First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9-15

I know some superstitious people. If we don’t want it to rain, you throw salt out the back door of your house. I know folks who won’t step on cracks in the sidewalk; I am not sure why. They will cross to the other side rather than step on a crack. It has been said that baseball players are some of the most superstitious people and will often go weeks, maybe months, doing things a certain way rather than breaking the streak. People believe in all sorts of strange things that have no explanation.

I am not a big believer in demons and all those other evil things we hear about in Scripture and from Evangelicals trying to get your money. Is there evil in the world? Yes. Is there a prime mover of that evil? I am not so sure. However, if there is a prime mover, the best candidate would be religion itself and its ability to frighten people with fantasy stories. We often make excuses like the devil made me do it rather than face reality.

Today, there is a much better understanding of mental illness than there ever was before, and what previously seemed like a possession of a spiritual nature turned out to be a mental illness of one kind or another. So no, I don’t believe in demonic possession and all that other rubbish. I don’t find that sort of talk helpful; I find it harmful.

We will be strolling through Mark’s Gospel for much of this liturgical year. Mark is the second of the four Gospels and is part of the synoptic tradition, meaning that much of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are shared and believed to have come from a common source. Mark follows the story of Jesus from His baptism by John, which we heard this morning, to his death, burial, and the discovery of the empty tomb.

Mark portrays Jesus as a teacher, healer, and miracle worker, although no mention of a miraculous birth or Jesus’ existence before time began. Mark refers to Jesus as the “Son of Man” and the “Son of God” but keeps the talk of Jesus being the Messiah a secret and even portrays the Apostles as not understanding the true nature of Jesus. Mark is just about the facts with very few embellishments.

Most scholars believe the Gospel was written by John Mark, a companion of Peter, and was written to a predominantly Gentile audience. Mark was written from Rome around 70 CE. It is held that Mark is the teaching and theology of Jesus as seen through the eyes of Peter, so in essence, this is Peter’s theological understanding.

Interestingly, the Gospels were not intended to be evangelical tools used to convert people to the faith. By and large, the intended audience of the Gospels was those who were already believers and were meant to strengthen their faith. The Gospels were considered too advanced for newbies who needed to start slowly and work up to the Gospels. The four Gospels, along with the others that did not make the cut, were written to different groups of people.

Mark’s Gospel is just about the facts with very few embellishments, and we see that clearly in the two stories we heard this morning.

We begin in the middle of things, “In those days,” what days? If we go back to the verses we skipped, we find an answer: Mark links John to the Prophets and their announcement of a messenger soon to come. Again, sticking just with the facts, we hear what John was wearing and what he ate, but we skip over the bit that he is related to Jesus. Maybe Mark did not know. Maybe Mark knew that Luke included it, so he did not have to. Maybe Mark did not know. Or perhaps he just did not care.

There is also no dialogue between Jesus and John. We read that Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized by John, and that is it. No explanation as to why, just that he did. John’s words are not recorded, but we know that Jesus went under the water because Mark notes, “immediately, coming up from the water…” Again, just the facts.

But then Mark says the heaven parted, and the Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove. Hold on, what Spirit? Where did this Spirit come from? What is this Spirit deal? Mark assumes that those hearing this would already understand the Spirit and the Spirit’s role in all of this.

And here is the connection: today’s first reading from Genesis and my all-time favorite fairytale, Noah and his Ark. I am rather hard on ole Noah, and today’s bit of the story is an important one for this is the bit about covenant and the relationship between God and creation and God’s promise not to wipe out creation again no matter how many liberals are in a particular place when the hurricane comes.

Although God is cheesed off at humanity and decides to wipe it all away and start again, God promises never to do this again. Covenant is essential. At our baptism, specific promises were made by those bringing us and the community. Baptism is more than a ceremony we have so we can have a party. Baptism is an act of the community, so the community needs to be present.

The parents, or God’s parents, depending on the tradition, promise to bring the child up in the knowledge and love of God. We do not specify what that knowledge is, but it is assumed to be communal. Baptism is the sign of the covenant relationship and the public declaration that this child belongs to God. It is not a washing away of anything but rather an entrance into the community. As such, baptism can only be performed once, and any baptism using the words father, son, and Holy Spirit is considered valid. Baptism is one of two sacraments practiced by the churches in the reformed tradition.

In the Noah story, the dove is sent out to find land and eventually returns with an olive branch, a symbol of peace. At creation itself, the Spirit hovers over the water to bring calm to a place usually associated with death, but now, through baptism, brings new life in Christ. The Spirit is the third person of our Trinitarian theology and plays a significant, albeit quiet, role in everything. The Spirit is the most talked about and least understood part of Christian theology.

But the story does not end there.

Mark writes that after the Spirit descends, a voice is heard; we assume it is God because it says, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” There is an important comparison to be made here. Last Sunday, we read Mark’s rendition of Transfiguration. After Jesus’ garments became sparkling clean, Mark writes that a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son….” At the baptism, God was speaking directly to Jesus and for only Jesus to hear, “You are…” But at the Transfiguration, God directs his pronouncement to everyone, “This is…” It’s almost as if God is giving Jesus a little bit of encouragement before he starts his ministry.

But wait, there’s more!

Mark jammed a lot into a few verses, and we shifted from the scene of the Baptism to Jesus’ exile in the desert for 40 days. In contrast to the other Gospel writers, Mark says that the Spirit “immediately drove him into the desert.” The word “immediately appears more than 40 times in Mark’s Gospel, nearly all before Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Mark has a sense of urgency in his Gospel in the push toward Jerusalem and his mission to redeem the world.

Mark has very few facts about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Mark mentions the number of days he was there, who tempted him, Satan, that he was with the wild beats, and that the Angels ministered to him. There is nothing about stones into bread or Satan giving Jesus the whole world. Jesus briefly mentions Satan and then moves on.

So, let’s back up a little. “The Spirit drove him…” I think this is a bad translation that has led to much misunderstanding. Rather than “driving” Jesus to the wilderness, I prefer “compelled.” There is the same sense of urgency, but it portrays the Spirit as a gentle shepherd rather than an ogre forcing Jesus to do things.

God does not force us to do anything. God gave us the freedom to choose the direction we wish to go. Is there a divine plan, yes but only in broad strokes and not in detail, God let us fill in the detail. God calls us, but it is up to us to listen, and the Spirit helps guide us toward that decision.

When the Angel visited Mary to tell her that she was to be the mother of Jesus, Mary had a choice. God did not force the decision upon her; God asked. When Jesus called his Apostles, he did not force them. He called them and asked them to follow him. When Jesus sent them out, he told them to present the message, but if they did not listen, they should walk away. It was only when missionaries were sent to indigenous populations that Christians forced people to convert.

The other point is that God does NOT put temptations in our way. One of the worst translations is found in the Lord’s Prayer and the words, “lead us not into temptation…” A better understanding would be “protect us in the time of trial.” God does NOT “lead us into temptation.” God is always with us, including those times we find ourselves put to the test. Mark says that the Angels “ministered to him” during his time in the wilderness; the angels walked with Jesus just as God walks with us.

So, what is Satan, simply put us. We wrestle with our demons, whatever those might be. Some of those demons are external, and some are internal, but they are ours. Perhaps we inherited them through genetics; maybe they are caused by the environment, but they are ours to deal with. We deal with them with God’s help, but sometimes, we need help from others. Remember, the angels ministered to Jesus; Jesus did not go it alone, and neither did you.

Lent is a spiritual time in the wilderness. Jesus went to the wilderness to prepare himself for what was coming. Jesus knew the result, but I am not sure he knew the nitty gritty details of each day; things unfolded as they unfolded, and only the end was inevitable.

Lent is a time of spiritual preparation. We know the end of the story, but we still need to prepare. It is my hope that we spend more time in prayer and meditating on Scripture. Use this time to discern the big questions in your own life, or maybe you could be an angel that ministers to another who is wrestling with their demons. Whatever it is, take some time to slow down and just be, be still, and know God.


Ash Wednesday

Remember thou art dust….

Today, we begin our journey with Jesus with the reminder that we are created out of nothing. Genesis tells us that God stooped down after the world’s creation, took the dust of creation, and formed humanity. All the other aspects of creation were spoken into existence by God, but the very hands of creation created humanity. After society was formed, God breathed the breath of life into humanity’s lungs, giving humanity life.

Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is a day to contemplate how we can spiritually improve our lives. Although today is a day to focus on what we have done and what we have left undone, it should not be a day we beat ourselves up. Repentance is not about what is in the past but rather the future and how we can live better for ourselves and others.

Smudging, or placing ashes on people’s heads, dates back to the 11th century. The ashes are from burning the left-over palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. This is a reminder of the cycle of death and resurrection and connects us spiritually to what has come before. Being covered in ashes was a sign of repentance, and smudging our foreheads reminds us of the need for repentance.

This idea of forgiveness has always been a part of the Season of Lent. In the Orthodox Christian Tradition, Lent begins with the Sunday of Forgiveness. A pilgrimage always begins with asking for forgiveness, and so at the start of Lent, Christians ask forgiveness not only from God but from each other, and the journey can begin with a clean slate, so to speak. There is something beautiful in participating in this forgiveness, standing before another, and asking for and granting forgiveness. It is a very healing process.

But we should not linger too long with this idea of dust, death, and repentance. We should constantly focus on the knowledge that God loves us and that our job is to bring that love into the world.

Lent is a perfect time for us to work on our spiritual lives, and we are reminded of this in the words from the service of the day, “I invite you to observe a holy Lent by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” Lent is the perfect time to start or restart the daily practice of reading Scripture and spend some time in prayer, even a few moments.

I know it can be hard to be joyful when you hear that you are dust and that we will, one day, return to dust. Dust gets a bad rap, and changing how we perceive what is being said can become positive rather than negative.

Deon Johnson is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Missouri. Each day, Bishop Johnson posts some inspirational quotes on his Facebook Page. Today, he posted about dust but not in the “remember you are going to die” sense of dust but in the Joni Mitchell “we are all stardust” sense. 

Here is what Bishop Johnson has to say:

Remember you are dust,
the substance of the stars, animated with the breath of life.
Uniquely formed in the image and likeness of Divine Love.
Authored in hope, forged in joy,
very good of very good,
no accident we,
this beloved quickened dust,
knit to love and be loved.
Remember you are dust.

And there was Morning

Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11

During a preaching class in seminary, the professor mentioned that we should use examples from everyday life in writing sermons. This way, those listening will understand and be able to apply the message to their lives. We have been hearing about the snowstorm bearing down on us for the last week. One person joked on Facebook that we would be getting somewhere between 0 and 85″ and that it would start between now and Monday. However, we may never get it.

Now I know that weather prediction is a complex science; that is why it is called a prediction and not a certainty. As one who has responded to disasters in the past, I appreciate advanced warnings and the ability to prepare, but I miss the days of Don Kent and not knowing what was going to happen until just before.

So, this week, I retrieved the snowblower from the shed, started it up, and ensured it would run. I dug out the snow shovels and the ice melt. We did go to the grocery store, but not just for milk and bread; we also needed other stuff. I went to bed last night, not knowing if we would have church this morning, but knowing we were ready, and then there was morning. No, this is not why I have given this message that title.

You may have noticed I added another scripture passage to the lineup this morning. The Lectionary provides four readings for each Sunday. An Old Testament selection, a Psalm, a reading from one of the letters, and the Gospel. The intent is to try and show that there is a connection between what has passed and what is coming. Sometimes, that connection is obvious, and other times, not so much.

In the past, I have limited the scripture selection to three, but, new year, new idea. I want us to spend our time together taking a deep dive into what Scripture says and how we can apply that to our lives and look at how what we believe has been influenced over the years.

I believe in doctrine and that we must have a basis for our belief; there must be a common frame of reference, or, to put it another way, we need a starting point. With that said, I appreciate that for some, doctrine, creeds, and all the rest can be troublesome, but again, we need a starting point that grounds us and a place we can grow from and towards. Yes, faith is a journey, and what we learned in Sunday school may not always be what we should believe as adults.

This morning’s first reading takes us back to “in the beginning.” This is one of two creation stories in Scripture. In this one, humanity is created last. Every culture has some story about how it all began. One of the problems we face in our Western mind is that we need an explanation for everything. Faith allows us to dream; faith permits us not to figure it all out. It does not matter how it began; we know it has. The point is, what lesson can we learn from it?

We heard the “earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” We see God, the Creator, separating the light from the darkness. We also heard that a wind from God “swept over the water.” Living here in Hull, we are no strangers to the wind coming off the water, so we should have a clear picture.

“In the beginning God.” That is the whole story. Then comes the verb: “created.” Then comes the object of that verb: “the heavens and the earth.” The first thing that happens in the story is the spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters.

We pause the creation story and jump to Mark’s Gospel and the day of Jesus’ baptism. Now, I will not argue about the necessity of Jesus’ baptism; I will leave that to others. I will, however, point to the fact that Jesus has a connection back to the deep waters of creation. Jesus goes from being without form to being someone with form. Jesus goes back to the original. Jesus has a heaven-opening event. Jesus does what God does in the beginning: He reopens the world.

We can have a long discussion about the fall of humanity, its root cause, and the penalty. It would be a fascinating conversation taking thousands of years of theological understanding. However, it does not matter. Something happened in the relationship between the Creator and creation, and things changed.

The creation story tells of a time when humanity walked with the Creator in a garden or what has been described as paradise. This was the time before humanity’s self-realization, before humanity became arrogant and decided it no longer needed help, whatever it was, caused a rift, a chasm in the relationship that the Creator tried to repair.

In my Christmas message, I mentioned that when Jesus was born, that relationship was repaired, and the Creator, once again, walked with creation. That in the birth of that baby, thousands of years had been repaired, but there was more to come, and we see that today.

There is something pagan at the beginning of creation time. “Pagan” originally meant “of the country,” a kind of sensual simplicity. This has to describe the time before us. It is just day and night.

There is no doubt in my mind that humanity has abused creation. Humanity has taken the gift of stewardship of creation to mean we can do what we want with it. Entire species have been wiped off the face of the earth due to humanity’s inability to regulate itself. We have lost the reverence and awe we should have, and greed has replaced it.

It is no secret that Nicky and I are the new stewards of the Loring House just down the street. The house is believed to be the oldest house in Hull and is purported to have been built around 1658, which makes the structure 365 years old. It’s not as old as the creation itself, but still, it’s pretty old. We consider ourselves stewards or caretakers rather than owners, and we embark on a restoration, not a renovation. Sure, we will have electricity, indoor plumbing, a modern kitchen, and heat, but we will honor the hands that built the house and all those who lived in it before us by preserving it in the future.

How do we get this sense of reverence back and make it part of our daily living? Baptismatus sum, said Luther. I am baptized and renewed in creation that had my name in it from the very beginning. I am christened to creation. My DNA comes from the original light and lightness.

We have lost reverence. Reverence is a deep understanding of human limitation. We have been taught that we have no limitations. We can send humans to the moon but cannot figure out how to feed people.

The Gospel is earthy, grounded in the real, tactile, sensual, fleshy world. This morning, we hear of rivers, clothing from camels, diet from bugs, tying shoes, a bird analogy, and an interesting weather phenomenon. This earthiness reminds us that we are not set over or apart from creation but part of creation. The dirt came first, and we were fashioned from that dirt. Jesus stepped down into the water of Jordan not to be cleansed from some made-up sin of people that lived eons before him; Jesus stepped into the water to show us the connection back to creation itself.

Along with reverence, we have lost a sense of awe. “Awful” and “awesome” come from the same root in “awe.” These two words used to be the same side of the same coin. We have awe at awful things. We have awe at wonderful things. We have awe. Now awful is reserved for bad things, and awesome is reserved for good, and, if you are from Boston, “wicked awesome” is even better!

This word change has robbed us of integrity, unity, and oneness of experience. We need a return to reverence, an all-encompassing appreciation of mystery and its root in human limitations. Reverence is not just a religious value. Reverence is the virtue that keeps us from acting like gods!

How do we change? We practice the great lightedness that separates night and day. We can remember our baptismal waters and the connection to creation. We can reclaim the moment before humans when God created. We can reclaim time before time when God’s spirit moved upon the waters. We can regain a sense of awe and our part in creation.

The baptism of Jesus was not the start of something new but a continuation of something that began in the beginning. The baptism of Jesus and our baptism is a reminder that we are connected to creation by the very elements of that creation.

The birth of Jesus restored humanity’s relationship with the Creator. The baptism of Jesus restored humanity’s relationship with creation. Our task is to care for and learn from creation and understand our limitations.

At the end of each day of creation, the Creator sat back, looked upon all that had been accomplished, and proclaimed that it was good. Today, remind yourself of the awesomeness of creation and commit to being better stewards and caretakers of the awesome gift we have been given.


Our Shocking Hope

Isaiah 64:1-9

We have arrived. We have turned the page and have begun a new liturgical year. The colors have changed from the green or ordinary time to the purple of repentance and kingly majesty. We see the greens around the church and the Advent wreath with the expectant waiting of the four candles to be lit over these next four weeks. Yes, we have arrived at the season of Advent, the season of hope, love, joy, and peace.

I have given this message the title, “Our Shocking Hope” because we begin today not at the cradle of the newborn baby but rather with Isaiah the Prophet, praying a prayer that is a lamentive plea that the God of Sinai will come down with righteous power and stun the enemies of Israel with his presence, bringing shock and awe to his adversaries.

God’s people had sinned and felt that God had hidden his face from them. They were in exile, spiritually and physically, and despite all of this, they still believed they were clay in the hands of the creator and ready to do whatever was asked of them.

It is easy to understand this plea of Isaiah considering what is happening in the Middle East. Earlier this week, there was a glimmer of hope with the temporary cease-fire and hostage exchange. Families tragically separated by war on both sides were being united. Necessary aid began to flow again in Gaza and the surrounding area, and it seemed, at least for a moment, that peace had been restored. But it would not last.

This prayer from the Prophet shows that he is no proponent of a sentimental theology of easy grace. Isaiah shows us a God who is angry and silent, one who hides God’s face from a people who have rejected God’s righteous ways. For us, our path leading from repentance to redemption involves an appeal to a different God, or at least a different perspective of God. We need to be reminded that the healing of ourselves and nations depends upon this notion that we are all the people of this incredible God: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.

This is an extraordinary way to begin this Advent season with tales of weeping and lament. It is unusual, I will grant you that.

But it is also powerful. We need to begin with this idea of repentance; we need to be reminded that we need to rely on God for things like forgiveness and reconciliation. I know it is not fashionable to talk about sinning and all the rest, but it is the reality that we are sinners. We have all fallen short, missed the mark, whatever you want to call it, and we all need the grace freely given by God to lead us back home to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Advent rocks the church from its complacency of Ordinary Time with the news that it is time to think about fresh possibilities for deliverance and human wholeness. Peace, the peace of shalom and salaam, is at the very heart of this promise that is born during this Advent Season. But it is difficult to get to the end safely without becoming vulnerable along the way. It is challenging to start this journey of Advent without repentance and forgiveness.

History is unclear when Christians first began to mark the season we now call Advent. There are some writings which put that dates around 480 C.E. and some that fix the date to the Council of Tours in 567 C.E. One this is certain; Advent began as a penitential season and required a strict fast often called the Nativity Fast. Eating minimal meals three times a week reminded the faithful that Advent was also a preparation period, such as Lent, just before Easter. Thankfully for us in the West, this tradition died off and is extinct now.

However, the penitential nature of Advent continues. We see a remnant of that with the color used to adorn the sanctuary. Gone are the bright colors of previous liturgical seasons, replaced with purple, which I mentioned at the start, is the color of repentance but also of kingly majesty. Yes, we must repent, but at the same time, we must remember that the King will soon arrive.

Over the next four weeks, our themes will be hope, love, joy, and peace. We begin with Hope because, without hope, all is lost. We see the first candle of our wreath, the hope candle, which will be the shortest candle by the end of our Advent Journey. This candle reminds us that hope burns the longest, and when we feel that all hope is gone, there is still a flicker of light that keeps us going. But hope lights all of the other candles, and by the end, the brightness of our faith shines for all to see.

In his plea to God, Isaiah calls upon God to come down with vengeance and restore his people. But rather than send an army, God sent a tiny baby, born of humble means, in a backwater, almost forgotten portion of the Roman Empire. This baby was born not to Kings but to the poorest of the poor who had no place to stay. This baby was not born in a palace surrounded by servants but rather, this baby was born in a place where animals fed and spent the night.

Isaiah was praying and hoping for a strong military that would free them of their earthly bondage and restore them to the people they were called to be. But God had other plans. God sent a dark-skinned man to show them a different way. This way may not free them from their earth shackles, but it would free them and us from the spiritual ones.

At Advent, we summon the courage to remember that the holy breaks into the daily. This enables us to open our hearts to the healing grace of God, who opens the way of peace. This healing grace comes like a mighty river rushing through the valleys of our pride, fear, and self-righteousness. This is not a season for passive watching and waiting; this is the season where we open our lives and souls with active anticipation and renewed hope.

We cannot lose heart; we must live with our hearts broken open so that compassion, caring, and God’s reckless, unquestioned, unchanging love can find its way into our hearts and the hearts of the world. To paraphrase the Prophet, make straight in our hearts a highway for the possibility of peace. Amen.

Advent Message

You have heard it said that this is the most wonderful time of the year. What could be more wonderful than celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?

However, before we get to the opening of presents and other holiday cheer, we have a season of Advent, which begins on Sunday, December 3rd. The Christmas season starts on December 24th, so hold on and be patient.

Advent is the season of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity and the return of Christ at the Second Coming. The Season of Advent anticipates the “coming of Christ” from three different perspectives:

The Nativity at Bethlehem

The reception of Christ in our hearts

The Second Coming of Christ

We begin our Advent journey centered around the theme of hope. We hear from Isaiah the Prophet, who foretells of the coming Savior. St. Paul, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, brings hope by writing about our strength in Jesus. Mark’s Gospel brings the story of the Second Coming of Jesus and the hope it will bring.

The second week brings us the theme of love. Isaiah asks God to bring comfort to God’s people. Isaiah prophesizes about the coming of John the Baptist, who will prepare the way. We know that John is the cousin of Jesus, and the way of being prepared is the way of love. Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, says that “the way of Jesus is the way of love, and the way of love can change the world.”

Week three brings Joy. In liturgical churches, the whole mood of the services changes as the rose candle of the Advent wreath is lit. We hear directly from Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she speaks of the gift God has given her by choosing her to be the mother of Jesus. This is the first evangelical telling of what Jesus has come for. We find great joy as we reach the halfway point of Advent.

The fourth and final week of Advent brings us the peace of God that passes all understanding. We hear the first telling of the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Angel greets Mary with the word “Peace.” This is the same word that Jesus will use to greet his Apostles after the Resurrection. Mary’s yes to the Angel brings peace to the whole world, and it is that peace that we are to bring to the world in which we live.

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Savior. As we prepare our homes, let us remember to prepare a place in our hearts. Amid the hustle and bustle of the coming days and weeks, set some time aside for prayer and meditation and “prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

In Everything

Matthew 25:14-30

Last week, I was at an event, and the speaker naturally turned towards Thanksgiving. He mentioned that at times like this, war, poverty, climate in crisis, political shenanigans, and all the rest, it can be challenging to find something to be thankful for. However, he said there is always something to be thankful for, and sometimes, we must look hard to find just what that is.

This should be no surprise to anyone, especially those expecting guests; Thursday is Thanksgiving. If you are expecting guests, today would be a good day to move your frozen turkey to the refrigerator to start to thaw. It seems odd that we only have one official day of the year that we set aside to be thankful when we should be thankful every day.

After many years of research, I recently discovered that my 10th great-grandfather, Richard Warren, was a passenger on the Mayflower and came to Plymouth in 1620. I am unsure of his motivation for coming here; was it religious, political, or economic? Whatever it was, he was in search of something better.

We know there were varied reasons why the Pilgrims came to what they called the “New World.” History paints a picture of uber-religious folks escaping the clutches of an evil King whose desire was to force them to conform to a specific practice of religion. Although this sounds wonderful, we know it is not 100% accurate.

Most of the group we call Pilgrims had not been in England in almost a generation. They had gone to Holland many years earlier to pursue their ideal of religious freedom. Yes, there was a growing intolerance to what the English government called the “dissenters,” but they were free to worship how they saw fit.

The decision to leave Holland for something better was less about religion than culture. They felt their children were losing what it meant to be English. This happens with immigrants in the second generation; they begin to assimilate into the culture around them. So, they desired an English colony where they would be free to do what they wished.

We have touched on this idea of religious freedom already. You were free to worship as long as that worship conformed to what the colony’s leaders desired. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the minister who founded this congregation came to Hull after being expelled from Plymouth for not conforming to the religious practices that had been established.

Some came for economic reasons and saw the ability to make a better life for themselves and their families in the new world. The reasons for leaving the comfort of one’s home and everything they knew were as varied as there were people.

After saying all of this, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to romanticize or make excuses for the next several hundred years of human rights violations toward the native population that these Pilgrims found here when they arrived. In the past, we have acknowledged that this land that our church is on was the ancestral land of the Wampanoag tribe and that we have much to repent from.

History is not pretty; history can be ugly, and sometimes we want to turn our backs on it, but we cannot. We acknowledge past wrongs and strive not to make the same mistakes again, although it seems we so often do.

But today, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, I would like us to look at this yearly remembrance of that first Thanksgiving from another perspective and see what we can learn from it. When we strip it all away, Thanksgiving is about the native population of a place welcoming and assisting immigrants. They did not ask questions; they did not seek papers; they welcomed them. The Indians saw people in need, and they helped them. Were they suspicious? I am almost certain they were. Were they cautious? Again, I am almost certain they were. But they saw a need and were moved with compassion to help. America, this place we call our home, was founded upon the principle of helping those in need.

We know from history that those who came on the Mayflower would have almost certainly died, and many of them did, without the assistance of the Indians. My ancestor lived until 1628, no doubt, because of the generosity of the Indians during that first winter and subsequent winters and summers. Yes, they were on their land and came without invitation, but none of that mattered. People were in need, and they helped.

But Thanksgiving has become much more than a commemoration of the kindness of one person to another, although that is important. Thanksgiving is about the abundance of the harvest and all that the earth has to offer. On Thanksgiving Sundays of old, people would bring baskets of food to church, and they would be blessed. People would give thanks to God for the abundance of what the earth had produced. Even in bad times, people would bring what they had to be blessed. Our modern world has become so out of touch with food production that we forget those who produce it when we should remember to be grateful to them.

On any given day, we can go to a supermarket and purchase what we need and want. We can get fruits and vegetables from around the globe at any time of the year. But do we remember those who helped produce that food, many immigrants who have come here, like the pilgrims, to find a better way of life for themselves and their families?

Thanksgiving also reminds us of our responsibility to care for this earth over which we have been given stewardship. We read in Genesis that after creation, God gave humanity “dominion” over creation. Far too many have interpreted that word to mean “do what we want” rather than the intended interpretation of “caring for creation, all of it.” We have used and abused our planet, and now we are seeing the result of that abuse—rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, and all the rest.

In our opening prayer, we prayed, giving thanks for nature’s constancy and providence that “year by year supplies our need.” Although we abuse and misuse this place, it provides what we need. But for how much longer?

But back to the speaker, I heard a few weeks ago. Our challenge is to find something to be thankful for each day. Again, I know this can be a challenge. When I was working in addiction recovery, one of the themes was the idea of thankfulness. We need to start small. Maybe today, we are grateful that we have a place to worship. Perhaps we are grateful that we had a place to lay our head last night. Maybe we are grateful because we opened our eyes this morning and have one more day. The idea is to find something to be grateful for every day, and the challenge is tomorrow; we have to be grateful for something new.

So here is my challenge for you. Starting tomorrow, I want you to find something to be grateful for, and I want you to write it down. For the next 365 days, I want you to do the same thing, except you can only be thankful for something one time, no cheating.

I have mentioned before what Gandhi said about changing the world. Gandhi said that if we want to see more peace in the world, we have to be more peaceful. If we want the world to be more loving, we have to be more loving. In other words, change begins with us. If we want the world to be more thankful, we must become more thankful. Reminding ourselves each day what we have to be thankful for is the start, and before we know it, we won’t have to look very hard to find those things to be thankful for.


Love Everyone

Matthew 22:34-46

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

We have finally arrived. We have reached the summit. What else is there to say? In these few words, Jesus has summarized his teaching. Jesus has spoken the last words. He should need to talk about the issue of how we are to treat one another. I believe that these words about loving God and everyone else is the reason why Jesus came, to show us the way of love.

This has been a difficult week. On Wednesday, a gunman walked into two places where people had gathered to have a good time. He began to randomly shoot people, leaving 18 dead and countless numbers wounded. The fighting continues in the Middle East with no end in sight. This fighting has caused a ripple effect worldwide as people choose sides. And let us not forget the war is still raging in Ukraine. This has been a difficult week.

All these things have been in our thoughts and prayers, as hollow as that sounds. We are trying, in our own way, to make sense of it all when Jesus comes along and commands that we love everyone, and my response is, Sure, Jesus, but I am a little short on love right now.

On April 16, 2007, 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. In the aftermath of that shooting, I was sent along with several other clergy to the school to offer what support we might be able to bring. We spent the day walking around campus, talking to people, and giving out free hugs. This community was in pain, and they were trying to come to grips with how they felt.

On the common space in the center of campus, a makeshift memorial had been set up. A circle of candles had been constructed with the names of each of those who lost their lives. People would come by, pause for a moment or two at a name or names, maybe leave flowers or some other token, and then move on. Although 32 students had been killed, there were 33 candles and names. The 33rd candle was for the shooter.

This angered some people, and for a brief period, that candle was removed. But it was returned with a note which read, “33 are gone because one was lost.” It was an amazing sight to see. Amid this community’s pain and anger, they did not forget that the person who caused that pain and anger was a human being with a family who loved him, whose life also came to a tragic end.

On Friday night, news broke that the shooter in Maine had been found dead in the woods not far from the place where he worked. You could almost feel the sense of relief when it was announced, and the residents of the communities affected breathed a sigh of relief. The governor broke the news that the gunman was dead, and the threat was over. But that was not the end.

As usually happens at these press conferences, various officials spoke about the events that led up to the finding of the shooter’s body in the woods. But the most poignant words were spoken by the Maine Public Safety Commissioner. He talked about calling the families of those who had been killed to give them the news that the person responsible had been found.

Then, in what was a surprising move, he spoke about the family of the man who caused all this pain and anger. He said that he had also spoken with them because they had also lost someone they loved. He made no excuses for what happened, nor did he try to explain it away; he simply treated the family with respect, informing them that their loved one had been found.

I know that will not be popular with some, just as the memorial to the shooter at Virginia Tech was not popular. Still, sometimes, we have to do what is right rather than what is popular—remembering that the perpetrator, regardless of how heinous the act committed was, had a family that loved him is how we can show love. There will be plenty of time for blame and recriminations, but for now, let us remember that families are grieving and trying to figure it all out.

I cannot emphasize enough how radical these words of Jesus were. Since Moses carried the stone tablets off the mountain, humanity has been guided by the Ten Commandments of God. These 10 were the basis of all the other laws, and then along came Jesus, who changed the focus. Jesus is asking us, no, Jesus is commanding us to shift the focus from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.

The most revolutionary part of what Jesus commanded was not that he called us to love everyone but that there were no exceptions to that love. Love God, love neighbor was all he said. The only condition Jesus added was that we are to love everyone as we love ourselves. There is no room to say, but they… Nope, we are to love everyone just as we love ourselves.

Commenting on the tragedy in Maine, the new Speaker of the House commented that it’s not guns but rather the human heart that is the problem. I would agree to a point. Yes, it is the human heart, the heart, that is hardened to the problem of mental health in this country. The human heart that is hardened to the problem we have with easily accessible weapons designed for no other purpose than to kill. A heart that has become so hard to children dying that we are paralyzed and feel there is nothing we can do. So yes, Mr. Speaker, the problem is partly with the human heart.

This love Jesus speaks of requires us to show care and concern for others. We do not have to excuse anyone, even the shooter, for the things that they have done, but we do have to love them and show concern for them.

I am confident that over the next few weeks and months, we will hear stories about the shooter and the signs that he may or may not have exhibited. There will be all sorts of blame and finger-pointing; it has already begun.

If we truly love our neighbor, we will not point fingers but find solutions. Pointing fingers is easy; finding solutions requires lots of hard work, and that work begins inside each of us.

This command, and let us not forget this, is a command of Jesus: to love everyone is not easy. Loving everyone is, in my mind, the most challenging part of being a Christian. So important is this message that Jesus was willing to die for it. Make no mistake, what killed Jesus was his radical call for inclusion and a change in the way we treat one another.

Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, sums up the teachings of Jesus with these few words, “The way of Jesus is the way of love, and the way of love will change the world.” Let us strive to bring that love out into the world every day.


Sermon: The Things that are God’s

Matthew 22:1-14

Let us pray:

Throw open every window and every door by which your word might reach us, O God. Open our hearts and our minds and our spirits to whatever you might have to say to us today. Amen.

There is an old saying that one should not mix religion and politics, but it is hard to escape the idea that this is precisely what Jesus did at almost every turn of his ministry. The origin of the word Politics comes from Middle English through Old French. But it goes back even further than that to Latin by way of Greek, politēs ‘citizen,’ from polis ‘city.’ A literal rendering would be “of the citizens of the city.”

Whether today’s passage from Matthew is political or religious, the exchange raises questions about obedience, loyalty, and authority, showing us that faith has an inescapable political dimension, just not a partisan one.

It might be uncomfortable for us, in the 21st century, to talk about the mix of religion and politics. For Jesus, in the context of this lesson today, he is in a challenging situation. The tax that Jesus is being asked about was a “Poll Tax” that had to be paid by everyone, man, woman, or slave. By the way, the Latin word for the tax is “Census.” Not only did everyone have to pay this tax, it had to be paid in Roman currency.

Jesus asks those posing the question to bring him a coin. The coin they get him is the denarius, which was stamped with the head of the emperor Tiberius with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.”

The controversy comes not from the idea of paying taxes. However, just as it is not very popular today to pay taxes was not very popular in the 1st century, it was the inscription on the coin that was the cause of the controversy and the question. For the nationalists, paying the tax meant the humiliation of Israel at the hands of Rome, while for the average Jew, the currency was an issue. A coin that proclaims the emperor as divine and has his image stamped on it is blasphemous.

Right from the start of today’s lesson, we see that this is a trap set for Jesus. The two parties asking the question are described as the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. This is a strange pairing, especially regarding the question of the tax. It would be like Republicans and Democrats agreeing on anything, but mainly on the idea of the tax.

The Herodians were supporters of Herod the Great and, in Jesus’ time, Herod Antipas. They liked the idea of the tax and supported it. The power that the Herod’s had come from Rome. The Pharisees, on the other hand, would have been resentful of the tax. It is an odd situation with these two parties, who are usually aligned against each other but come together to try and trap Jesus. Whichever way Jesus answers is going to put him in a difficult position.

So, Jesus asks for the coin to be given to him. In one way, he turns the tables on his detractors because now they must handle this coin, which they feel is blasphemous. Not directly answering the question, he turns it on them, and in so doing, he silences them. What does “rendering unto Caesar” mean? Does it mean paying nothing to Caesar because everything belongs to God? Pay the tax because earthly authority is different than heavenly authority.

Jesus does not directly answer the question, perhaps to make us wonder if there is something more significant than the idea of paying taxes here. Jesus is making a point about that law and the authority of the law over people.

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew pits Jesus against the Jewish authorities. We have seen this play out in the last three weeks in the parables that we have read. One of the ways Jews of the time of Jesus and Jewish Christians in Matthew’s time would have talked about authority and obedience to the law.

The questioning of Jesus by the Pharisees has precedence in Matthew’s Gospel. The Pharisees have criticized Jesus’ disciples for doing what is not lawful, plucking grain on the Sabbath to feed themselves and healing on the Sabbath. Using the exact words they used when questioning Jesus about these earlier incidents, they ask Jesus about paying taxes.

All these questions open an important dimension underlying what Jesus is asking about the coin as it relates to obedience. Obedience to the law should not devolve into legalism, where the letter of the law stands in the way of carrying out the will of God. Satisfying hunger and healing illness are just two examples of this idea that Matthew uses. The law should never be an obstacle to serving, nor an excuse for avoiding the higher purpose of God’s desire that everyone should flourish.

But, and there is always a but, this principle does not absolve us from obedience to the law. In other places in Matthew’s Gospel, obedience to the law is a minimum but necessary requirement on the way to perfection. In Chapter 19 and Verse 3, the Pharisees question Jesus about divorce and whether it is lawful. Jesus responds by demanding behavior that includes and supersedes the law. Obedience to God, in this case, is a challenge to live up to the highest standards possible, even going beyond the legal minimum.

There is also the story of John the Baptist confronting Herod Antipas about his marriage to his brother’s wife. John denounces this marriage as unlawful and, by doing so, demonstrates remarkable courage. John does not fear the consequences when he speaks the truth. John’s obedience to the law got his killed by the very people he was denouncing.

The examples of obedience, including the tax question, touch on several dimensions of obedience. Discerning how to “render to God what is God’s” can range from unwavering relativizing of the letter of the law to going beyond what the law demands and even, as we saw with John the Baptist, facing persecution to uphold the law. In each case, obedience to the law means seeking God’s will.

As you know, I was ordained in a different denomination than where I am today. For all the beauty of Orthodox Christian liturgy and worship, there is a distinct lack of mercy regarding social principles. As my theological understanding matured, I came to a crossroads and had to decide which path to follow. I could stay where I was, keep my mouth shut, and do what I was doing in my small corner of the world. Or I could leave and find a new path.

I chose to leave and, in a sense, was persecuted for it. The Church condemned, tried, and convicted me of the sin of apostasy, abandoning the faith. My ideas of radical inclusiveness saw me put outside of communion with the Church that ordained me and that I faithfully served for 12 years. I discerned that God’s will for me was in another place, so I had to face the consequences of that decision.

One of the founding principles of our country is the idea of religious freedom. The idea of being able to worship as one’s conscience dictates was one of the driving forces behind the Pilgrims leaving everything they knew to come to the new world. Of course, their idea of religious freedom was to worship as they saw fit, but we will leave that for another day. However, the critical thing to remember is that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, and that is something that many in our country cannot understand.

Sure, we hope that God blesses our country and those who lead it, but it does not mean that God blesses those who lead us in a unique way; that sort of thinking leads to idolatry and the idea that our leaders can do no wrong and deserve special privileges. There is a real danger of idolatry when there is interaction between politics and religion.

Rendering unto Ceasar does not necessarily mean that Ceasar is performing the will of God. The writing of Paul and the Book of Revelation cast a very suspicious eye on the horrible ways governments treat people.

The message of Jesus is a challenge for us to render unto God the things that are God’s. Jesus’ message means living in a world of various commitments and obligations, but the ultimate criteria of the gospel must guide our choices. To live out the gospel, we cannot avoid political commitments, but it does not mean we should claim partisan ideologies on either side as the will of God.

The challenge is to seek God’s will and to imitate the example of Jesus to render all things to God.


Sermon: Hold Fast

Romans 12:9-21

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection… serve the Lord.” Romans 12:9-11

Let us pray:

Throw open every window and every door by which your word might reach us, God. Open our hearts and our minds and our spirits to whatever you might have to say to us today. Amen.

Sitting in one place for days on end gives one a lot of time to think about different topics. One can let one’s mind drift into other places and times and wonder what this or that would be like if only this or that was different. One plays the what-if game. How different would my or your life be if we had done this, gone that way rather than the way we went, and all the rest? It is okay to dream if we eventually come back to reality.

This morning, we heard a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Believed to have been written in late 55 to early 57 CE, this letter seeks to reconcile the Jewish and Gentile Christian communities in Rome. Paul writes in such a way that he has something for all sides yet points them back to this idea that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul begins where I usually start, with love. As I have mentioned, love is central to the life of the Christian. But Paul goes a little bit deeper here, “Let your love be genuine.” Genuine is “truly what something is said to be; authentic.” This is emphatic: it either is or is not, and there is no in-between. If we say we love, we must mean what we say; we cannot just pay it lip service. It is easy to say I love this and that, but do we really?

Love is one of those words that we throw around too much and, in many ways, has lost its true meaning. You will recall that the Christian Scriptures were written in Greek and that there are at least five words for love in Greek. In English, we have one, so the word we use to declare our love for hamburgers is the same word to express our love for our spouse. The love Paul is writing about is brotherly love, “love one another with mutual affection.”

Another interesting point is that Paul is writing to the entire community in Rome, not just a particular group or an individual. Paul is writing about community and how we make community better. For Paul, the community is not just a group of people who come together once a week but rather a group of people who care for each other in such a profound way that we “outdo each other in showing honor.” We always honor and care for one another, not just when convenient.

Now, this is an ideal, something that we should strive for. Will we make it? Maybe not, but what is essential is that we try. Paul is writing about the here and now; Paul wants the community to reflect genuine love and affection, which will help build up the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven. This is not an ideal that can only be realized “on the other side” but can very much exist here and now. If we believe it can.

In verse 14, Paul shifts gears a little. Until this time, Paul has been dealing with some esoteric ideals about community living, but verse 14 brings it home.

“Bless those who persecute you.” Wait, what did he say? Yes, he said that, and Paul reminds us, just in case we forgot, “Bless and do not curse them.” This is not a new idea; there was another guy who had a beard and rose from the dead, oh yeah, Jesus, who said the same thing, so Paul is not breaking new ground here, just reminding us of the command that Jesus left. What’s interesting is the choice of words Paul is using.

Jesus commanded we love one another. I will not go into great detail about the meaning of that; you can read any of the 100 or some sermons I have preached on that subject. Jesus says love, but Paul says bless. As I understand these things, the saying “bless his heart” can be taken multiple ways. It can be taken as a genuine form of concern or, as it is most often used, in a more sarcastic way. Now, I am not saying that if we bless something, we should do it halfheartedly, just the opposite. But a blessing is a little easier to take than love.

Another way of thinking about blessing someone you really cannot stand is asking God to come into this person’s life and help them see the error of their ways and place them back upon the path of righteousness. In this way, you are performing a service for them.

Then we come to verse 17, “Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

Raise your hand if you have ever been wronged or hurt by another person, just as I thought, most, if not all, of us. You don’t have to raise your hand on this one, but how many of you thought about getting even or mentioned karma coming around to help them along the way? It is natural to want the other to get what is coming.

Now, Paul says, “do not repay evil for evil.” Paul does not say we cannot seek justice. Paul is talking about not seeking vengeance because vengeance comes from a place of anger. Justice can also come from anger, but it is anger pointed in the right direction.

In my weekly email, I mentioned the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers and how the original meaning had been coopted for various reasons. I also mentioned that this hymn had become an anthem for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The civil rights movement is a perfect example of love in action.

March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, love came into direct contact with hate. On one side was a group of people fighting for equal rights for all, and not just some, and on the other was a group of people fighting to keep those same people, Americans, from having those same rights for no other reason than they looked different. On Bloody Sunday, love was met with clubs and guns, but evil was not returned, although many wanted it. A few weeks later, on March 21st, they were back, both sides, but this time, love won. It would be a long war, one we indeed still fighting, but the tide turned, and it was because of love.

We cannot love another and wish evil on them simultaneously. We can love them and hope that justice comes their way; we can actively work to see that justice does come their way, but we cannot wish evil on them. Listen, there are certain people I hope we all get to see in orange jumpsuits being led away in handcuffs, but I do not wish harm to come upon them.

I have encountered some tough people in ministry. Some might call them evil, but I hold to the idea that no person is evil; their actions might be evil and may have been corrupted by evil, but they are not evil.

There is one person I can think of who never had a good thing to say about anything. This person was miserable to be around and was only happy when others were miserable. At church meetings, this person would always cause problems. It was so bad that we delayed bringing things to meetings if they would be there to avoid the inevitable conflict. I was at my wit’s end and did not know what to do. I asked a colleague who had also dealt with this person what to do. The response was, “charm and disarm.” Meeting their hatred head-on with love throws them off their game.

“If you enemy is hungry, feed them; if thirsty, give them something to drink.” It is easy to get sucked into the vortex of hate. We saw what happened live on television on January 6, 2021, when people got all riled up and filled with hatred toward others. Hatred was on full display that day. Sure, there was some love in there as well, but it was hatred that broke the glass, it was hatred that beat the police officers to death, it was hatred that stormed the capitol that day. We want justice, and we will get it. Paul says, “do not become overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Never surrender…. to evil.

Paul knew that this was an ideal, something that we should strive for, and Paul also knew that we could not do it or even try to do it outside God’s grace. Removing grace, removing the idea that we have all been created in the image and likeness of God, leads us to believe that others are less than and deserve less than. It’s what leads others to put buoys with saw blades across rivers to keep others out. It is what leads to protests about equality, and it’s what leads one human being to hate another human being just because they are different.

So where does it all begin? It begins inside each of us, but it will not happen overnight. It’s okay to be angry and want change. It’s okay to fight for that change with every fiber of our being, but we must do it from a place of love, not hate. Turn that anger towards good, fight for what is right and what is just, not just for some but for all.

Look out for one another and offer gentle corrections when you see someone moving in an unloving direction. Yes, there will be people we can never love, which is fine; provide a blessing for that person, and pray that God helps you move in the direction of love. We might never get there, but we are moving towards it.

Friends, there is a lot to unpack in these verses. Take these verses with you and pray with them, meditate with them, argue with them, let them ruminate with you, struggle with them, and then, let’s discuss. How can we be more loving today, tomorrow, and the next day, and how can we bring God’s kingdom right here, now.


Is it Fair?

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

The day after my injury, I went to the emergency room and discovered I had broken my ankle. I was given a boot to wear and crutches to get me from one place to another. Physical therapy gave me a quick lesson on using them, and I was sent on my way.

Upon returning home, I made my way from the car to the stairs and came to a dead stop. If you have ever used crutches, you know that one needs to hop up the stairs, which is challenging. I stood there for a few moments and determined I could not do it. I was scared. I was scared that I would fall, and I was scared I would hit my broken ankle on the stairs. So, we called for help.

Since then, I have transitioned to using a walker and, when needed, a wheelchair. Both present their own difficulties. The wheelchair is far more comfortable but also the most restrictive. Amazingly, a ¾” lip on a threshold can prevent a wheelchair from entering a building. How about trying to open a door and go through it? Before being confined to devices that aid, I was blind to the idea that we excluded people based on their mobility. Not intentionally, of course, but still excluding.

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew is rather harsh. Jesus is preaching and telling those listening that it is not what goes in one’s mouth but rather that which comes out that defiles a person. There had been a great discussion about Jewish dietary restrictions, and Jesus is trying to combat that. He is reminding them that what we say really leaves a mark.

By tradition, Orthodox Christians abstain from meat and dairy on Wednesday and Friday and during Advent and Lent. This is a strict fast, with no wiggle room, meat, or dairy. This spiritual discipline teaches that if we can control what goes in, we can control what comes out. The understanding is we have control over what we eat and how much. If we can control the desire to eat, we can control other desires we may not have as much control over.

In my Orthodox days, I always advised folx to abstain as much as possible. Nothing worse than trying to take on a spiritual discipline only to fail. Start small and work up. Abstaining from anything is a sacrifice but can also be behavior-changing. Again, the idea is to control what comes out. I recall saying, just before a period of abstinence was about to begin, that if you abstain but come out the other side the same nasty person you were going in, it did not work. Abstaining for abstaining sake is worthless. It’s about behavior change.

This is the point that Jesus is making. You can follow the letter of the law, the dietary restrictions, but if you cut another down with your words, what good is that? This is true of anything we do in the name of religion or spirituality. You may come to church, pray, sing the hymns, and know bible verses backward and forwards, but it is a waste of time if we have no love for others.

After this teaching, and I suggest going back and reading this scripture above, the scene changes. Jesus has moved to a different area and is now in the district of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon were two important cities in Phoenicia and not a place one would expect Jesus to be.

As they are walking, a Canaanite woman approaches them and asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus ignores her and keeps on walking. She is a Canaanite and a woman, so Jesus is basically blind to her request. She persists so much that the Apostles come to him and ask him to send her away as she is becoming a nuisance. Jesus tells them he cannot help her because she is of the wrong race. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he tells them and keeps walking.

A couple of things to point out here. This woman is advocating for her sick daughter. As we would, she will try anything until she finds what she needs. She wants what is best for her daughter. She knows the risk of approaching Jesus but needs to do this. Jesus is her last hope and will do anything for her daughter.

Finally, the woman comes and kneels before him, blocking his path. She is insistent now but respectful. She pleads with Jesus to help her, and amazingly Jesus says to her, “Is it not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Wait, did Jesus call this woman a dog? What happened to love your neighbor and all of that? Maybe Jesus was having a bad day; we all have them. Perhaps he was tired. He had just finished a sermon and needed a break; here he was, being pestered by this woman. Jesus just finished speaking about what comes out of one’s mouth, and now he is not paying attention to what is coming out of his mouth.

The Canaanite woman has a choice; she can slink away or stay and fight, and she chooses to fight. She challenges Jesus by answering, “yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She is acknowledging who Jesus is. She has no doubt heard the stories; that is why she came in the first place. But now, she publicly acknowledges that Jesus is Lord and can heal her daughter.

This moves Jesus, and he grants her request instantly.

Sometimes we think we are being inclusive, but are we really? Who have we excluded? Do we genuinely love everyone or only some people? Remember, loving and liking are two very different things. We can set up boundaries to protect ourselves to keep some out, but we must still love those on the outside. We are inclusive of our love but cautious of who we allow in our lives, which is fine.

What barriers do we have to keep others out? Maybe it’s that ¼” threshold or something else. Let us strive to seek out those barriers and remove them so all are truly welcome.


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