reflections & sermons

To know what we don’t know

This is my sermon April 23, 2023, the Third Sunday of Easter in Year A. We are using Wilda Gafney’s, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A. The readings for this Sunday were Sirach 4:11-16, Psalm 34:1-14, Hebrews 5:7-14, and John 5:25-29.

We have in the reading from Hebrews a line I find really delightful, but then I have that sense of humor that, when I realize God seems to be saying, “ha, ha,” I laugh out loud.

“About this we have more than a word and it is hard to explain because you all have become slow in understanding.”

What a nice way of saying, “Hey fools, you don’t get it.” We have that line in the letter from Hebrews about our understanding, specifically our lack of understanding, which is followed by, “at this point in time you should know enough to teach all of this.”  And I realized that one of the reasons that I found that line so amusing is, and you’ve heard me say this before, that in my own life I’m now never surprised when I realize, “Oh, you’ve had that wrong for decades.”  I especially enjoy it when one of our kids will ask us a question and, before I can even respond, they give me the answer and I think, “Wow! You are the theologian in this conversation.”

We all have those times when we think we know and then assume that’s the end of it.  Sadly, I think that is how often we approach relationship with God and how we approach an understanding of God.  And I think that is one of the reasons, if not the only reason, that so often people who believe that they are good Christian people, do things in the name of God that are so incredibly hurtful to others of God’s beloved children.  It is about believing that what you know or think you know is the fullness of what is to be known.  You learn something and think that is it for all time.  I learned things in the Episcopal Church 55 years ago that we know, or think we know– perhaps believe is the better term – were likely to be wrong because we have been open to discerning, to inviting the Spirit into our lives.  A glaring example is that 55 years ago I could not be standing here, either as priest or lay preacher.  Fifty-five years ago, women could not serve on vestries.  Women couldn’t do those things because we just knew it wouldn’t be pleasing to God.

We all have these kinds of awakenings.  We have this beautiful reading from Sirach today that basically says, “open yourself to the Wisdom of the Divine.  The Wisdom of God will bring you to wear you need to be, where you want to be, to where God desires you to be.”  It’s about always being in the conversation, always being open to the Wisdom, and that, I think, is one of the reasons the readings Dr. Gafney chose for the lectionary today, the Third Sunday of Easter, are such beautifully relevant readings for the Eastertide.  They are not what we’ve grown up with in the Episcopal Church but they are beautifully relevant, compelling even, because when we realize what we know, what we think we know, isn’t the end-all-and-be-all and maybe we’ve been wrong about it, we get the chance to wake up and have a new understanding.  We get the chance to wake up and have newness in our life with each other and newness in our life with God.  And if newness and life is not an Easter message, then we’ve all got this wrong.

This is about knowing that as much as you think you know about God and relationship with God, it pales in comparison to who God is, how God is, and what God would have you learn about yourself, about being in relationship with other people, and about being in relationship with God.  When we are doing this right, we know that we are changed, that our lives are transformed, and that is not because God is any different today than she was yesterday, but because we’ve woken up to a new understanding, we’ve woken up to something new.

That is perhaps the only reason to have hope for our world today because if we continue to think that the way that we’ve lived for the past couple years, for the past decade, for the past century, is the way God would have us live, we are dying.  We are killing ourselves and each other.  I trust God enough to believe in the eternal life with God, but how we live today is not the life God would have us live as we seek better understanding. 

In the reading from Hebrews we have this line about how we not getting it and then we have the line that we should already know it well enough that we should be able to teach someone else.  I’ll admit that line tripped me up.  I thought “Uh?  What is it I not getting?”  And then I realized if this is an ongoing life of new understanding and deeper understanding of who God is, how God is present in our lives, and how we’re supposed to live, then what we are supposed to be teaching is not what we know absolutely, certainly that God would have us do, today, tomorrow, and for all time.  What we’re supposed to be teaching is this way of opening our hearts and our minds and our lives to whatever it is God will show us next.  And what ever it is, God will teach us how to be more the people God created us to be, and how to live with each other in ways that bring us deeper into the heart of God and invite to participate in the realization of God’s dream for God’s people on God’s earth. 

It’s ongoing – more than just a day-by-day – it’s a minute-by-minute decision to be open to the Spirit moving in us, to be constantly inviting the Wisdom of God to be a part of who are in our decisions, in our behaviors, and in our thinking.  The hope, the incredible hope we can have that this new life in Christ is ours, is right there.  We don’t create the new life in Christ.  We don’t make it happen.  We choose to walk with Christ as we follow God’s Spirit.  It’s all about God’s invitation to the new life and our willingness to say, “Thank you, and I’m happy to be along on this incredible ride.”

It’s Easter each and every day when we make that kind of choice.  Amen.

Easter 2023: To see and be seen

This is my sermon from Easter Day. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Easter was Isaiah 49:1-13, Psalm 18:2-11, 16-19, Hebrews 11:1-2, 23-24, 28-39, and Matthew 28:1-10.

In my family, we have one of those quirky habits that is both annoying and endearing.  My father, my brother, and a couple of uncles and cousins sometimes will respond to “Good to see you,” with “It’s good to be seen.”  Though I don’t see them often since I moved to New Jersey so haven’t heard this in years, it popped into my head when I first read today’s Gospel and then on Tuesday at the clergy Renewal of Vows service when I heard Bishop Hughes preach about people wanting to see Jesus.  Though my family members respond this way to tease, there is some truth, or perhaps there is an expression of desire, in what they say. There is something really life-affirming about seeing and being seen.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, people traveled sometimes considerable distances, across terrain that was not necessarily easy to travel, to see Jesus. It took a real commitment to get from one place to another. Yet people did this because they wanted to see Jesus. They wanted to be in his presence.  When they were seen by Jesus, they were seen for the fullness of who they were. 

I can imagine that at least some of them felt the way I imagine I would feel if I were to meet Jesus –  both really grateful and excited, and also a little bit wary and concerned, because Jesus saw the fullness of who they were.  Jesus saw all of their best traits, their strengths, and their gifts. Jesus also saw all of those things that they might want to keep hidden, from him,  from their family and friends, perhaps even from themselves.

Jesus saw it all. And, yet, Jesus saw beyond their human frailties, beyond their afflictions, beyond their brokenness.  What was more important to Jesus was the image of God in them. And when Jesus saw that, and they were present with him, they were brought to wholeness.

To see and be seen by Jesus meant healing and redemption.  And it didn’t matter how big or small the need, how relatively benign or malignant the sin.  From providing wine to all the guests at a wedding in Cana, to forgiving those who betrayed and denied him,  as well as those who sent him to the Cross, Jesus saw what was needed and offered grace, that gift which is freely given and undeserved.

In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, go to the tomb to see Jesus.  Their need to see Jesus transcends his death, which they have witnessed.  So they go.

The emotion in this story is almost palpable.  As read it, I can feel my stomach kind of in knots, as I imagine I would feel if I went to the tomb to see Jesus. I imagine the fluttering of my heart thinking about what I would do if I saw him, and then looking behind me in great surprise as the messenger of God comes down in this flashy white and says, “He’s not here.” I can imagine all of it from a place of needing to see Jesus.

These women who have followed and supported Jesus in his ministry know first-hand what it means to see and be seen by him.  They understand Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope in a way that may be hard for us over two millennia later to comprehend. 

And yet that does not stop us from seeking to see and be seen by Jesus.  Even though our relationship with him is as post-Resurrection Easter people, their need resonates deep within our souls.

We come together as a community of faith to hear the biblical stories, because they’re our stories.

We come together to receive the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Eucharist to be closer to Jesus, to acknowledge our need for redemption and healing, to be part of the communion of saints,  members of the household of God. 

And then we go into the world to share the Good News of God’s love for all people, in ways that are similar to those who journeyed with Jesus in Palestine and shared in his earthly ministry. 

We do this with the sometimes discomforting knowledge that we are seen by Jesus even before we see him, even when we don’t.

There is something incredibly and beautifully humbling about being seen and known so completely, perhaps in ways that we cannot see or know ourselves, to know that God come to live as one of us and then allowed us to take him to the Cross to die as one of us so that we might be saved healed of our brokenness and saved from our sinfulness.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus greets Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, after they leave the tomb to go in search of him. His greeting to them is “Shalom, “which in Hebrew means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. It is blessing as well as greeting.

It is a greeting and a blessing that encompasses all that he knows that they need, and that we need today.

It is a greeting and a blessing that encompasses the reason for his life, his death, and his resurrection.

It is a greeting and a blessing that expresses the fullness of God’s love for them and for us,and embodies that grace that is freely given and undeserved.

It is a greeting and a blessing that tells us that the Easter promise is being fulfilled.

Amen!  Alleluia!

Triduum 2023, Day 3: Holy Saturday

This is my sermon from Holy Saturday. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Holy Saturday was Job 14:1-14, Psalm 31, Philippians 2:1-8, and Matthew 27:57-66.

This is what I think is the bleakest day in the whole liturgical year.  I venture to say the original Holy Saturday may well be the bleakest day in all of history.  I do believe, as you know, that as liturgical people, people who go with the rhythm of seasons, that even though this is the day before the most glorious day in the calendar and we are all tied up in preparations for tomorrow, it is so important for us to sit and notice where we are on this Holy Saturday.

As I was doing some of that thinking about the rhythm of this week and what today means, it occurred to me that my years as a chaplain, specifically as a hospice chaplain, taught me a lot, and that I knew, but one of the things I learned from that time is that for a great number of people, perhaps the majority of the people with whom I worked, the hardest day was not the day a loved one died.  The hardest day was after you slept and you woke up realizing that life as you knew it was forever changed.  This was the day you needed to start living your life without a person who was important to you, whether you loved and were loved well and joyfully, or whether it was a challenging and fraught relationship.  This was the day you woke up and had to live the changed life.

When I think about Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimithea (and others depending upon the Gospel you read) who go to bed on the Good Friday and wake up the next morning and this man for whom they risked their safety, this man about whom it has become crystal clear that his message of hope and salvation and love and inclusion and all of things Jesus was and stood for was dangerous, exceedingly dangerous.  It was as dangerous as being an insurrectionist and murder, as was Barrabas, who was supposed to hang on a cross but doesn’t, who was freed just before Jesus went to the cross.  They have devoted part of their lives at least, the fullness of their lives I would guess, to be pretty public about their belief in Jesus, who he is, and what his life and his ministry means to the world, or at least their little corner of the world.

Wow!  What a day today must have been.  He’s gone.  You’ve lost this person that you’ve loved.  Your mentor.  Your rabbi.  Your friend.  You’ve lost the person you believed was the Messiah, the one who was going come and bring to fulfillment the promises and covenants with God.  And you have to live this day also knowing that it was dangerous to be Jesus and by extension it is dangerous to live your life as a follower of Jesus, and yet they do.

We have the benefit of these many years of knowing that this statement that Jesus made that he was going to rise again on the third day was more than just bravado, was more than just a way of saying, “You think you can kill me.  You think you can quash these dreams.  You think that this rebellion and this revolution can be stopped, but I’m going to tell you that’s not true.”  We know it was more than that.  We know that this tomb they were envisioning, that perhaps they were visiting on this day, would be empty.  But they didn’t know it.  They had to plan for what life would be like without him.  And given their devotion to him, I imagine that they were having to think about living without him as they tried to their best to live their lives as he would have them to live.

And that’s what I think is to important for us on this Holy Saturday.  For us to envision our life as followers of Jesus, the one whom we believe, we believe in, and, hopefully, have all had at least some little experience of face-to-face.  But the reality is that we are not the people with whom he roamed the Judean and Galilean countryside.  We are not the people with whom he shared an actual meal.  We are not the people who got to sit at his feet, anointing them.  We are not the man who said, “Hey, I just bought a new tomb.  Let’s use it for this man.”  We are not the women who went to prepare the oils and the spices for his burial. 

But that doesn’t make our heart’s desire to be followers of Jesus any different or for us to think about, on this day in particular, what that looks like.  What does it look like for us as we walk from the cross to the tomb and then away from the tomb?  The questions his friends would have had on that first Holy Saturday – that day when they woke up and knew without a shadow of a doubt that life was forever changed because they had lost somebody they loved, the person they committed to follow – those questions are part of our story. And those are questions each of us should be taking a look at, praying with, ruminating on, and figuring out does it look like without the man, beside us, the flesh and blood man.  What does it mean to love Jesus, to be loved by Jesus, and to live our lives as an expression of the phenomenally good news that that is?  Amen.

Triduum 2023, Day 2: Good Friday

This is my sermon from Good Friday. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Good Friday was Judges 11:29-40, Psalm 22, Hebrews 12:1-4, Luke 22:14-23:16, 18-56.

Several years ago, shortly before Holy Week, I listened to an interview on NPR with Nick Hughes, a photojournalist who directed and co-produced 100 Days, a feature film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  There was immense sorrow in Hughes’ story and also a touch of hopefulness about a future in which such things as genocide will cease to be.  Perhaps because we were about to enter into Holy Week, this interview touched my heart in a way few others have done.

Hughes talked about how UN soldiers, aid workers, ex-pats, and others who were there on the ground witnessing the horror did little or nothing to help the people. He said “All of them betrayed the Rwandan people.” He talked about how, when push came to shove, these people put themselves and even their dogs first and left the Rwandan people – people with whom they had been living and working – to be slaughtered.  It clearly was a story of immense fear in the face of political power and authority willing to sacrifice innocent people to make a point – their point. He talked honestly, with the still raw emotions he carried evident, about his part in doing nothing or little to help the people. 

What he did do was his job, which was to capture what was happening on film.  His job as a journalist was not to interfere or change history, even a history as horrific as genocide. 

He struggled to see how what he did as he attempted to bring to the world the reality of what was happening to millions of people made any difference at all.  He agonized over what he didn’t do, which would have been to step outside his job to try to intervene. He conceded there is some hope if, and I quote, “there’s some belief that Rwandans are human beings amongst an international audience.”

In that interview, Nick Hughes was struggling to forgive himself and to believe he is worthy of forgiveness.  He acknowledged he could not go back and change what happened.  He said, “There is no redemption.  You can’t go back.  Those people are dead, and it will happen again.”

I was struck by how his story of genocide resonated with the Passion of Christ.  As we hear the Passion story and put it in the context of what we know about people then and people now, it seems some things have not changed all that much. 

We continue to struggle with how to do what is good, what is right in the face of evil and political power. 

We continue to put our own plans or needs first, even when faced with almost unimaginable crisis, even when others are literally dying.

We continue to act or, in some cases, not act in ways that ensure the status quo, from which we benefit, is not overturned.

We let our comfort and our fear inform and shape our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in ways that are contrary to the Gospel.

And we continue to wrestle with what that means for us as a people.

In today’s Gospel, Judas and Peter – the one who betrayed Jesus and the one who denied him – don’t sound all that different from the UN soldiers, aid workers, ex-pats, and journalists Hughes talked about.   Afraid of what it would mean to them and how it would change their lives if they spoke up for what is right, one betrayed the one person who could truly make a difference, and the other denied even knowing him.

And then there’s Pilate. He clearly did not agree with what was happening but kind of threw his hands up in the air as if helpless, rather than stand up to the crowds.

And then there are the crowds. It hardly seems possible that no one felt or thought what was happening to Jesus was wrong, and yet we see that kind of behavior all the time in this country. How many acts of violence against our black and brown-skinned siblings, our LGBTQ+ siblings, or our children sitting in schools must we witness before we do what is necessary to stop the violence, to save a life?

Even Joseph of Arimathea, who stepped in to care for Jesus after the crucifixion, sounds a little bit like Hughes and the others who told the story after millions had been slaughtered.  Well-intentioned, perhaps, but in no way did their witness make a difference to the men, women, and children who lost their lives.  And yet, the willingness to do these things is not insignificant.  It says something profound about how we see ourselves, perhaps who we hope we could be all the time.

Nick Hughes said there is no redemption in the story of the Rwandan genocide.  What has been done is done; period, end of story.  And that is where the stories of the genocide and the Passion move in such different directions.  That’s the difference between how we see and respond to things and how God is and does.

With Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, there is no “period, end of story.” It’s a story that continues for all time. The hope we hold is that we will be able to experience the promise of the love of God, who would willingly sacrifice himself upon the cross so that we might experience that love and God’s presence in our lives in new ways.  It is through Jesus’ offering of himself that we are able to better understand the immense love of God for each and every one of us. It is through Jesus’ offering of himself that we are forgiven and redeemed.

So today we remember the crucifixion of Jesus. We sit in the sorrow, the emptiness, the bleakness. In the starkness of the prayers and the depth of the silences, we are mindful, perhaps painfully so, of the choice Jesus made to let himself be crucified.  In this we see our worst selves.  This can be hard to bear, yet sit with it we must if we are to fully experience Easter and the opportunity to see ourselves as God sees us, worthy of a love beyond our capacity to fully imagine.    

In the gift of this striking contrast is the hope that we might all make the choices that would enliven, empower, and embolden us to be people who would actively work to prevent harm from coming to any of God’s people at any time, in any place, for any reason. 

And in this gift is the hope that we will all come to know ourselves deserving of forgiveness and redemption.  Amen.

Triduum 2023 Day 1: Maundy Thursday

This is my sermon from Maundy Thursday, We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Maundy Thursday was Exodus 15:11-21, Psalm 136:1-16, Hebrews 11:23-28, and Matthew 26:17-56.

Maundy Thursday is one of those heartbreakingly hopeful days. We have Jesus’ betrayal by one of his friends. We have Peter saying, “Oh, yeah. I’ll stay awake. I won’t deny you.” And we know that doesn’t happen to be true. And we have all the others, the other ten disciples, who are there, and Jesus is saying, “My friends, this is such a hard night. Would you please just be with me? Stay awake with me in my torment.” Even those who knew Jesus best, who loved him, who had given up so much to be with him in a time in which, clearly, it was dangerous to be with Jesus, even those who had made that kind of commitment, couldn’t stay true to it when “the rubber hit the road.” Their own needs, their own brokenness, their own fatigue, all of their own stuff overpowered what it was that they wanted, what they needed, what they knew they had with Jesus.

I think about that because it’s such a great allegory about what it means to be a disciple in 2023. It’s really easy to say, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus. I love my church community. I love God’s people.” And for each of us there’s that point at which something about who we are and what we need prevents us from going that one step closer, that one step deeper into the heart of God, because that’s just who we are. We are not perfect people. We are not perfect disciples. As faithful as we are, it is always an ongoing journey, it’s a work in progress, if you will. I think that actually is more than just okay because it is when we choose to continue to be the work in progress, each time we make that choice we’re choosing to follow Jesus, we’re choosing to be faithful.

But it’s still sad. I’m sure it’s the same for some of you: I keep wishing I could wake up one day and be the perfect follower of Christ, and have all the stuff I have to pray that God forgives me for to go “Poof,” to be gone, because my heart’s desire is to be the perfect follower of Christ. But, alas, humanly made, it is what it is. That’s the heartbreaking part of it.

The hopeful part of it for me, as told in this story from Matthew, is the breaking of the bread. Maundy Thursday is the day we in the church believe Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist. This is the day that Sacrament – which is one of two we have in the Episcopal Church, the other being Baptism – this Sacrament that reminds us that we are a part of Jesus and Jesus is a part of us in a way we can’t fully understand because it is a holy mystery of what it is that we are actually doing when we say prayers over bread and over wine, when we come together and a priest says, “The Body of Christ, the bread of salvation” or similar words. It’s something we can’t understand, yet we know to be true.

As we move through the Triduum, the days between now and Easter morning, let’s us be mindful that there is something truly holy about paying attention to the rhythms of this week, paying attention to the fact that on Maundy Thursday Jesus gave us two incredible gifts: one being the Eucharist, the Table fellowship with Jesus; the other being the footwashing, when Jesus kneels at the feet of his friends and tends to their bodies. We have these two gifts of grace, which we get at the same time as our human brokenness is flashing like neon lights. The cock crows three times and just as Jesus said, Peter betrays him. Jesus says, “One of you is going to betray me,” and Judas says, “It isn’t going to be me,” and then, lo and behold, in comes the betrayer and it’s Judas.

The great hope – it’s the hope we carry through Good Friday and Holy Saturday and into Easter – is that this promise that God has given us to be with us always, to redeem us from our sin, to transform our lives so we become more the disciples of Christ that we would want to be, that promise is right there with us, even as we’re doing some pretty awful things. That doesn’t give us a bye on the pretty awful things, but it does remind us that God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. God loves us because God is perfect. And that is one of the things that is said in this Gospel, “No what I want but what you do.” All of this is, as much as we might want it, is possible for us because God is who God is and God does what God does. These three days remind us of that in a that reminds us of that in a way no others in our history have or ever will. Amen.


This is my sermon from February 26, 2023, the 1st Sunday of Lent in Year A. We are using A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church by Wilda C. Gafney. The lectionary was Genesis 2:7-9, 15-17, 21-25, 3:1-7, Psalm 51; Revelation 22:1-5, 16-17; and Matthew 3:1-6).

So, I’m pretty sure I’ve told you this story before, but I ask you indulgence as I tell it again:

When our daughter, Kathleen, was about 10, she and Ron went to the mall near our house to buy me a gift for my birthday, or maybe it was Mother’s Day.  They ended up at a jewelry store looking at necklaces. Katie wanted to buy me a cross but apparently was getting quite frustrated.  As they both told me later – as did the sales person, who was someone I was acquainted with from the usual parents’ circles –she couldn’t find what she liked. All of the crosses in the jewelry stores in our heavily Roman Catholic area were crucifixes.  Jesus was hanging on the cross. And Katie couldn’t understand why, even as she knew that wasn’t what she wanted.  Finally, she vented her frustration, in what was at that time a pretty uncharacteristic public display of annoyance. 

What she said was, “We’re Episcopalian.  We don’t believe Jesus got stuck on the cross.”

I love Lent.

And I do my best to accept the invitation to a holy Lent that is extended on Ash Wednesday service.  I work really hard to change the rhythm of my spiritual life, my spiritual practices so I can go deeper and broader in some, and I can explore some new or have fun, such as with Lent Madness, with the once-a-year, seasonal practices.  All of that is about how to explore deeper, more life-giving relationship with God.

I love Lent, which is why I was thrown for a loop when I had this thought the other day.

There is a problem with Lent. 

I’d go so far as to say it’s likely a problem with Christianity as we understand it and try to live it.  We get stuck.  We seem to forget that that this is a season about the promise fulfilled.  We act as if there is nothing we could possibly do to make things right – as if this broken world, our messed up lives, our broken and battered hearts are what it’s about, is all that there is.

But what if we stepped aside, what if we stepped outside ourselves and our lives for just a minute? What if we turned around, if we turned back to the garden, to see the promise fulfilled, to see that manifestation of the promise from God that was so frightening, that so threatened the snake that it had to lure Adam and Eve away? 

What if we turned to God and believed in God the way that God believes in us?

Can you imagine what would happen?

No more hunger.

No more fear.

No more pain.

A world in which it was safe for all people to live as God created them.

A world in which we didn’t have to rail against racial violence or systemic injustice and oppression, in which all manner of gender identity and expression was normative, in which guns did not outnumber people, in which we didn’t feel the need to use labels like “female priest” or “Black doctor” or “Asian professor,” because we would really, truly love our neighbors – and we would act like it – no matter if they looked like us or loved like us or believed like us.

A world in which political and economic boundaries would be meaningless because we’d all truly be in it together, so there’d be no attempt to justify war or the forced deportation of infants and children from their families to another country.

A world in which there’d be fresh food and clean water and a healthy planet because we’d value people and creation over profit and power,

the well-being of God’s beloved over our very human and broken understandings of success.

A world in which letting go and letting God would be easier and more compelling than grasping at the empty straws of our brokenness and our rebelliousness, easier and more compelling that holding on so tightly to everything we mistakenly think will bring us peace, will make us happy

This is Lent, the season of preparation for Easter – and not Easter as a one-and-done.

This is Lent, the season in which we seek to better understand what it means to be and live as Easter people.

This is Lent, the season in which we prepare to walk by the empty cross and through the empty tomb to see Jesus and to know differently and more fully what that means for us and for the world.

The problem Katie named in all of her 10-year-old frustrated glory relates to us directly to today.  We get so hung up on a moment in time that moving forward becomes harder than it needs to be. We get so hung up on what seems to us an impossible truth of God’s promise to the world, of the frightening reality that we are created in God’s image to live an Eden-like existence. We get so hung up on our fears that we can’t achieve that, that we cannot let go of our failures, our brokenness, our sinfulness.  We can’t see what lies beyond, and we fail to see the truth, we fail to live the truth, that we were created as part of the promise.

John the Baptist isn’t running around the Galilean countryside in uncomfortable clothes, eating something other than delicious food to hold us in place, with no way out.  He is proclaiming the sometimes harder truth, that we get to choose more, we get to choose better, we get to choose love, and we get to choose love now, not in some distant heavenly place. 

“Repent, for the realm of heaven has come near.” 

Heaven is near enough that we just have to turn around, to turn back to face God and the perfect existence from which we came.  Amen

From humility to grace

This is my sermon from October 23, 2022, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost in Year C. The link for the lectionary is here.

When I was in college, many moons ago, I took a political science course about game theory. To say I struggled with this course is an understatement. I could never quite buy into the “there are absolute winners and there are absolute losers” part of the theory. The idea of a zero sum game, in which when one person wins another must lose the exact same amount never sat well with me. Though I didn’t couch it in theological terms at the time, I realized later that I just didn’t believe that in God’s economy, in God’s vision for the world, that this could be true.

I also realized later that some of my struggle was because I am not a black and white thinker. I love the shades of gray. The gray spaces have always seemed to me to be the fertile places, the places where there is possibility, where there is hope.

In our current political climate, where it seems rudimentary standards of civility have been tossed aside, very many people, including people of faith, proclaim an understanding of what is right that seems so very, very wrong. People who deeply desire to be a part of this amazingly wonderful and sometimes crazy feeling Jesus Movement say things, do things, advocate for things that are totally inconsistent with the way Jesus lived. It makes me wonder how there can be such vastly different understandings of what it means to be Christian, of what defines a Christian value or moral. 

It is a Christianity in which there is an “in crowd” and an “out crowd,” distinctions made based on right behavior or belief, as determined by people who think they have it right. And, if they have it right, anyone who acts or thinks differently must be wrong.

They are Christians, so Muslims must be wrong.

They are white, so people of color…

They’ve been living here for a while, so immigrants…

They are men, so women…

They are wealthy, so those struggling to make ends meet…

They work, so the unemployed…

The list goes on and on…

And that way of thinking, which has nothing to do with Jesus, with the way he lived his life, leads to all sorts of reactions and decisions  an ways of being that underscore difference for all the wrong reasons. This emphasis on the difference that separates results in fear and anxiety and more distancing behavior, and this cycle, too, goes on and on.

Pick up the paper, or listen to a newscast, and you cannot help but come across this. People are talking non-stop about how to control others, about how to get people in line with their way of thinking, of their way of behaving. We encounter people working overtime to erect barriers to inclusion, to unity, to the common good, in order to protect their own positions, their own understanding, their own privilege. This is “in crowd” and “out crowd” writ large.

These are not evil people. These are people like you and me, people who want to do the right thing, who believe they know what it takes,  who believe they have the answers to the questions of what has gone wrong. In big ways and small, we all fall into this way of being sometimes.

Now, you may be thinking that I am reading the Gospel in a particular way – the way I grew up hearing it read, in fact: that the Pharisee and the tax collector are examples of a wrong and a right way to approach God.  It’s the equivalent of a zero sum game. In that reading, the Pharisee is self-righteous and Jesus is saying that he has it all wrong. It is the tax collector, who has it right.

But what if it’s not quite that simple? What if the message for us is that faithfulness is not just a matter of doing the right things v. doing the wrong things? God’s love is not finite. God’s love is more expansive, more generous, more forgiving, more merciful, more just than we can imagine. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is not a zero sum game, and we are not one-dimensional players.

Each of us has a bit of the Pharisee and the tax collector in us. There are ways in which get it right and can offer thanks to God for that, as the Pharisee is doing, albeit gratitude tinged with something of a litany of his righteous behaviors. There are ways in which we realize we fall short and need to ask God’s forgiveness, as the tax collector is doing.

What would happen if we read this Gospel passage keeping in mind that it is part of the larger narrative of God’s love, grace, mercy, justice, and compassion – the source of hope?

Each of us is called to act faithfully and to express our gratitude to God for the opportunity to do so, and each of us has the opportunity to ask God’s forgiveness when we fall short. If we believe in the mind-boggling expansiveness of God’s love, in which there are not winners and losers, but only God’s beloved, humility is key. For it is when we are humble, whether in our faithfulness or when we stray, that we know God is God, and we are not. In our humbleness, just as in those fertile gray areas between black and white, we experience the possibilities, the promise, and the grace of God.

It’s not magic

This is my sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Pentecost, Year C. You can find the lectionary here.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked by one of his disciples to teach them how to pray.  And in what seems like an uncharacteristic response given that Jesus often responds to questions with yet more questions, Jesus teaches a prayer.  And it is a prayer that we pray together every Sunday and which many of us pray daily.

If we were to outline this prayer, it might look something like this:

  1. Praise God’s name.
  2. Pray that everyone gets what they need.
  3. Commit to a way of living in community and discipleship.

As I read this prayer in Luke’s Gospel with the parable, which Dr. Amy-Jill Levine calls, “The Parable of the Pushy Pal,” I realize that, as familiar as this prayer is, as commonly prayed as it is, I am not sure that we always understand what it actually means.   

I also find it somewhat ironic that a parable – parables being known, perhaps being notorious for raising more questions, causing more confusion – acts as a commentary, an explanation, of a prayer that is known and prayed fervently throughout Christendom.

The Lord’s Prayer, as it is commonly known, is far more radical and counter-cultural than we may realize.  It is rooted in the ancient Jewish tradition of praying daily for what you need to shape your so that you are able to live righteously, and that is “faith” as a verb, what we often refer to here as “living our faith.”  It is that kind of faith that we hope to shape. It is something of a roadmap to living our days as God would have us live them to achieve God’s dream on earth.

Jesus is giving this prayer to the disciples, to us, at a time  of political conflict, at a time in which he is working day in and day out to all attention to social, political, and economic injustice, to ensure that everybody gets what they need to thrive. It is offered at a time in which the institutions and religious legalism make it really difficult to reconcile the way people are forced to live with Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.

The prayer starts with a command.  We are to praise God’s name.  We are to ground everything we say and do in an awareness of the sacredness and mystery of God’s holy name, the sacredness and mystery of the Divine.  We are to acknowledge that God is God and we are not.  And that leads to everything we pray after that.

We ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Note that there is an immediacy to this.  In asking that God’s will be done her on earth, we are asking that it be done now, not at some future time when earth is not more.

What we may not understand is that this request is a bit dangerous, at least for those of us who fear the kind of change that is necessary to realizing God’s dream now.  This is a prayer that is all about “us,” all of us, all of God’s children, all of God’s creation, and not about “I.”  Though we pray it personally, we always pray it “give us.”  It’s about building community.

We ask God to give us – all of us – what we need to live each day, no more and no less.  Coupled with the immediacy of asking that God’s will be done on earth, that means that we are praying that all of God’s people get what they need now, as as soon as they need it, not when it’s more comfortable or more convenient for us to do our part. 

This is the choice that the “pushy pal” in the parable is making.  He chooses to disturb his sleeping neighbor because it is the only way he can feed his unexpected and hungry guest.  This man chooses to risk his status as a  good neighbor to ensure that he extends the radical hospitality that Jesus would have him extend.

In doing this, he reminds us that God’s will is not magically achieved.  We are Christ’s Body in the world.  We are Christ’s hands and feet.  We do the work, the on-the-ground work, of ensuring that everyone has what they need.

We then acknowledge that we don’t always get this right.  We ask God to forgive us for our failures and misdeeds.  And we ask this knowing that part of the work God has given us to do is to forgive others for the ways in which they, too, need forgiveness, for the ways they have hurt us and other people. 

Seeking God’s forgiveness while forgiving others is part of the whole.  We need both if we are to be part of the realization of God’s will being done here on earth now.

And then, because we know that in our brokenness we need reassurance that we can praise God’s holy name in all that we are and all that we do, every single day, we ask God to help us stay the course.

This Gospel gives me hope that as people of faith we can make a difference in God’s world now.  I heard this week a description of prayer that brought this home:

Prayer is powerful…Are we living with the understanding that when we pray, God enters into the situation about which we’re praying and uses the work of the Spirit to create real change. [This is my aside:  That is the Spirit who works in and through us.]…

Prayers are aspirational.  They are speaking into existence things that we hope will happen, but do we actually trust that they will?”  (The Rev. Will Ed Green)

I would add to that the question of whether we are willing to risk the kind of change that embodying Jesus’s radical love and hospitality requires.  The Lord’s Prayer is a call to action, which brings with it certain risk that we have to let go of some things we hold dear, some of the ways of living and being with which we are so very comfortable in order to ensure that everyone has what they need.

I am reminded of the adage, “Be careful what you ask for.”  And I pray that God gives each of us the strength and the courage to be a part of changing the world from the nightmare it is for so many, into the dream that God has for it (to paraphrase Presiding Bishop Michael Curry).   Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Wearily working for the good

This is my sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, preached on July 3, 2022. The lectionary is here.

In October of 2020, seven months of living in a deadly global pandemic in a year that also saw an escalation of deadly racial violence and an intensification of truly frightening political maneuvering around such issues as how to care for infants and children caught up in the debate about immigration, I was weary.  I was so weary that I wrote a newsletter message about being weary.  Although it may be the height of hubris to quote one’s own writing, I share that message with you now:

“Beloved Community,

Are you as weary as I am?  Weary of the constant influx of news that reminds you of how broken the world is?  With the seemingly never ending tide of news about war, about conflict? About an almost unimaginable array of ways we fail to love one another as Jesus calls us to do?  About our apparent creative genius in finding new ways to ignore the call to respect the dignity and worth of every human being and the world? 

Even in the midst of a life that is full and rich and good, on this journey deeper into the heart of God with all of you in this amazing community, this week I have been feeling weary.  I have found myself wondering why it is I think I can make any difference at all to address problems that are far beyond my resources and capacity.

And then, as she so often does, the Holy Spirit (“wild and free” as my former bishop says) reminded me that the call to me simply is to be a faithful disciple, to live my life in such a way that whatever I do, small or not, is done with love for God’s people and creation.  It is not up to me to solve the problems, but it is up to me to be a part of the solution.  And that shifted my thinking, lifting the burden of weariness, at least for now.

I hope this message, from the Talmud, speaks to you as it does to me:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

“Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.”

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Peace & Blessings,


You may be wondering why this journey into the newsletter archives. Or perhaps you get it without explanation.  The world seems even more broken today than it did then.  I find myself just as weary, though now often without an awareness of the energy or resources to do the work that needs to be done, even as I understand that work as a call on my discipleship just as strongly as I ever have.

As I’ve rallied for sensible gun laws on the national mall, listened to a man yell, “I’ve got a gun!” and witnessed hundreds of terrified people stampede to escape the threat, I’ve grown weary.

As I’ve watched the January 6th hearings and read the news from the Supreme Court, with decisions that strip the rights of women to control their own bodies; Miranda rights, gun safety laws, and climate change regulations diluted, I’ve grown wearier.

As I’ve talked to my young adult daughter about how scared and despairing she is about the future ahead of her, it’s impossible to believe but I’ve grown even wearier. 

And when I’ve thought about how many times we’ve fought these same fights over the years, I’ve wondered if it is even remotely possible to make the kind of difference that needs to be made. 

I’ve been angry. I’ve been afraid. And I have been wearier, more exhausted than I ever remember being.  There are days I feel as if I am looking up at the bottom of my hope, trying to see a glimmer of light to motivate me to do the work that I’ve been doing since I developed a social consciousness, some 50 years ago, all over again as if for the first time.

And then I read today’s lectionary.  That wily Holy Spirit got me again. This line from Galatians seemed to jump off the page:

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

It was as if the Holy Spirit was speaking directly to the weariness of my heart, reminding me of what I know to be true:  the call to people of faith is to persevere.  Working for the good of all whenever we have the opportunity is an essential element of Christian discipleship.    

It doesn’t matter that the work that needs doing now is work that has already been done.  We work for the good of all.

It doesn’t matter that the resources of a seemingly unstoppable minority of privileged, powerful people can wreak havoc on the lives of a majority of the rest of us.  We work for the good of all.

We advocate for the rights of women and children, immigrants and the poor, people of color and all whose voice is not heard and whose basic humanity is often denied, and for God’s creation.  We grab onto our hope, even if our grasp feels tenuous, less full of hope than it has in the past. 

We do not let the enormity of the world’s grief or our own weariness overtake our faith in the promises that God has made to us and to all people.  Those promises are faithful and true. We follow Jesus, no matter what the rest of the world seems to be doing or not doing. We invite the Holy Spirit to work in and through us, reflecting God’s love and God’s light in all that we are and all that we do. We do this because it is the work we have been given to do. We live our faith.  We persevere. We show God’s love for all people all of the time. Full stop. 

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

revelation in clay

This is a newsletter message sent to my congregation in February 2020. I came across it today and, for some reason, decided to post it here as a reflection.

Beloved Community,

Brother, Give Us a Word – Revelation, by Br. Geoffrey Tristam, SSJE

“God creates with love and tenderness and in God’s image. The imprint of God’s very hand – the divine potter – is on everything he created. This intimacy between creator and created is very important, because the created world – the trees and flowers and birds, the sunshine – even the snow! – have the power to reveal God to us.”

When I was in college – I can’t remember if it was my first or second year – I took a pottery course.  Although longer than 40 years ago, I still remember so much about it.   The art building was in an old barn on the beautiful, hilly campus in the Berkshires, surrounded by wonderful expressions of God’s grace in creation.  I remember walking the paths from my dorm to the barn.  I feel the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet.  I see the structure – a traditional New England barn, wooden and red, with large doors that were inviting me to enter. I feel the warmth of the space on the chilly days and the warm welcoming feel of the hard wood interior that did not feel at all cold or harsh.  I see the warm lights of the space beckoning me back after dusk for some time of comforting quiet.

The feel of the clay is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.  At first solid- hard even- it gradually becomes more pliable as it is worked with a bit of water.  It has a smell, too, which I realized many years later while visiting family in northeast Texas is of the earth.  And the messy process of molding and shaping, of sometimes pounding the clay down to begin all over again, is one that I found deeply meditative.  More than a few times since those days I’ve thought working with clay is something I might like to do more of, though I’ve yet to make the time to do it.

Reading Br. Geoffrey’s words this week brought all of these memories flooding back.  With the wisdom of hindsight and of many more years, I realize that this one course did more for me than satisfy a requirement for an elective. It showed me something of the beauty and power of creation in hands that are not divine.  It makes more grateful each and every day for the divine potter, who reveals so much more than a teenage girl’s somewhat clumsy attempts to create something beautiful.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland