Up to Restoration

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Matthew 24:36-44

My wife and I have decided to host a party. We have been thinking about this for quite some time, and we feel the time is right. We have been thinking about the food that we will serve and how the table will be set. We have given much thought to the decorations and how the casual seating will be laid out so the flow is just right. The seating chart has caused a bit of a problem, but I think we have all the kinks worn out. You, of course, are all invited, so get ready.

It will be a formal affair, with white tie for the gentleman and an evening dress for the ladies. We have contracted with a company to provide valet service, so all you need to do is pull up, and someone will take care of your car. Wait staff will be on hand and moving through the crowd to provide drinks and nibbly bits before the main course.

The plans are finished. Again, you are all invited. The only problem is I am still determining when the party will occur, but you have to be ready. I will send word to you when the time is right. I will give you 15 minutes’ notice, so you must be prepared. All you need to do now is wait.

Welcome to Advent, the season of waiting.

Advent is Christmas’ poor cousin, the one that is often forgotten about until the last minute when we say we forgot to invite someone, but I wonder who that is. Let’s face it; there are no Hallmark Advent stories about lost candles or something like that. There is no Grinch who stole Advent or snappy songs like Rudolph the Purple Advent Candle. So instead, we move right from Thanksgiving to Christmas without even a simple nod of the head to Advent.

I used to be rather militant about Advent and not rushing to get to Christmas. Remember, the Christmas season begins the evening of the 24th of December and lasts until the evening of January 6th. But then I started to soften a bit and decided that if playing Christmas music and setting up decorations makes you happy and brings you joy, go for it. So all I ask is that you take some time for Advent.

Advent is more than the beginning of the Church year. Advent is John the Baptist preparing the way. Advent is also the affirmation of living the in-between of the already and the not yet. Christ has come in the child Jesus, and the church again cries out for Jesus to come quickly again. Do not forget the Advent proclamation of the light of Christ shining still amid the world’s darkness. Advent is a time to lean into God’s future unafraid boldly. If we skip it all, we miss it all.

I mentioned that party and that you all must wait for the time and place. We are not great at waiting. We want it all right now. Instant news. Instant communication. Instant food. But Advent calls us to slow down at a time when society is calling us to speed up. Only x number of days until Christmas. Only x number of shopping days left. The time of year that should be filled with hopeful expectations has become a season filled with anxiety.

Advent sets out four themes for us: hope, peace, love, and joy. Each of those weeks is symbolically remembered with the lighting of a candle each week and the final candle, which we do not have on our wreath yet, the candle that represents Christ.

We spend these days and weeks leading up to the birth of Christ telling the story, and each week we bring a little more light into the world. Advent is about moving from darkness into light. With each bit of the story being told, we allow that light to shine, and finally, the light, Jesus comes, and we see that light has overcome the darkness not just for a moment but for all eternity.

Hope comes first because without the anchor of hope; we have nothing. We are a ship at sea with no ability to navigate to steer in the right direction. Hope is the base, the bedrock on which we build the rest of the structure. If hope is off, all the rest will be off.

We heard and will continue to hear from Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah. In the world of prophets, Isaiah is the biggest, so we need to sit up and pay attention to what he has to say. In verse 4, he speaks of this Messiah:

“He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

These are some of the most famous words and images from Isaiah. These images have found their way not only into the hymns of the Church but into folksongs that many of us grew up with. In addition, these images stir up the hopes and longings of people exhausted by war and violence.

But this text goes beyond all of that. The text’s primary meaning as revealing God’s determined gracious intent for all nations means that it is not a text of future prediction. We often think of these Old Testament prophecies as windows into the future. But it is much deeper and much richer than that.

This test is a breathtaking restatement of God’s ongoing promise to Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel. God promises to bless the people to be a blessing to the nations. Bod will bless the Church to be a blessing to all people, and God will be faithful to the Church for the sake of God’s mission.

I know this might not be easy to hear. We look around at declining numbers and cannot imagine that God is still blessing the Church, but the promise of God is that God is not done with us yet. We have much to do, and God will be with us every step of the way. It may seem dark, but the light has and will overcome the darkness. God will never abandon us.

Advent hope is fully aware of what was, what is, and what is to come.

The promise of the text we heard from Isaiah this morning expands our understanding of hope. Two prominent Protestant theologians of the last century identified the profound paradox of Advent hope. Peter Gomes, the late minister, and professor at Harvard University, once preached an Advent sermon entitled “Humbug and Hope” that questioned shallow understandings of Advent hope. Superficial jollity in a world of suffering and pain is not Advent hope.

Joseph Sittler, Lutheran minister and professor at Maywood Seminary, said that honesty compels us to admit that the track record of humanity is very grim, and there is no excuse for chippy hopefulness. He also admitted that he regularly plants trees. Yet, against all evidence, he said, Christians hope.

So let us plant trees, plan parties, and work to make the world a better place.

I hope we will take some time this Advent season to slow down and ponder what God has done, what God is about to do, and our part in all of it.


The Season of Waiting

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Matthew 24:36

Let’s face it; we are not good at waiting. We want everything right this second. Instant news, instant communication, insta pot we want it all, and we want it right now. We all seem to be moving at 90 miles per hour with no let-up in sight. We move from one thing to another but never stop to enjoy that thing we are moving from.

Thursday is Thanksgiving, and I am already seeing Christmas decorations starting to appear. I used to be a bit more militant about not decorating for Christmas until at least after Thanksgiving, but I am beginning to let up just a bit. If putting your Christmas decorations up and listening to Christmas music brings you joy and brightens your day, then, by all means, decorate.

But remember that between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the season of Advent, and the season of Advent asks us to slow down and wait.

I recall, as a child having to wait on Christmas morning to open gifts. My brothers and I would wake up but would have to wait whilst my parents and grandmother made coffee and took their places in our living room. So we waited and opened the presents in our stockings, some patiently, others not so much.

It is unclear when the Christian Church began to commemorate Advent. Still, it has been around since at least the Council of Tours in 567, when monks were directed to fast during December in anticipation of the Nativity. Advent is a penitential season much like that of Lent, but it is also a season of hope, hope in the coming of the Christ Child.

Advent is a time of waiting, waiting for the gift of the Christ child, but it is also a time of reflection and affirmation.

Each week of Advent has a theme for us to reflect on. We begin in hope and faith. Faith is the “assurance of things not seen,” Hope comes when we imagine new possibilities. I hope for a better world and the possibility that we will all use our talents to make that happen.

Following hope comes peace. One of the titles of Jesus is the Prince of Peace, for that is what Jesus brings peace. Peace is an ideal, but it is an ideal worth all the effort. However, peace begins with each of us, and we achieve that peace by slowing down and taking time to appreciate what we have and those around us.

Halfway through our journey, we come upon the theme of Joy. The Gospel for this day is Mary’s Song of joy, knowing that she will soon deliver her child and how blessed she feels being chosen by God for this great honor. Anticipation is building as we get closer, and our hearts begin to overflow with joy.

During the final week of Advent, we reflect upon the theme of Love. If I had to summarize the message of the Gospel and the Nativity in one word, it would be love. God’s love for all of humanity is manifested in the birth of the Christ child, for once again, the creator is walking with creation, and the great chasm has been repaired.

The commemoration of Advent began as a penitential season with prayer and fasting, but now it has all but disappeared from the landscape of our faith. These weeks leading up to Christmas are an essential time to slow down and spiritually prepare for the coming season. Do yourself a favor and slow down; you will appreciate Christmas much more if you do.

Open Mouthed Tourists

Luke 21:5-19

A few years ago, I worked as a tour guide at the Old North Church in Boston’s North End. You know the place; it is famous for a couple of lights in the window and a poem. People would visit this renowned church from all over the world, and most are surprised to discover that it is still an active congregation.

I would often get asked, when was the last time a service was held here? To which I would reply, last Sunday at 11:00. There would be this look of astonishment on their faces, and many would just walk away. It seemed hard to comprehend that, except for a few years during the Revolutionary War, services were held at Old North every Sunday.

However, one of my favorite stories involved the painting hanging on the wall above the altar. As fitting its location, it’s a painting of Jesus, sitting at a table with bread and wine before him. As I mentioned, it hangs above the altar as a clear indication of communion. Every couple of weeks, a tourist would point to that painting and ask if that was Paul Revere. I would chuckle and say no, it’s Jesus.

On one particular day, I was feeling rather cheeky, and when I was asked the question about the painting, I replied that no, it was not Paul Revere; it was Jesus who completed his assigned mission. I received some rather interesting stares, and I could tell it was all being worked out in their minds.

People are easily distracted from the reality that is going on all around them. We see what we want to see and ignore what we do not want to see. We have an idea, a preconceived notion of what something is or is not, and our minds fill in the rest. For example, tourists come to Boston to see historical sights; they do not expect that any of these places are still being used for what they were initially built for, including a church.

In today’s Gospel passage from Luke, we listen in on a conversation Jesus is having in the Temple. The Temple they were standing in was the Second Temple built about 538 BCE. The first Temple, the Temple of Solomon, was built in 957 BCE and replaced the tabernacle, which was constructed under the direction of Moses. Unfortunately, this Temple was sacked a few decades later, and it was not until 538 BCE that a new one was built.

Details of the construction of the Second Temple can be found in the Book of Ezra. Construction of the Second Temple took 21 years to complete after being called for by Cyrus the Great. In comparison, the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, took 83 years to complete, and Boston’s Big Dig took 15 years. However, I am not sure the construction of the Temple made as much of a mess of the traffic in Jerusalem as the Big Dig did in Boston.

When picturing the Temple, one must imagine more than one building. Yes, the place of worship, the building that held the altar of sacrifice, was one, but the Temple precincts comprised many buildings. But the Temple was the grandest of all the buildings and the largest.

Now, Jesus is sitting in this building with his followers, and he is talking about the destruction of this building. They would know the history and that it has been destroyed before, but they cannot imagine it happening again. Those with Jesus naturally want to know when this will happen and will there be any signs, and Jesus tells them not to be distracted.

He goes on to describe what some of those distractions will be. Beware, Jesus says of those who will come and say that the end is near. There was a time when the world was coming to an end just about every week. One TV preacher or another, no doubt in need of a new plane or an expansion of their mansion, would say that the world was ending, and you needed to send them all of your money. I’m not sure why since the world was ending, but I will let you meditate on that.

Even today, people are constantly looking for signs, but even Jesus tells us that he does not know, so don’t worry.

Jesus says, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

Then Jesus offers these words of comfort, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” So, we have that to look forward to.

All distractions.

Distractions are designed to make us look the other way. Make us give up and choose a different direction or give up all together. But what Jesus offers us today is hope, which we must cling to.

Hope is an essential aspect of the Christian life. Actually, I think hope is an important aspect of life in general.

We had a national election on Tuesday, and it might have gone differently than you had hoped. I remarked that the critical part was that the system worked and there was no violence.

The next day I noticed some prominent people making fun of some candidates and not picking at their policies or lack of policies but at physical features of physical disabilities. This angered and depressed me that in 2022 we have come to this. Why is it that every disagreement was to devolve into childish name-calling? Disagree with the other side and what they believe, but when the conversation devolves to Middle School name-calling, it is all over.

As I am prone to do on occasion, I expressed my thoughts in the social media realm and, as one can imagine, was greeted with opposition from some quarters. The essence of the conversation boiled down to the fact that people are so angry and divided that this is what is left. My response was that I disagreed, that adults can, and should, rise above petty nonsense and that we agree on more than we think. The disagreement comes on how we fix what needs fixing, not that things need to be fixed.

The conversation continued, mainly with the people who disagreed with me, restating their objections. In the end, I was told that this was an idyllic view of humanity, with which I disagreed. I said I disagreed because I hoped for a better tomorrow. I have hope because I have no other choice. Hope drives me forward because hope brings life, and the opposite is unacceptable.

I will admit that it might be a little “pie in the sky,” but I honestly believe we can change.

I recently began a new job as Spiritual Advisor at a drug and alcohol treatment center. For many people, this is their last stop before jail or something worse. This past week we talked about gratitude and the power that changing the way we think about things can change the world. I came across a quote that impacted me, “if you are breathing, you can make a change.” It does not matter your situation, and maybe worse days are ahead, but if you have breath left in your lungs, you cannot give up; you can make a change.

Jesus never promised that our lives would be easy. In fact, he said on several occasions that if you follow him, life will be difficult. However, the promise that Jesus made and makes is that although life will not be easy, he will be right there with you.

Jesus came to earth the way he did; he was born sort of life us. He lived his life the way people of his age did. He fell in love, had his heart broken, stubbed his toe, skinned his knee, and had friends and relatives die. He was persecuted, tried in a mock trial, and sentenced to death. All this was done so we can relate. God took on the frailty of human flesh, so we had someone to show us the way through the good times and the bad, which involves hope.

Friends, last week I challenged us to make a difference, to work to bring God’s kingdom to earth, not in the future but now. We cannot wait for some politician to do it; we need to do it. We need to make it happen, and we have to have hope that it will happen.

Do not be distracted by what the world wants, do not be distracted by what you see and hear on the news. Instead, keep your eyes on Jesus and remember, if you have air in your lungs, you can make a change.


Who is a Veteran? Remarks at the Town of Hull Veterans Day Ceremony

Reverned clergy, elected officials, fellow veterans, citizens of the great Town of Hull, and my fellow Americans. Thank you to our Veterans Agent, Paul Sordilio, for asking me to come here today and to share a few thoughts about Veterans Day.

A few years ago, I found myself at Arlington National Cemetery. Although I had been to Washington several times before this, I had never visited Arlington. It is a quiet place of reflection where one can hear the wind passing through the leaves and, on occasion, horses’ hooves as they carry another veteran to their final resting place.

As I walked the lanes, pausing now and again to wonder about those buried there, I was reminded of the poem, In Flanders Field. We will hear it read later in this ceremony, so I will not read it now except to say that those marble stones placed row upon row reminded me of the poppies.

Arlington is a fantastic place for the private soldier buried alongside the general, and such care is shown in each place. I watched in silence as the guard changed at the Tomb of the Unknown and marveled at how the stones beneath the feet of the guards is worn from their pacing in all sorts of weather, constantly guarding those whose name is known only to God.

One cannot help but feel a sense of gratitude begin to well up inside of oneself for their lives and their dedication to the service of their country. They lie in peace, for their time of fighting has ended.

But I am reminded that today, and this might sound strange, it is not about them. Yes, we need to keep their memories green in our minds and our hearts, but today is about the living, about my fellow veterans standing before me, and to you, I say thank you. Thank you for your dedication and thank you for your duty.

At the 11th Hour, on the 11th Day, of the 11th Month, the guns went silent, and the War to End All Wars came to a close. The guns fell silent, and the long process of restoring peace began. The following year, Armistice Day was commemorated for the first time to remember those who had fallen and in celebration of the victory, they helped to achieve.

An Act of Congress in 1938 made November 11th an official holiday as “A day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.” And in 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day in honor of all veterans who have served in times of peace and in times of war.

Although we come from varied backgrounds, we share the ideals of duty, honor, and country. Veterans have been answering the call of our country since those first days on a village green not far from here. They have given the best years of their lives in service of a people and to secure those freedoms that we all hold dear: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We owe these men and women more than one day to say thanks, for we are indeed the home of the free because of the brave.

There is one group of veterans who answered their country’s call that until recently was not shown the respect they deserved. These men and women responded to their countries’ call to fight a war that no one wanted to fight, not that anyone wanted to fight a war. They answered the call and did their duty, but when they returned, the country that called upon them did not treat them very well. If you are a Vietnam Veteran, please stand as you are able so that I might say thank you for your service. You did what so many did not want to do. Thank You!

So, who is a veteran? A veteran is a person who has served their country. Many fought in wars, and many, like me, served during peacetime. We served on land, on the sea, and in the air. Many continue to serve their community as elected officials or volunteers.

Many of us were young when we joined up. I was 18 years old and had never been away from home. I remember that day in September when I raised my right hand and swore an oath with the words first used in 1789.

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

That oath did not expire when my enlistment expired, and I renewed that oath years later was I became a commissioned officer.

I was excited and a little nervous about being on this new adventure. I was not sure what to expect. We boarded buses that took us to Logan airport for our flight. I had only flown a couple of times before, so this was exciting. We arrived and boarded another bus to take us to our destination. After what seemed like an endless amount of paperwork, we turned in for the night, and I had a chance to reflect on all that had happened.

It all changed at 4:30 the following day when the lights suddenly burst on, and a galvanized trash can came bouncing down the aisle of the barracks. I had no idea where or who I was, but I was being yelled at for something.

We made friends we would have for life and friends who understood what we went through because they were there. Friends we trusted to have our backs when the times got tough and can still count on today. Our time in the service changed us forever.

Many of us received wounds from our time in the service. Some of those wounds can be seen, but many cannot. Physical wounds heal over time, and thanks to advancements in medicine, limbs can be replaced and function almost as good, if not better, than the original.

But time does not heal all wounds, and many, far too many of our brothers and sisters suffer from constant reminders of the things they saw and they the things they did, and we owe them so much more than we have given them; we can do better, and we must do better.

Data shows that on a single night in January of 2022, 33,136 veterans were homeless. That number is down from previous years but is still way too high. On average, 17.2 veterans commit suicide each day, each day! Although that number is down, it is still way too high. We must do better.

There is a cost to war that is not always discussed, and that is the human cost. Unfortunately, for many of my fellow veterans, their war has not ended; their battle rages on as they seek the care they deserve in a system so underfunded that it is overwhelmed and sinking under its own weight. Thanks to caring people like Craig Wolfe, our veteran’s agent, Paul Sordilio, and so many others, Hull does a beautiful job caring for our veterans, but we need to do more.

Friends, if you want to thank a vet today, you need to be their voice and advocate and work to secure the benefits and care they deserve. When they stand, raise their hands, and swear the oath to defend us, they need to know that we will protect them when they return. These men and women stand on walls, in the desert sand, and on the decks of ships, and they have our backs the least we can do is to have their backs when they return.

So today, as you go about your day, remember to thank a vet. And tomorrow, when you see that veteran standing on the street corner with the cardboard sign asking for a few dollars, give, and thank them for their service. Talk to Craig Wolfe about the items he is collecting for the Veterans at the VA in Brockton and give. Maybe stop by a cemetery, find a veteran’s grave, and say thank you.

But more important than all of that is to be their voice. So pick up the phone and call those you elect to represent you. Thank them for all they have done for our Veterans in the past and insist that we need to do more.

Thank you, Town of Hull, for the care you provide for our Veterans. Thank you for being here today. God bless all of you. God Bless the Town of Hull. And God Bless America.

Sermon: Man Out on a Limb

Luke 19:1-10

Two kittens shut down the B and Q lines of the New York Subway system for about two hours one day a few years back. The B and Q are two of the main lines that run from Brooklyn into the heart of Manhattan. A two-hour disruption will cause a problem, no matter what time it is.

One morning, a Thursday at 11 a.m., two scared kittens were spotted running down the tracks right next to the third rail. That’s the one that carries the power, 600 volts – not transformer power, but enough to use up all nine lives. So, they decided to cut the power to the whole line. And for almost two hours, the commuters and subway officials waited while a few went on a subway safari to rescue the flustered felines. But, alas, the kittens managed to stay out of reach long enough that the disruption was no longer tenable. So, since the kittens weren’t in visible danger, they returned power to the rail and started the local trains and eventually the express trains but issued an alert inviting the drivers to keep a lookout for the strays.

Naturally, in a day of instant commentary on anything and everything, the opinions were many and various. From the animal lover who praised the compassion of the administrators – or questioned why they gave up so soon just to keep the trains running on time (with the inevitable Mussolini quote tossed in) to the commuters who were patient or not, and the conspiracy theorists who speculated that terrorists in catsuits were behind it all, not to mention the anti-government voices who blamed the president at the time for letting the cat out of the bag. Bah-dum-bum.

The argument centered around one point. Were they worth it? And before you get all heated up, let’s make a shift here. We’re not talking about kittens on a subway track. We are talking about a little guy out on a limb.

Zacchaeus is an interesting character. He is not only a tax collector but the chief tax collector. So, as you can imagine, he was not well-liked in his community for two reasons. One, he was the tax man. Two, being the tax man meant you sided with the government over your fellow Jews. We can infer from what is written about these guys that most of them were corrupt and took more than they reported.

I have shared before about my experiences in Romania. I helped run a nonprofit there for a few years and would often visit the various sites we were supporting. After a few years of hitching rides, I decided it was time for me to drive. You think driving here is bad…

Anyway, if you violated one of the many written and unwritten traffic laws in the country, you, as one would imagine, would get pulled over by the police and issued a citation. You paid the fine to the police officer right there. You did not go to court and hope to have it dismissed; nope, it was cash on the barrel head.

They had these little coupon books and would tear out a coupon that would match the fine. So say the fine was $5, the police officer would tear our 5 one dollar coupons and give them to you. Of course, once back at the station, the police officer would have to reconcile his bool with the cash.

You did not always get the correct number of coupons to match the fine. It was a very different situation if you were an American and had American dollars—sort of like Zacchaeus.

So, Luke sets the stage for us. Again, Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. He is the one that would come to your house and take all you had if you owed the government. He was the guy that recruited all the other guys, and he was rich. In Luke’s gospel, things don’t always end well for the rich, so immediately, we get an idea in our minds where this is going. But is it?

Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is coming to town and decides he wants to see him. Most rich people would send a memo and ask Jesus to go to their office to see them, but Zacchaeus does not do that. Instead, he runs, not walks but runs down the street where Jesus is going to be passing by. Keep in mind Zacchaeus, although despised, is still a pillar of the community, and he is running down the street to see some passing evangelist. Then it gets even crazier.

Because, as Luke mentions, he is “short of stature,” Zacchaeus, the great man has to climb a tree so he can get a glimpse of Jesus.

Now, we need to take a brief pause here. We have no idea why Zacchaeus has decided that he needs to see Jesus. Notice scripture does not say he wants to speak with Jesus, get a blessing from Jesus, or anything else. Zacchaeus wants to “see” Jesus. Maybe he is curious about what this is all about. Perhaps he does not want to be left out of the water cooler conversation at the tax office the next day. Whatever his motivation, nothing will get in his way.

Here comes Jesus. People are all over, some shouting, some looking on with skepticism, and Zacchaeus up in his tree. Jesus stops in the road, looks up at this curious little man in a tree, and calls to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus calls him by name and says that he “must” stay at his house. We do not know why Jesus singled out Zacchaeus, but he did right there in front of everyone. Jesus is going to stay in the home of the most despised man in town.

Again, we don’t know Zacchaeus’s motivation. All Luke says is that he wanted to see Jesus. “Trying to see who Jesus was” (verse 3). Why? Was it a change of heart? Was he worried about competition? Was it hope or fear? Or a little of both? We don’t know. And apparently, that doesn’t matter.

Now, this is the real curious part of the story. The transformation, the change in behavior, the giving away of half of what he has, and the desire to pay back four times if, notice he does not admit to anything here if he has defrauded anyone. All of this happened because Jesus said he was coming to dinner. So Zacchaeus came down that tree transformed.

At least there is the appearance of a change. We have to take a deeper dive into the words being used here. Zacchaeus tells Jesus that he “will give” and he “will give back,” but the original text says, “I give” and “I give back,” not future but present. Is Zacchaeus one of the good guys? Is this way Jesus is coming to his house?

The crowd certainly does not think so. They start to grumble when Jesus says he is going to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

The crowd is not happy that Jesus is going to dine with sinners. “He is not worthy of such an honor,” they say. Jesus, stay on course. Stay out of the gutters, off the side streets, out of the trees. Keep to your own kind. His kind, the sinner kind, is not worth bothering with.

But by going to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus is saying he is my kind. A child of God. If Jesus ignores him, he ignores you. He did not come to ignore the ones willing to go out on a limb to see him—the ones who put their reputation on the line. The ones who throw proper decorum out the window and, with child-like ambition, climb a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by.

Luke leaves us wondering what was in the mind of Zacchaeus when he ran down that street and climbed that tree. He does not leave any clues about his motivation. Zacchaeus took a chance; he risked it all to peek at Jesus.

No matter what, Zacchaeus is worth it, and so are you. No matter what anyone else thinks, we are worth the effort, the disruption, and the inconvenience of loving.

Now ask yourself this question of this passage: “Where are you in the story?” Are you standing with the crowd, shaking your head at those people who aren’t worth it? Or are you standing next to Jesus, inviting yourself into the homes of those others think are sinners? Or perhaps, are you too out on a limb, hoping for a glimpse of Jesus and a whole new way of living?

By the way, seven hours later, they found those kittens, named them Arthur and August, and decided they were worth it.


The Veil is Thinning

Halloween is just around the corner. Halloween is my wife’s favorite festival, and we have been decorating our house this past week. We decorate more for Halloween than any other festival, which is fun. This year, I made wooden tombstones that we have installed in our yard, and they have joined the skeletons and pumpkins that we usually use to decorate. Also, this year will be the first we take our daughter door-to-door trick-or-treating, which should be fun.

But there is more to this time of year than scary costumes and pumpkins.

The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (SAH-win or SOW-win) is celebrated from sundown on October 31st until sundown on November 1st. Samhain is the last of the four great Celtic harvest festivals, the others being Imbolc (February 1st), Beltane (May 1st), and Lughnasadh (August 1st). Samhain is the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice and was the time of the year when the cattle were brought back from their pasture for the winter.

Many rituals and traditions are associated with Samhain, like the lighting of bonfires. These bonfires were seen as protective and used to protect the cattle as they were brought back. There was also a cleansing element to these fires, with many associated rituals. It was believed that the bonfire would help to “beat back” the decay and darkness of the coming winter. Bonfires are symbolically used to “burn up and destroy all harmful influences.”

The smoke from these fires was thought to have protective properties. Wood would be gathered from each home in parts of Scotland to light a central bonfire. As the fire burned, people would lay on the ground as close to it as possible and let the smoke roll over them. As the smoke rolled over them, they would be cleansed and protected for the coming year. Others would run through or jump through the smoke for the same purpose.

In the early modern era, the tradition of guising began—Guising, when people would dress in costume and recite a verse in exchange for food. The practice of guising is where the modern American Halloween tradition of children dressing in costume and going door to door is derived.

But there is also a spiritual connection with Samhain. Samhain, like Beltane, is a liminal or threshold festival when the veil between this world and the next becomes thin, almost nonexistent. The Celts believed that the Aos Sí (sith in Scots), the spirits, or the fairies could more easily come into our world during this time of the year. The Aos Sí were believed to be fallen angels or Tuatha Dé Danann, meaning the “People of Danu.” Offerings of food and drink would be left to appease the Aos Sí and ensure that their livestock would survive the winter.

Winter, with its images of dying in nature, was seen as the most appropriate time of the year to honor the dead. The thinning of the veil meant that the souls of departed family members would visit their homes seeking hospitality. Places would be set for them at the table, and food would be left to eat. James Frazer (1922) suggests, “It was perhaps a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor, shivering, hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage.”

In Celtic mythology, apples are associated with the other world. For example, faces would be carved in apples, while on the back, the name of a dead person would be carved. Then, the apples would be taken to the woods or a field. Finally, a prayer would be said for the person named, and the apple would be left as an offering for the animals to eat.

In the 9th century, the Western Christian Church endorsed November 1st as All Saints Day; a day set aside to commemorate the saints of the Church, and November 2nd as All Souls Day, the day when prayers are offered for all of those who have gone before us to the other world.

This is a special time of the year for remembrance. Take some time to remember those who have gone before us in whatever tradition you practice. Visit the cemetery, attend a church service, carve an apple, whatever it is, remember.

Setting an Intention

For many of us, mornings can be a hectic time of the day. We are off to the races when our feet hit the floor. This morning, I had a dozen emails to answer and this essay to finalize before I finished my first cup of coffee. We get so caught up in life and our responsibilities that we never take the time to check in with ourselves. Setting an intention for the day is a great way to stop and check-in.

In my last essay, I wrote about the differences and similarities between prayer and meditation. Prayer is speaking, and meditation is listening not only to the voice from outside but from the voice inside. Meditation is that time to look at what is happening inside ourselves. You can read more about that here.

What is an intention? An intention is an aim or a purpose you plan to achieve. Intentions can be long-term or short-term, but intentions need to be specific and actionable. It’s nice to set an intention to lose weight or read more, but that is not specific enough. I intend to lose 10 pounds in the next month, or I intend to finish that book I started by the end of the week. Specific and actionable.

Setting intentions allows us to live our lives with purpose and helps us become more present with ourselves and our relationships. Long-term intentions are great, but focusing on a daily intention will keep us in check with ourselves and allow us to be more mindful during the day and focus on the kind of energy we want to attract and put out into the world.

But I want to take setting an intention to the next level by saying that the intention we set should be for the greater and higher good. Our life’s goal should be to live to our greater potential. We might not know what that is, and finding our potential is what the journey is all about. So the intentions we set, the energy we put out and attract, should always be focused on the idea that this is for the greater good of me and all. We will talk more about the greater and higher good in another essay.

So, how do we set an intention?

Setting an intention should take no more than five minutes and should align with your values and goals. The intention can be a guide to help you through the day as you make decisions. The intention is a reminder of your daily focus and check in at the end of the day.

Intentions can be written down or spoken. For example, if you keep a diary or daily planner, either written or electronic, you can write your intention as the first act of the day, so when you open your calendar or diary, it is right there.

 Begin by writing “Today I intend to …”

Think about these questions:

What kind of person do I want to be today?
What attitude do I want to have toward other people?
What do I need to commit to to live a meaningful life?
What do I need to focus on to achieve my goals?

Here are a few examples of daily intentions. Use these as a guide or, if it fits with your greater and higher good, use them.

Today, I intend to:

Stay focused on my to-do list
Be present in the moment
Stick up for my own beliefs
Listen to my intuition and let it guide me
Enjoy my creativity
Be intentional and organized with my work
Open myself to new possibilities without shutting myself down
Stay in my heart, not my head
Prioritize what matters most
Embrace change in all forms

That last one can be a real challenge!

After setting the intention, ask yourself why this intention is essential. What bigger goal or value is this connected to?

There are a few ways that will help you fulfill your intention. I mentioned writing it in your diary already, but you can also write it on a sticky note and put it on your computer screen or something you look at throughout the day. Set a reminder alarm on your phone and change the alarm name to the intention. Set the alarm to go off at the time of the day you are most prone to lose attention. Take a few moments to meditate on your intention. Repeat it as you are conscious of your breathing to set it in your mind.

At the end of the day, take a few moments to reflect on your intention. Did you uphold the intention? If not, do not feel bad; write down a few ways you can improve for tomorrow. Remember, this journey will take many roads with twists and turns, and there will be good days and bad. We set an intention, not as a way to beat ourselves up but to look towards improvement and seek our best selves, and live to our higher good.

Start small, and build each day.

Sermon: Itching Ears

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Once upon a time, a young couple got the news that they were expecting their first child. They welcomed this news with enthusiasm and open hearts. Then, they set about doing all the things new parents do, getting the house ready, thinking about names, wondering what the child would be like, and all the rest.

After the appropriate time, they told their families, who were equally joyous. The expectant grandparents were beaming with joy. They told their friends about the coming child and all the ways they would spoil this, their first. They, too, set about doing all the things one does to prepare for the birth of a child. They put child safety locks on their cabinets, moved all the junk out of the spare room to make way for a crib, and prepared themselves mentally and spiritually for what was ahead.

The day finally came, and the baby was born. The baby was healthy, and all was right with the world. The new parents brought their baby home and began to care for the child. All the everyday anxieties started. Am I doing this right and the rest? 3 am feedings, numerous diaper changes. 6 am feeding and more diaper changes. It was a somewhat normal life situation.

After several months, the parents and grandparents started to talk about having the child baptized. But, unfortunately, the young couple was not much for attending church like most young folx these days. Finally, however, the parents decided that they would baptize the child and decided to approach the church where the child’s mother was baptized.

The church was not far from where they lived, and the child’s mother had fond memories of growing up there and the love she felt from the community. So, they started to attend worship on Sundays. As anyone with a newborn knows, their lives are unpredictable, so regular attendance at anything can be challenging. Their attendance was sporadic at best. But they came when they could.

They decided to approach the minister about the baptism. They called the church and made an appointment. They arranged for a sitter to avoid being distracted during their meeting. They came to the minister’s office at the appointed time and began discussing the process of having their child baptized and formally welcomed into the family of God.

The minister shared what baptism is all about and asked questions to get to know the couple, as he was unfamiliar with them. After about an hour, the minister said that, unfortunately, he would not be able to baptize the child.

The minister told them that since they were not married and living together, they were sinners in the eyes of God. He said that if they got married, everything would be ok, and they could arrange to have the child baptized, but if they remained unmarried, there would be no baptism.

As one would imagine, the young couple was devastated. They had talked about getting married, but when they found out the child was coming, they turned all their attention to preparing for the birth. All their desires and wants took a back seat as their focus shifted away from themselves and onto this child coming into their lives. They had done everything right, but this minister told them that because they did not have a “piece of paper,” their child was not welcome into the family of God.

In the letter of Paul to Timothy that we heard read this morning, Paul warns Timothy to beware of distractions and to hold on to what you were taught. A distraction is a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else, and we encounter them every day in our lives.

Paul tells Timothy that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” The key word in that sentence is “inspired.”

As I have said before, I believe, like Paul, God inspires all scripture, but God leaves the interpretation to humans. Sure, we pray for dive insight, but often, scripture is interpreted to suit a particular point of view. Some hold to the teaching in Leviticus on specific topics and believe there is no gray area. Still, when it comes to the words of Jesus about loving everyone, they claim there is nuance and that everyone does not mean everyone.

Some would instead focus on the wrathful, smiting God rather than the God that sent his only Son to show us a different way and path to follow. Instead, they would focus on some kingdom that will supposedly come rather than bringing that kingdom here and helping those who have less. Yes, God-inspired scripture, but man has screwed it up.

For Christians and United Methodists, in particular, scripture is the core of what we believe. When in doubt, check it out. All the doctrines, those fundamental truths of our belief, have a basis in scripture. Much of the Reformation was about getting back to the basics of scripture. The fight to publish the Bible in the people’s language was so that people could read for themselves and, with assistance, understand those things written there. I would venture to say that the Bible is the most studied and least understood book ever published, but there it is.

But John Wesley knew there was more.

Wesley was trained as a priest in the Anglican Church and, as such, grounded in the Anglican Theological Tradition. That tradition was based on the idea that scripture, tradition, and reason were what helped the stool of theological understanding stay upright.

Scripture was the basis; when interpreting scripture, one needs to look back through the lens of time and ask what the church thought about this and how it has been applied. But one cannot leave it there; one needs to use one’s mind and knowledge and learn to understand what is being said. Yes, there are some concrete, irrefutable beliefs of Christianity, but what do they mean?

Wesley believed that although a three-legged stool was solid and stable, a four-legged one was better, so to scripture, tradition, and reason, Wesley added experience the lived experience of the individual and the lived experience of the church. It is that experience that makes the difference. We know what it means and what the church has thought and taught about, but how do we experience it?

The challenge facing the church today has nothing to do with old buildings and fewer people in the seats; the challenge is how do we take something more than 2,000 years old and make it relevant in a world constantly telling us to find the answers somewhere else. We have those itchy ears Paul was warning about, and we are looking for a way to scratch that itch.

But none of this is possible without grace.

I am often asked where my inspiration comes from when writing sermons. Of course, inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, but it usually comes most unusually. Sometimes I am driving, walking, or going about the everyday tasks of life. Sometimes they are subtle, and other times it’s as if I have been hit over the head.

As you know, Nicky and I are renovating a cottage we bought last spring. If you like, you can follow our progress on our YouTube channel. Anyway, I digress. The cottage was built in the 1870s and is starting to show its age. Yesterday, my father-in-law and I were trimming out the windows on the outside of the house. There is no straight line anywhere to be found on this house, so we threw the level out long ago. We primarily sight by eye, but this can leave little gaps and whatnot.

The final step is to run a bead of caulking along the joints. This accomplishes two things; 1. It seals the joint and keeps the moisture out, thus preserving the wood longer, and 2. It covers all those gaps and other imperfections.

It hit me yesterday; that is precisely what grace does. We have no straight lines, and let’s face it, some of us are showing our age, but grace comes along, fills in all those gaps and holes, preserves us, and saves us, if you will. But unlike the caulking I had to purchase, grace is a gift freely given by God to all creation.

Wherever God is present, there is grace! Grace brought creation into existence. Grace birthed human beings, bestowed on us the divine image, redeemed us in Jesus Christ, and is ever-transforming the whole creation into the realm of God’s reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and peace.

Our only job is to remind people of that grace and show that grace through how we live as individuals and treat others as a community.

The minister I spoke of earlier, a United Methodist minister, by the way, did the exact opposite. He removed grace and told this young couple there was no room in the inn for them. He pulled the leg of the stool known as reason and, in so doing, sent this young couple away empty-handed.

The good news is you cannot stop grace. Grace goes where grace wants, and not long after this story became known, ministers, including me, were lining up to baptize the child and welcome the child and its parents into the arms of love through community.

Siblings, the world, and some parts of the church want us to believe God is not about love. The world makes our ears itch with its message that we must follow other ways. Paul is telling Timothy and us that God provides that way through grace that is freely given to all.

We have the option to show grace every day. Let us be the reason someone believes God loves them rather than the reason they feel God does not.

Prayer and Meditation

When the COVID lockdown when into full swing, I decided this was an excellent time to further my education on topics I had always wanted to study but did not have the time. Meditation was one of those topics. I had heard about meditative practice’s positive benefits, so I thought, why not try it? With so much negativity in the world, a little positive energy going out into the universe would be a good thing.

I had also heard that as a Christian, I should not meditate; I should pray, so the first item on my agenda was to discover the difference if there was one. There is a difference between prayer and meditation, the main one being prayer is talking, and meditation is listening.

Before we go any further, I want to clear up some common misconceptions about meditation.

  1. Nothing about meditation is anti-Christian
  2. Both practices help to cultivate a sense of gratitude and peace
  3. Prayer can deepen your meditation, and meditation can deepen your prayer

The Bible is full of passages about prayer. For example, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray, and he teaches them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, although in a different form. But there are also passages about meditation:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8 (NIV)

This passage encourages the reader to “think about such things.” In other translations of this passage, the phrase “dwell on these things” is used. Meditating is to dwell on life, your present situation, a selection of scripture, or whatever it may be.

Prayer requires words, while meditation requires stillness and listening. The focus of prayer is outward, towards something other than us, while the focus of meditation is inward. Meditation requires one to listen inwardly to what is happening inside us and our present surroundings. Meditation is a deep dive into our being while prayer is reaching outward.

There is an ancient monastic practice called Lectio Divina, Divine Reading. During Lectio, the person reads a passage of scripture and then lets that scripture wash over them. Then, they listen with the ear of their heart and the ear of their soul for how that passage speaks to them. Lectio may be an entire passage, a word, or a phrase repeated over and over while the passage courses through the body of the one practicing Lectio. Lectio Divina is meditation.

Both prayer and meditation remind us to be grateful for all the blessings in our lives. Sometimes these can be hard to see; other times, these blessings are very present. This type of meditative practice can be done anywhere at any time. Perhaps you are grocery shopping and become grateful for the abundance of food produced for us. Or for the farmers that grew the food and the grocery workers who have set out the displays. Mediation, like prayer, can take many forms and be done at any time.

For me, prayer and meditation go hand in hand; sometimes, I pray and meditate. However, I do not see prayer and meditation as mutually exclusive; as I mentioned at the start of this essay, they both enhance each other.

In my previous essay on the Hunter’s Moon, I mentioned that this time of the year is a great time to start a new spiritual practice. If you have been thinking about adopting a meditation or prayer practice, this is the time to start. If you need assistance, reach out, and I can point you in the right direction.

The Hunter’s Moon

I so love this time of the year. Here in New England, the leaves are starting to change, the temperature has dropped, and the smell of fires in fireplaces is starting to emerge. I think fall is the most beautiful time of the year.

But fall is also a time of finishing up. The ancient Celts celebrated the New Year on November 1st, so October was the time for looking back and finishing things up. Of course, it is the end of the harvest, but it is also the time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished this year and focus on what you are grateful for.

Not long ago, we celebrated the autumnal equinox, that time of the year when we experience an equal time of light and darkness. All of nature is balanced, and it is a time to bring balance into our lives. As nature begins to slow down and prepare for the long, cold winter, so should we. Although many of us do not have to prepare storage of food and wood, we do need to prepare spiritually for the months ahead.

This year the Hunter’s Moon will arrive on October 9th. The Hunter’s Moon derives its name from the time of the year when the hunt typically takes place. Animals are in rut and are at their heaviest weight in preparation for the winter.

The Hunter’s Moon also has a spiritual significance. This is the time of the year to focus on internal work and self-reflection. In addition, this is a good time of the year to begin a new spiritual practice or get back in touch with a practice that has gone fallow.

The Hunter’s Moon is a perfect time to sit outside and meditate. The temperatures at night are cool but not yet cold. Spread a blanket on the ground, sit in the light of the moon, and just relax. Spiritual growth, goal setting, gratitude, and finding ways to slow down are all important aspects of this time of the year.

October is also the time when the veil between his world and the next begins to thin. The separation between the living and the dead becomes almost nonexistent. So take time to reflect on your ancestors and what they can teach us. Visit the cemetery and bring fresh flowers, pause for a few moments and listen for the voices of your ancestors in the wind.

We can learn a tremendous amount from nature and the passage of time. The earth has yielded its harvest, which will feed us during the long months yet to come. The changing of the leaves reminds us that new growth that comes from the buds left behind requires the shedding of those things we no longer need.

Take some time to slow down, find your balance, and remember what you are grateful for in the coming days.

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