Over the course of the past year, I’ve been delighted with a little hippopotamus named Fiona.  You may know her story: Fiona arrived six weeks early at the Cincinnati Zoo weighing in at a slight 29 pounds — hippos normally weigh between 55-120 lbs at birth. She had to be bottle fed by a team of neo-natal caregivers, and for a long time things were touch and go.  Slowly she began to grow, found her legs and took to swimming.

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She received her name due to her ears which look just like Fiona’s from the “Shrek” films, and because it means “fair one.” She became an international social media phenom, and she recently celebrated her first birthday.  I’d encourage you to check her out.

But even though she’s tremendously cute, Fiona’s a wild animal. In fact, the hippo is the deadliest land animal in Africa, more dangerous than the elephant, lion, or river crocodile.  Hippos are territorial, and while they’re strict vegetarians, they will hurt humans with their immense jaws if you unintentionally get too close to their area.

Continue reading Satan, Beasts, and Angels: Wilderness Companions

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During Advent we visited the church of friends of ours for a musical celebration.  We had to get there pretty early to ensure we found good seats, and then had a long lag sitting in the pews. We chatted with our friends getting caught up on their lives.  At some point, my friend handed me a laminated card that was in the pew.  “What do you think of this,” she asked.

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I looked down and read the card.  Written in typed print were the words,“I made my donation online.” I looked up confused.

“It’s for the offering plate,” she said. It took a couple of moments before it dawned on me that those who set up their regular giving online could toss that card in the basket when it came around to have something to place in the basket.  My friend said, “They did it because some parishioners didn’t want others round and behind them to think they were cheap or shirking their responsibility in supporting the church.” I was a bit stunned, and I could tell my friends didn’t like it either.

Continue reading Don’t Practice Your Spirituality to be Noticed by Others

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What does it mean that in Mark’s gospel the first public act of Jesus involves casting out an unclean spirit?

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We might want to gloss right over that this morning, I mean it is a bit odd, right?  We’re more civilized now, more in the know on illnesses and health and the rest.  Our patron saint—Mark the Evangelist—didn’t understand everything we think, so we can dismiss him. But Mark, this fabulous storyteller, uses the first scene of Jesus’ public ministry to show what Jesus’ primary focus in his life will be. Mark begins with a story of Jesus’ powerful and authoritative teaching leading to the healing of this man possessed with the unclean spirit.

[callout]A sermon based on Mark 1:21-28.[/callout]

Even with all our 21st century knowledge, I do not think we can easily shrug off the diagnosis of possession quite so easily. While some out there would say “Mark must be describing a physical ailment like epilepsy or perhaps a mental illness,” doing so shunts the impact of this story. What Mark chronicles centers on some force taking control of this man’s life, something that made him act in a way contrary to how he normally would behave. Ultimately this would force him out of the community as someone who was completely unclean, someone to be avoided, if that had not already happened.  We only hear that this man had been overtaken by something who knows full well who Jesus is and the authority and power Jesus has. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”  The unspoken response is yes, yes this Holy One of God has come to destroy those things which take possession of the hearts and minds of all people, those things which take them away from life. “You want to know what Jesus is about?” Mark seems to implicitly ask in his narrative, “Here, let me show you.  Jesus comes with the power and authority to set people free.”

The issue for us centers on this idea of  “possession.”  We don’t believe it can happen to us, so it seems way too foreign, if not blatantly ignorant.  And yet theologian David Lose invites us to reconsider that position.  He writes, “Let’s take this matter of ‘possession’ more seriously and wonder what kinds of things possess us — anger, fear, workaholism, affluenza, substance abuse.”  We might not describe them as evil spirits ourselves, but I’ve heard more than a handful of people discuss alcoholism as a demon in their lives.  I’ve listened to stories from loved ones describing how lust overtook a person, leading to that person throwing away the anchor of their family life, and everything and everyone become unmoored.  Engage any person with a child in the throes of an opioid addiction and “unclean spirt” isn’t a stretch at all.  Or those things Prof. Lose mentions, anger and fear, workaholism and the power of greed and envy. They all drive people far from the love of God and from the life imagined for us by Jesus.  “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” he declared.

So by beginning with this narrative, Mark the Evangelist describes  how the power of Jesus’ teaching can set people free from forces that bind them.  Forces that perhaps bind us or those we love.  As Professor Karoline Lewis suggests, “Evil forces have the most to lose in the coming of Jesus and the ‘good news,’ [the gospel message].  And those evil forces are at play even now.

In a few minutes we’ll be making our way to the font to welcome Lincoln into the life of faith as a follower of Christ.  Two of the questions I’ll ask his parents and godparents are these: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? And do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” “I renounce them,” will be their response, and the response all of gave at our baptisms.   When we enter those waters of baptism we make a bold claim that we will follow Christ as our Lord, and no one else.  By doing so, we proclaim we want a life based on his love and teachings.  His words have the power to bring about transformation and release from those things that hold us back.  Did Jesus come to destroy those forces of wickedness that keep us from God and the power of love? Absolutely.

And that sends us a message about what we’re called to do as well, as the baptized community of Jesus at St. Mark’s.  We do not gather each week in order that we might get some good marks on our permanent record up in heaven, nor simply to be fed at this table and then leave.  Our Eucharist Prayer states, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not strength; for pardon only and not for renewal.” We come together to hear these words of faith and encouragement to help us remember that God doesn’t want us to fall prey to the forces of wickedness. Additionally we hold fast to the idea “that church, at its best, is a place where we gather in Christ’s name to support each other in escaping the hold these things have on us that we might grow as individuals and a community as people blessed to be a blessing,” as David Lose puts it.  We have a purpose and a mission to be a blessing to the world. To share the good news that Jesus wants to bring healing in order to set us free.  That the abundant life we imagine can be made manifest through the powerful life and teachings of Jesus.

We’ve been doing those things this past year, and we have so much more that we can become together.  Because there are too many demons out there terrorizing our lives and our world.  People are hurting.  They are overwhelmed.  They walk in the wilderness fearful that they are alone, that they will not make it out intact.

The ministry of this community centers on following Jesus, his powerful words and actions which lead to healing and redemption.  We don’t see this work as just another item on our to-do list, but recognize that in embodying Christ’s mission we can change someone else’s life forever, never mind changing our own in the process.  If you don’t believe me, give food to a homeless person sitting on the sidewalk in Boston.  Visit a shut-in here in our community.  Say a prayer over the phone with someone who’s sick.  Sit quietly with someone whose life has been ravaged by the addiction of a loved one.  Pick up a mop while working with others showing that love shines through in even the smallest of tasks that show care.

We are called to be the church, the embodiment of Christ in our day and age.  At our best we can encourage and strengthen each other both as individuals and collectively to be blessings to our world and to all of God’s children.  Jesus’ words have the power and authority to bring us to the place of healing and strength and renewal that we’ve longed for.  He is the Holy One of God.  May we faithfully follow him with passion in concrete and specific ways this next year, bringing his powerful words of healing to the world.  Amen.

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Jonah didn’t want to do it.

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The word of the Lord came to him saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah turned tail and ran the other way, trying to outrun God. He went to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, paid his fair and smugly thought he had outwitted the Almighty.

But then God kicked up a mighty storm so powerful the ship threatened to break up. The crew began tossing cargo overboard and crying out to their different gods. Nothing doing. But Jonah had gone below deck, found a hammock to his liking, and was fast asleep. Soon Mr. Sleepypants woke to the shaking of the captain, “How can you sleep? Get up and pray to see if your god can do something to stop this raging storm.” He got up and went on deck.

[callout]A Sermon based on the book of Jonah.[/callout]

With no end in sight, the sailors drew straws to see if that could tell them who had messed up, and Jonah selected the short one. Their eyes all turned on him, the questions coming fast and furious. “Who are you? What do you do? Where do you come from?” He spilled the beans that he worshipped the Lord, God of heaven who made the earth and the seas, but that he was currently running away from God.  “What have you done,” they exclaimed.

Continue reading God’s Persistent Mercy

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On a January morning 18 years ago this very weekend, I preached my first sermon in an Episcopal Church.  It was at St. Francis in Holden, and Melissa and I had been working as the youth leaders there for a few years.  If you know a thing or two about the lectionary, you’ll be able to figure out that the readings we heard this morning had also been read on that day.  And on that morning I was telling the congregation for the first time that I had entered into the discernment process to see whether or not I was called to become a priest.

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The choir did a delightful little anthem on that day about the call of Samuel which included the rector’s son who was about 9 at the time.  Graham lay on the ground pretending to be asleep as the choir told the story in song.  At the point when the choir sang “Samuel, Samuel,” he dutifully got up acting rather groggy and ran over to the person playing the role of Eli.  The song ended with Graham wonderfully singing in a boy’s soprano voice, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening.”

Continue reading The Courageous Work of Listening and Speaking

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There are two accounts of the creation in the Bible.  Anyone reading the Bible closely would see this, of course, but we tend to conflate them into one larger narrative just like we do with the birth narratives for Jesus.  For those stories, we have the wise men showing up with the shepherds and the singing angels with the newborn baby Jesus all bundled up in that manger.  However, Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi—celebrated yesterday with the Epiphany—clearly says that the star led them to the house Jesus and his parents lived in, and that Jesus was about two years old.  While it’s easier for our children’s pageant to have the wise men showing up on that silent night, it isn’t biblically accurate.

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In the creation accounts the things we mash together are the 7 days of creation and the story of Adam and Eve.  In the first account—the one we began hearing today from Genesis 1—we learn that God creates over the course of six days with animals coming on Days 5 and 6, culminating with the creation of humankind, both male and female as the crowning achievement before God took a day off and rested.  In the other narrative from Genesis 2, we learn that God first forms Adam out of the dust and then, once God realizes Adam is lonely, begins creating all of the animals in order to find a suitable helpmate.  After Adam names all the wild beasts God dreams up and is still forlorn, God has Adam fall into a deep sleep, takes on of his rib bones, and fashions Eve.

Continue reading The Redemption in Light

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Word made flesh, life of the world, in your incarnation you embraced our poverty: by your Spirit may we share in your riches. Amen.

I have a beat up copy of Plato’s The Phaedrus that I studied in an Advanced Composition and Rhetoric class in college.  It’s on my shelf with a few other books from my undergrad days. I remember my professor teaching us that for Plato the purpose of good writing was to set the soul free, to let it soar upwards toward the heavens and put off the weight of this earthly body.  The body, says Plato, is like a prison for the soul, like an oyster stuck in a clunky shell.  The shell of ours needs to be cast aside so we can truly become who we were meant to be.

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What Plato really brings to the front is the dualistic nature of our bodies and souls, informing us that our bodies are bad and our souls are good.  The great theologian Augustine buys in to this dualism quite readily with his concept of original sin that has dominated Western theology ever since.  The body with its limitations is no good.

Continue reading Word made flesh

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Five and a half years ago we divided up the remnants of my parents’ belongings.  My Dad had died on Easter Day that year and then, after his funeral and getting things initially settled, we gathered one last time in late May to sort out a life’s collection of things.  We chose things by birth order, selecting among the sentimental or practical items that remained, and I was number six.  I had my mind’s eye on an item in a Rubermaid container buried deep in the basement that I hoped would be forgotten or overlooked by my older siblings.  I have no idea what they chose, frankly, I think someone grabbed a Bose system, and another the dinnerware. I just know that the first five picked and my item remained. When all eyes fell to me, I quickly said, “Mom and Dad’s creche.”

[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]Phil LaBelle, 2017.[/featured-image]

I loved that nativity scene. The stable was hewn out of rough wood; remnants of lumber that had been around an old barn at my godparent’s home.  The figurines were painted by hand too, Mary and Joseph, Jesus in the manger, camels and magi and shepherds and an angel.  My mom and dad received it  from my godparents—my mom’s brother and sister-in-law—the year they moved with their three kids out to the country.  The house they moved to was next to a dairy farm, and that had to be 40 years ago now.  My family spent nearly every weekend at my Uncle Jim and Aunt Linda’s old farmhouse that summer, my dad helping with the electrical and other odd jobs, and my mom helping to clean and get them settled in, as that dusty old house became a home.  We kids would play in the barn—jumping in to piles of hay—or running threw the cornfields that grew on both sides of their yard.

Continue reading The Telling Nature of Choices

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“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream,” writes the Psalmist.  What do you dream about?  What carries your mind when you imagine better days?  What is it that you begin to hope for when you turn your attention to a possible future joy?

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On this Third Sunday of Advent, that is where we turn: to joy.  We can feel it in the air around us, of course.  Children anxiously waiting for Christmas.  Carols playing round the clock on the radio.  Homes filled with the scents of pine and baking.  We drive around after dark—that is after 4:30pm—we see lights on trees and candles in windows.  We receive cards with updates and pictures of family and friends, and we mark the days to Christmas as we the anticipation of joy builds.

Continue reading Keepers of the Story

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Our patron—the saint who gives our community its name— St. Mark the Evangelist, plunges us directly into the wilderness.  He doesn’t spill ink on genealogies to trace Jesus’ lineage in more detail than, nor does he tell the narrative account of Jesus’ humble beginnings.  He simply writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,”’ John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  We don’t even have time to catch our breaths before we fall headlong into the blazing light and intense heat of the desert and of The Baptizer’s clarion call to repentance. 

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What is it about the wilderness?  Why is it the place that God often chooses to meet us?  What is found in the desert, the mountains, the rough places that cause them to become “thin,” the very settings where we palpably encounter the Divine?  Continue reading God Meets us in the Wilderness

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