Friday, December 24, 2021

A Girl, a Mother, a Dog, and an Unattended Moment


Christmas Eve / Year C

I want to share with you a wonderful memory which happened over 25 years ago.  I was driving on a two-lane state highway in late September with nothing but time on my hands.  I had a convertible at the time and on this sun-splashed fall afternoon I had the top down and not a single care in the world.   As I made my way north out of town a school bus pulled in front of me.  Now this was in Iowa, were the only fate worse than being stuck behind a school bus is being trapped behind a hog-hauler!  But it was such a beautiful day and I was not in any particular hurry to reach my destination, so I was not upset at the intrusion to my travels.

After about two miles the school bus began to slow down for what would be its one and only stop before turning off the road and getting out of my way.  In the distance, sitting in the grass, I could see a mother and a dog waiting.  The dog (one of those whippet breeds) spotted the bus approaching and came to life.  It spun in circles, wagged its tail, leapt in the air wildly, and barked with joyful anticipation.  As the bus came to a stop the excited canine inched as close to the vehicle as it dared, while the mother sat ten yards back on a grassy hillside. 

A little girl about kindergarten age emerged–complete with book bag, coat, and other paraphernalia–and made her way toward her mother.  The dog, who obviously had not yet adjusted to having the girl be away at school after a long summer of perpetual togetherness and play, ran up to her, jumped all around her, and gave her the biggest, wettest lick on the face you could ever imagine.  Then the two of them ran side by side to the mother who received the little girl into her arms with the kind of hug that could melt away any and all cares.  Arm in arm they began to walk down the long drive that led to their home; the dog beside them, a frenzy contained in a skin of fur. 

With that the bus pulled away (and I with it), but the scene played out before me has stayed with me all these years as vivid in my mind’s eye as the day it occurred.  It seemed to me those few seconds from the time the bus approached to the time the girl ran into her mother’s embrace were as perfect as any could be.  For one instance there was nothing but joy and happiness and peace and love.  In that moment I felt as if I had received a foretaste of heaven because it was so pure and good and it was everything we wish life could be all of the time and everywhere.

The poet T.S. Elliot described an experience like this as being an intersection of the timeless with time where the particularity of place opens onto infinity.  In Elliot’s words, we perceive this kind of event only in momentary “hints and guesses,” and not through the ordinary methods of rational knowledge or sensory perception.  In order to grasp the significance of moments like these for what they truly are, he says we need to rely upon our deeper spiritual nature.  Elliot called these experiences “unattended moments,” and they come to us as surprise, as gift, and as grace.

In 1976, the writer Michael Paffard published a book titled The Unattended Moment.  It is an anthology of writings by people who had what he describes as “brief flashes of experience... so out of the ordinary... they do not seem to fit into our ordinary pattern of experience.”  Like my experience, he says unattended moments are brief, but intense.  Paffard goes on to say,

The unattended moment may come when we are travelling in a train, ill in bed, reading a book or washing the dishes; in the most humdrum surroundings we may be ‘surprised by joy’...  If we have an unattended moment at a concert or in a picture gallery or while reading a poem we are likely to think of it as an intense aesthetic experience.  Similarly, if the moment comes in a Cathedral or at some religious ceremony we shall probably think of it as religious experience.

I think T.S. Elliot would have said the birth of Jesus was an unattended moment where the finite world opens to the Infinite.  There in the manger lay the infant human God.  Could there be a clearer sign indicating in this world there is goodness; there is beauty; there is joy; there is love?  Have innocence and wisdom, vulnerably and power, ever met so perfectly?  Has there ever been an event which has inspired the human spirit as dramatically?  Has there ever been a moment as fleeting as this one that has touched the world as deeply or affected the course of history as significantly?

The Nativity is a sign indicating good will triumph over evil and light will shine in the darkness; in our lives, in our community, throughout the world, and all of history.  Its message says we are loved so deeply no pain, no wrong, no evil, nothing imposed upon us by others and nothing imposed on us by ourselves, can separate us from God’s gentle but true love.

I pondered just how many unattended moments I have experienced in my life, but I can’t seem to figure out if it is many or if it is but a few.  T.S. Eliot lamented “we had the experience, but missed the meaning.”  I am confident the Infinite breaks into the finite all the time all around us.  We are always in the midst of God’s presence and activity, but often fail to recognize it. 

It took an angelic choir to get a few shepherds to investigate the Incarnation and it took a celestial light to garner the attention of a group of magi.  Other than this handful of people, everyone else in Bethlehem missed the meaning of the birth of a child in an animal stall.  It is easy – far too easy – to do.

One final thought about the little girl and the school bus...  The rational part of me informs my romantic side the blissful scene I witnessed between a mother and her daughter was in no way indicative of the entirety of their home life.  Surely they have their share of hardships, fights and unhappiness.  But none of that mattered during the brief respite of bliss I witnessed on that fall afternoon. 

Though it was in no way as significant as the Nativity, the two are similar in one narrow sense.  Both impress upon me what a line from Eucharist Prayer B attempts to describe: “We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation.”  Praise God for such epiphanies, and praise God for this night!  My Christmas prayer for you is this season and all your life will be filled with unattended moments.

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Magnificat


Luke 1:39-55

Advent 4 / Year C

Mary and Elizabeth, cousins, meet.  Both are pregnant through unique circumstances.  Elizabeth is identified as being “old”, most likely in her early 30’s.  Until now she has been unable to conceive.  Her pregnancy is cause for great joy.  Mary is young, probably in her early teens.  While she consents to bear God’s child, her pregnancy is a source of scandal. 

When Mary leaves her home in Nazareth to visit her cousin, it is unclear who knows she is pregnant and how they feel about it.  Those in the know might have included her parents, Joachim and Anne, as well as Joseph, the man to whom she is betrothed.  Perhaps she leaves town to keep her pregnancy a secret, or at least to avoid harsh criticism.  In the years to come, town gossip holds the father of her first child is a Roman soldier.  I speculate Elizabeth may be the first person to view Mary’s pregnancy as a blessing.  Hers is quite a leap of faith.

Mary responds to her cousin’s warm welcome by signing a song – the Magnificat.  Being a so-so biblical scholar, it has always bothered me how a young woman on the spur of the moment could compose such a rich and thoughtful text.  Surely Luke, the gospel’s writer, learns of this encounter from Mary herself.  How, I wonder, does she remember the words of an off-the-cuff song she sang decades earlier?

I puzzled over this this past week and then it occurred to me this is not a “once-and-done” song.  It is something Mary probably sings over and over and over again, perhaps to welcome the new day or as a lullaby before falling asleep. 

Hannah lives eleven centuries before Mary.  Like Elizabeth, she has trouble conceiving a child until God intervenes.  When her son, Eli, is born she breaks out into song – the Song of Hannah.  Mary’s song is very much rooted in Hannah’s.  In fact, the Magnificat is like a Rite 2 version of what Hannah sings.  It is leaner and more concise, but espouses the same theology and ideas.  So Mary has a template to work with.

I also wonder if the song is a work of her own creation, or did someone teach it to her.  Could it be that Anna sings the Magnificat to Mary when Mary is a child?  If so, then Mary’s song is not a spontaneous creation, but rather an expression of something from the tradition of her people rooted deeply in the fiber of her very being. 

And while I am speculating about all of this, let me add one more possibility.  If this is a song Mary sings all the time, then it is something her child Jesus hears again and again, perhaps every day of his life.  Imagine how the Magnificat comes to shape his sense of self and worldview.

From it Jesus grows up knowing his mother feels blessed to have him.  He grows up hearing of God’s goodness and God’s mercy.  He grows up with a sense God cares for the poor, the hungry, and lowly, but shuns those who flaunt their wealth, power, and prestige.  He grows up knowing God has made a promise to his people, a promise God will keep forever.  If you pause to consider Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ actions you will see on them the fingerprints of Mary’s song because he has been formed by it. 

At every baptism, the celebrant asks the parents and sponsors these questions:

Will you be responsible for seeing the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?

Mary’s example of repetition can guide us in how to raise our children and grandchildren in the Christian faith and life.  I always enjoy hearing our children learn to say the Lord’s Prayer in church.  Typically, they are just a little louder than the rest of us because they are excited to be a part of the liturgy.  Think about how knowing the Lord’s Prayer begins to shape and form them for life.

And think about the questions of the Baptismal Covenant:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

What would it look like to rehearse these at home with your children and to talk about one way you lived into some aspect of this during the day?  Again, it would shape and form you and your children in a very specific way.

The only record we have of Jesus’ childhood involves going to the Temple with his family for festival and accidently being left behind.  Beyond telling us Mary and Joseph are not exactly ‘helicopter parents,’ it lets us know Jesus is raised in a faith tradition.  He knows the Scriptures and the stories of his people.  He participates in the rich liturgical life of his time.  And he develops an interior spiritual life marked by prayer and contemplation. 

When we think about Mary we can focus on many different things.  This morning I give thanks for how she raised her son in the life of faith.

Monday, December 13, 2021

John's "So What?"


Luke 3:7-18

Advent 3 / Year C

Growing up, one of my favorite reads was the Guinness Book of World Records.  I loved pouring over the various feats, acts, and oddities it recorded – like the guy who ate 63 bananas in 10 minutes and the person who achieved immortality by somehow downing 134 prunes in 105 seconds (fortunately what happened thereafter the book did not say!).  Then there was a fellow by the name of Clinton Lacey – the Rev. Clinton Lacey – who set the record for the longest sermon ever preached.  He went non-stop for 48 hours and 15 minutes.  I’m not really sure he should be in the Book of Records, but his congregation should!  What do you think, should we try to break his record today?

I’ve said before I consider it pretty amazing I get paid to live with scripture over the course of the week, ponder its meaning and message for our world today, put my thoughts into written word, and have people like you sit attentively to listen to what I have to say.  Ever since I began this wonderful occupation, I have always asked of my sermon several questions: Is it true to the readings?  Does it promote hope and health and faith?  And most important, does it answer the question “So what!”?  Beyond potentially helping you answer a Jeopardy question (He is the author of the First Song of Isaiah.  Who is Isaiah?), what difference does what I say make in your life?  Every sermon I ask myself, “So what?”

Which is a good question to put to John the Baptist this morning because his preaching takes center stage in today’s gospel reading.  Last week I described briefly the arduous journey from Jericho up to Jerusalem.  Basically, it is long and it is rugged and it is step.  The area in the wilderness where John baptized was even farther away from Jerusalem and completely remote, yet crowds made the strenuous, multi-day journey to hear him.  There must have been a “So what?” to what he was saying or no one would have bothered to make that kind of effort to go hear him.

John’s preaching would not have been graded highly by the professor who taught homiletics at my seminary.  Rule #1 is never begin a sermon by insulting your audience.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?”  He continues by dismissing everything about traditional religion they think is important: “Don’t think being an ancestor of Abraham is going to save you.” 

John’s “So what?” is this: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”  Individuals and groups ask him what this might look like.  “If you have two coats, give one to a person who has none.”  “If you are a tax collector, don’t take more money from people than you are supposed to take.”  “If you are a soldier, don’t use your position and power to bully people.”  Basically, John instructs folks to be decent, compassionate, and considerate.  Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing very fancy about it.

What does it say to you that people went so far out of their way to hear a sermon like this?  It tells me the sermons they were hearing in Jerusalem left a whole lot to be desired!

The religious leaders of the day were the masters of religious minutia.  They talked on and on and on about matters of little or no consequence: how many steps one could take on the Sabbath, the correct ceremonial way to clean dishes, appropriate and inappropriate clothes to wear, and on and on and on.  I suspect most people intuitively knew not much of this really mattered.  Other than to the elite religious professionals, their message – focused so heavily on rules and regulations – lacked a “So what?”. 

But not John’s.  His message is rooted in what Jesus would proclaim as the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  It is rooted in one half of what Jesus would teach is the greatest commandment – love your neighbor as yourself.

One of the things that first drew me to the Episcopal Church is its ethos, a part of which is summed up in the notion of majoring in the majors and minoring in the minors.  In other words, we find our unity in the most important aspects of the faith and allow for great latitude in the things of lesser consequence.  Unlike Rome with its edicts from on high which proclaim one size on every matter must fit all, and unlike Protestant denominations which get into dustups over differing interpretations of obscure bible verses, we focus on the core of the faith. 

A document developed in 1886 called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral identifies four things we believe are essential:

· The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the revealed word of God.

· The Nicene Creed as a sufficient statement of faith.

· The primacy of the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Eucharist.

· The historical Episcopate locally adapted to be the manifestation of the Church.

You can find this brief document on page 876 of the Book of Common Prayer.

We Episcopalians cling to something St. Augustine exposed: “Unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials, and charity in all things.”  I suspect most of us here this morning value majoring in the majors and minoring in the minors and I suspect a good number of the folks who went out to hear John felt the same.  How refreshing it must have been to listen to a sermon focused on what truly matters: bearing fruit in your life while being decent, compassionate, and considerate.

And how refreshing is it I am going to finish this sermon 48 hours and 5 minutes before Rev. Lacey finished his! 


Monday, December 6, 2021

A Highway


Barach 5:1-9

Advent 2 / Year C

For God has ordered that every high mountain

and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

I drive on I64 two or three times a month I suppose.  It is a white-knuckle experience, what with all the construction around the Highrise Bridge.  Nevertheless, I am always curious to see how much progress (or how little progress) has been made since the last time I drove by.  As I say a prayer I won’t get sideswiped in the narrow lanes, I dream of the day all the work will be done and a more modern highway will usher in congestion-free travel.  Ahh, someday.

My various walking and biking pilgrimages have given me an appreciation for our road and highway systems.  We drivers have it pretty well off over most other methods of getting around.  When you are walking you are well aware of the obstacles you face.  You know the amount of energy it will take to climb the step hill you are approaching.  You know how treacherous it is to be descending a rocky path on a rainy day when a single slip can spell disaster.  And you know what it is like to be out in the elements – the heat of the sun and the damp chill of blustery winds and driving sleet.  In a car none of these things greatly affect you.  On foot they are constant challenges.

The present-day road from Jericho to Jerusalem is like any modern highway and the elevation change is dramatic.  It is up hill all the way and when we were in the Holy Land a few years ago our bus struggled at times with the grade.  I remember thanking God I was riding, not walking it.  It brought to mind the 121st Psalm, which pilgrims would recite as they made their way to Jerusalem to attend one of its many yearly festivals.  After several days of exhausting walking, the Holy City finally came into sight and there is a good reason it is referred to as ‘Mt. Zion’.  I can imagine pilgrims getting their first glimpse of the road ahead and saying,

I lift up mine eyes to the hills,

  from whence is my help to come?

In other words, “How in the world am I going to be able to climb all the way up there!”

All of this is to say the imagery of building a highway where the hills are laid low and the deep valleys filled in and the rough places made smooth and the crooked places made straight would be especially appealing to folks whose only method of transportation was on foot. 

Baruch came from a noble family and was a loyal friend of the prophet Jeremiah.  In fact, he recorded all of Jeremiah’s prophecies about the impending fall of Jerusalem and subsequent exile.  While in exile in Babylon he added his own writings, which is now known as the Book of Baruch (one of the books of the Apocrypha). 

What we read this morning is such a wonderful, hopeful vision of immanent redemption and restoration. 

Take off the garment

of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever

  the beauty of the glory from God.

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;

look toward the east,

  and see your children gathered from west and east

at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.

For they went out from you on foot,

led away by their enemies;

  but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.

For God has ordered that every high mountain

and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.

As they did then, we also do today – celebrate God’s continual work to restore all people, all things, and all of creation to the beauty we once had before sin and brokenness entered the world. 

Baruch’s vision came to pass not too long after he proclaimed it.  Those exiled in Babylon and those dispersed through the Mediterranean region returned to Jerusalem.  The imagery about the highway was more hyperbole than reality, still, God made a way for exiles to return home.  Thanks be to God.  It is like what G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fairy tales are more than true - not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”  Through Baruch, God promises a way forward will emerge.

But the story does not end here.  When the exiles get back to Jerusalem they find the Temple is destroyed, the city walls are breached, and the gates no longer exist.  The home to which they have returned is in ruins.  Rather than curse their enemies or the God who brought them back, they roll up their sleeves and get to work; first on the walls, then the gates, and finally the Temple.

We live now in a time very similar to what they experienced.  The pandemic has been an exile experience where we have been separated from family and friends, where much of what was familiar is gone.  We are now in the time of return.  Some of us are back, some are on the way, and a few are not yet comfortable enough to begin the journey. 

So much has changed in our society: worker shortages and supply chain disruptions are two of the more obvious new challenges.  Here at St. Paul’s – like every other church – we are labor to get back up to speed.  We have learned once the routine of ministry stops it is not easy to get it going again. 

But never forget God is in the business of restoration and hope.  There are signs of this in our midst.  Today we welcome back our choir and look forward to seeing many of our children after the service who will be outside engaging in a St. Nicholas’ Day Festival.  While we have much work to do, we also have much to celebrate.  I can see and sense God is tending our parish in a way that will help us blossom and thrive. 

Let’s do this.  Let’s make a mental note of where we are today on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, 2021.  What have we lost?  What do we have?  Who is here?  Let’s jot it down and seal it away until the day the roadwork around the Highrise Bridge is finally finished.  And then let’s compare where we are at that moment with where we are today and I suspect we will realize we have even much more to celebrate than we do today.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Finding Hope in the ordinary Apocalypses of Daily Living


Luke 21:25-36

Advent 1 / Year C

How would you like to do what Jan Richardson did for two straight weeks?  When she was in seminary she was part of a group of twenty students and professors who began each day with Morning Prayer and then, sitting in a circle, took turns reading aloud and straight through the entire Book of Revelation.  Slowly, over time and after repeated readings, what began to emerge from the experience for Richardson was a sense of the book’s astounding beauty and power amidst its images of devastation.

It is curious how we always begin the new year in the Church calendar by going to the end.  Today, like all first Sundays in Advent, we encounter apocalyptic visions about the end times… a time called “the day of the Lord” by many of the Old Testament prophets.   The bible is so clear about the beginning… the place where you and I might start the Church year.  We can all quote from Genesis 1:1… “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  And we can all recite John 1:1… “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Even while the bible seems to say a great deal about the end, the imagery and language it uses is not nearly as easy to understand as what it says about the beginning.  Apocalyptic writings play on our fears of the future and fuel our sense of anxiety and dread.  So why start the new year here?

Richardson suggests most people take one of two approaches to the bible’s apocalyptic literature.  Either we maintain an embarrassed silence about it or we approach it as if was a codebook for the end of the world.  When we approach it as a codebook we are tempted to dissect all of the images in order to decipher a solitary meaning.  Emerging from her experience over those two weeks, Richardson suggests a different way to read apocalyptic writings… a way she calls ‘devotionally.’  This approach, she writes, “beckons us to sit with the sacred strangeness of the text until the connections begin to surface, until – its visions of destruction and desire, loss and redemption, ending and beginning – we see those rhythms in our own lives, in the ordinary apocalypses of our daily living.” 

Do you ever think of your own life as being a series of ordinary apocalypses?  Probably not, especially if you think of ‘apocalypse’ the way most people today do: a kind of massive, large-scale catastrophe.  But that is not how the biblical writers used the word.  ‘Apocalypse’ is a Greek word meaning “to uncover,” “to reveal,” or “to make known.”  More often than not, apocalyptic writings emerge in times already ominous and threatening, not to predict calamity, but to assure the readers of God’s care and keep in the midst of conflict.  The apocalyptic images of the bible, when taken as a whole, paint a picture of hope.  They reveal or uncover the potential and promise of new life on the other side of struggle, loss, and death.

When Luke writes his gospel, the Christian community is reeling both from religious persecution and the devastating effects of the Roman army’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  So Luke remembers Jesus’ words stating these things will take place.  What is most powerful in our Lord’s apocalyptic revealing is not the omen-laced imagery or dire signs, but the instruction about what to do when it all unfolds.  You might expect Jesus to say when the fur begins to fly, duck and take cover.  This would be prudent.  This would make sense.  But this is not what Jesus says.  Instead he tells his followers to stand up and raise their heads because their redemption is drawing near.  It is a powerful call to have courage rooted in the hope no matter what happens God will prevail.

Why do we begin the new year by focusing on the end?  Well, it is kind of like one of those movies where the opening scene is actually the end of the story and then the rest of movie shows you how the drama gets to that point.  What God has uncovered to us is the end of the story.  We know how history will end… with Jesus redeeming all of creation.  But before then, we have to attend to the ordinary apocalypses of daily living… those personal and collective moments when we need to remember the message of hope ringing throughout the bible. 

I was privileged in seminary to be mentored by the Rev. Ed Campbell.  In 1996, medical tests disclosed he had a substantial tumor in his left lung and a cancer that had moved to other parts of his body.  In telling the congregation about his condition, Ed said, “I have no idea what this means for me in the future, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.” 

Over the next six months Ed shared his journey not only with the congregation, but also with the whole community through a series of weekly articles he wrote for the local newspaper.  It was a remarkable six months that transformed many, many lives.  In the last column Ed wrote before he died, he described a time he was feeling weak and down in the dumps, but his wife pestered him to get into the car without revealing where they were going.  The trip led to an ice cream cone and watching a fantastic sunset.   Here is Ed’s reflection on such an ordinary moment, which he initially resisted:

The message I’m looking forward to every day of my life, from this moment on, is that there is joy everywhere, if you just look for it.  Or, to say it another way, God is always around.  He is always in the business of redeeming – that is, of turning what looks like a crummy deal into a real possibility.

Jesus might have said to his followers “a real crummy deal is coming your way, but when it does, take heart, stand up, raise your head, because a new possibility is on the horizon.”  By faith we know this to be true about the end of all time.  By experience, we also know it to be true of the ordinary apocalypses of our life.  There will always be a crummy deal coming your way.  Not a one should come as a surprise.  But what we need to know, what we need to expect, and what we can surely count on. is God will work out something wonderful through it, if we are open to God’s presence. 

This is the message we begin the new year with.  There will be some tough times in the days ahead, but God is going to turn each one into real possibilities.      

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Origin of Christ's Kingdom


John 18:33-37

Proper 29 / Year B

The Rt. Rev. Bill Curry, retired bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Connecticut, has found a unique way to occupy his free time.  He travels the country in his Toyota Highlander pulling a trailer which is equipped to function as a mobile blacksmithing forge.  His project is to express the biblical verse Isaiah 2:4 in ways both practical and symbolic.  Is the passage not coming to you right away?  “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”  Curry does this by melting down guns and turning them into gardening tools.  Some of the weapons have been confiscated by law enforcement while others have come to him through buy-back programs.  Curry is a founding member of a non-profit called Swords to Plowshares Northeast.  Since 2017 its members have melted down over 800 guns.  You can even purchase their gardening tools from the group’s website.

Sadly, the motivation for this ministry has its roots in violence.  It is a response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut nine years ago next month; an unimaginable tragedy which left 20 children and 6 adults dead.  It remains the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in our country’s history and, in addition to motivating Bishop Curry, has spurred continued debate about gun control, background checks, and mental health programs.

One aspect of the debate relates to violent crimes.  While it may not seem like it, the murder rate in 2020 was actually half what it was in 1991.  This leads some to assert we are actually safer now than 30 years ago.  But for those of us born before 1963 (Boomers), violent crime today is four times higher than when we were growing up.  Our children and grandchildren are four times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than we were at their age.  And while we might be safer now than three decades ago, historically, violent crime consistently has been higher in America than in other developed countries, significantly higher.

All of this may seem out of place on the last Sunday of the Church Year as we celebrate the Kingship of Christ, but violence and truth are at the heart of the cagey responses Jesus makes to Pilate’s questions and statements in today’s readings. 

“Are you the King of the Jews?”  Well, in Jesus’ time kings came into power through acts of violence either by attacking and overthrowing other kings or though assassination or by inheriting the position and securing their reign by executing enemies and rivals.  Kings, in Jesus’ day, were notoriously violent thugs with little or no regard for the people they rule.  “My Kingdom is from this world” (or maybe better, “of” this world).  If it were, my followers would fight for me.”  Jesus did not come to Jerusalem to battle it out with Pilate or Herod in order to become the king a specific area or people.  His Kingdom is different from that.

“My Kingdom is not from here.”  In other words, it is not going to come about and be secured in the way earthly kingdoms are.  Don’t think for a second Jesus is saying his Kingdom is in heaven and has nothing at all to do with this earthly realm.  After all, he taught us to pray daily for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus’ Kingdom has a different origin than Pilate’s rule and its scope is much, much broader and deeper than anything an earthly sovereign can achieve.

If it does not originate from violence, then how does it come about?  Jesus tells us how.  “I came into this world to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  We have spent an entire church year listening to the truth of Jesus and witnessing how he embodies it: selflessness, compassion, humility, breaking down barriers, love for God and neighbor…  I could go on and on, but if you have walked the liturgical year with me and if you have been paying attention than you know the truth to which Jesus testifies.

More than most, Dr. Martin Luther King understood the origin and nature of Jesus’ Kingdom and translated it into his effort to create a just society for all.  Here is what he believed and taught:   

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.  Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.  Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.  Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.  In fact, violence merely increases hate.  So it goes.  Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Can there be a more apt description of Kyle Rittenhouse and his impact on our society.  He and others like him employed the tactics of intimidation and violence in an attempt to make a community safer and (by their definition) better.  Even though he was acquitted of breaking Wisconsin law, Rittenhouse is guilty of killing two people and wounding another.  In truth, all he did was create more hate and more anger.  Violence begets more violence.  Only love can drive out hate.

This is the truth on which Jesus’ Kingdom is founded.  It is a truth which Pilate cannot hear or see.  He imagines by crucifying Jesus his Kingdom will come to an end.  But Jesus transforms crucifixion – one of the most violent acts in human history – through his own self-offering.  His act of love on the Cross establishes his Kingdom here on earth.   

So as the church year comes to an end we are invited to align ourselves under Christ’s Kingship by seeking ways to reject the violence and power of this world through acts of love and kindness and light and truth.  If you know blacksmithing you may want to consider joining Bishop Curry’s ministry.  The rest of us will have to explore other avenues and expressions of what it looks like to be a loyal and loving citizen in Christ’s Kingdom.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Endings & New Beginnings


Mark 13:1-8

Proper 28 / Year B

Not long after I was ordained I organized an alumni gathering in the Diocese of Ohio for clergy who had graduated from the Virginia Seminary.  Forty-some folks attended the event, which included the school’s development director who updated us on the latest developments on “The Hill”, as the school is affectionately known.  I was proud for orchestrating the event and must admit I was feeling pretty good about myself as we settled in to listen to the talk.  He began by saying something like…

“God has used Virginia Seminary since its founding in 1823 for a variety of purposes, including theological education to prepare persons [like me] for ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.  Of course (he continued), there will come a day when God will no longer need the seminary and it will cease to exist.”

What!  I was absolutely floored at the thought of my school coming to an end.  It hardly seemed the right note to strike at an event intended to fire up alumni.  But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized his statement was true.  Nothing lasts forever, save the Kingdom of God.

Today, this 25th Sunday in the season of Pentecost, is the penultimate Sunday in the Church Year… and its focus is on endings.  All things, save the Kingdom of God, one day will end. 

As they are leaving the Jerusalem Temple, one of Jesus’ followers observes, “Teacher, look at how big these stones are.”  And some of the stones indeed are huge!  One of the largest remaining today is nearly 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 4 feet tall.  It is estimated to weigh about 80 tons.  The Temple certainly is the most impressive structure Jesus and his followers ever see, and yet Jesus responds, “There will come a day when not one of these stones will be left standing on top of another.”  One day it will be here and the next day it will cease to be – a stunning prophecy which unfolds some forty years later.

Given some time to absorb what he says, his disciples ask Jesus what signs they will see before the destruction happens.  He responds with apocalyptic imagery, similar to what we hear in today’s first reading from Daniel.  Most of us tend to think of apocalyptic writing (such as what we find in the Book of Revelation) to be all gloom and doom, but actually it is rooted in hope: the faithful will endure, your name is written in the book of life, God will give you what you need.  And from today’s reading, we learn endings are never the end, rather a pathway to a new beginning. 

Did you catch the last thing Jesus says in the lesson?  After stating there will be wars and earthquakes and famine, he says these things are nothing more than “birthpangs.”  Birthpangs – a brief moment of significant pain necessary to usher in new life. 

Still, endings and new beginnings involve change and change is never easy. 

William Bridges developed a model for approaching change which he describes in his 1991 book Managing Transitions.  Change, he notes, is something that happens all the time, whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not.  It can transpire rather quickly, unfold over time, or lurk in the distance.  Transition, Bridges contends, is an internal process.  It is what happens inside a person who is undergoing change.  

Bridges’ model highlights three stages of transition we go through as we experience change:

1.   Ending, Losing, and Letting Go.

2.   The Neutral Zone.

3.   The New Beginning.

The first stage is often marked by resistance and emotions such as fear, denial, anger, sadness, disorientation, frustration, uncertainty and a sense of loss; especially if a person is being forced to let go of something he or she rather would not.  Acknowledging your feelings, especially if they are negative, is a key element in the process of moving on.

The second phase – the Neutral Zone – is a bridge between the old and the new.  People in this phase tend to be confused, uncertain, and impatient.  They may also be resentful of what is emerging because of what it costs (think of a teenager who is forced to move across the country when a parent takes a new job).  Morale and energy are low in the Neutral Zone, while anxiety is high.  Still, it can be a great time to experiment and to try new things (think about all the ways our church has adapted during the pandemic).

The New Beginning stage is a time of acceptance and energy.  People have developed the skills necessary for a new environment.  They begin to sense the best parts of the past are remembered and celebrated and some even are integrated into what is emerging.  The final phase is marked by individual’s renewed commitment to the group and one’s role in it.

Bridges’ Transitional Model helps us to make sense of where we are in the midst of this pandemic.  Early on we were fearful, anxious, angry, sad, disoriented and full of all the other emotions Bridges says are common in the first phase of Losing, Ending, and Letting Go.  Twenty months later we find ourselves in the Neutral Zone.  We are confused, impatient, and resentful.  Morale is low in many quarters.  The Third Phase – the New Beginning – is still in the offing. 

We are becoming more aware there is no going back to the way things were.  That day has ended.  No amount of fighting this reality will make it not so.  No attempt to fix it what has changed will reverse what has happened.  Our focus and our energy need to be on building something new.  We are in the midst of birthpangs.  Rest assured new life is coming; a New Beginning will happen.

Much has changed here at St. Paul’s, but I am really pleased with how we are transitioning.  We have learned much from success and failure and are adapting well to our new reality.  Folks have remained positive and supportive, being grateful for what is possible rather than carping about what is not.  As the New Beginning emerges, we will be positioned to offer a real gift to our community.  We will be able to embody what it looks like to live with joy and peace in harmony with one another, even in a world very different from what has been lost.

One of the things I like about today’s readings is how when Jesus says not one Temple stone will be left on another the disciples do respond by asking how they can prevent it from happening.  Their focus is on when it will happen and how they should respond to it when it does.  How should they respond?  Jesus tells them to think of it as being like birthpangs.  Every ending, he tells them, is followed by a new beginning.


Monday, November 8, 2021

L'Claim on All Saints'


John 11:32-44

All Saints' Sunday / Year B

Happy All Saints’ Sunday.  Given the readings, this liturgical date, and the fact we have a baptism today, it might be just as appropriate for me to say l’chaim, the Hebrew toast meaning “to life”, because today is all about life… new life, the lives who have touched us and the lives we touch, and the life we hope one day to receive.

Holy Baptism is a celebration of new life, but perhaps not in the way you think.  To the uninitiated it may appear we are celebrating baby Holland’s birth.  And to be sure, her birth is an occasion of great joy.  She has transformed two people from a being a couple into parents.  She has created two sets of grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles.  It is a remarkable achievement for one so young!  There is no doubt her life makes life new for many people.  But this cause for rejoicing is not what the Baptismal liturgy invites us to celebrate. 

The early church practiced baptism by immersion.  A bishop or priest took you out into a river or lake and pushed you under water three times (in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit).  This was no genteel dipping.  The celebrant held the candidate underwater (sometimes forcibly) to come as close to drowning the person as humanly possible.  This action reflected the spiritual truth the old person dies in the waters of baptism and a new person in Christ rises from it. 

Years ago, while taking a youth group on a canoeing trip, one young person said to me, “You could baptize me in this river.”  I responded, “Do you want me to show you how they use to do it?”  “Sure,” he said, having no idea what he was in for.  He has never forgotten the experience or forgiven me!

Beyond a ritualistic drowning, the new life we celebrate today is about a new direction for living.  We turn from the old life of sin and embrace the new life of grace.  We turn from evil, the corrupting influences of the world, and from our own flawed leanings and put our trust in Jesus as our Savior, our Lord, and our Guide.  Holland’s parents and sponsors commit themselves to raise her on this path and we promise to do all in our power to support them.  Today is the beginning of her new life and the renewal of ours.

Those whose lives have touched ours and those whose lives we have touched.  I was at a meeting with Bishop Susan on Monday (All Saints’ Day) and on a zoom call with her on Tuesday.  At both occasions she invited us to reflect on the people who have touched our lives and to share the story of one of them.  She talked about going to church as a little girl with her grandmother.  She recalled how her grandmother sang the hymns and participated in the liturgy and interacted with other parishioners.  Bishop Susan said watching her grandmother in church lit the religious fire within her.  Who are the saints in your life who have lit that fire in you?

And who are the people who have seen that fire in you and been changed by it?  This may not be an easy question to answer because oftentimes we are not aware of the impact we have on others.  Still, if you live your life in Christ authentically your life will make a difference.  At last Thursday’s funeral, two of Tom Pruden’s twelve grandchildren read the lessons and shared heartfelt stories of how their ‘Pops’ touched their lives.  As I listened to them I realized Tom didn’t do anything extraordinary, but he lived in an extraordinary way.  His life was his gift to his grandchildren.  Whose lives are you touching?  Who might see you as being a saint?

The life we hope one day to receive.  The story of Jesus’ interactions with Mary and Martha around the events of Lazarus’ death is so true to the human experience.  The grief, the anger, the pain, the confusion, and the emotion all ring true.  And at the end of the story there is the voice of Jesus – loud enough to be heard over the wailing of mourners and strong enough to be heard in the tomb – “Lazarus, come out!”  One day it is the voice each of us hopes to hear as Jesus calls us by our name; calls us from death into the new life of the Resurrection.  It is the hope at the heart of our faith.

So this morning let us celebrate life in all its fulness.  L’chaim!