Wilderness Companions

Luke 4:1-13

We have begun our journey of Lent.  We slowly turn toward the Cross of Jesus during these days ahead, which eventually turns into the empty tomb.  So many Christians want to skip this time of year and get right to the chocolate bunnies and cream-filled eggs, but you cannot have all of that without some preparation.

As you heard me say on Ash Wednesday, Lent is that time of preparation.  We prepare ourselves Spiritually for the events that will come in a few short weeks.  We had a similar time of preparation before the birth of Christ, but Lent is stricter if you will than Advent.

But what is Lent all about?  It is not just about giving stuff up or wearing purple; Lent is about facing temptation and trying to overcome it with the help of God.  And that is what we hear about in the Gospel from Luke today.

This passage takes us back to the start of the public ministry of Jesus.  He has just had his encounter with John in the Jordan, and now, before he gets started, he heads off into the desert alone to prepare.  He will spend the next 40 days alone, with nothing to eat, facing temptations and being tested.  But notice one thing: the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert.  The Spirit leads Jesus there but does not drop him off like he is at summer camp.  No, the Spirit stays with Jesus and helps him face temptation.

The first temptation is on of the body, hunger.  Luke writes that Jesus ate nothing, so I can only imagine how hungry he is.  Jesus is tempted.  Turn this stone into bread.  Jesus answers, “a person does not live by bread alone.”

Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence not as a punishment but to assist in life’s other temptations.  In the early days of the Church, Lent was a strict time of abstaining from rich foods.  Many still celebrate Shrove Tuesday, but I fear it is more out of the idea that we have a party rather than what it was intended to achieve.

Originally, Shrove Tuesday was meant to use up all the things that we would not eat during the time of Lent.  Rather than throw them away or just let them rot, the faithful used these items up so when the feast began, the slate was clean.

There is the spiritual understanding that if we can control what goes in our mouths, we will have the ability to control what comes out.  So it is not supposed to just be about giving up this or that; it is about changing behavior.

By tradition, Orthodox Christians strictly fast during Lent.  The strict fast means no meat, no dairy, and no oil.  So they become vegans for 40 days.  I know many people who follow this rule very close, which in the end, are the same people as when they began the fast.  In other words, it’s not just about giving up; it’s about taking that deep dive within to make a substantive change.

Many folx associated with this Church, and many folx listening struggles with addiction.  We pray each week for those facing that daily struggle.  Overcoming addiction is not just about giving up what one is addicted to it is about changing the behavior and taking that deep dive inside for correction.  There is also an appeal to a higher power for help in all of this.

Jesus is next faced with the temptations of worldly riches and power.  These temptations come at us in small and subtle ways.  As Christians, we are called to live a life that runs counter to what the culture wants us to live.

The world around us wants us to be successful, drive a luxury car, live in a big house, wear expensive suits.  And there is nothing wrong with any of that.  There is nothing wrong with success or being rich, but what does it take to get there?  Who do we have to step on or step over to reach that goal?  And how far are we willing to compromise to make all of it happen?  The temptation is always about what is next.

I have said this before, and I am sure I will repeat it Jesus was not against the rich; Jesus spoke harshly against the stingy.  Jesus spoke against those who had two coats whilst their neighbor had none.  It’s okay to have two coats, but it is not okay to have those two coats if your neighbor does not have one.

As we sit here warm and safe, Ukrainians are hunkering down in subway tunnels and watching their homes being destroyed.  Right now, Ukrainian men are leaving their families to go off and defend those same families, making the painful choice to leave them behind in those same subway tunnels.  The United Nations Committee of Refugees has estimated that over 1 million people have fled Ukraine to escape the horror of war.

Last week, President Biden said that sanctions would not only be difficult on Russians, but the sanctions would be difficult on all of us.  For several days, people were waving Ukrainian flags and posting pictures of sunflowers.  But now that sanctions are starting to make a difference here, it is all about higher gas prices and not getting avocados from Mexico.  Really?  Sometimes the selfishness of Americans astounds me.

Yes, the last couple of years have been difficult on all of us, but we are not hiding in subway tunnels and watching our homes being destroyed by a mad man bent on world domination.  I am okay with paying more at the pump and not having avocados if it means a family in Ukraine can sleep at night without the fear of being killed by some rogue Russian maniac.

As Christians, we are being called to think about someone other than ourselves, not to impoverish ourselves to help others but to be concerned about them and help them with more than just our thoughts and prayers.

Do we really need all those coats, shoes, hats, cars, houses, etc.?  Can we give to help another who has nothing?  Scripture tells us that your heat is where your treasure is.  In other words, we care most about what is important to us, and if we care more about our stuff than we do about people, we should be taking a good, long look at that and why we believe that.

In the translation, we use the prayer that Jesus taught us we say, lead us not into temptation.  As we can see from this passage today, it is not God who leads us.  God does not lead us into temptation; God is with us during those times of temptation.

I have spoken before about my work after a disaster has struck.  While sitting with someone who has just lost everything they have, I am asked, where was God?  God is right there in the midst of it all.  Regardless of what the TV preachers say, God does cause bad weather, earthquakes, or even wars.  God does send bad politicians or even good ones, don’t blame God for all the bad stuff going on in the world that falls squarely on us.  There are no promises in the bible other than the promise that God will never abandon us no matter what.

Jesus went into the desert for 40 days; God did not abandon him there but was with him every step of the way.  Sure, it may feel like we are alone, and the world may be crumbling down around them, but God is there.

Last week I came across an internet post from one of the bishops in Ukraine.  The bishop said, and this is a summary, that the clergy were taking the Church to where the people were.  There were images of people gathered in tunnels with clergy praying and providing sacramental ministry to the faithful.  Just this morning, I came across a picture of a Ukrainian Army Chaplain officiating a wedding in the field.  Even amid war, there is love.  When the world is crumbling, God is there in the midst of that crumble.  Jesus suffered just as we suffer and will NEVER abandon us.

What are your temptations, and how can help you overcome them?  God will not wave some magic wand and make them disappear; you have to do that hard work.  But God will be there with you as you go through it.

I am going to leave you with the words of Paul.  Paul sums up how much God loves us, and it is vital that we understand this. So many voices in the world say that God does not love this or that or because of this or that you are a sinner and God does not love you.  Do not listen to those people, do not listen to me, listen to Paul.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


The Transforming Power of Prayer

Luke 9:28-36

It is at times like these that standing here becomes very difficult. As I am sure many preachers will do today, I could ignore what is going on in the world and focus on the Gospel. But I feel that not addressing current events, especially events such as war, is, in a way, cowardice. As a preacher, as a leader of a faith community, I have an obligation to help you make sense of what is going on in the world, especially when it seems that it makes no sense.

On Thursday morning, we woke to the news of Russian troops rolling across the border into Ukraine. While we were preparing for another snowstorm, the people of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities were preparing for tanks, missiles, and troops fighting in their streets. One newscaster said about the invasion that it is the largest land battle on the European Continent since World War II.

Make no mistake about it; these actions of the Russian President go against all the treaties he signed and are an unprovoked and despicable act of evil perpetrated by a dictator. Vladimir Putin is nothing more than a bully seeking to flex his muscles against a weaker country. Or so he thought.

And to those of you siding with evil and cheering on the Russians, you participate in this evil and the killing that has taken place by your words and your actions. America is deploying soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen to Europe; this is not a time to be siding with those we may be at war with. You cannot claim to support the military while cheering on those with whom we may be at war.

War is failure. As Christians, we should look upon war as repugnant as it stands in direct opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, at the same time we are called to pray for those prosecuting this war that they follow the rules of war and protect civilians.

As I wrote in my weekly email, the world’s religious leaders have asked us to make this day a special day of prayer, and Pope Francis has asked all of us to make Ash Wednesday a special day of prayer and fasting. So, I am asking all of you, here and online, to gather your prayers together today and every day until this war comes to an end.

But what can prayer do? Can prayer stop bombs and tanks? Again, we have today’s Gospel as our guide.

On the top of the Mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John see Jesus as he really is.

This is what happens when we pray. If you are at a loss for words, we have the words that Jesus gave us. In that prayer, we say, “Your kingdom come; your will be done.”

We are not praying for the kingdoms of tyrants and despots. We are not even praying for our own will, but rather that we will see the will of God in Jesus Christ.

To pray is to see things how they really are and how they can be if we align our will to God’s will for us and the world. If, as Paul says to the church in Corinth, “We do not lose heart”… (2 Cor. 4.1), and “with our unveiled faces see the glory of the Lord as if reflected in a mirror, and are ourselves transformed.” (2 Cor. 3.18)

Prayer matters. Prayer is important. Prayer is all of these things because prayer changes things beginning with ourselves and gives us the strength we need.

One of the more encouraging things I have seen these past days is the number of people gathered to pray. In Ukraine, people gather in churches and synagogues, subway tunnels, and apartments to pray for change and strength.

It may seem that this war is being waged half a world away, but it will affect us. The United States has deployed and will continue to deploy the military to Europe to defend our NATO allies. In his speech to the nation on Thursday afternoon, President Biden warned us that sanctions would not only harm Russia and make it difficult for them to continue this war, but sanctions also have the potential of making things difficult for us here at home. I am sure we will see a difference, perhaps gas prices will rise, and some things will be harder to find, but I am willing to pay a little more at the pump if it means the people of Ukraine will be free and safe. My minor inconvenience at the pump or other places is nothing compared to people who must live in subway tunnels to avoid bombs dropping on their homes.

And this is where prayer will help us because prayer will help us see what is right and give us the resolve to do it. It is time to stop thinking of ourselves and think of others. It is time we stop turning a blind eye to what is going on in the world and start to have concern for our brothers and sisters around the globe. Yes, we live in a global community, and we need to help each other.

Prayer transforms, beginning with ourselves. We are about to enter the season of Lent. This is the time of year set apart by the church that calls us to deepen our prayer lives and focus on repentance. There is the ancient tradition of giving something up as a token of sacrifice during this time of the year. Perhaps you grew up not eating meat on Fridays or giving up ice cream. We did this because fasting is an integral part of our spiritual life.

But what we give up should make a difference in ourselves. So why not fast from harmful and hurting words and replace them with kind words. Fast from anger and fill our lives with patience. Fast from worries and place our hope in God. Fast from complaints and focus on simplicity. Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world” Want more peace, be peaceful. Want more love, be love. Want more kindness, be kind. Want more generosity, be generous. We may not influence events on the other side of the world, but we do influence what takes place in our own lives. If each of us adopted a spirit of peace, that spirit would emanate from us to others; change begins right here, in our hearts.

I have lit this single candle as a reminder of our obligation to pray for peace. This single candle will be lit at each service we have until this time of war is ended. Let us hope it ends soon.

In a speech in the House of Lord’s this past week, Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York said, “Peace is a choice. It is a decision that we need to make each day about the way we live and about our responsibilities to and with our neighbor, be that in our family, in our local community, or between the nations of the world.”

As I close with this prayer, I also wish to remind you that we need to pray for the Russian people, the ones who will feel the harshness of the decisions their leaders have made.

Let us pray:
O God, the refuge and strength of all,
You hold the people of Ukraine in the palm of your hand.
The name of each person there,
Is written on your heart.

In the darkness of invasion
And in the mire of political machinations,
Spread we pray, the light of hope and of justice
And of peace.

Encourage those who are frightened,
To find strength in you
And in those around them -Near and far.

Help the worldwide family of nations
To respond in love
With outstretched hearts,
Open minds,
And with too, the wisdom needed
to effect a peace that lasts.

Save us we pray,
From not caring enough.
For your Son’s sake. Amen.

Statement by the Right Reverend Thomas Bryant, Bishop of the Diocese of the Eastern United States of the Independent Old Catholic Church

In the early morning hours, the military forces of Russia unleashed an unprovoked and unjustified attack on the people of Ukraine. This act of aggression is an act of evil and I join my voice with those of other religious leaders in calls for peace and for the people of Ukraine and Russia.

I am inviting Christians to join in prayer this Sunday for the people of Ukraine and for peace in our world.

As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, I support the call of Pope Francis to a Global Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace on Ash Wednesday, March 2nd.

St. George, protector and patron of the Ukrainian people, pray for us.

Sermon: Love your Enemies

Love Your Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Surprising Catch

Luke 5:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston Globe August 31, 1898

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unity in Diversity

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermon: Extravagant Sign

John 2:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After Seventeen Years It Is Time To Say Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

The False Idea of Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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