Jan 292012

Feast of the conversion of St. Paul – Annual Meeting , January 29, 2012            

Before I get into the meat of this sermon, I need to offer this definition – the definition of the word Midrash – some of you may know it all ready:

Midrash – Stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible,  to derive a principle of Jewish law, or provide a moral lesson.

What follows here is a my own midrash – my own elaborating on the incidents of the life of our Patron Saint, Paul, born as Saul of Tarsus, whose feast day we observe on this our annual meeting Sunday.

His life was steeped in the traditions of the patriarchs.  He had been praying the prayers and listening to the Torah from before he could remember.  He had more zeal for the fire of God contained in Judaism than most of his peers.  So when he heard that the followers of Jesus had not been dispersed by the bloody Roman execution, he felt he must act. This radical new group had to be stopped.  They threatened the purity of the Jewish tradition and could bring the wrath of Rome down on all of them.

He was absolutely convinced he was right.  His fervor for this position let him slip past any restraint he would usually have felt.  Soon he was in hot pursuit of the apostates, breathing threats of violence as he went.  He would stop at nothing to deal a fatal blow to those who claimed Jesus to be the Messiah.

On the Damascus Road it was as if an invisible hand knocked him off his horse.  The light was blinding, and the energy he felt around him was at the same time gentle and fierce.

The voice that spoke was, larger than life: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’

 He asked: `Who are you, Lord?’

The voice answered:  `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.

Blind and awestruck, in that moment Saul knew that by all rights he should be dead.  The way of the world was to pursue enemies, overtake them and put an end to them by whatever means necessary.  So this was a wonder, that he should be commended to stand up and join in the very movement he detested and was looking to destroy. Relief was overtaken by confusion as he was taken into the home of one of the followers of Jesus.

For several days he suffered great disorientation along with the blindness.  He was being cared for by people he did not really trust, and who clearly were not very trustful of him.  He was aware that they stood a ways off and whispered among themselves about him.  Once in a while he would catch a word or two: “chief persecutor… bloodthirsty…dangerous to our fellowship.”  He couldn’t blame them.   In fact as he sat in darkness, and reflected on what he had been doing recently he began to see himself through their eyes, and began to be shocked at the vitriol and violence that had possessed him.

After a few days miraculous things began to unfold.  Someone prayed over him and the blindness fell from his eyes like scaled. As he began to relax into the cautious but life giving care of these strangers he began to realize there would be no going back.  If he had been violently attacked on the Damascus road, he would have fought to find escape, to return to the mission he had set his whole being on.  But he had not been attacked – he had been embraced.  Though the community was still uneasy at his presence they seemed to sense, as he himself did too, that he was part of some larger plan going forward.  As his fear and their unease began to fade a new unspoken solidarity, which was bigger than any of them, began to emerge.

Years later he would look back and recognize the grace at work in those crucible days – the grace of how the living God wastes nothing in bringing all things to unity in mystical community.  He would try to express it in metaphors such as the body having many members, all needing each other, all joined in a single unity.  He would tutor many a church leader in the importance of not seeing anyone as expendable.  If Jesus could make use of him, he would tell them, there was hope for anyone, if approached with grace rather than violence.

As he taught among the Gentiles he realized that the fire of God, alive in the Judaic tradition, which he once believed he had to fight to preserve, was taking on new form and strength as it found new and fresh expressions among Gentile believers in Christ.  And to think, he had once regarded these Gentiles as nothing but heathens.  This was the miracle that led him to write to the leaders in the Galatian Church, that in Christ Jesus “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female.” A new wholeness – which embraced the tradition he so loved – was being born before his eyes and he wanted nothing more than to give his whole self to its flowering.

My friends, this Midrash of mine is offered in the Spirit of Paul.  May we remember his story as we set out together into a new year of ministry.  May we hope to see the fire of God each one of us has encountered in whatever tradition we were raised in, being taken in by a larger plan which is giving birth to new and fresh expressions of faith and ministry here in this place.  And may we give our very selves to its flowering, for the benefit and life of all who enter in among us and for all we are called to go out and serve.

In the name of Christ. Amen+

 Sermon for January 29, 2012  Posted by on Sun, 29-Jan-12 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for January 29, 2012
Jan 252012

The St. Paul’s web site uses a web publishing system known as WordPress.  It’s a popular open-source way for a community of people to publish and share material on the web.

To find out more about WordPress, you can visit the project’s web site at wordpress.org.  If you want to use it to create a personal web site, you can do so for free at wordpress.com.  People who use WordPress a lot find it useful to have their own personal web site simply to try things out.

The St. Paul’s web site is backed up automatically.  So, if you make a mistake, or heaven forbid, a cyber-vandal breaks in to the web site and defaces it, don’t panic.  We can restore it easily.

If you want to contribute to the web site, ask Deb Hay in the church office, or somebody on the Communications Team, to give you a user name and password.

We have a few short video tutorials on how to contribute to the web site.

The first thing you need to be able to do is log in.  Watch this short video to learn to do that:

If you can’t see the video right in the page try this link:  http://www.flickr.com/

Once you have logged in, you can create a news item on the web site.  News items are called Posts in WordPress jargon.  Watch this video to learn how to do that.

If you can’t see the video right in the page try this link:  http://www.flickr.com/

Frequently it’s necessary to post an item on behalf of somebody else.  To do that, first post the item normally, then go back and edit it so it’s attributed to the right person and has the right date.  Watch this video for some tips on doing that.

If you can’t see the video right in the page try this link:  http://www.flickr.com/

 Contributing to the St. Paul’s Web Site  Posted by on Wed, 25-Jan-12 Contributing Comments Off on Contributing to the St. Paul’s Web Site
Jan 242012

Dear Fellow Parishioners,

We are excited to share with you the Holy Conversations/Strategic Plan, Phase I Report. The report has been posted on St. Paul’s Church website here:  Holy Conversations / Strategic Plan January 2012

In Phase I we are sharing plans for three of the six new parish focus areas: Worship, Learning and Formation, and Communication.

The Vestry invites each of you to print and read the report this week as we prepare for our first parish-wide conversation about what this means in our life as a parish. We are grateful for the work of the Holy Conversations Team as they interviewed and listened for more than a year, and then reported first to the Vestry with their outcome, and now with the Vestry’s adaption and vision, a Strategic Plan has been formed. Participation from you in continuing “holy conversations” has never been more important in the history of our church community.

 Please join us this Sunday at 9:00 am for a single service followed by Annual Meeting. Child care will be offered in the Parish Hall by adult child care providers. Coffee and goodies will be setup in the church.


Sharon Clark, Sr. Warden

 Holy Conversations / Strategic Plan Phase I report  Posted by on Tue, 24-Jan-12 News Comments Off on Holy Conversations / Strategic Plan Phase I report
Jan 222012

Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and the Lord Jesus Christ.


Mark wrote the present-tense gospel – a gospel of suddenness, urgency, action. Now: the heavens tear open and the Spirit descends on Jesus. Now. The Spirit drives him into the wilderness for forty days. Now. Jesus preaches the good news in Galilee.  Events unfold in a continuous stream. It’s breaking news.

[N]ow after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.  (NRSV, Mark 1: 14-20)

But in the midst of the now … now … now action we hear Jesus saying  this phrase:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”  There’s a subtlety here; these words aren’t the breaking news, but the world into which the news is breaking.

To translate Mark’s Greek precisely into English is tricky: we need to say:  The time already has been, and still is being, fulfilled.  The kingdom of God already has been, and still is, near.  Already and ongoing.

The immediate breaking news … the heavens ripping open, the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness, Jesus preaching the good news … is unfolding in a world that’s ready and waiting for the action.  The time was already fulfilled, and the kingdom of God was already near, then and there, on that day when Jesus took a walk along the lakeshore.

This isn’t just Greek grammar: it’s important. The world is just as ready for that Gospel action right now, right here. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is a present reality. There’s nothing more to wait for and nowhere else to go; we are to repent: turn our minds toward God’s realm now, and here.

Jesus felt the urgency of the realm of God, and so did the four disciples he met that day.  They acted: they didn’t wait for anything.  He said, “follow me,” and they did immediately. I wonder if they even stopped to say, “hey Dad, tell Mom we won’t be home for supper?”

Sometimes we think of those fishermen as simple-minded people, but that’s not who they were. Like you and me, they had lives to live: they weren’t waiting around for somebody to say “follow me.”  They prospered by their wits and skills. They could have told Jesus, “wait, wait til we catch some more fish,” or “wait til these nets are mended and ready for our next voyage, then we’ll follow you.”

Somehow they caught the now-and-here presence of the realm of God and the urgency of Jesus’s invitation. They knew there was nothing left to wait for. So they followed him to help him proclaim the good news.  They didn’t let their attachment to their own wits and skills stop them.

What is this realm of God that they saw so clearly?  What does it look like? They saw it in the person of Jesus walking along the shore.

How do we recognize it?   One thing we know for sure: it hasn’t driven out the kingdom of this world.  It hasn’t transformed all us people, or the creatures of the world. If the lion were to lie down with the lamb today (the prophet Isaiah’s prediction) the most likely result would be lunch for the lion.

How do we recognize this realm of God that they saw?  I wonder if we can find it in our religion?  Maybe, maybe not. Archbishop Desmond Tutu (of Cape Town in South Africa) wondered the same thing in 2001, when he said,

Religion, which should foster sisterhood and brotherhood, which should encourage tolerance, respect, compassion, peace, reconciliation, caring, and sharing, has far too frequently – perversely – done the opposite.  … Some of the ghastliest atrocities have happened and are happening in the name of religion. It need not be so if we can learn the obvious: that no religion can hope to have a monopoly on God, on goodness and virtue and truth.

“If we can learn the obvious.”  Learning the obvious seems to be hard, even with the help of religion.   It certainly was hard for the prophet Jonah.  God sent him to bring goodness and virtue and truth to Nineveh – to the capital of the hated genocidal Assyrian kingdom – to the place that seemed furthest from the realm of God.  Jonah didn’t think Nineveh deserved goodness and virtue and truth. If it were today, we’d say he’s prejudiced against the race of Ninevites.  We all know the story: It took a three-day encounter with a fish’s digestive tract to persuade him to do God’s work.

But then he did it.

[T]he word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (NRSV, Jonah 3:1-5, 10)

It wasn’t very hard.  His words started a dialog. Both the people of Nineveh and God changed in the dialog. God’s realm of goodness and virtue and truth because reality for the people in that city.

How about you and me, and the people of this city? Can we recognize God’s realm?

Last Monday our neighbors the YWCA put on a breakfast event to honor Dr. Martin Luther King of blessed memory. Some of you were there.   The event featured an honest dialog about American racial prejudice.  Of course, this is suburban Massachusetts: almost everybody present was white. A film-maker named Aimée Sands served as our Jonah – the prophet whose witness got our dialog started.

Some of us gray-haired folks spoke about our struggles with racism: our irrational fear of those who don’t look like us.  It’s the kind of fear that sneaks up on us when we least expect it, and catches us unawares.  This fear – this racism – is the kingdom of this world.  We talked it over.

Then, a young man stood and said, “I can speak for the people in my school. We don’t have this problem of racism.” He declared that racism is not his generation’s problem.

Oh. Uh huh. Right.

It was all I could do to bite my tongue and keep quiet.  As the dialog went on, quite a few people talked about how deep racism runs, and how hidden it is in their own hearts. But, thanks be to God, the dialog continued. It deepened.  It didn’t turn into the verbal combat that our politicians seem to enjoy.

Here’s the good news for our city and our nation:  that young man and his schoolmates are just like James and John. They feel the urgency. God’s realm is present here and now.  They see it clearly, and they’re following its promise immediately.

James and John followed Jesus without question.  Me? I’m like their father Zebedee watching them walk away. I can think, or say, “wait, where are you going? Do you know what you’re getting into? Do you have the skills and wits for this?”

But I’m glad they’re not listening to those questions of mine.

We hear that young man, that high school student, say, “racism is a thing of the past,” and we want to say, “wait a minute, pal, it’s not that simple.”

But, you know what?  It IS that simple. He sees the realm of God clearly, and he’s responding fearlessly, just like those Galilean fishermen.  We know from the gospels that the fishermen had some hard lessons to learn. That young fellow probably does too.  But he’s responding, he’s going. He sees a world where the evil of race prejudice is no more.  May you and I see that world through that young man’s eyes. May he be steadfast in his path with God’s help. May you and I be steadfast in our path the God’s help.

God’s realm is where the lamb DOES lie down with the lion in safety. In God’s realm all the tribes and races of the world are judged, and found to be compassionate and loving. We’re all judged to be the bearers of goodness and virtue and truth.  The time for that is now, the place for that is here, and the need for it is urgent.

These things I say in Jesus’s name, and for the life of the world.


 Now, and here: the realm of God  Posted by on Sun, 22-Jan-12 News, Sermons Comments Off on Now, and here: the realm of God
Jan 152012

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B , January 15, 2012      

 Do you have any full circle stories from your life?  One of my full circle stories is that the parish in Connecticut where I did my internship while in seminary in the 1990’s was a parish that  had been planted by a neighboring parish where my great, great, great grandfather, had served as rector in the 1790’s.  One of Marco’s full circle story is that when we were living in Wiesbaden Germany, he discovered that the town where his great grandfather had been raised was only half an hour from us.  Through a number of “coincidences” Marco ended up reconnecting with a second cousin there who shared family history he had not been aware of before. 

 Perhaps you have your own full circle story.   Decisions, choices and changes move us away from a home, a community, a country, a profession or a relationship.  But then sometimes we end up coming full circle somehow.  Or our children, or children’s children, or children’s children’s children do. It’s like DNA can find its way home and wants to make an opening to the past.   And in those moments we see that a larger design is at work, even though we cannot grasp it in its entirety.

You may remember that 4 years ago, in honor of the Martin Luther King holiday, the local clergy association offered a viewing of the documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the deep North. If you have never seen it, I have a copy that I am happy to lend.  It’s a film that displays this full circle dynamic in the lives of the descendants of the DeWolf family of Rhode Island, whose story is chronicled in the film.  Ten DeWolf descendants went on a journey together which opened a door to the past and transformed their lives.  They discovered and had to come to terms with the truth about their family’s involvement in the slave trade in the American Colonies.  Together they moved past the family’s “no talk rule”, through guilt and into a sense of deep grief as they encountered the reality of what that trade meant to African slaves and their descendants in this country.

Then they found a way forward together that has born much fruit in their own personal lives, but also in the life of our Episcopal Church.  Their efforts helped lead to the passage of a resolution at our General Convention in 2006 to designate a day of repentance and commitment in the Episcopal Church for our denomination’s complicity with slavery in this country.  That day was observed on October 4, 2008 by our Presiding Bishop in a service at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., and in many other places around our country.

As the DeWolf family’s story shows us there can be real power in these full circle moments of life: Power to see clearly what has been and to imagine what can be; power to repent, amend and to heal.

In our Gospel lesson today Jesus is pointing to just that sort of full circle power when we tells Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree.  Though Nathanael has been skeptical of Jesus, wondering if anything good could come out of Jesus’ home town of Nazareth, when Jesus mentions the fig tree, Nathanael confesses him as “Son of God and King of Israel”.  While Nathanael might have been amazed a Jesus ability to see him with some higher vision under the fig tree, as a devout Jew he knew the image of the fig tree held deeper meaning. 

Nathanael would have recognized that Jesus was making reference to a prophetic vision from the Prophet Micah.  Micah uses the image of the fig tree in a prophecy about the end times when all faithful people would stream to Jerusalem, where the prophet tells us, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”, and where ways of war will no longer need to be learned. Micah concludes that prophetic vision of the end times with these words:

          “…they shall sit every one under their vine and under their fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

So Jesus’ vision of Nathanael under the fig tree is not just a reference to where Nathanael was sitting before Philip invited him to come and see Jesus for himself.  It is also a vision of what is to come – a prophetic vision of Nathanael under the fig tree at the end of time.  Jesus was letting Nathanael know that he had seen his past and that he also had a vision of his future.  This reference to the fig tree was Jesus way of promising to Nathanael that if he would leave the shelter of his fig tree, Jesus would lead him in a great circle of discipleship which would end in him sitting under the fig tree once again.  But then it would be the prophesied fig tree of the future, under God’s full reign, where he, and all creation, would know balance, harmony, and freedom from the fear of all enemies. 

In that moment Nathanael felt the larger design and he understood who he was speaking with.  And he could do nothing else but confess Jesus a Son of God,                     King of Israel.

This story should give us hope, even as we look out on a world that is far from the promised condition of balance, harmony and reconciliation.  We have reason to hope because with each generation God is leading people of faith to strive for the fuller realization of God’s realm among us, not just for ourselves, but also for our children and our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children and so on. 

And each year this holiday weekend gives us a time to pause and think about how our common life, as citizens of this country, can afford us opportunities to embody that hope and realize more of that dream.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream has resonated for over 50 years because he put such eloquent and passionate words to our communal longing for God’s realm. 

Sound bites from Dr. King’s I have a dream speech are played each year at this time, but it is important to know that his work did not end there.  He went on to challenge his fellow Americans to take action for the economic well being of African Americans and all poor Americans.  One of his last plans was for what he called the poor people’s march on Washington. The assassin’s bullet took his life before he could join in that march, but the other leaders of the movement carried it out and for 2 months in 1968 people of all colors who longed for social and economic stability for all Americans camped in tents and makeshift shacks on the mall in Washington DC. As I purused the photos taken of that 1968 encampment, I am struck by the similarity with the photos of the occupy encampments of this past fall.  Perhaps this is a story that has come full circle also?

This Tuesday evening, the Greater Newburyport Clergy Association is offering an opportunity for our community to come together at the Unitarian-Univerasalist Church on Pleasant St., where our Bishop, Tom Shaw, will offer a meditation on Dr. King’s call for economic justice and we will be joined by three Newburyporters who are working towards those ends.  Please come join in this community conversation – full of the hope that when we engage in this way, the Spirit of Jesus is with us, showing us the way to do our generation’s work toward that day when each person:

shall sit every one under their vine and under their fig tree,  and none shall make them afraid.”

In memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the name of  Christ Jesus.  Amen+

 Sermon for January 15, 2012  Posted by on Sun, 15-Jan-12 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for January 15, 2012