Jul 282013

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Holy Scripture is full of advice about how to live our lives. I think most of us crave this kind of advice; I know I do. It’s not easy to live rooted in Christ’s love when we also must live under the world’s “rulers and authorities”, as the writer of Colossians put it.


There’s all kinds of advice on offer.  This letter offers some of it. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit.” We’re to be tough-minded, to avoid distractions, to attend to the purity of our thoughts, and to keep our eyes on Christ. It is live-giving to keep our eyes on Christ. So, if we just take the letter-writer’s advice, all will be well.

Do this, get that. Perfect. Right? Well, maybe. But “doing this” – keeping our eyes on Christ – is hard enough that we can’t be sure we’ve done it well enough. So there’s a trap.

Things go wrong. We are taken captive sometimes – we suffer from addictions, apathy, greed, anger, prejudice, you name it – the evil things the Church has always called sin. We suffer from those things and we make each other suffer from them. We make bad decisions. And then we’re taken captive again because we carry huge wet sandbags of regret – what the Church has always called guilt – for how we’ve caused people to suffer and suffered ourselves.  So, it’s double jeopardy. We do bad things, and we carry the burden of guilt.

Finally, when we read scriptural advice like “see to it that no one takes you captive” our double jeopardy turns to triple jeopardy. We do bad things, and we carry the guilt, and it’s all because we weren’t tough-minded and pure-hearted enough to make good decisions and avoid trouble in the first place.  How is this working out for you? I wonder if this tough-mindedness and pureheartedness helps?

Almost all of us have been two years old, and some of us have raised two-year-olds. Do you remember discovering the word “No?” Do you remember the thrill of learning that it’s possible to be uncooperative, and the frustration of living with an uncooperative two-year-old?  Would it occur to you to punish an uncooperative two-year-old by saying, “sit in the corner until you stop being weak-minded and letting yourself be taken captive by principalities, powers, and worldly philosophy?

No. But the little child’s gleeful at saying “No” and seeing her parents become frustrated. Is that glee free from sin? Also no. We do mistreat each other. Our human tendency to mistreat each other – to sin, in Church language – has at least some roots that go deeper than good decisions and diligent mind-control can prevent.

So there’s a problem with “be tough minded” advice like in this letter.  We want to live in God’s realm of justice and peace, but when we don’t consistently live that way, it must be because we’re not tough minded enough.

If we could just be a little tougher, we’d be fine, right? No. We know that’s not going to work out.  We have a prayer we sometimes say where we admit that we’re in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. That’s the truth, all scriptural advice about tough-mindedness notwithstanding.

Sometimes the words of Jesus offer us crisp advice on how to live our lives. Again, we crave that advice and love to hear it. We’ve been hearing that advice in our Gospel readings this summer. Two weeks ago Jesus wrapped up his parable of the Samaritan caring for the injured stranger on the highway by saying “Go and do likewise.” Last week he told Martha — the more anxious of two sisters — to respect the choice of the less anxious one to be at peace and listen to him. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he said.

This is advice, like the epistle-writers’ advice. But it’s not quite the same kind of advice. Jesus didn’t condemn Martha for anxiety and busyness, he simply praised Mary for choosing the better part. He suggested that you and I have the same ability to do what the Samaritan did. He advised Martha to see Mary’s choice with an open heart, and all of us to see the guy lying by the side of the road with an open heart. Jesus’s advice carries us toward openness towards each other.

Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately after the last two weeks in Luke. It too is full of advice. But the advice in this chapter is again very different.  Jesus uses a couple of counterexamples for how to feed a hungry child: give her a snake or a scorpion instead of food? That seems extreme. Don’t we wish he said, “don’t try this at home!”

This whole passage is about prayer: about our conversations with God, the One Jesus called “daddy.” Jesus gave us this advice:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

This is challenging advice. For one thing, we’re always being taught to shut up and listen in prayer-in our conversations with God. “Be still and know that I am God” are the words from Psalm 46, not “pester me until I give you what you want.”

For another thing,  what does it mean if you don’t get what you ask for in prayer? Does it mean you didn’t pray right, or didn’t pray hard enough? What does it even mean to pray hard enough? Is it like shouting loudly enough at your two-year-old to stop saying No, so she’ll actually stop saying it? (Don’t try this at home, OK?)

So this isn’t direct advice like “go and do likewise.” This is advice that invites us to re-imagine what it’s like in the realm of God.

A minister acquaintance of mine, Sally, serves in upstate New York. A woman knocked on the church door, and said “I live in my car with my two cats. We’re crowded. Can I borrow a tent?”

In conversation, Sally got to know the woman. She heard about the woman’s life. It had times of joy, but she also episodes of addiction and anger. She wasn’t tough-minded. She found it hard to make good decisions about her life. At any rate, Sally found somebody in the congregation with a tent, and gave it to her.

After a week or so, another knock came. “Can I put up the tent in the church backyard and stay here for a while? I won’t be any trouble.”

Sally was tempted to act from her heart of compassion and say “Go ahead.” But she didn’t. She recognized in her heart that the car-cat woman was following Jesus’s advice: ask, seek, knock. Pester God, pester a church, don’t give up, get your daily bread. She didn’t just say OK. Instead, she started following the Jesus’s advice herself. The church’s telephone got a lot of use that day, with the woman and Sally together asking, seeking, and knocking. Some friend of a friend suggested a supportive housing place that could take the woman and her pets.

And, both Sally and the woman learned from each other about the power of asking, seeking, knocking, and then listening to the answer. They found saw God’s relentless compassion in each other and in the people they spoke to that day. When they knocked, they heard God knocking back, and listened. Asking, seeking, and knocking opened up their imaginations about what God’s realm could look like.

We’ve heard three kinds of scriptural advice about living in the realm of God. There’s the advice about being tough-minded with ourselves. That helps, but it’s not enough. There’s the advice about being open-hearted with others like the Samaritan. That’s also good advice. Thirdly there’s the advice to ask, seek, knock, and never give up. Sally and that stranger experienced what that’s all about: opening up ourselves to be transformed by God and each other. It’s when we’re willing to be helped that we will be led by each other and God into the realm of justice and peace.

May each of us continually ask, seek, and knock to find God’s realm in this world.


Jul 142013

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator.

Good morning. We’ve heard some Bible accounts this morning of misbehaving clergy. I hope you won’t misunderstand what I have to say just because I’m a clergy person standing up here in this high pulpit. I may sound like I’m defending clergy when we don’t deserve it, but that’s not what I intend. The questions that come out of these readings apply to us all, not just so-called religious professionals.

In this week’s Christian Century magazine there was an article by Samuel Wells. He’s the priest at a well-known London church called St. Martin’s in the Fields. He tells of the time he went to visit a 90-year-old Welsh lady at her home. She’d left the church when she was young and now wanted to come back.


…asked, “What was it that led you away from the church for 75 years?” …

[She answered] “It was when we wanted to get married. We were in love. The rector wouldn’t marry us.” Well, this sounds intriguing, I thought, and, always a soft touch for the romantic twist on a story, I blundered in where angels fear to tread. “So was there something wrong?” I asked. “Had your husband been married previously, or were you too young, maybe?”

“No,” she said calmly, and I realize now that she was trying hard not to be patronizing or angry. “The rector looked at my hand. You see, I worked in a mill. I had an accident when I was 16.” She held up her left hand. The last three fingers were missing. “The rector said that since I didn’t have a finger to put the wedding ring on, he couldn’t marry us.”

Wow.    A shocking bit of history about a Church of England priest serving a Welsh milltown parish long ago.  It’s easy to pass judgment on that priest. Deliver us from that kind of evil, we pray, and rightly so. But let’s go a little deeper and try to understand a little more. Again, please try not to hear me as justifying this guy. I’m not.

When he met with that Welsh factory girl in his study long ago, I wonder what took place in his heart? We can’t ask him, so we’ll never know for sure. We can be sure he studied the same Bible we study. He surely knew the parable we just heard. So what happened to him? Could the same thing happen to you and me?

Maybe he was disgusted – grossed out – when he saw the girl’s mangled hand. It seems a strange and unfaithful reaction for someone who served a church that sings William Blake’s poem

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

That priest was a surprise witness to a reality borne of those Satanic Mills – their violation of the sanctity of one person’s body. In that moment he said words that were hurtful and abusive of his power. Maybe he was dumbfound and blurted out something stupid.

Now, disgust isn’t bad. It’s a reflex to help us survive and stay healthy. We’ve all seen those little YUK! stickers with the cartoon tongue sticking out, stuck to bottles under kitchen sinks. Disgust helps us avoid eating poison, rotting food, and other impure stuff.  The trouble we have is this: purity and impurity get all tied up in our souls with sanctity and sacrilege.

Richard Beck is a theologian and a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas. Two years ago he wrote a terrific book called Unclean where he digs into how people experience the life of faith. He writes about purity and disgust, and how it’s human to be dumbfounded.

The experience of the sacred, holy, and divine is inherently a dumbfounding experience. … The judgments of Purity/Sanctity are driven by an emotional system: … disgust psychology. [Beck, 2011, p. 64]

Our experience of the divine is being regulated by emotion rather than logic, affect rather than theology. …

Very often, Beck wrote, arguments based on scripture, reason, and tradition, “are secondary to the felt experience.”  And, the reasoning and conversations come later and serve as self-justification for the prior felt experience.  [p 67]

It seems possible that Richard Beck’s insight applied to that priest in that Welsh milltown. He formed a mental image of that bride-to-be’s injured hand receiving her beloved’s ring in holy matrimony. That image overwhelmed him in a judgement about purity and sanctity, and rendered him dumbfounded. That wasn’t good for him, and it was very bad indeed for the young lady.

Jesus’s parable about the mugging victim on the highway brings up the same issue.  The first person to find him was a priest of the Jerusalem temple going down to Jericho. We don’t get to hear that priest’s interior experience: all we know is that he passed by on the other side of the road.

No doubt he knew the Law of Moses. It says lots of contradictory things for that situation, like  “care for the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers once in the land of Egypt” and “When any one of you touches any unclean thing-human uncleanness or an unclean animal or any unclean creature-and then eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifice of well-being, you shall be cut off from your kin.”  (Lev 7:21)

Do you suppose the priest stopped to mull over those things and make a rabbinically wise moral judgment?  No. More likely, he was grossed out and took off.  In the moment, he experienced the emotion of disgust and so he just kept going. Possibly he justified himself later by telling himself he didn’t make himself impure by touching that victim, and render himself unfit for priestly duties. But that reasoning almost certainly came after his felt experience in the moment.

It took the foreign traveler to actually help out: to take the life-giving stuff he was carrying, wine and oil, and use it for the rescue and healing the victim. He then used his credit with the innkeeper to continue to provide healing.  Let’s keep in mind that Jesus is telling this parable to people in Jerusalem. He intends to evoke disgust in his listeners. That dirty Samaritan infidel? He actually touched? the bleeding victim? Disgusting! He wasted perfectly good oil and wine? What a fool!

In the parable Jesus catches that Jerusalem audience, and you and me, on the hook of our disgust reaction, and reels us in.

By the reflection that comes after being caught by our disgust you and I can be transformed. We can be healed. We can absorb and internalize the emotional experiences of purity and sanctity. Our dumfoundedness, our experience of awe, doesn’t go away. But we can live with it and be set free its consequences. We can experience holy wisdom and become healers.

It may take us a lifetime to get there. It did for that millworker. Sam Wells said to her, “May I ask what brings you back to the church now?”

“God’s bigger than the church,” she replied. “I’ll be dead soon. The Lord’s Prayer says forgive if you want to be forgiven. So that’s what I’ve decided to do.”

Jesus continually offers us to set us free from our shortcomings and our anger at the shortcomings of others. He invites us to move through our dumbfoundedness to wisdom. He continually offers us a vision of purity and holiness that embraces every part of our humanity – even the gross parts: our ability to be disgusted and to be disgusting. He swallows us up in mercy, and transforms us.

Holy Eucharist is the embodiment of his teaching in our parable today.  What could be more holy, and at the same time more disgusting, than Jesus’s offer to us that we might eat his own blood and body?  Jesus invites us to his table where he behaves like that foreigner on the highway: he doesn’t care who we are: he offers everything he has and everything he is – his blood and his body – for our healing and for the life of the world.

Let’s remember that he wants – no, needs – us to do the same. In conclusion, I must repeat his words: “Go and do likewise!”

 Sermon for Sunday July 14, 2013 – The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Sun, 14-Jul-13 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday July 14, 2013 – The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Jul 072013


As many of you know I spent this past week at the Barbara C. Harris Camp in New Hampshire serving as a Chaplain.  It was great fun to be with several of our own St. Paul’s youth and 50+ other campers and the wonderful BCH staff.  The night we arrived at camp the 2 other Chaplains – Jane Bearden of Trinity Haverhill and Stephanie Bradbury of St. Paul’s North Andover – and I sat with the Lead Chaplain, Aileen Ryder, who is there all summer, and got our assignments for the week.  Along with preaching and leading worship, we were given groups of campers to accompany on their daily round of camp activity.  Aileen asked if there was one of us who would be willing to accompany the Ropes Course group and inexplicably my hand went up!

I was not sure why, but I felt called to join that group for the adventure of low and high ropes course work.  For those of you who are as unfamiliar with ropes course work as I was at the outset of the week, our group worked through a series of get to know you games, then moved on to team and trust building exercises on a set of on or near the ground stations- known as low ropes- then on to the climbing wall and high ropes up in the trees, where we wore harnesses, helmets and belayed each other so no one took a dangerous plummeting fall.  It was a small group of campers I was in with – 3 14 year old girls and a boy who turned 15 on our first day together.  The leaders we were entrusted to were counselors in their late teens and early 20’s who are trained and experienced in the ropes course.

I have to say, I would not have signed up for this sort of thing even a year ago.  This is a bit embarrassing to admit, but one reason I would not have signed up for this in the past is that 14 year old girls made me nervous.  I was not a cool customer at 14.  I was reminded of this when watching a skit this week in which campers portrayed the various groups one finds in the average high school – you know the popular crowd, the jocks and the nerds – at least that was our lingo to describe them back in the day.  As I watched that skit I totally identified with the nerds.  I was a nerd and part of my still is!  So my inner nerd was challenged this week as I joined forces with 3 14 year old girls who seemed like they must move with the popular crowd at school.  Like I said, a bit embarrassing for a 49 year old priest to admit, but there you have it.

Anyway this past week our ropes course group got through the get-to- know-you games with the required politeness, but once we arrived at the low ropes stations, surface politeness no longer worked to get us where we needed to go.  What we faced were various physical challenges that required us to work together to achieve them.  What quickly became clear was that each of us had various abilities that were needed for each task.  I found out on a course known as the Mohawk Walk that I have pretty decent balance which I could use to help others whose balance was not so well developed.  At another station known as the Nitro Swing, I found out my arm strength is not so hot, but other people had that so they could cover for me.  Over the range of stations we found that collectively as a team we had all the skills needed to accomplish our goals.

That was really good to know because it made us realize we could count on each other and encourage each other- both were needed as we headed to the high ropes course.  Here the challenges went vertical.  The wonderful part of high ropes is that it is a safe way to gain mastery over our fears.  With the helmets, harnesses and ropes, used with a certain set of safety guidelines, the possibility of grave injury is almost nonexistent.  However when you are up there, it does not feel that way. When you are up there, your pulse increases, and you wonder what ever made you think you could do this.  But then you do it.  But you don’t do it on your own. You only do it with the help of your team.  When you are up in the air, they are down on the ground holding the rope so you can’t fall.  When you are scared they are calling up to you with words of encouragement and praise.  When you don’t want to let go and risk, they are the ones you know were there to help you yesterday when your own abilities would not have been enough.

The key to all this is challenge by choice, so each of us got to challenge ourselves to go just as far as we wanted – always reaching just outside our comfort zone, but never so far that we would walk away and never come back because it had been too much.  So there I was this week – looking like a 49 year old chaplain, but inside feeling like a 14 year old nerd – being coached and supported by members of the popular crowd in reaching for my personal best.  That was a healing experience for me.

The reason I tell you this story is because I think it has something to do with the Gospel of the day.  In this passage from Luke we find Jesus sending 70 disciples out in pairs to go into the region of Samaria to heal and to tell the Samaritans that the Kingdom of God had come near.  Jesus sent them to draw those who responded to that message into the growing Jesus movement.  Jesus gives them very specific instructions to go without anything in hand – they are to go provisionless and defenseless.  One piece of information that is necessary to understand this passage is that Jews and Samaritans were distant cousins who as a general rule did not get along.  Not so different then from sending a bunch of nerds out into a sea of popular kids, or vice versa!

Jesus pushes his disciples beyond their comfort zone, and challenges them to do something they probably would not have thought to do on their own. They are to go out in pairs among people they would have avoided if the choice had been theirs and bring peace about by offering healing and the news that God’s love was for everyone.  Now Jesus was no fool, he warns that they might sometimes meet with resistance – in those places he told them they were not to fight – rather pick yourselves up, brush yourselves off, and move on.  Jesus would later go to work on those obstinate, dusty places himself.

And what was the outcome – better than the 70 could have imagined at the outset.  They come back rejoicing saying that even the demons they encountered submitted to them.  Jesus is not impressed by the demons part, but tells them that what they should rejoice over is that their names are written in heaven.

Writing online about this passage this week Broderick Greer, of Virginia Theological Seminary noted:

This “written in heaven” phrase troubled me at first glance. My Protestant mind cannot fathom a Jesus who rewards his followers with heaven when they do what he tells them to do. But after further thought, I am inclined to think that this experiment in evangelism is actually heaven itself. In their receiving of bread in strange homes and exchanging of stories and giving of good news, the 70 experienced heaven. That’s all that heaven is, right? Sharing, learning, and delighting in others and in God?

Greer ends with the question:

In what ways have you possibly missed out on heaven in the last week”?


For myself I know that I would have missed out on heaven this week if I had not joined the Ropes Course group at camp.  My inner nerd is feeling radically transformed!  What heavenly healing has touched you recently?  Or what transformation are you hoping for?  Follow Jesus out into the bountiful harvest field my friends and you might just find it coming to you in surprising ways and through surprising people, who then become your partners in the way. In his name and for his sake. Amen+

 Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 7, 2013  Posted by on Sun, 7-Jul-13 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 7, 2013
Jul 022013
Two by two, cure the sick!
Two by two, cure the sick!

Two by two, cure the sick!

Here’s a rule of thumb for a preacher: If a Biblical metaphor appears in more than 1 of the 4 lessons of the day, preach on it!  Today the metaphor of putting one’s hand to the plow and then turning back occurs both in our first lesson and in the Gospel lesson, so let’s take a closer look at what God might be trying to show us through that.

I our lesson from 1Kings (19:15-16,19-21), we meet Elisha, a farmer who is out plowing in the field.  God has indicated to Elijah – I know it can get confusing because their names are so similar – that he is to anoint Elisha as his successor as prophet to the Kings.  So as Elisha is plowing, Elijah comes by and throws his mantle over him, as a sign that he is chosen by God to join Elijah to be trained up as a prophet.  And what is Elisha’s response.  He tells Elijah “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.”

Interestingly in the Gospel lesson we are told that ask he is on his way to Jerusalem for the final time, Jesus has a conversation with people who are following him about what discipleship requires. One of his followers tells him he will follow once he has buried his father.  Another says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 

Now if we were in Elisha’s place or that of the disciples on the road with Jesus, I might well have said the same thing.  It seems entirely reasonable to want to find closure with what is going on in our lives before we leap headlong into something new.  It seems entirely appropriate to want to show a loving gesture to our families before taking off to pursue Lord knows what!

In the case of Elisha and Elijah, when Elisha says he wants to kiss his parents goodbye, Elijah says, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” It may be a rhetorical question, but it must have given Elisha pause to reflect further about what was really going on there.  Because he does go back, but not all the way home – he goes just as far back as the field he was plowing when Elijah had thrown the mantle over him.  And there he does something unexpected.  There he slaughters the 12 yoke of oxen he had been plowing the field with, cooks their meat and feeds the neighbors.  Then he goes on and follows Elijah.

Now there’s all kinds of symbolism going on here.  Elijah is associated with many instances of providing food for people who need it, most notably the miraculous plenty he brought to the widow of Zarephath through the bottomless meal jar.  And he himself has been fed by ravens and even by angels when there was not food in sight.  So this action that Elisha takes in slaughtering the oxen to give food for others puts him in that same line of work.  And it is also symbolic of the fact that he is taking the tools of his livelihood and offering them up to God, so that God can lead him in a new vocation.  The fact that he does not go back to his parents is also a signal that he has surrendered his plans to those of God.  His parents gave him birth and nurture, but it is God who holds his future out before him and beckons him forward to it.

In the Gospel we find Jesus tells the disciple who wants to go bury his father, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” To the other who wants to bid farewell to those at home he said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  On any scale of pastoral sensitivity Jesus would not get high marks for these responses. He seems rather harsh in his dealings with them.  But maybe it is not harshness – maybe it is urgency.  And if I stop and read his words again in a more subdued tone I do hear that urgency instead of some sort of harsh self-righteousness.  Here it is again “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  The nuance I hear now is that something incredibly valuable is being offered here and to turn away from it for even a second is to turn away from one of the most amazing opportunities they will ever be offered.  So Jesus is using hyperbole to shake them into seeing the surpassing value of what he is holding out to them.

Unlike the story in 1Kings, we do not know what the disciples who turned back did then.  Maybe that is because we are meant to write the ending of that story with our own lives of faith.  Maybe we are meant to ask ourselves, what is holding me back from putting my life more fully into the hands of God?  What pieces of unfinished business are keeping me bound and unable to move forward with Christ? Who or what have I not fully grieved, let go of and lovingly put to rest?

The decision to put our hand to the plow and follow is a bold decision.  It means that we move from an existence where we live in the world and come into church periodically, to an existence where we decide to make our permanent address with God and go out into the world each day from that home-base. To do that we need each other, and so we are given to each other in Christian community.  We are to lovingly listen to each other’s stories and to offer to each other the experience, strength and hope that our own journey with Christ has provided us with.  We are to reach out hands of healing in prayer to call down God’s healing for each other.  We are to encourage each other to be fearless in naming what is holding us back from following the inward tug that we suspect is coming from God. We can time and again remind each other that this is a lifelong discipleship in which we little by little grow into the full stature of God.

The paradoxical truth that I have experienced when I dare to go forward in faith with the things I feel God is calling me too, even when I feel constrained by the unfinished business of the past is this: It is in the very act of stepping out into that unknown future with God that the past begins to resolve in ways that I could never have engineered myself.   And as the past resolves new and amazing horizons open up and experience an amazing freedom to move ahead trusting that God is working in and through my life in ways I can’t even imagine.

I’ll end now with a prayer written by Thomas Merton many years ago:

 “Lord God, we don’t always know where we are going.  We don’t always see the road ahead of us.  We cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think we are following your will does not mean that we actually are doing so. But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And we hope we have that desire in all that we are doing. We hope that we will never do anything apart from that desire. And we know that if we do this you will lead us by the right road, though we may know nothing about it.  Therefore we will trust you always though we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. We will not fear, for you are ever with us and you will never leave us to face our perils alone.                                                 (Thoughts in Solitude, p. 103)


In Christ’s name. Amen+


 Sermon for Sunday June 30, 2013 The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  Posted by on Tue, 2-Jul-13 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday June 30, 2013 The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost