Sermon: Love your Enemies

Love Your Enemies

October 2, 2006, started as just another day for Nickle Mines, Pennsylvania residents. The Amish Community was going about the day’s business on their farms, and the children were headed off to school. After recess, the children returned to their one-room schoolhouse and settled in for their next lesson. A man entered the school and asked the children and their teacher if they had found a lost part he was looking for. They had not. The man left the building but quickly returned. What happened next would stun this community.

The man came into the building carrying a handgun and ordered the boys to go and get some items from his truck. The gunman began to barricade the doors and windows and line the girls up and the front of the classroom. The gunman ordered the boys and a few others to leave the school. The children’s teacher was able to escape and call the police from a nearby farm.

When police arrived, the man ordered that they leave or he would begin to shoot the children. Two of the girls, ages 13 and 11, realized their danger and asked that they be shot first so that the other might be spared.

Less than an hour after it began, it was over. Five of the girls were dead, including one of the girls that had asked to be shot first and the shooter. Many of the other girls were wounded and taken to area hospitals.

This tragic story shattered the innocence of this small, enclosed Amish community of Nickle Mines. However, the next part of the story is most extraordinary.

While the community was still coming to grips with the shooting and the deaths, one grandfather was overheard saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another Amish father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.” A member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County explained: “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”

Hours after the shooting, members of the Amish community had gone to the shooter’s home to offer forgiveness to his family and comfort the family in their grief. About 30 members of the Amish community attended the shooter’s funeral to show that forgiveness had been granted.

I cannot imagine the grief and pain the community was experiencing, but one of their first thoughts was to offer forgiveness.

In today’s Gospel from Luke, we heard these words from Jesus, “But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

The story of the community of Nickle Mines certainly bears witness to this passage to love our enemies but also about forgiveness.

On June 17, 2015, the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church members were just finishing up their Bible Study when a young man rose and began shooting. The shooter had come to the Church for just that reason but participated in the hour-long Bible Study before he began shooting.

Six minutes later, it was over. Eight were dead, a ninth would die later in hospital, and the shooter had escaped.

In statements after the shooting, families of the victims and other church members offered forgiveness. When asked why they were forgiving the shooter, they replied, “we are Christians, we have to forgive.”

Forgiveness is powerful, it’s powerful for the person offering forgiveness, and it is powerful for the one being forgiven. Forgiveness is not optional.

We turn again to the Gospel from Luke, where Jesus says, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” We recite the prayer that Jesus taught us in every service we have. In the prayer, we say forgive us for what we have done as we forgive those who have done things to us. We forgive because we have been forgiven.

Forgiveness is not easy. How can one forgive the taking of a life? How can one forgive harm? It is only by the grace of God that we can forgive. Forgiveness is not for the other person, although it can help them on their road to recovery. No, forgives if for the one offering the forgiveness.

If we withhold forgiveness, we give the other person power over us. The moment we can offer forgiveness is when we take that power back and begin to heal. It does not matter if the other person is worthy of forgiveness; we are worthy of that forgiveness.

However, forgiveness does not mean we forget. The harm done to us leaves a lasting mark on us, and there is no way to remove that mark. What forgiveness does is give us the ability not to be revictimized over and over by the event or events. I know this sounds easy, but it is not. Forgiveness releases the anger we may have towards another person and allows us to begin to heal. We may never see the person again, which is fine, but we slowly take our lives back.

In the examples of the Community of Nickle Mines and Mother Emmanuel Church, forgiveness was the only gift they could offer the shooters and to their families. But the more significant gift was to themselves. Lack of forgives leads to bitterness and all sorts of health and spiritual problems. The power of God’s grace gives us the strength that is needed to offer that forgiveness.

These two communities offered forgives in a very public way; it does not always have to be like that. We can offer forgiveness, and the other person may not even know it. Remember, forgiveness is for you, not them. Perhaps the person we need to forgive is dead; we can still forgive them if they never know we have offered forgiveness.

I have never experienced anything like what these two communities experienced. I have been betrayed and hurt by others, as I am sure many of you have. It was easy to forgive some, and for others, I am a work in progress. When I was able to offer forgiveness, I became free to allow myself to heal from the incident, and today I am a much better person for it.

At each Communion Service, we say a prayer of confession. Confession, sin, and the rest are not things we like to think of these days. Many people don’t feel they even need to say this prayer because they are not sinners; well, you deceive yourself if you think that way. We have all sinned and fallen short, and we all need forgiveness from God which is given.

In a few weeks, we will be entering the season of Lent. This time of year has been set apart by the Church as a season of repentance and is a perfect time to examine our lives and offer forgiveness where it is needed.

Let us pray for God’s grace that we will be able to forgive.

A Surprising Catch

Luke 5:1-11

Trust is an integral part of any relationship, but trust is something that is lacking these days. One of the first lessons I learned in Army basic training is that you must trust your foxhole buddy, and he has to trust you. Trust does not come immediately, but rather a bond develops over time. Working together day in and day out, learning what makes each other tick and all the rest helps this bond develop, and eventually, you would be willing to lay down your life for them. In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, we have a story of great trust.

Simon and his companions had been out fishing all night, and they were exhausted. The only task they had left to complete before going home and getting some sleep was to wash their nets and put them away. Along comes Jesus. We are unsure if Simon knew who Jesus was, but he no doubt has heard about him.

Jesus asks to use Simon’s boat to preach to those gathered on the shore. Jesus gets in, and they push out a little way offshore. All Simon wants to do is get the nets washed and put his down on his pillow, but first, he has to deal with this Jesus guy.

Luke does not record what Jesus said, but Simon was listening to him, and he must have heard something that convinced him that this Jesus was alright. When Jesus is finished, he turns to Simon and tells him to push the boat into the deep water and lower his nets. Simon tells Jesus that they are tired because they have been fishing all night but, he trusts Jesus and does as Jesus asks.

Simon and the other load into their boats, push offshore, and head out into the deep water. They lowered their nets and haul in the most significant catch they had ever seen, so much so that it almost sank the boat. Others had to be called over to help them get the fish into the boat.

Recognizing what has happened, Simon falls to his knees and asks Jesus to depart from him because he is a sinful man. Of course, Jesus knows this but chose him anyway. Jesus tells him not to fear and that he will be fishing for people from now on. But the next part of the story is astonishing. Luke tells us that they returned to shore, left everything, and followed Jesus.

They left everything and followed Jesus. Would you be willing to do that?

Paul, writing to his church in Corinth, reminds the people thereof of the calling of the Apostles and how, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he returned to them. Paul also reminds them that he was once a great persecutor of the church, yet Jesus used him to spread the Gospel story. Paul is asking the people in Corinth to trust his testimony that it is true so they can share in the eternal life of God through Jesus.

When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus asked Paul to trust him. When Paul was brought to a believer’s home to seek assistance because he could not see, the man was being asked to trust Jesus. Paul asks those who knew about him and his persecutions to trust that he has changed. Trust is a significant part of the spiritual life of Christians.

There was a time when we believed what was being told to us by those placed in authority over us. We might be skeptical about it, but we trusted that they had our best interests in mind when sharing information. We might have known that we were not being told everything, but we still trusted. Then we found out we were being lied to or important information was being withheld, and we started to doubt those good intentions. Our governmental and church leaders began to crumble before our eyes. We found out that they were flawed individuals faced with the same temptations as the rest of us. They fell hard from those pedestals we had placed them on, and now we have a suspicion rather than a trust. All of this is well-founded to a certain extent.

Seventy years ago, a young woman placed incredible trust in what she believed God was asking her to do. She went to bed the night before a princess and woke the following day a Queen. Her father was dead, but she had a job to do, and for 70 years, she has performed that job with selfless dedication to her people and in her faith. She asked the people that she would now lead to trust her.

Through a series of events, she went from a potential life of obscurity as a minor royal, wife, and mother to a life in the spotlight where every decision she made would be scrutinized by a world that no longer placed unquestioning trust in those called to lead. She trusted those around her to guide her and train her for the job that would come, but when it came, she stepped through that door all by herself. She had trust. Trust in her training. Trust is those around her. And trust in God.

When we were baptized, we either made promises or promises were made on our behalf, and there was a certain level of trust in those promises. When we stood before our friends and family and made promises that we would love, honor, and cherish one another for the rest of our lives, we had trust in the other that this would hold true. Every human relationship involves some level of trust.

Trust is easy to establish for some, and when that trust is violated, it is devastating. The difference between trusting another human being and trusting God is that God will never let you down. God’s love is steadfast; even when we stray, God continues to show us mercy and provide grace.

Is God asking you to trust? Are you willing to trust but still have some doubt? Simon was a man with a reputation as a fisherman that could have been damaged by doing what Jesus asked him to do. Simon knew that he was putting everything on the line to trust Jesus and push that boat and drop his nets over the side, but he was willing to risk it because he trusted.

Such was their trust that they left everything as it was and followed when they returned to shore. They left their livelihoods behind and followed Jesus. That split-second decision changed their lives and the lives of the families forever. Do we have that level of trust?

Jesus is asking each of us to push out into the deep, to places that make us uncomfortable, and cast our nets and fish for people. We are being asked to be the witness for Jesus in our families, our workplaces, and our communities. So what is holding us back? Are we afraid of what others might think? Are we unsure of what we truly believe?

In a few moments, we will symbolically gather around this table to be fed by the body and blood of Christ. We are being asked, regardless of what you think it is, to trust that God forgives us, and by the action of saying yes to God in communion, we are given the grace necessary to love and forgive others. Trust is a large part of our spiritual life.

Just as Jesus asked Simon to trust him, we are being asked the same. Of course, the question is different for each of us, but trust is the same. If we trust, God will use us in ways that we cannot even imagine, and our lives will be changed forever.


Mystery Man Identified – Major Michael J O’Connor 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia

I am part of a team that manages the Department of Massachusetts Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War archives.  The archives have been neglected for the last decade or so, and we have been spending time sorting through old documents and papers.  It is an honor to be entrusted with caring for such essential parts of history.

Occasionally we come across something that we are unsure of; maybe it is a photograph that does not seem to fit with the rest of the archives or a document.  Recently, we came across a photo of a man, looking to be in his mid to late ’30s in an army uniform, wearing the rank of Major.  On the collar of the uniform is the number 9.  The photo was with a card announcing the death of another individual and listing the military unit as the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia.  That was all of the information we had to go on.

Armed with this information, I sent the photo to a friend who operates the archives for the Massachusetts National Guard.  He initially identified the person as perhaps a relative for the former Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh.  The man in the photo did sort of look like Marty.  The next day, he sent me an email revealing the person’s actual name in the picture and that his portrait hangs on one of the walls at Massachusetts National Guard Headquarters.

It turns out that the mystery man in the photo is Major Michael J. O’Connor of the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  Major O’Connor was born in Boston on June 3oth, 1861, to Patrick and Catherine Buckley O’Connor.  He attended Boston Public Schools and the Boston Dental College.  He had a practice in South Boston when he joined the 9th Massachusetts as a private.  He was soon elected 1st lieutenant and made the Adjutant and then elected Major in 1892.

Major O’Connor shipped out with the Regiment for Cuba as part of the force at the start of the Spanish American War.  Major O’Connor participated in the Siege of Santiago in July of 1898 and was sick in hospital shortly after that.  Major O’Connor died of Pernicious Malarial Fever in Santiago, Cuba, on August 6, 1898.

His remains were returned to the United States, and his funeral was held at Holy Cross Cathedral in the South End of Boston on August 31, 1898.  He is laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery in the family plot.  Major O’Connor’s remains were escorted to the Cathedral and cemetery by elements of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and Major O’Connor’s horse led by Private Edward Murphy of Company D 9th Massachusetts.

The Chaplain delivered the Eulogy of the 9th Massachusetts and childhood friend of Major O’Connor, The Rev. James Lee.  Major O’Connor’s brother was also a priest and was present for the funeral Mass at the Cathedral.

Boston Globe August 31, 1898

The Boston Globe of August 31, 1898, printed the eulogy given by Fr. Lee, and I have reprinted it, in part below.

“Once more I am called upon to say a last farewell to one of our nation’s noble band of heroes. Never in all my experience as a minister of the most high have I had a sadder duty to perform then to pronounce this eulogy, for Michael J. O’Connor was more to me than a companion, a fellow officer, a friend. From Childhood we have known one another, and the ties that existing between us have been the closest and most intimate.”

“When war was declared his love of country, found on and purified and strengthened by his sincere love of God, brought to the upholding of her glory and he honor the sacrifice of man holds dear in life, one that was crowned later by the sacrifice of his own life. “

“Maj O’Connor feared not death. Impregnated with the teachings of his holy faith, he knew that to lay down his life for others was to merit for himself a blessed immortality.”

“His motto was the motto of his regiment ‘Always ready.’ Before his departure for Cuba, he said to his reverend brother, ‘Don’t worry about it. If God sees fit to call me during this hour of duty there is one thing certain, I will do everything on my power to be ready for the summons, as far as it is possible for me. I will keep my soul pure and undefiled.’”

“May his memory every be held sacred, may future generations imbibe from him the spirit of true patriotism and loyalty to our beloved country. May an all wise and merciful providence watch over the dear ones he has left behind, giving them the grace and strength they need in their hour of sorrow.”

I do not think we are used to hearing such words in a eulogy. Yet, these words came not just from a comrade in arms but the deep recesses of the soul of a friend. 

Part of the mission of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War is to “keep green in our memories” the lives of those who have gone before us. I join Rev. Lee in his hope that Major O’Connor’s story allows “future generations imbibe the spirit of true patriotism and loyalty to our beloved country.” I am glad I found Major O’Connor, and I can tell a little of his story in the hopes that I have kept his memory alive.

Unity in Diversity

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Over the last year, or maybe longer, there have been calls for unity. I recall after the tragic events of 9/11 or any number of the natural disasters that we have faced; people come together. They can put their differences aside and work together. Working together is an essential aspect of the Christian life, but this was not always the way.

Historically speaking, the idea of Christian unity meant forced conversions to Christianity. It appears once Christianity became a dominant religion, the leaders felt it gave them license to force others to become Christian, many at the point of the sword or the threat of death. The crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and all of the other dark days of Christianity.

Now I know it is not fashionable to talk about history; in fact, there is a push on to prevent the teaching of our past in some parts of our Country. But knowing the truth and understanding the past helps us not make the same mistakes in the future. Holding on to our past with both hands and saying, “this is who we were, but it is no longer who we are, and it will not influence who we are going to be” is called growth. History is not pretty, but history is essential.

But today, there is this idea that we must be united with everyone, and I am sorry, but that is just not possible. There can be no unity with people who hate others and turn to violence to see that their position is forced upon others. It was wrong when the early Christian Church was doing it, and it is wrong today. In all its forms, Extremism is a cancer upon any society and needs to be dealt with.

There is also this idea that we can agree to disagree, which is okay with some exceptions. However, there can be no agreement with taking away fundamental human rights. There can be no agreement with people who want to build walls rather than bridges. There can be no agreement with folks who wish to tell others who they can marry, what school they can go to, or what religion they must practice. Freedom for one is freedom for all or only the appearance of freedom.

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul uses the body as an image of the Church when speaking of unity. Paul writes to a disunified Church that what is essential is unity. Just as the parts of the bodywork together, the different parts of the Church must work together. We all have a role to play in that unity. An important thing to remember about unity is that unity does not mean conformity.

In many communities, including the Church on this list, the idea is my way or the highway when the Church never functioned that way. There are examples of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles when an issue would arise in a difference of opinion. Then, the Church would come together and work toward consensus. Consensus is a general agreement on something. We may not agree 100% with all of the details, but we agree most.

The other part of Paul’s image of the Body and the Church is the idea of diversity, all the parts of the body are diverse, but for the body to function at its highest potential, all the parts have to work together for the same goal.

Perhaps you have had the experience of your mind wanting to go in one direction and your legs deciding something very different. Sure, I guess your legs can decide for themselves what they want to do, but sometimes it ends terrible, usually with you on the ground. This is because all of the parts of the body have to be in constant communication with each other. No one part of the body can “strike out on their own” and hope everyone else follows along. The body functions best with consensus about what each part is doing.

But what happens when one part of the body is sick or decides not to do what the others are doing.? We work towards healing that part, but there may come a time when that part needs to go.

I love to work around my yard. It is one of my creative outlets. Tilling the soil, planting things, caring for them, and watching them grow is a very satisfying and very spiritual activity. Caring for creation is one of the responsibilities humanity was given “in the beginning,” and I like to think of myself being a part of that.

Pruning is an integral part of caring for plants. Removing the sick or diseased part of the plant enables the remainder of that plant to become healthy again. Sometimes a radicle prune is necessary, or the entire plant will become sick and die.

Over the last couple of years, Nicky and I have been working in our backyard. There were already established planting beds and some lovely specimens, but the yard needed some work overall. It had been left unattended or minimally attended for way too long. As a result, many of the plants had become overgrown and needed to be pruned.

This past summer, our attention was focused on what I call the meditation garden. It is at the back of the property in a shady area. First, the area was cleared of debris that had accumulated over the years, and a border was established with bricks. Next, we put in a meandering path and a bench. Finally, we decided on plant material to install and set off to the nursery to pick out just the right plants.

We brought them home and spent time setting things out and moving this and that. We finally planted everything, and it looked great. It was indeed a quiet spot at the back of the garden to sit and reflect. However, we noticed one plant that was not doing so well. We tried fertilizer water, praying for it and nothing seemed to be working. We were almost at the point of pulling it and chucking it in the compost pile, but we decided to move the plant to another area of the garden in an attempt to save it. It seems fine, but we will know more later in the year.

It was a radical decision to uproot that plant, but it was necessary for the plant’s health and the health of the rest of the garden. Plants that are not doing well become susceptible to diseases, which can spread to other plants. But that one plant can also take necessary nutrients away from the others, so it had to go in the end.

As hard as it is, sometimes we have to remove parts of our lives that affect the rest and keep us from thriving.

You have heard me say this before, and no doubt you will hear me say it again, but Jesus commands us to love everyone. We have to love them, but we do not need to like them. We love and care for them because they are like we are created in God’s image and contain that divine spark. But sometimes, for the health of the body, we have to let them go, or we have to walk away. I can still love someone and not want anything to do with them.

The other point Paul was getting at was with unity; there is great diversity, and, in that diversity, we find our true potential. The foot is as important as the hand, but they each have a job to do. Sure, we can get by without one or the other, but things operate much smoother when we all work together. Diversity is something beautiful and something to be celebrated. Diversity makes us stronger, not weaker.

Very early on in the ministry of Jesus, he sent his followers out to the cities and towns in the area. They were sent to bring healing and the message of love that Jesus came to bring. Jesus told them that if they entered a town and did not receive their message, they were to “shake the dust of that town off of their feet” and move on. As difficult as it can be, sometimes we have to walk away from relationships if they are toxic, dangerous, or unhealthy.

There was a time in my life when I would not speak up, I would not say what needed to be said, or I would pull my punches. I compromised for the sake of keeping the peace, and I tried to make everyone happy but, in the process, I made myself miserable. We are never going to make everyone happy. Every decision comes with disagreement, and sometimes it comes with walking away.

Friends, unity in the Church, and unity in the Country are essential, but unity should not cause us to compromise to such an extent that we forget who we are and what we believe. Consensus is vital in the Church and the Country, but just like unity, if it causes me to compromise so much that I forget who I am, it is not worth it. Yes, we must pray and work towards unity, but if that unity causes us to neglect the least of these, then that is a unity that is not worth fighting for.


Sermon: Extravagant Sign

John 2:1-11

In my 17 almost 18 years of ministry, I have officiated over 100 weddings.  Weddings are usually a joy.  Sure, there is a lot of anxiety and build-up, but once the music begins and the happy couple stands before their friends and family, it is all well.  What is going to happen is going to happen.  As much as we try, we cannot control every aspect of the day.  Oh, the wedding day is not the most important day of your life, that comes the next day, and the next day, and all days after that.  The wedding starts your life together.

But sometimes, things do go wrong.  No matter how much you plan for everything, there is always something that gets left out.  But in the end, it turns out just fine.  I like to remind couples that I work with; you only know how it is supposed to be.

Today’s Gospel takes place at a wedding.  Jesus, Mary, and the newly called Apostles have been invited, so it is obviously a close friend or a relative of Jesus and Mary.  I wonder if Jesus’ invitation arrived with a plus 12.  But there they are, celebrating the ordinary, everyday activities of life.

Anyway, we have to keep in mind that wedding feats in the first century were not single-day events but rather weeklong events with food, music, and of course, wine.  It is the third day, a day that will have significance later in the Gospel, and it is past the halfway point of the feast.  They run out of wine.  For reasons we do not know, they came to Mary to tell her.  No one ever wants to run out of food and drink at a party; that would be an embarrassment.

Mary turns to Jesus, perhaps she wants him to make a packy run, and he is unsure of what all of this has to do with him.  Jesus even asks Mary what this has to do with him?  But Mary insists that he do something to save face, so she turns to the wait staff and says, “do whatever he says.”

If I were a numerologist, I would wax on about the number 6 and the amount of water needed to fill all of those jars.  Don’t get me wrong, numbers in Scripture are essential, and we need to pay attention to them, but I will save that for another time.  Suffice it to say; there was a lot of water to be placed in those stone jars.

This is the first miracle story in the Gospel of John.  It is interesting to me that John uses the backdrop of a wedding for the first miracle of Jesus.  It is not a healing or teaching; Jesus launches into public view by providing drink, good drink mind you at a party.  This points to the idea that religion should be happy and joy-filled, not long-faced and dower.

I think sometimes we forget that God loves to hear laughter and joy.  One of my favorite religious paintings is that of the laughing Jesus.  It pictures Jesus, head back in a full belly laugh.  Sure, Jesus was about some serious business, but he took time to laugh and have a good time with those around him; it was not always dull and boring.

The sign at Cana tells us that Jesus served a God who puts joy into life, who thinks it is worth a miracle to keep the party going as we celebrate people.  But it is more than that.  There were the stone jars representing the old practice of religion filled with water that will run out, just as the wine has run out.  The old faith, the old covenant, will end, but the new way, the way of love, will continue.

Along comes Jesus, the new covenant who brings living water, the water that will never run out.  The jars made of stone will one day pass away, but the water that Jesus brings will pass away, for it is the water of love.

But there is another exciting part of this Gospel.  When Mary tells Jesus that they have run out of wine, Jesus asks what this has to do with him.  Mary, who is not mentioned by name in John’s Gospel like so many other women, does not answer Jesus but instead turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”

This is a word not only for the servants but for us, do whatever he tells you.  Love one another, serve the poor and needs, love your enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, do whatever he tells you!

The Christian pastor and author David Steele refers to this passage and the celebration as “Cana-Grace.” Cana-Grace is the knack of throwing parties that combine food, decorations, music, and laughter to create an atmosphere of welcome, well-being, and love.

The end of the wedding story was a happy one.  The family could save face, and no one was the wiser.  The party went on as scheduled, and Jesus was now on the road to his public ministry.  Jesus brought joy into an otherwise joyless situation.  I know it does not seem like much, but this could have been a catastrophe to the family if they had run out of drink.

Today let us listen to Mary as she says to the servants and us, “Do whatever he asks.”


After Seventeen Years It Is Time To Say Goodbye

This past week I submitted a letter stating my intention to retire as Deputy Chief – Northeast of the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains.  After 17 years in the Corps and 13 years as a deputy, I felt it was time for me to move aside to bring a new voice to the table.

I joined the Corps shortly after I was appointed the first Fire Chaplain in the Town of Dudley, Massachusetts.  I had read an article in the Boston Globe about the work and ministry of the fire chaplains.  I had never really given the fire service much thought past the “I want to be a firefighter when I grow up” talk of my childhood.  I reached out to the Corps only to learn that there was already a chaplain in Southbridge, where I was living.  After meeting with the Southbridge chaplain, a suggestion was made to reach out to the Fire Chief in the next town, Dudley.  I did, and well, the rest is history.

After joining the Corps, I was asked by Chief Fire Chaplain Larry Provenzano to become the Quartermaster and to join the Board of Directors.  In 2009, after a reorganization, I was elected as the Deputy Chief for Central Massachusetts, a position I held until I moved to Quincy in 2015.  After the move and another reorganization, I became Deputy Chief Chaplain -Northeast.  I covered all of the cities and towns from Boston North and West to the border of Worcester County.

Serving as a fire chaplain and as part of the Corps of Fire Chaplains has added a dimension to my ministry that I never thought I would have.  Standing on the fireground in the freezing cold and offering a firefighter a hot cup of coffee seems like a small thing but to that firefighter is means a lot.  In the Corps, we strive to “Serve those who Serve.” So much of our work and ministry is modeled after that of Fr. Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Chaplain, killed on 9/11.

Deciding to step aside is never an easy decision, but it feels like this is the right time.  It has indeed been an honor to serve the firefighters of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in this role.  Oh, I remain as the chaplain in the City of Quincy, so I am not giving up chaplaincy completely.

The False Idea of Unity

This past week we commemorated the first anniversary of the storming of the United States Capitol Building in an effort to derail the peaceful transfer of government after a certified, free, and fair election. I recall the images I saw on TV as I sat in utter disbelief at what I was seeing. I know some of you may disagree with my sentiment but, that date was a shameful day in American history. Regardless of our beliefs about that day, innocent people were injured and lost their lives, and for that, there can be no justification.

Since the events of that day, there have been calls for unity, calls to put those events behind us, and calls to unify once again as a country. People are saying that we need to come together, like we did after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and I would agree. However, there can be no unity until the truth is spoken and there is reconciliation.

I am all for bringing people together and have spent the better part of my adult life trying to achieve that unity, but sometimes unity is impossible. For example, I cannot see unity with people who think that the event that happened on January 6, 2021, was noble or patriotic. Likewise, I find no unity or common ground with people who hold racist, homophobic, or white supremacist ideas and ideologies. In my mind, there simply can be no unity there.

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu worked very hard in South Africa after the Apartheid regime fell to bring people of both sides together. He understood that healing needed to happen, but the truth had to be spoken before healing could occur, and justice had to be served. Facing the truth is not always easy, but it is necessary, and facing the truth about oneself and one’s country is always the most brutal truth to face.

One of my favorite movies is The American President starring Michael Douglas and Anette Benning. Near the end of the movie President Shepherd, played by Douglas, is holding a press conference, and he starts to speak about America and how difficult it can be. He says, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.”

The greatness of America lies in the understanding that we have not always been perfect. We have made mistakes, big ones, and we have learned from most of them. There is nothing wrong with looking at where we have come from and saying that is not who we are anymore, it is part of our past, but it will not dictate the future.

At the end of the day, we are all in this together regardless of the side of the political spectrum we happen to fall. Unity comes at a cost, and that cost is truth, and that cost is reconciliation. Let us work toward that goal in the coming year.

This article first appeared in the January 13, 2022 edition of the Hull Times.

Affirmed in Love

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Before coming here as your pastor, I served three Churches here in New England as an interim or temporary pastor. I went into a congregation after the previous Minister retired or left to take on another Church. In the first congregation I served, I had also been the Associate Minister, and when the Minister of 35 years retired, I became the Interim. These were not always easy assignments, but they were necessary.

The Interim is the bridge between the former and the new. The job of the Interim is to tie up loose ends and prepare the people to welcome their new Minster. Part of that process is to spend time, usually a year or more, looking at themselves and doing a deep dive into how they operate as Church. What is essential and what is not. What new ministries would they like to begin, if any, and what old ones do they need to say goodbye to.

In some ways, this is what John the Baptist came to do. John the Baptist came to call the people to repentance, or an awareness that their lives were off the track, and prepare the way for the one who would come after him, Jesus. So in a way, John represents the end of the prophetic period of history; he is the last of the prophets sent by God to prepare the people. John then becomes the bridge between the old covenantal relationship of the people with God and Jesus, the new covenant.

We have heard about John before; he is central to Advent. John is the cousin of Jesus, born to Elizabeth and Zachariah. Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were related, and Mary visited Elizabeth shortly before John was born. Elizabeth tells Mary that when the babe in her womb heard Mary’s voice, he leaped for joy.

John was a true prophet and told it like it was. He did not pull any punches, which inevitably led to his death. John was calling people away from their sins and toward a new life, not a new life that he would give them but the new life that God was about to give them through his only son Jesus.

The passage we heard this morning from Luke is a rather interesting take on the meeting between Jesus and John. Luke is rather eloquent in his telling of the story of the birth of both Jesus and John, but when it comes to this meeting, he simply states that when the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized. In the other Gospels, there is a conversation between Jesus and John. Jesus asking to be baptized, and John refused to baptize Jesus. In the end, John submits to the authority of Jesus and does what is being asked of him.

But in Luke’s account, Jesus gets in line with the rest of the people and is baptized. No fanfare, no conversation, just another person in line. In the other Gospels, Jesus wades through the line of people and presents himself to John in a very ceremonious way, but for Luke, the humility of Jesus shows forth. Jesus comes from the poorest of the poor to serve all, so he waits in line with the sinners and the cast-offs. This is an act of solidarity, the solidarity that Jesus has with the poor and the needy, the poor in spirit, and those needy of salvation.

I was ordained in the Orthodox Christian tradition, as most of you know. The priest in the Orthodox tradition is almost, but not quite put up on a pedestal and is always given preferential treatment. For example, after worship at the coffee hour, the people would always insist that I went through the line first. Perhaps it was to make sure the food was safe to eat; I am still not sure. But the idea was that I was the priest, so I had to go first. So I insisted that I go last, not out of some great act of humility but rather from the idea that I wanted them to take what they wanted, and I would be happy to have what was left. The older I got in my priesthood, the more this idea of preferential treatment bothered me. Now, there were always those that kept me grounded and often reminded me of who I was, and I am grateful for those folks, but far too often, clergy get caught up in the trappings of their office and forget what it is all about.

The Church can also fall victim to this mentality. When we care too much for the institution and lose sight of those, we are supposed to serve when we get comfortable rather than uncomfortable; when we say the right things rather than stir the pot when we stop speaking for those without a voice because it might draw unwanted attention to ourselves, then we are failing to live up to our calling as Church. The Church is called to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Just like the way Jesus was born, through this act of waiting in line, Jesus is identifying with the damaged and broken people who are in need of God. God could have changed the story so that Jesus was born to a royal family in a princely palace. But God chose the birthplace of his son to be the lowest of the low. We, as Church, are not to seek power and privilege and walk the halls of power sidling up to those who hold positions of power in society. No, we are to be like John the Baptist and hold the powerful to account for the decisions that they make. We are not to serve at the throne of power but at the humble seat of the poor.

Luke goes on to describe what happens next. After Jesus is baptized, he goes off to pray. One of the examples that Jesus left for us is this idea of daily prayer in our lives, especially when we feel tempted and weak. Jesus is about to start his public ministry, but he goes off and prays to God for assistance before he does. Luke tells us that the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came and rested upon Jesus. God never sends us on mission alone, God through the power of the Holy Spirit, will always be with us.

Everything that we do, be it as individuals or as a church community, should be done in a spirit of prayer and in the knowledge that God will always be with us and help us. When we start to go off on our own, we get into trouble, when we lose sight of the mission, when we take our eyes off God and trust ourselves more than God.

One of my favorite stories is the story of Jesus walking on the water. You know the story. The Apostles are on a boat, and they see a figure off in the distance coming towards them, walking on water. When they realize it is Jesus Peter, asks Jesus to allow him to walk on water so he can go and meet him. Jesus says, okay, come on. Peter steps of the edge and walks on the water towards Jesus. Then he takes his eyes off Jesus and realizes what he is doing, sees the waves, gets nervous, and starts to sink. He cries out, and Jesus helps him up. Peter took his eyes off Jesus, and he began to sink. As long as Peter’s focus was where it needed to be, he was fine. The moment he looked away and stopped trusting, he sank.

Here comes what I think is the most crucial part of this entire story this week. You have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating. We have already heard that after Jesus was baptized and he went off to pray, the sky opened, and the Holy Spirit came upon him. Yet, at the same time, there was a voice from heaven that said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”

Friends, I have said it before, and I will continue to say it, we are all children of God, and we are beloved. God loves us for who we are and for what we are, and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.

Jesus could have taken on a position of power and a position of privilege, yet he chose just the opposite. He decided to be born poor and to stand in line with the poor. He took on and challenged the establishment. He not only turned the tables, but he also flipped them over to make room for a new way, the way of love.

I am not sure if you have ever read anything written by or listened to anything Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has said, but he has a saying that resonates with me, and I think it is an excellent way to end today. Bishop Curry says that “the way of Jesus is the way of love, and the way of love will change the world.”

Let us love one another, and let us change the world.


Sermon: The Word Became Flesh

John 1:1-14

The scene has been set, although we cannot tell if it is day or night, winter, or spring but none of that matters. A couple has been walking for days and has finally reached their destination. They have come for the count, ordered by the state. When they arrive, they find there is no room. Perhaps they are staying with family, and more of them arrived than previously thought. Maybe they know no one, so they are knocking on doors looking for a place to stay. The time is coming close, and the woman is about to give birth.

They happen upon a humble cave, or so the story goes, when in actuality, we do not know, nor does it matter. What matters is they found a place and have settled in; it won’t be long now. The baby is born, it is her first, and they wrapped him in bands of cloth and placed him in the only space available, the place where the animals eat their food.

The origins of this little one are strange, to say the least, and they are about to get stranger as shepherds and others start to arrive to see this newborn baby. They come from far and near with the most amazing stories of how they heard about the arrival of this little one. They bring what they have, but most of them just bring themselves. They kneel and pray and thank God for this miracle, for as St. John has put it in his Gospel that we heard this morning, the Word has become flesh and now dwells among us.

This is the heart and essence of the Christmas story; God poured God’s own self into human form. The eternal Word of God – God’s proactive agent in all of creation, even life itself, in a paradoxical condescension took form as a baby of the humblest origins.

But there are questions many questions.

The answers lie back at the very start of creation itself, for, in the beginning, the Word was with God. The Word was present at the moment of the creation of all and is now physically present at the new creation. The Word is the eternal Son of God; the fact that John wrote that the Word WAS with God indicates that the Word has no beginning and is not created. But John says that the Word was WITH God. The Word is a distinct person from the Creator, but they are in eternal Communion together.

But there is more to the story.

Back “in the beginning,” when everything was being created, the Creator took the dust from the ground and, with the Creator’s own hands, fashioned humanity in the very image and likeness of the Creator. God then breathed the breath of life into this new creation’s nostrils and animated humanity. Of all other living beings, humanity is the only one fashioned by the hands of the Creator and animated with the Creator’s breath.

We read on to see that the Creator then places humanity in a garden, paradise where humanity has everything it will need. However, the Creator also gives this creation something else, free will. Humanity has the freedom to choose, and humanity exercises that freedom which places it outside of paradise and separated from the Creator. Humanity mourns the loss of this intimate relationship with its Creator and longs for the days when they will be reunited.

As Christians, we emphasize the resurrection story, and rightly so. There is much to be celebrated for Jesus once and for all overcomes death. No longer are we just to die, but we will have life everlasting with the Creator and all of those we love. But the resurrection of Jesus was not the incident that repaired the relationship. God did not send Jesus, the Eternal Word of God, to be sacrificed on the cross, the symbol of the state’s power. No, God sent Jesus to walk with creation again and provide the way of eternal life. The strained relationship between God and humanity was not repaired by some horrific, bloody sacrifice but by the birth of a tiny baby, born of the humblest of means to an unwed mother in the poorest of the poorest land. God chose that moment and that place to restore the relationship.

Sometimes it is hard to grasp this concept that God loved creation to such an extent that God willingly took on the form of creation to come and show humanity the new way, the way of love. This was a revolutionary idea, so revolutionary was this idea of love and equality, that humanity rebelled again and killed the Creator. So revolutionary was this idea of love that humanity was willing to kill, kill the very essence of that love.

Jesus was not crucified to fulfill some long-ago debit meted out by a vengeful blood-thirsty God; no Jesus was killed by an establishment that was so afraid of losing its power and influence that it had to resort to violence and coercion to stay in power and relevance.

God charted a much different course for humanity and came to show us this new way. We are to love and care for all of humanity. In the birth of this baby, we are reminded that all of humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and that divine spark is the reason for this love and care that we are to show to one another.

The miracle of the birth of Jesus is that it transcends and race or nationality, and no one group can claim ownership of the Creator, for the Creator of all belongs to all regardless of the station of their birth. The Good News of the love of God is now available to all irrespective of the ability of one to pay for it.

The story of Christmas, the real story of Christmas, is about love, for all of humanity and for all of creation.

Christmastide has now entered the 9th day. Many of us have probably taken the decorations down and packed them away for another year, and stores have moved on the next holiday on the list. But the Spirit and message of Christmas cannot be contained to only 12 days, the Spirit and message of Christmas transcend time, and it is up to us to make sure that message of love continues.

In a few moments, we will metaphorically gather around this table where Jesus will become present to us in the gifts of bread and wine. We will ask the Holy Spirit to come upon these gifts and all of us to sanctify and make them and us Holy. We will share from the common loaf and common cup this union of Creator and creation. We do not determine who is worthy to come, for none of us are worthy of our own doing but only by the grace of God poured out can we become worthy.

We do not use this Sacrament of love as a means of separation or reward but as a balm that heals the soul and brings us closer together. If we take nothing else away from this Christmas season, take away the knowledge, the true knowledge that God loves each of us just the way we are and wants us to make sure others know that they are loved just the way they are.

The heart and essence of Christmas is love, the heart and essence of the Gospel is love, the heart and essence of our spiritual life is love, love of God, and love of everyone.


Moving with Mary’s Song

Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

I am a lover of Christmas Carols, as long as they are played during the Christmas Season. Of course, I like a carol that tells a story, but I genuinely appreciate theologically correct carols. I mean, who can forget that theological masterpiece, Dominic the Christmas Donkey. Or that old-time favorite that pulls at the theological imagination, Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Then, of course, there are also those carols that folks want to imagine that have theological significance to them, but it turns out it is just a good sing like the 12 days of Christmas.

But today, we stumble up the answer to the age-old theological conundrum; Mary, did you know?

We have to back up a few months to put it all in context. We have to go back to a small room in an equally small house in Nazareth to where a young girl, probably no more than 13 or 14, is living with her parents. Tradition tells us that her parents, Joachim, and Anna, were childless and constantly prayed that God would bless them with a child. God did, in fact, bless them in their old age, and they had a daughter and named her Mary.

Continuing with tradition, Mary was a unique child and grew up in the Temple hearing the prophets being read and hearing the many stories of the coming Messiah. When it came time for her to be married, she was betrothed to a man named Joseph.

Scripture does not have much to say about Joseph, but tradition tells us he was much older than Mary, a widower, and had children from that previous marriage. Joseph agreed to marry Mary, and a date had not yet been announced for their wedding.

Mary was in that small room one night, and an angel appeared to her. The Angel told her that she had found favor with God and that God had chosen her to be the mother of God’s Son. As one would expect, Mary had some questions, but all she wanted to know was how after all, she was still a maid and was not married yet. That was the only question. Mary agreed.

We must pause here for a moment to take in the gravity of what just happened. The first striking thing that has happened, apart from the Angel and whatnot, is that this young girl decided for herself. Understand how counter-cultural this is. A young girl, such as Mary, would not make any decisions for herself, let alone one that would change her life. Her father and then her husband would make those decisions.

But the other part of this is what is most amazing to me; Mary agreed to become pregnant, without an explanation that she could share, knowing that the penalty for such a crime would, at a minimum, be banishment from the community and at the maximum, she would have been stoned until she was dead. Mary would have known this, yet she placed herself in this danger.

When Joseph found out about this, he was a little concerned, as one can imagine. The story she was telling was utter nonsense. How could this happen? He wanted to end the engagement and send her off someplace, quietly, to have her child. Although he was upset, Joseph also did not want any harm to come to Mary. Joseph shows great compassion for Mary.

That night, the same Angel comes and visits Joseph and tells him that it will all be okay. This will not be the last time this Angel comes and tell Joseph all will be well. But Joseph trusts God, and this messenger is sent from God and takes Mary as his wife.

Now we come to today’s story. After some time, Mary goes off to see he kinswoman Elizabeth. We do not know the actual relationship, but Mary and Elizabeth are related, as best we can figure, Elizabeth is Mary’s aunt. There is joy when they meet; they are both expecting and both because of God’s promise. Elizabeth greets Mary and tells her that the baby in her womb leaped for joy when the baby heard Mary’s voice. Elizabeth questions her kinswoman about the visit and calls Mary, the mother of her Lord. This is the first acknowledgment of what is happening.

Elizabeth continues and tells Mary that she and her child are blessed. Then we find out what Mary knew.

Mary says that she is blessed by God, and she is humbled that she has been chosen for this honor. She says that all generations will remember her, which is true since here we are some 2,000 years later still talking about her.

Then Mary starts to preach, God’s mercy extends to all who believe from generation to generation. God will exalt the humble and scatter the mighty. God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. God will care for all and love all.

In her own way, Mary lays out the Good News that her Son will one day preach that God loves everyone and cares for everyone. God is sending this child to change the way we think and act towards each other and show us a new way of love. Mary knew that this tiny baby was the Son of God and the Messiah; Mary knew it all!

But while we focus on the greatness of the Child that Mary is carrying, we forget what happened in that small room in her house before this. We lose focus of that yes of Mary. God chose Mary, but Mary still had to consent to the plan. Yet, Mary’s courage, trust, and yes, changed the world!

This story is about trust, the trust that we need to have in God. Mary took a risk with the understanding that God would not abandon her. Mary risked her life trusting God, and God did not leave her. It is the same with us. We are being called to trust God with the assurance that God will never abandon us.

Let us pray that we might have the same trust that Mary had, and when God asks us to do something, we simply say yes.


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