feelings hurt I ran to another room and began to cry.  Fr. Bob came over to me, and asked me if I could get a deck of cards.  I grabbed some and then he showed me how to build a house out of those cards with me.  I’m not sure how long we played, but it was enough to make me feel special, to feel loved.

Many years later, as Melissa and I traveled around visiting seminaries to find the one for me, we got to spend a weekend with Fr. Bob.  He worked as a chaplain at a mental hospital in D.C., and invited us to join him for their Sunday services.  I saw in him a deep love for the residents there, even while they may have spoken out of turn or been disruptive.  After the service, his face lit up with joy in talking with them.

This past spring, Bob joined with me in officiating at my father’s funeral.  Later that weekend, I watched him shower love on Noah and Olivia, taking us out to a restaurant special to my dad, and engaging them in conversation attentively and whole-heartedly.  Bob is a person who loves both much and well, and I know he would downplay these attributes in himself.  But as one watching for nearly 40 years, I can say with certainty that he loves like Christ; he is both circumspect and exemplary.

And I want to be cautious in using a priest as a primary example, because you might very well say, “Of course he loves well!  He wears a collar!” and think somehow that you are never going to match up.  But that is not the point at all.  We can also love like that.  We, too, can show abounding compassion that Paul prays the Philippian believers will have.

A year ago I encouraged you to give relational gifts for Christmas.  I think we’d all rather have memories and time with loved ones.  What we really want for Christmas is the relational aspect of the season, not a new toy or clothing article.  We want connectedness.  And I think this is true for our kids as well.  They want the time playing with someone else more than just a game they can play on their own (and I can speak with authority on this account).

I cannot tell you about many of the gifts I received during my childhood, but I remember that house I built with Fr. Bob.  In this first Advent and Christmas without both of my parents, what I remember most of them is the time we spent together not the pair of jeans or sweater they put under the tree.  What I’d ask for more of now is that time, the days spent together, loving both much and well.

You don’t need to be ordained to do that.  You just need to be someone willing risk living a life Jesus would be proud of.  Doing your best at loving and compassion, seeking forgiveness when you messed up, offer forgiveness rather than blame.  Putting meaning and flesh behind the phrase “I love you,” so that it conjures up a whole range of deep emotions and isn’t said flippantly.  Words like that become more important when they encompass the ways in which we love, the many actions that back up the compassion we fell.

May this time of preparation bring you ever closer to that pure and blameless life as you become enlivened to live as Christ did and love both much and well.  Amen.

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My sermon from Sunday on Mark’s gospel.  It’s all about money today, which is more taboo than sex in our culture.  Tell me what you think.

Based on Mark 10:17-31.

If the word of God is active and living, like a quick sword, as we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews, then Mark’s narrative cuts deep today.  We have heard this story before about the young man— he’s become known as “the rich young ruler”—who approaches Jesus so he can earn salvation.  It’s been going well in his life so far, he invested in Apple when they were $7 a share and now he’s got it all.  And he’s faithful to boot, keeping all the commandments that Jesus lists off to him.

“Ah,” Jesus says with his uncanny ability to see through right to the heart and to have so much compassion.  “One thing you lack.  Go, sell what you own and give it to the poor, and then come, follow me.”  And the man turns around shocked, and goes on his way grieving, because, as Mark puts it, he had many possessions.

You might have been more focused on the money, but did you catch that phrase?  Jesus loved him.  He loved him and wanted the best for this young man who came yearning for something deeper.  Jesus knows the path to salvation always means facing the things that hold us captive, otherwise there’d be nothing for us to be saved from.  This man longed for eternal life, but he didn’t expect it to cost so much.

Jesus completely understood the sway money has over us.  He gives the lure of cash the name mammon, a god that has its icy grips deep within us.  That makes us as Americans cringe, because cash is king and we somehow think we’ve got it under control rather than the other way around.


Philip Yancey, in his fantastic book Rumors of Another World, illuminates this.  He recounts reading that we must learn how to profane money, in order to “demagnetize it’s spiritual force even if that [meant] handing wads of bills to strangers or throwing them into the air on a busy street.”[1]  He found the idea absurd, which clued him on to the spiritual forces at play on his life.  He recounts how he lived generously at that time, giving money away to his church and charities, but always with the expectation of a receipt and a thank you note so he’d be ready come tax time.  He gave calculating how much it would help him in the long run.


Yancey experienced a shift.  He lived in Chicago at the time, and his wife worked with the low-income elderly.  She brought home stories about the ones who faced evictions or shut off notices.  So they began taking 50s and 100s and sliding them under the doors of the needy with a note “‘From someone who cares.’”[2]  He writes, “It seemed like sacrilege the first few times, to give with no assurance the money would be well used and with no tax receipt making it worth our while.  Those feelings betrayed the real sacrilege, I soon realized.  I had adopted a rational economic viewpoint that exalted money as the supreme value, and I needed to profane it and break its hold over me…. I needed to see money for what it is, a loan that God entrusted to me for the purpose of investing in the kingdom of heaven.”[3]


When I meet with the parents who want to have their children baptized, I ask them questions about the vows they are making.  They renounce “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.”  And I ask them what they make of that.  How do you view Satan and spiritual forces, and often the conversation meanders down the road of evil in our world.  Sometimes we talk about bullying and pride.  Many times I am answered with uncertainty and furrowed brows because talking about spiritual forces of wickedness isn’t conversation fodder.


But when I read economic reports that household debt in America has recently climbed nearly $40 billion to a total $13 trillion,[4] I know there’s a spiritual force out there.  We are being crippled by all of this personal debt in education costs and cars and vacations and gadgets—never mind the current Federal deficit—and that bondage is hindering us from eternal life.  “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  That’s pretty disparaging; even the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?”  “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God.”


Many cannot be more generous because they live paycheck to paycheck overcome by the monthly bills.  Jesus looks at us in love and wants something better for us.  We catch glimpses of another world, where money doesn’t have control over us.  Being generous is one of life’s great joys, but we must recognize the power Mammon has and change our lifestyles and desecrate money.  We may be keeping the commandments, but we lack one thing.  We’ve allowed our stuff to control us.  Lasting change can happen with God’s help. But it means sitting down and having frank conversations and digging ourselves out from under the mountain of excess and recognizing the beauty of that loan from God to bring about the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.  It may seem impossible, that it’s not worth the effort.  But a fuller life is on the horizon.


As we welcome three little ones today into the church through the waters of baptism, as we share together in Christ’s amazing love, may we see a little more clearly today that Christ cares for us deeply and wants all the best for us.  May we know that we can live without being overcome by either greed or envy.  And may we know that in Jesus’ outlandish kingdom camels, from time to time, do go through the eye of the needle.  Amen.

[1] Philip Yancey. Rumors of Another World. Zondervan, 2003. Pg 210.

[2] Yancey, 211.

[3] Yancey, 211.

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Let’s be blunt, divorce happens.  I’ve got parishioners, friends and family members who have experienced it.  And Jesus is pretty direct about divorce.  And that stings, because Jesus sounds very harsh.   I’ve heard plenty of bad sermons on divorce, how it is always wrong or never wrong.  I think it’s in between.

So my thoughts on divorce.  I hope you’ll share yours too.

Based on Mark 10:2-16 

            You may not know this, but I bet you can imagine the level of activity on preaching websites this week given the reading we just heard from Mark.   One blog I visit had a number of responses that said, virtually, “I wouldn’t touch Mark this week with a 10-foot pole, or any sized pole for that matter.”  One online commentator—a professor at a Lutheran seminary—put it this way, “The passage is often listed among the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus. But perhaps ‘painful,’ ‘distressing,’ or ‘agonizing’ would be more like it, as each time this passage is read and heard in a congregation many of us cringe, either feeling assaulted by it directly or worrying that others are.”  He claimed it probably wouldn’t be prudent to preach on this passage, and many a preacher might opt for Hebrews instead. But then he said “preaching the gospel is rarely about being prudent.”

I would venture a guess that all of us have been impacted by divorce, either in our own relationships, in our families or through our close friends.  Most of us have experienced the pain that divorce leaves in its wake.  And, as one commentator put it, nobody is looking for a sermon about the ethical question of divorce, if it is right or wrong; what people really want to know why it hurts so dang much.  The grief is seismic, identities are changed — have you ever noticed that there’s that check box for “divorced” on all of those forms rather than just reverting back to the “single” box—and relationships are forever altered—ask any divorcee about couple friends, never mind the impact on children or extended family.

But before we get there, let’s first look at the text.  There is a verse missing; if you look at that reference you’ll notice that the lectionary lopped off the first verse of chapter 10.  And while it may seem to be unimportant at a quick glance, I am convinced it frames this whole text.  It says, “Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.” And then continuing with our reading, “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’”

Let me tell why this is important: the last time we heard about anything in connection with the Jordan was concerning John the Baptizer.  Remember that Herod used to go down and listen to John.  Mark tells us in Chapter 6, that John would rail against Herod because he had married his brother’s wife.  Herod ended up divorcing his wife, and Herodias divorced her husband.  Mark is pretty graphic in describing the events leading to the Baptizer’s beheading.  And now, for the first time in Mark’s narrative since John’s death, Jesus is back in the region around the Jordan, and the Pharisees come to test him, and they ask about divorce.  In other words, this is a set up.  They’re hoping that maybe they could trap Jesus and have Herod take care of him for them.

However, Jesus doesn’t take the bait, instead asking them that question about Moses and the law.  “Moses says it’s okay,” they respond.  Jesus then tells them that it was because of their hard hearts that Moses permitted divorce.  But, Jesus says, God intended something else.  At the beginning, in the Garden of Eden when humankind was created, what God intended was for male and female to come together in marriage, for a man and a woman to leave their families and be joined together, no longer two, but one.  And what God has joined together, let no one separate.  Let no one put it asunder.  Don’t let anyone tear it apart.

This seems to have silenced the Pharisees who head off back to Jerusalem, because in the next verse Mark has the disciples asking the follow-up question back in the house they were staying at.  Jesus response is direct.  “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery.  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”  Keep in mind Herod’s story.  He divorced his wife because he lusted after his sister-in-law.  And she did the same.  They tried to make it look legal by divorcing their respective spouses and getting married, but Jesus agrees with John.  Herod and Herodias both commit adultery, according to Jesus, and his mention of a woman divorcing her husband tips his hand to show what he is talking about.  Women couldn’t get divorce papers according to Jewish law.  Jesus’ statement about a woman seeking divorce was specifically geared toward the Gentile or Roman understanding, because Roman women could in fact seek divorces.

Yet, even given this contextual analysis, these words from Jesus seem harsh.  I would hazard a guess that those of you who are divorced or are in the midst of separation and divorce feel or have felt a sting in Jesus’ words.  Any attempt to dismiss them casually stating that it was a different time and culture is unfair to the text.  Divorce, as far as we can tell, happened enough during Jesus’ day to merit the question from the Pharisees, and some suggest it was fairly common.  I think what Jesus is getting at is a divorce of convenience.  A divorce, like Herod’s, where one spouse leaves another because they find someone they like better, someone who becomes an infatuation, and they burn with lust.  That is wrong.

A good friend of Melissa’s and mine went through this a few years ago.  During a time when her parents should be enjoying their new grandchildren—three little ones under the age of three—and planning their retirement, this friend’s dad had been leading a double life, dating someone younger than his own children.  Our friend’s parents met their first year of college, and they were active in their church leading Bible studies and youth groups for much of their adult life.  Then this bombshell, a hasty divorce and a quick marriage to this much younger woman.  Our friend and her entire family were devastated.  That, Jesus says, is sinful.  It is not what God intended.

What God intended at the beginning was this: a man and a woman to be together for their entire lives, to be a loving support to one another, mutually sharing in life and giving care to one another.  These two became one, and united they were to live together.  And what God has joined together, let no one separate.  But the Fall changed all of that.  With the entrance of sin into the equation, relationships were strained due to our own selfishness and sinfulness.  And I can say with certainty after 16 years that a marriage relationship takes an enormous amount of work and attention in order for it to become what God intended.  It takes the power of Jesus Christ, and forgiveness and putting aside our own desires and admitting our failings and seeking connections, and loving with all our hearts and having patience and then some.

And sometimes, even in spite of our best efforts and trust in God, marriages break down.  You see, while God didn’t intend for couples to be separated from one another, God also didn’t intend for there to be infidelity.  God didn’t desire for there to be physical or emotional abuse in families.  God didn’t expect couples to face the ravages of alcoholism or substance abuse.  Unfortunately, these things do happen in our world.  And they often lead to divorce.  I don’t think this was the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he spoke out against divorce.

But why, as that biblical scholar put it, why does divorce, even in those circumstances, why does it hurt so darn much?  Why is there such pain?

I believe it’s revealed in those lines that are mentioned in every marriage that follows the Prayer Book rite.  The celebrant says this: “Now that Tom and Susie have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”  That’s the same line Jesus mentions to his disciples.

You see, even though we live in fallen world, even though we are no longer in Eden, we are still wired up the way God intended.  When a couple comes together before God and their family and friends, deep inside they hope that their marriage will succeed.  Through those vows and promises, they are joined together; the two become one.  And try as we might to think otherwise, something deep within us longs for the type of relationship God has intended since the beginning of time.  We want the lifelong, life-giving relationship.  We yearn for it.   And when a marriage fails, when that relationship for whatever reason ends, that couple is ripped apart from one another.  There is no clean break.  The tearing hurts deep within.

Especially for children.  I don’t think it’s merely coincidence that Mark’s narrative moves from Jesus’ teaching on divorce to his instructing the reluctant and dismissive disciples to let the children come to him.  Children, even adult children, feel the pain of divorce acutely.  Children should not be the reason a person stays in a destructive relationship, but it should also not be underestimated the impact any divorce has on their lives.  Children are vulnerable in such situations.  Let them come to me, Jesus says.  Let the most vulnerable ones in life come into my presence.


Finally, I’d like to return once more to that first verse.  There’s one final thing to note: in coming to the region of Judea, Jesus is nearing Jerusalem.  In fact, the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel begins the narrative of Holy Week.  By coming to this region, Jesus’ death is in view.  Soon Jesus will be accused and strung up on that cross.  He will be broken for us.  And in this loving gesture, he will intensely experience the hurt that comes through the brokenness of life.  Through his woundedness, he offers us life.  Christ’s broken body offers us restoration and wholeness.

That is why we come to this table each week.  Jesus gave himself fully and completely for us to offer his compassion and healing.  No, divorce is not what God intended, but that brokenness, that intense hurt and pain can be healed through the work of Christ.  In the giving of himself on the cross, Jesus offers us his body and blood and his mercy and love.  “By his wounds,” Peter writes, “we are healed.”

In light of this amazing love, I am reminded of that wonderful hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.”  I close with the second verse.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows

are more felt than up in heaven;

there is no place where earth’s failings

have such kindly judgment given.

There is plentiful redemption

in the blood that has been shed;

there is joy for all the members

in the sorrows of the Head.  Amen.

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Courtesy of Stock.xchange user Robert Linder

On my  regular walks with our dog Buster I have to cross a stone fence.  There’s a gap, and I know I’m not the only one who uses it; the path is well worn. Stone walls are just about every where around here since we border the rural and suburban areas west of Boston.  Some of them are newer and kept up, especially since many of the stone walls here are “dry,” meaning they’re just stacked stones with nothing but gravity holding them together.

Stone walls figure into my sermon from Sunday. I suspect walking with Buster had them on my mind.  You never know what will be fodder for a sermon.

Based on James 5:13-20

We’re at the end of James’ epistle—those eight verses we heard this morning closed out his letter to the faithful followers of Christ scattered around the region there in the Middle East.   As a writer I know that conclusions can be a time to emphasize the point of the writing.  Or the letters I used to get from my mom in college would end with sage advice like “Enjoy yourself!” and “Do your homework!” which supposedly were not the same thing.  Sometimes letters end with heartfelt convictions, a desire to tell someone how you really feel.  James does all of this and more.  He wants to leave a parting shot, words to live by, the main thrust of his whole argument.

And it’s about two things really.  Prayer and community.  That’s interesting to me since we in Western Christianity often think it comes down to two other things: belief and individual faith.  If you believe the right things or the right way and have a personal faith then you are a model Christian these days.  Yet James highlights prayer and connections to others.

We live in New England.  Prayer and community are things we know we shouldn’t talk about.  One’s prayer life is more sacred a conversation than one’s political affiliation—see any “Pray Daily” lawn signs recently?  Or how would it be if at coffee hour or upon seeing a fellow St. Mark’s parishioner at Kennedy’s you were asked, “How can I pray for you today?”  We’d prefer they’d ask us about the Patriots or the weather.

And we know all to well Robert Frost’s line that “Good fences make good neighbors” — how many miles of stone fences can you find here in the Northeast?  (And let me remind you, in case you forgot from high school English, that Frost’s poem called “Mending Wall” centers on two neighbors meeting on civil terms to restore a barrier between them, a barrier one of them is not certain they need.)  We like putting up and mending our walls in order to keep others out.  We build decks on the back of our houses when our grandparents would rock on the large front porch.  We find solace in the anonymity of the Internet where we can keep others at arm’s length.

But not James.  “Are you having a rough time of it?” he asks.  Then pray.  Got joy?  Sing hymns and songs of praise!  Are you sick?  Call the church community and invite them into your house—don’t worry that it’s not picked up—and have them pray for you and anoint you with oil.

Now some of you may call me up as a priest to have me come if things are bad, but would you consider inviting others from the church to swing by and pray for you when you’re running a fever or dealing with the flu as you lounge around in sweats?  If it were me, I’d grab a shower, try to tidy up the house, get a few things together for a snack if I could.  Or just politely decline.

And then James talks about sin.  Not just about sin in general, but confessing sins.  And not confessing to thin air as you walk outside by yourself, but confessing to one another.  Our sins.  Out loud.  Imagine the vulnerability that would take.  Talk about wanting to keep the walls up that separate us.

During my senior year of college I ran across a passage from Mark Twain in his autobiography about how he always preached in his humor, and that his humor, because he preached in it, would live forever, that is to say, about thirty years.  He was comparing himself to other humorists who had gone before whom the world had forgotten; they were “mere humorists” who refused to preach.  And then he concluded by writing this: “I am saying these vain things in this frank way because I am dead person speaking from the grave.  Even I would be too modest to say them in life.  I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead— and not then until we have been dead years and years.  People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.”[1]  It was that last paragraph that stunned me.  About people ought-ing to start dead.  About how we aren’t our entire and honest selves in this life, in the present time.

So let me speak as one from the dead, if you will.  Let me get down to brass tacks and speak honestly to you.

We love our fences too much.  We like keeping people at a distance and our vulnerabilities to ourselves because we are Americans and we prize individuality and self-reliance above all else.  Is it any wonder then that one of the thrusts of this campaign season is about government assistance and how to dole it out if at all?  We hardly voice our sins to ourselves—we don’t even want to call our own failings “sin” anyway—because then it would mean admitting we screwed up.  We wouldn’t dream of telling another person because we don’t trust them.  We don’t trust that they could keep the confidentiality about what we said.  We think it may come back to haunt us.  Or that it would lower that person’s perception of us.

And when we’re sick and the house gets cluttered and we haven’t bathed in a couple of days, we wouldn’t dream of asking someone to come in to spend time with us.  What would they think if they saw that the kids had torn up the house, or that there were dishes stacked on the counter or that we were in our pajamas?

In other words, we’re afraid.  Afraid because we need to live up to some imagined expectation that we are all in competition with each other.  So we keep people out unless things are perfect.

And when things go wrong, we get isolated.

It may trouble you that James equates sin and sickness in our text.  We sort of know sin and sickness don’t go together, although I still get asked why bad things happen to good people.  And I also know having two parents who had lung cancer that many people’s first question was “Did they smoke?”  While not technically a “sin” it is something we can easily explain away and shake our heads over.  We do the same if someone is overweight and has a heart attack—somehow thinking that they “deserved it,” which is a troubling thought all together.

But I think the more important and relevant correlation between sin and sickness is that they isolate us.  I see it at church.  When someone stops attending, it’s because something difficult is going on.  When things are good, and the kids are making straight As or we got the big promotion, we’re sitting in the pews.  When someone’s hitting the bottle too much, or there’s a rough patch in our marriage or we’re dealing with a chronic health issue, we tend to stay away.

And those of us left behind don’t know how to respond.  We might ask a friend about someone or a family now missing, but then do nothing to follow up.  “That’s too bad,” we might say on learning the news, and thank our lucky stars that it’s not us that is sick or experiencing difficulty with our teen.

But we’re encouraged to reconnect.  To reach out.  Did you hear that invitation from James to go after those who’ve drifted away and bring them back?  Because community is important.

I’ve spent most of my time speaking about community and fences and trying to keep appearances up.  I’ve not been avoiding prayer.  I’ve left it as my parting shot, my sage advice to you.

I think we live lives isolated from others because we are isolated from God.  We don’t know how to pray or don’t make the time or don’t think it’s important.  We feel safe doing it here with one another, but inviting God into our homes and our lives might seem more daunting than anything else.  So our relationship with God is contained to a neat one-hour package on Sunday mornings.  We have God all nice and fenced in.

In Frost’s poem, the walls start crumbling on their own, because of the shifting ground, and the weather.  We have to be intentional about mending the fences.  When stones fall down, when there are cracks in our lives from the experiences and challenges we face, what might it look like to leave the gaps open, and to invite God in?  What if we started each day with a simple invitation, “God, be with me today and guide me?”  Or even, “Lord, have mercy on me?”  How different would our lives be if we stopped three or even four times a day to give thanks, and pour out our hearts, and share our lives with the Holy One?

If we began inviting God in through the holes in the stone walls of our lives, we might be more apt to inviting others in too.  We might allow ourselves to be more vulnerable with those around us, and to begin praying for one another.  Good fences do not make good neighbors.  They only build distrust, and a false belief that we can handle it all on our own.  A much fuller life can be given to us if we only realize that we cannot do it alone, that we need each another, and above all else we need God.  Amen.


[1] Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain. New York: First HarperPerrenial, 1990. Pgs. 358-359.

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This is the sermon I preached on Sunday.  It goes hand in hand with the one from Saturday night.  I hope you enjoy it.


Proper 20B—150th Anniversary Sunday

Last night in my sermon, I looked back on our 150 years, and especially the call for this place to be a house of prayer for all people, with no distinctions, as our founder Joseph Burnett penned it, “as to wealth, color, race or station.”  At the very end, I mentioned that I had recently learned that the mission statement of Canterbury Cathedral in the UK — what many consider to be the Mother Church in the Anglican Communion— is simply this: To Show People Jesus.  What a fantastic statement, and I would argue that we, as followers of Christ, are called to that mission too.  Sometimes though we forget that this is what we are all about.

Notice the disciples in our lesson we just heard from Mark.  They had been told by Jesus that he was going to be put to death, and then rise again. But did they miss it?  Because they don’t say anything, and soon enough the conversation changes to be all about them.  Which one was the greatest among them.  It went from focusing on Jesus to focusing on a competition.

They were concerned only with status and station.  They should have met Joseph Burnett.

And so Jesus, in his unbelievable compassion, sits them down and tells them the secret to the kingdom: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  And then taking a child, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This is one of the scenes many of us cherish.  The little child, full of innocence, comes before the disciples as an object lesson.  It may give you a feeling of joy and warm satisfaction.  But in that day, children weren’t given the preference that we give them now.  Kids were seen as a liability since they couldn’t add much in terms of economic value to a household and so had no status, much like a servant.  It’s no coincidence that we know the idiom “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”  Babies were washed last of all when water had to be hauled up to the house and warmed up over the fire.  After Daddy, and Momma, and the older kids.  And that bath water would have been well used by the time little Sarah got her bath.  It certainly wasn’t the bath time rituals we know today.

So Jesus is telling his disciples that they must become like a servant, they must welcome those with the lowest social standing, if they truly want to follow him.

And that, brothers and sisters, has major implications for us.

Because if we are called to show people Jesus, that means we need to do so without regard to status or station or age or color or any of the numerous things that can separate us from one another.  Because more often than not those are the things we are told by our society to notice most of all.  We hear messages that we should strive to be higher up on the food chain by what we do or what we buy or who we know.  And we tend to hear that those who are the lowest in our society—be they immigrants or homeless or people from depressed areas—should be looked down upon.

I think the very thing Jesus is getting at here most of all is that we are called to love deeply.  While we may spend our time ranking ourselves up against one another like the disciples, it’s not about that at all.  It’s about befriending the ones we think we’re better than, and listening to them and engaging with them.  It’s realizing that in Jesus’ kingdom the first is last and the last is first.  In other words, it’s not about status.

A minister tells a story that sheds light on this truth. “On one occasion I was responsible for making the seating arrangements at a head table.  At one end of the table a person with experience was placed next to a newcomer in order to make him feel welcome.  When the experienced person saw his place card, he promptly picked it up and moved it to the center of the table, next to the person who would be presiding.”[1]

For that gentleman, it was all about status.

If we are concerned with impressing others, or about where we end up in the pecking order, or how to make ourselves look good, than we cannot show people Jesus.  We’ll be too focused on ourselves to do so.

So what does that mean for us as we celebrate 150 years today at St. Mark’s?  What are we to hold onto as we move from this point of time into our future as a congregation?

I would say two things.  First, we must love without regard as Jesus has loved us.  When Jesus came, he broke barriers.  He spoke with women—like the one who was so despised she had to gather her water at the hottest part of the day.  He healed the haves — like the daughter of Jarius the centurion—and the have nots—like the woman hemorrhaging for 17 years.  He brought the best wine to the party, and was accused of being a drunkard.  He blessed children and fed people and got upset when the system showed a preference to the wealthy ones.  He loved and showed mercy and called people to amendment of life.

Jesus loved.  And we should too.

Second, we need to deepen our focus on reaching out and working alongside our neighbors.  Jesus told us today that our call is not to status but to service.  We have talked about doing an outreach day here at St. Mark’s in honor of our 150th year.  A single day when a great number of us gathered and went out to places around our community to work with our neighbors.  Possibly serving a meal, or doing yard work, or building a home, or reading to kids or visiting a nursing home.  Imagine a day when we join forces to simply spread the good news of Christ by our deeds.  I would hope and encourage us to do so before the end of May next year, and we need your help.  Will you join with me as we envision such a day of service?

Finally, on this day of celebration, I simply want to say thanks.  In many ways I am preaching to the choir, to those who are faithful and seeking to serve and follow Christ and wanting to keep the ways of the world in check.  St. Mark’s is St. Mark’s because of you all, and I am deeply grateful to be your rector at this time.  I look forward to the work before us, and to all of the wonderful days God has placed before us.  Amen.

[1] Harry B. Adams.  “Mark 9:30-37: Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year B Vol. 4.  Pg. 94.

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This past weekend we gathered to celebrate 150 years of worshipping in the same spot at St. Mark’s in Southborough.   We had a truly wonderful weekend together celebrating!  This is my sermon from the Gala on Saturday evening.

St. Mark’s Church 150th Anniversary—September 22, 2012 

            On August 15, 1862, at 3:30 in the afternoon, a band of people gathered on the parcel of land that had once been home to a Mr. Heman Este so they could lay the cornerstone for St. Mark’s Church.  The Rev. Albert C. Patterson, new priest of St. Mark’s, and the Rev. Eleazer Mather Porter Wells from St. Stephen’s in Boston presided, while Joseph Burnett—Sr. Warden and significant patron—looked proudly on.  This Episcopal congregation had been one of his dreams for Southborough.  He wanted a parish to worship in the Anglican tradition, but just as importantly, St. Mark’s was to be a free church.  He had only one stipulation in deeding the property to be used by the congregation, it was to be “free to all, with no distinctions as to wealth, color, race or station.”

In the throes of the Civil War, Joseph Burnett saw that all were welcome in the kingdom of God.  That the worship of the living God couldn’t be limited to just the wealthy, or the ones with education or those who held positions; it was to be for all people.  All people.  With no distinctions.

If we were to write this today, it might look something like what Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community in Daytona has for their church.  Let me read the words printed on their welcome bulletin each week.

“We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

“We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or, like our pastor, can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’ just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but have not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up much too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

“If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and she wanted to go to church.

“We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!”

We might want to call this thinking “forward” or “diverse” or “pluralistic;” those are the buzzwords of our day and age.  But I would simply call them from God.  It was God who, through the prophet Isaiah, said, “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,  ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;…  Thus says the Lord… ‘the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,  and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,  and hold fast my covenant— I will … make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

The supposed “Angry God of the Old Testament” said this.  God looked down at the Gentiles, the non-Jews, longing to worship and said that God’s holy temple would be a house of prayer for all people.  Joseph Burnett understood this completely 150 years ago, when he bought the Este house and tore it down with the intention of building a church on this site while war was waged in the country over slavery.  He got it.

The purpose of this or any house dedicated to God is simply to worship, to be a place of comfort and solace when we are distressed, a place to shout our thanksgivings, a place where we can be reconciled to God and seek forgiveness, a place to pray.  Is it surprising then that Jesus, when he saw the extortion and unfair money-exchange taking place in the Jerusalem temple called it a den of thieves?  He reminded those money-changers of the Isaiah text, that God’s house was a house of prayer.  Not a place to make only the wealthy feel welcome.  God longed for the prayers of everyone.

I can only begin to imagine the prayers said in this place since 1862.  Those who prayed for loved ones who were ill.  The ones giving God great thanks for bringing their sons and daughters home safely.  The prayers for forgiveness and a desire to make amends.  Prayers for rain, and for seasonable weather.  The ones praying for snow—if you were a child hoping for a day off from school—and those praying for no snow—if you were an adult with a commute.  Prayers of great joy at the beauty of Christmas and Easter, prayers of sorrow at gatherings on Good Friday.  Prayers for babies being baptized and for those who died much too soon.  Thanksgivings for couples being married.  Prayers of grief for those who departed this life.  How many thousands of prayers have been lifted up to the Almighty from within these walls? How many lives have been touched by the Holy One in these pews or at these altar rails as a result of Joseph Burnett and his colleagues joining together to build St. Mark’s Church?

Fifty years ago, in the Spring of 1963, then Bishop Anson Phelps Stokes, Jr., wrote a letter published in the St. Mark’s Marksman for our 100th anniversary. “The history of a parish never ends.  Life touches life and goes on.  It must be a challenge to us to make our contribution to the common life so that this parish can go on touching lives ever more fully and in wider circles.  May God guide you into this second century.  The world will not be easier—it will be harder.  A conventional complacent Christianity will not suffice for the days that lie ahead.  Christianity must be a movement of people who find in Christ guidance and courage for the perplexities of a new day.  These will be exciting times.  Even if they are hard times they are the kind of times in which Christianity can grow in deep ways.”

As we celebrate our sesquicentennial, as we look forward to the next 150 years, I want to echo those words from the good Bishop Stokes.  Life touches life and goes on.  We are called to let our lives as the people who worship Jesus Christ in this place touch others in wider and fuller circles.  Because we are all connected with one another.  We are connected with those saints who have gone before—the Burnetts and Fays and Choates—and we are connected to each other here and now, and we will be connected with those who come after, whoever they may be.  The days before us will not be easier; if that was true 50 years ago, it is even more true now.  We continue to be fragmented, to look tentatively at those who are not like us, to feel that our differences are too great to overcome.  We live in a time and place where Christianity has lost its luster and influence.  Yet this house is a house of prayer for all people, and we are called not to complacent Christianity, but to a deep and abiding faith in the one, holy, true and undivided Trinity.

We are here to make a difference in this community in the name of Jesus Christ.

We are called to live as his disciples, and to share his message of love, hope, forgiveness and reconciliation with the world.  We are not to be complacent in spreading that good news.  “Christianity must be a movement of people who find in Christ guidance and courage for the perplexities of a new day.”

As we gather here on this evening, and give thanks, and renew our baptismal covenant and share stories and celebrate, I hope we do not lose sight of that which is most important.  150 years ago a group of people came together to lay a cornerstone so that we would have a place to come and follow Jesus Christ.  By coming here and praying and having our faith deepened, we can in turn go out into the world to share by word and deed the good news of God in Christ.

I learned recently that the mission statement of Canterbury Cathedral in the UK — what many consider to be the Mother Church in the Anglican Communion— is simply this: To Show People Jesus.  I would argue that that’s our mission too.  May we share that wonderful news with everyone we meet: whether they are like us or not.  May we know that God welcomes each and every one of us into a deeper relationship with Christ.  And may the good work begun 150 years ago continue for 150 more, as we show people Jesus.  Amen.


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 I’m continuing my sermon series on James.  This Sunday we read about the taming of the tongue.  I hope you find these words beneficial.

James 3:1-12—The Judging Tongue

In his letter to these believers of the twelve tribes of Israel scattered among the nations, James doesn’t pull any punches, and today is no different.  He’s pretty direct in these statements about what we say, and in case you think this is just directed to teachers, read the text again; this is directed at all of the brothers and sisters, with an added warning about teachers.

We all know that words can set off landmines in our relationships, or in our political landscape or even our world.  Imagine what happens when someone in our family says that they detest us.  It cuts to our core, because deep down we want to be loved for who we are, and words—no matter how many times we sing that childhood mantra about sticks and stones—words damage us.

James gets this.  He gives great examples about the tongue, and I want you to hear it again in a current day translation.  A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!  It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.  This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!  My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?” (The Message Bible James 3:3-12)

That leaves very little space for wiggle room, and yet we often fall short.  But the question has to be why.  Why do we do this?  Why do we let our tongues run wild?  And why do our tongues often run wild against those we love best?  You can tame wild beasts, James says, but the tongue, you might as well forget it.  It’s a world of evil.

That reference to taming all kinds of animals would have set of alarm bells for those reading James’ letter, because it would remind them of some other verses given much earlier in the biblical narrative.  From the first chapter of Genesis, way back at the very beginning.  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:27-28)  And so when James talks about taming the animals, those hearing his letter would say, “Aha!  He’s talking about the work given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.”  Animal taming and domesticating is a breeze, James says, but taming the tongue, give it up.

A while ago I read a fabulous book called Transformational Architecture: Reshaping Our Lives as Narrative by Dr. Ron Martoia.  His main idea is that the Christian story needs to begin where God starts it at Eden, and not where many Christians begin it at the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the fall of humanity.  He suggests that when God created us in God’s image, what we received is three core longings within us, three ways in which we connect: namely with God and something larger than ourselves, with each other and a longing to be loved, and with our future, our hope that things will be better.[1]  And those longings come directly from God, are God’s imprint, the image of God, on us.

Our relationships with each other are key to our lesson from James.  Dr. Martoia tells the story of being in the check-out at a grocery store waiting for his turn, and the woman in front of him had two kids running wild.  We’ve all been there.  The kids were touching everything, knocking over the candy and Mom was oblivious.  What really bothered him was that the kids were running into him as well and were making a scene.  Now Ron’s a former pastor and current ministry consultant and spiritual leader.  And this is what he was saying under his breath: “Are you kidding me?  Control your freakin’ kids.  I need to get you a parenting brochure.  This is a public place not an outdoor playground.  Get some awareness, lady.  These are your kids.”[2]  Those are some horrible things to be thinking, of course.  He writes, “As this frazzled mom paid for her items, she said to the cashier, ‘Thank you for being patient with me.  This has been a hard week. I’m taking care of my dying mother at my house, and my husband left me this week.’”[3]  He was bowled over, of course.  He was grateful he hadn’t spoken the words out loud, but he still felt like an idiot.

It’s that desire to judge that seems to be present in all of us.  Dr. Matoria points out that in the creation account, when God separates things—like light from dark or the land from the sea—everything is good.  Each day ends with that refrain, “And God saw that it was good.”  God sees everything, God knows everything, and what God sees is goodness.  Even when things are different from one another, when God looks at the armadillo and the lion on Day 6, God says its all good.  God revels in seeing that goodness.

And yet at the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of good and not good, Adam and Eve are told that they shouldn’t eat of it.   They are given the right to separate and name—that’s a giraffe over there, and this one is a prairie dog—but are told not to eat of this tree of knowledge of good and evil.  “It appears from the text” Martoia writes, “that they would acquire the ability to make pronouncements that only God, with his perfect and infinite knowledge, would be all to make.  They would presumably be seeking to make the sort of pronouncements that God had made in the refrain of Genesis, namely ‘and it was good.’”[4]  But the problem is when they eat of that fruit, “they immediately begin to judge between good and evil.  And the results of their judging seem to be significantly different from God’s appraisal.” They look down and see their nakedness and are ashamed.[5]  Martoia concludes, “Part of the sickness introduced by Adam and Eve is our incessant desire to judge between good and not good (evil), even though we are incapable of doing so in any ultimate sort of way.”[6]  But that doesn’t stop us.  We let our tongues go wild.

We like to separate people into groups that we can then put down easily.  We use phrases intended to harm others (We’re in the political season, insert your own example here from the party you support).  We judge people based on the color of their skin, or their accent, or their status.  Unfortunately, we start young, and many just hope to make it through middle school without getting too many scars inflicted by the verbal attacks.  We certainly know what is good and not good based on what others tell us, or what we pick up from our families or what we see on TV, but ultimately it goes completely against what God has said.  Because God, when God looks around and sees us, when God sees the Democrat and Republican and Independent, and the 80 year old and the 4 year old, and the guy from Africa, and the woman from the Netherlands, God looks at all of us and says, “It is good.”

This judging, this determining of good and not good, it is a fire, a fire from hell, as James puts it.  We destroy one another with our words, which flow right out of our unquenchable desire to judge others. And we do it for no other reason it seems than to make ourselves look good or to feel better about our own choices or to seem bright and witty.  We do it even though we know how much we hate it ourselves when we’re on the receiving end.


Which is exactly why we need Christ.  James hits the nail on the head, “No one can tame the tongue,” he writes.  Try as we might not to judge, not to let hurtful words slip out from between our lips, we cannot do it alone.  We need God’s help.  You see, it’s God who purifies the brackish waters within us.  God brings about the change in our lives, often slowly over a long period of time, but it’s God’s work and not something we can magically do by mere will power.


It is by inviting Christ into our lives each day, again and again, and allowing Christ to transform us, that we can make strides in the right direction.  It is in being crucified with Christ, as Paul puts it to the Galatians, that we give Jesus the chance to live in us.  By hoisting up that judging nature on the cross, we say again and again how much we want to be the people God always intended us to be.  When we offer ourselves to God’s correction and love, we come closer to the way things were always meant to be, people who see others simply as what they—and what we ourselves are—the image, the icon, of the living God.  Amen.

[1] Ron Martoia, Transformational Architecture.  2009.  I’m gleaning a lot from Dr. Martoia’s book, and will reference pages when I can, but I am certainly indebted to him for parts of this sermon.

[2] Martoia, 119.

[3] Martoia, 119.

[4] Martoia, 122.

[5] Martoia, 122.

[6] Martoia, 123

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Photo Credit: Stock Xchng by leroy

In our tradition, we read from a letter in the New Testament each Sunday (in addition to other readings), and  James is the epistle we’re reading for all of September.  His letter is both wonderful and hard to deal with. I feel that he is writing not to some Jewish believers back in the 1st century, but to us some 20 centuries later.

In the portion of his letter for this week he tells us that we shouldn’t show partiality. That’s dang hard, especially in the current environment here in the US as we get ready for a presidential election.  We like people who agree with us, or who impress us.  And we look down on those who disagree or who don’t have the education we do or whatever.

And when we do this—when we judge others—well, that’s not from God.

This sermon also hits on a few “in-house” things here at St. Mark’s. Good sermons always have a context, or so I learned in seminary. But even though I address the good folks here in Southborough, I think the message is one all of us need to hear.

When you’re done, I’d love to hear your responses. How do you deal with the issue of showing partiality?

Based on James 2:1-17 & Mark 7:24-27

            It’s been a few years for me—okay quite a few—but I still remember what it feels like to walk into a crowded cafeteria with a tray of food all by myself and not see any friends to sit with.  If you’ve ever been the new kid, or gone to a conference by yourself, or if you recall those first few meals at college, you may remember it too. When the scan for a familiar face came up empty, I would look for an open small table.  If I was lucky, I went there, if I wasn’t, I headed to the least crowded long table that had an opening on the end.  I would pull out a book (nowadays, I suspect I’d grab my iPhone) to look busy and shovel in my food.  Inside I’d be feeling as if I somehow didn’t fit in.  (Those childhood insecurities die hard, don’t they?)

It’s tough walking into a place where you think you might not fit in.  But it helps if you look like you belong.  At least then you can hope that people will notice you or be kind or at least not give you the once over and dismiss you with the look of their eyes because you are clearly out of place.

But it’s exactly that kind of thing that James talks about in the bit of his letter that we read today.  It seems some of the early followers of Jesus were doing just that.  “Do you really believe in our Lord,” James asks incredulously, “with these acts of favoritism you show?”  He then creates this scene about a wealthy person and a homeless guy coming into a gathering.  The rich chap looks like he might be able to help the bottom line, or be able to offer an amazing network to connect with.  So the people there fall over themselves to help him, giving him attention and a seat of honor.  But the other guy, the one who looks out of place, who has a bit of b.o., and oozes with insecurity, well he barely gets a chance to say hello before he’s rushed off to the obstructed view seating in the back.

“Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

That’s a rhetorical question, of course.  They know they’ve been caught.  And they’re left holding the bag.  Because when a guy shows up in Rolls Royce we notice.  The woman in the Pinto? Not so much.

James continues with this partiality talk, about how when they do it, they are in fact breaking the law; they are sinning.  With their actions, they dishonor the poor.  And when you defame them, you defame God.

But I cannot talk about this without ignoring the elephant in the room.  Jesus, in our passage this morning, calls a woman a dog.  There’s another, much more harsh word we use today that would result in getting your mouth washed out with soap.  Jesus called a woman that.

Trying to soften this—something a few commentators attempt, like claiming Jesus spoke with a twinkle in his eye, or that he really meant a playful puppy—doesn’t stand the truth test.  Jesus says that he can’t help her because she isn’t Jewish; thanks for playing, but no.

But this Syrophonecian woman cares much too deeply about her demon possessed daughter.  She’s not going away when a Jewish rabbi throws out a racial slur.  “Yes, Lord,” she responds, “but even the dogs under the table get the children’s scraps.”  And with that Jesus’ eyes are opened.  He looks at her with a new sense of compassion, and awe at being beat by her wit, and he recognizes that this kingdom that he is ushering in cannot be contained.  That there is more than enough to go around.  That even the ones seen as unworthy can share in the goodness of the kingdom.

We see Jesus’ human side in this.  He’s clearly showing some bigotry.  But when it’s pointed out to him, notice that Jesus doesn’t stand his ground and say, “Listen, lady, did you not hear me before?”  Instead he changes his mind.  Jesus hears her.  Maybe he had a tough day at the office, or was just run down, or still needing that break after John the Baptist’s death.  Whatever the reason, Jesus sees he’s in the wrong and corrects his course.  He realizes the beauty of his message even more so than before.  His kingdom is not about scarcity; it’s about abundance.

It’s easy to see the scarcity though.  It’s way too easy to recognize that the best thing to do when you don’t think there’s enough for you and yours is to grab as much as you can and push others away.  Jesus came primarily for the Jews, but his message of repentance, reconciliation and restoration couldn’t be contained for the Jews alone.  Even then that message was so much larger.

We do this in church, of course.  We live thinking there’s not enough.  And so we play favorites and find the people we think will bring us more status or clout or money or whatever and focus all our attention on them.  We dream small dreams because we think we don’t have the people, the bandwidth, the energy to do anything more.

But there’s a better way.  I think what James is getting at in this passage is this: when we focus in on a certain person or individual, we don’t allow ourselves to see the way God can use the other, especially the one deemed too different from us.  To say it plainly, we limit God.  We don’t see the image of God in that other person because of how we view them based on their clothes, or their car, or their education, or their children, or their hairstyle, or the color of their skin, or the choices in their lives.  So we think they are useless to us, and we ignore them.

But God sees them as integral to the kingdom Jesus ushered in; the same kingdom that couldn’t be contained just to the Jews.  God’s kingdom oozes abundance.  More than enough.

I’m seeing this play out here at St. Mark’s.  I’ve heard from some a message of caution or fear or disappointment or frustration that there aren’t enough people here to take active roles in our community right now.  We don’t have enough in the way of readers or chalice bearers.  We lack people to help our youth program, or to sing in our choir, or to serve at the homeless shelter or to organize the library.  When there’s not enough, our anxiety spikes.  Maybe there are hard conversations, or we feel like we’re not being heard.  Some may suggest that people are just too over committed or can’t make the time or don’t want to help out.  With a bit of feeling overwhelmed we might even call someone a name we know we shouldn’t.

But I’m here to tell you there’s more than enough.  It’s not just crumbs falling off the table, it’s a meal.  We need to look beyond those who think like us or share our views or who live in the same neighborhood or have always done the work.  We all can share in the work given to us by God here at St. Mark’s at this time.

Because God doesn’t show partiality.  Oh we might.  We might think that Sunday School is to be taught just by parents, but we have a number of excellent retired teachers in our midst who could help share our faith for an 8 week session.  Or maybe you think you couldn’t teach at all, but if you had the support of someone else with you, you might give it a try.  Or perhaps the thought of dishing up a plate of food in Marlborough or Boston scares you but you feel called to face that fear and recognize that God doesn’t have favorites.  Or maybe you could sing with the choir, or take part in the Christmas Bazaar, or use the gift of meticulousness for God’s glory by signing up for a turn on the altar guild.  Or you might have time to visit a shut in and bring them communion, or help out at the Bargain Box sorting through donated clothing.

I know there is enough talent, enough compassion, enough love for God in this congregation to do the work given to us, and even more.  But not if we show partiality.  Not if we look down at one another.  Or even worse, not if we look down at ourselves.

Which is, I think, one of the biggest challenges today.  We don’t think we are capable, or we think that others don’t want our help, or that we don’t have the same skills that someone else has.  So we bow out, defer, skulk away.  We figure that the group is set and is not in need of others.  Sometimes we might even feel a vibe coming off that a group doesn’t want new people to join—like we’re walking back into a crowded cafeteria alone.  I know this is simply not true.  Every person involved here in some way or another has mentioned how they would love to have more people involved.  People who have been here a long time or those who joined last month.  Adults or kids.  Women or men.  We have the gifts we need and then a lot more.

We can change the world, but first me must change our minds. About other people, about God’s kingdom, and about the amazing reality of abundance.  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We are called to so much more, and so on this day, the first Sunday back in this program year, I’d like to invite you to fill out that form you received.  Even our younger members.  And the ones who have been here more than 40 years.  How can you share yourself in the abundance of the kingdom?  What ideas do you have for us?  In this, our 150th year of worshipping on this piece of land, we can make a difference.  As those called to be members of Christ’s body in this place, we must make a difference.  If we don’t, if we merely pay lip service or come and go without working toward the kingdom, then our faith is dead.  I hope you’ll join alongside me in sharing in the work of Christ.  We can do it, but only together.  Only when we see the abundance of the kingdom and the reality that Christ’s good news is for us all.

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Sometimes as a preacher I have no idea where a text will take me. Parts of some texts are very familiar, and so there isn’t really anything new to say about them.  Or maybe we just focus in on the parts that we like that are familiar.

But today when we read Mark 3:20-35 I was caught by Jesus’ family and the scribes going after him.  It’s an interesting side note to the bigger stuff going on—Jesus’ line about a kingdom divided against itself.  But it’s pretty significant.  His family wanted to quiet him down.

And so I followed that trail downward and it got me to this sermon about the second half of life (from Richard Rohr) and other thoughts.

My sermon from today.


In the denomination I grew up in—a church that believed heavily in a radical conversion experiences much like the Apostle Paul’s on the road to Damascus—would sometimes tell us that family members might not approve of our conversions and call us weirdoes or “Jesus freaks” or “Holy Rollers.”  If they did, we were to hold onto that as a badge of honor.  And maybe we needed to let go of those family members and their concerns in order to be more focused on Jesus anyway.  We’d be reminded of Jesus saying that to follow him you needed to leave mother and father and sister and brother.

Nowadays when something like that happens—when an individual finds a church and pushes away their family members because they don’t share the same beliefs—I might have serious doubts about the church or the individual.  Partly because I think the gospel has a lot to say about community and relationships and how we are to deepen those connections, and partly because I still carry some baggage from that time in my life.

But then I encounter a text like the one we read this morning, and I can’t help but remember those times.  Before the part we just read, Jesus had entered a boat to stop the crowd from crushing him, and he left them on the shore.  When he made landfall, he went into the hills to officially call the Twelve, and then he made his way to this house.  Mark tells us that the crowd has been tracking him and finds him again.   And, we’re informed, Jesus family is getting worried.  They hear about all the commotion he is causing, and they try to get control, because others are talking about him.  “He’s crazy!” they hear.  “He isn’t the same Jesus we remember when we were growing up.  He’s gone mad.”  I guess they say this because he’s been healing people, and a great deluge of folks from all over—as far away from Jerusalem—are making the journey up to Galilee to hear his teachings and to be healed by him.  His mother and brothers hear about this and try to make it go away.  Maybe they’ve been hearing snide comments at the marketplace, “Is it really true what I’ve heard about your Jesus?  Is he really pretending to be a rabbi?  It’s too bad; he was such a nice boy.”  So they want to put an end to it.

And then the scribes jump on Jesus too.  “He’s possessed!” they claim, trying to make Jesus look ridiculous or evil.  They want the people to stop following him.  A smear campaign seems the best chance to do away with this one that they don’t understand.  Jesus is getting too popular and pushing much too hard on the acceptable norms, so they resort to flinging mud.

This isn’t the comfy sort of Christianity that we like to promote, is it?  It’s easier to overlook this, to see these interactions as flukes in our Gospel stories.  But Jesus is coming into conflict with his family and the religious authorities, and he is our example and forerunner, the very one we base our life on.

A friend of mine encouraged me to read Richard Rohr’s outstanding book called Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  Rohr, a Franciscan priest and frequent retreat leader, argues that many in our westernized culture never make it out of the first half of their lives, the part focused on identity and vocation and building a healthy ego.  He goes further by saying that many churches and clergy never get beyond this much either; sermons focus on calling and identity and making people feel good about themselves.  Additionally, because we often do such a poor job in the first half of our lives—maybe we had parents who never experienced the second half of life themselves, or we didn’t even know it existed, or possibly the circumstances of our lives left us in a state of arrested development—we often try to do it over again later in life.

Rohr’s main premise is that the second half of life can only begin through a major falling, a significant life change like a death or divorce, or a traumatic experience or failure.  When this happens—and he reminds us that we cannot make it happen, it just does, and it will—we have the opportunity to see that all of our life experiences leading up to this point was just introduction, it was only background.  The journey of forming, identity, vocation and whatnot was simply to create a container for the real story we have yet to embark upon.  The first half was necessary, of course, we couldn’t journey into the second half of life otherwise, and it must be done well.  But if we want to discover our true calling, the stuff that we were really sent here for, then we must enter into the second half of life even though we won’t want to.

He writes, “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule,’ some event, person, death, idea or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.  Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources.  … [Y]ou will and you must ‘lose’ at something.  This is the only way that Life-Fate-God-Grace-Mystery can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey.  I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute in the spiritual literature of the world.”[1]

These are hard words, but I know them to be true in my own life.  I mentioned to you a couple of weeks ago the difficulty I experienced in Colorado at the church I served there.  I didn’t give specifics because on one level it is not entirely my own story to tell, and on another I am always suspicious of clergy or leaders who badmouth some other community or person in order to make themselves look good.  But I can say with certainty that in that place far from home, I faced and experienced tremendous loss.  Had I known now what was to happen, I would have not gone willingly.  But God had other things in mind, and in fact Melissa and I felt with utmost certainty that God wanted us to go.  The call to leave New England and move across the country was unmistakably clear.

I said to Melissa earlier this week that what I faced there was the most difficult experience of my life.  Even harder than burying both of my parents.

As a priest I hear stories from people when they experience the great falling that Rohr talks about.  An ending of a relationship, a traumatic encounter, a significant problem with a child or a debilitating illness.  My inclination is to wish them out of it, or take away their pain or try to make things better.  But I can’t, really.  I can pray, which I do, but I can’t do much else other than to say that I hope they know God can redeem this situation.  But it means them reaching their limits—recognizing that they don’t have power to get through on their own.   Eventually God can use this experience and help them move toward the deeper calling in life that God has always had for them.

Because that’s what is really going in in this passage from Mark.  Notice Jesus’ response to all of these attacks on his character: he talks about how he isn’t from Beelzebul at all.  Rather he came to tie up the strong man, Satan himself, so that he could plunder Satan’s home.  Jesus is telling those scribes and family members what he’s really called to do.  The beginning part there in Nazareth, well that was all introduction and first half of life stuff.  It was necessary, to be sure; Jesus needed a strong family home and strong sense of himself.  But he wasn’t called to be a carpenter.  He was called to something much, much bigger.  And he needed to leave home for that.  And have a major event like his 40 days of fasting and being tempted by the devil.

We are called to so much more too.  But you won’t often hear about that in our society that wants to keep us happy so we keep living our lives as consumers.  And it’s hard to explain to family members and those we love who knew us back in our youth, especially when we seem to change course, or experience a major fall.  They don’t know how to respond, so they try to restrain us and bring us back to our senses.

Yet Jesus gives us unexpected hope.  Mark tells us that he’s in that house, and his mother and brothers have finally arrived, supposedly to come and take him away.  They send word in to him to let them know that they are here for him.  “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asks.  And then looking at those around him, the ones desperate enough to follow him and seek his touch and to hear his stories and press in on him, he says, “They’re right here.  These are my mother and my brothers.  Whenever anyone does God’s will, they are my mother and brother and sister.”

God’s will.  These folks are doing the will of God in leaving their own homes to follow Jesus.  They are participating in God’s desire for their lives when they strike out and chase and push forward and soak it all in.  They themselves are well on their way to the second half of the spiritual life.  We can be too, if only we see in our misgivings and uncertainty and loss and failing the abiding redemption of God who yearns to have us embark on the true calling of our lives.   Jesus wants this for us.  He wants for us to truly engage in God’s will for our lives.  Can we do it no matter the cost?  Can we be among those he called brothers and sisters and mothers? Will we trust that when we are at our utter end, that God will be with us and give us the strength to go forward?

[1] Richard Rohr. Falling Upward. Jossey Bass, 2011.  Pg 65-66.

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We read one of my favorite stories from Scripture yesterday.  I think I liked it first because one of the central characters has my name.  And I like it even more because of what it says about God’s kingdom.

We Christians spend too much time talking about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to faith.  We think somehow this conversation is helpful, except when you’re the one on the out and trying to figure out how to get in.  Or even worse, deciding that it’s not worth it getting in.

Jesus seemed a bit more relaxed than we are when it comes to this kind of thing.  He says, “Follow me,” and we get to do just that if we want.

I’m showing my cards on where this sermon is going, so I’ll let you read it.

Easter 5 Year B—Acts 8:26-40

            We gathered in the cool, slightly musty basement of an old Episcopal Church with the elementary aged-students who had come to Vacation Bible School that week.  I think there were about 15 students, and 6 adults.  We watched as a few of the students were acting out the lesson of the day, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.

I watched patiently, waiting for the story to be done so we could move on to the craft that I was helping with and then outside to the games that I would be leading.  Melissa had the script in hand in order to give a cue if needed, as Philip and our Ethiopian gallantly read their lines. We came to the climax of the story, when they happen upon that water.  The young boy playing the Eunuch looked intently over towards Philip and with steely determination, said emphatically, “Look!  Here is water!  What’s to prevent me from becoming a Baptist?”

Before we can get to this question at the center of our lesson from this morning, there’s quite a bit leading up to this.  Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, is a master story-teller and so I want to give him his due today.

Our story really begins in Acts chapter 1, just before Jesus ascends into heaven.  He is there with his disciples giving his last instructions, and his very last words to them are these, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Then, without anything else to be said, Jesus is taken up from them.  They must be marveling at these words, since it seemed that Jesus had come for the Jews, and yet, he tells them that they would be sharing his message of love and hope with those further afield.  They would be exclaiming his good news with Samaritans, and even the Gentiles, those at the ends of the earth.

In chapter 6, Luke reports that these are getting complicated for the early church.  Some of the Hellenists, that is Greek speaking Jews, felt like they were getting left in the lurch by those Jews who, like the disciples and Jesus himself, spoke Aramaic.  These two camps were separated due to their language differences, and as such the Hellenist widows weren’t getting their share from the food bank.  The disciples appointed seven deacons full of God’s Spirit, including Philip, to wait on tables and to live lives of service.  Luke declares that the church continued to increase even more.

But as the church began to increase, there also became an increase in the amount of persecution.  Saul—later on he’ll be known as Paul—led the charge against the Christians, and the believers were scattered in all different directions trying to avoid him.  And in Chapter 8, a little before our reading today, we read that Philip went to Samaria to proclaim the Messiah to them.

Remember that Samaritans and Jews hated each other.  The Samaritans were half-breeds, they were descended from Jews who hadn’t left Jerusalem during the exiles, and who had intermarried.  When the exiled Israelites returned, the Samaritans were treated like second-class citizens—much like the “half-bloods” in Harry Potter’s world who had both muggle and wizard parents.

But Philip shares the message of Jesus with them.  Jesus’ last words about the spreading of his message is beginning to happen.  Philip, this Helenistic Jew, is allowing the Spirit of God to break down the barriers and spread the message with Samaritans, and they believed and were baptized.  Word soon gets back to the believers in Jerusalem, and they send Peter and John to investigate, to see if the Spirit had actually moved there in Samaria.  They are astounded to see that it is in fact true, that these folks had believed in Jesus.

At this point in the story we come to the lesson we read this morning when an angel of the Lord instructs Philip to leave Samaria and to head on the road to Gaza.  He does just that without questioning.

Luke interrupts his retelling to fill us in on the background of the other character in this unfolding drama.  Notice the description he gives us.  “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch,… [h]e had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home.”  He had come to worship, and what is left unspoken—the thing that every Jewish person would know— is the simple line, “and it would have been almost impossible for him to do so.”  This man had made his way to Jerusalem from Africa, a long pilgrimage to be sure, and he would not have been admitted into the temple to worship because of his sexual status.  Deuteronomy 23 spells it out clearly in somewhat graphic terms, “No one who’s emasculated by crushing or cutting shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  This eunuch would not have been welcomed in the temple like other men.  He would have to stay outside the courts of the Lord.

He is a God-Fearer to be sure.  He made this long journey, worshipped as best he could, and on the return trip he reads from Scripture.  But notice that he isn’t reading Deuteronomy—the book that excludes him from worshipping God—he’s reading from Isaiah chapter 53.   This Ethiopian eunuch no doubt would have also known Isaiah’s words that address him specifically a couple of chapters later, in Isaiah 56.  Isaiah writes, “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”   The Lord goes on to say that the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord would be made joyful in his house.  Isaiah holds open hope for this man who had been barred entrance into the temple, a hope that would be even greater than children.

As this man’s chariot comes by, Philip is told to walk alongside it.  He then hears the Ethiopian reading aloud from Scripture, and asks if he understands what he is reading.  Philip isn’t asking if he can make sense of the words, of course, he’s asking if the man recognizes the spiritual sense.  The eunuch, this official in Candace’s court, responds with great humility, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

The eunuch reads from Isaiah 53, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”  Surely this passage hits home for him.   He too, would be unable to speak of his descendants. Certainly he was deprived of justice in life and probably recently back at the temple of the Lord where he was unable to fully worship in the temple.  He was an outcast.  And so he asks that simple question of Philip, “Is the prophet speaking about himself, or is it about someone else?”  He could have easily have asked, “Is this about me?”

Philip uses this passage as a jumping off point about Jesus.  He knows the story of Scripture and the interplay of Jesus’ life by heart.  He explains that Jesus himself was denied justice, that he was treated much like a lamb.  Philip told the eunuch about Jesus’ life, how he healed the sick, and taught his disciples about how life in his kingdom was like a lost sheep or a son who went off on his own, only to find his father still waiting for him.  Philip would have told him about Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And he would have mentioned Jesus’ last words, that the message of life and hope and love brought about by Jesus was meant for the entire world.  Even him.

At that point they happen upon water in the desert.  “Look!  Here is water!” he exclaims excitedly.  “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” he asks Philip.  All of those years of being forced out, of being pushed away from the worship of God.  The shame of his condition had probably come to a climax for him when he was refused entry to the temple in Jerusalem, this place that he had traveled so far to see.  “Is there anything stopping me from becoming a follower of Jesus?” he asks.

The question just hangs out there in our story.  We don’t even get a verbal response from Philip.  The next verse simply says that the chariot stops, both men go down to the water, and Philip baptizes the eunuch.

Philip’s actions, prompted all along by the Spirit, give an emphatic answer to his question.  “There is nothing that is stopping you from being a follower of the true and living God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  His message of love, forgiveness and hope is for everyone, even those whom others ostracize, even the ones that society forgets.  The kingdom of God is open to everyone who desires to honor God and follow the resurrected Christ.  Everyone.  No questions asked.”

And that is good news whether you’re a eunuch, an Episcopalian, or even a Baptist.

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