Sermons

 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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I presided at my father’s funeral a week ago today.  He died Easter Day while I was traveling with my family to be with him.  Even though I didn’t get to say one last good-bye in person, these past months I saw him quite a few times and felt his love and grace.

Many have commented on my ability to do my dad’s funeral and give his eulogy.  Honestly, it was an honor.  Difficult to be sure, but my last tribute to a great man.

Here are the words I shared last week with the folks who came out to my Dad’s funeral.

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     As you can imagine in my role as a priest, I do quite a few funerals.  Some might see it as an occupational hazard, but any clergy person worth their weight in salt will tell you they prefer funerals to weddings; there are no bridezillas when you bury someone.  When I lead families into my study, I know how difficult it is for them as they try to piece together the past days and weeks which all went too fast.  They think about things spoken, and things left unspoken with their loved ones.  Memories of past years.  And often for sons who bury their fathers, a desire to know that they’ve lived up to their expectations.

Inevitably part of the conversation I have is about those relationships, and the hurts and joys that have taken center stage.  Like the twenty-something son who had  three younger brothers.  His life didn’t follow the trajectory his father would have hoped, and he sought to be reconciled when his dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness.  It never happened, and I remember holding his hand, crying together, over his loss.

Another time, I remember the joy a step-son felt when we met in my office.  While he couldn’t fathom burying his step-dad so early, he exuded gratitude for this man who married his mother when he was just a young boy.  He found a true dad in his life after his biological father had run off soon after he was born.

I experienced the pain of a fractured family when two older sons each met with me individually to plan their father’s funeral.  Each felt the other had taken advantage of dad, and they despised one another.  I just quietly prayed that they might find peace.

Each time, as these sons talk with me about sending off their fathers with a eulogy, I give the same advice.  Tell stories that you remember about your dad that will bring him to life.  Be sure to type it up, in case you break down and can’t make it through, so someone else can finish for you.  Try to keep it to a couple of pages, otherwise you may ramble.  And I always follow it up with a couple of pointers on public speaking, and then say a prayer with them.

My earliest memories of Dad are of sharing the mornings together during the summer.  We were both early risers, and it was my time to be alone with him while the rest of my siblings and mom slept in.  We often followed the same routine.  He would get me a bowl from the high cupboard, and I would grab a spoon and the cereal I wanted.  We would sit at one end of the huge table in our kitchen, he drinking his coffee and I slurping my Cap’n Crunch.  We talked about whatever was important to a boy of five—like the huge bullfrog hanging out in the ditch—and then sat in the quiet together.  Soon enough Dad would put his cup in the sink so he could get off to work, and I would carry over my bowl.

We followed this script religiously, until I discovered one afternoon with the help of my siblings that I could climb onto the counter and get my own bowl.  The next morning when Dad asked if I wanted cereal, I told him I could get my own bowl now and no longer needed his help.  He watched as I deftly scrambled onto the counter, stood up and took down a bowl.  Years later he told me how hard that day was; he knew I was growing up, but he wanted time to slow down a little bit so he could cherish it a bit longer.  I was just excited to do it myself.

Dad and Mom met not at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, but a party thrown by one of their mutual friends on St. Patrick’s Day.  They both had come with other dates.  Dad remembers meeting Mom that night, and he was smitten with her.  If pressed, he would tell you that it was her legs that he noticed, an asset that remained with her for her entire life.  God help the woman he came with, because Dad obviously paid her no mind.  The following week he had gotten a blind date set up with Betty.  As she told the story, she didn’t even remember meeting him at the party, but she was a looker and he couldn’t get her out of his mind.  They hit it off and were married  eight months later.

Dad was a horrible cook.  There is no polite way to say this.  It isn’t that he couldn’t cook if he needed to, but the results were, putting it politely, less than palatable.  I remember one horrifying time in particular when Dad traveled with me to a boys’ weekend trip with our church, and he offered to help with the food.  We had hot dogs the night before, something even he could handle.  But the next morning as he took his spot in the kitchen, he noticed a tray of gray, wrinkled dogs leftover in the fridge.  Not wanting seemingly questionable food to go to waste, he cut those hot dogs up and tossed them into the scrambled eggs.  I think that was the only time they ran out of oatmeal on one of those retreats.  If nothing else, I can say thank you to him for his lack of culinary prowess.  Mom made dang sure none of her sons would follow in his cooking footsteps, and to this day all of her children are excellent cooks.

I cannot speak about my dad without also speaking about LaBelle Electric.  He struck out on his own the year before I was born, so I don’t ever remember a time when he wasn’t self-employed.  I remember the red bat phone that sat on the corner of the long vinyl booth in our kitchen.  It was the business line, and he would get emergency calls on it.  Of course I remember learning the trade, taking my place alongside my brothers as the one small enough to climb into a blistering hot attic full of insulation to run romex or help troubleshoot some problem.  I hated those evenings afterward dealing with shards of invisible fiberglass in my arms.  I have distinct memories of working as his helper watching him read a schematic for a press in a machine shop, his glasses taken off and stowed in the bottom of the electrical panel, and sweat dripping of his nose—I always wondered if that excessive liquid would be a bad thing one day around all that electricity.  And I would always be in awe when he figured out the problem, found the parts he needed and got the machine up and running.

Dad exuded generosity.  He helped anyone he felt was in need, giving his time, his money, his advice, whatever he could do to help. I heard the story last night of how he helped a waitress at a restaurant he frequented.  The waitress was a single mom of four, and her hot water tank had gone out.  Dad said he’d take care of it, and the guy he was eating with offered to help too.  He bought the new tank and put it in for her.  I remember driving with him to a Saturday breakfast that he had with some other men while living in Charlotte. As he got off the highway, there was a homeless man standing there.  He rolled down his window and handed him a $20 and then spoke with the man until the light changed.  This was a weekly occurrence I came to find out.  He did it with us as his children and with countless others, and I know he touched many of you with that generosity as well.

I cannot speak about my father without mentioning his deep faith.  In January of 1978 he had a significant conversion experience and dedicated his life to following Jesus.  And he made sure that he told anyone and everyone about his faith as well.  Subtlety was not his specialty; he was about as delicate as an 800 pound gorilla.  If he felt led to share about his faith with you, then, by golly, you were gonna hear it.  Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if it made me as a priest and believer uncomfortable from time to time, I can only imagine how some of you felt.

But what he may have lacked in tact, he more than made up for with sincerity and goodwill.  My dad found in Jesus Christ the way to God, and he wanted everyone he met to experience that too.  His hope rested in the words we heard from John’s gospel, that Jesus was going to prepare a place for us. And if he went to prepare a place, he would come back again and take us to himself so that where he is, there we might be also.  Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, as he told Thomas when he asked about the way to the Father.

I have come to learn that there are some who experience that desire to follow Christ in the way my Dad did, with a whole-hearted immediate change that sparked a fire in him all his days.  And I know that there are some who come to the way of Jesus much more tentatively, with questions and doubts, sometimes not even sure that they are walking the way of Jesus.  These too eventually find their way to the Father as they look for the way of Christ in the shadows of their life.  I personally am glad for all the ways that people experience life-change through Christ, and I know that for many of you my dad truly was the presence of Jesus in your life.  Wherever you are on that journey, I hope that my dad’s deep love for Christ will help you in both big and small ways to see God’s presence in your own life.

Was he perfect?  Lord, no.  Yes, I’m giving his eulogy, but I’m also being honest.  And he would from time to time admit the ways he had let us down, and offer his apologies and seek to make things right.  He was like any of the other saints out there who try to make their way in this world: complex people with both their good and bad traits desiring to live as faithful followers of the Almighty.

I don’t pretend to know everything about my dad, or to fully comprehend all the decisions he made in his life.  It was Ian Morgan Cron in his recent memoir about his father who said it best: “Our parents are mysteries to us.  No matter how close we think we are to them, we cannot know the content of their hearts.  We don’t know the disappointments, or the scars and regrets that wake them in the night, or the moments for which they wish they could get a do-over.  I’m not persuaded we should know them better than that.  In our therapeutic age, it’s commonly said that we’re only as sick as our secrets.  But there are secrets that we should keep only between God and ourselves.  I don’t trust people who tell you everything.  They’re usually hiding something.”

In the end, as he journeyed these last months, surely there were secrets between God and him from throughout the course of his life.  But as he found his way home, and as my sisters and brothers rallied around him, he found peace.  We snatched moments of time with him for a conversation and a kiss, and he told each of us as his children that he was proud of us.  That he loved us.  That he couldn’t believe all we had done for him throughout his life.  And I have to say my thanks to them all, to the ones nearby who gave so much these past months, Gina and Chris, especially, and Berniece as well, and to us who were away and came as we could to support and pray, Lisa and Russ and Rhonda and Laura, thank you.  To the next generation, the young and not so young among the grandkids and great-grandkids:  He loved you dearly, and he only wants the best for you in your life.  I know he would want me to share with you the words he shared with me once when I was just a kid: Whatever you do in your life, be it a ditch digger or a doctor, do it with care and determination and hard work, and know that he will love you no matter what.

I am no longer that five year old wanting to get my own cereal bowl, but I understand it much better now.  On that day when I clambered up onto the counter all by myself, he wanted time to stand still, maybe even go back some to cherish the experiences all the more.  Now it is I who wants the clock to pause for the opportunity to have another conversation, to steal another hug.  To have him for just a bit more time.

It’s an impossible task, of course, what I ask of people when they set out to write eulogies for their parents.  What can you say about your father in just a few pages?  How do you sum up a life in that short a space of time?  I don’t really know.  I can only say the words that I’m sure he heard when he met his Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Well done.”  And may you both rest in peace and rise in glory.   Amen.

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Mark’s gospel is my favorite.  I love how it’s so full of immediacy.  His characterization of the disciples is helpful for me: they aren’t the brightest tools in the shed, and it’s amazing they ever got it.

But his gospel ending is sometimes hard.  No resurrection appearances from Jesus at all.  Just the women fleeing in terror and amazement.

Yet there is Easter joy to be found there.  Here are my thoughts on the Last of the days of the Holy Triduum.

Blessed Easter!

Easter Day 2012—Mark 16:1-8

 

It’s meager, isn’t it?  The end of Mark’s gospel that we just heard, it’s pretty slim in terms of greatness about the resurrection of Jesus.  You did notice, didn’t you, that Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance?  You may want something tangible, but Mark leaves it just like that.

The women come to the tomb just after sunup on the first day of the week, and they worry about who will roll away the huge stone.  But they find that the work has already been done for them, and then they discover this young man in white inside the tomb.  He says to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  And Mark ends his gospel with these words: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Unsettling to be sure.  And if you read it in the Greek, it ends even more abruptly.  A word for word literal translation would be: “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for . . . .”

If you read Mark’s last chapter in your own Bible, you will notice that there are some endings added on where Jesus appears.  However, these endings will be flagged by some brackets, and a footnote explaining that the earliest manuscripts don’t contain them.  It seems that some people along the way got just as concerned by Mark’s seemingly sagging ending and felt the need to prop it up.  That’s like the modern day equivalent of creating a Hollywood ending.

We want that too.  We want Jesus to appear nearby in the garden, comfort the women, and then they can exclaim resounding joy.  But instead we get these women full of terror and amazement running out of the cemetery unable to even speak a word.

If you read Mark as a complete narrative—the way it would have been read in the Early Church—you see that the disciples never get it.  They are dim-witted, messing things up, full of uncertainty and doubt about who Jesus is.  They miss all the signs.  After all of the miracles, the healings, all of the amazing things they saw, they just don’t get it.

In one telling sequence in particular, we watch as Jesus feeds four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  The disciples collect seven baskets of leftovers.  A day or two later, he climbs into a boat with them, but they forgot to pack a lunch—they only have a small loaf of bread to share.  He begins teaching them, but they can’t even listen.  Instead they keep pointing fingers at one another, accusing each other of forgetting to bring more than a single loaf for their journey.  Jesus can’t believe what he is hearing, and asks, “Why are you talking about not having any bread?  Don’t you see or understand?  Don’t you remember when I broke the seven loaves?  When I did, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?”  “Seven,” they say to him.  “Do you not yet understand?” he asks.

They don’t.  And at the very end, at his crucifixion, it is the Roman Centurion who gets it when he declares, “Truly this man was God’s son.”  The disciples?  They had fled the scene much earlier.

And yet, the ones hearing this story read aloud to them—the new believers gathered in a house probably in Rome under the cover of night for fear of their very lives—would have known the stories of what the disciples did after the resurrection.  They would have heard about Peter and John and all the rest, how they changed the world and were martyred for their faith.  They would have recognized the disciples by name early on in the reading of Mark’s gospel.  But these Roman believers would have wondered how the disciples who had lived lives full of faith and courage could have once been so full of doubt and uncertainty.  They were probably waiting for the end of the story, assuming that this ragamuffin band of disciples would be amazingly transformed into the super apostles they had heard about.  They were probably looking for that Hollywood ending.

Will Willimon, in his book titled, Remember Who You Are: Baptism as a Model for the Christian Life, claims that contrary to popular understanding, the work of baptism is a life long process, not merely a solitary event.  Bishop Willimon writes, “No matter how powerful one’s baptism or how soul-shaking one’s … conversion experience, only a lifetime of death and rebirth can work so radical a transformation as God intends for his ‘new creations.’”[1]  We have a tendency to think that somehow we can arrive in the claim to being a “good Christian,” and that the journey takes little, if any work.  We like to think that the Christian life “is a good way to make nice people even nicer.”[2]

But Willimon writes, “Baptism says that our problem is not that we have a few minor moral adjustments which need to be made in us so that we can be good.  Our problem is that we are so utterly enslaved [to sin and the powers of this world] that nothing less than full-scale, lifelong conversion will do.”[3]

That is good news for us.  Even though we, like the disciples, keep failing, God continues to work our salvation out in us.  God keeps calling out to us and bringing us to full-scale conversion, because above all else God wants us to have fullness of life.  God works in and through history in order to offer us salvation, so that our lives can be changed and transformed and so that we can be about the work of God’s kingdom.

At the end of Mark’s gospel, the very last words uttered by a character in this narrative are these: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  These words spoken to the women point to Jesus’ continued work among his disciples. They will see him in Galilee, and the women are told to share this message with the apostles.  They seemingly do this, since the message was not snuffed out but continued on, from Galilee through Rome and all the way to Southborough.

These last instructions of Mark’s gospel are for the disciples to return to Galilee, and it is there that they will see Jesus.  But who is a disciple?  James, and Peter and John and Mary to be sure, but also you and me and those folks sitting in that home church so many years ago.  Yes, Galilee is a physical place, but it is also found at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14).  To put it another way, the narrative isn’t finished.  Go back to the beginning, to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and reread Mark’s gospel, this time with fresh eyes, with the eyes of a disciple who has experienced Jesus’ death and passion.  Go back and hear again of the miracles and healings, the parables and Jesus’ teaching.  Just like the disciples, you didn’t get it the first time around, but like them you will eventually understand since you have experienced what they did.  Now that you’ve heard it until the very end—to Jesus’ death and the visit to his empty grave—now you can experience it all again more attentively and be transformed.[4]

You see, in real life there is rarely a Hollywood ending.  The difficulties in life don’t end up on the cutting room floor.  Rather God takes our doubt, our fear, our inability to fully comprehend all that the Risen Christ can do in our lives, our community and our world — God takes all these and desires to bring about full-scale conversion in us.  The beauty and hope and joy of the resurrection is that Jesus Christ has conquered death.  Jesus has overcome fear.  He has vanquished all that paralyzes us and keeps us from being people who are about the work of his kingdom.  The story of his resurrection, the account of his miraculous power, and the narrative of his redemption of this world continues on to this day.  The deeds of Jesus Christ of Nazareth never end, and we are given the great joy and responsibility to take our place alongside all those disciples who have gone before us, joining with them in proclaiming the glorious power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!


[1] Will Willimon Remember Who You Are. Pg 90.

[2] Willimon, 102.

[3] Willimon, 102.

[4] I am indebted to Thomas G. Long’s article in The Christian Century (online at http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=1944 for this approach to the text.

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 There are days in life when the darkness seems almost too much to bear.  Tonight is one of those in our faith.  As we take our place at the cross, we remember that even though the darkness can overwhelm, it is only in our brokenness that the Spirit can enter into us.

Good Friday — 2012

            I try to get out and hike as often as I can, which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like.  I came to hiking later in life—I think it was a result of going into the ministry.  It was always something I thought about doing, mind you, but I never made the time to do it.  When I got to Colorado I began to realize that I needed to hike, to ramble and walk to clear my head.  When I didn’t, when I went for stretches of time without stretching my legs and my brain in the crisp air, things suffered—from my relationships with Melissa and my kids to my overall disposition.

I suspect part of this love came from the idea of pilgrimage, the ancient practice of taking a physical journey to a place of spiritual significance in order to find a deeper connection with God.  Like walking the Way of St. James across France and Spain some 500 miles to Santiago de Compestella.  Or traveling to Canterbury in England, if you remember The Canterbury Tales from college.  The pilgrimage became a metaphor for life.  It’s certainly become one for my life.

Parker Palmer writes, “In the tradition of pilgrimage, … hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself.  Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost—challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge.  If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks.  Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now.  In every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts.  But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark.  Darkness is not the whole of the story—every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy—but it is the part of the story most often left untold.  When we finally escape the darkness and stumble into the light, it is tempting to tell others that our hope never flagged, to deny those long nights we spent cowering in fear.”[1]

We gather on this night to remember the darkest moment of our faith.  We watch as Christ struggles just to breathe on the cross.  We take our place near Mary and the beloved disciple, and try with difficulty to imagine what it would be like to be a parent watching a child die an excruciating death.  Church attendance is much lower on Good Friday in comparison to Easter, perhaps because we don’t want to watch the suffering or to push aside the long nights when fear overwhelms us.  Yet we all suffer.  There are times in each of our lives when we see hardship and pain, and I would agree with Parker Palmer that they are integral to our lives, to our stories.  They are fundamental in forming who we are in our world.  And who we will be in the story of our lives.

Jesus said that unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.  But if it dies, it sprouts and grows and reproduces itself many times over.  Then he tells us that if we want to hold onto our lives, we’ll lose them.  But if we lose our life for his sake, if we delve deep into his love and life at the cost of our own, then we’ll have life forever.

In his book Drops Like Stars, Rob Bell contemplates the connection between suffering and creativity.  He writes these words: “The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr points out that the Native Americans have a tradition of leaving a blemish in one corner of the rug they are weaving because that’s where they believe the Spirit enters.  I can relate to the rugs.  I want desperately for things to go ‘how they’re supposed to.’ Which is another way of saying ‘how I want them to,’ which is another way of saying ‘according to my plan.’”

“And that, as we all know, isn’t how it works.  But it’s in that disappointment, in that confusion, in that pain—the pain that comes from things not going how I wanted them to—that I find the same thing happening again and again.  I come to the end of myself, to the end of my power, the end of my strength, the end of my understanding, only to find in that place of powerlessness a strength and peace that weren’t there before.  I keep discovering that it’s in the blemish that the Spirit enters.

“The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God.  Which begins not with big plans and carefully laid out timetables.  But in pain and anguish and death.

“It’s there, in the agony of those moments, that we get the first glimpses of just what it looks like for God to take all of our trauma and hurt and disappointment, all those fragments lying there on the ground, and turn them into something else, something new, something we never would have been able to create on our own.

“It’s in that place where we’re reminded that true life comes when we’re willing to admit that we’ve reached the end of ourselves, we’ve given up, we’ve let go, we’re willing to die to all of our desires to figure it out and be in control.

“We lose our live, only to find it.  It turns out that Navajo rug and a Roman cross have a lot in common.”[2]

We remember that Jesus suffered for us so long ago.  And he suffers with us even now as we deal with our own hurts and struggles and pain.  We like to pretend that the hardship doesn’t exist, that we have been lucky enough to have missed the suffering that is ever present in our world. And with the pretending we hide behind carefully constructed masks hoping never to let our guard down so those around us won’t know of our hurt.  But when we do this, the Spirit cannot come in.

I don’t think we remember enough that the marks Jesus received on that cross stayed with him.  The marks in his hands, his feet and his side didn’t magically disappear when he was raised.  That’s how the disciples knew it was him the first time they saw him after Easter: he showed them the nail holes in his hands.

The sign of the suffering he endured stayed with him.  And stays to this day.  If our Lord still bears his marks of pain, why can’t we?  Why do we think that somehow we have to be perfect and not impacted by all that comes our way?  When will we realize that in the journey of life—in both our earthly and spiritual pilgrimages—we will experience darkness?  And even more that the suffering we encounter will shape us?

We have in Jesus a Lord who is not unaware of the pain in this world.  Tonight we stand by his cross and gaze upon it, knowing he too will be with us when we are overwhelmed by the crosses of our life.  When we fall down on our journeys and feel that all is out of our control, Jesus will be there.  Walking beside us.  Helping us up again.  Aware of our deep pain.  It is only in the darkness, in the fragments, in the blemishes of life that the Spirit can enter in to us.  Will we allow the Spirit in?  I think it’s the only possibility we have to experience resurrection.  Amen.


[1] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak.  Pg 18.

[2] Rob Bell, Drops Like Stars. 115-117.

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Last night we gathered to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.  During that evening he gave them a new commandment and an object lesson.  Love one another he said.  And he got down and washed their feet.

As we reflect on these three holy days of the Christian year, I hope we can hear his new command.  And I hope even more we can put it into practice.

My sermon for last night…..

Maundy Thursday 2012

            I have strong memories of being in the bath when I was a child, of people helping me get cleaned up.  I especially remember my sister Lisa washing my face and neck and then claiming to find potato sprouts in my ears because they were so dirty.  One evening like magic she pulled a tuber out of my ear.  I loved it when my mom said I could have a bubble bath, and I would play for what seemed like a long time in that tub by myself.

Nowadays I am half tempted to run down to the pantry to rummage through our root vegetables when I am helping Noah or Olivia with their baths, and I often try to give them the option of bubbles.  We attend to the ritual of bath time in our house with religious devotion most nights, it’s part of the well trod bedtime routine that we’ve followed with our kids since their infancy, although now I am only called in to wash their hair.  I suspect they both will have bath memories of their own in 35 years.

These days bathing is a quick endeavor for me, and given my hair situation, I can be out of the shower in just a few minutes.  Anything foreign that accumulates on my body is my own to get rid of.  I’m not fussy about working in dirt or anything on my off days, but I like to have clean hands being as I’m a priest and all.  My feet rarely get exposed to the outside air unless I’m on vacation and wearing my favorite sandals.  Those days while enjoying the outdoors late into the evening, I often find my way to the side of the tub to rinse off the grime of the day, watching it swirl around the drain before going away forever.

Jesus and his disciples were perpetual sandal wearers.  Living in an arid land only compounded the amount of dust they would kick up.  Dust that clung to sweaty feet.  Dirt that would not be welcome in a house.  So when Jesus and his disciples would find their way to someone’s home for a meal or to stay, the host would at the very least provide a basin for them to rinse their grungy feet, and often would have a servant wash their feet for them.  Hospitality played an important role in their culture, and this small gesture literally dripped with care.

You may remember the story when Jesus came to Simon the Pharisee’s house, and a sinful woman came in weeping over Jesus, using her hair to wipe his feet that had been wetted with her tears, and anointing his feet with fine perfume.  Jesus calls Simon out on this a little later after he and others at his table were shocked that Jesus would let such a woman even touch him.  He said, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”  Hospitality, care, regard for one another—that’s what Jesus expected.

But it wasn’t just that Jesus expected others to do it for him since he was their rabbi, their teacher.  On the night before he died, while eating the evening meal with his disciples, he got up from the table and stripped off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist and began washing their feet.  I’m sure they were shocked that he would even think of doing this.  Their master getting down on his knees before them washing off the day’s accumulated gunk, that was a servant’s work.  “No, Jesus!” Peter shouted when Jesus got to him.  “No, you won’t wash my feet!” Jesus looked at him gently and told him that if he didn’t then Peter would have no part with him; he couldn’t be his disciple.  I get Peter’s objection.  I don’t want anyone cleaning my feet except me.

You may remember the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, a sports writer I remember from my growing up in Detroit when he wrote columns for the Free Press.  In a moment of coincidence, Mitch saw a Nightline introduction with Ted Koppel saying a few things about life and death, and then saying “Who is Morrie Schwartz?  Stay tuned to find out.”  Morrie was Mitch’s advisor and favorite professor from college.  They hadn’t seen each other in 16 years.  And Morrie was dying of Lou Gherig’s disease, ALS.  He stayed tuned to be sure.

During that interview, “the two men spoke about the afterlife. They spoke about Morrie’s increasing dependency on other people. He already needed help eating and sitting and moving from place to place. What, Koppel asked, did Morrie dread the most about his slow, insidious decay?”  He asked Ted if he can say a word on TV [that I won’t say in church], and Koppel said go ahead.  Morrie looked Ted straight in the eyes and said, “Well, Ted, one day soon, someone’s gonna have to wipe my [butt].”[1]

Mitch reaches out to reconnect with Morrie, and they begin a weekly ritual of meeting in Newton, Mass, where Morrie lives.  After a few months of visits, Mitch writes, “Occasionally, he had to stop to use the bathroom, a process that took some time.   Connie [his aid] would wheel him to the toilet, then lift him from the chair and support him as he urinated into the beaker.   Each time he came back, he looked tired. ‘Do you remember when I told Ted Koppel that pretty soon someone was gonna have to wipe my [butt]?’ he said.  I laughed, You don’t forget a moment like that.  ‘Well, I think that day is coming. That one bothers me.’ Why? ‘Because it’s the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to enjoy the process.’ Enjoy it?  ‘Yes. After all, I get to be a baby one more time.’ That’s a unique way of looking at it. ‘Well, I have to look at life uniquely now. Let’s face it. I can’t go shopping, I can’t take care of the bank accounts. I can’t take out the garbage. But I can sit here with my dwindling days and look at what I think is important in life. I have both the time— and the reason — to do that.’”[2]

I can’t imagine trying to enjoy what Morrie wants to enjoy.  I’m with Peter on saying no to Jesus on my feet; the ultimate sign of dependency, no way.  And yet.

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  That’s the new commandment, the mandatum novum, that we are to take part in.  We are called to both show love by caring for each other, and, infinitely more difficult, receive love offered to us.

That’s what we do on this night when we untie our shoes and slip off our socks and pad down that aisle.  By both grabbing a towel and washing someone else’s feet and then placing our own feet in the basin, we mark our allegiance to Christ.  We acknowledge our utter dependence on God and one another.  By this will the world know that we are Jesus’ followers, if we love another.

Tonight it’s just the symbol: foot washing.  But I hope that even more we are able to take off the outer layers of the masks we live behind most of the time, and expose our very selves to the outside air and one another.  We cannot love or be loved if we do not become vulnerable.  We cannot be part of Jesus if we do not open ourselves up and share both the difficult and joyous parts of our lives in community.  If we do not love one another.  Can we take our side along the disciples?  Or will we stay back, afraid of acknowledging our need and dependence of one another and of Jesus?


[1] Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie. 22.

[2] Albom, 49-50.

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It’s one of those jokes I throw out there every Lent: yes, you can sign up for the exciting role of Servant Girl 2 in our yearly Passion Reading.  Some people prefer those small roles; it means reading only one or two lines in a poorly lit nave like ours.  But sometimes those one or two lines can define something pretty significant.  There are people that play bit roles in our lives, and so without further adieu…

Palm Sunday 2012—Mark’s Passion

I am struck by the bit-parts that take center stage in our Passion reading each year.  The one or two lines spoken by the seemingly insignificant players that we have a tendency to overlook.  And yet I know in my own life sometimes it’s the one or two lines from a person I met only briefly that stick with me for a long time.  Sometimes these bit-players take a major role.

We heard it this morning.  Peter had followed Jesus under the cover of darkness on that cool night to the place where the council had assembled.  He stood in the courtyard, warming himself, when one of the servant-girls came by.  She took one look at him and recognized him.  “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” she says to him.  Peter looks at her stunned, recognizing that he might be the next one hauled in to a fake trial.  His declarations a few hours before promising that he would never desert Jesus crumble immediately.  “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.

But he stays there warming his hands over the fire pit, and the servant girl a little later said once more that Peter was one of the Galileans and was with Jesus.  He again denies it.  One of the bystanders, hearing the words of the servant-girl begins looking suspiciously at Peter, and either because of the twang of his accent or because of his appearance, says, “Certainly you are one of them, you are from Galilee.”  Peter began cursing, and swore an oath that he wasn’t, the he had no idea what they were talking about, that he didn’t even know this Jesus of Galilee.

And the rooster crowed.  And Peter remembered what Jesus had told him and he ran off.

This is Simon Peter, remember; Peter being the name Jesus himself gave to him.  It meant Rocky, and Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel that he would build his church on that rock.  But the rock couldn’t even stand up to a bit player, to a servant-girl and a bystander.  Never mind if he had the fortitude to stand up to the high priest, he couldn’t even handle questions from someone with no authority, and so he threw Jesus under the bus.  “I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, this Rock that would serve as the foundation of the church.

In 2000, Melissa had an opportunity to travel to Morocco for three weeks through a fellowship from Boston University.  I was able to join her for 10 days on that trip.  Through the contacts of a friend, Melissa and I were able to stay with a Moroccan national and his family.  Abdellah loved showing us the sights and engaging us in conversation—he taught English in a local high school—and we were delighted to have him and his teen-aged son as our guides.  Our trip took place in August, and I can say that the Sahara desert in the summer was hot, easily a 115 degrees most days, and some went well above 120.

We often used public transportation to explore the country.  In the mornings before we left, Abdellah would pack each of us large one liter water bottles, and he always brought an extra one.  Riding next to him on the bus he explained it to us like this: As a Muslim, he said,  I am commanded to give a cup of water to anyone who asks for it.  Your Holy Book says the same thing.  So whenever I travel, I always bring an extra bottle.”  Not too long after this, someone got on the bus, visibly thirsty.  He saw us drinking water, and asked for a drink.  Abdellah handed him the extra bottle.

Later during our time we spoke more about this, and Abdellah, not confrontational but certainly provocative, said, “If America is a Christian nation, how come there are so many homeless people there?  I don’t understand how so many Christians ignore the words of your Scripture”  He had visited America on a Fullbright exchange, and had seen the homeless in Boston, New York and Washington DC.  I remember talking about how many people aren’t really practicing Christians, and that they don’t all take the call of Christ seriously.  But then I thought about my own life and the fact that I would never have thought about carrying an extra bottle of water, never mind my inclination to pretend as if the poor and homeless I meet don’t even exist.

I was deserting Jesus by my actions.  I might not have said out loud that I wasn’t associated with him, but my actions told a different story.

I’m not sure who the Abdellah or servant girl or passerby is in your life, but I bet you’ve had an encounter with one of those seeming bit-players and will again.  They may ask a challenging question, or make a statement that stops you in your tracks:  “Do you really believe that stuff about Jesus?  I thought you were more intelligent than that.”  And then you hem and haw, and stammer out something that makes you appear as to not really care about the way Jesus lived and continues to live in our midst.  Or maybe, like me, sometimes you just live your life in a way that exhibits that while you may talk a good game, your actions clearly deny Jesus and his invitation to follow him.

We gather on this day to remember that we all take our part in crucifying our Lord.  And even though we desert and deny and disgrace him at times, he still loves us and offers us forgiveness.  That is the power of what happened on that cross.  That Jesus, even in the midst of horrible suffering, never stopped loving us, no matter what we have done to him.  He stretched out those arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that we each might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  May we, like Peter, find our way to those outstretched arms.  Amen.

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Prayer is a funny thing because we pray for the darndest things.  Jim Carrey showed us this in “Bruce Almighty” when he says yes to all the prayers he received and 400,000 people hit the lottery.  For many of us, we pray, and expect God to do our bidding.

But that’s not how it works.  God isn’t just waiting around to do our every whim. So what does this mean about prayer then?  How do we become people who pray?

That was my jumping off point for my sermon yesterday.  And don’t miss Robert Benson’s fabulous book In Constant Prayer that I mention.

Lent 5B—People Who Pray

We’re on our penultimate Sunday in Lent, and I’ve been making my way through the disciplines encouraged to us by the Prayer Book for a meaningful and solemn Lenten journey.  Things like fasting and self-denial, reading and meditating on scripture, and self-examination and repentance.  The one on that list that I’ve not spoken about yet is prayer.  It’s been on my list for a while—I thought I would preach about it 3 weeks ago—but I’ve struggled in what to say.

I’ve got tons of books on prayer, and my own ideas to be sure.  But I find that often we think of prayer as a way to use God as some sort of cosmic vending machine—we need a healing from a bruised knee, or for a better paying job or, God help us, a great parking spot or a Red Sox win, so we say a quick petition and expect immediate results.  We get disappointed if it doesn’t turn out as we want, and then swear off praying at all.

I wonder about those kinds of prayers because we approach God so casually, as if asking for parking near the door at Staples or Bertucci’s is of God’s concern.  I think of that kind of prayer and the ones offered up by the people of this world who don’t have enough to eat, and I know that I don’t have any idea what is really important to God most of the time, or I’d be praying for something else more often.

It’s not to say that God doesn’t hear those prayers, because I think God does and sometimes God even responds.  I do this sometimes myself with Noah and Olivia when they ask for a quarter for the gumball machine.  But there is so much more to prayer than our petitions for the day in and day out of life, and I think God, while unbelievably patient with us, wants us to grow up sometimes.

When I think about prayer these days, I mean primarily keeping the Daily Office.  It’s the regular rhythm of prayer given to us by our Jewish sisters and brothers—the Psalmist writes, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances”­—and built upon by the early church and the rise of the monastic life in Christendom.  Faithful Christians would make time each day to stop what they were doing and say their prayers, early in the morning, at noontime, at the setting of the sun and before bed.  Marking the divine in the ordinary created a perspective for them; it showed them that they needed to praise God through every aspect of their lives.  They looked at the life of Jesus and how often the Gospels said that Jesus got up early or went off alone to pray, and they tried to emulate that.  Yet even suggesting that we should pray 2 or even 4 times a day is difficult for me because I know how busy life can be.

Robert Benson talks about this in his book, In Constant Prayer, and I’m going to quote him at length because I think he drills this one out of the park.  He penned, “W.H. Auden wrote, ‘An artist must develop a strict consciousness in regard to time.  For we must never forget that we are living in a state of siege.’ He was not just talk about poets; he was talking about any of us who are trying to live our lives with all the art and love and care we can muster.  There is more art in doctoring and schoolteaching and childrearing and all manner of works than most people realize.

“I hate saying this in public, but I am going to.  There are a lot of days when I just do not have the time to say the office.  You know how busy we men of letters are.

“In the morning I have to write in my journal and write my six hundred words in whatever new project I am working on.  If I do not write in my journal, I forget what has been happening to me.  Which is bad enough in and of itself, but it is especially difficult for a guy who makes a living telling stories.  If I don’t remember my stories, then I have nothing to write the six hundred words about.  Eventually I have nothing to write a book about either.

“Then I have to get in the car and pick up the day’s papers.  Then I have to work the crossword.  Then I have to do my other writer’s work for a while.  I have to edit some stuff in the book that I am trying to make something out of from the stuff I ended up with before.  I have telephone calls to make and errands to run and letters to write.  Sometimes I even have a meeting.”

Benson continues, “I do have time to take a swim so I can keep my schoolgirl figure.  I seem to be able to make tee times and play a round of golf.  I have to play golf every week.  Have to is a relative term, of course, but if you play golf, then you know that ‘have to play golf’ is the proper way to say it.  Even if you just live with a golfer, you know that have to is the proper term.  And the way I play golf, it can take some considerable amount of time to play. …

“I have to eat supper.  I have to help clean up the kitchen—okay, I do not have to, but the brownie points that accrue to husbands who cook and clean up, not to mention do the laundry and yard work, are just too good to pass up.

“And did I mention that little armchair in our front parlor, where I like to sit in the evenings?  Or that I have to go to bed pretty early, because I get up pretty early.  And I have to read for a while before I go to sleep, sometimes for a very long while.

“Most days, if it comes right down to it, I simply do not have the time to say the office.

“And I am fully aware that by most standards my life is not even busy. …  Why do I not say my prayers?  Well, it takes too much time.”

He concludes, “ ‘How we spend our days is how spend our lives,’ writes Annie Dillard. ‘What we are doing with this one and with that one is what we are doing.’

“Time is the real currency of our age, and we have to manage our time in relation to our spiritual life as much as we do in relation to any other part of our lives.

“Our hearts are where our treasure is, or so we have been told.  Our love is where our time goes too.  Including the time that some of us say we do not have enough of to spare some to participate in the ancient prayer of God’s faithful.’”[1]

We are seemingly too busy to pray without realizing that we are, as Bill Hybels put it, too busy not to pray.

And it all comes of intentionality.  Do we want to be people who pray, people who enter into the living God to give thanks for the gift of life itself, or do we consider it much too hard to even bother?  We easily put our mind to other tasks out there—for example, I want to climb all 48 of the 4000 foot peaks in the White Mountains in the next 4 years, and I have 44 to go, if you’re keeping score at home—and we could, if we desired to, be people who pray on a regular basis.  But we have to want to.

You may not know how to pray the Daily Office or where to start.  I’ve posted on my blog a cheat sheet and directions for you to do this.  If you can’t figure out how to get to my blog or have trouble, let me know and I’ll send you the information you would need or meet with you to guide you through this.

If we are going to be people who faithfully participate in the life of prayer God wants for us, then we need to make the time.  We need to make prayer one of the items—or 2 or 4 of the items—on our to-do list.  If we yearn to draw closer to God and spend our lives in connection with the true, holy and living One, then we must set our sights on the goal to say our prayers daily.  I hope that we will do this, both individually and corporately, and that we will be people who regularly structure our lives with a “continued awareness of God’s presence and reality.”[2]  I hope and trust that we can be known as people who pray and drink long from the well that God offers to us.  May it be so.  Amen.


[1] Excerpted from Robert Benson’s In Constant Prayer.  2008.  Pgs. 85-88.

[2] Benson, Backcover.

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