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.

 (http://frederickbuechner.com/content/easter)

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.

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 love blooms bright and wild

This is the sermon from our Festival Christmas Eve Eucharist. If you’d like to read the lectionary, you will find it here.

Madeline L’Engle, Episcopalian, poet, author of many books said, “This is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. If Mary had been filled with reason there would’ve been no room for the child.”   There is something about the image of love blooming bright and wild that resonates deeply.  The resonance is amplified when we think of what it is we are celebrating tonight – the inbreaking of God into the world in ways that defy expectation.  It is a celebration of grace, a gift freely given and undeserved.  The way in which Jesus was born is perhaps the most surprising element of this story, one that his contemporaries would not have expected. 

The story as told in Luke is quite simple, really. The emperor issues a decree and “all” do as they are told.  As Joseph and Mary do as required, the anticipated baby is born.  His birth is handled simply.  Mary and Joseph make good use of what is available to them as they care for their child, even though they know he is the most special of children.   Mary and Joseph do what they have been called to do, without any fuss or bother.   They welcome the incarnate God into the world in which they live, in the ways in which they live.

The shepherds are going about their business in the fields.  An angel appears before them and they experience the shining glory of the Lord.  Now for us, post-Enlightenment people who are used to logic and data-based evidence, an angel appearing might not seem at all rational or reasonable.  But in Jesus’ time, people lived with story upon story of God’s messengers appearing to them, of things like burning bushes and manna from heaven.  Jesus’ birth was foretold by angels appearing to Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph.  The shepherds, though fearful and in need of reassurance, may not have been at all surprised by the angel or the multitude of hosts that suddenly appeared.  In fact, as Luke tells it, once given the message, they leave what they are doing and go to Bethlehem to see what the Lord has made known to them.  After visiting, they return to their fields and share the good news of what they have seen.

And that is what is most remarkable about this story.  That is what defies reasoned expectation.  Jesus is recognized as the Messiah by a group of everyday, ordinary folks who tend the sheep.  If they had held fast to the stories of their faith, they would not have expected the Messiah to be born as he was, even though Joseph was descended from David.  Kings were kings and Lords were lords, and everything in their daily lives would have primed them to expect a more regal, more obviously powerful man to be the Messiah.  It doesn’t even seem likely they would have had any expectation that they would ever be able to see the Messiah up close and personal.  It’s more likely they would have expected more of what they had with Herod and Augustus: decrees and the like.  Instead, they are personally invited by an angel to meet the Messiah where he lies in a feeding trough tended by his every day, ordinary parents, people no different than they are. 

The Messiah is born in the most common of circumstances. His parents and the shepherds called to meet him welcome the incarnate God into the world in which they live, in the ways in which they live.  The “good news of great joy for all the people” is that God enters the world as the world is for most people, not a select few.  God does not choose power or money or influence or prestige.  God chooses everyday, ordinary people to be the bearers of the news that literally changed the world for ever and for all time.

When I think about that – God entering the world as it is, which means God with me as I am – not as I would like to be – and God in a world that seems so irrevocably broken, I sometimes have to stop and catch my breath because it seems so unreasonable, so irrational, and yet it is the most simply profound, joy-filled truth of all time. 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, God’s hope.  It is the incarnation of a love that knows no bounds, that blooms bright and wild.  It is a love that defies reason and expectation.  This is the sacred gift of God’s truth:  that we – all people – are loved fully and perfectly just as we are.

My hope this Christmas is that we welcome fully the love that blooms bright and wild for all of us, in all of us, and that we come to live more fully as God intends, loved and loving.  This “son given to us,” the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” was born into this world for all of us that we might experience the light and embody endless peace.  May we have the courage of Mary and Joseph, the curiosity of the shepherds, and the faithful confidence to share this unbelievably Good News with all people.

Blessed to be a follower

This is the manuscript from my sermon today. It is, essentially, the product of my preparation for preaching. I preach from the aisle and there is no denying the Holy Spirit moves a bit differently in that space than she does in my study in front of a computer. Still in all, this is the message shared today.

If youd like to read the lectionary, you’ll find it here. We use Track 1.

I have no idea why, but several times this week I either saw or read about posters of idols on the wall.  You know the ones I mean.  Posters of favorite rock stars or actors, hung on the walls and sometimes on the ceiling.  Back when I was hanging posters, my room was full of posters of dancer Misha Baryshnikov.  Misha in a tour jete.  Misha in tour l’air.  Mischa in an entrechat. Misha on just about any surface.  It got me thinking: if I were to hang a poster today, who would it be?

My choice might be something of a surprise.  I’d hang a poster of President Jimmy Carter. He was the first presidential candidate who caught my notice, a few years before I was old enough to vote. You know me, so some of you at least, would guess that I admire his politics. You’d be right.  I do. But there are other reasons, too. He has done more good in his 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s than most people accomplish in a lifetime.

You might know that I have a bulletin board above my writing desk. On it I keep quotes, which are usually about things I need to remember. I have a couple of quotes from President Carter, including:

“I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.” 

If these words sound familiar, it may be because I quoted them in my sermon last week when I talked about using all that we have to do good in the world, claiming our action as part of our Christian identity.

You see, it is not his activism or his politics that would cause me to hang a poster of him on my wall. It is the root of his activism, his core outlook on life and faith that moves me most.  Jimmy Carter is one of the most faithful and faith-filled people I “know.” I am amazed and humbled by his example of embodied Christianity, his model of Jesus-focused discipleship.

When I hear him talk or read something about him, I can imagine him listening with his whole self to Jesus’ invitation:

            “Will you come and follow me?”

I can imagine him saying, “I will follow you wherever you go. I will follow you wherever you lead me, Jesus. I will follow you to places I don’t necessarily want to go, to be with people I don’t necessarily want to meet, to do things I don’t necessarily want to do.  I will follow you, Jesus. I will follow you wherever you lead me.”

Today’s Gospel can be a hard one. Is Jesus really saying that burying one’s father is not important? I know how problematic that can be.  I invite you to think about it a bit differently.

Could it be that Jesus recognized this request: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” as an opportunity for this man to move himself far enough from Jesus that the power of the invitation was lost. This invitation to transformational relationship would be forgotten in the details of daily life. I’ll be honest. I choose to believe that Jesus was responding to this eventuality, this likelihood.

Jesus knows that this invitation: “Will you come and follow me?” is not a simple or easy one. It may, in fact, be one of the most challenging invitations we will ever receive. It is one that, if most of us thought too deeply about, would send us hurrying in the opposite direction. It is, I dare say, one that many of us, myself included sometimes, would rather not examine too deeply.

And, yet, it is the most amazing invitation anyone could ever receive. Following Jesus, living into our call to Christian discipleship, requires that each of us be open to life-altering changes. Jesus does not -never has – invited us to comfortable discipleship.

The invitation is not to venture out of the comfort of our homes each Sunday morning to walk or drive to this beautiful building on this lovely parcel of God’s creation, to sit with people we love and people we like, to offer prayer and prayers, to seek comfort and strength, to be nourished by the fellowship of the Table. Don’t get me wrong. That is a part of the invitation, but only a part.

The true invitation is to take the chance to let your heart be opened, to let your very life be changed. It is about doing God’s work in the world, seeing God’s people as God sees them, perfectly made and loved by God.  This is not always easy.  Even those of us who venture out to do God’s work need a bit of encouragement and help to see as God sees.  For even the well-intentioned seeing of someone as a person who “needs help” means we are not seeing that person in all fullness, recognizing that person as God would have us do, as one of God’s unique and thoroughly beloved children.

Sometimes the challenge is in letting go of things we think we know about ourselves so that we have the space to see ourselves as God sees us.  A good example of that (to me and, I hope, to all of you) is how we ended up on this journey together.  If you had asked me five years ago if I would leave my life in Massachusetts to move to Millburn, NJ, I’d have dismissed the possibility out of hand.  To leave family and friends, to ask my husband and children to do the same, to leave behind the ministries I’d loved and nurtured since before I was ordained, would have been outside the realm of any likelihood.  And yet, here I am.  Here we are, discerning together how God’s Spirit is working in and through us as we seek to follow where Jesus leads.  

“Will you come and follow me?”

Will you live your faith with your feet, venturing into unknown places? Venturing into places you know you’d rather not go?

Will you live you faith with your hands, providing food for the hungry and clothing to poor? Medical care for the ill? Safety for those fleeing violence? Building houses for the homeless?

Will you live your faith with your heart? Will you offer a listening ear to one who desires to be heard? Will you offer your company to one who desires to be noticed? Will you do your best to see that person as God does?

And, yes, will you reach into your pockets and share your treasure as a sign of faith? Will you give generously to those causes that enable God’s justice and mercy to be enacted in our days?

In our tradition we have an understanding of saints as being those people who live their lives as extraordinary examples of embodied faith. They show us ways to live more deeply into the heart of God,as followers of Jesus. This is something we all can aspire to do. This is something we all are invited to do.

I’ve shared that Jimmy Carter is one of the people who challenge and invite me to live my life as a follower of Jesus, to accept with joy Jesus’ invitation to me. Perhaps you, too, have a “poster person,” someone who is an example or inspiration to you, someone you can look to for encouragement when accepting Jesus’ invitation seems too hard or unexpected.

Whether or not you do, or even want to, I encourage you to listen closely for Jesus’ invitation to you,

“Will you come and follow me?” I encourage you to answer with a resounding,

“Yes! I will follow you, Jesus. I will follow you wherever you lead me. I will do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”

I encourage you to let Jesus into your hearts and minds, into your lives wherever it is, however it is whenever it is, with whatever it is, that Jesus asks. I invite you to take that leap of faith to trust the Jesus will only lead you to the place you need to be to experience transformation and to move deeper into the heart of God.

The holy mystery of love

This is the manuscript from my sermon today, Trinity Sunday. It is, essentially, the product of my preparation for preaching. I preach from the aisle and there is no denying the Holy Spirit moves a bit differently in that space than she does in my study in front of a computer. Still in all, this is the message shared today.

If you’d like to read the lectionary, you’ll find it here.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day we celebrate God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God transcendent, incarnate, immanent. Trinity Sunday is a day in which preachers are wise to exercise great caution. Although a core tenant of our faith and something we say and pray all the time, the Trinity is not all that easy to understand. Thus, it is not all that easy to preach.  It is a topic on which it is easier than most to veer into heresy – those statements about the nature of God that do not, despite the best intentions, adequately or accurately explain the Godhead.

There is a fun Youtube channel called, “The Lutheran Satire,” which I commend to you if you have any theology or liturgy geek in you. Featured on this site is a bit called “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.” ( You can check it out here.) “Bad” though the analogies may be, this bit contains one of the best explanations of the Trinity:

“The Trinity is a mystery which cannot be comprehended by human reason but is understood only through faith.”

It goes on to reference the creed attributed to the 6th Century theologian, St. Athanasius, who offered the best non-heretical description we have, which includes: “that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.  For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.”

So, one of the most comprehensive, non-heretical, and easiest to understand descriptions of the Trinity clearly is less than clear.  The nature of God defies not only the comprehension of human reason but challenges the capacity of human language.

God bless St. Athanasius for his theological brilliance and for his timeless writing about the Trinity. I mean that most sincerely.  God bless St. Athanasius and all who strive for clarity and deeper understanding of this crucial aspect of our Christian heritage and understanding. God bless them because, despite their theological brilliance, extraordinary ability to lend language to this reality, and best efforts at explanation, we remain confused.

Yet, they lead us to the place we need to be.

They lead us to the place the disciples find themselves in today’s Gospel, wrestling with the question:

How are we to understand life with Christ in the post-resurrection world?

You see, as interesting as it may be, as important as it is, for most of us the question isn’t whether or not we can explain the Trinity. The question that matters most to us as we live our lives is: How does our faith in God always present prepare us and shape us each and every day? How are we motivated and challenged? How are we assured, comforted, and consoled?

In today’s Gospel, part of John’s Farewell Discourse, the disciples are preparing for a crisis of sorts.  Jesus has told them yet again that he will be leaving them. They are scared. They are uncertain. They are in need of assurance, comfort, and consolation. Jesus is telling them, in language that is about as clear to us as is St. Athanasius’ description of the Trinity, that the future they envision and hope for is possible even as they prepare to live life in Palestine without him. Jesus is reassuring the disciples that God has been, is, and will always be present with them, even as they lose their beloved teacher and friend. Jesus is telling them that the real experience of God is not in restricted to life with the incarnate God.

Jesus is telling them and us that life with God is life with God because God is God.

In a sense, Jesus is preparing his disciples to be the people we are. We are people of faith who believe in God’s presence. We believe, not because we experienced the incarnate God up close and personal, but because we know God through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. Jesus is encouraging the disciples to move from believing in that which they can see and hear and touch, the human Jesus, to belief in the immanent presence of God, the Holy Spirit.

So what does it mean to be a people of faith who believe in the God no one of us today has ever seen in the flesh, as it were? We may find ourselves – sometimes or often- experiencing the same kind of crisis the disciples faced. We may find ourselves in need of assurance, comfort, and consolation, though for different reasons. The obstacles we face, the challenges to our faith, come not from anticipating the loss of the incarnate God, but from the consequences of our own flawed humanity, despite our faith or lack of faith.

We are faced with different questions, different concerns, though they are no less compelling. How do we maintain our faith in a world in which there often seems to be so little that resembles God’s dream for God’s people? How does one maintain hope and faith when all around are examples of injustice, violence, lack of compassion, divisiveness? When one hears of examples of such things in the name of God? In the name of Jesus?   For example, how can we bear to hear of pastors calling for the death of some of our brothers and sisters because of their gender and sexual identity, saying it is in Jesus’ name? How do we bear the reality of children being in held in what are tantamount to concentration camps on our border?

It would be easy to take this in the direction of calling attention to ways we can make the kinds of changes in the world that need to be made to move closer to God’s dream for the world. But this is not a sermon about answers. This is about living in and with the questions, embracing the mystery, embodying faith.  It is about understanding that how we live with those questions, reveling in the mystery, informs what we do and how we move deeper into the heart of God.

This is about putting ourselves in a place similar to the place the disciples found themselves. It is about committing to active relationship with God, to life with Christ, in the absence of what we think we might need as reasonable and reasoned people to justify or explain that commitment. It is, in the language of the traditional aphorism, knowing that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

And that is just another way of saying that we believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is one with God and Jesus, whether or not we could maintain that claim in a court of law or in a field of scientific inquiry. We are to trust that relationship with God is not static or stagnant, a kind of theological “one and done.” God has been, is, and will always be at work in the world at all times for all time.

When he wrote about the nature of the Trinity in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis likened it to a dance, with pulsating energy and beautifully intricate, intimate movement.  That description resonates deeply with me, a former classically trained dancer.  When you are dancing well, fully present to the experience, the music, the rhythm energizes you from the inside out. It takes every ounce of discipline you have not to explode willy nilly, to embody in graceful ways the energy and excitement within. It takes on a life of its own deep within and compels you to move with it.

Today is Trinity Sunday and we are celebrating the mysterious, confounding Trinitarian Godhead, who is known to us through our faith. We are celebrating the promise God has made, makes, and will continue to make to be present in the world, to be present with all people, for all time, in ways known and unknown, obvious and less clear.  We are celebrating the grace that is given us to awaken to the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, inviting her to compel us to go into the world to be the best God created us to be.  Jesus and countless martyrs since were willing to die for this truth.  It is the holy mystery of love that is well worth living for.