Dancing with the Trinity; My BIG Adventure

Matthew 28:16-20

(Note: This is a sermon I preached at St. Matthew’s Westerville, my “home away from home” parish on Sunday, 6/11/17.)

If you look in your service bulletin you will see that I am listed as the homilist today and that I am a seminarian. For those of you whom I have not met before, my name is Jean Cotting, and I will be beginning my seminary studies in another month or so at Virginia Theological Seminary. Officially I’m out of the parish St. James in Clintonville, a few miles south of here. A little over a year ago I started showing up here and getting involved in various ministries at St. Matthew’s just because much of what this congregation does is so different from traditional church. Rather than telling me to scram, get lost, and run along home back to my own parish, Fr. Joe made me your treasurer, so I’ve been involved with that and also Pub Theology. It’s been an incredible learning opportunity, and for that I thank you.

My official canonical standing in the church right now is “postulant for Holy Orders.” I love saying that. It sounds so important. But basically all it means is that I’ve passed the diocesan screening process and the bishop has tentatively decided, “Yeah, she might make a decent priest someday,” and so I’ve been granted me permission to attend seminary as someone who is on the ordination track. Not everyone who attends seminary is necessarily looking to become a priest, but those of us who do wish to become priests eventually have to have a bishop’s permission first before we start seminary. As impressive as the title “postulant for Holy Orders” sounds though it does not guarantee you the opportunity to preach during Sunday liturgy, and when a priest allows a postulant to preach, they are doing them a HUGE favor out of the goodness of the hearts, so first off, a very big Thank You to Fr. Joe for allowing me to reflect on the sacred text with you today.


Today, the first Sunday following Pentecost, we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have Thomas a Beckett (who has been in the news lately) to thank for the institution of this feast day. It is the anniversary of his being consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, after which he declared that the day would henceforward be marked as a day to honor the most Blessed Trinity. However, if you came here today expecting me to explain this mystery of the Trinity, I’m sorry to say that you will walk away disappointed because that is WAY above my pay-grade. For those of us who are postulants or seminarians, it’s very popular day to get asked to preach because none of the real clergy want to preach on the topic of the Trinity. There simply is no good way to explain how something can be both one and three at the same time. And generally when people try to get too clever and attempt to fully explain it, they slip into heresy. The idea of a triune God – one God in three persons – is, of course, a mystery. There are a number of metaphors floating around that have been put forth by great theological thinkers through the ages – St. Patrick and his three leaf clover; St. Augustine and the idea that God is love and in order for love to exist there needs to be a Lover, a Beloved, and the Love between them.   These images are quite useful in engaging our imaginations in trying to get our head around the incomprehensible. We can’t reach an understanding of the Trinity with our human intellects but we can stretch and grow through the process of trying to understand what we can. Because even though the Trinity is something that we can never fully understand doesn’t mean that we can’t ponder it and consider what this mystery tells us about the nature of God.

I think one of the significant clues to the mystery of the Trinity that we might want to consider lies in our first reading from Genesis on the sixth day when God created humanity:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;

He says “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”

God is speaking of himself in the plural. God himself exists in community, just as we do. God, like us, experiences his divine existence in relationship. Now, I don’t presume to state that the divine relationship is anything at all like our human relationships or that it’s a relationship we can comprehend but the divine being is in relationship and in community. I think maybe, just possibly, that human relationship and human community, as messy and as imperfect as they are perhaps are one of the ways in which we bear the imprint of our Creator. Based on my own experience it is through relationship with one another and through community that we humans are often able to experience the divine presence.

Getting back to what I was telling you about becoming a postulant. The whole screening process I alluded to earlier is referred to as discernment and one of the key features of discernment is that it is most definitely not something one can do in isolation. First of all, it’s just too big a major life decision to base solely on one’s own opinion and attempting to figure out if God is calling you to something is a process that you need to have the input of others. For me, anyway, it started out as a very simple matter. It consisted of: a) I have an interest in becoming a priest, and, b) I think I have the requisite skill set to do the job. For those who might be interested, the diocese looks at three specific criteria – theologian, entrepreneur, and faith community organizer. But if it just starts and stops there – then that’s all it is: an interest and a skill set. The sense of “call,” for me anyway, didn’t come until I got immersed in the experience of working through the questions with others. First it’s just you and your parish priest for the first year, and basically the job of the priest in that first year is to try to talk you out of becoming a priest (obviously mine failed miserably). Then as you start getting ready to apply with the diocese, if you’re r as lucky as I was, you start taking on an increased role as lay leader and liturgical “helper” and so others in your community become aware of what you’re doing and where you’re headed. Then you apply with the diocese and start working with what’s called the Commission on Ministry, and subsequently a Regional Discernment Committee is formed to focus on you specifically, and of course along the way there is a psychological screening, and a physical, and a background check and at some point you start working with a spiritual director if you don’t already have one. So long before you ever sit down with the Bishop face to face (the ultimate decision is always up to the bishop), you’ve worked with an entire battalion of people who have questioned you, challenged you, aggravated and affirmed you. There is a lot of time spent in private prayer and contemplation as an individual; I don’t mean to sell that component short. Those quiet moments of simply talking to God and trying to listen for God’s voice is critical. It is important, but it’s only one piece of it.   Because it’s that whole process of communal dialogue – articulating what you as the individual are feeling, thinking, and experiencing from your interior perspective, and bouncing it off these other people, and them responding and telling you what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing what’s coming from you – that’s what gets you there. And it was through that cycle repeated over and over during the 2 years of discernment, that gave me a sense of truly believing that the priesthood is where God is calling me to.

I still remember vividly the moment I had my “call.” I had gone on a one woman retreat to the convent in Glendale and I woke up around 4:00 AM. I couldn’t fall back asleep but I wasn’t feeling sufficiently motivated to get out of bed. And so I lay there thinking about all that was going on. I had gone on retreat because I was wrapping up my work with my Regional Discernment Committee and I needed some intense quiet time to digest and process what that was all about. So as I lay there I re-ran some of the conversations in mind, and decided it was borderline semi-miraculous. Now, the thing you need to understand is that I’m an ENTJ on Myers-Briggs, so I am not by nature a patient person. I am not by nature somebody who copes well with having other people tell me what to do. I like being in control and I tend to have some very strong opinions about how the world should be. I don’t like getting bogged down by distractions, and working with committees as we all know is spectacularly distracting. And yet, I was doing okay. I was not just getting through it but to a large extent, I was enjoying it. I was growing from it. I was able to suppress my inner Hermione Granger and let go of my need to be right all the time. I was most definitely challenged, but in a good way. I wasn’t handling it perfectly, not by a long shot, but it was going far better than I had thought it would. And this was because it wasn’t just me. I wasn’t doing this on my own. There was something far bigger, far more powerful than I could ever hope to be. I was being drawn through this experience unseen forces. And I said to myself, “Holy Cow! I really am being ‘called.’ This is where I’m meant to go. God IS calling me.” Actually it was more than just being called. I was being hauled off body and soul by God. It was a Jonah experience and I was about to be regurgitated by a giant fish on the shores of Ninevah. And then my very next thought was “Girlfriend, don’t get too full of yourself. Just about everyone God called in scripture was a bit of nut job and loser.” But my point is this, my “call” came not through a burning bush or a mystical vision. It came through the voices of others, of those around me. It came from relationship and being in community.

Okay, you’re saying to yourselves “That’s a nice story, but what does that have to do with us?” I’m sharing this experience with you because discernment is process that all baptized Christians are called to engage it – to figure out where God is calling you. It is something the individual needs to engage in and it’s something communities as whole engage in. It’s something right now that here at St. Matthew’s is going to be a very central theme over the next few years as all of you figure out which direction that your community needs to go in and how you’re going to get there. And it will be a journey that, like mine, will require a lot prayer and soul searching for you as individuals but it will also require a great deal of community conversation and relationship and not just for those of us here present. Just as I needed the input of other people from close friends, people from home parish and also from total strangers that I had never met before to help me figure things out, you too will need to reach out to and reflect with one another and also those in the wider community to find out who you are as a faith community and what they are seeing and experiencing from you.

So, let me return to the Gospel reading because this ties in to what I’m talking about. In this final concluding chapter of Matthew, the text tells us that the eleven remaining disciples have gone out to Galilee to worship Jesus, but then it says that “some doubted.” It doesn’t name names, but it says “some” which to me means that there was more than one doubter. However, Jesus’ response is quite striking. He comes to them. He doesn’t chastise them or go away in huff. No, he comes to them. He meets them where they are and in spite of their doubt, he tells them where he wants them go and what he wants them to do. Actually, he doesn’t say anything about the doubt and I don’t think it’s because he’s simply choosing to ignore it. I think it’s because he know that for his disciples the doubt is part of the journey. Doubt is an incredibly wonderful gift. Doubt is really just another blessing in disguise and we need not be afraid of it. I can only speak from my own experience but if I hadn’t had any doubts along the way on my journey, I doubt that I would have continued on. Because I think it’s only by having doubts and working through them that I could come to believe for myself that it all wasn’t just some crazy pipedream. To me doubts are the confirmation that what you are doing is anchored in some sense of reality and that you’re not just off in some fantasyland. And doubts most of all are something we engage in and can best be addressed in community and in relationship. As you journey as a community – embrace your doubts, work through them, wrestle with them, pray over them, talk and talk and talk about your doubts, and then pray some more and talk some more. Debate your doubts, aggravate each other with your doubts, get on each other’s nerves: doubt, question, argue, communicate and commune. I can assure that just as Jesus did not revoke his 11 followers’ license to be apostles or take away their commission to go and make disciples of all the world, the Trinity will not pull out on St. Matthews. He will come to us. He will meet us where we are and he will send us forth out into the world – not in spite of our doubts but because of them. We are not alone. We have one another; we are in relationship; we are in community, and therefore, we also have God.

Thank you for listening.

(Note to readers: If you have enjoyed reading this and would like to support me in my journey, please pray for me.  If you are so blessed to have the means to do so and would like to contribute financially to my seminary fund, you can do so through my GoFundMe.com campaign “Jean’s Awesome Seminary Adventure.”  Thank you.)



Miriam’s First Draft

Last night at the Easter Vigil I had the privilege of being one of the congregation asked to give a reflection on one of the readings.  It’s a poem (sort of) based loosely on Exodus 14:10 – 15:1.

Please God, don’t let me die in this desert.

If I die in this desert, there will be no grave to lay me in. There will be no bereaved friends and relations to remember that I once was. That I existed.

There will be no markers for my children and my children’s children to point to at and say “See, that’s where I came from.” I will be nothing, just nameless bones scattered across miles and miles of sand, blotted out into oblivion.

Sure, dying a slave is a sad state of affairs, but being a slave among slaves is no big deal. It’s company and it’s knowing that I’m not alone in being miserable, that there are others who bear the same lash marks and have felt the same suffering.

Please God, don’t let me die in this desert.

I’m not a warrior. I’m no match for the horses of Pharoah, and the chariots and the charioteers. If I go up against them, I know I’ll lose. A pillar of smoke isn’t going to stop an Egyptian sword or arrow.

Please God, I’m afraid of the pain. More than that, I’m afraid of the shame. I don’t want my neighbors to point at me and say to their children, “See that loser? That’s what happens when you aim too high. When you don’t know your place and aren’t satisfied with your lot in life.”

Dear God, isn’t it better that I die a wise slave than a free fool?

Please God, don’t let me die in this desert.

There are too many people who depend on me and are counting on me. If I die, what will become of them?

Besides, I have no idea what free really is. I’ve been a slave my whole life. It’s what I’m good at. Yeah, it’s all well and good to fantasize and spout off about freedom, “Hey, if I was free, I would do this or I would do that..” but I don’t really know what freedom is. The fact is, I’ve never met the free me. I don’t know who that new me will be or if I’ll like that person. And like it or not, if I follow your boy Moses across that patch of dry sea bed, I will die. The slave me will be no more, and it’s the free me that will come out on that distant shore.

And dear God…dear, dear God, I am so very scared.

Please God, don’t let me die in this desert.



Maundy Thursday, 2017

I had the pleasure of being asked to preach at my church’s Maundy Thursday service.  The sole directive was “keep it brief,” in light of need for additional time for the foot washing ritual.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Earlier this week I posted on Facebook that I was going to be preaching at tonight’s service and my friend Paula asked in reply if there was going to be any foot washing. She said because of this whole foot washing thing, Maundy Thursday was probably her least favorite service of the liturgical year. This got me to thinking that I do not believe I have ever met a person who looks forward to or enjoys the foot washing ritual of Holy Thursday. I’m not necessarily talking about the washers; it seems to be most upsetting to the washees. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who says in anticipation of this service, “Ooooh boy! I can’t wait to have the priest wash my feet tonight at church! Yee haw!” And why is this? Why do we get so squeamish about having our feet washed?

After pondering this for a while I came to the conclusion. Feet are an embarrassment. Yes, the sad truth is we are ashamed of our feet. We would like to believe that our feet are perpetually clean and sweet smelling and pedicure fresh and attractive. But the reality is that they seldom are. No, they get dirty; they get sweaty; they smell; they get dry and cracked, are subject to corns and bunions and all manner of fungus. Part of our problem is our modern life style and the fact that our feet spend most of their waking and walking hours encased in synthetic fabric and closed footwear. However, based on Peter’s reaction in this evening’s Gospel reading, it seems that humans have always had a certain level of anxiety about revealing their feet to one another. Yes, even two thousand years ago feet were an embarrassment.

In tonight’s reading, Jesus basically tells his disciples to get over it. He doesn’t just ask them (or us) to get over it. No, he commands them.   That’s what “Maundy” means. It comes from the Latin word “Mandatum”, which means a “mandate” or “commandment.” “Mandatum novum do vobis diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos,” which translates, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” For you see, foot washing is precisely how Jesus commands us to live out our lives as his followers. And this commandment is two part. We are to wash each other’s feet. We are to both wash and to allow ourselves to be washed. To wash the feet of another does not mean to ignore or avoid or pretend that the dirt, smell, and general unattractive of the other does not exist. It does not mean to merely tolerating it. No, to wash another’s feet is to address head on the dirt, the smell, the unattractiveness of the other’s feet – and that goes way beyond tolerating. That gets into the realm of accepting the other. It means caring for and tending to the dirt and odor and mess in each other’s lives. It means not only loving the other in spite of their shortcomings, but perhaps loving because of them.

The other side of this commandment is to allow the other to wash us. To make ourselves vulnerable and to allow others to enter into our imperfection.   It requires us to let go of our illusions of independence and embrace our interdependence. It requires us to humble ourselves not just before God, but humble ourselves before others and to accept their help. One cannot allow another to wash their feet unless they are willing to relinquish their tight fisted grasp on their own bootstraps.

“A new commandment I give unto you, that your love one another as I have loved you.”

Although it’s probably a little early to be reciting Compline, I will leave you tonight with one of the concluding prayers from that office:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Thank you for reading.  If you have: a) enjoyed reading this post, b) been blessed with material prosperity in your life, and, c) would like to help ensure that I don’t starve over the next three years while attending seminary full time, please consider donating towards my seminary fund:  https://www.gofundme.com/jeans-awesome-seminary-adventure)

God of the Unexpected….

Luke 2:15-21

One of the things that I observed first as an aunt and then more closely as a mother, is that children, especially young children, love to hear the stories surrounding their birth and how they came into the world. I’m not talking about the gory details of labor and delivery, but more about the mundane details – what hospital, what time of day were they born, who other than mom and the doctor were there, how much did they weigh, what did they look like. They story that I always tell about my son’s birth that even as a surly nineteen year old still elicits a chuckle from, is that because he was a large baby and because I was a single mother, my OB/GYN induced me a week early. As some of you may know, induced labor is a bit more “intense” than naturally occurring childbirth. My sister-in-law who was induced for the last of her three pregnancies described it as “sort of like a rodeo ride” and it is; pitocin induced contractions come on very fast and are very strong. Because of this when one is induced, the procedure is to admit the expectant mother to the hospital the night before and you can’t have anything to eat from about 7:00 PM on. By 8:00 AM the next morning when they started the pitocin drip, I was hungry – really, really hungry – because among other things pregnancy does is that your appetite gets totally out of whack. In fact my stomach was audibly rumbling and so I turned to the nurse and said, “I REALLY hope this baby is born in time for lunch because I’m starving.” And Jack, being the good boy that he is weighing in at an ideal 8 lbs 4 oz and 21.5 inches long, was born at 11:33 AM and as they nurses were cleaning him off and wrapping him to take him away for post-delivery exam, I could hear off in the distance the sound of the lunch trays arriving on the freight elevator.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Originally it was called the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. Both the naming and the circumcision of the Lord are significant events and would have occurred eight days after his birth. If you’ve ever been to a bris (a circumcision) and/or a naming ceremony for a Jewish child, you know how important they are in Judaism, comparable in significance to our Christian ritual of infant baptism. It’s the point at which the child is brought into the community and the community claims him or her as one of their own. The ceremony mentioned here is actually three separate rituals, but as is still the case in modern times, in the case of a first born male child they are often done at the same time. Circumcision goes back to the covenant of God with Abraham. It is perhaps the most basic and a rudimentary part of a man’s identity as a Jew, making him as one of God’ Chosen People. The second ritual occurring, usually at the same time is the “pidyon” or the redemption of the first born. This is done only in the case of a first born male child. This goes back to the story of the Exodus, when the Jews in Egypt marked their doors with the blood of the Passover lamb so that that the tenth plague, the angel of death, would pass over them in the killing of all first born males in the land. Because of this, all first born males belong to God and to the priesthood of the Temple. The family a redeems or “buys back” the child from the kohen by giving him five silver shekels.

However, there is also a third ritual event that also occurs for all newborns in the Jewish faith and that is the naming itself. In Judaism both in biblical times and today, naming has a richer significance than just announcing what your folks are going to call you. In Judaism ones name is part of one’s connection to the divine. There is a midrash (a midrash is early rabbinic commentary on sacred scripture) that expresses a belief that the Jews were led out of captivity of in Egypt because of the merit of four virtues. The first and foremost of these virtues was that they kept their Jewish names. The other three virtues were that they kept their language, they didn’t gossip, and they didn’t intermarry with the Egyptians. In essence, it was these virtues that kept the Jews from slipping into idolatry and enabled them to maintain their customs, their rituals, their sense of their own identity as a people, and preserved their relationship with their God. Most modern day practicing Jews have a Hebrew name. They may have a more Anglicized version of their name for every day use and that may even be what’s on their county issued birth certificate, but that is not their formal Hebrew name that they use for ritual religious purposes. When they fill out their ketubah, a marriage contract, when a Jewish man is called to read in the synagogue, when they engage in any formal aspect of fulfilling their religious duties, they use their proper Jewish names. The Hebrew name not only freed them from slavery, but it also alludes to their ultimate redemption. It is said that the Hebrew name for all things and creatures (not just humans) is the conduit of its divine energy. So when we talk about the Lord being named, we’re not just talking about, “Hey, Joesph, what do you think we should call him?” No, we are talking about a very important aspect of our Jesus’ identity and of his citizenship as one of God’s Chosen People.

Getting back to the gospel reading, this is only half the story. The first part (and I don’t think it’s an accident that it comes first) is this bit about the shepherds. Everybody loves the shepherds. Who amongst us at some point in their youth hasn’t donned a bathrobe and towel banded around their head and played the part of a shepherd in a childhood Christmas pageant? But what not everyone may realize is just how ridiculous it was that this pivotal event in salvation history was announced to a group of shepherds. Shepherds at the time of Christ’s birth were not very high up in society. In fact if it weren’t for prostitutes and tax collectors, they would have been at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy. This is odd considering the origins of the ancient Hebrew people. In the era of the biblical patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – everybody’s a shepherd. They early Jews were nomadic herdsmen. But when they went down to Egypt in the time of the famine, that started to change. You see, the Egyptians were most definitely not herdsmen and they had no use for herdsmen.   They were agriculturist and if there is one thing a cultivator of the land has no use for, it’s somebody coming through their field with a herd of livestock. It’s the age old story of conflict between farmers and cowboys. The Egyptians very much looked down on shepherds. They considered herding animals to be gross, disgusting, unclean work, and had all sort of rule and restrictions about where herding could be done. When the Jews come back from Egypt, they still kept herds but we begin to see some diminishment in the status of shepherds. Remember in the story of King David, before he becomes king, David is out tending his father Jesse’s sheep. He’s the youngest son and considered so insignificant that when the prophet Samuel shows up looking to find a new king, they don’t even think to call him in from the fields. Fast forward a few centuries to the birth of Jesus and shepherding is a wholly disreputable profession. It’s not even a job fit for a youngest son. Prosperous families still own herds but they don’t to herding themselves. The outsource it. It is not a high prestige job; it’s held by people so far down that they can’t get any other decent or respectable work. Quite frankly herding sheep is dirty work, it’s cold, it’s lonely, and it’s dangerous. You go out with twenty sheep, you’re expected to come back with twenty sheep and it’s up to you to defend them from wolves, vipers, sheep rustlers and all other manner of danger. Shepherds were so much considered the dregs of society that they were not allowed to be called as witnesses in judicial cases because they were so disreputable and untrustworthy. Respectable Jews were forbidden by the rabbis from buying livestock from shepherds because the presumption was that it was most likely stolen property.

And it was to these dirty, disreputable, despised shepherds to whom the angels, the messengers of the Most High, proclaim the birth of the Messiah. Not the learned and distinguished rabbis in the Temple in Jerusalem, not to the Sanhedrin, not to Herod or the Roman governor, or anybody of any importance or status, but rather to the lowest of the low is this message delivered. As it goes in the song: It is to certain poor shepherd in fields where they lay keeping their sheep that they angels, these otherworldly messengers of God appear. So the shepherds make haste to find this newborn king, and what they find is poor homeless couple who are so desperate that their child was born in a barn and is now lying in manger. Exactly what it was that they saw and experienced emotionally or spiritually when they came upon the manger, we’ll never know, but whatever it was we are told that they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.” The story goes on to tell us that “all who heard it were amazed.” It was, to say the least, a lot to take in. It was, to say the least, not what at all what one would expect and just slightly ridiculous. It is no wonder that Mary treasured these things and pondered them in her heart. There is a theological term called “mystagogy” and loosely translated it means to unpack the mystery of our encounters with God. I think that Mary must have spent a large portion of her life in mystagogical reflection.

How do we, like Mary, unpack this mystery of how and when and to whom Jesus came into the world? We are talking about the Nativity of the Lord, of the birth of Christ. What do these stories of birth and origins mean to us two thousand years later to us as Church who make up the Body of Christ? I think at least part of what it says to us is this: Jesus himself as part of his human family (and therefore part of his humanity) was part of a faith tradition. His parents were good Jews. Despite their very meager resources, Mary and Joseph fulfilled all their obligations as good Jewish parents. They gave him the full benefit of what it is to be human and the benefit of being brought into their faith, into their culture and into Jewish society. But the reality of Jesus’ entry into this life was not just a story of tradition and ritual. It was also a story of the Totally Unexpected and Just Slightly Ridiculous. I mean really, who gives birth in a stable? And who sends out their birth announcements by way of a bunch of grimy shepherds?

I think that as Church we need, like Mary, to keep these things in mind and ponder them in our hearts as well. The traditions of our faith that has come down to us from early generations is a tremendous gift. Our liturgies and rituals have an amazing beauty and also an incredible power. I remember a few months ago when Mother Elise was visiting this past fall, she came into the sacristy just as I had placed the lit charcoal in the thurible for the 10:30 service, inhaled deeply and said, “Oh, there is nothing like that scent.” Ritual has an incredibly powerful influence on us human beings. We human beings have not yet evolved into big old brains with vestigial bodies; we humans are more than our cerebral cortexes and so our experience of the world is not just informed by abstract thoughts and ideas. Sounds, scents, repeated word patterns – are all part of how we code our world, how we make sense of the both the world around us and also our interior sense of self. The aroma of incense, the clanging of bells, the refrain of much beloved hymn that calls to mind past joys or sorrows, the words of an often recited prayer that has brought us strength or solace – all these things have an incredible power over us. In times of confusion, fear, uncertainty, they can provide us with a grounding, restore us to reason and calm, draw us back from brink. Like the ancient Israelites living in Egypt, our traditions and rituals are a connection to who we are, where we came from, and that critical remembrance of our relationship with our God. And if we indiscriminately toss away that which has been handed down to us, that which we have inherited, we run the risk of losing track of who we are. That is not to say that all that is inherited is worth preserving. Certainly there are dark things in our past as church that needed to go – practices mired in bigotry, sexism, racism, anti-semitism – and other grievous institutional sins needed to be identified and eradicated. But aside from those serious errors in our past we need to take out those elements of the inherited church, carefully and prayerfully regard each of them, and pull out and preserve those treasures for ourselves and for future generations.

But the main pitfall of tradition and ritual is this: we need to ever be on our guard from falling into the trap of worshipping our worship instead of worshipping God. Ritual and tradition are tools, they a helpful process, they are means to get to God. They are not an end in and of themselves. To quote the writer Sr. Joyce Rupp, religion is the finger pointing to the moon; it is not the moon itself. I think that part of how we stay away from this potential pitfall and temptation, gets back to our friends the shepherds. Because although at first glance they seem to be a completely illogical audience for the angels to appears to, Totally Unexpected and just Slightly Ridiculous, if you think about it, it really makes perfect sense. These shepherds are the bottom of the barrel and they know it. They are not at all encumbered by an overdeveloped sense of self importance. They’re not all full of themselves. They’re not worried about what other people are going to think or what the neighbors will say. Unlike Herod, they have no status or power base to protect or defend, not constituency to appease. Unlike the Roman authorities, they’re not worried about maintaining domestic tranquility and keeping civil order. In the immortal words of Janis Joplin, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” And these shepherd are just that – they are free and because they are free they are able to fit and appropriate recipients for the angels’ announcement. For you see, God is God. God knows that the birth of the Savior is going to totally turn humanity on its ear and up end the social order. So going to these outcasts, going to these misfits, proclaiming the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to the so called losers, is really the only course of action that makes any sense.

And this God of the Unexpected and the Just Slightly Ridiculous, still speaks to us in the same way and through same venues as he always has. In order to be able to hear this Good News, we need to be able to get over ourselves. We need to let go of our own sense of self importance and free ourselves up to hear the angels when they come to us today. We need to be present to and listen to those in our world who may be in a better position to hear the songs of the angels than we are: the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the socially unacceptable, and the people that we as a society have tossed in the discard pile of life. For I tell you, they are far closer to the angels than rest of us can ever hope to get. When we look around us at the condition of the world, and want to toss our hands up in despair, and say, “Where is God in all this mess?” that is precisely where we need to started looking – in the places that are Unexpected and Just Slightly Ridiculous. We need to keep our eyes and our ears open for those angels and shepherds who have come to bear us glad tidings of great joy. We need to be a people that embraces tradition but also embraces the Unexpected and Slightly Ridiculous.

By the way, I will leave you with this one thought in conclusion: Regarding the shepherd – the outcast, the loser, the bottom of the barrel misfit. The Latin word for shepherd is Pastor. Let’s not lose sight of that and let us go out into the world being good losers and good misfits and good shepherds to one another and to the wider world.


“’Vipers…Why did it have to be vipers?” Matthew 3:1-12

This is not a particularly happy Gospel reading today, at least not at first glance. We’ve got a crazy wild-eyed prophet out in the desert eating weird food and wearing weird clothes. We’ve got Pharisees and Sadducees – which is never a good thing. We have the wild-eyed prophet telling off the Pharisees and Sadducees. And worst of all we have snakes. And not just any snakes – vipers. And not just a couple of vipers, but a whole brood of them.

To his followers and the general public, John was every bit the stereotypical prophet of the Lord. He lived out in the middle of nowhere in the Judean wilderness. He ate locusts and wild honey. He wore a garment of camel hair. There had not been a real headliner, an A-list prophet like John in quite a few generations. John was quite the tourist attraction. Sure, many people in the crowd that John baptized did have a sincere desire to truly repent, but probably a few of them were just there for a show, for the spectacle. And in his unconventional appearance and diet, he put on quite a show. However, his wild food and clothes weren’t a gimmick; they weren’t something he just threw together for shock value. To faithful Jews of his time they were significant images. The locust, of course, conjures up the plagues visited on the Egyptian Pharaoh before he let Moses’ people go. God’s promise to the children of Israel was that he would lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey, so John’s consumption of locust and wild honey points his followers to a remembrance of God liberating them from slavery and bringing them to a state of peace and prosperity. John’s prophetic message is pointing them to Jesus, to the one who will free them not from Pharaoh, but from sin and death, and to bring them not into the land of milk and honey, but into the Kingdom of God.

From a purely practical perspective, the main benefit of a diet of locusts and wild honey is that they are in abundant supply out in the no-man’s-land. There was no need for John to waste time hunting or cultivating or running down to the Judean equivalent of Giant Eagle. His food was there on hand, ready to eat, and so he could focus entirely on his mission. Ditto for his choice of clothing. A camel is a big enough animal that one doesn’t need to sew together a bunch of skins. Get one pelt of a large camel, poke a hole in it for your head, put a belt around your middle, and you are good to go. It’s not a particularly comfortable garment but it’s no muss, no fuss, very low maintenance attire and nothing to distract one from getting the job done. So John’s act was not just an act, it was meaningful both symbolically and in a utilitarian sort of way.

His geographic location is also one of significance. Throughout scripture the desert wilderness plays an important role. Many of the preceding prophets from Moses on down spent time in the desert. Jesus himself spent time in prayer and reflection, not to mention debating with Satan, out in the desert. “Desert” experiences are often pivotal moments in salvation history. The desert, or wilderness, is the opposite of civilization. As many of you know, I’m an accountant by profession. Some of you also know I have a slight tendency towards mild OCD. No big surprise that I gravitate towards the structured environment of “high” church. Truth is I sort of like civilization. I don’t really much care for being out in the wild. For me, the wilderness is a personal affront to my sensibilities. I like for things to be clearly labeled, locatable on GoogleMaps, and conveniently situated next to a Starbucks or at least a Tim Hortons. I like things done consistently and on schedule, organized in a logical fashion; everything sorted and matched, put in its appropriate box, and the boxes laid out in neat logical rows. The wilderness does not conform to these preferences. Things in the wild occur unexpectedly or rather they occur on their own time table, not one that I set up and impose. The flora and fauna follow their own agenda, an agenda ordained by their Creator, not me. The wilderness is a reminder that I am not in charge. The wilderness, while not really quiet, lacks the din and distraction of humanity. Out in the wild, you can’t anesthetize yourself with the noise and confusion of modern life – no zoning out in front of the TV or sucking up countless hours watching cat videos on Facebook. You’re forced to listen, to listen to your own internal dialogue and to listen to the voice of God. The wild is also teeming with things that I find frightening and gross: poison ivy, all sorts of nasty creepy crawlies under every overturned rock or log, things that a klutz like me can trip on, wild animals (some of them big and scary) and worst of all – snakes. The wilderness is a reminder to modern humans that God may have given us dominion over his creation but he didn’t give us sovereignty. In short, the wilderness is scary, icky, inconvenient, and uncomfortable. And worst of all, I’m not in charge. Out in the wild we are brought face the reality that God is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not us. In the wilderness we encounter both creature and Creator unbounded by our human limits and parameters.

Back in our neat organized civilized world though, we have boundaries. We have that wonderful thing called compartmentalizing – putting things away in neat little boxes. Not only can we put ourselves, each other, and the rest of creation into our neat little boxes – we also try to cram God into a box as well. Sometimes we call these boxes “church” and we put a REALLY big padlock on this box to make sure God doesn’t get loose and run amok in our lives, wreaking havoc. We do not want God showing up in our workplaces or schools or neighborhoods or in the passenger seat of our cars as we’re driving down I-71 (although I personally confess to invoking his name frequently when driving – but not in a good way). He can show up at our homes but only if he confines himself to the thirty seconds it takes to say grace before Sunday dinner, behaves himself, and doesn’t otherwise try to insinuate himself into the dinner conversation.

I do not believe that people in John’s time were radically different from us in this respect. Certainly John’s reaction to the Pharisees arriving on the scenes demonstrates this. The Pharisees and Sadducees were just as good at crating up God into a box as we are today. They kept God boxed up in the Temple and in rigid adherence to the 600 and some odd laws of the Torah. Rigid adherence to the rules simply for the sake of rigid adherence to rules rather than the spirit of the law, ie. legalism, is poison to true faith. It’s poison because it attempts to strip God of his power to forgive and redeem, and deludes the human into thinking that salvation is something that can be earned. John calling them a “brood of vipers” is not simply idle name calling. As I indicated before, I really don’t like snakes at all. Neither did ancient people. Vipers are a particularly nasty and insidious breed of snake. They are venomous hunters. They hunt by striking their nasty little fangs into their prey and releasing just enough venom to weaken and paralyze. Then they hang back, waiting for their poison to do its damage, and then through their remarkable sense of smell track down their helpless prey and finish the job.   Legalistic religious practices work sort of the same way. When humans try to confine our religious practices to a rigid inflexible game of “Mother May I,” it weakens and paralyzes our faith and our reliance on God. It either dulls our senses to into complacency – I am saved because I go to church and I follow said rules, ergo I have saved myself. Or it poisons us with guilt and shame and an erroneous belief that our badness puts us outside of God’s saving power. It is no accident that snakes were and continue to be a symbol for Satan. John’s charge against the Pharisees is very real and very serious business – them are fighting words. By stripping away all the superfluous garbage in his own life, I believe John created enough space to allow the wisdom of grace into his being enabling him to see through the fluff, the smoke and mirrors, and vain trappings of the Pharisees. And what he sees isn’t pretty. He calls them on it. He sees and articulates just how damaging and deadly they are: complacency paralyzes us and hopelessness kills us. Encountering a lone viper is pretty darn dangerous; a “brood of vipers” is not something you’re going to walk away from.

It’s interesting though to go back and compare this to what the prophet from our first reading has to say with regards to deadly snakes. According to the earlier prophet, Isaiah:

“The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain”

So what’s the deal? Are snakes dangerous or not? Are Pharisees dangerous or not? As people of faith, how are we supposed to respond to evil when we see it? Do we confront it and call it out like John? Or do we sit back and say, well, snakes will be snakes but I’m not going to worry about it –if I just ignore it, God will take care of it someday up on that mountain. I think pondering these questions gets us to the crux of a big part of what Advent is all about. We live in a state of in-between; we have faith in He who has come, and yet is still to come. We exist in simultaneous Kingdom of God having drawn near – the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Christ, and the Kingdom to come. We too, like John, need to recognize the dangerous, the poisonous, the paralyzing, and life threatening venoms that are in our world and in ourselves. We need to call evil what it is when we see it. But the one whom we await, the one who is to come, will in his time and in his kingdom render harmless all those that can hurt or destroy. We call out evil with a sure knowledge that grace, the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through us, is what will overcome evil. We draw our assurance from our own weakness and fallibility because we know that our power to prevail is God’s, not ours. That is what the voice crying out in the wilderness is calling us to. That is the one whom John and Advent are pointing us towards.

The key though to getting to the place where John is, to getting to that place by the Jordan where the waters of baptism enable us to live with that sort of fearlessness, is that we desperately need to allow ourselves to be drawn into the wilderness of Advent. We need to enter into a place where we, like John, we strip away the unnecessary and distracting, we pare back the frivolous and unnecessary. We need to wander through a barrenness where we are not paralyzed and anesthetized by the noise and confusion of our everyday life. We need to carve out a place where we can encounter God on the loose, God set free from that padlocked box that we keep trying to stuff him in. We need to quiet ourselves long enough and frequently enough so that we, like John, can hear what God is calling us to. Then, and only then, can we live out our mission both individually and collectively to speak with a prophetic voice.

It would be nice if there was some handy-dandy road sign pointing us “This way to the wilderness of Advent – 5 miles.” But I’m afraid that finding Advent is highly individual path. It’s just something we all need to work out for ourselves. You may find your path to Advent by literally taking a quiet walk in the woods. You may find it going on a retreat or maybe squeezing in an extra weekday liturgy or spending time with scripture or engaging in some form of contemplative prayer. It may just be finding thinking time each day and making a more concerted effort to pull ourselves out of mindlessness and into mindfulness, shutting off the TV and powering down our mobile devices for a few hours. Yet beware, because I have warned you – we may encounter some scary, icky, and uncomfortable things as we wander through the wildness of Advent. We may find things in the world and in ourselves that are icky. If we listen closely enough to God we may find that he is calling us to something that is downright scary and overwhelming (I’m speaking from recent personal experience here). Camel hair is not a comfortable garment and Advent is not comfortable season. Waiting and watching in the dark, in the cold and barren wilderness for the miracle of the birthing of the Incarnation is not a warm and fuzzy experience. It has occurred me this season in particular more than once that perhaps our every increasing need to jump headlong into the Christmas season prematurely may not be entirely about crass commercialism; I think part of the temptation for practicing Christians is Advent-avoidance. It may be that we are looking for a super-highway that will completely bypass the wilderness with a convenient exit ramp that drops us off right in front of the stable in Bethlehem. Decking the halls and blasting “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is a convenient way to drown out the voice calling out in the wilderness to repent and make straight out path to God. But it is necessary. It is vital. It is something we need to do. There is no by-pass road that circumvents the wilderness. While we might take many individuals paths to get to the main road, there is only one route to Bethlehem and the star shining over the manger, and it’s through that wilderness.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with a portion of one of Thomas Merton’s poem, “St. John Baptist.” The full poem is rather long but part of the middle sections struck me as being especially meaningful in light of today’s reading, and I think it speaks specifically to the importance of our Advent trek through wilderness and what there is to be found amidst the scary, icky, and uncomfortable:

“What did you learn on the wild mountain When hell came dancing on the noon-day rocks?

I learned my hands could hold Rivers of water And spend them like an everlasting treasure. I learned to see the waking desert Smiling to behold me with the springs her ransom, Open her clear eyes in a miracle of transformation, And the dry wilderness Suddenly dressed in meadows, All garlanded with an embroidery of flowering orchards Sang with a virgin’s voice, Descending to her wedding in these waters With the Prince of Life. All barrenness and death lie drowned Here in the fountains He has sanctified, And the deep harps of Jordan Play to the contrite world as sweet as heaven.”


Luke 17:11-19

The number ten has always been an important number in scripture: There were TEN generations of humanity before the great flood, Pharaoh and the Egyptians were struck with TEN plagues, the Passover lamb was selected on the TENTH day of the month, Moses was given TEN commandments.  Many of Jesus’ parables feature the number ten.

Do you all remember back when David Letterman used to do his Top Ten Lists on the Late Show?  I think somewhere in the Middle East there is a dusty scroll with an Ancient Top Ten List that goes something like this:

# 9 Oh, that Jesus guy is just trying to push a particular political agenda and I don’t want any part of it.

# 8 I’m not a “joiner.”  If I go back and thank Jesus, he might try to get me to sign up with his disciples.

# 7 I just KNOW he’s going to hit me up for a donation.

# 6. He didn’t really heal me of my leprosy.  It was my lucky crystal rabbit’s foot and miracle turnip juice elixir that I’ve been drinking every morning.

# 5 If I thank him for this then he’s going to expect me to thank him every time he does something for me.

# 4 I do things for other people all the times and NO ONE ever thanks me!

# 3 If I go back and talk to him, I might like him, and I if he gets to know me – really, really gets to know me – I just know he won’t like me back.

# 2 I really, really meant to but I got busy with other things.

And the number one reason why the nine lepers didn’t thank Jesus…

# 1 If I thank Jesus, if I acknowledge that he is one who has restored me to health and wholeness, I might have to change who I am and how I behave.

Okay, so I just made all that up.  It doesn’t say any of that anywhere in scripture, missing scroll or otherwise.  However, I do firmly believe that human beings have not changed all that much psychologically over the last 2,000 years and the reasons why the lepers didn’t thank Jesus were probably for much the same reasons why we don’t acknowledge God’s sovereignty over our lives now today in the early years of the 21st century.  Because getting back to my opening statements about the number ten, that’s what all those examples refer back to – God’s sovereignty, God’s authority over us and all of his creation.  Anytime you see the number ten in scripture It’s usually a signal that God is saying “Remember, I’m God and I’m in charge – not you.”

Does he let us mess things up?  Yes, of course, because one of the many gifts that God has given us is the gift of free will, the gift to make a complete and total mess of things if we so choose.  Like a good and wise parent, he allows us to make our own mistakes.  But at the end of the day, he’s in charge.  All that we have, all that we are, all that we are able to do, it all comes from God’s incredible generosity.

And this is true whether we acknowledge it or not.  God is there whether we believe in him or not.  Jesus didn’t take away the curing of the nine lepers he had healed because they didn’t thank him.  Because we do have free will and we can choose.  We can be like the nine lepers and totally ignore God’s goodness and his impact on our lives, or we can be like that one grateful Samaritan leper who chooses to go back to thank and worship God.  What is the benefit of being like the one grateful leper?  Do any of you remember what I talked about last week, about being a “God-measurer?”  When we pay attention to God and when we turn our minds to sacred things, we change ourselves and our lives.  When we stop and look for how God may be moving in our lives, we start to notice things and when we start to notice these things it changes us.  It changes how we treat others, how we regard ourselves, how we react to situations.  Gratitude to God leads us greater peace with others, a greater sense of serenity within ourselves, and greater joy.

I would like to leave you with a brief portion of one of my favorite psalms, Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end[a]—I am still with you.


So the choice is ours.  We can choose to thank and praise God for all that we have, and in doing so, draw closer to him and enrich ourselves in further joy beyond our wildest imagination.  Or we can walk away and dwell in the delusion that we are in charge.

Let us pray…



Of Mustard Seeds and Particle Physics

Luke 17:5-10

One of the things that I have never, ever understood about this reading is that when it’s discussed and/or preached on, people tend to be really surprised that the teeny, tiny mustard seed – one of the smallest seeds there is – grows into this great and majestic tree.   I’m not altogether sure what the big deal is. That’s what a seed is. That’s what seeds do. Pretty much all seeds are teeny, tiny, little things that start out relatively small and become something bigger. They’re planted in the ground and if all goes well they grow and take root, and become something much, much bigger. Even seeds that start out relatively big, like an avocado for instance, gets measurably bigger than what it originally started out as. This is the cycle of all living things, even us. We start out as a few cells of latent possibility, a little tiny bundle of potential, and under the right circumstances, cells rapidly multiply, organs differentiate, we grow, we get bigger, and we become us. (I’ve always been a lot more blown away by the part where the mustard tree tells, the mulberry tree to go plant itself in the ocean. That’s something I’d really like to see.)

So what do we know about faith? What is faith? According to the dictionary it’s a strong belief in God or the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. I like to think of it as knowing that something is true through a means other than our five senses. I can’t point to a mathematical proof or scientific experiment to prove that God exists, but I know through faith that God does exist. I also know that love exists, and no, I don’t consider love to be a mere human emotion. Emotions and feelings are transient; they come and go. I might be sad, happy, annoyed, joyous, etc. based simply on whether I’m hungry or got enough sleep last night or the availability of chocolate in my life. Emotions wax and wane. Love is something way beyond that. I love my son. My love for my son continues to exist even when I’m thoroughly pissed off and annoyed with him. It’s there when I’m picking up his dirty stinky laundry off the floor; it was there when has was four and drew in crayon all over our hardwood floors. It’s an immutable fact and very, very real. It has a life of its own. But again, I can’t prove the existence of love scientifically – I can only observe the results that it produces. God is love (and far more than just love) and again, while I can’t prove it, I can look at my life experiences and point to many instances of when and how God has been present to me.

Because like seeds that get bigger, that’s what faith does, and that is what Jesus is telling his followers. Once we have even the tiniest element of faith in our lives, it grows and expands. The sciences of psychology and sociology have long understood that the act of observing a situation transforms and alters the situation. It’s one of those things that scientists in those fields have to be careful of when they perform experiments. If a person knows they are being watched, they act differently. Not a huge surprise. But there’s also a similar phenomenon in particle physics, the study of the basic building blocks of the universe and it’s called the Observer Effect. When scientists measure teeny tiny little things like atoms that make up matter, scientists have reason to believe the things behave differently. And for the most part, this can be explained away by the fact that it’s the equipment used to measure the subatomic particles that causes the change. As one article I read explained, it’s sort of like when you measure tire pressure: a tire gauge measures the pressure in a tire by letting a tiny amount of air out, so letting out the air alters what’s being measured. However, you’ll notice I said “for the most part” because there are instances in particle physics where the scientists can’t explain how the act of measuring or observing impacts the situation. There are a number of debates as to why this is – that the observation does physically alter things, we just don’t have the means to know how or why. The next time someone tells you that God doesn’t exist because you can’t scientifically prove it, we might call into doubt the very fabric of the universe because that too is still shrouded by mysteries and enigmas that we are only in the very infancy of understanding. Don’t get me wrong. I’m huge fan of science and I love science. As a person of faith though, I think the veil that separates faith and science is much thinner than we realize. My point is that watching and observing changes things.

When we watch for and observe God’s presence in our lives, it changes things too. When we regularly and consistently through prayer, through reading scripture, through coming to worship services like this one, turn our minds towards God, we change things. By focusing on the belief that God is present in our lives, we turn our conscious minds (and probably our subconscious minds as well) into God-measurers just like the scientific equipment in the physics lab. The tools through which we observe the phenomenon – our hearts, minds, souls – don’t just measure and observe the situation, they change it – and they themselves in turn are changed. When we become God-measurers, we transform the situation. We behave differently. We react differently. We treat people differently. And those differences further transform the situation even more, and as the situation is transformed even more, we notice and observe God’s presence more and more, and our God-measurer gauges go wild and it’s this whole awesome God-measuring snowball effect that takes place in our lives. That is what Jesus is talking about. That is how our faith grows, expands, and does all these remarkable things.

Sounds wonderful, right? But this brings us to why the disciples were asking about acquiring more faith in the first place. Were they just whiny and greedy and wanting to out-disciple one another? No. Actually they had a very good reason for asking to receive more faith. Right before this scripture passage, Jesus instructs them in one of the recurring themes of Luke’s gospel that we are commanded as followers of his to forgive one another. Not once, not twice, but as many times as the people in our lives are in need of forgiveness. That’s a pretty tall order. I mean it’s no big deal to forgive someone who hurts us unintentionally or in an insignificant way, like if someone steps on our toe. But what about those big huge honking injuries that really mess us up? Anybody here who’s never been really genuinely hurt by another human being? Have you ever had someone lie and deceive you, use and/or manipulate you to get what they want? Have you ever had someone steal from you? Take from you someone or something that was precious to you?   Have you ever had someone betray or abandon you just when you really needed them to be there for you? Have you ever had someone hurt, attack, slander, rip you apart in word or deed, just because they were jealous and were threatened by you? Just because they could? Just because they felt like it?   There are times in our lives when it seems the injuries we’ve sustained at the hands of others are too great to even begin to think about forgiving the other person. That is where faith comes in and that is what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of the seed-like characteristics of faith. And he goes on to tell us that when we have faith, not only will we be able to do these incredible acts of spiritual heroism, but it won’t even seem like that big a deal to us. Like a servant waiting on his or her master, we’ll simply see it as being part of what we do and who we are.

When we are in God-measurer mode, we see God’s incredible love for us. We acknowledge the bottomless pit of God’s mercy toward us and how freely God forgives us our sins. Being a God-measurer enables us to know that God is present even when things in our life appear to be going horribly wrong. We know that God will pull us through. We see the little small cumulative ways in which God is acting in our lives. I know that those of you who practice the 12 Steps know this to be especially true – you ask God to keep you clean and sober just for today, and it’s by accumulating all those “just for todays” that life is transformed, repaired, and healed. We know that God’s action in our lives will bring us to a far better place than our own plans and preferences will, and this is true even in the final chapter of our lives. God will always draw us to him in his loving embrace. When we have this faith, we can emulate our loving God because we know that we ourselves will ultimately be okay no matter what. We can afford to let others off the hook, because we ourselves have been let off the hook. Nobody, no matter how badly they injure us, can ever take God away from us.

(Now, please note that I am not telling anyone that they should stay in an abusive relationship. If someone is hurting you, yes, by all means forgive them but forgiveness does mean staying with your abuser. Get yourself out of the situation and cut the ties. You can forgive somebody but not allow them to continue to harm you.)

In closing, I would like to leave you with the prayer of one of the great God-measurers of salvation history, St. Simeon. You may remember Simeon from earlier in Luke’s gospel. He’s the guy in the temple who has spent his entire life waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. I used to think Simeon must have been a man of incredible patience waiting on God’s will. As I’ve gotten older, I have come to suspect that Simeon was probably (like me) rather impatient which is why he spent his life so attentively watching and waiting and hoping for any sign that the Anointed One had arrived. Anyway, as the story goes, one day this young girl and her husband show up with their newborn son and two turtle doves for the usual rituals. A little tiny baby boy, a mere seedling of a human being, and Simeon, the watcher, the God-measurer, takes one look, and he KNOWS, he just knows that this helpless little infant is the one whom he has been waiting for, and he says these words:

“Lord, you have now set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see. A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”


Let us pray….


Naaman, the Poxy Syrian General

This is a reflection I preached at In the Garden street ministry, Sunday, 7/3/16, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square.

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost; 1 Kings 5:1-14

Okay, show of hands – how many of you have ever been on a job interview where the person conducting the interview asked you, “Tell me about a time….”  “Tell me about a time you had to deal with an irate customer…”  “Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult co-worker…”  Anyone?  The reason why they do that is because of concept that human resource experts call “target selection.”  And basically it works on the concept that while human beings are capable of change, for the most part the best predictor of how a human will behave in the future is how they have behaved in the past.  People are fairly predictable if you know their past patterns.  While God is not subject to our human ways and tendencies, it is interesting to think about this when we consider the ways of God.  God is pretty consistent too.  God pretty consistently always goes for the unexpected and the unconventional.  In other words, he’s predictable in his unpredictability.  Usually when I come here to preach I like to focus on whatever the gospel reading is for the week.  However, when I saw that the story of Naaman the leper was one of the 1st reading options, I decided to go with that because I love this story.  Hebrew scripture is important to Christians for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that these sacred texts are the same stories that would have formed Jesus’ understanding of God’s ways.  It’s also a good story in an election year because it’s all about Very Important Politicians and it’s all about Image and it’s all about how much neither of those things actually matter.  God always goes for the unconventional, the unexpected, and works through the least likely means.

It appears at least superficially that the central figures in this story are very, very important people:  the King of Aram, the King of Israel, the King of Aram’s top general, and then of course, the requisite Prophet of God – Elisha.  Elisha, for those of you who don’t follow the prophets, is the successor of Elijah.  He was the one who was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot.  Anyway, with Elijah gone, Elisha has succeeded him as the Head Prophet in the northern Kingdom of Israel and he’s a little bit unconventional as prophets are prone to be.

So the story goes that Naaman is an extremely important general in Aram (Aram incidentally is where modern day Syria is now).  He’s a very, very important general because he’s been very, very successful in battle.  He wins – a lot.  The troops of Aram are not in an all out war with the kingdom of Israel, but they do have a common border and they frequently raid their neighbor’s territory and take captives which is how Naaman’s wife had come to have this Israeli slave girl.  In biblical times women and children have no significance whatsoever, and in any era slaves have no significance.  So a person who is a female, ca child, and a slave possesses absolutely no significance, is less than nothing.  The writer of this text doesn’t even bother to name her.  She is the epitome of being a nobody.   Naaman, on the other hand, is a Somebody.  He’s what in Yiddish is called a “macher” or “a big shot.”  But as much of a big shot as he is, he has dirty little secret – well, it’s not so secret – he has leprosy.  Probably not what would be diagnosed as leprosy today, but he had some sort of noticeable and unsightly disease of the skin and because of this he is both literally and figuratively a marked man.  It’s not just that people in ancient times would see this gross looking skin condition and go “Yeccchhh!”  Illness and maladies were viewed as the consequence of sin and a visible disease like Naaman’s was an outer sign to people that there was something wrong with him, something wrong with his character.  As successful a military leader as he is, in the eyes of the public he is not the man he’s supposed to be.  So he does what most big shots (and normal humans) would do when confronted with such a problem.  He pulls some strings, he uses his connections to get the problem fixed.  His boss the King, when he is told of this possible solution, is all in favor of it.  After all it doesn’t make him look good to have this poxy general on his staff; it reflects poorly on him too.  So he does what most national leaders do and makes a big huge ridiculous production out of his effort to fix the problem.  He forms a task force; he launches an initiative; he sends Naaman and gaggle of diplomats with him off to Israel loaded down with all sort of goodies to win over the King of Israel to get him to fix poor Naaman.  And the King of Israel does what any good head of state does when on the receiving end of Goodwill Mission of Diplomatic Generosity – he reacts with fear, suspicion, and mistrust.  He just knows this is a trap.  If he turns Naaman away, he looks like a jerk.  If he tries to cure Naaman, and fails, he looks like an idiot.  There is no way this could possibly turn out good for him.  Either way, he can’t win and if the King of Aram was looking for an excuse to invade Israel, he will soon have it.  Enter the Prophet of the Lord; the one who speaks for God.  Elisha is a really good prophet.  He does what all really good prophets do and knocks some sense into the reigning power structure.  Basically he tells the King, “Look, this isn’t about you or your kingdom.  This is about God.  Let Naaman come to me and God and I will take care of it so that all the world, Syrians included, will know that there is true Prophet of God here in Israel.”  So the text doesn’t say why exactly, but the king wisely chooses to listen to Elisha and sends Naaman and the gaggle of diplomats off to Elisha.  And then the story turns truly a bit ridiculous.  What you have to keep in mind is that we are talking about a culture in which hospitality is an extremely important social standard.  Even if it’s just Joe the Plummer who shows up on your doorstep, the normal thing in Middle Eastern culture would be to invite the guy in, rustle up some really good food, and play host.  What Elisha does next just isn’t done.  And it certainly isn’t done to a VIP foreign dignitary.  Does he roll out the red carpet and host a feast?  No.  Does he kill the fatted calf?  No.  Does he invite him in for dinner or a nice glass wine?  No.  Does he at the very least invite him in to rest his feet, get out of the sun, and use The Little General’s room?  No.  Does he at least answer his door and wave?  No.  He’s downright rude.  He sends his butler out to tell Naaman to go wash in the Jordan seven times.  Naaman is completely floored.  He’s horrified.  There must be some sort of mistake.  Doesn’t this jerk know who I am?  How dare he!  I came to this guy seeking a miracle.  He’s supposed to be all that and he won’t even come outside and wave his arms around and try to cure me!  Miraculous cures should be dramatic, they should be spectacular, and occur amidst smoke and lighting and great fanfare, not in some nasty little mud hole like the Jordan River.  But again, it’s the unnamed nobody who sets things to rights.  Some servant says to him, “What have you got to lose?  Go take a dunk in the Jordan and see what happens?”  And sure enough, the little insignificant nobody is right.  The miracle doesn’t come amid smoke and lightning.  The miracle is not some big Las Vegas style production.  The miracle comes quietly and without any fanfare at all.  It just happens.  And it doesn’t happen because of the important people.  If it had been left to them and their expectations they would have made a total botched job of it.  The miracle happens because an anonymous unimportant slave girl told someone it was possible.  It happens because an anonymous servant says, “Go for it.”  It happened in a not particular grand or majestic location and in a rather boring and humdrum way, by simply washing.  God always goes for the unconventional, the unexpected, and works through the least likely means.

So I think this understanding of God’s love of the unexpected is important for two reasons.  First of all, when we ourselves are in Naaman shoes, we need to keep in mind that the hand of God may show up in our lives in the most unlikely manner from the most unlikely of sources.  Don’t despair.  Don’t think God doesn’t care or that the miracle isn’t going to show up because it doesn’t unfold in a big Hollywood production.  God is there.  God is behind the scenes and God is with you.

The second thing that I think is just as important – perhaps more important – is not to discount ourselves as agents of God’s in other people’s lives.  Sometimes it very easy to think our voice doesn’t matter, that what we have to say isn’t important because we don’t regard ourselves as important and we fear that no one else does.  Hogwash!  That simply isn’t true in God’s world.  Think of the unnamed Israeli slave girl and the unnamed servant in the story who are the real heroes in this story, the unnamed heroes.  Your voice matters.  Your opinion matters.  Your experience and your perspective matters.  Don’t ever be afraid to speak up and speak loudly when you are speaking for God.

Let us pray…

Luke 7:11-17; A Summertime Melange of Musings on the Ruby Slippers, the Presidential Election, and the Power of Compassion

Note:  I preached this reflection almost a week ago at “In the Garden” street ministry.  Just got around to posting it this evening which should give you some sort of idea about what my week has been like.  Anyway, better late than never.  Without further adieu….


The thing that I find curious about today’s reading is that this is one of the few miracle stories in which the person on the receiving end of the miracle doesn’t approach Jesus asking him for his help.  In almost every other miracle story in scripture, the person in need of healing or one of their friends/family seeks out Jesus on their behalf– the man blind frombirth, a whole lot of lepers, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the woman with the hemorrhage who touches his garment’s hem, the centurion’s servant – the list goes on and on – always someone asking for Jesus’ help.  That is not the case in this story.  The woman doesn’t ask Jesus for his help.  Neither do any of the other members of the funeral party.

It’s completely understandable that this woman doesn’t ask for Jesus’ help.  She’s a widow who has just lost her only son.  A woman’s social status and well-being in biblical times were solely a function of being under the protection of a male family member – her father, her brother, her husband, her son or grandson.  If she had no man to provide for her, she was destitute, had nothing, was nothing and nobody.  So this poor woman, in addition to having just suffered the incredible pain of losing her child, is in a situation in which her future is very much in question.  She’s grief stricken and she’s probably terrified of what the future will hold for her:  How is she going to survive?  Where will she live?  How will she eat?  Who will care for her if she falls ill or in her old age?  She’s not in any sort of condition to even ask for help.  It’s probably all she can do to get through one moment at a time.  Just to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving.  As to why no one in her community comes forward to ask Jesus to intervene, we don’t know.  Maybe they don’t want to get involved.  Maybe they’re afraid of sticking their nose in where it doesn’t belong.  Maybe they are just so overwhelmed by the enormity of the widow’s tragedy that they feel there is nothing they can do that could possibly make a difference.  Nobody really knows.

In spite of this though, Jesus sees her.  He really and truly sees her.  He sees through her detachment and grief and sees her pain and confusion and suffering.  Scripture tells us he feels compassion for her.  Compassion is a very special emotional state.  And in my opinion, a very human one.  Compassion is more than just feeling sorry for another person.  The state of merely feeling sorry for someone is called “pity” and most of us resent being on the receiving end of it.  Pity is the “Too bad – so sad,” response that stands at a distance and doesn’t get involved.  It is sometimes (though perhaps not always) rooted in being glad that we aren’t in the other person’s shoes and there’s a certain air of superiority when one feels pity.  Compassion, on the other hand, is about entering into another person’s pain.  It’s about participating in the other person’s suffering with them.  Feeling it, taking it on as our own, and being moved to want to heal, to want to ease their pain, to want to give peace and comfort.   And that’s exactly what Christ does; he feels compassion for this widow and as a result he miraculously restores her son to life, and in the process gives this woman back her own life.

So there are two things I would like you to take away from today’s reading.  The first thing is that even when we are lost, even when we are in too much pain to pray,  too distracted and confused to reach out to God – God is still there for us.  God sees us.  He sees our pain; he feels it and experiences it too; he joins with us in our pain and sorrow.  He feels compassion for us.  When we are overcome by grief, when we are completely lost and barely able to put one foot in front of the other, God is there.  God is with us in ways we can’t see and aren’t aware of, but God most definitely is reaching out to us and healing us and our situation.  It may not be in the time or the way we want, but he is there nonetheless.

The other point I want to make is this – Jesus came into the world to restore us, to make the ultimate sacrifice to conquer sin and death.  But he also came into the world to teach us how to live.  And in today’s reading he teaches us how to live in compassion.    I’ve wondered quite a bit over the past week as I’ve meditated on this scripture reading on the nature of compassion.  Is it uniquely a divine expression of being?  Most of us mortals have at times in our lives felt compassion for another human being, so do humans possess this capacity as part of being made in the divine image or is it purely a human characteristic?  Was it simply further perfected by Jesus’ fully divine nature that in combination with his human compassion was able to work the miracles that he did?  I don’t know.  I do know that when we allow ourselves to be moved to compassion we can work miracles too.  Maybe not big impressive ones like Jesus did, but still miracles.  You don’t believe me?  Have you never had an experience where someone else sharing in your pain didn’t make all the difference in the world to you?  Have you never seen the huge impact that a smile or kind word or a hug can have on a person who is suffering?   Have you ever seen the profound impact that holding and embracing a hurting person in prayer can have on that person and situation?  What about forgiveness?  Have you ever experienced that miraculous impact of putting ourselves in the sinners shoes, trying to understand their pain, and reaching that transcendent state of grace that enables us to forgive?  Have you ever seen the miracle of forgiveness in healing broken lives, broken relationship, broken hearts?   Forgiveness is compassion in one of its most challenging forms.  Trust me on this – even the simplest most basic acts of compassion can truly heal a person, can truly save a person, and can give a person back their life.

Right now with all that is going on in the national political scene there are a lot of statements, speeches, and Facebooks posts going down about what the solutions are to this nation’s problems.  There are a lot of promises being made about what this individual can or cannot do to transform the state of the union and get this country on the “right” path.  I think as a nation we have become like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and her companions who are looking for the Great and Powerful Oz to fix their problems, to bring them home, give them wisdom, give them heart, give them courage.  But like Dorothy , our answers don’t lie with some charlatan hiding behind a curtain who uses smoke & mirrors and clever tricks.  She already had the Ruby Red Slippers with her the whole time of her journey; all along she possessed the ability to transform the situation.  And so do we, deep inside us through the grace of the Holy Spirit, through the power of our own human decency, we too have the ability within us to fix, heal, to love and forgive, and in thus doing so to restore life, through and with one another.  And a big piece of that lies in our ability to live in a state of compassion.

Today’s reading invites us to join Jesus in sharing in the maybe divine, maybe human, state of compassion for others.  It invites us not to be afraid to get involved, not to be afraid to reach out to another person and participate in their trials, to share in their pain, to let them know that they are not alone, that you are there with them and then be moved to do what you can to heal, to soothe, and most of all: to love.  It is through love, through compassion, that we can and will change the world starting with our own little corner of it.

Let us pray.

My new word of the day

John 16:12-15


Today in many Christian churches–Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and lots of others – celebrate something called “Trinity Sunday.” This is a celebration of the most blessed Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I wish I could get up here and give you a comprehensive explanation of what the Trinity is. But the one thing I know about myself is that I do have enough sense to know my limitations and I know that I am in over my head on this topic. I know that an attempt on my part to speak with any theological eloquence about something this complex and seemingly contradictory concept will end up as a big old mess. That’s because the Trinity – the idea that God is both One and Three – “both / and” – is a mystery. It’s something that utterly defies explanation. There have been many, many volumes written by bible scholars and theologians attempting to shed some light on this mystery. Theologians have even come up with some really cool jargon to talk about it. There’s this one word that I only recently learned about to describe this relationship of the Trinity of the union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – perichoresis. I’ll say it again. I just learned that word this week because a couple of priest friends of mine Fr. Bruce and Fr.Phillip posted a Facebook meme with it. It was a humorous meme with a picture of Maggie Smith, the elderly British actress from “Downtown Abbey” was saying not to use the word in sermons this weekend as it sounded vulgar. Of course anyone telling me not to do anything is like waving a red cape in front of bull, so I just had to figure way to work in. But I can barely pronounce the word, let alone explain it. Nobody can really explain this relationship and how something can be one and three at the same time, not really. Many, many great thinkers have tried and ended up setting themselves adrift in the Sea of Heresy. In other words, they try to explain it and in course of doing so they deviate and depart from what we know to be Truth. So no comprehensive explanations about perichoresis or any other aspect of the Trinity today. Not from me anyway. My apologies.

The desire though to understand and comprehend is very, very human though. We don’t know for certain but Jesus himself, being human, probably experienced this sensation of wanting to understand, wanting to know more just like us and having it beyond his grasp. Living with unanswerable questions and unexplainable mystery is hard and it’s something I’ve only very recently started to get even remotely comfortable with. As some of you know, I’m an accountant by profession – solving problems, sorting out messes, and explaining what’s going on is what I do for a living. It’s what I’m good at. I’ve always been that way. When I was little kid in school, I would get bored with listening to whatever was going on in the classroom and read ahead to next chapter because I wanted to know what comes next. Where is all this leading to? Why do I have to find the Least Common Denominator? Ah, aha, I see in the next chapter – if I can find the LCD, I can add and subtracts thirds from halves, and sevenths from eights….very interesting. Unfortunately though the result was that I wasn’t paying attention to what I was supposed to be paying attention to or doing the exercises that were assigned, and consequently I spent a somewhat substantial number of recesses at my desk catching up on doing what I was supposed to be doing, but wasn’t doing, because I was jumping ahead. More than once I showed up at school without my homework spelling homework completed but ready and willing to talk about some really cool word (like perichoresis) I had just learned that was on the next week’s word list. I got to be good friends with the school principal. It’s comical now, but it was very frustrating at the time.

I have to confess that even today I sometimes do exactly the same thing to this dy as a Christian. I get so caught up in pondering where is all this leading to? What comes next? What does it all mean? What will I see, feel, know, experience when I pass from this life into the next. What will it be when at last I come face to face with God? I get so sidetracked on theological abstractions and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, that I completely lose sight of the assignment at hand and neglect to do the exercises I should be doing. What is the assignment? What are the things we are supposed to be doing?

  • Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:35-40)

Well, what all exactly does that mean? Jesus spent his three years of public ministry telling us and more importantly showing us what that was. That was no great mystery, that was something he was very clear about: he healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he reached out to those who were outcasts of society and broke bread with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He refused to cast the first stone in condemnation of sin, and instead forgave sins, and he commanded us to likewise forgive one another. Forgive each other seventy times seven – or rather, forgive one another as often as you are in need of each other’s forgiveness. That is our assignment. That’s what we’re here to do. To be good to one another and to take care of one another. Forgive one another.

But our Lord and Savior is not without sympathy for our natural human curiosity. He says to his disciples in today’s gospel reading, “Look, there’s still a lot to still be revealed to you and it’s all stuff that you’re not ready for. If I told you now, it wouldn’t make any sense to you; you wouldn’t be able to get your heads around. But don’t despair. It won’t be that way forever. I am still here with you, and over time -in my time and my Father’s (with whom I am already one) – all will be revealed to you. So seek it out, seek me out. You will find the comprehension and understanding that you long for. You will find me and I will find you.” And irony of ironies, the venue through which this is going to happen is this amazing mystery known as the Trinity. Let me read that part to you again because I think it’s important:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

So stay with me – what he’s saying is that through the mystery that you are incapable of understanding, you will gain understanding of what you can’t understand right now. Sort of makes my head want to explode.   And it wonderful and amazing and delightful to ponder these things but in the meantime let’s not lose sight of why we’re here and the work that we’ve been given to do.

In the meantime…let’s focus on doing our homework.

Let us pray.