Feb 252012

If you visit this web site often, you’ll notice a cleaner look.  Please let me know whether you like it, by sending me email or leaving a comment.

We’ve also added a sidebar with links to the Lower Merrimack Valley Episcopal Voice, a blog with contributions from various parishes in our area.

It’s certainly possible to go back to the former look.

 New Look  Posted by on Sat, 25-Feb-12 Contributing, News Comments Off on New Look
Feb 192012

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

What must it have been like to be John, James, or Peter that day on that lonely mountain, witnessing that dazzling event? “They were terrified,” the Gospel tells us. What’s it like to have that kind of mountaintop experience? What do we do with it when we have it? Do we let it change us? Do we try to tame it?

Let’s try to get into the heads of those disciples. Let’s start by putting this transfiguration event in context in Mark’s overall gospel narrative.

Six days before this event Jesus and his friends were near Caesarea Philippi. It’s at the northern end of Galilee at the foot of Mount Hermon. My dad went there once: he says it’s very beautiful. It’s about as far away from Jerusalem as you can go in the valley of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.

In that beautiful spot, Jesus asks, “who do YOU say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus then shocks his disciples by foretelling the events of Good Friday and Easter – his death and resurrection. He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” That must have sounded outrageous and scandalous to the disciples.

Peter reacts in an all-too-human way by trying to grab control over the situation: he rebukes Jesus for saying these things. Jesus chews him out — severely — for putting his mind on human things. We know this is scary and baffling for them. But they still follow him. After the difficult conversation at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus starts leading them out of Galilee toward Jerusalem, to the temple, and to the cross. I wonder what they feel in their hearts as they follow him south?  It must have been a mixture of dread, and joy, with a more than a little denial mixed in. “Lord, we’ll follow you even if (gulp) we’re not sure where you’re taking us. You don’t really mean all that stuff about the cross, do you?” Anyway, they followed Jesus to Jerusalem.

That brings us to the mountaintop event of today’s reading.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:2-29  NRSV)

It’s the very next thing that happens in Mark’s gospel after Caesarea Philippi. The disciples are already six days into their puzzling and risky journey, and now Jesus invites them on a side-trip up a mountain. Three of them came along. “Sure, why not?” they might have told each other, “let’s go and see what happens.”

They experience a supernatural life-changing event. Jesus shines brightly before their eyes. Moses and Elijah appear with him and the three have a conversation. Peter is awestruck.

He reacts just the way you or I might: he deals with his awe by trying to capture, control, and share the event, by wrapping it up neatly and making it into an institution. “Teacher, let’s build three dwellings.” We can sense his yearning to share the awe he feels, and to carve out a big role for himself in the institution he hopes to create. He’s had his mountaintop experience, and he’s already on his way down from the mountain. He’s all fired up and ready to change the world.

Don’t we all do this? Don’t we try to tame our mountaintop times? Don’t we, literally, take pictures of each other right at the summit when we hike up mountains to prove we were there?

Most of us have had transformative and wondrous experiences. And, don’t we respond by trying to capture and control the wonder of them? Of course!

A few years ago a group of electrical engineers in a company near here were having a hard time cooperating with each other; these very sharp and driven guys (yes, all guys) were sniping at each other’s ideas and gossiping about each other. Somebody got the bright idea of hiring an industrial psychologist. She took the whole group to a camp with a ropes course. She made them do difficult things where they had to help each other or they’d fail. She taught them how to offer to help each other, and to ask each other for help. This was tough for these proud men, but they learned to do it. And, you know, the results were miraculous. Those folks pulled together as a team, got their work done, and put out a successful product. They even started to like each other. That day at that camp in the woods was a real mountaintop experience for them.

But something went wrong. Somebody in management got the bright idea of trying to measure and control this miracle: this spirit of coöperation. They made an institution of it: they developed forms for asking for help, and forms for offering help. The bureaucracy got to the point where most of the people decided to go and work at other places, so the team that took so much emotional energy to create ultimately broke up. The miracle was real, but it wouldn’t be captured.

Capturing the miracle was Peter’s immediate reaction to his mountaintop experience: he witnessed Moses, Elijah, and Jesus together in Divine glory – and he wanted to tame it.

This may be a little hard to hear, but it has to be said. We want to tame it too. Peter and his descendants in the way of Jesus and the church – including me, including you – have been more-or-less successful at trying to tame that Divine glory over the centuries. Somebody has built a beautiful church with three naves – three great halls – on the traditional site of this Transfiguration.

We love institutions. Our own part of that church has built a truly glorious building in New York City, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Its arches soar almost to heaven, and its organ brings to mind the vast choirs of angels that announce the birth of Jesus to those shepherds near Bethlehem. It’s awe-inspiring; it’s genuinely holy ground. Martha was ordained there.

But, when we went there last weekend, we took a wrong turn and discovered that the back part of that cathedral’s property is fenced by razor wire. I’m sure there are good reasons for that; city life is easier and safer when visitors come in at the front door. Nevertheless, that building with its wealth and its razor wire is a mixed symbol. It’s BOTH a house of prayer for all peoples and glorious praise to God AND our attempt to capture the glory of God in a very human institution.

There’s bad news in this century for the church: we are declining in numbers. This attempt to tame divine glory isn’t working very well. We went to the early worship service at the cathedral. There were 35 people there counting the organist, three clergy, and the seven of us. (The young people in our group didn’t want to go; I admit they had a good point.)  Are we, the 21st century church, turning out like that group of electrical engineers? Are we so successful at taming our miracles that fewer and fewer people care anymore? It seems possible. That news is not good.

BUT. There’s good news for the church, and for us. Our struggles with our institutions just might be waking us up, and opening our ears to the words God spoke out of the cloud. “Behold Jesus. He’s my son and I love him. Listen to HIM!”  What Jesus has to say is stronger than our institutions. His words won’t be tamed.

There’s even better news. We have access to the mountaintop experience that can’t be tamed. We don’t even have to drive to New Hampshire and fool around on a ropes course. Jesus is present with us all right here, right now, in the Eucharist. He’d be with us in all his glory, even if we served the bread from a paper plate and the wine from a Dixie cup out under the Route 1 bridge where one of our Among Friends guests stays. If his glory cannot be tamed by the cross, it most certainly cannot be tamed by our institutions.

In these days of Lent to come, let us follow Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross. Let us rejoice together in his presence and listen to him. His untameable words of healing and mercy are for the life of the whole world+. AMEN.

 God’s Glory Bigger Than Our Boxes  Posted by on Sun, 19-Feb-12 News, Sermons Comments Off on God’s Glory Bigger Than Our Boxes
Feb 132012

A group of us went to NIGHTWATCH at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The Cathedral is on the upper west side of Manhattan in New York City.

A highlight of the experience was sharing Eucharist at midnight in the chancel. Christina did a great job of reading the epistle for the Eucharist service.

We had our picture taken at the same spot where Rector Martha Hubbard was ordained. Here are some photos.

[flickr-gallery mode=”photoset” photoset=”72157629310019799″]

 NIGHTWATCH 2012  Posted by on Mon, 13-Feb-12 News Comments Off on NIGHTWATCH 2012
Feb 132012

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Liturgical Year B,  February 12, 2012

This morning we have received some amazing Biblical stories of healing. The account from 2 Kings about Naaman’s healing is such a rich story full of the complexities of human relationships and the role of pride and humility in healing and transformation. Then there is the encounter in the Gospel, which is the one I want to hone in on here as I begin this sermon.

In the Israel of Jesus’ day, people suffering with the highly contagious skin disease of leprosy were confined to life on the fringes. The first lesson indicates that this was not the case in the Aram of Elisha’s day. But in Israel, when people with leprosy were full blown in their disease, they weren’t allowed to leave the leper colonies established on the outskirts of town. When in remission, they were allowed closer in, but were even then religious law required them to wear ragged clothes and disheveled hair in order to identify themselves, so that even from afar healthy people could identify them and steer clear of them. The priestly class of Jesus’ time were the gatekeepers of this process of quarantine – hence Jesus’s direction to the healed man in this morning’s gospel, to go and show himself to the priests and to make the required sacrifice.

It must have taken a great deal of courage and faith for this man to seek out Jesus and ask for healing. Both he and Jesus knew that if Jesus responded – if he reached out his hands to touch and heal him – he was putting himself at risk both physically and socially. Kneeling before Jesus this man poured out his faith, “If you choose you can make me clean.” And as was always the case, Jesus responded to courageous faith. Jesus reached out to this man, engaged his faith, the disease that plagued him and the love of God in order to work radical transformation.

This story led me to think about my own experience of healing and transformation.  And it made me wonder about yours.  None of us suffer with leprosy, but what has plagued us or still plagues us in our lives?  What disease do we bear and how does it put us on the outskirts and fringes of life.  What would healing and transformation look like for us? And do we feel free to seek that healing and transformation here within the body of Christ?

I don’t know about you, but I was raised with the concept of Sunday Best. When I was about Marcella’s age, the accessories of my Sunday Best were black patent leather shoes and a white rabbit fur muff. I remember the excitement of putting them on each Sunday and going off to church.  As I look back now I see that my Sunday Best gave me a double message about church. The spoken message was that we wore our best out of respect for God and the church. The unspoken, non-verbal message was that when going to church you were expected to smooth out all your rough places and make yourself look good and well put together.

Back then we began each service by praying the same words we do here each week:

Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts through the inspiration of your Holy Spirit…”

But my black shiny shoes and white muff signaled a different message – that though my heart and deepest desires might be open to God, I should not risk them being open to those in the pew next to me. The subtle message was that it was best to keep my less acceptable self – the pieces that were messy, or cranky, or aching – safely stowed under the smooth and pleasing exterior of the Sunday Best.

Of course as I grew, I learned that there was room in the church community to share my rough places. The Sunday School teachers and Youth Group advisors of our parish were people I came to trust with my fuller self.  But it is amazing to me now, looking back to realize that my family’s significant struggles with active alcoholism remained hidden to our church family until several years after we found hope and healing in the 12 step recovery rooms of AA and Alanon. In the 12 step recovery rooms we found safety to show the pain and confusion that we had never spoken of with our fellow parishioners in all those years of attending church each week.

In a paradoxical way, our “Sunday Best” was not unlike the ragged dress of the lepers of Jesus’ day – They helped us keep our disease, safely tucked away so no one in the larger community had to be made uncomfortable or be inconvenienced by it.

I believe the church has moved a ways in the years since I was 10. And I don’t want anyone to take this as a sermon about not dressing up for church – wear whatever you want! But as many of us already know, one of the most powerful and transformative aspects of life in Christian community is cut off to us if we don’t find a way to let all of who we are come to church. The healing that Jesus not only chooses to offer, but longs to offer is a free gift extended to all,  in this place, through many means.

In this place Christ’s healing hands have reached out and touched us through words, music, silence, bread, wine, water. Or we feel him in conversation with the person in the pew beside us, or at coffee hour as we share more of ourselves with the other. Sometimes he has reached us through a shawl, so lovingly and prayerfully knit and then wrapped around us. And then there are the times when we take the walk up front on the 3rd Sunday of the month, to meet members of the healing team who  feel the call to let the healing flow through them. They listen to our specific requests for healing for ourselves or others, and lay hands on us- which are their hands but not just their hands- and words and silence and oil are lavished on us, and we feel Christ in it, and we glimpse that transformation is furthered in ways we cannot yet even imagine.

However it is that we experience healing and transformation here, what seems clear to me is that we experience it in direct proportion to the risk we take in being our authentic selves, in letting others see not just our strengths, but also what the world might consider less than our Sunday Best. I don’t know about you, but there are places of dis-ease in my life. For instance I am given to compulsive overeating when I get stressed. And I raise my voice at my husband and kids more often than I would like.  And I have relatives who are struggling mightily with additions, and I am deeply distressed by it. I could go on, but I won’t – the point is that if I can’t admit these leprosies of my life here in this place, I won’t be able to access the healing and transformation that this place is all about.

What are you at dis-ease with in your life? What internal leprosies would you rather cover with your Sunday Best? My prayer for us is that we each possess the courage to name them, and bring them to Jesus. The transformation he works is amazing. It is not magic. It is often gradual rather than instantaneous. It often surfaces through deepened relationships among us – where we risk telling more of our story to each other.

And already we are about the work of healing through many other avenues in our lives – with our Doctors, and therapists. Through yoga and 12 step groups.  Through the way we exercise and eat. The healing Christ extends to us in this place is the grace that undergirds and works in concert with all of it. If you want to go deeper into this part of our life of faith, think about attending the Jesus’ Healing Ministry Bible Study that is meeting here at the church each 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month at 7 pm. Or talk to me or someone else on the healing team.

And my sisters and brothers, know this: this healing, this transformation, is the bread that so many in our world are hungering for. So get ready – if you find healing here, Jesus will find a way to use you as a tool in the healing of someone else.

And as for Sunday Best – I dare to redefine it. It has nothing to do with what we wear. Here at St. Paul’s Sunday Best is the act of bringing our whole selves- strengths, struggles and even those aspects we fear might overtake us- to bring all of ourselves in here to be touched and transformed and sent into the world as Christ’s body.  Amen+

 Sermon for February 12, 2012  Posted by on Mon, 13-Feb-12 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for February 12, 2012
Feb 102012

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. (NRSV. Romans 12:4-8)

Leadership in this congregation is the duty of the Rector, the Wardens, and the Vestry.

The Vestry meets once per month, or sometimes more often, and solicits advice from various committees.

 Administration  Posted by on Fri, 10-Feb-12 News Comments Off on Administration
Feb 052012

Richard Beck is a teacher at Abilene Christian University. He writes some very interesting and though-provoking material.  Check this article out.


[T]he trouble with contemporary Christianity is that a massive bait and switch is going on. “Christianity” has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed “spiritual” substitute. For example, rather than being a decent human being the following is a list of some commonly acceptable substitutes.

Was this what the prophet Micah (6:8, NRSV) was on about when he wrote “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  I wonder.

Peace to you all.


 The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity  Posted by on Sun, 5-Feb-12 Ministries, Sermons Comments Off on The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity
Feb 052012

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

Last week I was running an errand, and I passed an old white bus with a group of glum-faced men in orange jump suits in it. A sign on the bus said “trial court community service program.” I wonder what “serving” means to those sad guys? We’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

First, let’s spend some time on the Gospel reading.  Mark’s amazing: he packs a huge amount of back-story about Jesus and his friends into a couple of hundred words.

[J]esus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.  (Mark 1: 29-34, NRSV)

They live in a town that’s anchored by a synagogue.  Simon (Peter) and Andrew share a home; they’re either brothers or very good friends.  They went home after services and brought along Jesus and his group of people. Their welcome into this house seems like an ordinary Sabbath-day event. That means they and their families must somehow be coming to terms with their new life. It’s only a day or so since Jesus called them away from their fishing nets, but they didn’t just walk away from their community, and they haven’t been ostracized.

Simon Peter has a mother-in-law. This means he must have a wife, and an ordinary human life! Who knew? Mark doesn’t tell us the mother-in-law’s name.  Let’s give her a good Hebrew name: We’ll call her Refaela.

Refaela is ill.  Jesus, her guest, greets her, takes her by the hand, and helps her out of bed.  Then her fever goes away and she begins to serve – the Gospel word means minister to – all her guests.  No glum face or orange jump suit for her!

Some Bible scholars make a big deal of wondering whether Jesus was deliberately making himself ritually impure according to Jewish law, by  – horrors – touching a woman, not to mention a sick woman, and by healing her – working – on the Jewish Sabbath.  Should we read the gospel that way?

Jesus certainly did take Refaela by the hand. He did heal her, and on the Sabbath.  But this was right at the beginning of his work. What’s more, the purity-obsessed scribes and Pharisees were far away: They hadn’t yet entered the picture as Jesus’s opponents. We’re still in the first chapter of Mark, so let’s keep it simple. Jesus greeted his hostess like a friendly and dutiful young guest. He behaved like any good friend of her son-in-law would do when he’s invited for the Sabbath meal at his village home. And she responded by gathering him and her other guests for a meal, and feeding them.

So, this domestic scene isn’t about Jesus stirring up trouble. Mark seems to be painting a picture of a joyful gathering on a restful day, eating together and taking care of each other like the realm of God was at hand. These things – serving each other and caring for each other – are wonderful, but they’re also normal.

That’s all in stark contrast to the action beyond the peaceful threshold of the house.  Outside, there’s another back-story. There’s no need to stir up trouble. There’s plenty there already.  It’s the story of sentient evil: of the demons who recognize Jesus. It’s the story of Jesus silencing those evil demons, and driving them out. It’s a story of battle between evil and good.  The people around Jesus can’t see the demons. What they do see is demon-possessed people set free, and sick people made whole.

Mark gives us listeners the whole cosmic back-story. He shows us God’s realm of peace and love (Refaela’s home) contrasted with the realm of conflict (outside her door). Both realms are real. Mark wants us to know that. We do know it.

Certainly the realm of conflict is real for us. In our world, for example, “service” is a chore the trial court makes us do, and takes us to in an old white bus.  Peace, healing, and happiness has nothing to do with service.  Or does it? Service is a punishment. Or is it?

I sometimes have spent Saturday mornings helping clean up the riverbed of a stream a few miles from here. It’s a chance to get outdoors and spend some time with friends, and maybe do something useful. One Saturday we gathered in a mall parking lot in Lawrence. I got there a few minutes late, so my friends had already taken off in their canoes.  Now this part of the river was a mess. Jesus battled demons — willful evil —  and I felt we were doing the same thing.  Chemical drums, blown out truck tires, huge hunks of Styrofoam, even a cast-off cigarette vending machine.  In our world it seems we cast our demons off the nearest bridge to try to get rid of them. That part of the river was foul. I paddled fast by some of this junk hoping to catch up with my friends

I found them with a bunch of tough young men I’d never met. Their language was strong enough to corrode the old steel drums into rusty muck.  We definitely weren’t in Refaela’s house enjoying each other’s company in peace.

But, those young men sure could work. Somebody said, “let’s get those barrels up to the road,” and they just did it.  Then they tackled the truck tires: dug them out of the muck and dragged them to a dumptruck.  They were kind enough to leave the light stuff – foam blocks, car tires – for the older folks like me to clean up.  It was awesome to see them work.

Somebody went for pizza, and we got to talking.  It turned out these young men were residents of the Riverside School in Lowell.  This school takes teenagers who are in trouble with the law, as a substitute for the juvenile lockup.  These guys were really happy to be with us helping us casting out our modern demons – toxic greed and carelessness – casting them out of the river.

At Riverside School, they treat community service not as a punishment, but as a privilege.  If you misbehave at Riverside – swear at a staff member, smoke indoors, or steal from another resident, that kind of thing – you don’t get to help cook the meals or clean the bathroom.  If you’re in trouble, you get to eat, you get to go to class and do your homework, but not serve. At chore time, you sit in your room.

These guys were the privileged ones. They spent the day up to their knees in the mud struggling with filthy rubbish. It was their reward for weeks of positive behavior.  They had a great time.  What an amazing day it was, to be with people who experienced service as a privilege and an honor.

Back to Refaela:  She too knew it was a privilege to serve. When Jesus met her, she had a fever and was lying in bed.  Most of us know what that’s like.  We’re drawn into ourselves. If we can put together any thoughts or prayers at all, they’re wretched and selfish – Make it go away!

The stranger who visited her home answered that prayer. By his grace he set her free from her pain.  Her response was to jump up and welcome her guests by service. So, she’s like those teenagers from the Riverside School: her service is a privilege.

How about you? How about me?  Are you and I those sad-faced passengers riding on that white “Community Service Program” bus? Do we serve our neighbors because we’re on trial, and some judge has sentenced us to do it?

Or do we serve and care for one another because we’ve been set free from our sickness and self-centeredness?  There’s no doubt that we live in a world full of demons – rusting barrels, bald tires buried in the mud, addictions, anger, pain – but we also live in the realm of God, like Mark teaches us.

It’s my prayer that each of you will, this week, be filled with the joy of God’s realm as you care for somebody and serve somebody. Filled with that holy joy may you dispose of your filthy demons, for Jesus’s sake and for the life of the world +


 Service: Punishment or Privilege?  Posted by on Sun, 5-Feb-12 News, Sermons Comments Off on Service: Punishment or Privilege?