Who shall we be?

This is my sermon from the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, 2021. The lectionary is found here. On Epiphany, the Wednesday before this Sunday, an angry, violent mob stormed the US Capitol.

Wednesday afternoon was one of those times that felt surreal.  One minute I was musing about John the Baptist’s fashion and cuisine choices:  Why are we told in today’s Gospel that he was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey?  What did that matter to the story of Jesus’ baptism?  The next I was standing in my kitchen saying to Kathleen, “What? The Capitol was stormed?  The US Capitol? In Washington, D.C.?  It was stormed?”  I’d been in the office all day and hadn’t listened to NPR or checked in on Facebook or opened one of the newspaper apps on my phone.  After a quick run to the Post Office to mail the Children’s Chapel packets I’d been working on just a few minutes before I’d realized I was curious about John’s attire and appetite, I opened my computer to watch and read the news.  And there I stayed, stuck in one of those it’s-a-train-wreck-why-can’t-I-avert-my-eyes kind of moments, but for (literally) hours, with all of the fears and concerns, all of the anger and frustrations, all of the sadness and grief that I have been carrying for several years, even before that fateful day in November 2016 – all of it right there, inhabiting what felt like every fiber of my being and spilling out onto my lap in wave after wave. 

It was too much and though I knew to pray – I knew I needed to pray- I had absolutely no idea what to pray, what words to use because I lacked the capacity to form clear thoughts.  So, being the good Episcopalian that I am, I turned to the Book of Common Prayer, and let some of the familiar words hold me up, surround me with reminders of what I believe and in whom I believe.  I remembered the sermon I preached on November 13, 2016, the Sunday after Election Day.  I remembered talking about how the words we use matter.   We use language to communicate.  Words are part of how we relate to one another, they are part of being in relationship.  Words mean what they mean to us as we utter them and to others as they hear them.  What we say, when we say it, where we say it, all of these things lend meaning to the words we choose. The things we say have an impact on people and, whether we intend them to land as they do or not, we have to accept and acknowledge that they do.

So, long into the night on Wednesday and then again for a good deal of Thursday, I listened, hoping to find words somewhere, from someone, that would help me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.  I listened to reporters and journalists.  I listened to government officials and law enforcement experts.  I watched videos of the President and of the President-elect. I watched videos of prayer services and Episcopal bishops.  It actually wasn’t until Friday that I heard something that helped.  On Friday, I heard Presiding Bishop Curry say: “In the moment of a national crisis, a moment of great danger, … a people must decide, ‘Who shall we be?’” 

In that moment, I felt something shift, not to a place of finding sense in what had happened on Wednesday or what has been happening for years in this country, but a modicum of sense nonetheless.  I was drawn back to today’s Gospel, that familiar story of Jesus’ baptism with that seemingly superfluous line about John in camel hair, eating honey.  I was drawn back to words that have always made my heart sing, to words that touch the deepest longings within me: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  I knew that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to have “the heavens torn apart” and to hear God speaking those words specifically to me because they answer the question “Who shall I be?” and not just in times of crisis or danger, but all of the time.  And suddenly the inclusion of John’s clothing and food choices made sense. 

“Who shall we be?” is the question people have been wrestling with for all time.  From Adam and Eve and their choice to be people with the knowledge of good and evil to Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac to Esther entering into a marriage and alliance to save her people, we are on a quest to answer that question.  The prophet, Elijah, whom we are told in 2 Kings is either a “hairy man” or wearing camel’s hair, depending upon the translation, points people to a new way of life that is grounded in the one God.  Elijah prophesies the coming of the Lord, the hope for an end to war and conflict, famine and need.  The Lord, whom we Christians know as the Messiah, the Christ, will come to save us from ourselves, to forgive us from our sins, and to bring us to new life, to a new way of being in the world and with God.

Bishop Curry’s reminder that the storming of the Capitol is yet another opportunity for us to ask ourselves “Who shall we be?” as a people, as a nation, as beloved children of God is both a comforting reminder and a challenge. We, unlike Elijah, know that the Messiah has come and has shown us what it is that we need to do to be the people God created us to be, to be a part of realizing God’s dream here on earth.  You know that is a sermon I can preach. It is a sermon I do preach… a lot.  And as our nation struggles to face the racial and other social justice issues that are part of the fabric of its founding and institutions, it is a sermon we need to hear.  All of us must do our part to ensure that all of God’s children are treated with respect, their innate dignity affirmed, their basic rights affirmed and upheld.  There is no way to be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah, and not commit to that way of life. 

Today, however, in this week of such immense fear and anxiety, we need to hear the fullness of the message.  We need to hear God saying to us, “YOU are my Beloved; with YOU I am well pleased.”  Whatever our part in creating and nurturing the circumstances that culminated in the storming of the Capitol, whatever our politics or voting choices, we need to know that the way of the Lord prophesied by Elijah and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as proclaimed by John the Baptist is a way of life that is for us, each and every one of us.  This is our comfort and our joy.  This is our solace and our hope. This is our challenge and our motivation. This is who we were created to be and who we get to choose to be, with every decision we make and every word we speak. 

The Word of God broke into the world in the birth of a vulnerable infant in Nazareth.  The Word of God lived among us, teaching us how to be our best selves, how to show our love for God in our relationships with God’s people.  The Word of God died at our hands because God’s love defies even the most horrific aspects of our human nature.  The Word of God lives among us still, working in and through us, giving us all that we need to live the Way of Love.  And that is the Word that matters above all else.            

Jesus acting far too human

Today’s Gospel is a tough one.  Jesus spends time with his disciples, telling them more about how God’s law has been misunderstood and misconstrued.  He explains to them that if what they do is not rooted in love, but rather in evil or any violation of God’s commandments, it defiles.  He’s telling them that so much of what they have learned and have come to understand as good and righteous, is, in fact, bad and sinful. He then goes on to Tyre and Sidon, where he encounters the Caananite woman.  This is where it gets really hard.

The Caananite woman is desperate for help.  She approaches Jesus crying out for him to cure her daughter.  I can only imagine what it must have taken for this woman, by birth considered by the Jews to be impure, to approach this Jewish rabbi for help.  My heart breaks when Jesus does not even acknowledge her.  It breaks a bit more when he tells her he was not sent to help her people.  It crumbles when he calls her a dog.  I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking there is no way, no way possible, that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the World, would or could treat anyone this way.  Surely there must be some other explanation.  Maybe Jesus is using this encounter with the Canaanite woman to teach his disciples a lesson?  But would that be any better?  Perhaps this story isn’t even real.  Surely it can’t be true that Jesus acted this way.

And yet it is.  Jesus’ humanity is on full display in this encounter with the Canaanite woman.  He seems to have completely forgotten the lesson he’d just taught the disciples.  His behavior with the woman suggests he doesn’t remember saying, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart”, which means, essentially, if it is not about God’s love, it defiles.  In other words, what is life-giving and pure is what is spoken with a heart full of love, mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.  Clearly, this was not Jesus’ best day.

In this story, Jesus is acting in a way that makes so many of us uncomfortable because it is far too imperfect to be consistent with our idea of who Jesus is.  We are seeing Jesus the man and product of his culture.  We are seeing the Incarnate One born to live and die among us acting far too like us than we want to believe is possible.  We are seeing in Jesus, the one who came to save us from ourselves and all the ways we step away from the ongoing invitation to grow more and more into the likeness of God, one of the most terrible ways we turn away from God’s likeness.

When I read this story now, in 2020 with the ongoing protests for racial justice and the reverberations of the #Me,Too movement, I am hear both the voices of those who cry for justice and the push back from those who want to hang onto  the culture and ways of being that are comfortable and familiar to them, even at the expense of the dignity – the very humanity- of others. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If Jesus could act this callously, this meanly, what chance do I have? What chance does society have to further the dream of God in which all people are recognized, honored, and celebrated for being created in the image of God?

In the persistent cries of the unnamed woman, one of only two people in Matthew’s Gospel to be characterized as having “great” faith (the other being the centurion in Chapter 8), I hear echoes of our Black and Brown siblings crying to be seen as fully human and deserving of all the same privilege, power, and opportunity we with White skin enjoy.  In the woman’s cries, I hear the echoes of every woman who objects to being sexually objectified or demeaned by labels such as “nasty woman” or held to a different standard of behavior than her male counterparts.  In her cries, I hear echoes of the First Nations peoples as they struggle to survive as outcasts in the land they occupied before any White man “discovered” it.  In the woman’s cries, I hear the echoes of our LGBTQ siblings who want nothing more than to be recognized and embraced as beloved children of God created in that same divine image.

In Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman’s persistence, I see hope.  I see the hope for us to listen to the pleas of our siblings to challenge the status quo, to dismantle the cultures and structures that are used to demean, degrade, demoralize, or in any other way say to any person or any peoples that they are somehow less than because we see some difference in them.  Certainly we can listen to the pleas of our siblings with hearts full of the love of God and for God and take action to transform this world, even if that means going against the grain and challenging both the culture and the ways we hang onto it? If the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Incarnate God can be changed by the cries of one woman, certainly those of us who follow him can do the same, especially when confronted by the cries of millions? 

Questioning through the fear

This is my sermon for August 9, 2020 the 10th Sunday after the Pentecost in Year A. The lectionary is found here.

Several years ago, at the Barbara C. Harris Camp, I met an adorable nine-year-old boy named Manny. Manny is one of those old souls in a child’s body.  He’s also someone who looks life straight in the eye and then jumps right in.  I got to know Manny pretty well by the middle of the week.  I was the chaplain for his age group so sat in on a Bible study and spent time with his group on a couple of activities.  He was happy to be at camp, with a confidence most of his peers didn’t show most of the time.   I imagine Manny would be the one to challenge Jesus as Peter does in today’s Gospel “Ok, big guy.  You say I can do this, huh?  How about you tell me how to start and then I’m game.  I’ll give it a try.” 

That Wednesday evening, I got to know Manny even better.  Another chaplain and I were asked to take him to the local ER because he’d fallen while playing a game and injured his elbow.  We were a bit taken aback when we first saw him in the health lodge because it was obvious he was in pain, just as it was obvious his elbow was pretty badly injured.  But Manny didn’t talk about the pain, although he talked pretty much the whole way to the hospital.  Manny talked about his family and this, his second week at camp.  He told us about school and that he loves to read.  He told us he was having a hard time staying awake because he usually goes to bed at 7:00 and it was already almost 8:00. He told us in delightful detail what had happened, how he hurt his arm.  And he asked lots of questions, lots and lots of questions.

It is in those questions that I think about Manny in connection with today’s Gospel.  In his questions Manny voiced the fears he had about what was going on.  He worried that his parents would be angry with him for getting hurt.  He asked if he would have to get a new arm.  He was afraid that he would have to be awake and feel whatever it was the doctor would do to fix his arm.  He was terrified he would have to leave camp, after successfully begging his parents to allow him to come again for a second week.  He worried about what fun he was missing out on because he was on the way to the hospital.  Would his friends think about him?  Would they worry so much they didn’t have fun?  Question after question after question.  Fear after fear after fear.   All of them distracting him from what was so clear to my friend and me in the car and then to the staff at the hospital:  Manny had to have been in tremendous pain yet he barely seemed to notice. 

His fears were bigger in some ways than the physical reality of what was happening .  When asked, he had a hard time telling the nurses and doctors about his pain and how he was feeling physically.  Although visibly exhausted, he couldn’t lie down until his questions were answered fully and completely.  Needing to ask the questions over and over as if to make sure the answers did not change.  Once satisfied he promptly fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.  His fears were allayed, and he could do what he needed to do, what his body needed him to do. 

In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Peter and the disciples are clearly afraid.  It is night after an intense day of working with Jesus.  No doubt they are aware of how some consider their ministry with Jesus foolhardy.  They might even be aware of what Jesus has recently learned: the John the Baptist has been killed, beheaded, by some who are threatened by Jesus’ radical thinking and willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of his followers and maintain the status quo.    They might even wonder – somewhere deep within, or maybe more visibly – whether what they have witnessed with Jesus: the feeding of the 5000, turning water into wine, some healings – is real or if they been fooled.

Imagine what it would have been like to be there in a small wooden boat, completely subject to the power of the wind and the rain and the waves, in the kind of complete darkness we don’t know so well these days.  The stars – essentially the only source of light in a night sky -obliterated by the storm clouds.  No way to see the villages on the shore on either side of the lake.  Left alone by the teacher you have been following as you have been caught up in the wonder and the promise of his message.  In that small boat, on the turbulent water under a pitch-dark stormy sky, your fears keep you from recognizing Jesus as he walks toward you.  You think he is a ghost and are not even sure what to believe when he tells you it is okay, he is real.

As you sit in that boat are you grateful to Peter for having the gumption to challenge Jesus, to make Jesus prove he is who he says he is?  Or are you saying a silent, or perhaps not-so-silent, prayer that Peter just sit down and be quiet?  Are you envious that Peter has the courage to ask the question that is on your mind when he gets to walk on water?  What do you think and feel when his doubts take over and he starts to sink?  Can you feel his gratitude when Jesus reaches out a hand to save him or do you say to yourself, “I would have believed better, longer, stronger, and would have been able to walk all the way to Jesus”?

As you listen to this Gospel does this message of fear and faith and trust resonate with you?  Can you think of one example from your own life of when your fears got in the way of something just as real?  Perhaps your fear of what the doctor might say keeps you from making an appointment to check out some discomfort or pain.  Maybe you don’t risk talking to your spouse or your partner or your friend about something in your relationship that is upsetting you because you worry it will spiral out of control.  Maybe you commit less than 100% to your church or your prayer life because a full commitment would mean making some changes in how you live your life and that is too much to contemplate. 

Do you hesitate to talk openly and honestly to God, with God, because there is a part of you that knows you may not hear what you want to hear?  Or do you take the leap of faith, kind of like Peter, and put your whole self – including the parts that have trouble recognizing Jesus right there in the middle of your less than perfect self – into asking the questions and then trusting that God will get you when you fall?

My young friend Manny, scared though he was, did not stop asking the questions, voicing his fears, until he was satisfied with the answers.  And when the doctors woke him up to tell him it was time to fix his dislocated elbow and asked him how he felt, Manny didn’t miss a beat when he told them his arm hurt “really, really, REALLY bad” and he wanted them to fix it.  And when it was fixed and we were on our way back to the camp, he talked and talked some more about how good it felt to “get fixed up” and how he knew he was going to have to wait until later in the morning to find out if he got to stay at camp or if he’d have to go home early.  He said, “I know my friends at camp prayed for me [we’d told him they included him in their bedtime prayers] and that was nice.  And you two are priests, right?” Then the simplest, most profound, and faithful statement: “Right before I fell asleep I said, ‘God, I know you got this’ and I figured I’d be all right.”  Amen.

Seek the dream of God

This is the planned text of a speech I gave at the Millburn Rally for Black Lives on June 7, 2020. It was an honor to be asked to lift my voice alongside those who live the injustice everyday, not as an expert but as an ally striving to do better. If you’d like to hear the actual speech, slightly different as happens often when one speaks without notes, you may do so here.

I am here, not as an expert but as an ally, and an ally with a heart to learn how to be a bigger and better and more vocal ally.

My faith in Jesus is what grounds me.  I believe in – I follow –  a man who would not be welcomed in this country, who would be risking his life for no other reason than inhabiting his own body, living in his own skin.  Jesus was not the blonde-haired blue-eyed guy we see on posters in churches in this country.  Jesus was a man of color. 

Jesus was executed by the state for proclaiming his radical message of who matters. And make no mistake – given who he was and where he lived, Jesus was talking about black and brown lives. 

I have no idea and can’t even imagine what it is like to live as a person of color in this country:

  • What it’s like to be seen one-dimensionally.
  • What it’s like to be denied opportunities that I take for granted.
  • What it’s like to be defined by others, rather than live my life on my own terms.

I come with some understand of this problem because for decades I have spent time in conversation with friends and colleagues who don’t have to imagine it because they live it EVERY.SINGLE.DAY.

  • They live with the sideways glances.
  • They live with strangers crossing streets to avoid them.
  • They live with others thinking they know all about them because they see their skin.
  • They live with the fear of what could happen to them or their children.
  • They live knowing their fears are not unreasonable.
  • They live a reality that people like me can never know.
  • What is most astounding?
  • They live with hope that this world can be a better place.

I come as an angry, frustrated, and still hopeful ally, not to talk to those who live this reality every day but to those who look like me.

Friends and neighbors who look like me – those who live in white skin by some accident of birth. We have got to do better!  We have got to do better now – not tomorrow or someday. Now!

We have to use our voices and our privilege and our resources to speak loudly and clearly, as often and for as long as it takes to rid this country of the evil of racism that is the bedrock of the original sin, of the injustice in this country

We have to accept the responsibility for creatingthe systems and the ways of thinking that mean some live with danger and fear we will never know

We need to ask forgiveness from all who have been harmed and continue to be harmed and the we have to LISTEN to what is need for reconciliation as a FIRST STEP to achieving racial justice and equality for

We need to know that this is only a FIRST STEP and that OUR work is LONG OVERDUE and ONGOING:

  • We need to stop looking for explanations to excuse our horrific behavior.
  • We need to hold accountable those who engage in this kind of violence against other human beings, whether it is expressed in thoughts, words or in deeds.

We need to look long and hard at the choices we make each and every day, asking ourselves:

  • How am I perpetuating this gross injustice?
  • By my words and the way I live my life, am I moving this conversation along in a helpful, positive way?
  • Am I complicit by my lack of action or because I remain silent?

We need to lift our voices NOW, we need to use our resources NOW, we need to live our lives – our  full lives – now,  in ways that show our black and brown neighbors that their hope of a better world is not unfounded  and it is something they deserve, not something they have to earn

In the words of the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry:

Let us work to “become the dream of god, rather than the nightmare of man.”

Seek the heart faith

This is my sermon from April 19, 2020, The Second Sunday of Easter. The lectionary may be found here.

My friend, Sue, of blessed memory, preached one sermon in her whole life.  I will not forget that sermon, even though it was probably 20 years ago. She said something that changed things for me.  She talked about how she had journeyed from a “head faith” to a “heart faith.”  Sue was born and raised in the Episcopal Church.  She spent a lot of time in the church. She went to Sunday School and Episcopal Church camp.  She was a member of Daughters of the King.  She did all those things good Episcopal girls and young women did. She and her husband were raising their children in the Church, which is where I met her. They were faithful. She lived her faith with a heart that you could almost see beating in her chest.  That is how I had known her – as the woman with faith so visible to the world. 

In her sermon, when Sue talked about her journey from a head faith to a heart faith, she talked about the real difference between having faith in what you have been taught and have no reason to doubt because people you love and trust tell you that it’s true and having the adult experience of this kind of maturation in her faith in which she was able to say, as Thomas said in this Gospel, “My Lord and my God.”  She had had a number of experiences in her life, some the write-home-to-mama types of experiences and some the kind you think back later and say, “Huh!  I guess that was a God moment.”  She had had those experiences in her life when she could move from a belief based on what she had been taught, what she read, and what she heard in sermons to a trust in God because she’d had some experiences of God up close and personal. 

I was thinking about her earlier this week when I was praying with today’s Gospel because we have Thomas, who is out, not with the disciples when Jesus comes back to them the first time after Easter Day.  The next time he sees them, they say, “Look! We’ve seen him.  He’s back!”  Thomas doesn’t say to them, “I don’t believe you.”  What Thomas says is, “I need to see him.  I need to experience this for myself.”  And Jesus, being Jesus, gives him that opportunity. 

Thomas gets a bad rap.  In today’s Gospel he’s called “The Twin”, though in other contexts he’s called “Doubting Thomas”, as if having the need to experience Jesus at work in one’s own life is a sign of a lack of faith.  My friends, it’s not.  Having questions, having doubts, speaks, in fact, to a trust in the relationship with God that transcends this I-believe-because-somebody-told-me-I-have-to-believe-and- this-is-what-I-have-to-believe-and-how-I-have-to-believe. Thomas’ vulnerability, his honesty in say, “I need this.  I need Jesus to be present to me in the same way that Jesus was present to the rest of you a few days ago”, is a sign that Thomas has a willingness, a desire, a longing for the kind of transformative relationship that Jesus offers us.

What’s really interesting to me about this Gospel is that we hear “those who believe”, because that’s the way it was translated for us.  But if you go back to the original Greek, the word is pistos, and pistos means “trust”.  It’s an active trust.  It’s the trust that develops because something has happened in a relationship.  So Thomas is saying, “Jesus, help me to trust.  Help me to know you so that my faith can be a heart faith, a lived faith, not a faith I carry and claim because somebody else told me I should, told me it was true.”

This is one of the most faithful ways to be a follower of Jesus, to seek the opportunities in one’s own life to know Jesus invites each of us to know him.  Sure, Jesus extends the invitation to all of us, but it’s not like the shepherd ringing the bell to call of the nameless sheep to come home.  Jesus invites each of us uniquely, personally, individually to relationship, the kind of relationship where we don’t have to take it on the word of somebody else. We don’t have to take it on a blind trust,  if you will, but the kind of trust that says, “help me understand”, “help me to know you”, “help me to hold up my half of this relationship you are inviting me into.”  This is the kind of invitation that is extended to each of us all of the time. And, yet, it is not expected by anybody – and I’ll go out on a limb and say Jesus himself – that we always have the same level of trust that we develop at any given time in all of our life. 

One of the greatest gifts my friend gave me when she preached was that she talked about how at specifics time in her life she experiences and knew Jesus better, more intimately than she ever had before, and then sometime later she looked back with longing for those times when she knew Jesus more intimately than she ever had before.  Jesus would be present to her in a new way, and she invite him to be with her through the next wave of doubt and of question so he could bring her back to the place where she would say, “Wow! Jesus, I know you more intimately than I ever have before!”  This kind of lived faith, this kind of trusting relationship in which we feel safe to say, “God, I believe. Help my unbelief”, which is also in the Gospels, is the kind of faith, is the kind of relationship that Thomas models for us in today’s Gospel. 

As we continue this Easter celebration through Eastertide, the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, I invite you to think about Thomas.  And, if it helps you, to use the image my dear friend gave to me as such a gift and blessing some 20 years ago. It is okay to have the head faith, the faith that you carry because it is about the things you have been told or have been taught. But what Jesus really, truly desires for us and with us is a heart faith, the kind of faith we seek to see in God’s world in all that we do, with and in all we encounter, including the everyday places.

The not-so-empty tomb

This is my 2020 Easter sermon. We heard the Gospel of John 20:1-18.

Easter is the most sacred of days, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ – a day that changed the world like no other before, nor since.  Although we in the church revel in the return of the “Alleluias,” the Gospel story of the resurrection is quite different.  The story as told in John’s Gospel starts as one of emptiness, disbelief, and tears.  It is a story of not immediately seeing what is happening, who is right there in front of you.  It is a story that unfolds slowly, deliberately, rather than with the heightened energy and excitement that seems to surround other stories – Christmas, for instance, with its heralding star, angels proclaiming the news, and magi with gifts.  It is a story of expectation and longing.  Then it becomes the story of the promise fulfilled.

The theologian, Frederick Buechner writes:

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face.


In today’s Gospel,  Mary Magdalene rises early and quietly returns to the tomb to pay her respects to her beloved friend and teacher.  It is easy to believe she expected to be alone with Jesus, in a time of quiet sorrow that the hopes she shared with so many others for a different kind of life, a life that had been summarily taken from them with Jesus’ execution.  Imagine how she must have felt, to have even this ritual of mourning taken from her.  Imagine her disbelief that anyone would have taken his body.  Imagine her longing to be able to be with Jesus, even for just one more day.  She runs to Peter and the Beloved Disciple to share her grief and disbelief.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple cannot believe it either.  They have to see for themselves, so they accompany Mary Magdalene back to the tomb.  When they see that what she told them is true, they turn and walk away.  They believe it is over, that there is nothing left to expect.  They return to their homes, leaving Mary Magdalene there, alone at the empty tomb.

But wait!  The tomb isn’t empty.  There are angels but not the loudly, joyfully proclaiming angels who heralded Jesus’ birth.  These angels are sitting quietly, as if waiting for Mary to notice them, waiting for her to make the first move.    When she looks in, they ask her a question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She answers them and then turns away to leave.  And then she has the experience of meeting the risen Christ face-to-face We might wonder how it is she did not recognize the man she dearly loved and respected, the man she knew could change the world.  How could she mistake Jesus for the gardener?  Wouldn’t it, shouldn’t it, have been obvious to her who he was?

Imagine Mary Magdalene, there with Jesus through his ministry, his crucifixion, and now at the empty tomb, without the benefit of the 2000+ years of history and experience we have today.  She is there at the empty tomb with no other plausible explanation for what happened to the body of the man she saw die than that the authorities moved it or someone, for some reason, stole it.  It is little wonder, really, that she mistook Jesus for a gardener.  She does not know what to think, what to believe, but as much as she longs for it she does not expect to ever see Jesus again.

Mary Magdalene’s experience of the risen Christ is as true an experience as can possibly be.  Jesus does not push his way into our lives.  He does not insist we recognize him.  Jesus invites us into relationship.  He invites us to open our hearts and our minds to him.  Jesus gently holds the full promise of forgiveness and redemption, of eternal life, which is our Easter joy.  He literally died on the cross so that we might come to know him in this way, yet he does not insist that we accept this gift.  Jesus desires that we seek to see his face in the times and places, circumstances and people in which we’d least expect to see it, even, as happened to Mary Magdalene, at the empty tomb.

Jesus is everything we’d expect from the incarnate God and so completely unlike our expectations.  Jesus comes to us in our brokenness, our emptiness, and invites us to believe, even in the face of the impossible.  Jesus is there to answer our deepest yearnings, the most intimate longings of our hearts.  Jesus continues to be present to us in the most intimate and the most public of ways to save us from ourselves and all the brokenness of this world.  Jesus is here for us wherever it is, however it is, we long to find him, even in the times that seems unlikely or impossible.  That is the promise of Easter, the promise we as Easter people long to receive.

The empty tomb is not really empty. It is full of the love of God for all people.  It is full of the promise from God to all people.  It is full of the life given for and to us. It is full of the Easter message that with God, all things are possible.

Curing the blind man: a message for this time

This is the manuscript, i.e. the plan, for the sermon I preached today, March 22, 2020, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Today was an unusual and very much grace-filled day. Gathering with the congregation remotely, via Zoom and Facebook Live, presented unique challenges with technology and my significant anxiety and lack of confidence when in front of a camera. And yet, as she often does, the wildly wonderful Holy Spirit entered into our community and words, some of them wise, were spoken. If you are interested in hearing what was said after you read what was planned, you can do that here.

The lectionary for today is found here.

My daughter did not hear until she was about a year old.  Born prematurely, the connections between brain and auditory nerve were a bit slow to develop.  As a result, she learned about the world using her other senses in ways that were remarkable to see. One day, when she was about six months old, I took her into my office for a bit.  We were in a conference room with what looked to the rest of us like plain blue chairs.  One of my colleagues noticed that Kathleen seemed positively transfixed looking at the back of the chair.  It was then that we noticed that the blue of the chair contained a small pattern, and that it wasn’t a flat blue.  In fact, there were teeny tiny flecks of reddish brown. Those of us who had spent hours and hours and hours in that room, on those chairs, had never noticed the pattern of the fabric of the chairs. Kathleen, six months old, there for probably the second or third time, saw the things we could not see.

The Gospel today speaks of a similar lack of vision and new way of seeing. Jesus performs the miracle of healing.  He heals the man blind from birth, using mud, saliva, and the instruction to wash in a particular pool.  This, in and of itself, is a remarkable story.  But, quite frankly, I have come to be less “impressed”, if you will, by the miracle stories themselves.

Now, before you start wondering what kind of theologian you called to be your rector, let me explain.  I am not at all surprised that Jesus cured blindness and leprosy, that he cast out demons and raised  people from the dead, fed thousands with a bit of bread and fish, and turned water into wine. Jesus,

though both human and divine, was the incarnate God, after all.  And I, for one, see no limit on what God can do, believing fully those wonderful words of Jesus’ that we read in Matthew (9:16) and Mark (10:27): “…for God all things are possible.”

What impresses me most in this Gospel story, is how, once again, Jesus performs a miracle, changes one person’s life so completely, and then, without any sense of exploitation, uses that person’s experience, to teach others what they need to know, to say things we need to hear.

This story is, on its face, about a miraculous physical cure, but, my friends, it is about so much more than that. A colleague said it well: “God’s glory was always at work in him [the blind man] but people missed it because they couldn’t see beyond his blindness.” (Jose Reyes at Fresh Start, 3.21.17)

This story is, in a nutshell, about how God cannot be contained by our blindness, nor defined by our vision.

God is God, and God will be who God is whether we see it or not, whether we can imagine it or not.

An important message for all of us is the invitation in Jesus’ curing of the man’s blindness. It was an invitation to that man and to all in his community to look deeper, to look differently, at their faith and understanding of God. God with them. God in them. God at work in their lives and in the world.

This was- and continues to be- an invitation to set aside the things we think we see, the things we think we know, to see ourselves, our neighbors, and the world as God sees us and them and all of creation,as Go d knows us and them and all of creation. 

It is a message for all time.  It is a message for this particular time.  At a time in which so many have died and tens of thousands more are ill, we need to know the presence of God.

At a time in which so many are afraid, afraid of what they know and what they don’t know, we need to know the presence of God.

At a time in which our normal ways of living, of being together, are necessarily restricted, we need to know the presence of God.

Jesus was drawn to physically touch the blind man, which is something we are largely prevented from doing in this time.  Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus was drawn to be with, talk to, and touch people who were outcasts and known sinners, children, all manner of people.  Today we are prevented from gathering together for something as profoundly simple as our weekly worship.

What are we to do?  How are we to be?  Do we even know?

The simple answer to that third question is, “yes and no”.  We know that it is critically important – quite literally save-a-life important – that we make huge changes to how we live our lives each day.  We know for today what those changes are, just as we reasonably and with some anxiety, perhaps, question whether what we are doing is enough and whether or not we’ll have to do things differently tomorrow.  It is so hard to see the future, even the future of a couple of days, in the midst of such turmoil and uncertainty. 

How can we know who we are when we don’t recognize our lives?

Today’s Gospel is invitation to remember that who and whose we are does not change, no matter what the human condition throws our way. God’s vision is not our vision.  Jesus sees deeply into our hearts and continues to love us into new life no matter what the human condition throws our way.  The Holy Spirit is alive and well and working in and through all of God’s people, in all times, in all places, without ceasing.  And that includes in this scary, surreal time of coping with the coronavirus and Covid-19.

We have a unique (and hopefully never to be repeated) opportunity to expand our vision, to do our best to see as God sees, to love as Jesus loves, to feel and celebrate the Holy Spirit at work in the world.  This is an invitation to be part of the miracle of a transformed life, a life in which we know in new and deeper ways that God’s presence in unwavering and unconditional.

That is no easy task.  Whether it is one by each, as the community of the faithful that St. Stephen’s Church, or the Church writ large, this can feel daunting.  Accepting this invitation from God and living it faithfully in all aspects of our life requires rethinking the way we understand relationship with each other in community. 

How do we maintain connection with people we no longer see face-to-face?  How do we take care of other when so many more of us are in need of immediate care, some whose ability to provide for basic needs for food and shelter may be in jeopardy?  How do we trust in God when the ways and the places we are used to seeing God aren’t so clear anymore.

We continue to look, with the same perseverance six-month-old Kathleen had when she was exploring a world she could not hear.  We remind ourselves that we are so very much more than our daily routines, our usual ways of gathering, and our fears, anxieties, and grief.  We remember in any way we are able that we are beloved of God whose vision is not our vision, whose presence with us in not dependent or conditioned upon our daily routines, our usual ways of gathering, or our fears, anxieties, and grief.  God can and God will work in us with the same love with which Jesus cured the blind man.


This is from the weekly newsletter at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Millburn, the January 17,2020 edition. It was suggested that I share it more widely, so I do so now with you.

There is an anthropological concept: liminality (from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold”) which is about transition, the time when what was is no longer but what is next is yet to come. It is a time of expectation, of anticipation, of hopeful uncertainty.  This is something that pertains to rites of passage, especially in cultures in which there are strong rituals to mark such times. In everyday life, some people experience liminality in challenging life experiences, such as when one is between jobs or is aware of facing end of life.

Celtic spirituality often ascribes liminality to places. In liminal spaces it is said that the veil between heaven and earth, between the Divine and creation, is lifted. The Scottish island of Iona is one such place.  People who visit feel changed, they experience transformation in their relationship with God and God’s creation.  Liminality is not limited to those places multitudes have had this experience.  A liminal space is any place or any time you know or see God in a way that changes you, that moves you deeper into the holy mysteries, deeper into the heart of God.

For me, liminal spaces have long involved bodies of water, such as the ocean or a lake, especially during sunrise or sunset.  The picture on the top left is of sunset in Matunuck, Rhode Island, one of my happy places.  The middle is sunset on Otter Lake in Greenfield, New Hampshire, home of another happy place, the Barbara C. Harris Camp & Conference Center.  The last picture is of the Glorieta Pass in Glorieta, New Mexico.  As you can see, there is no water visible anywhere, nor is there any changing light. Imagine my surprise when I repeatedly found myself looking around, marveling at the astonishing beauty of a landscape that is so unlike those that usually speak to my heart.  And yet, speak to my heart it did, at times in the way that I find myself catching my breath because I don’t want to do anything to lower the veil between heaven and earth, anything that will prevent me from going deeper, getting closer to God.

I share this with you today, not just because I still bask in the experience.  I encourage you to notice when a place or a time when you realize you are catching your breath or have goosebumps or tears in your eyes or whatever it is that signals to you that you are experience God in that moment.  And that take a few moments to bask in the experience before offering a prayer of thanksgiving and gratitude to the one who loves YOU beyond all imagination.

Empowering immediacy

This is the manuscript from my sermon on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. As I’ve said before, this is more or less what the congregation heard because I preach from the aisle without notes. If you’d like to read the lectionary, you’ll find it here.

Though it may sound odd, what first captured my attention when I was reading and praying with the Gospel earlier in the week, is not what you might expect.  It was a small, and I’d guess, often overlooked detail – the word immediately.  “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Immediately they left the boat, and their father, and followed him.”  I realized that if you were to ask me to place the word on a continuum from positive to negative, I’d probably put it closer to the negative end.  As a child, I’d hear it when I was in trouble – “Paula Jean, come here…immediately!”  In work situations, report to the boss “immediately” most often is not about congratulations.  In medical settings, “stat”, which is never something a patient or family member wants to hear, comes from the Latin statum, which means immediately. Even the colloquial “immediate gratification” has negative connotations, doesn’t it?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Andrew and Simon Peter, and then James and John, and they drop what they are doing and follow him “immediately.”  There is an urgency to Jesus’ call that they seem to understand.  They give up their livelihood. And, in the case of James and John, the Gospel is explicit that they walk away from the father and their obligations to him.  There is something about their understanding of what is necessary to their well-being – to their very survival -that compels them to move before they even know for sure what they have gotten into.  It is tempting to explain this by saying, “Of course they did, they knew who Jesus was – the Messiah.  Of course they would accept his call.  Wouldn’t every one?”  And, yet, according to Mark, this was happening was early in Jesus’ public ministry.  It follows his baptism by John, the temptation in the wilderness, and John’s arrest.  Not much had been said, at least as far as Mark tells us, and what had been said did not scream “Messiah.”  They hadn’t yet heard the beatitudes or witnessed the miracles or any of those things that help us to understand who Jesus is. I’m thinking that had they heard about John the Baptist’s arrest, after he had been public about his belief in who Jesus was, could have thrown a damper on their enthusiasm. 

No doubt Jesus was a charismatic guy, but he sure didn’t look or act in the ways they expected the prophesied Messiah to look or act. Whether because of something they felt from Jesus or had heard about or it was a more amorphous “gut instinct,” these disciples responded with a sense of urgency. They lived their faith in ways that extend beyond a catchy “Living Our Faith” banner above the bulletin boards in the parish hall.  They literally changed their lives and the lives of those around them to follow where Jesus would lead.  They clearly understood that their well-being -their salvation -required them to act differently than they usually did.  And they made the change without taking the time to get all their ducks in a row or to call in the boy next door to help their father with the family business.

Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum or which particular issue or issues capture your attention and heart, it is nigh on impossible to look at the current state of things in this country and around the world and not sense that there is an urgent need for change. This is, remarkably, one place in which folks of different political persuasions, with different policy priorities, find agreement.  Things have gone wrong and need fixing now.  People need to take action now.  If we are going to take our part in co-creating with God the vision for God’s people and the world, we need to do it now.  And that is hard to do.   It can be tremendously inconvenient.  It can make us less popular with some people than we might want to be. It can take it’s toll on relationships.  It reminds us of the message from today’s reading from 1 Corinthians to stop our bickering and in-fighting and get down to the work God has given us to do. 

The work of following Jesus now might have tremendous impact or it might be on a smaller scale.  It could be along the lines of Mother Teresa leaving behind all she had known in Albania to eventually settle in the slums of India, or it could be something as simple as making small changes in our daily lives to reduce the human impact on the environment.  For example, Kathleen and I use stainless steel straws because of our concern about the impact of the plastic ones on wildlife and the environment.  This change is surprisingly challenging at times and is not always convenient.  (We have to remember to bring a straw with us wherever we might buy a cold drink and then we have to remember to bring it home to clean it, which is surprisingly more difficult than it seems it should be.)  Realistically, our action has a negligible impact on the overall problem but it is something we can do now.  It is just one example of how we can respond right away to the urgency we feel about the future of our planet.

Whether large scale like founding hospitals and hospices for the destitute poor or making a small change in daily living to respond to environmental concerns, it is crucial that we do some of what we can to live our faith in such a way that we close the gap between the urgency we recognize in the world around us and our willingness to give up some of what we have or take for granted to be a part of realizing God’s dream for God’s world.  Acting immediately -accepting Jesus’ call to live our faith in the here and now, rather than at some point in the future or when we think we are fully prepared- is a positive step. It is empowering, and it brings us closer to the heart of God.   If we act now in whatever ways we can and with whatever resources we have, we can be a part of “changing the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it: (to paraphrase Presiding Bishop Michael Curry). And that is good news, indeed!

This article was written for the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram.  It was published on October 6, 2018.

The morning of September 21st, on my way into work, I was listening to NPR as I do every day.  Actually, “listening” might be a bit of an overstatement.  The truth is that the radio was on, tuned into NPR, and my mind was elsewhere, wandering.  My attention was captured when I heard the announcer say, “Today is the final day of summer.”  My attention caught, I realized I was basking in the warmth of the late summer sun warming my car through the windshield, with similar weather predicted for the next several days.  In that moment it occurred to me that, if not for the announcer stating the obvious, I might move from summer into autumn without noticing.  Though technically an official transition of the seasons, September 21st becoming September 22nd, might have come and gone with no awareness that it marked anything at all.

You may well be wondering why this anecdote has any relevance to keeping the faith.  It’s a good question and one I hope to be able to answer in a reasonably coherent way.  You see, it also occurred to me in almost that same moment that the kinds of transitions we make as our hearts are converted and our lives transformed can also go unnoticed until something happens to catch our attention, to jolt us into an awareness of how God has and continues to work in us. I believe the Holy Spirit is wily, wild, and wonderful, as well as willing to work her wonders in us and in God’s world in ways that may or may not be obvious at the time.

I know, too, there are people who can pinpoint the exact situation, the very moment they were aware of God’s presence in their lives.  They have the kind of experience that Saul had on the road to Damascus and having his dramatic conversion underscored by a name change. Something happens, usually not itself a good or happy thing, God’s presence is felt/seen/experienced, and life is not lived the same after that.

Though not as dramatic as that, I, too, have had a couple of experiences in my life in which my awareness or experience of God’s presence was so vivid it was the faith equivalent of technicolor.   I liken those experiences to that of the father in Mark 9, who desperately wants Jesus to heal his son, who has been possessed by an unclean spirit. The man turns to Jesus for help, believing, or maybe hoping, that Jesus is who Jesus is. Jesus seems to sense something less than complete faith, something less than complete trust.  He challenges the man about the level of his belief, and the man responds with stark honesty, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”  Jesus does and the man’s son is healed. It’s the kind of transformation that has fits and starts, kind of like poor Peter’s way of being first to claim knowledge of who Jesus is: “You are the Messiah” (as we read in Mark 8:27-28) and later, when perhaps it matters most, denying Jesus three times as the Romans seek to execute him.  And yet Peter is the “rock” upon which the Christian Church is built.

Most often, though, it seems converted hearts and transformed lives are a far less dramatic process of knowing we live in the presence of God.  We live our lives with a desire – perhaps known to us, perhaps not – to be open to God, to invite God into our hearts, minds, and lives.  Maybe we maintain a specific prayer discipline.  Perhaps we go to church or are part of a different kind of faith community.  We may be biblically familiar, perhaps even “literate.” We may or may not be content with how we understand God at work in and through us. Perhaps we define ourselves as in some faith-related way, such as religious or spiritual, agnostic or atheist.  Mostly though, we are who we are, living our lives in the way that we do, which is more than enough for God to be God, inviting us deeper into relationship, until one day it happens: something catches our attention and we notice.  We notice that we are not the same as before, not the same as we thought or knew ourselves to be.  We notice in new or different ways that we are loved by God, with love freely given, undeserved, and infinitely ours.

This article was written for the “Keep the Faith ” column of the Worcester Telegram.  It was published on September 1, 2018.

In addition to being the priest and pastor at Grace Church, I am a multifaith chaplain, working since the spring at a hospital, following years of work as a hospice chaplain.  One of the blessings of being bi-vocational in the way that I am is that I have truly profound and sacred conversations with lots of people, very often with vastly different life and religious/spiritual experiences.  I can honestly say that these conversations do as much to nourish and grow my faith and my religious identity as any of my formal training or lifelong religious experience.  In ways that sometimes seem ironic and at other times seem as logical as can be, it is often the time spent with people whose experience, beliefs, and understandings are night-and-day different than my own that I feel my own faith growing, my own identity as a progressive Christian clergy person getting clearer.

I have been thinking about this in the past several days because of a couple of particularly challenging and beautiful conversations.  These conversations, coupled with reading a book I happened across on the bookshelf in my hospital office, have occupied a good amount of space in my personal prayer and reflection.  While I can’t get into the specifics of the conversations, I can share that name of the book, How Do You Spell God?, by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman.  (A bonus: the foreword to the book is by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.)  This is a book exploring the question of similarities and differences between a number of religions and is written for young people.  Although I am still reading, so this could change, my favorite chapter explores some of the different names for God and why the use of these words is important.

Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Hartman introduce the discussion of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian names for God by writing that “each name is a lesson.”  Their point is that God does not need a name but we need God to have a name so that we have a way of talking about God. They talk about the Islamic ninety-nine names for God, each describing some aspect of God.  They talk about the many names given to God in Judaism and the prohibition of saying God’s real name out loud because of the belief that when we give voice to a specific singular name for God, we limit our understanding of God because the words we choose, including names, matter.  They talk about the trinitarian Christian “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as language used to remind us of God transcendent, incarnate, and immanent.  They go on to say, “Some of the names for God help us to remember that God’s love is always with us, even if we can’t see it like we can see each other.  In fact the best way to see the name of God is to look into the eyes of somebody you love.  All the names of God are written in their eyes.”

Each of the challenging and beautiful conversations I’ve had recently have reminded me of how important it is to remember that none of us knows God quite as well as perhaps we think we do, so we don’t always love each other quite as well as God would have us do. I’ve been reminded how easy it is to conflate “being created in the image of God,” a belief shared in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, with a self-righteous and self-important idea that this means we are the only image of God or that God must look, think, act, love, believe, … just as we do.

Perhaps the greatest “weirdly wonderful” (to quote a dear friend and companion on the journey) gift of the time spent with so many people from so many places, literally and figuratively, is that I reminded every day that the best lesson I have learned about God – I’d venture to say the most important and transformational lesson, in fact – is that whatever we call God, whatever we think our religion requires of us to worship God, is that God is love, profoundly simple perfect love. When we accept that gift, the true grace of God’s presence in us and our lives, we are able to share more of that love with each other. And in that sharing, we do move deeper into the heart of God.

This article first appeared in the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram.  It was posted on telegram.com on May 5, 2018.

The Day of Pentecost is one of my favorite days in the church year.  In Western Christianity, it is a special feast day in the Christian Church, coinciding with the Jewish Shavuot (or Feast of Weeks).  The name “Pentecost” is derived from the Greek word for “fiftieth.”  Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover.  Pentecost is 50 days after Easter, and it marks the ending of the Easter season or Eastertide.  In the Episcopal Church, it begins the Season of Pentecost, which extends until Advent, which is roughly four weeks before Christmas. This year we celebrate the Day of Pentecost on May 20th.

Preparing for a special festival service in about three weeks has me thinking a lot about the Holy Spirit.  According to the biblical Book of Acts, a.k.a. The Acts of the Apostles, in what I can only describe as an amazing and fantastic story, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, the first followers of Jesus, as they were gathered together in one room.  Outside was a large crowd of Jewish people from all over, speaking many different languages, celebrating the Feast of Weeks. There was wind and tongues of fire, and the Holy Spirit entered into the disciples. Suddenly they were able to speak other languages and the people gathered outside could hear in their own languages.  As you might imagine, there were lots of questions about this, lots of confusion, as well as lots of astonishment.  Some even thought the experience was the result of drunkenness.  It is quite a story, a better telling of which is found in the New Testament in Acts 2:1-21.

The Day of Pentecost is a day set aside to remember and celebrate the gift of God’s love for all people, not just a select few.  This is a good thing to remember at all times, though perhaps especially in this time when it seems that we are so focused on what makes us different, what separates us.  Believing, as I do, that there is nothing more important to anyone anywhere anytime than knowing that God’s love is for all people, all creation, the Day of Pentecost is truly a special day!

One of the reasons I love this story and this day is that it is only the beginning of what we are told in the New Testament that the Holy Spirit can do.  In 1 Corinthians 12:1-31 we are reminded that each of us has gifts and that all gifts are needed for us to be our best selves and to be in community with each other as God intends for us to be.  Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no Law” tells us how we need to be with each other so that all of us are nourished, nurtured, and thrive.

These fruits of the Spirit are not only gifts given to those who profess belief in Jesus as the Messiah and who claim Christian identity, but are easily recognized as ways of being in community, of caring for each other, that cross all barriers and defy our all-too-human tendencies to see difference.  I do not presume to tell anyone who has a different faith or understanding of God that they must now consider these ways of being in relationship from a religious perspective.  What I would say to people whose faith is different than mine, including no faith at all, is that love, patience, understanding, etc. are not usually the characteristics and ways of being that cause problems in our relationships and in the world.  When we approach each other with love or kindness or gentleness or…, good things happen.

What I would say to those of us who identify as Christian is that we do believe these are spiritual gifts and ways God’s Spirit is at work in our lives today.  Believing those things and choosing to act as we believe, will make a difference in our lives and in the world. One of the lessons to be learned from the Pentecost is that God can work in ways that completely defy our imagination or understanding. Another is that we must learn to speak the language of the Spirit, the language of God’s love, to all people.

This article was written for the “Beyond the Pews” column of the Webster Times.  It was submitted on February 22, 2018. It was published on March 2, 2018.

I don’t fancy myself a writer, though I do enjoy the occasional writing I do for this and another newspaper.  I find that I look forward to setting aside a bit of time to gather my thoughts and to put them together in a way I hope is readable, even for folks who do not consider themselves religious, or folks for whom faith and religion is understood and expressed differently than it is for me.  Whenever an article I write is published, I have the blessing of conversations with people who want to talk about what I wrote.  Sometimes these are conversations with people who agree or say, “good job.”  Sometimes these are conversations with people who disagree and wonder what I could have been thinking.  They are all good.

Imagine my surprise, then, that I have had such difficulty gathering my thoughts to sit and write this article.  It was only this morning that I realized why. As I was scanning through Facebook, I saw a couple of videos of some of the survivors of the Parkland shooting: one a father and brothers of a young woman shot dead speaking to the President and another of a CNN town hall where students sang a song they had written about the shooting and their amazing, resilient response.  It was then I realized I couldn’t sit and gather my thoughts because my emotions have been blocking the way.

There has been an incredible disconnect between my mind and my heart.  The grief and sadness, the anger and frustration, the horror and the disbelief, the fear and shame, the feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness, have converged into what I can only describe as a “writer’s block.”  And then, encouraged by young people who are younger than even my youngest child, who turned 18 on the very day of this mass shooting, I remembered who and whose I am.

In that moment, the block crumbled, it fell away. I remembered that I am not one who writes essays with ground-breaking insights or calls to action.  I am a middle-aged woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I am a priest, a pastor, a chaplain. I am a neighbor, a citizen. And I am so much more than all of those things.  I am a child of God, loved beyond my wildest imaginations.  It is from that place – the created-in-the-image-of-the-loving-just-compassionate-merciful-creative-God-who-breathed-life-into-me place – it is from that place I get my voice.

This is also the place from which I get free will, which is the choice to speak or not speak, to act or not act, to go along to get along or to follow the example of the young people of Parkland who have said, “Enough! This will be the last mass shooting.  Look at us!  We are your children. You owe us real action, real change.  Enough!”  This is the place from which I get to choose to figure out how I live more fully into my faith, my call to be a part of “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion, and hope” (to quote my wise and wonderful bishop, Doug Fisher).  It is the place from which I glean another new bit of my call to ordained ministry, of my ordination vow to be” pastor, priest, and teacher,” and to “proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

This morning as the writer’s block crumbled, it took with it any reticence I have had to take a clearly public stand about one of the most compelling social justice issues of our time: ending gun violence through stricter gun controls.  I realize as I write this that the young people of Parkland have given me a gift. Through their example, I am in touch with a part of me that had been softened through time, tempered by life experience and an ill-placed sense of maturity.  I am more in touch with the outspoken and ardent teenager I once was, the young woman who believed in the power of community and of righteous indignation as means to change the world.

I hope and pray I don’t squander this gift. I hope and pray I am up to the task to answer more fully the call to live as Jesus lived, with courage and boldness in the face of social, economic, and political power, upheld by the knowledge that, just as I am beloved of God, all people are beloved of God. I hope and pray I continue to understand this as a call to action to add my voice to the countless others who are doing this sacred and holy work.

I look forward to the conversations I know I will have, some with people who agree and say, “good job,” and some with people who disagree and wonder what I am thinking.  The conversations will all be good because we will be talking and listening to each other, rather than hunkering down in our own little corners talking and listening only to people who think like we do.

This article first appeared in the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram.  It was posted on telegram.com on January 5, 2018.

Today, January 6th, many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.  It is the day commemorating the arrival of the magi, commonly known as the three wise men, at the stable where they meet the infant Jesus.  We are told that these men, perhaps astrologers and the scientists of their time, were guided by a star from a place west of Bethlehem. It would have taken many days, which explains the time between Christmas and this day. In many churches, the wise men are an integral part of the Christmas story, which then, in essence, is a combined story of the Nativity and the Epiphany.

The story of the magi is important in and of itself.  Their story is our story.  It is the story of how real people, going about their daily lives, allow their curiosity, their innate awareness of the need for something beyond themselves, to lead them to an encounter with God.  And in that first encounter they are changed.  They and their lives are transformed.  The grace they received is grace extended to all of us.  It is meant for all of us.  It is freely given and undeserved. It is, as the saying goes, “ours for the asking.”

I sometimes think this is one of those situations in which the warning, “be careful what you ask for” is warranted.  Opening one’s heart, mind, and life to this grace, to the transformation that results from accepting this gift, means letting go of some of the control so many of us want to have.  It means giving up, or at least loosening our grip on much of what the world tells us is important. To quote the author Annie Dillard (in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters):

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?… It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we all should be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Now, I don’t believe in the sleeping God, though I do think often we are unaware of God’s presence at work in and through us.  I believe absolutely – in part from the witness and testimony of others and from my own experience – that God will and does “draw us out to where we can never return.”  This is the meaning of transformation: to be changed in ways that are self- and life-altering.

In Romans 2 we are told: “Do not be conformed to this world,* but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.*”  When we accept the gift of grace, whether that be through belief in the incarnate God or a focus on the Resurrection, or through some other knowledge and experience of the Divine, we accept also the likeliness that we will be changed, that our hearts and minds will be transformed.  When that happens, all bets are off as to the ways we begin to understand what it means to live faithfully and, hopefully, how it is our faith should shape how we behave in the world, rather than vice versa.

The Nativity is not a story about God’s inbreaking into a perfect world filled with perfect people. It is the story of God’s inbreaking into the world as it was, home to a diverse multitude of people, imperfect people, flawed people, broken people.  One of my favorite parts of the story is that God entered the world in a new way, in the person of the infant Jesus, as people were going about their usual business, not doing anything special.  Mary and Joseph were being good citizens, making their way to be counted in the census.  The shepherds (and the sheep) were doing what they do.  Even the angel, whose appearance defies the norms of our day, is doing what angels do.  So it is with the magi. They honor their curiosity as scientists do and follow a star, and their lives would never be the same again.  And that, my friends, is an opportunity that is open to all, whoever we are, wherever we are.

This article first appeared The Yankee Express.  It was published in December 2017.

When I think about Christmas, about what it means beyond family gatherings and gifts, food and festivities, I have a deep and abiding feeling of Love.  This love is the source of all joy, of all hope, of all peace.  Christmas is the in-breaking of God into the world, in the form of the infant Jesus.  Sometimes I think what amazes me most about this truly amazing story is that God came into the world as it was.  God lived with people as they were.  God didn’t wait until people were all well-behaved and properly reverential.  God came into the world as it was, with people just like you and me.

This inbreaking of God into humanity, into you, and into me, brings with it the irrevocable, unconditional, eternal promise of God’s love, God’s peace, God’s mercy, God’s justice.  My hope for you, for me, for all people, is that we are able to accept this most profound and yet simple gift of God’s grace, freely given and undeserved.

We would love to have you join us at Grace Episcopal Church in Oxford.  We have two Christmas services: Christmas Eve at 5:00 pm and Christmas morning at 10:00 am.  Our regular weekend worship schedule is Saturday at 5:00 pm and Sunday at 10:30 am.  We have a weekday service on Wednesdays at 9:30 am. At Grace Church, all are welcome, especially you!

This article first appeared in the “Beyond the Pews” column of the Webster Times. It was published on November 24, 2017

On December 3rd, the Episcopal Church, along with many other Christian denominations, enters into the Season of Advent.  Advent is a solemn season, one of reflection and preparation.  Contrary to popular understanding, Advent is not about preparing for Christmas.  Preparing to celebrate the birth of the incarnate God is a part, an important part, but it is not the whole of it.  In Advent we are preparing to meet the Risen Christ, to participate more fully in the Reign of God, to celebrate the realization of God’s Kingdom.

Advent is a bit of a paradox, I think.  It is both preparation for a “now” and a “not yet.”  We know that the birth of Jesus was God’s inbreaking into the world in a way that had not been before, and has not been since.  The Christian Christmas is a celebration of that reality, of God’s grace given to us in the life and ministry of the man, Jesus.

As part of the Christmas story we hear of God’s choosing of Mary to give birth and of Mary’s humble and open-hearted acceptance of God’s will.  We hear of Joseph’s willingness to cast aside his doubts about Mary and to enter into marriage with her, even though no one would have blamed him for walking away.  We hear of angels and magi, of bright stars and precious gifts.  We hear of people throughout the land understanding that this infant, born in humble circumstances, is no ordinary baby. We seek to model our faith, our lives, on these examples.

The birth of the incarnate God was and is cause for great celebration.  Jesus the Messiah, Prince of Peace, Light of the World, born to change the world in ways we continue to try to understand. Even some of those who do not know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, such as our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, know him as a great prophet and teacher.

By God’s grace the world was and continues to be changed.  Jesus the man challenged those with whom he lived to live differently, to love differently, to invite the Spirit of God into their hearts and minds so that God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s compassion, God’s mercy, God’s love, would become their hope, transforming them and all the world.  We know these things. We are grateful for this knowledge.  We know and are grateful for these things now.  Christmas is a “now” celebration.

Jesus the Christ, whose Holy Spirit moves in and through us, continues to challenge the world in this way, always inviting us deeper into God’s heart, the place of true transformation. We know these things. We are grateful for this knowledge.  We know and are grateful for these things now.  Easter is the “now” celebration of these things.

And yet there is more to the story.  Advent is a time of preparation for the fulfillment of the Christian Scriptures, of the Second Coming of Christ.   Although we are told that this time is coming, it has not yet come.  We cannot know exactly what this will be, at least not in the same way we know what the first Christmas and first Easter were.  While we are grateful for the promise of what is yet to be, we are grateful in anticipation, because we cannot know when or how the full manifestation of the Reign of God will come.  And we are told that we need to be prepared whenever or however the promise is fulfilled.  Advent is the season in which we are to be intentional in our preparation for the “not yet.”

We do this year after year, in hopeful expectation. Those of us who mark the year with the liturgical seasons relive each year God’s work in the world from the beginning of time through to the time we cannot know.  We celebrate Christmas and Easter as world-changing signs of God’s grace. We do that in the reading of our Scriptures: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  In the Episcopal Church we make changes to our liturgy (worship).  Some of our prayers change. Our hymnody is different, with lyrics that speak of waiting and preparation, and with melodies and harmonies that evoke a feeling of anticipation.  We decorate in purple or blue.  These changes in the rhythm of our life together, in the ways we pray and stimulate our senses to open our hearts and our minds, remind us that there is more to the story of how God has, is, and will continue to work in and through us.  In Advent we celebrate and prepare for the great “not yet.”

This article first appeared in the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram.  It was posted on telegram.com on September 29, 2017.

When I was asked to write for this column, I wondered how what I might contribute would be helpful to those who are not in my usual “sphere,” i.e. not in my parish or the other circles in which I travel.  I worried that my particular understanding of faith and life, including God, would not resonate with those for whom faith and life and God are experienced differently, perhaps in truly significant ways.  And then a friend (everyone should have a least one friend who can do this) gently suggested that I “get over” myself and that I stop “overthinking” the invitation and just be who I am, as I am, which as he reminded me, is good enough for the God I know and worship, and has proven in my over half century of life, to be good enough for at least a few others as well. So I accepted the invitation, somehow understanding that my contribution likely would be in sharing my understanding of a radical love and hospitality that I experience through my particular progressive Christian faith tradition, but which certainly can be understood in many different ways, using different language, and filtered through a variety of life and faith experiences.  My contribution might not be original or ground-breaking thinking, but it would be honest and real, and as true as I know how to be.

Today I share with you words I first shared with my parish a few weeks ago in a weekly email called “Greetings from Grace.”  So, these words definitely are not original, though they continue to resonate with me in slightly new or expanded ways as I have conversation after conversation about them with parishioners and other important people in my life.

“I don’t know about you, but when I read or listen to the news, my heart breaks. Between the political and policy decisions that seemed designed to exclude and humiliate some of God’s children, the acts of terrorism that seem now to be so common they almost escape notice, and the devastating weather events across the world (hurricanes and floods, mudslides and wildfires, earthquakes and…), it is hard to imagine a way forward. This may be especially true if you or someone you love is in harm’s way, whether that be harm from the weather or from the actions of others. Although I don’t have “the answer” about how to solve the problems we face, I do want to say two things:

* it is true that God is present with us in all things, including our suffering, and

* suffering is NOT God’s plan for anyone anywhere, period, end of story.

I offer these words because this week I have heard more times than I can count that the hurricanes and floods, mudslides and wildfires, and all manner of other natural events are God’s way of sending the world a message. I have also heard people claim Christianity justifies their mean-spirited and hateful acts. This message: that God would cause heart-wrenching pain and suffering as a way of proving a point (or wants us to do so in Jesus’ name), breaks my heart more than all the awful news combined. If you hear me say nothing else ever, please hear me when I say this: God is love and only love, and God’s plan for us is that we know that we are loved unconditionally beyond all human comprehension and imagination, and that we share that love with one another. There is nothing about God, nothing in God, nothing from God, nothing honoring God, that is designed to cause pain or hardship to anyone anywhere, period, end of story.

These are not just words pulled from nowhere by an admittedly socially, politically, and theologically progressive clergy woman.  They are rooted in my own experience of moving deeper and deeper into the heart of God – often most noticeably through the trials, tribulations, and trauma that seem so impossible to separate from being human.  They are rooted, too, in the graces that abound through walking with others as they undertake their own journeys, whether walking as family member or friend, pastor or chaplain.  And they are rooted in my Scripture, which includes the awesome stories of God and God’s people as found in the Hebrew Scriptures, Apocrypha, and New Testament.  Of the many roots in Scripture, here is one of my favorite, Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Perhaps these words, or some other words from your sacred and holy texts will provide you with comfort and hope for this day and the future.

This article first appeared in the “Keep the Faith” column of the Worcester Telegram.  It was posted on telegram.com on July 21, 2017.

I had a heart-warming experience a couple of weeks ago.  I was walking down Main Street in Oxford, on my way from the church to get a cold drink.   Most days when I am in Oxford I look like a priest.  I wear my clerical collar because most days I am in town are days we “have church.”  The black shirt and white collar get lots of attention.  I have been known to say that it is a little bit like wearing a billboard.  People see it.  They are curious.  They ask questions.  They offer opinions.  It says something.

Anyway, on this day, I was casually walking the couple of blocks to the convenience store.  A man I’d never met, and haven’t run into since, stopped me and said, “Hey, Pastor!  You’re the new pastor at the stone church, right?” I said I was and, before I could ask him his name or say “hello” or anything else, he said, “So is it true?  Is what it says true?”  Is it really true?”  I’ll admit it took me a second or two to realize that he was talking about the sign in front of the church.  We have one of those signs in which the message can be changed.  For much of the time since I arrived in March, it has said, “Come meet Rev. Paula” followed by a message that is there almost always, “All are welcome…Especially you.”  I realized that this man was curious, wanted to know – I’d venture to say he needed to know- these words are more than words.  My guess is that he needed to know that he would be welcome, though I did not have the chance to ask him because he said, “Good!” and went on his way after I said, “It is true.  We welcome everyone. We’d love for you to come.”  I wish I had more time to talk to him.  I hope and pray I see him again, at church or on the street.  I’m curious about what caused him to stop me as he did, to ask the question he did.  I’d like to know if the answer I gave him was enough and if there is anything else he’d like to know.  But mostly, and in a big way, I’d like him to know that the invitation stands, that he is welcome to come to Grace, whenever he wants, as often or as infrequently as he wants.  He is welcome to come out of curiosity or need, to be fed or to feed.

Those words on the sign are more than just words.  They are a huge part of the mission and ministry of Grace Episcopal Church.  Welcoming God’s children, whether they are confident in claiming that identity or are seeking answers about what it means, is at the center of who we are and what we do.  It is something we do, not out of a sense of politeness or because we are nice people (though we are!), but because this is how we understand what it means to be followers of Jesus, Christians in the Episcopal tradition.  We take to heart and we do our best, always seeking to do it even better, the call to love one another, to love our neighbors, to welcome the stranger.  We are so grateful for the radical love and hospitality that Jesus offered and offers us that we really and truly want to share it with others. We want others to know that there is a place for them, a place where they can pray and worship, a place where they can connect with other people, a place where they can ask questions and perhaps find answers, a place where they can offer their unique gifts and receive the gifts of others.  All are welcome always, whether for a visit or a lifetime.

It is not a perfect place.  It is real and it is honest, always seeking to move deeper into the heart of God. It is a faith-filled and welcoming community of people from all walks of life, at different places on the faith journey. Grace Church is a place in which we come together to meet God, to share in the fellowship of Jesus Christ, and to be enlivened and emboldened by the Holy Spirit to do what we can to make the world a better place.  Grace Church is a place where ALL are Welcome… Especially YOU!