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.


Breathing is Life

Everything that lives breathes in one way or another. Approximately 22,000 times per day, we take a breath in and out. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it. It was not until recently that I appreciated the task of breathing.

In the Book of Genesis, we read the story of the creation of humanity. Humanity is created last in the lineup of things being created. Before humanity, the Creator spoke everything into existence, sun, water, land, vegetation, and animals all spoken, and it was created. But humankind was unique and took a bit more work on the part of the Creator.

When it came time to create humanity, the Creator formed humankind from the dust of the earth and animated humanity with the Creator’s breath. This breath, this ruah is different from the other oxygen used during creation, for this ruah contains the spirit or the soul. Humanity was not animated; humanity was not alive until humanity could breathe.

I had the incredible opportunity to be in the delivery room when our daughter was born. Like most babies, she came out silently, and we waited for what seemed like an eternity for her to take her first breath. But, within a few seconds, she was screaming her head off. Breath is essential to life.

The Hebrew scriptures and some Christian ones look upon this first breath as the moment the soul enters the body. We read in the Psalms about how the creator “knit me together in my mother’s womb.” But there is no mention of soul or life, which are connected until we draw that first breath. Without breath, we cannot live.

I recently had an episode where I was very concerned about my breathing ability. As you may be aware, I had surgery to repair a broken ankle at the beginning of July. I remained in the hospital for a few days and then returned home. My recovery was progressing until about a week ago. I started to have back pain and shortness of breath. By the end of the day, I knew something we wrong, so I returned to the hospital.

The pain and shortness of breath had become worse. Moving from the car to the wheelchair took all my energy and several minutes to recover from my new breathing routine. After several tests, it was determined I had pulmonary emboli, blood clots in my lungs restricting my breathing. Blood clots after surgery are not as common as they used to be, but obviously, one can still be stricken by them.

I was given medicine for the pain, making breathing more manageable, and placed on oxygen. I was admitted and given a regular room where I settled in for the night. A few hours later, I was woken to be told that I was being moved to cardiac care for closer observation. Catching a breath, a deep, cleansing breath, was still very difficult. I was gasping for air. Not a pleasant experience.

A few years ago, my father died of complications of COPD. I stood by his bead side as he struggled for every breath. My father had breathing problems for most of my life, but, here at the end, it was the worst I had seen. I was helplessly lying in bed, doctors and nurses working on me and around me, and my father came to me and placed his hand on my shoulder. I started to relax just a bit.

That night, a nurse sat at my bedside, monitoring my vital signs. In the morning, the cardiac and pulmonary doctors came for a visit. I had caused both chiefs, cardiology and lung, to awaken in the middle of the night, and they had been concerned. The cardiac doctor told me, “You scared the shit out of me!” I asked how many clots I had he told me there were too many to count. I almost died.

Thanks to skilled medical staff, modern medicine, and many prayers, I am here, breathing better.

I said at the beginning that we draw an average of 22,000 breaths per day and probably give it little thought. I thought about each breath I was able to draw. I savored each one as it was keeping me alive.

So, what do we do with this breath of ours, this ruah that the Creator has given to each of us? We have a choice; we can use this breath for good, or we can use it for evil. Our breath can praise but can also condemn. We can use our breath to fight for what is right, just, and true, or we can use our breath to restrict and remove. I heard someone say once that as long as we have air in our lungs, we can make a change. We have 22,000 chances daily to make a difference, and I know I will try to make every one count.

Caring Hands

Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:8-9 esv)

Humility is an interesting word and not something we 21st-century people are comfortable with. In our, get ahead of everyone regardless of the cost world; humility is not part of that process. We also link humility with humiliation, which is not the case. One can be humble without being humiliated.

In my own words, humility is placing others before you, not in a look-at-me way, but in a natural concern for what others need. In the Masonic Lodge, we talk a lot about helping brothers and their families but not at the expense of our own. That is humility.

The passage I quoted above from John’s Gospel is an excellent example of this idea of humility. Jesus is washing his disciples’ feet, an unusual thing for a person of the status of Jesus. Washing your guests’ feet was usually appointed to the lowest member of the household. Here Jesus is standing this tradition on its head to show how we are to serve each other.

As you know, I had surgery this past week on my ankle. I was in the hospital for a few days after being in bed and unable to care for myself. I have always done it for myself and get very uncomfortable with others doing it for me.

The day after surgery, I was lying in bed, and one of the nurse’s aides came to my bedside. She asked me if I wanted to clean up. I said yes, and she left the room. A few moments later, she returned carrying all sorts of things to help me: Washcloth, towel, soap, clean sheets, and something clean to wear. I could not get out of bed, so this would be a new experience.

She handed me a heated wet towel and described how I would clean myself. She did not do it but watched over me with a caring eye. She gave me additional washcloths, and the exercise continued. She gave me a clean “johnny” to wear and left while I cleaned the private bits.

She returned a few moments later and told me she would change the bed. I reminded her I could not get out of bed, and she asked me to trust her. She guided me the entire way. She laid me flat and told me to roll one side. She gently removed the dirty sheet and placed another in its place, pushing it as far as possible. While I was on my side, she took one of the remaining washcloths and very gently washed my back. She had hands and words of authority, but, at the same time, she was very gentle.

She dried my back and guided me as I rolled back onto the new, clean sheet. I was now to roll on the other side, the side with the broken ankle. She waited as I regained my strength and carefully rolled on my side. With all the skills of a surgeon, she completed making the bed before I knew she had started. She gently rolled me back, ensured I was comfortable, and then raised the bed.

I have worked in hospice for nearly 20 years and have great respect for our aides’ work, but this was the first time I had an aide work on me. They are the silent ones, the ones who come in the night and check on you. They are the ones who wash you and change your bed. They are angels, and they are the hands of Jesus.

These gentle souls are there constantly. They are professionals that help in the recovery process. They are as much a part of the team as the doctors and nurses, maybe even more critical. They do their work with a smile and a reassuring touch that brings a sense of calm to you. They treat each patient in their care as if they are part of their family.

A tear welled in my eyes as I thanked my angel for what she had done for me. She smiled, took a tissue from the box, and wiped my eyes. And as quickly as she appeared, she was gone on to the next patient.

I was embarrassed and ashamed that I needed someone to help me with the necessities of life. These gentle souls showed me that I need to humble myself and let others do for me while I heal. Sure, there is much work I must do, but I need to allow someone to bring that cool glass of water and help me clean up.

I shared this experience with two minister colleagues who told me I needed to let them help me. Sometimes we must allow others to be Jesus for us and wash our feet. It is a good reminder of how we are supposed to love and care for each other.


Taking the Yoke

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:30

I have never wanted to be a burden to anyone. Since my younger days, I have always taken care of myself. Well, that all changed when I fell and broke my ankle this past Sunday night. Since I do everything to the best ability, I did not just break it; I broke it in two places, tore the ligaments, and will require surgery. This means I will have to stay off my feet for eight weeks. I have now become a burden to my family, and it is not an easy position for me to be in.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks about his yoke being easy and his burden being light. Although this is true in theory, I am not so sure how easy the load is in practice. Remember, Jesus left us a new commandment to love God and love everyone else, including our neighbor, without exception. This is not easy.

I have used this example before. Close your eyes and think of the person you despise the most. It can be someone close to you or someone from history, but at least make it a real person. Now that you have that person in your mind’s eye, that is the person Jesus is calling us to love. You might think it impossible to love this person. However, Jesus also says that with God, all things are possible.

We have two images to explore from this passage, yoke and burden. Both are agricultural references that those listening to Jesus would have understood. For us, it is not so easy to understand.

The yoke is a wooden structure placed over two animals’ heads, usually oxen. The yoke has two purposes. The first is to force the animals to work together. It reminds me of the three-legged races we participated in as children. If we did not work together, we would work against each other, and the job was much more challenging.

The second purpose of the yoke is to teach. The farmer would never yoke together oxen that were untested. The farmer would pair an experienced ox with a lesser or inexperienced ox for the amateur to learn. Being yoked together requires teamwork, and the younger will be forced to learn from the older, more experienced ox.

We were yoked to Christ and the community at our baptism. Another may have vowed on our behalf, but we are still yoked. As we mature in the Christian faith, I hope we confirm or reconfirm that vow publicly. The confirmation service of the Church is a public declaration that you will be yoked with Christ and the kingdom forever.

A burden, by definition, is a load, typically a heavy one. The command I mentioned can be considered a burden to some, maybe too many. When I was ordained, a stole, that piece of cloth I wear when presiding at worship, was placed around my neck. The stole symbolizes pastoral authority and responsibility and is often called the yoke of office. As the stole is set, the minister is reminded of the burden of this office, not in a bad way, but rather in a profound way. There have been times in ministry when I have found this yoke and burden too easy, and at other times, well, not so much.

Just before all this talk about yokes and burdens, Jesus calls us to come and rest. Now, this might conjure up images of a great sofa that we can all stretch out on, but I am not sure Jesus was inviting us over for a slumber party; I think there was some other reason for this invitation.

Jesus is saying that although ministry and ministering can be difficult and a burden, we are not alone. We are spiritually yoked together to help and assist one another as we minister together. Although one animal can perform the task alone, the work is accomplished more efficiently and with less stress and strain when more than one pulls on the rope. We are yoked together to support one another and to teach and learn from one another.

The yoke is a partnership and equal partnership between you and God and God and us. It is also a partnership between us and those we serve with and those we serve. For any partnership to work, the work must be shared equally amongst all the partners, not just a few. Sure, we each have our gifts, but the hope in partnership is that when we all work together, all our skills will be used to complete the task.

So, accept the invitation of Jesus to come and find rest; the work is too important to go it alone. Come and find rest; Jesus will help you shoulder the burden.


The Connection Between Litha and John the Baptist

It might seem odd to some that a Christian minister would write about celebrations such as Litha. For a while now, I have felt a connection between the Celtic Wheel of the Year and the feats and festivals of the Christian Church. I see nothing antithetical to the Christian practice. In fact, the celebration of the earth and all she has to offer is very Christian.

After the creation of humanity, God placed humanity in charge of, or as caretakers of, creation. It is a misnomer and a bad translation that led to this idea that humanity had dominion over creation and could thus do whatever humanity wanted. That very idea has brought us to the state we are now in. Mother Earth needs healing from all that humanity has done to it.

Litha celebrates the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. Where I live, we call this the first day of summer when it is mid-summer. There will be 15 hours of sunlight on this day, but starting tomorrow, the days will become shorter as we begin the march toward winter. We have reached the height of summer.

There is a connection between feasts and festivals of the pre-Christian time and contemporary Christian feasts. In the 4th century, the Christian church designated June 24th as the feast of St. John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke records that John, the cousin of Jesus, was born six months before the birth of his famous cousin. As we do, we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th, placing John’s birth during mid-summer.

Professor Éamonn Ó Carragáin of University College Cork makes this connection:

“By the sixth century, this solar cycle was completed by balancing Christ’s conception and birth against the conception and birth of his cousin, John the Baptist. Such a relationship between Christ and his cousin was amply justified by the imagery of scripture. The Baptist was conceived six months before Christ (Luke 1:76); he was not himself the light but was to give testimony concerning the light (John 1:8–9). Thus, John’s conception was celebrated on the eighth kalends of October (24 September: near the autumn equinox) and his birth on the eighth kalends of July (24 June: near the summer solstice). If Christ’s conception and birth took place on the ‘growing days’, it was fitting that John the Baptist’s should take place on the ‘lessening days’ (‘diebus decrescentibus’), for the Baptist himself had proclaimed that ‘he must increase; but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). By the late sixth century, the Nativity of John the Baptist (24 June) had become an important feast, counterbalancing at midsummer the midwinter feast of Christmas.”

St. John came to prepare the way for Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel was read, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30). John understood that his light had to decrease for the light of Jesus to increase. The summer solstice celebrates the time when the light starts to decrease, moving towards yule, or the winter solstice, when the light begins, once again, to increase.

I think it is easy for those who follow Jesus to fluff off these pre-Christian festivals as pagan nonsense; however, if we look closely enough, we can see traces of our theology in understanding these so-called pagan rituals and celebrations. Our ancestors, in faith, were connected to the land in ways that we should strive to regain. If we understand our role as caretakers of creation, then getting in touch with that creation would be a worthy first step.

Out of Chaos

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Matthew 28:16-20

Today, the Sunday following Pentecost is traditionally known as Trinity Sunday. If we did not confuse you enough last week with talk of Spirits and whatnot, this Sunday, we confuse you even more with a doctrine that people have been trying to explain since the 1st century. Is there any wonder the Gospel passage contains the phrase, “but some doubted.”

Looking through the pages of Scripture, we cannot find literal examples of the Trinity, the idea that there is one God with three distinct persons, God, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, since the 1st century, this idea of how God relates to the Son and to the Holy Spirit has been used, but it was not until the First Council of Nicaea in 324 that the so-called Doctrine of the Holy Trinity was established. Do the math; it took three centuries to come up with and 18 centuries to try and explain it.

Now, I am not going to wade into the waters of trying to decipher this for you, I do not truly understand it, and we do not have that kind of time. However, I think it is essential to know that we, as a denomination, and I, as your pastor, are Trinitarian Christians. I believe, as the Creed says, there was never a time when the three did not exist. They were all present at Creation and continue to work in the world today.

But there are some, perhaps some of you, that doubt, and as we heard from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, doubt is not a bad thing. Doubt allows us to ask questions. Doubt pushes us beyond what we might have been taught in Sunday School. Doubt equals growth. But doubt only truly works if you ask those questions. So go ahead with doubt but ask your questions as well.

The first place in Scripture where Trinity is encountered is at the beginning of the Book of Genesis in the creation story. Today, I chose a different translation than the typical, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” These few words fit the idea that God created the universe, ex nihilo, out of nothing. That one day, God decided I needed a universe, snapped his fingers, and created it.

I chose the more nuanced “When God began to create the heavens and the earth.” As I understand it, this is closer to what the Hebrew text says.

Since I do not read Hebrew, I asked for a ruling from my friend Rabbi Erick Berk at Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, who wrote, In the Hebrew, in my opinion, it’s more literally something like, “In the beginning, God having created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was unformed and void [confusion and chaos], with darkness over the surface of the deep….”

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Almost every civilization has a creation story, which is not unique to the Judeo/Christian context. However, in all the other creation stories, Creation happens out of violence. The other creation stories are stories of the destruction that precedes the Creation. What is presented here has to be destroyed and annihilated before the Creation of something beautiful can take place.

The Genesis story is a story of reconciliation. Opposites exist alongside one another: order and chaos, land and sea, heavens and earth, light and dark, fish and birds, male and female. Yet, the existence of one does not subjugate or eliminate the other but co-exists in a reconciled balance that God repeatedly affirms as “good” and, finally, as “very good.”

So, before the Judeo/Christian understanding of Creation, the world existed, and God brought order out of chaos. God confronts chaos, a universe that cannot find peace and rest, and brings what the universe longs for, not in some sense of existential eschatological supremacy but rather in the sense of a calming presence that has not come to condemn but to reconcile.

The importance of using “when God began to create” is to show that Creation, as we understand it in the traditional formula, has not ended but continues. Ordering of the universe did not take place in six days, either literal or otherwise; the ordering is continuous, ongoing not only in the world around us but also in us.

As I have said before, Scripture is neither history nor science but a record of a people’s faith journey; as such, the stories contained are there to help them, and by extension us, make sense out of that journey. Many forms of literature are included in the pages of this book, and Genesis is poetry rather than history.

Each stanza has a matched pair except for the 7th, which is humanity’s response to Creation. 1st and 4th = God creates Day/Night and celestial bodies to rule them. 2nd and 5th = God creates sky and waters, and then the inhabitants of each. 3rd and 6th = God creates sea and dry land, and the vegetation, animals, and humanity, who “have dominion.” Neither dominates the other. Instead, they exist in a sort of symbiotic relationship where one needs the other and vice versa.

In the 31st verse, we read, “God saw everything God had made: it was supremely good.”

This good is not a moralistic good but rather an intrinsic good. All of Creation is good. God has blessed all of Creation, and not part of Creation exists separate from God; Creation and the Creator are connected. Light is connected to the tides, which are connected to the plant, which are connected to the animals, which are connected to humans, which are connected to God. There is no isolation in Creation.

So, what does all this mean for us?

God is not some distant ogre sitting on a cloud smiting things. Regardless of what you hear from the evangelicals and the TV preachers, God truly loves us just as we are. Of course, God desires that we change and live to our fullest potential, but God does not judge when we fail; we do that.

From the very beginning, God came in peace, not in violence. God came in love to order all things and to reconcile all things. God came to teach us how to live with one another, not in the sense of hierarchy or one is better than the other or more superior to the other, but rather how we can live together in a relationship and need each other to flourish.

God loves all of Creation and makes room for those who doubt. Notice from Matthews’s Gospel that the believers and the doubters worshipped together; there was room for everyone. Seekers, doubters, and believers are all welcome at God’s table, where we work together rather than against each other.

I mentioned that God did not finish Creation on that six-day; instead, Creation is an ongoing action, which is essential. The idea behind this story of Creation is not to prove or disprove anything. The idea is that God came and brought chaos into order, and God continues to do that on a personal level.

God can bring order to whatever chaos rages inside of each of us. All we need to do is ask. But, unfortunately, many of us grew up with an image of God that was, what can I say, less than helpful to our long-term mental health and spiritual growth. We grew up with this idea that we had to be afraid of God, and if we did not fit into a particular mold, we would be sent damnation in the fires of hell. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could be further from the truth.

In a few moments, we will gather around this table, this table that was and is the greatest expression of love. We share the common elements, invite the Holy Spirit to come and bless them, and share them equally, and there is enough for all.

Jesus came not to condemn this world we live in nor to condemn us but rather to show us a better way, the way of Creation, the way of reconciliation with all, and how to live with and love each other. The story of Creation and the story of Jesus are connected by love. For God so loved the world that God did not leave us alone but is right here with us to bring us peace and comfort.


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