Sunday, December 25, 2022

The Light of Christmas


Christmas Eve

Episcopal seminarians are required to spend a summer serving as a hospital chaplain.  I did this at St. Elizabeth’s, a massive mental health campus in Washington DC, housing and treating literally thousands of patients.  In my ten weeks there I saw more suffering, loneliness, and despair than I had in my first 25 years of life. 

But I also experienced firsthand something of the unquenchable spirit of the human soul.  I remember sitting with two elderly ladies who were participating in an art therapy program.  They were painting, such has their abilities allowed.  One lady created a dark, wintery landscape with something resembling a house at the center of the canvass.  It had a stone-cold appearance, as if no one had lived there for decades. 

The other woman surveyed the bleak scene and pondered.  After a few moments, she dipped her brush in some yellow paint, leaned over, and with a quick stroke put a tiny light in one of the windows of that desolate looking house.  That one golden dot transformed the entire painting into a vision of hospitality and warmth.  It was a breath-taking statement.  I instantly thought of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”

It also provides a colorful image for a verse from Isaiah we heard just moments ago:

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

    those who lived in a land of deep darkness--

    on them light has shined.

Tonight we celebrate God loves us enough to send light into the darkness of our lives and times.  Through the gift of the babe born in Bethlehem the entire canvas of our world has been transformed.

When she preached at the community prayer service held in Chesapeake after the Wal-Mart shootings, Bishop Susan talked about dark times.  And then, as we all held lighted candles, she said our presence in the church on Thanksgiving eve was an act of light protesting the darkness of the moment.  And she noted darkness loses its power when even a single light is present.  It is a theme she shared again in her Christmas message to the diocese.

The Gospel writer John proclaims this:

What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This past Wednesday, on the shortest day of the year, several of us gathered in worship to acknowledged the darkness in our lives and in our world.  But we did more than name it in all its crushing manifestations, we lit candles as symbols of hope and resilience – resilience in that, through God’s grace, the darkness has not overcome us and hope for a day when all our hurts will be healed and our losses will be restored. 

After we receive communion this evening we will return to a tradition we haven’t experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.  We will light candles and sing Silent Night.  Just as God’s only begotten Son brought light into the world, so too our lighting begins with a single flame.  The light only grows as it is received by each one of you and then passed on to another, just as God’s love must be received and passed on if we are going to dispel the darkness of this world. 

I’ve told you before how during a particularly dark period in my life I prayed each day for daily bread – a single moment in the day to remind me there is light in the world and in my life.  And every day I found it, most likely because I was so desperately looking for it and expecting it.  I remember vividly one day’s bread.  I was standing in line at a grocery store (which, in my experience can be a very spiritual place if you are not in a hurry).  A mother was unloading her cart while her small child sat in its seat facing toward me.  The boy looked up at me, smiled, and waved.  I smiled and waved back.  For whatever reason I was heartened.  It was so nice to be noticed.  Why is it twenty years later I remember this exchange and still find it to be one of the most powerful experiences in my life?  Moments of daily bread may not be dramatic, but they are filling.  They transform our day just as the tiny dot of yellow transformed the painting of the dreary house.

Most artwork depicting the Nativity shares something in common.  The light on the faces of those gathered around the manager emanates from where the baby Jesus lays.  He is the source of light in the dark stable…. just as he is the source of light in our lives and in our world.  It is this light we celebrate tonight.  It is this light for which we give thanks.  And it is this light we are called to share.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Voice of Angels


Matthew 1:18-25

Advent 4 / Year A

“We belong to two worlds,” writes Kate Farrell.  “The invisible, hard-to-know eternal one we come from and the noisy, obvious, temporal one all around us.”  Countless numbers of the world’s poems, myths, teachings, and traditions hint at our dual reality.  Take Plato, for example.  He made sense of our nature by saying we first live in the eternal world but then leave it behind when we drink from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, prior to being born.  But it is not total forgetfulness, he says, and thus we see human beings from all cultures and conditions and ages trying to find the first world while living in the second.

In the Bible’s story of creation found in the second chapter of Genesis we are told God forms a human out of the dust of the earth, but this person only becomes a living being when God breaths into him the breath of life.  In a theological sense, then, we are dust and breath, physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal, of this world and of another realm, of the earth and of God. 

To be fully alive, fully human, means learning to cultivate both aspects of our nature; learning to embrace both the dust and the breath.  And more than embrace them, learning how to integrate them; to hold both as distinct and complementary parts of our lives.  For many of us, the breath is what we do on Sunday morning – it is church – and the dust is what we do the rest of the week – we work, we go about the business of managing a home, we shop or sail or talk on the phone.  If asked how we connect the two, many might say the breath helps us to be better people, to live moral lives, and to remember God as we live in the world of dust.  And this is not a bad place to start the work of integration, but there is more… much more than this.

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew we hear again the story of Jesus’ birth.  Luke’s Gospel tells the story from Mary’s perspective, while Matthew focuses on Joseph’s side of the drama.  Joseph is for us a model of dust and breath, of living both in the temporal realm and the eternal.  We are told he is engaged to be married when he learns his fiancée is pregnant.  The text tells us he is a ‘righteous man,’ an apt description of dust and breath.  The way he integrates the two leads him not to anger, vengeance, or wrath toward Mary, as we might expect, but to a concern for her dignity and welfare.  Thus, he plans to end the engagement quietly. 

At this point the text takes a startling turn.  Joseph falls asleep and begins to dream.  In it, an angel appears to him and reveals to Joseph his fiancée is to bear God’s child, the Savior.  Joseph awakes and the rest of the story, as they say, is history.  He will dream again, learning the child is in danger and so he takes his family and flees to Egypt.  There, after a time, Joseph will dream again and understand it is safe to return. 

If the task of becoming fully human is the task of deepening integration between dust and breath, then Joseph gives us much to ponder.  More than being a ‘good person,’ he hears the voice of angels, discerns the meaning, and acts decisively in accordance with what he perceives.  There is something in Joseph which allows him to bridge the forgetfulness Plato described.  What do you think it is?  I don’t know I can describe it for you, but this I do believe… whatever it is, it is not unique to Joseph.  It is there for each one of us.  Maybe more important than describing the thing Joseph has is searching for it within our own soul, accepting it, and embracing it.

In his poem Evening, the German writer Rainer Maria Rilke pens this wonderful thought:

your life is sometimes a stone in you,

   sometimes a star.

There are times when we sense our life is a stone, temporal, nothing but dust; and there are times, usually brief and fleeting, when we know ourselves to be a star, eternal, wild with the breath of God animating everything about us.

Creativity seems to be one way to ascend as a star.  Writers, artists, musicians, poets, and actors seem to be able to lay hold of the eternal in a way we uncreative types struggle to find.  More and more I find I find the breath of life within me as accept it is already there.  I spent this week pondering when angels speak to me.  I have come to realize the forgetfulness wanes and breath flows and the star rises and the voices speak when I write, when I walk, when I am in the shower (there is something about water, like at baptism, which opens us to God’s Spirit), when I read, when I garden, and when I can sit in church and worship.

And, I recognize angels try to speak to me when I dream.  I remember one vivid dream from some time ago.  I was in the basement of the house where I grew up (and my childhood home is a setting for many of my dreams).  This particular time it felt deep and foreboding.  As I tried to climb the stairs out of the basement the first tread gave way.  The minister from my youth was in the basement, silently watching as I repaired steps.  I woke from my dream with a sense my near future was going to test me and be challenging.  Basements are dark and difficult places.  The way out of the pit I was about to experience would not be easy, but my dream reminded me I know how to fix the stairs.  All those people from my past who have invested so much in me had prepared me for the work ahead.  I carried this dream with me throughout a turbulent season in life.  Without it, I might have been overwhelmed.  With it, I managed to find breath in the midst of dust.

Think about today’s reading.  Isn’t it amazing to realize God’s entire plan of salvation rests on one person paying attention to a dream!  You and I… we are no different from Joseph.  There is a mystery at work in our lives; a mystery from before the world began.  It is the rising star beckoning to us as the stone sinks, it is the eternal reaching out to us in the temporal world, it is the breath giving life to the dust.  When do you hear the voices of angels? 


Monday, December 12, 2022

Should I Keep Looking?


Matthew 11:2-11

Advent 3 / Year A

Have you ever felt let down by God?  Have you ever been that low, that discouraged, that disappointed?  I suspect most of us can look back on a time when we wondered what God was doing in our life.  If so, today’s gospel reading is for you. 

John the Baptist is in prison for speaking out against King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife.  He is a political prisoner.  God had called him to prepare the way for the Messiah and when he met Jesus he believed he had found the person he was expecting.  Do you remember from last week’s lesson how John described what the Messiah would do?  He was going to be an ax-chopping, winnowing fork swinging, flamethrower who would do all the dirty work necessary to make God’s world right again. 

Now in prison and surely suspecting his life is in danger, he gets word from his followers about what Jesus is actually up to.  While John expected an action hero, Jesus, it turns out, has little children sit on his lap and tells cute stories about looking for a lost lamb.  And so John sends a question to Jesus: “Are you who I thought you were, or should I keep looking?”  Can you hear how disappointed he is?

There are times when disappointment is a very appropriate response, like when someone gives you his word but doesn’t follow through.  Still, most disappointment is rooted in unrealistic expectations.  I once served a parish with cavernous worship space, easily seating 450 people.  Sunday after Sunday it swallowed the 75 folks who attended.  As Christmas Eve drew near I got more and more excited about the possibility of having a “packed house.”  By chance, I went back through the registry of services and discovered the typical size of the congregation on Christmas Eve was around 120 – better than Sundays to be sure, but nowhere near what I envisioned.  I was disappointed to be sure, but at least my expectations became more closely aligned with reality.

It is also easy to be disappointed when you are not in a good place in life.  John is in prison and you can be sure this contributes mightily to his discouragement.  For you, it may be a health crisis or financial hardship or problems at work or a souring relationship or any of a host of other challenges.  Just as it is more difficult to be cheerful on overcast day than when the sun is shining and the sky is blue, it is more likely you will feel discouraged when something important in life is not going right.

So John is in a difficult place and his unrealistic expectations are not being met.  He sends word to Jesus, “Are you the one or should I keep looking?”

Notice how Jesus responds.  He quotes the prophet Isaiah:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” 

In so doing, he says, “I am the one you were looking for, but your expectations about what I am going to do are way off.”  The bible does not report John’s response, but I trust his eyes opened to a new possibility he had not envisioned before.

Do you know the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus?  Well, when you send Santa a list of the all the things you want for Christmas, he sets his elves to work and tries his best to give you everything you want.  That is Santa’s job – to give you what you want.  But not Jesus.  Jesus is all about giving you want you need, even if you don’t want it.  And sometimes, getting what you need and not what you want will leave you discouraged and disappointed.    

We have a word to describe a child who always gets everything he or she wants – spoiled.  And we have words to describe a child who receives everything he or she needs – mature and well adjusted

All of this is to say, when you feel discouraged and let down – especially by God – do these three things:

· Take stock of what is happening in your life.  Is there a hardship or struggle making this particular challenge more difficult to endure?

· Articulate your expectations.  What did you think was going to happen?  In what ways might you have set yourself up for a fall?

· Ponder what actually happened.  What blessings might be obscured because you were hoping for something else?

All of this a way of saying pray about it.  Even though John’s question to Jesus is rooted in disillusionment, Jesus receives it and responds warmly and honestly.  You and I can count on nothing less.  

Monday, December 5, 2022

The Job of a Prophet


Matthew 3:1-12

Advent 2 / Year A

Welcome to St. Paul’s on this Second Sunday of Advent.  You may be interested to know on this Sunday in 1962, St. Paul’s had three regular services: 8:00 Eucharist, 9:30 Morning Prayer, and 11:00 Morning Prayer.  You also may be interested to know total attendance on that Sunday 60 years ago was 199 Christian souls.  Today, we will have somewhere in the area of 25% of that congregation.  Some things change…

…and some don’t.  That Sunday, as today, the faithful encounter John the Baptist and the prophets.  This morning’s collect hints at what their ministry is all about.  They preach repentance and call us to prepare the way for our salvation.  Prophets like John have a two-fold task.  First, he is required to speak the truth.  And second, he called to point the way. 

Speaking the truth.  Here is a truth on my mind today.  The Christian Church is in serious decline in our country – across the board.  We are catching up to what has been happening in Europe for a long time.  A report this week indicates less than 50% of the people in England now identify as Christian.  Over a third state they have no religious affiliation, and their numbers are growing.  It isn’t much better on this side of the Atlantic.

Stephen Bullivant, a 38-year-old British sociologist, has written a new book titled “Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America.”  The opposite of a convert, a nonvert is a person raised in a religious tradition who walks away from it.  Up until the early 90’s, about 7% of our country had no religious affiliation.  This percentage has grown steadily and dramatically over the last three decades.  Today over one in three people state ‘None’ when asked about church membership.  Bullivant has some theories about what is driving this change.

Noting this trend began in the early 90’s, he sees this movement has a backlash against the rise of the Religious Right in American politics and life.  He notes before the end of the Cold War, our greatest fear was godless Communism.  People with doubts tended to keep them to themselves.  Soon after Communism fell, our biggest fear transitioned from godless people to people with too much religion, both at home and abroad.

The internet also has contributed to the decline of religious involvement.  Bullivant notes it has allowed like-minded people from all over the world to connect and share ideas.  So, even if you live in a deeply religious community, you can find others who share your doubts and grievances about the faith.  

A final factor Bullivant identifies is what he calls the herd mentality.  We tend to do what our neighbors do, so as more people stop going to church, more people will opt out with them.  Add to this we are still in the backwash of the pandemic and have yet to be able to access its impact on religious communities and organizations, but so far it looks bleak.

My own family reflects what is happening in American life.  My grandparents and my parents (and their siblings) were staunch Presbyterians.  I grew up in an era when churches gave out medals to youngsters for perfect attendance in Sunday School (more of us received this yearly reward than did not).  My sisters and I are each active in a church, but none of us are Presbyterians.  We each raised our children in a church, but none, now adults, participate in organized religion.  None of my sisters’ grandchildren have been baptized and most likely will not grow up being raised in a religious community.  I suspect most of us here, if we traced our family’s religious history, would have a similar story. 

Some people have stepped away from institutional religion because they disagree with a controversial stance taken by a denomination.  Individual congregations have lost members as a result of poor leadership or misconduct.  But if Bullivant is correct, the most significant factors driving the explosion of nonverts are cultural forces beyond our control.  Are there things we as a congregation or as a denomination we need to repent?  Of course.  But the reasons why today’s attendance pales to what it was in 1962 lie primarily outside our walls. 

The prophetic truth I speak is painful and deeply concerning to all of us who value a connection to the Holy One fed primarily through a church like ours, but allow me to take up the other prophetic mantle – pointing the way.  What in the world are we supposed to do to swim against the furious current of our culture’s trend toward anti-religious engagement?

Well, perhaps Stephen Bullivant gives us a clue through his own personal story.  He never went to a church as a child, but managed to meet some Dominicans when he was in college.  He developed friendships with some and they invited him to join them for dinner at their abbey.  There was one catch, he had to attend a mass before the meal.  Because the food was good, the wine was plentiful, and the conversation was interesting, Sunday evening worship became a regular feature of his week.  He grew to enjoy the service as he became more comfortable with it and was moved by its rhythms and cadences.  He was impressed by the people he met because they were bright and kind and lived out what they believed in a way which was life-giving and never critical.  After some time, his friends encouraged Stephen to be baptized, and he consented.  Now married, he and his wife are raising their four children in the church.

The way forward in these lean times, it seems to me, is to be who we are and to do what we do as a people seeking to be faithful to God, caring of one another, and connected to our community.  We are a welcoming place.  Perhaps we could do more to invite people to join us for worship or an event or to be a part of an outreach effort.  But there is something fundamentally good and holy and beautiful about our parish – something people hunger for even if the culture doesn’t encourage them to find it in a faith community.

I suspect none of us here this morning will be here on the Second Sunday of Advent in 2082, maybe one or two of our children.  I don’t know if here will even be here.  But I have confidence St. Paul’s, Suffolk will endure in some form or fashion and those things which matter most to us will be evident on that day… by and through the grace of God and our faithfulness in our own day.

Monday, November 28, 2022



Advent 1 / Year A

Matthew 24:36-44

Nothing will rouse a student from slumber faster and more effectively than the teacher saying, “Pay attention class.  This may just appear on the final.”  It indicates this is important.  This is something you don’t want to miss.  This is something you need to know.  When a teacher says this it is a signal and a gift.  It tells the student who is sorting through information and weighing its value what is important and what is not, what is essential and what is not.

Oh, if only life in general had such a voice to point out to us the stuff we really need to know and the things we really need to do!  Well, in fact, it does.  Some call it the work of the Holy Spirit, others may refer to it simply has human intuition, but there is something at work in us; something speaking to us with a kind of inner wisdom sifting through all that bombards us to help us discern what matters most.  The only problem is this voice typically is very soft and does not always demand to be heard.  It has to be welcomed.  In the Christian tradition the name for this spiritual discipline is watchfulness.

Think about how, as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus exhorts his followers to watch and pray, but each time he goes to them he finds them asleep.  Today’s teaching to stay awake is closely related to watchfulness.  Something is about to happen and you need to keep an eye out.

Brian Hedges, in his book Watchfulness, describes the three components of this discipline.

· Attentiveness – being observant of your heart.  What is it saying to you?  Why do you react the way you do?  Why do you feel the way you feel?  In this sense, attentiveness is a close kin to self-awareness.  Do you have a sense of who you are and why are you the way you are?  You are not an accident.  It has taken a lifetime to become you.  Much of who you are should be embraced.  Some of who you are needs to be untangled.  There are parts of you that need to be discarded. 

· Vigilance – not in the sense of being hyper-alert, 24/7, but consistent and disciplined, setting aside time to contemplate and consider what is happening in your life and in the world.

· Expectancy – not just that trouble lurks around every corner, but also having a hope goodness and blessings and moments of beauty fill our days.

These elements of watchfulness – attentiveness, vigilance, and expectancy – are themes woven throughout the season Advent.  They speak to us of our need to slow down, to be still, and to pay attention to all those things that are important, but easy to miss; to regard what matters most but is easily lost in the midst of life’s demands.

Being watchful is a way to foster an inner conversation.  You are taking in a lot of data as you go through your day.  But data needs to be examined if it is going to become information and information needs to be analyzed if it is going to be converted into wisdom and right action.  Jesus says this inner conversation gets short-circuited because we are “asleep.”  It is not an indictment against getting appropriate rest.  It is a warning not to sleepwalk through life.

So much our modern world discourages us from spending time with ourselves.  Think about how cellphones, earbuds, TVs, gaming systems, and internet connectivity stifles the kind of inner conversation watchfulness seeks to nurture.  Think how hard it is to pay attention when your attention is absorbed by technology.

Melissa Bane Sevier, in a post on her blogsite, suggests we do the following:

· Pay attention to the people closest to you – how will you give and receive love in these relationships?

· Pay attention to the people you encounter – how might your interactions become holy moments?

· Pay attention to people least like you – how might you learn from them?

· Pay attention to God and what God is doing in the world.

· How can you awaken your senses to pay attention to yourself – how will you awake to your body, soul, and spirit and how might this heightened awareness affect how you spend your time?

Advent invites us to ask questions like these; to be more aware of the world around us and our place in it.  Advent invites us to anticipate God’s engagement with us; breaking into our lives in new and unexpected ways.  This Advent I invite you to be watchful. 

Monday, November 21, 2022

Christ the King Sunday


Luke 23:33-43

Proper 29 / Year C

I’ve mentioned before the very first sermon I preached as a seminarian fell of Christ the King Sunday.  That year’s reading had Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.  This year we read of Jesus on the Cross.  The third year in the Lectionary cycle has Jesus being interrogated by Pilate.  None of these readings seem to reflect well on Christ as King.  If I was picking the lesson, I might choose Jesus ascending into heaven or perhaps giving the Sermon on the Mountain or calming a storm-ravaged sea.  That Sunday thirty-seven years ago I was so befuddled as I drove to church I had no idea what I was going to say in my sermon. 

Not much has changed for me over the years.  I expect to come to Christ the King Sunday and encounter something victorious like the Hallelujah chorus: “King of kings!  Lord of lords!” but find instead something more like a whimper and a sniffle.  Having lived the story of Christ over the course of an entire liturgical year, this hardly seems like a fitting conclusion. 

Still, the image of Jesus dying on the cross tells us something important about our King.  As he hangs on the cross battered and bloody, in agony, with his own flesh in taters, he has absorbed the very worst humanity can do to him.  And how does he respond?  Is he bitter?  Vindictive?  Broken?  No.  He remains true to his Godly character by showing mercy to another crucified human being and assuring him a place in paradise. 

Earlier this week in Morning Prayer we read this from the 105th Psalm:

God has always been mindful of his covenant,

the promise he made for a thousand generations.

It speaks of God’s eternal changelessness; what theologians call immutability.  Nothing we can say or do will alter God’s love for us and God’s faithfulness to us.  These are not things we earn, but realities we embrace.  They are every bit as unbreakable as the physical laws of the universe.  It is this quality which we see Jesus display in today’s reading.  He remains true to his nature and steadfast in his mission, even as he is being crucified.

The Collect of the Day tells us much about the intent of Christ the King Sunday.  It tells us God’s purpose in Christ is to restore all things through Christ.  We need restoration because the world is divided and enslaved by sin.  We are freed by Christ and united to one another under his most gracious rule.  We see all of this being played out in the brief conversation Jesus has with the penitent thief. 

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus’ response, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  The word here translated as paradise is the same word the Greek translation of the Old Testament uses for the Garden of Eden.  It provides a colorful image of restoration.  Jesus, being crucified at Golgotha, is about as far removed as possible from the idyllic setting of the God’s first garden.  But through his life, death, and resurrection he charts for us a path to paradise, a return to the garden.

Perhaps the most common way we use the word restoration is to describe work done on a run-down house or car.  It can be painstaking, but for those who undertake such a project it is also a labor of love.  And when the work is finished we say the house or car has been restored to its former glory.

And isn’t this what we celebrate about Christ’s reign in this world.  It is painstaking, as we see in today’s reading.  It is a labor of love.  And it is about restoring the glory we had before sin marred our lives and our world.  For the penitent man dying on the a cross the work is finished.  For us, it is on-going.  One of the reasons we walk through the church year is so we might better know God in Christ and more faithfully follow in the way Christ has shown us.  Today, the walks comes to an end.  Next Sunday it begins anew.


Monday, November 14, 2022

Head Up. Hear Open. To Better Days!


Proper 29 / Year C

Lue 21:5-19

This morning’s readings take us on a wild rollercoaster-like ride of highs and lows – from promises of restoration and long-life to warnings of imminent destruction and persecution.  Of these two visions we might want to ask, well, which will it be: the best of times or the worst of times?  The answer is both.  Life is rift with harsh realities, but there is always something hopeful which lies beyond.  Our readings direct our attention to this Gospel hope.

It is about 33 AD when Jesus makes his startling claim about the future destruction of the Temple.  By the time Luke writes down Jesus’ words some four decades later, it has come to pass.  The Roman army has sacked Jerusalem and torn down the spiritual and political center of Jewish life.  Christians, who initially functioned as a subset within Judaism, now are being persecuted for their faith.  It is the worst of times.

Isaiah writes some 600 years earlier to a people living in exile.  They too have seen their Temple destroyed – this time by the Babylonians.  Jerusalem is ruins and, of those not killed, everyone with any value has been forced from their homeland to live in servitude in Babylon.  But some time has passed, again about 40 years, and a new thing is about to happen.  An army from Persia is defeating the Babylonians and with each liberated city exiles are allowed to return home.  Isaiah foresees the best of times on the horizon.

So, our rollercoaster readings take us from destruction to restoration.  Did you notice what connects the two experiences?  It is the last thing Jesus says in today’s readings, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  While we cannot avoid the worst life throws at us, there is a possibility we will be transformed by these experiences. 

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote he wished for all he cared about “suffering, desolation, ill-treatment, [and] indignities” because he believed the only way to know what a person is worth is to observe how he or she endures.  Well, I would never wish adversity for anyone, but I do recognize how these experiences in my own life have developed capacities and characteristics I could have received in no other way.

The Rev. Sam Wells is a visiting professor in Christian Ethics from Kings College in London.  Earlier this year he spoke to people at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.  Four months later, on June 16, a gunman opened fire at an event in the Parish Hall and killed three parishioners before being subdued.  Four months after this devastating incident, Wells returned to help the people of St. Stephen’s make sense of what they have experienced. 

Wells highlighted four words which he believes describes how this tragedy has affected the people of the congregation:

·       Powerlessness – the realization we are vulnerable and, while some measures can be put in place, nothing can ensure our safety. 

·       Violation – what happened goes against everything the community holds dear.

·       Humiliation – becoming the people everyone pities or wants to avoid because they don’t know what to say.

·       Wells says, “Once these dramatic storm clouds have begun to separate just a little, what abides is a profound sadness” – the forth word.

He went on to make a distinction between the words hurt and damage:

When someone has been murdered, there’s the grief, fear, dismay, anger and harrowing loss among those left behind.  That’s the hurt, and, while it’s profound, permanent, and powerful, it can over time begin to find a place among other hurts in one’s own life and in the world.  But there’s also the physical reality of a person no longer being alive.  That’s something no one can do a single thing to change.  It’s unalterable. That’s the damage.

When it comes to hurt, he says, healing can happen, but depending on the severity of the wound, may take a long time.  The notion of healing is not an appropriate or helpful when applied to damage.  No amount of healing will bring back to life three dear souls who were killed.  Still, Wells suggests horror can turn into wisdom:

A broken limb can heal; a severed limb can’t.   That doesn’t mean we have to be stuck forever…  We need to recognise, painfully and slowly, but soberly, honestly and realistically, what can change and what can’t, and put our energies towards where transformation can still occur, ghastly as this situation is and will in many senses always remain.

Wells finished his talk with these words:

My real prayer is that [you], like Martha and Mary, will see the glory of God.  I pray that [you] will one day look back on this time as a season when [you] were most fully alive, more grateful than ever before for the birds that chirrup each morning, the taste of water or milk or cornbread, the wonder of having been born; that [you] will be in this time closer to [your] family and friends than ever before, able to express affections and articulate sentiments [you’d] never previously found ways to share; that [you’d] feel God’s presence in a wholly new way, that [you’d] recognise [yourself] as God’s child, created for God’s enjoyment, fulfilled in enjoying God in return…  A disaster or terrible setback can be the beginning of something wonderful, good and true, and not just… the end of all hopes, dreams and plans.

In all of this I hear the words of Jesus, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”    

Orson F. Whitney, a 20th century leader in the Church of Ladder-day Saints, said this:

No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted.  It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility.  All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God.

T.J. Hodge, author of the book From Within I Rise, has developed a saying which has grown in him through all he has endured in life.   He lives his life based on this simple motto: “Head up.  Heart open.  To better days.”  I invite you to ponder this wisdom and to consider how your endurance through tough times has helped you to gain you soul.


Monday, October 31, 2022

God's Love for the Lacking


Luke 19:1-10

Proper 26 / Year C

Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Mystery and Manners”, observed when fiction writers write about the rich, they are more concerned with what the person lacks than with what the person has.  Although St. Luke’s gospel is not fiction, he takes the same approach when he writes about Zacchaeus.  Luke lets us know who Zacchaeus is (the what he ‘has’) with two very brief descriptions: he is a tax collector and he is rich.  But Luke does not dwell on the benefits of Zacchaeus’ status; although we can be sure they are many.  He lives in the most prestigious neighborhood in Jericho and enjoys the best methods of transportation, the finest clothes, the most sumptuous foods, and all the privileges associated with affluence.

But what Luke wants us to know about Zacchaeus is not all of that.  He tells us what Zacchaeus lacks, although he does not spell it out in black and white.  You have to read between the lines to get the specifics, but they are there for us to see.  We get the sense that Zacchaeus is isolated, that there is a hiddenness about him, that all his bravado is a mask for a deep-rooted sense of inferiority.  The local community rejects him because his occupation is little more than legalized extortion.  Luke is unable to identify a single important family member, friend, or acquaintance in Zacchaeus’ life.  And, perhaps most important, Zacchaeus is hiding from God.  While he may have been short in stature, we are given the impression Zacchaeus is even shorter in soul.  What does Zacchaeus lack?  He has everything the world offers, but nothing that comes from God. 

One critic of Flannery O’Conner observed “her characters are often crude, unkempt, and ill-educated.  Bereft of redeeming qualities and brimming with flaws, it is easy to be repelled by them and the path their lives are taking.”  Zacchaeus could easily be the subject of one of O’Conner’s short stories.  She observed, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”  She notes, “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”  Again, Zacchaeus fits this mold.

How does the “action of grace” work on Zacchaeus?

The best sermon I ever heard about him had two simple points.  First, Jesus tells Zacchaeus “I love you where you are.  Hiding in a Sycamore tree, cheating everyone in town out of their hard-earned money, alone and miserable and isolated, but nicely dressed! – Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “I love you where you are.  Then Jesus says to him, “I need your help.  I want you to do something for me.  I want to come to your house for lunch.  And there, at Zacchaeus’ home, surrounded by all his ill-gotten gain, Jesus is able to look past all that is wrong with him in order to see what he lacks. 

No one had ever told Zacchaeus “God loves you right here, right now… no conditions, no qualifications, no catches, and no hidden fees.  God loves you.”  Do you realize what a radical statement this is?  In Zacchaeus’ day it was believed God loved you because you were a part of the Chosen Nation and because you followed all the rules and regulations and because you kept yourself ritually clean for worship in the Temple and because you made the right sacrifices at the appointed time.  Basically, folks believed you deserved God’s love because you did all the things necessary to earn God’s love.

2000 years later I don’t know if things have changed all that much.  We still attach God’s love to conditions like attending church and quoting the bible and being a “good person” – however you might define ‘good.’  Now, as then, we tend to put qualifications on God’s love.  We are more comfortable with a Savior who says “Stop cheating people when you collect taxes, be a better parent, show more compassionate to people less fortunate than you, get to church more often, sing in the Choir, serve on Vestry and then maybe you will be worthy of my love.” 

The problem is, when we put these kinds of words on the lips of our Savior, then our Savior doesn’t really save us at all.  It all rests with us and with our ability to get our own act together.  When the Church says you need to live the right kind of life before God can love you, then we are saying in effect, “Sinner, save yourself.”  This is not the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, wrote this:

Christ is not concerned, himself, with being good.  He is concerned solely with love for the real person, and for that reason He is able to enter into fellowship with our guilt and to take the burden of our guilt upon Himself.  Jesus does not desire to look down on us as the only guiltless One while each one of us goes on to our ruin under the weight of our guilt.  He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which we die.  He wishes to assume it.  A love which left us alone in our guilt would not be love for the real us.  From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into our guilt and takes that guilt upon Himself in His body, on the cross.”

This is why we proclaim Jesus as the only Savior!

So Zacchaeus responds to this undeserved, unconditional love – to the action of grace in his life.  And then he responds to Jesus’ call to service.  Long-dormant gifts of hospitality resurface.  He makes a meal for Jesus and his disciples.  And at the meal, overjoyed with a new sense of love and purpose, and possessing a new sense of community and fellowship with God, Zacchaeus makes the kind of moral and ethical changes so many people would demand of him before they would allow God to love him.  But notice the process.  Notice love comes first, purpose follows, and finally repentance and amendment of life are possible.  This is what O’Conner describes as “the action of grace” in a person’s life. 

St. Augustine believed we are created with a need for God – a God-shaped void in our souls.  He observed people try to fill their God space with everything else but God.  This is surely true of Zacchaeus and it points directly to what he lacks.  But Jesus does not demand Zacchaeus divest himself of all the corrupt and worldly ways he has crammed into the space where God alone should be.  He loves him and he calls him.  And as this sense of love and calling grows and grows and grows in the place only God can be, then and only then, is Zacchaeus ready and able to get rid of the stuff that does not belong in his life.  Redemption happens.

This is how God works.  This is how grace works.  This is how salvation comes to us throughout our lives.  Sometimes it is dramatic, other times it is a small step forward in the process of sanctification – of becoming the saints God created us to be.  More than one person has described the characters in Flannery O’Conner’s writing as being “grotesque.”  She wants them to be shocking and she wants the redemption they find to be shocking.  She wants to use them to wake up her readers; to shock them back into life; to discern how the action of grace might be at work in their own lives. 

What do you lack?




Monday, October 24, 2022

A Letter While I have Covid


Luke 18:9-14

Proper 25 / Year C

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Well, I had a wonderful time on my pilgrimage.  Portugal and Spain are lovely countries and I so enjoyed walking with friends, new and old.  Last Monday I started to feel a little sketchy and then tested positive for Covid on Wednesday.  So, I am not with you again today.  I am so sorry.

Please  allow me to share just a few brief thoughts about this morning’s interesting parable. 

Have you ever known someone you would describe as contemptuous of others?  Perhaps you yourself are this person.  I know it doesn’t take much for me to look at other people and rate myself as vastly superior to them.  As you might guess, this happens most often at Wal-Mart.

Some people who are contemptuous use this as a defense mechanism to mask how poorly they actually think of themselves.  Others actually are better than everyone else around them—smarter, richer, healthier, more talented.  As the saying goes, for them it is hard to suffer fools.

The Pharisee in today’s parable seems to fall into this second category.  His self-assessment is spot on.  He is better than all the other people he names in his prayers.  When he leaves the Temple he goes with what he brought – a self-satisfaction he has made himself to be who and what he ought to be.

For the tax collector it is different.  He comes to the Temple wearing his brokenness and his pain and self-loathing on his sleeve.  His heart is wounded.  His soul is grieved.  He can barely look up to God, let alone come into God’s presence.  Still, he manages to utter one of the most powerful, poignant prayers found in all of Scripture: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 

This man stands naked before God.  He hides nothing.  He does not pretend to be someone he is not.  There is no weighing of the scales to determine if he has done anything at all to merit God’s favor. 

But something miraculous happens.  There, in the Temple, he experiences God’s indescribable love.  It is a love which cannot be earned, only embraced.  The tax collector discovers that God’s world is a world of grace and goodness and it comes to each of us as gift, not through merit. 

After saying their prayers, the Pharisee and the tax collector leave the Temple.  One is satisfied he has done enough to be considered a good person.  The other has been bathed in the riches of all that God showers upon his children. 

Which of these would you rather be?



Monday, October 17, 2022

Two Letters While I was Away


Luke 17:11-19

Proper 23 / Year C

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The church where I grew up presented a bible to every child when he or she was in the 2nd Grade.  I still have mine in my office.  Covered in black leather with gold lettering, it is a copy of the Revised Standard Version, with a concordance.  My name is embossed in gold on the lower right-hand front of the cover.  The very first page indicates who it has been presented to.  Someone from the church went to the trouble of writing my name on this page and included the date: May 25, 1969. 

The person also referenced a bible verse: II Timothy 2:15.  It doesn’t include the verse, only its citation, which we heard read just moments ago:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

It has always been one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture, I suspect, in part, because it was referenced in the bible given to me by my home church.

Even more, it has always felt like marching orders, of a sort.  If it was the only verse of the bible I had, it would chart a pretty good course for me to follow in life.  “Do your best to present yourself as one approved, with no need to be ashamed.”  I have strived to live up to this high standard and have not always made it. 

The biblical word for ’sin’ is a term used in archery and means “missing the mark.”  Sometimes you miss the mark because the arrow flies high or wide of the target.  Other times you miss the mark because the arrow never gets to the target.  This happens when the archer does not pull back the bowstring far enough.  In this sense, we “fall short” because we simply do not try hard enough to hit the target. 

I can honestly say when I have missed the mark of God’s high calling for me, it wasn’t for lack of trying.  I have done my best, but there have been times when it wasn’t good enough.

But, like the lepers Jesus meets in today’s gospel reading, I find myself being made “clean” by the grace of God.  Forgiveness is real and it is essential.  It is something for which I continually offer thanks.  It gives me confidence that my best, while not perfect, is good enough.  Thanks be to God.  May you know this spiritual peace in your heart and mind and soul as you strive to do your best.


Luke 18:1-8

Proper 24 / Year C

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “persistence” means “a firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”  It comes to us from two Latin roots, one which means “forward” and the other which means “come to a stand.”  In this sense, persistence is a trait we exhibit by moving forward when forces want us to stand still.

It takes no small amount of persistence to navigate our way through life.  You will need great persistence if you are engaging with the health care system, an insurance claim of any kind, or just about anything having to do with government—especially the DMV or IRS.  If I ever get married again, my wife will be incredibly persistent in these areas, because I am not.  I expect the system to work after one call or visit.  Any more than two or three cracks at it and I give up.  I demonstrate anything but “obstinate continuation.”

When St. Paul writes his first letter to the church in Thessalonica he admonishes them to “pray without ceasing” (5:17).  Of course he is not directing them to be in church on their knees 24/7.  He is describing a spiritual mindset in which a person is in frequent, if not constant, communication with God. 

Jesus points to this posture as well in this morning’s reading from the gospel of Luke.  He wants to tell his followers why it is important to pray always and not to lose heart.  And, as he often does, Jesus makes his point by telling a story—a parable, which often has an ‘over the top’ quality to it.  Today’s parable is known as “The Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge.”  In the story the judge refuses to do the right thing for a widow who has been wronged.  But because she is the epitome of obstinate continuation, he finally relents simply to get her out of his hair (and courtroom). 

Jesus asks his listeners this: “If the unjust judge who cares nothing for anybody will eventually do what you ask if you keep asking, how much more will our loving and caring God do for you?

There are some prayers we offer which take time to be answered.  One example—when you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer.  A prayer pleading for it simply to go away—to disappear—most likely will go unanswered.  Remission and a clean bill of health will take months or even years.  It is easy (if not expected) to lose heart in the process. 

Praying ceaselessly looks like praying for an ultimate healing, but also praying for today.  What challenges do you face today?  Where or from whom will strength and encouragement come today?  Will I be able to handle a set back today?  Will I be able to experience the joy of living today, even though I am sick? 

This is what praying ceaselessly looks like and it is what Jesus encourages us to do.  It is how we are encouraged to approach all of life—firmly moving forward in life in spite of difficulty or opposition supported and encouraged by prayer.