Sermon: Who Are You, Jesus?

A Sermon Based on Mark 8:27-38

When you meet someone for the first time, you might ask them their name and where they are from. As the relationship continues you find out more about them, are the married? Do they have children? If you are applying for a job, the interviewer might wish to dig into your past and ask about where you went to school or your professional training. All of these questions move us towards a greater knowledge of each other as we discover more and more about each other.

The same seems to be true in the gospel passage we have heard today. Jesus asks his followers, “Who do others say that I am?” His disciples seem to be unsure. They respond, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others say one of the prophets.”

However, then the question the question becomes much more personal as he asks those in his inner circle, “Who do you say I am?”  Immediately Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” Also, Jesus tells them, “Don’t tell anyone.” There is uncertainty as to who Jesus is, and it becomes clear that the vast majority of those following him have no idea who he is, including those in his inner circle.

When Jesus appears on the scene, the Jews have been waiting for the Messiah for a very long time. They have been in and out of captivity since Moses led them through the wilderness out of Egypt and now they face captivity under the Romans. Some in the Jewish community were looking towards the Messiah as the one who would come and break the hold that the Romans had on them, this Messiah would be a military leader who would raise the people up in revolution and break the shackles that held them and free them politically.

This question of the military leader comes up time and again concerning Jesus.  “Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip.” John 1:45-46.

Nazareth was the back of the beyond and nothing good, especially not someone that was going to defeat the Romans was going to come from there. Nathanael was one of the ones standing there when Jesus asked: “Who do you say I am?” We only hear Peter’s response so was Nathanael still not sure?  We don’t know.

So historically who was Jesus?

We can look through the pages of scripture to determine he was, born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph who was his stepfather. He was a refuge have to flee from Herod when he was tiny and lived in Egypt for many years. He trained as a carpenter, like his stepfather Joseph. We know very little about his childhood other than when he was 12 he got lost in Jerusalem and was found, by his parents, in the temple. He look astonished when they chastised him, and he said, “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2:49

We know that his stepfather died sometime after that because he is not at the wedding at Cana with Jesus and Mary. It was at that wedding that Jesus starts his public ministry with the changing of the water into wine. We know John baptized him in the Jordan. We know he spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the evil one. We know, or at least we think we know, he was never married nor had any children. We know he was a charismatic, itinerant preacher who liked to stir things up. We know he was an agitator against the Romans and the religious leaders of his day. We know he was a radical in his thoughts on caring for and loving others. We know he was a healer and a reconciler and one who cared deeply for everyone, not just a few. Jesus was very political, but he was not partisan. His methods got under the skin of those in power which he spoke truth to on every occasion.

We know he was betrayed, turned over to the Romans, tried in a kangaroo court, which wanted to release him. We know he was crucified, died, was buried, and rose on the third day and eventually ascended into heaven. We know all of these things from scripture and history.

Now, since the time that Jesus walked on the earth it has been determined that Jesus is the Son of God, he says so in scripture, but it is confirmed. We know that he was both human and divine, an argument that led to the first division in the church around 325 AD.

Since the time Jesus walked on the earth multiple wars have been fought in his name. An untold number of people have been slaughtered, and continue to be murdered in his name. Since the time the healer and reconciler walked on the earth, an untold number have been cast out of his “church” and told they are not wanted by the one who welcomed all. Since the time the Holy One walked on the earth the church that was founded in his name has risen, and fallen, from political power and causes the suffering of millions of people. Since the time the one who commanded us to love everyone walked on this earth his followers, and his ministers have caused physical, emotional, and spiritual harm to those who wish to follow the Savior. Moreover, from the time Jesus walked on the earth and gave his life for all, many have been told they are not worthy of the love of God.  All of this has been done in his name.

So all of that answers the first question of Jesus for us this morning, “Who do others say I am?” Now comes the hard, personal question, who do you say he is?

When I was younger, I was out with a priest friend of mine, and we were discussing all things religious. In the middle of the conversation he stopped, looked at me very serious, and he asked me, “Who is God for you?” I did not know how to answer since I had not only ever been asked this question before I guess I never really thought about it. At the time the movie “O God” was very popular; you know the one with George Burns as God and John Denver as the one looking for God. So it the heart of the moment I blurted out God is George Burns! Ultimately my priest friend was not satisfied with my theological understanding of the Godhead, but he let it pass for the moment. However, what he did say was that we all see God, and Jesus, differently as we are all different people.

I am not particularly eager to share my image of my Jesus because I do not wish to sway anyone but I will share with you today how I picture Jesus.

For me, Jesus is a dark-skinned man with a radical theology who is not afraid to mix things up. He is compassionate and loving and accepting of everyone, even those he disagrees with. Jesus is forgiving, even of those who are murdering him. He goes along when he needs to, but he is not afraid to flip over the tables when necessary. Jesus is concerned about the greater good not the narrow opinions of political or religious leaders. He is a firebrand preacher that tells it like it is and is not afraid to take a position that is not popular but righteous. Jesus is someone who believes that love is the ultimate goal as Jesus was willing to sacrifice it all not for some political or religious purpose but just because he loved. He is someone who is willing to sacrifice everything he has to feed, clothe, and house people. Jesus is the one who reconciles people with each other and with their God. Also, he is someone who truly loves me and forgives me, and he accepts me just as I am. Moreover, Jesus is the one who calls me to follow him and the one who left me an example to follow. Also, he is the one who tells me, from time to time, to flip over the tables.

That is my Jesus, but the question remains, who do you say Jesus is?

Each of us has to determine who Jesus is for us. However, how do we do this? Just like in the relationship example I gave at the start, we get to know him through prayer and his words. Don’t let any politicians, television preacher, or even me tell you who Jesus is. You have to determine for yourself who Jesus is for you but I will caution you, if your image of Jesus does not include radical welcome and inclusiveness, if it does not include love for everyone especially those on the margins, if your image of Jesus does not involve feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and house the homeless, without qualification, if your vision of Jesus does not include unconditional love for all then I am here to tell you that you have the wrong image of Jesus because every one of those things Jesus did in scripture and every one of those things Jesus commanded us, as his followers, to do. If your image of Jesus says it is okay to look at another human being, created in the image and likeness of God, and think they are less than you are because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic situation, the country they come from, their legal status, or their political party then that is not the image of Jesus from Scripture.

We must, all of, determine who Jesus is and help others along the way the time is here and the time is now.

Who is Jesus for you?

This week Jesus asks his followers, “Who do people say I am?” They respond to him by saying, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” It seems no one was quite sure who this, son of the carpenter from Nazareth was. (Mark 8:27)

But then Jesus makes it personal, and he asks his disciples, “But what about you” Who do you say I am?” we are not sure of the response from the others, but Peter is quick to chime in with his response, “You are the Christ.”  But what does that mean? (Mark 8:29)

In this week’s sermon, I am going to be asking the same question as it is up to each of us to decide who Jesus truly is for us.  Is he a savior?  Is he a friend? Is he the judge? Is he the one who commands us to love others and take care of each other?  Who is Jesus for you?  It’s a valid question to ask because for each of us Jesus is different.

We come to faith from many different places and very different times and so our vision of Jesus could be very different.  However, we still need to answer the question of who Jesus is.  We cannot follow someone unless we truly know who they are. Jesus reveals himself to us in the breaking of the bread and the reading of the scriptures (Luke 24:35). Jesus reveals himself to us in worship, and Jesus reveals himself to us in others.

So, who do you say Jesus is?

Sermon: Be Opened

A Sermon Based on Mark 7:24-37

In November of 2002 country singer, Randy Travis released a song called “Three Wooden Crosses.” The song had a double meaning to it; the first was a reference to the three crosses that we are all familiar with in the crucifixion scene with Jesus in the middle and two thieves on either side. The second meaning has to do with the characters from the song and the roadside shrine that was built to honor their memory.

There were four people on a bus headed to Mexico, a farmer, a teacher, a preacher, and a hooker.  Now I know this sounds like to the start of a joke but hang in there with me. We learn that the farmer and the teacher are headed to Mexico on vacation and that the preacher and the hooker are in search of lost souls.  There is an accident, and the farmer and the teacher are killed instantly, but the preacher lingers a little, long enough to place his bible in the hands of the hooker.

As the song continues, we hear that the farmer had left a home with 80 acres and now his son, whom he instilled his work ethic and other life lessons, would be left to tend that farm.  The teacher left wisdom with her students and hopefully put them on a course for a better life.  The preacher left the word of God with the hooker, and as we find out, it changed her life.

The chorus of the song goes like this:

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there’s not four of them, Heaven only knows.
I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It’s what you leave behind you when you go.

The storyteller is wondering why there were not four crosses on that side of the road and by the end of the song we learn why.  The preacher gave his bible to the hooker, who read it and read it to her children and one of them became a preacher and told the story of how he ended up where he was.

I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It’s what you leave behind you when you go.

There was a chance encounter on a bus that changed a woman’s life and set her and her family on an entirely different trajectory.

Mark presents us with two very different stories of healing and a chance encounter in this passage that we have heard this morning.  We first have a woman “of Syrophoenician origin” who comes and begs on behalf of her daughter and asks Jesus to cast the demon out of her. What is remarkable about this encounter is that this woman is pagan and not one that Jesus would rarely come into contact with.  He chastises her and, on the surface anyway, calls her “a dog.”  However, she answers him back in such a way that he has compassion for her, and he heals her daughter.

We then find Jesus in Decapolis where some people bring a deaf man to Jesus.  Not only is the man deaf but he has a speech impediment of some kind.  Some of the commentaries posit that he has a stammer which is not uncommon with deaf people.  Now, keep in mind that in the first-century people with physical disabilities were often scorned and separated from society.  It was believed it was their sin that had made them that way and they had no status in the community.  They were often barred from social and religious gatherings. This man suffered from a physical disability, but he was also a social outcast cut off from family and faith.

However, the story takes an interesting turn, rather than heal the man right there Jesus takes him off, “privately” to not cause the man any more embarrassment.  Here Jesus heals the man of his disability by touch and by calling out “be opened.”  This is in stark contrast to the previous story of healing where Jesus never even went to the woman’s home nor did he touch her daughter, and she was healed.  Sometimes the healing takes place with a word, and sometimes it takes place with a touch. Not only did Jesus heal the physical he restored the man to the community, but he also healed the individual and in turn healed the community by restoring the man to that community.

We are not finished yet as the story takes yet another turn and Jesus tells those present not to tell anyone.  Now, I don’t know about you, but if I saw someone heal a person of his or her physical disability right in front of me, and I knew the person, I would not be able to keep quiet about it. I would want to tell everyone what had happened and who did it. Jesus tells them to remain quiet and “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”  Jesus not only opened the mouth of the man he healed he opened the mouth of those who witnessed it.

I like to think of these stories of metaphors that we can use in our daily life, and the challenge is to see what these stories point to.  In both of these cases, the actions of Jesus caused a radical change in the lives of not only those healed but of those who were witnesses to the healing.  There is no doubt that the girl’s mother went off and told others what had happened and the Scripture tells us that those in Decapolis could not keep quiet about what they witnessed.  There is no doubt that many were converted because of their testimony of what Jesus had done.

Just like the people on the bus in the Randy Travis song, the woman and the deaf man had a chance encounter that changed their lives, but that encounter was only possible because they were open to the possibility that something was going to happen.  Sure, they were in search of a miracle, but the miracle would not have been possible if the openness was not there, to begin with.

Jesus places his fingers in the deaf man’s ears and exclaims, “Be Opened” and his ears were opened, and his tongue was loosed.  The farmer from the song, in a way, told his son to be open and instilled in him a work ethic and lessons from his life. The teacher asked her students to be open to learning, and all that education could do for them, and the preacher asked the hooker to be open to a change in life, and she was, and her life was changed. Each of them made an impact on another but only because the other was open.

Right now God is calling us to be open, to be open to those chance encounters where we might make a difference or where someone might make a difference in our lives. God is calling us to be open to new and fresh ideas, new and fresh ways of looking at ancient truths that need to be carried forth and brought to the next generation. God is calling us to make a difference in someone life and to be open to change in our own life.

On September 11, 2001, while chaos was swirling all around him, FDNY Chaplain Fr. Mychal Judge knelt to offer a prayer with someone who had just died outside of one of the towers of the World Trade Center. He removed his helmet, bowed his head to pray, and was struck and killed by falling debris. Fr. Mychal was carried away from the scene and placed at the foot of the altar in a nearby church.

Most every day I wear a silver bracelet on my right wrist that bears the name of Fr. Mychal, he is my inspiration for my ministry with firefighters, and I wear that bracelet as a reminder of what I am called to do.

There is a prayer that is attributed to Fr. Mychal, and I believe it fits well with our theme today:

Lord, take me where you want me to go, let me meet whom you want me to meet, tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way.

Jesus is calling each of us to be open, be open to the possibility that a chance encounter with someone could not only change their life but ours as well.

Sermon: A Call to the Grateful Way

This is the final installment of a series on developing an ethic of gratitude. As with the others in this series, this sermon is based on the book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from that book.

I will begin tonight with a quote from the 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic Rumi: “Gratitude is the wine of the soul. Go on. Get drunk!” This quote seems a fitting end to our discussion these past weeks about how we can adopt a sense and a culture of gratitude.

We have spent time meditating and praying, learning and listening about gratitude both on a personal level and on a corporate or communal level. We live in a world today where anger and division is the way. Politics, and to some extent religion, has caused deep divides in our country, in our churches, and in our families.  So many relationships have been broken or estranged because of what is happening in the world, fear and anger are dangerous to our souls, but gratitude is good for us on a physical as well as a spiritual level.

There are plenty of reasons to not be thankful, but for us to change how all of the negativity in the world affects us, we need to adopt a culture and an ethic of gratitude. Some days all we can do is be grateful that we are alive and that we get to see another day because gratitude, like interest, compounds and the more we are grateful, the better off we will be.

In the final chapter of Grateful, that we have been reading together this summer, author Dina Butler Bass writes about how she slowly began to feel more rested and more resilient after she started to feel grateful for just being alive. She writes, “Gratitude is not a form of passive acceptance or complicity. Rather, it is the capacity to stare doubt, loss, chaos, and despair right in the eye and say, ‘I am still here.'”

We just cannot let the world get us down, we have to rise above all that is swirling around us and find the little things to be grateful for, like being alive, and slowly, over time, our worldview will change, and all will be right with the world again.

Bass continues, “Gratitude is defiance of sorts, the defiance of kindness in the face of anger, of connection in the face of division, and of hope in the face of fear. Gratefulness does not acquiesce to evil – it resists evil.” It means standing up for something even if it requires sacrificing everything. As Christians, we are called to be part of participants in the resistance of evil in all walks of life, and we face evil and hatred not with more evil and more hate, but love and gratitude.

In the latter part of 1989, during a speech by the Romanian Dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, the crowd assembled outside the government building in Bucharest started to chant anti-government slogans like “bring down the dictator.” They were reacting to events that had taken place a few nights before when people gathered in peaceful protest outside of the cathedral church, Timișoara had been gunned down by the military and local police. The people had had enough and took to the streets to bring down evil.

One of the most poignant scenes from those days of fighting was when a group of women walked into the street, face to face with the armed military, and placed flowers in the barrels of the rifles they were carrying. These women risked their lives to make a change in their world, and it worked. Not long after those flowers were placed, the military started to come to the side of the revolutionaries, and the tide shifted.  I am certainly not calling us to armed rebellion instead we are to be the ones putting the flowers in the barrel of the rifles. As Christians we are to offer an alternative way to violence and oppression, we are to provide the way for love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

“Gratitude strengthens our character and our moral resolve, giving each of us the possibility of living peaceably and justly. It untwists knotted hearts, waking us to a new sense of who we are as individuals and in Community. Being thankful is the very essence of what it means to be alive, and to know that life abundantly.”

Gratitude empowers us.

Gratitude makes joy possible.

Gratitude makes all things new.

In the words of Robert Emmons from his book The Little Book of Gratitude;

“Gratitude amplifies goodness, rescues us from negative emotions, and connects us to others in meaningful ways.”

Every day there are hundreds if not thousands of reasons to not be grateful and to not practice gratitude. We all have pain in our lives as individuals and as a community and for those things we cannot be grateful.  Gratitude never calls us to give thanks for anything that is evil or unjust in the world, for violence, lying, oppression, or suffering. Do not be grateful for these things.

“Gratefulness grounds our lives in the world and with others, always locating the gifts and graces that accompany our way. Gratitude is an emotion. Gratitude is an ethical way of life. It is a disposition, an awareness, a set of habits. However, ultimately, gratitude is a place – perhaps the place – where we find our trusted and best selves.

 

Sermon: At Home with God

Photo courtesy of Jeff Bowers.

On Sunday, August 26, 2018, I had the honor of offering the Sunday Morning Worship Service for reenactors and others at the Red Apple Farm in Philipston, Massachusetts.  This is the text of my sermon from that service.

John begins this passage with a somewhat shocking image of eating flesh and blood.  I know it is surprising to us gathered here this morning but imagine how shocking it must have been to those listening to these words, Jews did not eat like that this is what the pagans did.  However, we must get past the imagery and settle on the phrase that comes after that image, “Abide in me.”

What Jesus is inviting his disciples, and us, to do is to be at home in him and be comfortable with him. Many of us sit here today in the role of soldiers who find themselves very far away from the comforts of home and all they know and love.  Perhaps this is strange territory for you, you might be from the big city and find yourself in the middle of the countryside but whatever or wherever you are you are far from home and long to be there once again. We miss the familiar sounds and smells of home and long for lazy days hanging on the porch in the sun that is uninterrupted by gunfire and the call to arms. We are always on guard, not unlike our real lives out in the real world for this world of ours is a place where fear often reigns.  A home provides the promise of safety and security and a place where fear does not have the upper hand.

Jesus then goes on to make a comparison between the bread he is offering and the bread, the manna, which was provided in the desert for their ancestors.  They ate that bread and, as all living things do, they died, not from eating the bread mind you but from life in general. He uses this analogy to show that their ancestors died but if they eat the bread he is offering they will not die. Now they are confused, will we become immortal if we eat this bread?  No, Jesus is speaking in the spiritual sense here for he is providing the spiritual nourishment, not the physical food that was presented to their ancestors.

They were being offered a great gift here in the teaching of Jesus, as are we, but they did not all understand nor do they accept this teaching, and they walk away because “this teaching is difficult.” Jesus reminds them that the spiritual is not going to be comfortable it is going to be very difficult because it is calling them, and us, to look at the world and other people in a very different way.

Our culture tells us that we are in control of our lives. Soldiers on the battlefield learn quickly that it is their sergeants and their officers that control their lives, but we 21st-century folks like to think that we are in control. We are taught that if we work hard, we will be rewarded with material things. We feel good about ourselves when we are successful when we have a good job, children who make us happy, we attend the right church, we live in the right neighborhood in the big house. However, in all of this, we busy ourselves in such a way that we miss the good things in life, like watching a sunset or watching our kids play, and we have no time to reach out to those in need.

Many of the disciples that listened to Jesus were offended by his words, and many of us are offended by the words of Jesus. We feel good about serving in the soup kitchen, but we refuse to offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us. We feel righteous when we teach Sunday School or attend worship, but we get annoyed by the little distractions like babies or children making noises during the service or maybe if someone sits in “our” seat. We make religion about the rules because we can control the rules. We can change the books of order and worship, we can use Scripture to oppress others, and we can punish the rule breakers, and we can say who is and who is not a member of the club because all of this is much easier than compassion and love and forgiveness.

However, if we decide to take and eat the bread that is being offered to us by Jesus, if we chose to abide in him and allow him to abide in us, then we are adopting a different way of life. We have to give up the idea that we are in control, sure we remain in control of somethings but others we have to cede to Jesus.

We realize that fear no longer has the upper hand. We recognize that we are no better than anyone else because of our skin color, our gender, or the nation we call home. We turn over to God that which we fear the most, trusting that we are truly loved and that we are forgiven. When we realize that God loves us no matter what and that God’s grace is sufficient, then we become so filled with that love and that grace that it spills from us to others. We can offer forgiveness. We start to look at others differently. Moreover, we realize that we are called to love everyone regardless of who they are, what they look like, or where they come from.

When we abide in Jesus, when we eat his flesh and become one with him our worldview changes our whole life changes, it has too.

Sermon: The Grateful Society

This sermon is part of a series based on the book Grateful, The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass.

In my “From the Pastor” column in the weekly church newsletter, I share a little about how as a community of believers we should feel a sense of gratitude during worship, all worship.  Worship is a communal experience, and it requires us to feel a connection not only with God but with each other, we cannot worship alone, or at least we should not worship alone.

Over these last few weeks, we have discussed gratitude in a personal sense and that we need to look for those moments in our everyday lives to be grateful for. We discussed how gratitude should become a personal ethic for how we live our lives in the present as well as in the future and is the foundation of a good life.

We then moved into a discussion of public gratitude because gratitude is always social, we are grateful when others do things for us, and we like to show that gratitude, or at least we should.  Gratitude is joy and gratitude is justice. To quote from Diana Butler Bass, “True gratitude, real gratefulness, the kind of transformative thanksgiving that makes all things new, cannot be quiet in the face of injustice.

In my preaching, I tend to favor the books of the New Testament rather than the books of the Old Testament. I will, on occasion, preach from the Psalms or use an illustration from the Old Testament but I confine my preaching and teaching to the New rather than the Old. Now with that said, I find myself drawn to the Hebrew Scriptures more and more after all these are the Scriptures Jesus and the Apostles used in their preaching and teaching.

I am mostly drawn to the prophets. I believe the world needs more prophets, true prophets, and we need to listen to them.  The Prophet Micha is one that I find myself turning to more and more but especially the 6th chapter and the 8th verse;

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micha 6:8

Some translation says to “do” justice and to walk humbly with your God. We are required to “do” and to “act” justly in all situations and at all times, and when we do this, we move from a “personal ethic of gratitude towards a public one. The ‘me’ of gratitude must extend to the ‘we’ of gratitude as an ethic, a vision of community-based habits and practices of grace and gifts. Gratitude is not merely resilience; gratitude is resistance too.”

As I have mentioned before, my theological understanding revolves around the concept of love. God sent Jesus to us, out of love. Jesus went to the cross for us, out of love. Jesus rose from the dead, out of love. Jesus returned to his apostles and others in the Upper Room, out of love. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be with us, out of love. Everything Jesus did and does and everything Jesus taught was out of love, love of God and love of neighbor, the two great commandments.

We hear lots of talk in certain circles about placing the tables of the law, the 10 Commandments, in various places. This summer when I was at my family reunion in Tennessee, I saw several sites that have these tablets erected as monuments. Now I am all for law and order, but Jesus ushered in a new order one that is not so much based on the 10 Commandments but on the nine beatitudes as found in Matthew.

So here is an interesting wordplay. The word “Blessings” means “gift from God” and comes from the verb to bless, to hallow, to make holy. As with most words, this grew into an association with the phrase bliss or happiness, so we have a double meaning of the word blessing, a gift that comes from God and something that makes us happy.

When Jesus climbed up to that high place and began to teach, “blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, etc. he was preaching a radical message that those listening had never heard before. You see, the blessing was way out of reach for those at the bottom of the social ladder; blessings were reserved for those at the top. The blessed were the bog shots, those with power and money but what Jesus was saying, what Jesus was ushering in was a new radical way of thinking, blessings were available to all especially those at the bottom of the pile. He preached a message of hope at in the eyes of God all were equal and that these blessings were more than mere happiness but a vision of a new society.

Of the nine blessings, seven are plural blessings, and only two are singular in nature. Jesus was preaching that the blessings of the community are more important than the blessings of the individual. “This is not about my blessings this is about our blessings.” This preaching was such a radical thought that at the end of it all Matthew writes; “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching” (Matthew 7:8).

We are grateful because Jesus came and broke down those walls that separate people and instilled in us a new way of not only looking at God but a new way of looking at each other. If we can see Christ in the other person, then the only option we have is to seek mercy and to seek justice, not for us, but for we.

If we look at the homeless person and see Christ in him, then we have no choice to provide for their needs. If we see Christ in the addicted person, then they are not some drug addict they are a person who needs mercy and Justice, and we are required to help. It does not matter what color their skin is; it does not matter their sexual orientation, it does not matter their legal status we have no other option but to see Christ in them and love them and seek justice and mercy for them, regardless of the popularity or the cost. That is the new society that Jesus was preaching, God’s blessings are available to all, and it is up to us to provide those blessings.

Reflection: Communal Worship

“…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:19-20

During the Wednesday evening services, this summer we have been putting our focus on the idea of being grateful and how being grateful can transform the world. We started with the concept of personal gratefulness and eventually ended up with corporate or communal gratefulness, and that is what Paul is reminding us in this passage, that we are to be grateful at all times but especially in worship.

Paul is concerned that the end is near and so he is reminding his readers to be about the work of Jesus Christ here on earth, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those sick and those in prison, and, loving everyone. He is reminding them that they need to do the work for the people as well as the worship of God.

Starting in verse 19 we see the importance of corporate worship and the idea that we cannot worship God alone we need the community of believers. Our worship does not come from some notion of artificial frenzy, but it comes from the Holy Spirit, “…be filled with the Spirit,” “Sing and make music from your heart.” Worship is at the core of what we do as Christians, we are to love others, but we are to first love God with all that we have. God wants our all not just the parts we are willing to share, and we are to do this as a community.

Worship centers us and reinvigorates us, at least it supposed to, for the work of Christ in the world. Worship depends on the connection that we have to the body of Christ and that we are connected to each other, and the worship experience enriches those connections.

“…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are to always give thanks to God for all of the blessings in our lives, I know it is hard sometimes to see them, but they are there we need to look for them. This idea of always being grateful requires a sense of radical openness to our existence and the existence of others and God.

Having an attitude of gratefulness as well as an attitude of thanksgiving not only in worship but our lives outside of worship, keeps us pointed towards God and will keep our feet planted firmly on the ground.

I Find No Joy in Any of This

In a recent essay, I outlined my reasons for leaving the Church of Rome.  I noted in the piece that my reasons were my reasons and that I was not trying to convince anyone else to leave to explain my reasons why.  My reasons are rooted in emotion as well as in theology.  As a public theologian, I expect a certain level of criticism of the things that I write, but one remark was not only unexpected, but it hurt me.

I an online conversation about an unrelated topic I was told that the other person was “wounded by all your obvious joy at the plight of the Roman Church.” My response was that I did not realize I had any joy in the plight of the Roman Church for I do not find any joy in any of this.

I find no joy in the unknown number of lives that have been destroyed by the perpetrators of child sexual abuse.

I find no joy in a system designed to care more for an institution than people.

I find no joy in the smugness of church leaders as they attempt to push the blame on to the victims of their crimes.

I find no joy in the countless number of the faithful that has had their faith shaken to the core or perhaps have lost their faith over this.

I find no joy in people who chastise those I just mentioned and say things like “they never had real faith in the first place.”

I find no joy in seeing for sale signs in front of a church that generations of people not only worshipped in but, in many cases, sacrificed time and resources to build and sustain.

I find no joy in the countless numbers of victims that still have not come forward or for those who have taken their own lives because of the abuse they suffered at the hands of clergy and the abuse they faced at the hands of the church after.

I find no joy in the billions of dollars this has cost the Church of Rome, dollars that should have been used to alleviate the suffering of the poor and disenfranchised.

Moreover, I find no joy in the damage this, and abuse in other religious institutions and the subsequent cover-up, has done to the witness of Jesus Christ.  Yes, this has damaged the witness of all churches and the ministry and mission they have.

Simply put, I find no joy in any of this, in fact, it sickens me to my very core.

Why I left the Church of Rome

This has not been the easiest piece I have ever written, I have struggled over this piece for several years writing and re-writing it, but now I feel it is time. I have delayed publishing this for a variety of reasons many of them personal but with the recent news of an investigation into the practices at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts as well as the releases of the report in Pennsylvania it just seemed like the right time. My decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church is complex and based partly on theology and partly on emotion and for me it was the right decision.

I want to say at the very start, that I know there are many, many faithful priests and bishops and many, many faithful lay people in the Roman Catholic Church and my heart aches for them as their church continues to grapple with the continuation of the revelations of child sexual abuse. This is my story and my story only. The other point I will make is I will be using the term Catholic here not in the universal sense of the word but only for ease.

For as long as I can remember I had wanted to be a Catholic priest. During my senior year in high school I applied to St. John’s Seminary College here in Boston. Let me say that I was not the best student in high school and I spent more time in the band room then the classroom and that was reflected in my grades. The priest running the school felt I would not be able to handle to rigorous educational requirements of the seminary college and suggested I enroll in a Junior College for a couple of years and try again. I did not take this news very well. I had spent the last; I am not sure how many years, dreaming of going to school to become a priest and now it was gone. So, I joined the United States Army.

I am going to skip over a bunch of years here, but during my time in the Army and for many years after, I experimented with a lot of different churches from Southern Baptist to Episcopalian, but I always came back to Rome. There was something always calling me back; I used to think it was the candle that continually burns outside the tabernacle in Catholic Church that signals, as I used to say when I was an altar boy, that Jesus was home. I returned home from the Army, enrolled in college and discovered another world.

After more denominational experimentation I ended up as a member of a Benedictine Monastery where I finally felt like I was home. I stayed there for some years, but I don’t think I was every truly settled there. I not sure why I decided to leave but I did and began teaching middle school, but still felt drawn to the priesthood.

In my fifth year of teaching I reapplied to St. John’s Seminary, it had now been about seventeen years, a little longer than the two years that had been suggested by the earlier, but I was accepted, and in August of 2001 I moved into the seminary to begin a six-year program of priestly formation.
Let me pause here to say that at that time, St. John’s had a world-class faculty of theologians. Some of the best minds in the Church were on the faculty there and some of the best practitioners of the spiritual arts, what we call spiritual direction, were also on the faculty. It was also a house of prayer and, like the monastery, we would gather in the chapel several times a day to pray. It was a fantastic experience.

September of 2001 saw the attacks on New York and Washington, DC and our world would never be the same again. We struggled as a community about what to do. I was serving in the National Guard at the time, and there was always the threat of a call-up. Several other seminary students also served, and we were concerned about what was going to happen in the near future. We tried to continue with our studies as the world changed around us outside of the walls of the seminary.

As was the custom, the seminary students and faculty spent a week on a retreat before the start of the Spring semester. We came out of that retreat to the front page news of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston. This report was the culmination of months of research by the Spotlight Team of the Boston Globe that was turned into the movie Spotlight.

Describing the mood around the seminary at that time is hard. These allegations were hard to believe, and almost immediately some students started to call the reports false and fabricated in an attempt to discredit the church and their beloved Cardinal Law. For weeks after the news broke the student body started to divide amongst those who believed it and those who did not. There were arguments at meals and in small areas of the seminary, but it was never really discussed on an institutional level.

Almost immediately groups of seminarians formed, as far as I know on their own, with the explicit task of rooting out the “gays” in the community and one seminarian told me that is was “his calling from God to ensure that certain people were not ordained.” I was glad it was not my job. Support for Cardinal Law was at an all-time high, and if you had the slightest thought of not supporting him, you would be “outed” by what I and some of my fellow seminarians started calling them, the “brown shirts.”

Fast forward, Cardinal Law resigned in disgrace and was shuttled off to Rome and given a cushy job, and the Rector of the seminary replaced him and in his place came a man who was anything but a pastor and is one of the main reasons I left. I saw many a good man run out of the place because they did not match up with what the Rector thought a good priest should be. Seminary is a time of discernment for the seminarian as well as the faculty, but this one man had taken it upon himself to rid the place of guys he determined were unfit.

I know this seems rambling, but my decision to leave was a complicated decision based on many factors, some had to do with theology, and some had to do with personalities.

When a student comes to the seminary, they have to be sponsored by a bishop. When I entered, I was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Boston. During my second year of studies, I switched sponsorship from the Archdiocese of Boston to the Eastern Rite Catholic bishop of the Romanian Catholic Church. This was another complex decision that I cannot explain here other than to say I wanted to be as far away from the Archbishop of Boston as I could.

My studies continued as well as discernment. As I previously mentioned, discernment is a large part of the program of priestly formation, and a great deal of emphasis is placed on this. As students, we had a faculty advisor as well as a spiritual advisor that we met with on a regular basis. These times, as well as the prayer times, were designed to assist us in determining if we honestly had “the call” to be ordained. Seminarians leave for a variety of reasons, and that is the idea of the program to “test” your vocation is you will. Some come and stay right up until the point they have to seek ordination and other leave after a semester; this is how it works. I started to have doubts, not about the calling but about the vows I would have to make at ordination.

As I approached my final year of studies, it was the time for ordination to deacon. Although the office of deacon in the Catholic Church is a permanent state when one is seeking ordination to the priesthood, it is a transitional step and is the first ordination. I was ready, or so I thought I was, but the bishop had others thoughts and decided, a week before my ordination was to take place, to postpone my ordination. I was of course devastated, but it did give me time for further discernment about one specific area, obedience.

Men being ordained in the Roman Catholic Church make three vows, poverty, chastity, and obedience, and it was obedience that I had the most difficulty.

Obedience is not a vow in the abstract; this is a personal vow. During the ordination ritual, the person being ordained kneels before the bishop, places his hand in the hands of the bishop, looks into his eyes and promises obedience to him and his successors. This is a personal vow between the person being ordained and the bishop, and I had a great deal of difficulty with this.

My theology teaches me that humanity is flawed and we are not perfect. My theology also informs me that these flaws flow into the church and that because of that, humanity running the church, the church also has flaws. My theology also taught me that the validity of the sacrament was not hinged on the sanctity of the person performing the ritual, in other words, the person was merely the vessel, and the Holy Spirit worked through them, so it did not matter if the person was a sinner or not. However, I was still having difficulty vowing obedience to a man, a bishop, that was part of an institution that perpetrated a massive cover-up that led to the continuation of sexual abuse of minor children not only in the Archdiocese of Boston but across the globe. The very institution I was to vow obedience to was rotten from the top down, and I could not do it.

For three years I had sat and watched an institution, run by men whose life calling was to serve people, care more about the preservation of the institution than the people. I watched press conference after press conference with Cardinal Law and others with their smug attitudes towards victims. I listened to my fellow seminarians say the vilest things imaginable about victims and others, most of those guys went on to be ordained priests and several of them have since left involved in their sex scandal. I listen to excuses after excuses for why this happened, and I was not buying any of it. I watched as Cardinal Law was whisked off to Rome and given a cushy job there while many of the victims of the clergy in Boston were killing themselves. I could not place my hands in the hands of a bishop and vow obedience to him and his successors, so I left.

My decision was based on emotion, and it was based on theology. For me, it was the right decision, and although I sometimes regret the choice, I believe it was the right one. I dearly love the ritual of my youth and my formation and spirituality, for the most part, will always be Roman Catholic. It pains me to see what all of this is doing to the great and holy priests that are just trying to make a difference. It hurts me to see that this is doing to the faithful of the Catholic Church who is trying to make sense of it all. Moreover, it pains me for the victims that were first abused by a priest and then abused again and again and again by an institution that could care less about them until they were exposed.

It has recently been reported that this scandal has cost the Roman Catholic Church close to $3 billion but what has it cost in the human, and the spiritual? What sort of damage has this done to the witness of Jesus Christ in the world? This has tormented the souls of countless numbers of people, those abused, their families, and to a certain extent the faithful and each time additional revelations happen it reopens those wounds.

I do not expect anyone to agree with me or my decision but it is my decision, and they are my reasons.

Sermon: Thankful and Festive

A Sermon Based on John 6:35, 41-51

Back in the early 90’s, I was participating in a study abroad program for a college course I was taking.  I was a biblical studies major with a focus on missions, and the country was Romania.  Romania is, as it was in the 1990’s, an interesting place.   Although my attention was on missions, the broader topic of my study in Romania was on cultural sensitivity and cultural inclusion.

Before leaving the United States, I studied, as best I could from the available books, the culture of Romania and her people but upon my arrival, the study went into high gear. Romanians, by and large, live off the land. The country was once called the “bread basket if Europe” since they produced much of the food for Europe, but due to poor farming practices over the last generation that had changed. What had not changed was that bread was a large part of every meal.

No matter where you went, bread was baking. Driving through the street of Bucharest or some small village in the Carpathian Mountains, bread was baking in small and large bake shops, and people stood in line each morning for the fresh bread that would last them the day. In the villages of the countryside, the first item on the agenda of the day was to bake bread. To Romanians bread was life and to not have bread with a meal was, well, to not have life.

Bread is central to Christianity as well in the form of the Lord’s Supper that we celebrate as one of the two Sacraments of the Church. We do not believe that anything changes about the bread and the juice that we serve when we pray over it, but I think that it becomes sacred in the sense that it is through those simple elements of the earth, bread, water, salt, yeast, wine, or juice, that we are drawn closer to God and each other.

When we, as a community celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it is a sacred moment of communal worship. The Greek word that forms the English word Eucharist comes is derived from two Greek words, eu, meaning well and kharis, meaning favor or grace. The word Eucharist means “gratitude.” Bread is blessed and shared, to remind us that food is sacred and it gives life to our bodies and is a gift from God grown out of his creation. Wine or juice is blessed as a reminder that drink comes from God, it is a gift that brings joy and warmth to our souls.

Jesus reminds us in the passage of scripture we heard tonight that He is the bread of life. Jesus is the essential part of our lives, and He is a gift from the Father to us. Jesus also reminds us that whoever eats of the bread will never hunger again, not in a physical sense but a spiritual sense. We come to Him, spiritually and communally, and get our fill of Him and His Word as a gift from God and we are to take that gift and give it to others.

One of the spiritual gifts I have received from my coming to the Congregational way of life is that the table of the Lord’s Supper is open to anyone to come. In many, many churches communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper is used as a weapon or a way to divide the Congregation.  You can only partake if you are a member of the club. Sadly, I used to believe this and then I meditated on the scene of the Last Supper.

All of Jesus’ disciples were present with him in the Upper Room that night. All of them. Peter who would deny him, the others who would run off and desert him at his hour of need, and Judas, the one who would betray him and hand him over to death. They were all there, and they all participated.  Jesus gave himself, spiritually through the elements of bread and wine, to everyone, even those who would destroy him. What a powerful message this was to me.

We come to the table of the Lord not because we are prepared but to be prepared. We come because Jesus is the bread of life and if we eat, we will never hunger again. We come to the table not as individuals but as a community, and we receive, and we eat together, as a community, and we are satisfied as a community.

Jesus commands us to do this in remembrance of him but what is this “this” that he is commanding us to do. Jesus is commanding us to break ourselves open for others. To share the gifts we have been given, large and small, with others. Jesus is commanding us to share our lives with others and to allow them to share their lives with us. Our gratefulness comes when we see the Christ in others, and we allow others to see the Christ in us.

Jesus IS the bread of life, and all who come to him will never hunger or thirst again. Ask yourself this question this week, am I leading people to or am I driving people away from the food that will satisfy them? Am I building walls to keep people out or am I clearing paths that will allow people to come and receive all they need?

Jesus IS the bread of life and whoever comes to him (notice there are no qualifications) will never be hungry and whoever (notice no qualifications again) believes in me will never be thirsty.