Monday, July 22, 2024

A Troubling Table


Psalm 23

Proper 11 / Year B

Psalm 23 is most closely associated with the burial office and I am always impressed how a congregation, with just a little prompting, can recite it by memory in the old King James Version.  This familiarity may limit its potential.  We tend to see it in only one way – providing comfort at the time of death – when in fact it speaks to multiple situations. 

One scholar holds the psalm has three basic sections:

The first focuses on the shepherd.  In the original Hebrew, the initial line has only two nouns and no verb: “Yahweh” and “shepherd”.  The next few verses then elaborate on the work of the Shepherd/Lord.

The next section centers on the wander; the person who is walking through a valley of deep darkness.

The final section focuses on the host; the person who prepares a table, anoints with oil, and fills a cup to overflowing.

It is not at all clear how the last section relates to the first two.  The shepherd and the wanderer are both set in a similar context.  Both draw upon the imagery of the flock and the hills.  In the third section the scene and imagery shift dramatically to a meal fraught with peril.  Is it set in a home, or at a royal hall, or perhaps even in the temple (the ‘house of the Lord’)?  The answer is not entirely clear. 

Here is what I think, although I am no scholar to be sure.  I think the first two sections of the psalm are similar to what in the movies we call a flashback.  The psalmist remembers a time in earlier years when he worked as a shepherd.  He recalls from this experience how Yahweh was present with him; providing for him the same kind of care and safety he himself sought to provide for his sheep.  Perhaps it was during this time he first made the now famous profession of faith: The Lord is my shepherd. 

The flashback ends and we find the author at a meal where his enemies also gather.  The threats may be different from what he faced in the fields, but they are every bit as real.  The experience of child-like trust in the Shepherd/Lord now translates to faith in the adult world with its adult intrigue and nuance.  The Shepherd/Lord who was with him in the past is with him even now as a Shepherd/Host who plans for and presides over this challenging event. 

Have you ever been invited to a meal with your enemies?  It can be a powerful and potent experience.  One of three things can happen:

First, your enemies can get the upper hand on you.

Second, the host can sit you in a place to demonstrate his or her support for you over and against your enemies.  In other words, the host puts them in their place.

Or third, the setting of the meal somehow transforms the relationship you have with your enemies.

The Episcopal Church is a Eucharistic church.  We believe the Shepherd/Host is Lord and present at every meal, whether it be a meal served at the table in the worship space, in the parish hall, or in our individual homes.  One reason to ‘ask a blessing’ before every meal is to acknowledge the Shepherd/Host who is present.  To eat without this awareness is a symptom of the sin of gluttony. 

Another reason to acknowledge the presence of the Shepherd/Host is to remember a meal is transformational.  We are changed by what we eat, but also by those with whom we eat.  Like the hymn says,

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,

each proud division ends. 

That love that made us makes us one,

and strangers now are friends.

When we sit at table in the presence of our enemies, we may come looking for our legitimacy to be solidified, but the Shepherd/Host seeks transformation, reconciliation, and community.  This is a part of what it means to be a Eucharistic-centered church.  We locate our unity in the Host and nourish our oneness by sharing in the meal rather than being allied around common ideas, positions, doctrines, or policies. 

As the author of the 23rd Psalm looks over the table set in the presence of his enemies by the Shepherd/Host, he takes great comfort from forms of hospitality and generosity.  The Shepherd/Host anoints his head with oil, a traditional sign of hospitality in the ancient Middle East where a host cools and refreshes the guests after their long, hot journey to the home.  It is a sign the Shepherd/Host is sensitive to the author’s every need as he comes to the table.  Then the Shepherd/Host fills a cup to overflowing, a sign of generosity which indicates the host will not hold back anything from his guest. 

These signs of hospitality and generosity, given in a setting of challenge, reassures the psalmist and leads him to a final profession of faith:

Only goodness and love will pursue me

all the days of my life;

I will dwell in the house of the LORD

  for years to come. (American Bible Version)

The Shepherd/Lord we so dearly love in the green pastures and beside the cool waters is also the Shepherd/Host who sets a challenging table.  Some of the other guests will make us uncomfortable.  Some may even hate our guts (and we, theirs).  Wouldn’t it be great if the table set by the Shepherd/Host was just for us and the people we like!  Surely this host would never allow our enemies to be anywhere near where we graze.  But this is not the nature of the One hosting this meal, is it?  The Host of this meal embraces the challenge because the Host seeks transformation and reconciliation.  At the Host’s table, strangers become friends and enemies find peace.

Monday, July 15, 2024



Psalm 85:3:8-13

Proper 10 / Year B

This morning we recited a portion of the beautiful 85th psalm in response to the first reading.  Scholars tell us people returning to Israel from exile in Babylon chanted it on the long journey home.  The first half of the psalm was not assigned to be read, but here is the first verse:

You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, *

  you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.

The remainder of what we did not read is a kind of confessional – an admission the sufferings they experienced were a direct result of their willful disobedience.  But, as the psalm asserts, this is a new day and the Lord is speaking a new word of hope and peace.

“You have restored our good fortune.”  If, on this Sunday in 2020 you would have told me we would be worshipping in this place together as naturally as ever, I would not have believed it.  Mired in the pandemic with everything about life put on hold – all those things we used to take for granted – very few of us thought things would ever return to normal, but they have.  Thanks be to God.

1920 was a presidential election year in our country.  At the time the average American’s outlook was pretty bleak.  The previous four years had seen the horrors of World War I, a global influenza pandemic, race riots, labor strikes, domestic terrorism, widespread unemployment, and crippling inflation.  We were deeply divided about joining the League of Nations and troubled by the Russian Revolution.  Technological advances, such as the introduction of the radio, began to change the way people garnered information and exposed society to a cacophony of new and sometimes confusing voices. Over 40 tornados stuck our country on Palm Sunday that spring, killing over 380 people from Georgia to Wisconsin.  And, as if this pile of sludge needed a cherry on top, in 1919 the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series.  The more things change…

Into this moment stepped a politician from Marion, Ohio – Warren G. Harding.  In a speech in Boston on May 14, 1920, Harding described how all the country had been through effected it:

Poise has been disturbed and nerves have been racked, and fever has rendered men irrational.

Then he expressed what would become the core of his platform for a presidential campaign:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.

Harding’s campaign slogan, “A Return to Normalcy”, resonated with a weary electorate and he won in a landslide.  Historians debate why the country didn’t return to normal after this.  Most cite several scandals which rocked the Harding administration and the fact he died after only three years in office.

The 85th psalm might offer additional insight.  It links restoration not so much to a change in external factors – i.e. things getting back to the way they used to be – but with inner transformation – a change in the heart which allows a person and a people to engage the world and one another in a new and healthier way.

Mercy and truth have met together; *

  righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Mercy, truth, righteousness, and peace can be a part of a legislative agenda to be sure, but that legislation will take us only so far if it is not first rooted in our soul.  Only when these qualities “meet”, “kiss”, “look down”, and “spring up” in us can restoration on a societal level begin.

This past week I came across something called “The Humanist’s 10 Commandments”.  Here they are:

Altruism – I will help others in need without hoping for rewards.

Critical Thinking – I will practice good judgment by asking questions and thinking for myself.

Empathy – I will consider other people’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Environmentalism – I will take care of the Earth and life on it.

Ethical Development – I will focus on becoming a better person.

Global Awareness – I will be a good neighbor to the people who share the Earth with me and help make the world a better place for everyone.

Humility – I will be aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of others.

Peace and Social Justice – I will help people solve problems and handle disagreements in ways that are fair for everyone.

Responsibility – I will be a good person – even when no one is looking – and own the consequences of my actions.

Service and Participation – I will help my community in ways that let me get to know the people I am helping.

I like these statements.  They pair well with promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant, but there is one significant way they are not in sync with our vows.  They are not rooted in obedience to God and a desire to reflect God’s essential Being through our actions.  They are not put forward as an expression of God’s dream for all people.  Short of this, they are just 10 nice ideas. 

It seems to me presidential campaigns come down to two messages.  The party out of office want to return to a better time.  The party in office wants to build on the good work already underway.  In their own way, each is trying to restore the fortunes of the people.  If history teaches us anything it is this: political leadership alone will not restore us.  For this to happen there has to be a change of heart.

Monday, July 8, 2024

Plan B


Mark 6:1-13

Proper 9 / Year A

One of the features of our recent readings from the Gospel of Mark is Jesus constantly on the move.  After taking up residence in the lakeside town of Capernaum he sails to gentile territory on the other side of the Galilean Sea and then returns to Capernaum.  Today finds him visiting to his childhood home of Nazareth, some 25 miles to the southwest.  All the while he has in tow a small group of disciples. 

Three things seem to happen at nearly every stop.  First, Jesus is besieged.  Second, he is beset with requests for healing.  And finally, he is ridiculed and attacked either by authorities from Jerusalem or people very close to him, his own family and friends.  Now, I know this is not the typical picture we paint of Jesus’ ministry.  We tend to think of him as being wildly popular and overwhelming successful. But, if we are true to the biblical text – at least up to this point – we have to admit in the early going there are bumps in the road.

Perhaps the biggest bump comes in Nazareth.  In Jesus’ day it is a close-knit community not much bigger than a few city blocks here in downtown Suffolk.  It goes without saying everybody knows you and you know everyone.  Jesus returns and heads to the synagogue.  Everyone in town – and I mean everyone – is there. 

Jesus teaches and the people who watched him grow up are astounded.  Where did he get all this wisdom?  Apparently, Jesus was not a Rhodes Scholar.  Where did he get this power?  After all, he is merely the son of a carpenter!  Now, in that day, the profession of carpentry is near the bottom of the social ladder, even lower the field peasant.  Who taught him all these things?  Isn’t this Mary’s son?  In Hebrew culture a man is always referred to by his first name, say John, followed by the name of his father, son of Zebedee.  To refer to Jesus as son of Mary casts aspirations on lineage, suggesting he is illegitimate. 

Do these insults hurt?  You bet they do.  Jesus quotes an old adage: a prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown.  What a shock it must have been for Jesus to be able to do no good works among his neighbors and kin and family.  But more than being rejected personally, Jesus is concerned (as always) with the spread of the Good News of the kingdom. 

In today’s world we talk about Plan B.  It is a contingency for when things don’t go as expected.  In order to institute Plan B you must embrace the reality Plan A is not getting you where you want to go.  It calls for reflection, learning, and positivity – the notion you can overcome your challenges and accomplish what you set out to do, only in a new way.  Developing a Plan B involves taking stock in your resources, doing more research on potential strategies, and developing a new plan.

Mark does not describe the self-reflection Jesus goes through, only the outcome.  Based on the changes he makes, it seems likely Jesus realizes the work is centered too much on him.  As a result, wherever he goes he is either mobbed or maligned or both.  How can he shift the focus from himself to the kingdom he proclaims?

As Jesus takes stock in what he has, surely he realizes his greatest resource comes from the power of God at work in him.  But he also discerns he has a tremendous resource in the energy, dedication, and enthusiasm or his disciples.  If he sends them out to proclaim the words of the kingdom and to do its works then the focus will shift from him to what he is trying to accomplish.  And so this is what does.  In groups of two they fan out to all the towns and villages of the region and by all accounts they have great success.

I always notice Jesus tells them to take a staff and sandals (what they need for traveling), but not bread or money (what they need to survive).  They are to go forward with faith God will provide for them.  I also notice the direction to stay in the home of a person who welcomes you and to shake off the dust on your shoes from those who don’t.  It suggests some people will be with you all the way, while others are not going to be willing or able to come along.  So be it.

Sean Rowe, our Presiding Bishop-elect, has signaled to the church we are in a Plan B moment.  The clearest sign of this is his desire to have a scaled down installation service on November 1.  The savings to dioceses in travel time and lodging of bishops alone will be enormous.  What Bishop Rowe is emphasizing is exactly what Jesus does in today’s reading.  Our church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel is not changing, but under Plan B the methods we employ to do it will change. 

I can’t recall a person at St. Paul’s ever saying, “We have never done it that way before.”  We seem to be open to innovation (especially when it is accompanied by reflection).  As your rector it has always been important to me to follow the energy in the parish.  Where is there opportunity?  Where is there enthusiasm?  Lets go with it because this is where God’s Spirit is moving.  Where is the energy draining out of us?  Perhaps it is time to let go and move on… or at the very least to consider a Plan B.  Know this: the Spirit is always at work in and through our parish.  It is our blessed opportunity to align ourselves with its stirring and, as Jesus does in today’s reading, to adjust and to adapt to changing circumstances in order for the mission to go on.

Monday, July 1, 2024

Asking & Reaching


Mark 5:21-43

Proper 8 / Year B

Once again we find Jesus on the move.  Last week he went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  You recall the storm and the panic.  Today he is returning home and this time with no drama in transit.  But the action picks up as soon as Jesus steps ashore.  He is mobbed… again.  This is why he left in the first place… so many people crowding in on him he doesn’t have even enough space to eat a meal.  Jesus doesn’t need disciples, he needs bouncers and body guards. 

And we get it.  We know how people in need are desperate for remedies.  I once knew this typical Presbyterian couple (i.e., not inclined toward the religious fringes) whose grandchild was born with a severe birth aliment.  Well, of course they had the baby put on the church’s prayer list.  Then various groups in the church began to pray.  Than other churches began to pray.  Eventually, the baby, his parents, and the grandparents were lifted up in prayer by people all over the world.  But the baby’s condition did not improve.  So the grandparents decided to go to a service led by a TV evangelist known for his miraculous healings.  It was an act of desperation.  What they found, you will not be surprised to hear, was a charlatan grifting vulnerable people by hocking all manner of expensive religious items – bibles, clothes, crosses, and the like – said have wonderous powers.

The people who come to Jesus in need come because they know him to be compassionate, not a con artist.  In today’s reading we hear the incredible stories of a well-placed family and of an ostracized woman, each in need of healing.  We are told a leader in the local synagogue falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to visit his ‘little girl’ who is near death.  We get the sense time is of the essence as Jesus sets off with the mob in tow.

There is a woman in the crowd who, we are told, has been suffering from an issue of blood for twelve years, perhaps since on the onset of puberty.  All this time she has been deemed unclean.  Everything she wears, everywhere she sits, any bed on which she lays is rendered unclean.  She has been to every doctor in town, but none can help and we are told some have made her condition even worse. 

But she is a tenacious fighter and she has faith.  She reasons if she merely touches the hem of Jesus’ cloak she will be healed.  And it happens!  One commentator writes we should never refer to her as ‘the woman with the issue of blood’, but as ‘the woman with great faith’ because it is her faith and her determination which defines her, not her illness.  And in this, she reminds me of so many in our midst who have lived with great faith in the face of sickness.

The back-and-forth between Jesus and the woman is so rich and, like many of the details in today’s reading, could be explored for hours and still not be exhausted.  But as they talk, we hear the clock ticking.  Jesus is delayed while he is urgently needed elsewhere.  Our worst fears are confirmed when a group arrives from the leader’s house to inform him his daughter is dead.

It is the worst news any parent can ever receive.  It must be devastating for the father, overwhelming him which shock and grief.  Jesus encourages him, “Do not fear, but believe.”  They get to the house and it is a chaotic scene.  When Jesus announces the little girl is not dead but sleeping, the wailing of the mourners turns into derision.  Jesus has makes himself incredibly vulnerable.  He risks ridicule and the ruin of his ministry.

He leaves the mob behind and lets only the parents and three close followers join him in the house.  The mood of the story changes.  They have left the bedlam behind and entered into a bedroom marked by peace and serenity.  We can almost hear the tenderness in Jesus’ voice as he takes the child by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up” and then “give here something to eat.”

As I said, these stories are so rich with details there are dozens of different ways to explore them.  Here is the thing I keep coming back to – how Jesus is approached for help.  The synagogue leader outright begs Jesus to help his daughter, just like the times when we ask for help for ourselves or for others.  Knowing when you are in over your head, out of your element, and/or overmatched is a sign of personal maturity (self-awareness), never weakness.

Then there is the woman with great faith.  She doesn’t ask for help, rather reaches out for the help she needs.  If she can but touch it, grasp it her hands, she knows what to do with it.  She believes it will make all the difference.  And remember the detail about all the local doctors.  It tells us she had been reaching out for the last twelve years, only not to the person who truly has what she needs. 

We all have needs in life.  We all know and love folks who are in need.  Remember the two stories we hear this morning and consider on what guidance either might have to offer you.

Monday, June 24, 2024

The Fear of Miracles


Mark 4:35-41

Proper 7 / Year B

In the reading we just heard Jesus calls his followers to join him on what we might call a missionary journey.  He wants to go across the Sea of Galilee to the other side.  Up until now they have been in and around what for them is familiar territory - Capernaum.  They have been among family and friends, sometimes with mixed results (remember some think Jesus has lost his mind while others posit he is possessed by a demon).  Now they are headed to a strange and unknown new place – Garasenes.  What it holds for them must be a cause for speculation and concern, but at least they are travelling on what for many in the group is a known confine – the water.

Jesus falls fast asleep while a small flotilla of boasts makes its way forward during the night hours.  But the weather changes.  It goes from bad to worse to life-threatening.  Even those who make their living on the sea are in a panic.  You heard how the story unfolds.  They wake up Jesus and he rebukes the wind (as if it is possessed) and tells the waves to be still.  With this, we are told, a “dead calm” sets in.

According to the version we heard, the disciples are filled with “great awe”, but this is a misleading rendering.  A literal translation of the text would be they “feared a great fear.”  Some bibles read they are “filled with great fear,” others “feared exceedingly”, and still others they are “absolutely terrified.”  We might want to ask why.  Why does Jesus’ dramatic display elicit such immense dread from his followers?

You may be surprised to learn there is actually a name for the fear of miracles – thaumatophobia.  It is a subject touched on in Leif Enger’s 2001 book Peace Like a River.  Written to amuse his children and often filling its plots with story lines suggested by them, it tells the story of Reuban Land who, born with a chronic lung condition, is miraculously saved by his father at childbirth.  The book is littered with various kinds of miracles – like a bowl of soup which never runs out and a car with a gas tank never in need of refilling. 

Now, admittedly, most of these ‘miracles’ are more like oddities, but a few are truly confounding.  Reuben, the story’s narrator, says this:

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature.  Its true. They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in.  Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave – now there’s a miracle, and can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time.

Reuben concludes his thought with this insight: “People fear miracles because they fear being changed.”

I understand what Enger is getting at.  Miracles force us to grapple with the fact the world is not what we think.  Its predictability can be suspended by a Being beyond us or, as is the case with today’s reading, by a person among us.  And if this is correct than we must face the reality we are walking in the unknown, misguided by a comforting disillusion the way in which we have ordered things still holds true.

Here is how I would have liked today’s gospel reading to unfold:

They were out on the water and Jesus was asleep when a great storm arose and the boat was being swamped.  In a panic they awoke Jesus who immediately organized his followers.  The sailors sailed while the land lovers grabbed buckets and bailed furiously. The struggle was tremendous but Jesus was not afraid and kept encouraging them to persevere.  After battling the elements with all their might and near exhaustion, the boats reached shore and safe harbor.  Jesus looked at his followers and said, “See, I knew you had it in you.”  The disciples were filled with a great sense of accomplishment saying, “Look what we can do when believe in ourselves and we work together!”

Wouldn’t this be a more comforting way for all of this to have unfolded.  Jesus – the motivational speaker who keeps our spirits high, even when the going gets tough.  I could preach a hundred different sermon on a story like this.

But this isn’t what happened, is it.  The people in those boats come face-to-face with a person who is more than a good storyteller and more than someone who can heal all manner of infirmity.  They are confronted with the reality Jesus possesses the ability to alter natural forces – literally to change the course of reality.  It is no long possible merely to follow Jesus as a teacher or rabbi or great physician.  He holds power over all creation, as only God does.  It changes everything – realigning how they (and we) are in relationship with Jesus.

When the Reuben Land character says “People fear miracles because they fear being changed” he adds, “though ignoring them will change you also.”  How will today’s story change you?

Monday, June 17, 2024

What You Give & How It Grows


Mark 4:26-34

Proper 6 / Year B

There is always more to Jesus’ parables than meets the eye.  Most are not strict allegories where every little detail has a significant meaning.  But parables, while having a straight-forward message, often have a subtext; an important nuance easy to miss.  Take today’s parable of the mustard seed.  The plain meaning is great things often have small beginnings; just like the mustard seed that, while being tiny, grows into a tree large enough for birds to nest in its branches.  The birds provide the nuanced element to the parable.  

The other day I noticed a small flock of birds pecking around in my yard.  They were eating seeds of some kind, hopefully weeds because I have lots of those.  Here is the rub: if the birds eat every seed and none are left, no new growth will happen and no new seeds will be produced.  If they consume everything available to them they will insure their own demise.  Think of the birds in Jesus’ parable.  If they peck every seed, even the tiny mustard seed, there will be no tree and they will have no place for shelter and rest.  It is an important lesson to learn.  

One way we define ourselves is by pointing to what we have and what we own.  The mustard seed story reminds us we are also what we conserve.  Just as important as what we have is what we do not have.  Just as significant as what we consume is how we refrain.  Just as defining as what we take from life is what we give back.  If we are all take and no give our lives, and the lives of many others, will be greatly diminished.

If your aim in life is godliness then this is a central concern.  God, who appeared to Moses as a burning bush which the flame existed in but did not consume, needs nothing, takes nothing, and exhausts nothing.  God’s nature is revealed as always giving: creation, life, love, forgiveness, providential care, the Incarnate Son, the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.  We know God only through what God gives to us.  If we are to reflect anything of God’s life then we too must learn what it means to give.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the old wild west prospector and the pump.  The man is plodding across a searing desert landscape and has run out of water.  His situation is dire and he is desperate.  Then, as if a miracle, he stumbles upon a water pump.  Over and over and over again he cranks the handle, but nothing comes out.  Then, nearby, he notices a jug with water in it.  The jug has a note on it.  It explains the water is necessary to prime the pump.  Without it, no water will come out, but once primed it will gush forth.  Finally, the note instructs the user to refill the jug before leaving so the next person will be able to prime the pump.  Well, the prospector is faced with a dilemma.  If he trusts the note and it doesn’t work he will have wasted the only water he has.  If it does work he will be saved and the next person who happens by just might be as well.  I have heard two endings to this story.  In one, the prospector drinks what is in the jug and the pump is rendered inoperable.  In the other, he does as the note instructs and once primed the pump produces unimaginable amounts of cool, clear, refreshing water.  Ponder each possibility and the lesson it tells.

Winston Churchill once noted what you earn makes a living, but what you give makes a life.  I knew a person who once sported a bumper sticker on his Corvette which read, “In the end, the one with the most toys wins” and that is exactly how he lived his life… until he went bankrupt and lost everything.  I don’t ever remember a funeral where a family member spoke of the departed listing all the things the person acquired in life.  Now, they will speak about the things the person enjoyed doing in life... fishing, baking, whatever.  But more than anything the speaker describes how the person gave of himself or herself – to family, to friends, to the community.  What you earn makes a living.  What you give makes a life.

And, at least by the measure of today’s parable, what you give is a seed, a possibility.  And God is all about making something significant out of possibilities.  After the seed is scattered the parable notes “the earth produces of itself.”  The Greek word used here is automaton, from with we get the word ‘automated.’  The meaning is straight-forward.  We give of ourselves, but often have no control over what happens next.  This is when God gets to work taking our seed through the germination process to bountiful harvest.  

I suspect most of us have little idea just how much richness we add to life.  This is because we are often unaware of how God uses our goodness and giving in ways we cannot know or imagine.  I have a thick stack of notes people have sent me over the years.  They are from parishioners and other folks thanking me for one thing or another, some of which I don’t even remember doing.  Individually, most of the notes describe something which cost me very little.  Taken as a whole, they are overwhelming proof God can and does work through us and our feeble efforts.  

I hope you have some kind of sacrament like my notes; something which speaks gently, but clearly about how God has brought a bountiful harvest from the seeds you have sown.  If you measure your life by your net worth on a portfolio statement I encourage you to recalibrate your thinking.  Life is not about what you have.  It is about what you give, and what God does with it.


Monday, June 10, 2024

Deviant Accusations


Mark 3:20-35

Proper 5 / Year B

I trust our children today still learn the adage “sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt me.”  It has been around at least since the early 1800s and serves as an effect reminder not to let the words of bullies get you riled.  The only problem is names actually can hurt you, at least according to sociologists who research what they call “deviant accusations” or “negative labeling” and examine how it can undermine a person’s status in the community.  Think about how peoples’ lives were changed in the 50s by being tagged ‘pinko’ or ‘commie.’  Does it make a difference in school if you are labeled a ‘shining star’ or a ‘trouble-maker’?  You bet it does.  I remember the first time a person called me a ‘snowflake.’  I had never heard the term before, but knew inherently it was not a complement.

In first century Israel, labels had a devastating effect on how a person was perceived and treated.  How often in the gospels is a person referred to as being a ‘sinner’ and how often is Jesus criticized for associating with them?  Being labeled ‘unclean’ got a person barred from social gatherings.  Being known as ‘barren’ became a horrifying stigma. 

This morning, we read of Jesus being the recipient of two deviant accusations; each coming from a source which carries a lot of weight.  The first comes from his own family, his mother and siblings.  They show up at a public gathering where Jesus is the center of attention; intending a kind of intervention because they believe Jesus has lost his mind – literally gone crazy.  It is early on in his public ministry and they don’t know how else to make sense out of what he is saying and doing. 

The other deviant accusation comes from religious authorities; respected and admired community leaders.  They assert Jesus is demon possessed.  It is how they make sense of his power and attempt to explain his deeds.  The accusation of sorcery, if made to stick, would be nearly impossible to shake.   

Sticks and stones, right.  Wrong.  The accusations hurled at Jesus are potent social weapons holding the potential to undermine his public standing and reputation.  If accepted, they will destroy his credibility with the very people he is trying to touch with God’s love.

So, labeling theory holds people view a person or a group differently once they have been labeled.  Think how your perception of a person changes when, for example, they have the word ‘criminal’ attached to them.  The label changes how we see them.  But it also changes them.  Once they are tagged with ‘criminal’, they see themselves differently.  It will reshape and perhaps even overtake their own self-identity.

The phrase “looking glass self” was first coined by Charles Cooley in 1902.  It describes how a person’s sense of self is dependent upon how one believes he or she appears to others.  He based this theory on his observations of childhood social development:

First, we imagine how we appear to others.

Next, we imagine how others are judging us based on how they appear to response to us (this is where deviant labeling fits in).

Finally, we imagine how others feel about us based on the judgments they make.

Cooley emphasized each one of us has the ability to decide which judgements to accept when forming a sense of self and which to reject.  How much weight do you give to your supporters and how much credence do you give to your detractors?

Having your family say you’re out of your mind and having religious leaders accuse you of being demon-possessed must have been unsettling to Jesus.  He dismisses the second accusation by asserting you cannot work against something while at the same time being for it – “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” 

He mitigates the first deviant accusation by redefining how he experiences ‘family’ in his life.  Yes, he has a mother and siblings and, based on today’s story at least, we can assume there are some interesting dynamics at play in their family.  We tend to romanticize the family unit; positing it to be a place of complete peace and harmony.  Some are.  Most are not.  Something is amiss with Jesus’ family of origin.  We don’t know what it is, but in those who gather around him, who seek to know and do God’s will, Jesus finds a family even closer than his biological relatives – just as each of us here this morning comes from our own interesting family of origin and finds in our wider faith community a new kind of family.

I suspect Jesus, upon being labeled crazy and possessed, recalled another time he was labeled.  It was the time he rose out of the waters of the Jordon River and heard God’s voice proclaim, “You are my child.  I love you.  With you I am well-pleased.”  It is the same label we received at baptism and it is irrevocable.  I suspect Jesus leaned heavily upon how God responded to him.  I suspect it helped him to sort through the deviant accusations he endured.  And I hope you will always, always, always lean on your baptismal label as being the foundation of who you are.  

Monday, June 3, 2024



Mark 2:23-3:6

Proper 4 / Year A

Some of you remember Art Bunton, who passed away in 2013.  He had a tendency after church to flag me down in the Parish Hall.  “Sit down here,” he would say to me, tapping a chair next to his.  “I have a question for you,” he would say in droll, drawn out way of speaking.  “Where is everyone?”  I was never quite sure who the ‘everyone’ was he was referring to.  “You need to preach a sermon and tell these people they need to be in church.”  My response: “Why would I preach a sermon about the importance of being in church to the people who are already in church?”  Art and I had this same conversation at least a dozen different times.

I have known clergy who, at Christmas and Easter, jabbingly remind people the church will be open for worship the next Sunday.  I have never found shaming and blaming folks who are not in church to be an effective approach to change behavior.  Nor do I think those not here can be ‘argued’ into attending through a thoughtful sermon addressing the subject (especially if they are not in church to begin with!). 

And many are not.  A study group has learned in the decade since Art Bunton passed away those who say religion is an important part of their life has declined from 63% to 52%.  In fact, almost a quarter of Americans consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.  Researchers are working hard to come up with new names to describe these emerging groups.  “Nonverts” refers to people who were once religiously affiliated, but are no longer.  “Cradle Nons” refer to people who from birth have never been a part of a faith community.

What are the results of this disengagement?  This past week, two professors from the University of Indianapolis posted an op-ed piece which addresses this very question.  They suggest not being a part of a faith community contributes to a loss of identity and the depletion of shared community values.  It creates a deficiency of trust and shallowness of caring about others.  It leads to disconnection and increased loneliness.  Those who are not a part of a faith community on average are less likely to participate in other kinds of civic engagement, things like social groups and signing petitions.

It is a bleak picture, and, as I said, no sermon is likely going to result in you having to give up your favorite pew to the hordes of people who are coming back after I finish preaching today.  Sorry Art.  But here is what I can do this morning.  I can help you to think more deeply about why religious affiliation matters to you and to have more clarity about how it shapes your life.

This morning’s readings from Scripture invite us to reflect on keeping the Sabbath – one day a week set aside solely for religious observance.  How important is it?  Well, it makes it into the Ten Commandments… so pretty important.  These commandments appear twice in the Old Testament: in the Book of Exodus and in today’s reading from Deuteronomy.  The two readings cite different theological rationales for keeping a weekly day of religious devotion.

In Exodus Moses tells us to keep the Sabbath because for six days God created and on the seventh day God rested.  Sabbath keeping, then, is a way of remembering in whose image we are made.  It invites us to embrace God’s communicable attributes at work in us: love, faithful, goodness, mercy, wisdom, justice, etc.  It shifts our focus away from me, myself, and I to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  In subtle and not so subtle ways, our regular participation in this parish makes us different people; not necessarily better than others but definitely more like who we are created to be.

In Deuteronomy Moses tells us to keep the Sabbath because when we were slaves in Egypt we never had a day of rest.  We worked non-stop seven days a week.  Keeping Sabbath reminds us the world will get along with us for a little while, that we cannot rest only once all the work is done (because our work is never completely done), that we are not human doings, rather we are human beings.  Through Sabbath observance we reject the yoke of slavery in all its many forms and acknowledge we belong to God.

Sabbath-keeping is essential to human health and flourishing, but by Jesus’ day it has become overregulated by centuries of traditions monitored and enforced by religious authorities.  Throughout his earthly ministry – through his actions and teachings – Jesus works to free people from the Sabbath in order to keep the Sabbath.  He strips away the burden in order to reveal the life.

I hope you sense this place to be a place of life, not burden.  The Pew Research Center found people like you and me value our religious affiliation for several reasons.  We come here because it is a place where we can be happy.  Here we make and listen to music.  We learn things here, meet people, and find a sense of peace.  This is where we gain a sense of belonging.  We are able to support others when they need a helping hand and to receive support when we need it.  Here we connect with God through worship, prayer, music, reflection, and the sacraments. 

These human needs are so basic to everyone I trust those who are not religiously affiliated garner some of them through some other kind of involvement.  I am not here to criticize any of them.  I do want to say I believe God’s desire for us to flourish is best nurtured through religious affiliation.  God gave us the Sabbath.  Jesus Christ died for us.  The Holy Spirit came to give birth to the Church.  It is no accident we are here.  It is a part of God’s dream for all people and I trust by being here this day you sense you are living into the dream.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024



John 3:1-17

Trinity Sunday / Year B

If you recall last week’s sermon you remember I preached about ‘bearable truths’, those things which Jesus wanted his disciples to know but also knew they were not yet ready to hear.  “The Holy Spirit,” he told them, “will lead you into all truth.”  Well, today we get to focus on one of those bearable truths – the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  The word ‘trinity’ is never found in Scripture nor is the concept addressed explicitly in any form.  Still, there are multiple passages in both testaments which refer to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And it took the Church the better part of four centuries and several world-wide councils to produce statements declaring the orthodox faith regarding God’s triune nature.  And most often we came to this position only by rejecting ideas and notions we did not hold to be true – what became known as heresy.

In seminary we spent a lot of time examining the nuances of the Christological councils which developed such statements as the Nicene Creed, the Creed of Chalcedon, and the Creed of Saint Athanasius.  We didn’t just study them, we wrote papers about them and took tests on them in the sure and certain hope one day good people like you would come up to us after church and ask us a pointed question about them (a blessed moment thankfully yet to occur in my ordained life). 

I suppose it is worth noting from today’s gospel reading Nicodemus, a highly regarded teacher in his day, in spite of all of his education, cannot comprehend the basics of what Jesus is saying to him.  Which is to say, the realm of faith is not the private domain of lofty, learned ones.  It belongs to every person who has been born from above, every person in whom God’s Spirit dwells.

This past week I browsed through J.I. Packer’s 1973 classic work, Knowing God, a book I first read back in high school.  In it he argues one of the most important and least celebrated teachings of the church is the doctrine of adoption – the idea that through the Spirit we are adopted into God’s family, made sons and daughters, and become heirs of all the riches God has to share with us.   

In our second lesson we heard these words from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God...  You have received a spirit of adoption.  When we cry, “Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

Consider just some of the attributes of God, those which are referred to as incommunicable – meaning we cannot share in them:

§  Omniscience: all wise and all knowing

§  Immutability: unchangeable

§  Omnipotence: all powerful

§  Omnipresence: everywhere

§  Infinite: without beginning or end

§  Self-sufficiency: without needs

Let that soak in for a moment or two.  No wonder Isaiah fell speechless before God, overwhelmed by his own unworthiness in the presence of Divine Majesty.  And yet Paul says you know the Spirit is in you when you cry out to God, “Abba!  Father!”, when you know yourself to be a member of the family. 

When we were not busy studying the Trinity in seminary we watched football.  One of my classmates was a huge fan of the Dallas Cowboys.  One Monday evening he invited me to his home to watch a game with him and his five-year-old son (who was also a fan of Big D).  Johnny Jr. started off the game with high level of energy, but, because the it didn’t begin until 9:00 PM, by halftime he was fading fast.  He did, what for me, was the most remarkable thing.  He crawled up into his father’s lap, snuggled in, and watched the game until he fell asleep, nestled in his father’s arms.  To the best of my memory I don’t recall ever falling asleep on my dad’s lap.  It was for me a revelation about the kind of intimate relationship possible between a father and a child.  It remains for me an image of “Abba! Father!” – the kind of relationship God seeks with each one of us.

Like any parent/child relationship, we hope what is worthy and notable about the elder gets passed on to the younger.  It is the same with God and God’s children.  We are called to mirror to the best of our abilities what are known as God’s communicable attributes – what of God’s nature we can manifest in our life:

§  Wisdom

§  Faithfulness

§  Goodness

§  Justice

§  Mercifulness

§  Graciousness

§  Love

§  Holiness

§  Glory and Beauty

Each of these we have seen lived out in fulness by Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit (what we Episcopalians mean when we vow, “I will, with God’s help”), we too can communicate these qualities in and to the world.