Dec 162015



Hear again these words from our collect for the day:

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

What a paradox.  Here we call for the Lord to come in power and great might, and God is born among us as a helpless child.  What does it mean? Could it be that power is something different than we thought of wished it to be?  It means I think that though we might like God to come and rescue us from the frenzies and messes or our lives, instead God chooses to come and live in the frenzies and messes with us.  It means that God does not wield power, but rather shares power in a ways that takes in and redeems all of who we are – all that characterizes our lives.  And God’s power, living and breathing among in a helpless child makes us necessary and active participants in our redemption.

When I was a child my grandmother had a plaque hanging in her kitchen that read, “God helps those who help themselves”. St. Augustine put the same truth a little differently when he said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.” The bottom line – It’s not God’s nature to work around us.  It is God’s deepest desire to bring about reconciliation of all creation through us.  The reason for the incarnation?  God took on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus to claim us as partners in the work of redemption.

So God will not show us to clean house, or make all things right in our lives.  Rather, God in Christ is ever present to lead us in his way.  And St. Paul’s words to us this morning are part of that way.  In our second lesson from his letter to the Christians in Philippi we read:

“Let you gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”

Being gentle does not mean being weak – gentleness has a strength to it.  It does not mean letting other people run all over you with unacceptable behavior.  On a personal level, at this time of year it may mean lowering unrealistic expectations for others and ourselves.  If we can let go of the dream of having the so called “perfect holiday”, our gentleness may well flourish.  Most of us will never be that “perfect” family around that “perfect “tree, in that “perfect” home, all happy and smiling.  Sure we have our very good and perhaps even shining moments, but the expectation of the “perfect” holiday is an illusion marketed by industries that want to convince us that we can achieve that if we just buy whatever product they are selling.  If we can be freed from that illusion, then we may well find gentleness brimming over for others and ourselves.

This holiday season, gentleness might mean keeping things beautifully simple – like what about sacrificing some chores we feel compelled to do in order to take a much needed nap. Or how about going outside to play with the kids instead of slaving in the kitchen over yet another batch of cookies?  Or perhaps it means boldly using a ribbon that clashes with the wrapping paper instead of making a frenzied run to the store to find jus the perfect color.  It is little acts like these is favor of gentle simplicity that add up to real openings God can take in the work of redemption.

This season, our gentleness might overflow our families and go with us into the world as well.  In the hustle and bustle of life, many lonely people get bumped and jostled and overlooked.  If we are practicing the gentleness of God in Christ, we will notice them.  Haven’t we ourselves found it true that a kind word or a simple, thoughtful gesture can go a long way to dispelling a sense of loneliness?

God’s gentleness dwelling is us may also impact the way we look at the world at large.  Justice does not reign in our world – that is plain to see. How can the awesome, yet gentle power of God in Christ work through us to change things for the better? Advent can be a time to ask ourselves- whether we are mothers or fathers, students, retirees, business men or women, homemakers – How can I be an agent of God’s peace and justice, not just for us and for our nation, but for the whole global village?  And the action does not have to be grand – God’s power can partner with even our small efforts.

For instance perhaps this year you have contributed in some way to our parish partnership with Cristosal in El Salvador.  Perhaps you put craft supplies in the suitcase that we took this summer for children in the safe house there.  Or maybe you were one of the travelers on the trip, or perhaps you bought some of the beautiful crafts we brought back.  Or maybe you encouraged those of us who wrote the resolution for diocesan convention.  Or maybe yours is the work of praying regularly for all these efforts.  In whatever way you contribute it joins with the efforts of many others here at St. Paul’s and makes a real difference in El Salvador.  Jus this week we received a letter of thanks from Noah Bullock, Cristosal’s Executive Director.  He writes:

I wanted to take the opportunity to personally thank you both for the extraordinary support from St. Paul’s this year. From the Global School course to your gifts, financial and physical, and last but not least your work on the Diocesan resolution, I am deeply grateful for your exemplary leadership and generosity in supporting Cristosal and our work in El Salvador.

These past two years have been difficult ones in El Salvador, and I am very proud of how Cristosal has been able to provide leadership and innovative responses to attend to victims of violence and strengthen a culture of democracy and peace. St. Paul’s Newburyport has been with us from the beginning, and I feel it is especially important to acknowledge what a major role you all have played, and continue to play, in this work.

So, over the next couple of weeks, whenever you feel frenzied, or about to explode at someone you love, or overwhelmed by the harshness of certain situations you encounter locally, or across our globe, ask yourself, “What would gentleness look like in this case?” When you have an answer, pray for the power of God to equip you to be that gentleness and do your imperfect best to live into it.  When we are gentle with ourselves and each other, the tensions melt and our Blessed One is born to and through us once again.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”


 Sermon for Sunday December 13 The Third Sunday of Advent  Posted by on Wed, 16-Dec-15 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday December 13 The Third Sunday of Advent
Dec 072015

If one can get through the first sentence of the Gospel without tripping and stumbling over all the names of people and places that do not roll easily of our North American English trained tongues, one comes to some words that may prove even more difficult for us to pronounce – repentance and sins.

In her book, Speaking of Sin, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that when we hear words like these in scripture they sound:

like language from an earlier age, when human relationship with God was laced with blame and treat.  As old as the words are, they are still redolent with guilt.  We may not know exactly what they mean, but we know they judge us.  The most obvious solution to the discomfort they provoke is to stop saying them altogether, which is what many of us have done.”  (Speaking of Sin, p. 4)

One of the things I love about helping prepare young people for the confirmation of their faith is that they are often still willing to speak these words and to ask for definitions and explanations that will make sense to them in their lives.  Not too long ago, one or our confirmand emailed me a list of questions he has.  One of them was, “Does God always forgive sins?” What a great question! So since in the Gospel lesson John the Baptist calls us to receive our baptism as one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, I want to reflect on this question.  And because she is so eloquent on the topic I want to lean heavily on what Barbara Brown Taylor shares in her book Speaking of Sin.

After noting that many of us have stopped using words like sin, iniquity, transgression and repentance, Taylor tells a bit of her own family’s story to illustrate the struggles many faithful people go through with these concepts.  She writes:

Although I do not remember it, my first experience with sin happened when I was five weeks old.  The year was 1951.  The occasion was my baptism in the Roman Catholic Church, which was still on the far side of Vatican II.  Since my mother was not Catholic, t sacrament took place in ta side chapel.  I was her firstborn, and she was wildly in love with me.  The way she tells the story, the priest took me from her arms and began saying all kinds of terrible things about me.  He said that I was sinful through and through, that I had the devil in me, but – not to worry – the water of baptism would soon wash me clean as snow. 

‘You were the best thing I had ever done,’ she says, still chilled by the memory. ‘The moment I got you back in my arms, I looked at your father and said, we’re getting out of here and we’re not ever coming back.’  True to her word, she did not present either of my two younger sisters for baptism when they were born and we stayed away from church for seven years.  When we finally went back we chose a Methodist church, where I do not remember ever hearing a word about sin.

While we did not use the word at home I learned that there were things I could do to bring me closer to my parents (tell the truth, help around the house, keep an eye on my sisters) as well as things I could do to push them away (trash my room, break things, smoke cigarettes).  I also learned that while a sincere apology might get their attention, it was changed behavior my parents wanted from me.  To that end, they set up consequences for my action, so that I could experience the results of my choices.  When I was old enough they invited me to start setting limits for myself, thus trusting me more than I trusted myself.  They went to all of this trouble, they said, because they wanted me to grow up a human being not a lout.  When I began to read the Bible years later, I recognized the same pattern in God’s relationship with Israel.  Even without knowing the words, I had already learned a great deal about sin, judgement confession, repentance, penance, grace and salvation.

Other children I knew were not so lucky.  They lived with people who believed you could beat the sin out of a child, and they spent most of their time in hell.  If those spiritually battered souls had any appetite for God left when they grew up, then they had an enormous amount of work to do before they could conceive of anything close to a loving judge. (Ibid, pp.11-13)

What Taylor so eloquently points out here is that there are vast varieties of ways in which people understand sin and its consequences for humans in their life with each other and God.

Later in the book she encourages us each to think about what sin means to us in our own lives, while pointing out that all sins are connected at their root.  Taylor writes:

“When I say ‘sin’ there is no telling what you see: the stolen candy bar, the rumpled sheets of a bed you shared with someone else’s lover, a large pipe spilling orange sludge into a once-blue river, a clutch of homeless people sitting around a fire built from trash in a vacant lot between two corporate sky-scrapers. The picture will be different for every one of you, but the experience to hunt for is that one that makes part of you die.

Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life.  There is some memory of having been treated cruelly, and – a little deeper, perhaps – the memory of having treated someone else cruelly as well.  Deep down in human existence there is an experience of seeing the light and turning away from it, either because it is too beautiful to behold or because it spoils the dank but familiar darkness.  Deep down in human existence there is an experience of reaching for forbidden fruit, of pushing away loving arms, of breaking something on purpose just to prove that you can.  Deep down in human existence there is and experience of doing whatever is necessary to feed and comfort self, because there is no one else to trust, no other purpose to serve, no other god to follow.

For ages and ages this experience has been called sin – deadly alienation from the source of all life.  By some definitions, it implies willful turning away from God.  By others, it is an unavoidable feature of being human.  Either way it is a name for the experience of being cut off from air, light, sustenance, community, hope, meaning and LIFE.  It is less concerned with specific behaviors than with the aftermath of those behaviors.  There are a thousand ways to turn away from the light, after all, with variations according to culture, century, class, and gender.  The point is to know the difference between light and darkness, and to recognize the pull of the darkness when it comes.” (Ibid. pp. 62-63)

I find Taylor’s expansive definition of sin very helpful because it presses us to explore our lives and look for sin where we may not have seen it before.  Sin is not just notoriously wrong actions, but those ingrained habits and behaviors that keep us from the light – that keep us from trusting – that keep us from revealing the unique light that God can shine only through us.  Each of us is so dear to and such a precious creation of God – we can’t even fathom how much we are loved.  Sin is what keeps us cut off from experiencing that love of God for ourselves and for others.

This week I went for a massage because I had been experiencing back pain that I was sure was related to the wonky way I was walking when I was recovering from my broken toe.  As I lay there and the massage therapist worked the knots out of my back muscles, I began to see that it was not just the way I had been physically walking that had caused those knots – it was also the way I had been emotionally and spiritually walking that had caused the knots to form.  As the muscle knots released thoughts and feelings about things I had said or done, or not said or done passed through my mind and I felt the physical relief.  As I reflected on the experience latter I visualized each of those knot producing thoughts and behaviors of mine and then I gently laid each into the hands of God who is able to do for me what I am not able to do for myself – who is able to turn me again toward light when I have been sitting in some dank darkness.

In the lesson from Malachi this morning we heard that God is like a fuller’s soap or a refiner’s fire – working with us to release the impurities so that our gold may shine.  I want to add that God is like the massage therapist’s hands, making straight that which is crooked, and making the rough places smooth.

In the face of our sin, God extends grace and salvation.  Notice that salvation is from the same root as the world salve – that which is applied to bring about wholeness rather than destruction.  God extends healing of body mind and spirit to us if we but reach out for it.  Once in a while it is a miraculous, in- the- moment healing that can take our breath away.  But more often it is a gradual mending that comes over time as we build deeper and deeper intimacy with the great lover of all souls.

So, does God always forgive all sins?  My answer is “Yes, and!”  Yes God always forgives sins, and the work for us is to open ourselves to that forgiveness and the changes in us that receiving such forgiveness will lead us too. Knowing ourselves to be forgiven or our sin, we certainly must then extend that love and forgiveness to others – particularly those who threaten us most – those we name as enemies. It is that divine forgiveness that reaches out to us from the manger in the person of our savior – the one who brings healing in his wings at Christmas – the same who spends part of his dying breath on the words, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  Making a home for him –this incarnate loving forgiveness- is life-long work my friends – I am glad we are on this road together. In Christ’s name.  Amen

 Sermon for Sunday December 6 The Second Sunday of Advent  Posted by on Mon, 7-Dec-15 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday December 6 The Second Sunday of Advent