Looking for the Living Among the Living
Preached at Wollaston Congregational Church
On April 21st, 2019
Scripture: Luke 24:1-12
There’s a meme that has been showing up on my social media feed recently. It resembles and church sign, and says:
“In the interests of biblical accuracy, all the preaching about the resurrection this Easter Sunday will be done by women.”
It didn’t take long from someone to comment “and no one will believe them.”
And so, I will preach about the resurrection this Easter morning … and perhaps you will believe what I say, perhaps you will not. If not, don’t worry, I’m used to it. My invitation for you today is to listen for the deeper truth in the story I tell and to ponder, where might we look for the risen, living Jesus?
And so the story begins. Women go to the tomb very early in the morning on that first day of the week, while it is still dark. These are the women who have been traveling with Jesus all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, over the past months. They bring spices that they have prepared. It is their earliest opportunity to care for Jesus’ body, following the Sabbath. They are doing the right thing in their grief, coming to prepare the body of their loved one for burial.
When they arrive at the tomb they immediately see that things are not as they expect them to be. The large stone that was sealing the cave has been rolled away. They go in and discover that the body is not there.
They are confused, but don’t have much time to ponder the mystery. Two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appear in front of them. The women bow down to the ground in terror, but the men ask a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” and then they deliver unbelievable news “He is not here, but has risen.”
They remind the women of what Jesus told them in Galilee, that he would be handed over, crucified and on the third day rise again. At this the women go to tell the other disciples this news, but the men do not believe them. Peter dismisses their words as an idle tale. Still, he is curious enough to go and look for himself. And so he runs to the tomb where he finds only the linen cloths Jesus was buried in.
The men in dazzling clothes – angels, we assume – asked the women a strange question: “why do you look for the living among the dead?” It is strange because, after all, they were not looking for the living.
They had come to embalm Jesus’ dead body. They had come to grieve their loss and do the right thing. They were not looking for anything other than what they left here on Friday evening.
These messengers of God totally reorient the women’s thinking. The message is good news … remember all that he told you? Look for the living among the living.
The women need to be reminded of what Jesus said, and we need to be reminded too. We might ask ourselves the same question: why do we look for the living among the dead?
I’ve noticed just these last days of Lent how easy it is to slip into being forgetful. Even though we’ve had more than 2,000 years of reminders, collectively. Even though I have lived many Easters myself. I still need to be reminded to look for the living among the living.
It is too easy for me to see fear, violence and anger, every way I turn. I notice angry drivers, fast and erratic. I notice hardened faces and sour looks. I notice men who leer at women in the street. I notice the self-absorption of my fellow travelers, focused on devices, unwilling to smile or make eye contact. It has been too easy for these things to become my focus, and for them to raise my hackles of anxiety.
The angel’s message helps me to reset my default. It helps me to start looking out for the things that are life giving. The angels’ message redirects my sights toward tender, loving scenes
… children in the park who have begun their spring sports, running and catching, cheering one another on
… the gentle elder, who stoops to pay attention to a wriggly child in a stroller …
… persons of different ethnicity who treat one another courteously and with respectful curiosity.
Just the other day I sat at a communal table in a local coffee shop and there I met a man from Minnesota who told me an amazing story. He and his wife founded an organization that rescues dogs and gently retrains them become service animals for people with disabilities, such as autism and epilepsy. He had brought a dog he had been training all the way from St Paul to be adopted by a family in Boston. He was grabbing a cup of coffee while the new family had time to get acquainted with the dog. The organization gives new life and purpose to the rejected dogs, and the dogs provide life-giving support for their new owners. A win-win!
And yet the question remains: Why do we so often look for the living among the dead?
I suspect we humans are like the women who followed Jesus. Generally we are not looking for the living Jesus. Generally we are not looking for anything at all, other than for things to be the way we left them.
And yet, if Jesus has been at work, if the living have been among us, things will not be as we left them.
Time and again I am surprised when bursts of life have rearranged things here in the church. On Wednesday I came to work expecting most of our space to be as usual for a weekday morning: quiet and empty. Instead of that, wonderful musical theater melodies from the Greatest Showman drifted down the stairs. And the stomping feet of dancing, reverberated in the church office. Laughter and chatter was coming from the social hall which was marked out ready for a performance. The children’s musical theater group was holding a vacation camp, of course.
I had forgotten. I had come expecting emptiness and quiet. These signs of life in our church provide another opportunity find the living among the living.
The invitation for us, today for you and for me, is to seek out the living in our daily lives. We are not to ignore of deny the troubles of the world, grief and death, but we are prompted set our focal point on the places we might find the living Jesus.
In school, at work, on our daily walk or run, on the bus or subway, in our neighborhoods, we are invited to look for signs of the living. We are invited to notice when things are not as we expected, when they are not as we left them. The season of Lent is over, and the season of Easter lasting for 50 days has just begun. Perhaps this is the challenge for us these next 50 days.
The story we heard from the gospel of Luke this morning begins at the empty tomb, with the two men in dazzling clothes. We do not even meet the risen Jesus in this episode. Later in the chapter we will hear of the two disciples traveling the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and meeting Jesus along the way. They travel along the road with him and invite him to dinner at their destination, still thinking he is a stranger. It is only when he breaks bread with them that they recognize him as the risen Jesus.
The resurrected Jesus popups up now and again in the disciple community for 50 more days before he ascends to the Father. Then the disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and they are empowered to preach the good news of Jesus, and bring his ministry to fruition in Jerusalem and all the world.
We see the disciples’ transformation from an end of the line, “our leader is dead” perspective. They reorient to “the Spirit is with us”: we are empowered, we will are here to serve the living, breathing people of Jerusalem and the world.
It all begins with the empty tomb, and the story told by women that is no idle tale. There will be more meaning to make of this mysterious and wonderful story. We will continue to follow along in the coming weeks. But, for today the reminder to look for the living among the living is meaning enough.
May all God’s people say,
The Stones will Shout
Preached on April 14th, 2019
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Luke 19:28-42
The procession into Jerusalem we heard of about in our gospel reading today is often called the “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.” The Palm Sunday hymns are upbeat, and many churches hold processions in which adults and children cheerfully wave palms. Before Palm Sunday, I often play my recording of “Hosanna Hey-sanna” from Jesus Superstar as I prepare my sermon. Like the birth stories of Jesus, the different gospel accounts of the entrance into Jerusalem are often melded into one.
In fact, John’s gospel is the only one that includes the waving of palms. And in the account we heard today from Luke, there is no singing of “Hosanna”. The “great multitude” of disciples cry out:
"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"
At Jesus’ instructions, the disciples have acquired the colt that has never been ridden. The scene is set for an enactment of the ninth chapter of the prophetic book of Zechariah. In this oracle, a peaceful king rides humbly into the city on the colt, a foal of a donkey.
This is a different kind of king, a meek king who commands peace to the nations, who lets the chariots and war horses loose. This is a completely different kind of rule, from that which the people of Jerusalem are experiencing under Caesar.
Jesus enacts this vision of peace, as he follows the steep and stony road down into Jerusalem on the wobbly little colt. The disciples are emboldened. This peace seems to be within reach. They are so pumped, with love, joy and hope, that their praise is noisy, rambunctious, undignified. It is reminiscent of King David’s wild dance before the Lord, as he accompanied the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem.
I suspect Luke of hyperbole when he talks of “multitudes of disciples”, but still, there are at least enough to make a ruckus. And among them there are some Pharisees – religious leaders – who get uncomfortable with the scene. They are the responsible ones, who look over their shoulders nervously for signs of the Roman governor’s spies.
They are well aware that the authorities are already on “orange” alert. The festival of the Passover is approaching, which is a high holiday of liberation for the Jewish people. Pilgrims from all over the land are flooding into Jerusalem for the holiday. There is an atmosphere of celebration, and yet the mood could very easily change. With the right provocation, the balance could be tipped toward rebellion and the bloodshed that comes with it.
The Pharisees get alongside Jesus, whose legs are dangling over the sides of little colt. “A word in your ear … could you get them to tone it down … we don’t want too much attention, you know, of the wrong sort.” But he replies: "I tell you, if [these folk] were silent, the stones would shout out."
This feeling of longing, for a leader who brings peace, healing and liberty to the oppressed cannot be put back in the box. If the Romans were to swoop in now, and take all the followers to jail, the very landscape would continue to echo their chants and songs. The stones would shout out.
The landscape would bear witness and the stones would cry out, drawing attention to Jesus’ courageous, peaceful act.
There are many places in the world where the landscape and the stones bear witness to what has passed in that place.
Here in the United States, the grounds of Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock, tell a story that will not be silenced. On a circular concrete setting there are sculptures that memorialize the Little Rock Nine. The sculptures are of nine African American High School students, each carrying books, each resembling a particular student. These nine students were the first black Americans to be enrolled at Little Rock High School in September 1957.
This was a test case for Brown vs Board of Education, the Supreme Court bill that ruled segregation in schools was unconstitutional. The students, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls, were recruited and vetted for their strength and determination. The NAACP in Arkansas knew that they would face fierce opposition to desegregation.
The hostilities the students faced, as they attempted to make their way into school each day, have many parallels with Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem and toward the cross.
Before school began, the Arkansas Governor recruited the National Guard to resist the students’ entry into the High School, and the Mothers’ League of Little Rock High School held a sunrise service to protest the integration. But a Federal Judge ruled that the desegregation would stand.
And so on September 4th, the first day of school, eight of students arrived together in one carpool. But Elizabeth Eckford arrived alone, and was spat upon by the mothers as she navigated hostile white students and parents in her way.
On September 20th the school was ordered to remove the National Guard, and the police department took over, to escort the 9 students into the school. But the mob of around 1,000 protesters was so violent that President Eisenhower had to send the Army to maintain order. Finally on September 25th the nine students were able to attend their first full day of school.
All nine students were routinely harassed and subjected to violence throughout their first year at the school. Melba Patillo, was kicked, beaten and had acid thrown in her face. Gloria Ray was pushed down a flight of stairs. The Little Rock Nine were barred from participating in extracurricular activities. White students burned an African-American effigy in a vacant lot across from the school. Minnijean Brown was expelled from the school in February 1958 for retaliating against attacks.
The Little Rock Nine are remembered today for their courage and nonviolent resistance to an injustice that had to be overcome. Their way of peace was public and painful, like that of Jesus. This demonstration of what peace looks could not be done quietly. May the sculptures in the Little Rock Capitol continue to cry out and bear witness to their courage. 
The stones and the landscape cry out in many places. Some stones have been fashioned into memorials, while others simply stand in witness. And sometimes the stones and rocks that are constructed to oppress a population actually bear witness to their liberation.
In April 1990, while we were living in England, I went with my husband to visit his sister, brother-in-law and their young daughter in Germany. Our brother-in-law, Rolf, was particularly affected by the split of Berlin by the wall built by the Soviet occupiers of East Germany. And so we decided to take a trip to Berlin to witness the destruction of the wall, and the symbolic end of the Soviet Union.
When we arrived in West Berlin, there was a party atmosphere. People were picnicking in the grass in front of the wall with their friends and family. Rolf lifted our three-year-old niece, Christina, up onto the partly demolished wall and took pictures as she walked along it. My husband, Simon, jumped up onto the wall, and reached down to pull me up. There’s a picture of that too.
On the western side the wall was covered with graffiti. Street artists painted slogans like “no more walls”, “dancing to freedom”, “save our Earth.” These artists had courage. The “death strip” had been just the other side of the 12 foot wall. Soldiers had guarded East Berlin from watch-towers and were ready to shoot anyone who attempted to climb over.
And yet, those graffiti artists could not allow the wall to remain silent. The stones were crying out. We were amongst the visitors that brought home a small piece of the concrete wall from Berlin that spring. It was our own piece of a stone that cried out for the end of brutal restrictions on the people of Eastern Europe.
The atmosphere was of partying in Berlin that spring, and also there was a party atmosphere in Jerusalem, those many years before. In 1990, the wall came down without bloodshed, the Cold War ended. Eastern Europe opened up. The Little Rock Nine had to wait for their party. But in 1999 they were each honored by President Clinton with a Congressional Gold Medal, and, as senior citizens, the students were honored guests at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Later this morning we will read of Jesus’ continued journey toward the cross. Then the party will be over for a time and the crowds will be silenced for a while. But the stones will not remain silent, they will continue to cry out for all time.
May all God’s people say "Amen"
The First Supper
Preached at Wollaston Congregational Church
On April 7th, 2019
Scripture: John 12:1-8
We don’t always notice it, but here in John’s gospel we find that the last week of Jesus’ ministry begins and ends with a dinner. There is the dinner on the night before the Passover, that is known as the “last supper." New Testament scholar and writer, Amy-Jill Levine, calls the dinner from our gospel passage today the “first supper.” 
It’s the party that happens the night before Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey in what has become known as the palm parade. We could say that it is the beginning of the end. It is the beginning of Holy Week, which ends as we know with the crucifixion of Jesus.
Jesus has recently raised the brother of Mary and Martha, Lazarus, from the dead. The news of that event attracts the attention of the religious leaders. They are already nervous of this dynamic preacher who is drawing the admiration of the crowds. The priests fear an uprising that would provoke the Roman occupiers.
One member of the council of Pharisees, Caiaphas, is reported to have declared that it would be better for one man to die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. Jerusalem is not looking like a very friendly place for Jesus.
Parties for people facing difficult times ahead of them are not unusual. Family and friends of service persons may give a send off party before their loved one’s deployment. Women at my seminary held a special party to shave the head of a student as she received chemotherapy for cancer. My former pastor, Ken, had planned two events for his funeral: a traditional service at the church, and a gathering on the beach of the town lake with music, singing, story telling and all his favorite foods. The second event sounded so good to him, that the congregation pulled it together while he was still alive. The party closed with all the attendees forming a circle around Ken and his wife and singing the spiritual song: Dona Nobis Pacem, give us peace.
And so, it seems that Mary, Martha and Lazarus, are putting on a party for Jesus. There’s no doubt that they are grateful to their friend for restoring Lazarus to life. And at the same time, Mary’s actions in this story show that she, at least, is well aware that this is also a send off party. This is the first supper of the last week.
The disciples and friends are gathered around the long and low table. They recline on cushions. They have eaten well on Martha’s delicious cooking, they have drunk from Lazarus’s well stocked wine cellar. Their exposed feet have been washed, so that they are presentable at the table. And now Mary enters with a very special jar, from the highest shelf in the store cupboard. It is something very precious she has been saving for the right moment. And now that moment is here. Tears course down her face as she makes her way toward Jesus.
She breaks open the alabaster jar and pours the aromatic essential oil over his feet. This is a startling act in itself. But then she loosens her hair from its modest fastening. It falls over her shoulders, in an array that would normally be reserved for her husband if she was married. She massages the oil into Jesus’ feet and wipes off the excess with her now free hair. The fragrance of the oil fills the whole house. The conversation settles into quiet murmurs as everyone at the dinner inhales deeply of the sensuality of the moment.
They would have stayed in a state of sensory overload for much longer, but Judas’s sharp retort cuts through the heady atmosphere …"Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?"
Judas is the one who can be relied on to spoil a good party. He’s the one who always wants to count the cost. Everyone else was breathing in the delights of the nard, and reflecting on the meaning of Mary’s action. Judas has evaluated the cost of the ointment, and declares it a waste. If Mary had this kind of resource ready to spare, why didn’t she give the money to the poor?
But Jesus silences Judas, telling him to leave Mary alone. She has performed an act of love and an act of preparation. Even as the gospel writer, John, portrays the divine nature of Jesus, he also emphasizes Jesus’ deeply human nature. Jesus needs this act of love. He refers Judas to a passage from the book of Deuteronomy, reminding him that the mission to care for the poor is ongoing.
He adds, perhaps quietly and sadly “but, you will not always have me.”
The poor will always be their work. But, for now, Mary is preparing Jesus for his burial in this intimate act. It is an act that will be echoed during the last supper in this gospel, when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and takes up a towel to wipe them dry. Mary is ministering to Jesus.
If you are uncomfortable with intimacy, with Jesus and with the church – the disciple community – I’m sorry. This week, and next week: the entry into Jerusalem and the progression toward the cross, are going to be really intimate. I’m sorry you had to hear this story today, if you’re the kind of person who says “ew … feet!”
If intimacy is something you can’t do, I suggest that you wait until Easter and come back then. Jesus will be risen from the dead, and you’ll be spared the icky foot touching and the ugly crying at the site of the crucifixion.
I say this tongue in cheek, of course. I don’t want you to miss this next week. But I do recognize that for many of us, it is going to be difficult. Many of us are uncomfortable with intimacy, with Jesus and with one another. Intimacy makes us vulnerable, and we don’t like that feeling.
For a long time I’ve wondered why people react a certain way when they find out I’m a pastor and a religious person. Some people will be careful around me, watching their ‘P’s and Q’s’. Others will outwardly mock faith and Christianity. They’ll make a joke about it, which is a sure sign that they are embarrassed. They’ll say religious people take their faith “too far.” And others will accuse Christians of being hypocritical, and failing to care for the poor. And yet, like Judas, these individuals usually do nothing for the poor themselves.
If I’m not careful, I’ll leap to my religion’s defense. I’ll tell them that not all churches, not all ministers or priests, are like that. I’ll try and make a case for all the good that the Church does. But, if I have my wits about me I’ll take the time to probe and listen to what’s beneath the surface.
What is this embarrassment? What is this resistance? Were you hurt by religion in the past? Or are you fearful of what would be revealed if you opened up? Does Jesus’ invitation to intimacy with him trouble you?
A few years back, I was in a learning environment with Jewish Rabbinical students. In our “Group” times we were supposed to talk about our relationships with one another. One student asked, if we were sexually attracted to another member of the group, would this be a place to talk about it? Here I was, in a setting quite different from my own, with people I had just met – and this was the topic of conversation! I was visibly uncomfortable with it.
I discovered these Jewish students were surprisingly comfortable talking about intimacy. And they gently teased me about my discomfort with the subject, seeing it as typical for a waspy Christian. They were both amused and annoyed by the Christian tradition that Jesus was never married and did not have physically intimate relationships.
This was about the time that Karen King of Harvard Divinity School had published an ancient text that seemed to make reference to a “wife of Jesus.” According to the Jewish tradition, a Rabbi was expected to be married. The rabbinical students saw the supposed singleness of Jesus as a Christian cover-up intended to control the sexuality of the followers.
You may be relieved when I say that I’m not going to speculate on Jesus’ relationship status today. We’re not going to talk sex. Good, I can already see your sense of relief.
I don’t know whether Mary’s anointing of Jesus was intimate in that way. But it certainly was extravagant, it certainly was loving. For Judas it was too much, it was going too far.
And still, I think that is Jesus’ invitation to us today. To go too far in love for him.
We are invited to dinner – to two parties, the first supper and the last.
We’re encouraged to enter into the intimacy of this season with all our senses: Sight, sound, smell, hearing and touch. We’re encouraged to return love to Jesus that he offers to us and to share it in the disciple community of the church.
What will intimacy with Jesus look like in these coming weeks?
Perhaps it looks like showing up for the services that will follow Jesus along the route to the cross. Perhaps it looks like participating without reservation in the songs and prayers of the season. Perhaps it looks like entering into the story today, by taking and tasting the bread and drinking the juice with one another, imagining ourselves participating in that first supper.
Perhaps it means reaching out a hand to touch and comfort a lonely neighbor. Or perhaps it means making eye contact, here in this place with one another, and out in the community in the week ahead. Perhaps is means inviting a co-worker or a friend to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Easter. And perhaps sharing with them what our faith walk really means to us, without worrying about “going too far.”
Amy-Jill Levine, Entering the Passion of Jesus, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2018), 92
Finding Our Way Home
Preached on March 31st, 2019
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Today we heard a story … a very familiar one.
This story has been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, though the word prodigal is not used in the biblical story and few of us use the word in any other context. But, the Prodigal Son is not the only name for the story: other possibilities include “the lost son”, “the father and two sons”, “the grieving father.”
My hope, this morning, is that we would hear this parable with new ears. I hope we will listen for a different understanding than we may have had learned in the past, perhaps in Sunday School.
My hope is that we get away from the “shoulds” and the “oughts” that are often projected when this parable is taught.
I should be generous to my destitute, wandering siblings in Christ. I should welcome home sinners to relationship with God when all other options fail them. I ought to be non-judgmental about my younger brother, his earlier wandering years, and his “different from mine” lifestyle now.
These “shoulds” and “oughts” may be valid, but where do they leave us? I should and I ought, and perhaps I do, or do not.
And there are a couple of reasons why shoulds and oughts will not work for our text today.
First of all, our gospel text today is a story. A story does not tell us what to do. A story does not preach. This leaves us free to listen and perhaps to find ourselves in in the story. It frees us from the fear that there is a “moral” sneaking beneath the surface.
Another reason for letting go of the “shoulds” and the “oughts” is the context of this story. Jesus is telling stories to the Pharisees and the scribes. They are good and righteous people who try all the time to do the “right thing.” They are concerned that Jesus consorts too much with sinners and outcasts.
These religious leaders, like many of us, are steeped in the shoulds and the oughts. Perhaps, this is actually a story to help them let go of the shoulds and the oughts, and in doing so find their way home to their loving heavenly mother and father.
Renowned author and spiritual guide, Henri Nouwen, wrote about his long and intimate connection with the Rembrandt painting “The Return of the Prodigal” which resides in the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, Russia.
Nouwen meditated on the painting during a time of deep questioning, moving from a life in academia to his final vocation, in a community caring for mentally challenged individuals. He was moving from a “head” understanding of faith in the academy, to life with those who rely on their hearts to understand the love of God in Jesus.
Nouwen was so taken with the Rembrandt painting that a friend arranged for him to travel to the then-Soviet Union to see the original. This was his entrance into the story of the father and two sons, and to see the parable through the eyes of his fellow Dutch man, Rembrandt.
Now, I have had the same good fortune as Nouwen. In the summer of 2015, my family took a trip to Russia and St Petersburg.
In the dusky sun of late afternoon, following a beautiful day of sight seeing, Maria, our guide, brought us to the Hermitage. This is the former winter palace of the Tsars and is now filled with artwork Russia had acquired from around the world.
We debated with Maria what we would look at in the Hermitage. Perhaps Russian art? “No, that is not what the Hermitage is famous for” she said, “how about some classics?” I’m so glad that is what we chose.
We entered a room, and were stunned to find ourselves face to face with famous paintings we had seen in books and on television. It was the Rembrandt room. Maria was well versed on the artist’s time of life and state of mind when each work was created. “The Return of the Prodigal” was painted near the end of his life at age 63. Maria was about to explain the parable, but I stopped her. “We know this story,” I said. In that moment I could understand a little of Nouwen’s feeling for the painting.
The scene was familiar to me, and still new at the same time.
It shows the moments after the return of the younger son from a foreign land, where he had spent all his inheritance and had been reduced to eating the food of the pigs he cared for. It shows the
passionate reunion of the younger son with the father.
There is the emotion of the father who believes he has lost his child forever. And the “rock bottom” state of the son, returning, head shorn perhaps from scurvy or lice, ragged clothes slipping off his skinny and grimy body.
There are also a number of bystanders witnessing the reunion. The man who stands on the right simply observing, is believed to be the elder son. Luke’s story tells us that the elder son of remained in the fields until the end of the workday, ignoring the commotion of the younger son’s return. But it seems that Rembrandt included the elder in the painting for a sense of completeness.
The elder son stands on the outside looking in. He is not included in the embrace of the father and the younger son. His face does not show joy, or even relief at the safe return of his brother. He simply looks aloof and disconnected.
Henri Nouwen notes that Rembrandt painted himself in each of the three roles: father, younger son and elder son. There were times in Rembrandt’s life when he could be identified with each of the characters. Nouwen’s meditations also led him to a place of imagining himself in each of the roles.
It is hard to believe that a deeply spiritual person such as Henri Nouwen would think of himself as the younger “prodigal” son. And yet, this is the role he had always imagined for himself. Nouwen followed a respectable path into the priesthood of the Catholic church and led a disciplined life. He excelled in academics and was a renowned spiritual guide. Still, he tells of his longing to kneel at the feet of a loving father who is overjoyed to welcome home his lost child.
The source of this longing was the message he had absorbed from parents, teachers, friends and the culture as he was growing up.
The message said “Show me that you are a good boy. You had better be better than your friend! How are your grades? … These trophies certainly show how good a player you were! Don’t show your weakness, you’ll be used! … When you stop being productive, people lose interest in you! When you are dead, you are dead!”
Nouwen paid too much attention to this message, like so many dutiful children, and it led him to a strange and dark land, very far from God.
And so he had only ever imagined himself as the younger son, returning to the loving embrace of the father. That was until a friend suggested that he was actually more like the elder son in the story.
I can relate. I had always been swept along by sermons that painted a picture of God, like the father in the story, waiting day and night on the porch for the lost child to return. Yes, that’s my vision of God: running down the road to embrace me, anytime I choose to turn back. That’s my longing.
Until once I attended a women’s retreat in which the leader took us through the parable. I finally began to see myself as the elder child, just as I am in my family of origin. Yes, my brother was given a significant share of “the inheritance” to compensate for mistakes he had made early in life. Yes, he had broken my parents’ hearts while he wandered. There were times when I was angry over the anguish he caused them. Meanwhile, I faithfully followed the “shoulds” and “oughts” of family life. I achieved what I could achieve, never feeling it was enough. And I had taken the traditional route to career and home ownership, marriage and parenthood.
Suddenly, like Nouwen, I could imagine myself in the role of the elder son.
The elder son is the dutiful one, the one who is quick to remind his father of the “shoulds” and the “oughts” of his brother’s situation. The brother should not have taken his inheritance and squandered it on selfish pleasures. He should not have left the farm, and all the work, to his older brother. And his father should not have welcomed the wayward brother home as an honored guest.
The elder is beside himself with rage and resentment. The father never even spared him a small goat, never gave so much as a birthday party for him and his friends.
When Nouwen reflected on the parable with another spiritual friend she reminded him that he was actually closer in age to Rembrandt at the end of his life, than to the sons in the painting.
She said “You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection … you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right. The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return. Look at the father in your painting and you will know
who you are called to be.”
The final scene of the story is a riotous party, which can be heard out in the fields as the elder son returns from work. There is singing and there is laughter. The younger son, who was once lost, is dressed in the finest robe.
The father loves both his sons. And so he goes out and tries to bring the elder one into the celebration for the return of his younger brother. He wants the elder son to return to the family too.
There is a longing in the father, beyond the longing to have the younger son home. He longs to have both sons together with him, gathered at the table, for them all to break bread together.
Nouwen learned that he was ultimately called to act as the father in the parable. He had outgrown his role as younger son, and he was free to move on from the shoulds and oughts or the elder son’s role.
And perhaps this is where we are all being led, to join the host of the party in welcoming home lost children of our mother and father in heaven.
In 1996, Henri Nouwen left l’Arche community for the mentally challenged in Canada to make another trip to see the painting in St Petersburg. He was going to appear in a Dutch television documentary about the painting. Nouwen died of a heart attack, in the Netherlands, his home country, en route to St Petersburg. He was on his way home.
And so, in hearing this story today, and finding ourselves in it, may we also find our way home.
May all God’s people say,
 Nouwen, Henri J. M.. The Return of the Prodigal Son (p. 121). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid, 22
Sermon: "God, alone, fills us"
Preached on March 24th, 2019
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Free food, free drink, free luxury chocolate!
Free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, free coffee, free pastries, free wine, free beer!
What kind of a way is this to begin a Lenten reading?
Many Christians are just two weeks into our annual Lenten fast. They have given up coffee, chocolate, alcohol, or some other luxury item.
For those who are fasting, this is about the time when we discover, after that initial resolve, how much of a hold that particular “vice” has on us.
In this part of the world, we are surrounded by food almost all the time. We have access to every type of rich food and drink. The bakeries, restaurants, and coffee shops pay no attention to the Lenten fast. The grocery stores had chocolate eggs and other Easter goodies on display before Lent even began. We have to make a special commitment to fast in order to find out what it means to miss those things.
And so the surprising passage we read today from the book of Isaiah presents us with some questions: What does faith have to do with bodily hunger and desires?
What does our access to food have to do with our faith?
And if it hunger and thirst are connected with faith, how might Isaiah’s message of luxury food in abundance apply to us today?
The biblical book of Isaiah book spans three different eras. It is generally understood as prophetic writings from these times, written in the tradition of the prophet Isaiah. The text we heard today comes at the end of the second of those eras, known as “Isaiah of Babylon”. The prophet is writing to the people of Israel who lived some 600 years before Christ and were forcibly deported from Jerusalem to Babylon.
The language is tender and comforting, it’s quite different from the exhortations of the part written in the period before the exile. As we have noted before, prophets are often called to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
For some 50 years, the exiled children of Israel lived in a foreign land, separated from their beloved one-God who could not be named. They believed their Lord, to be literally resident in the temple in Jerusalem. They were separated from Jerusalem and so they were separated from God.
To which members of the community is Isaiah speaking, in this free food/free drink poetry?
Is it to the ones who have assimilated and made good in this new strange land?
Is it the ones who sent their kids to college in Babylon and have taken up positions in government, artfully adapting their skills for the “new reality”?
Or, perhaps, on the other hand, Isaiah is speaking to
- the ones who have never been able to grasp the language and have never been able to make a home in Babylon?
- the ones who live with their meager belongings still bundled up from the forced relocation?
Perhaps he is speaking to the ones who cannot bring their hearts to this place, because they buried their spouse or their child back in Jerusalem?
Or to the ones who had little to offer to the Babylonian culture, other than cleaning the bathrooms, and nursing the infants, of this imposed new ruling class?
How must Isaiah’s “words of comfort” seem to these homesick people? What is meaning of the finest bread, milk, and wine, without price?
Don’t these words sound insane, given their poverty of the hearers?
And yet, perhaps they might also sound hope-filled.
Perhaps they also serve to remind the exiles that their God has not forgotten them.
Perhaps they assure them that God will fulfill God’s covenant with them in God’s own way. They encourage them to hang in there, that deliverance will come and Jerusalem with be restored along with all the good things they hunger for.
The book “Take this Bread”, by Sara Miles, focuses on themes of hunger and food and the connection with the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Miles was raised in an intellectual atheistic household, but her story tells of her ‘radical conversion’ to Christianity as an adult.
She says: “One early, cloudy morning when I was 46, I walked into church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine activity for tens of millions of Americans - except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life …
This was my first communion. It changed everything.” 
Faith, for Sara Miles, isn’t an argument, a creed, or a philosophical ‘proof’ “it is a lens, a way of experiencing life and a willingness to act.” 
The book “Take this Bread” borrows a verse from Psalm 34, inviting the reader to tasteandseethat the LORD is good!
From the moment Sara Miles received communion at St Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco, she knew she wanted to become a Christian. Sara heard the gospel stories in church with the fresh ears of a convert. And soon she noticed that something wasn’t quite right. There was a conflict between the lovely communion services she was attending, with wealthy educated people at St. Gregory’s, and Jesus’ command to feed the hungry.
She says, “The Christianity that called to me, through the stories I read in the Bible, scattered the proud and rebuked the powerful … It was an upside-down world … in which the hungry were filled with good things and the rich sent out empty.” 
Prior to coming to San Francisco, Sara Miles spent a period living among the poor in El Salvador, as a journalist. In that community food was scarce, and what food there was, was of a very poor quality.
When Miles moved to San Francisco, she could not help but notice the stark contrast between the educated and affluent “foodies” and the poor of the city. She was primed to do something.
Miles began a food ministry out of St Gregory’s, collecting the abundant supplies of fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste and redistributing them to the poor. In time this ministry grew into a wonderful meal service. She recruited helpers from the food pantry clientele to cook and serve.
Meanwhile, communion and worship at St. Gregory of Nyssa fed a hunger in Sara of which she had been unaware.
Over time Sara Miles’ ministry to the poor and hungry of San Francisco developed into what she describes as a service, modeled on the liturgy of the Eucharist, or communion. When St Gregory’s kitchen served meals, they imparted the love of God.
Miles met with the Bishop of California to talk about her ministry, and he told her “there’s a hunger beyond food, that’s expressed in food … and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle. It speaks to a bigger desire.” 
There’s a hunger beyond food, that’s expressed in food.
Sometimes I celebrate communion with a group of people who are experiencing an exile of their own. They are the Christian residents of the eldercare facilities that I visit.
Most of these elders are afflicted with some combination of dementia, blindness, deafness and other serious challenges. They are exiled from the places they called home due to their need for residential care, or they are dislocated by the loss of their memories, and other faculties.
I have preached sermons, sung hymns and said prayers with these little congregations. And I have learned that a thoughtful sermon, or a meaningful prayer may or may not touch their souls. The hymns and songs will engage them depending on their recognition or mood. But, these elders always come ready and hungry for communion, even if it can only be a drop of juice on the tip of their tongue, even if is can only be the touch of the blessing on their head or arm.
A hunger beyond food, that’s expressed in food.
What was the hunger you brought to here to church today, the hunger of which you were unaware?
- Was it the hunger for true friends who understand you – rather than empty friendships: the superficial, the temporary?
- Or was it a hunger for a more meaningful relationship with God and with your loved ones? Was it a hunger for an honest relationship with your spouse, or your sweet heart? Was it a hunger for a relationship that will honor the reflection of God you meet in that person?
- Or was it a hunger to be true to yourself, and so true to God?
Was it a hunger to put down the pretenses of “doing fine” and being “put together”?
Was it a hunger to admit, that you, like those marginalized Israelite exiles, don’t feel quite comfortable in this changing social landscape of ours? Do you keep the treasure of your heart in bundles, still unable to find the right place to put them down?
During the season of Lent, whether we fast from food, drink or other distractions, we discover the holes and hungers in ourselves that our addictions, our indulgences, our treats, were filling.
Because, as Sara Miles says, there’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food.
Today, during our music for reflection, I am inviting you to come and receive a
sacramental chunk of fresh baked bread to fill that space.
And in receiving that bread, may we remember that “God, alone, fills us.”
Miles Sara, Take this Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-first Century Christian, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), xi
Shining Light on the Shadows
Preached on March 10th, 2019
at Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
This, the first Sunday in Lent, we hear the story that underlies the season, yet again.
The forty days and nights of the season of Lent mirror the forty days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. This episode takes place right after Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. At that time the Holy Spirit had descended on Jesus, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven and proclaimed “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Now the Holy Spirit has led Jesus into the wilderness for a time of fasting and preparation. At the end of the forty days and nights the devil shows up and begins his testing. It’s telling that he waits until Jesus is at his weakest.
In English we read that the devil begins with the conditional “If you are the Son of God.” But the word “if” would be better translated as “since” or “as” …
“Since you are the Son of God” the devil is not disputing Jesus’ relationship to God. “As you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” To which Jesus’ responds, from scripture “One does not live by bread alone.”
The Devil goes on: “I will give you authority and glory over all the nations, if you will worship me, all will be yours.” Jesus responds with part of the Jewish prayer, the She’ma Israel “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.”
And for a third test, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and says “since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here … God will send his angels to save you.” And once more Jesus responds from scripture “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The devil tries to trick Jesus with his lies. He tries to trick Jesus into giving away his identity as Son of God. If Jesus succumbs to magic or stunts, turning stones into bread, or throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple … if he turns his allegiance over to the devil, in order to rule the world … Jesus will no longer be God’s Son. Jesus will be stripped of the power given to him by God, and the devil will win.
Jesus’ resists, because Jesus is the Son of God. Once Jesus shines a light on the devil’s lies, the devil disappears. He cannot stand the truth.
On Wednesday evening, we observed Ash Wednesday worship with our neighbors, Quincy Point, United Church of Christ. During the reflection on the beginning of Lent, we talked about a new Lenten practice: “getting real for Lent.” Getting real means showing on the outside of ourselves what is on the inside.
Lent is a time for confession and repentance: a time for telling the truth and turning toward God. It is a time for standing in the light of Christ, and allowing that light to penetrate what we are hiding in the dark corners of our souls. It is a time for getting real.
Molly Phinney Baskette, pastor, writer and church revitalizer, discovered something called the “liturgist program” when she came to pastor First Church in Somerville. Each week in worship, a different person, the “liturgist”, makes a public confession of sin and vulnerability. The liturgist begins with the words: “Now is the time when we bring our stories before God.” They tell a story they have prepared, which is related to the scripture passage for the day. There are stories of love and betrayal, addiction and recovery, anxiety and depression.
At the end of each story there is a prayer and silence, and then the liturgist gives the Assurance of Grace. The assurance is the epilogue to the story. It tells the ways in which the liturgist discovered God in the midst of their struggle, along with the assurance that they had received God’s grace. Baskette says this practice of humility and truthfulness saved their church’s life. As Baskette says in her book “Naked Before God”, you might think that church is the place we go to be unmasked – to be truthful about who we are, what are our insecurities and fears. 
And yet, we know this often isn’t the case. Even in these days, people feel the need to come to church with in their Sunday best. Faces are scrubbed and hair is neatly combed.
Year ago, when our children were young, I remember talking to a woman whose family had recently begun attending our church. She and her husband had six children in their blended family. This woman told me of the time she spent laundering and ironing all their clothes for church, and washing and brushing their hair. She’d confessed to me that as she swung her minivan into the church parking lot, she was cursing under her breath from the stress of it all. I never did convince her that church is a place that she and her children could come “as they were.” And, yet, isn’t church the place we can come as we are?
Although I am convinced of this, I am still tempted to “paint a pretty picture” in my sermons and reflections.
I remember one of my first sermons at my home church. It was during Advent, and there happened to be a substantial snowstorm. Sunday School was cancelled, but worship was still on. My husband stayed home with the kids while I went to the service.
My home church pastor and I had conducted a dialogue sermon, taking the parts of Mary and Joseph, reflecting on their journey to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. I loved the idea of getting inside Mary’s persona, connecting the story with the context of the time. I wanted to project Mary’s courage and grace in bringing the infant Jesus into the world.
I enjoyed the compliments I received from the congregation afterwards. I drove in state of serenity, until I arrived home. The kids had been out playing while my husband was shoveling snow. They had then stuffed their snow pants and jackets, snow, grit and all, into the drier. I arrived home to hear the salt and sand ricocheting around in the drum. I just about hit the roof! And then was so sad that I’d lost my temper with the kids, right after I’d just “performed” the perfectly serene Mary. I was sorry that I had soured what could have been a lovely day.
A few days later my pastor told me that a member of the congregation had said he’d imagined a halo over my head as I told Mary’s story. I laughed so hard, as I told my pastor that that halo had slipped dramatically the minute I arrived home! Looking back, it was the story of the grit in the drier and my angry reaction, that I needed to share with the congregation.
Baskette says the “raw unprocessed side of our nature, [is] what Jung calls the ‘shadow side’”. To tell the truth about the shadow side is to shine light onto it. When light is shined onto a shadow, the shadow disappears like the devil in the desert.
We are reluctant to reveal our shadow sides, though, especially in church. We guard our privacy carefully. At our Pancake supper on Tuesday, we talked about the penitents of early Christianity. People were mortified by the notion that in those times, those who had sinned egregiously were required to wear sackcloth and ashes for the entire season of Lent. Their sins were on display for the 40 days of penitence, after which they may have been received back into the community of the church.
I am truly glad that we do not practice this kind of shaming any more. Instead, my hope is that we could learn to become more transparent, more real, during Lent so as to be open to God’s abundant mercy and grace.
Molly Baskette wisely curates the stories members of her congregation wished to share. Sometimes a “real story” can be too raw and can provoke anxiety or re-traumatize the hearers. Baskette calls this “floodlighting”: the storytelling is used by the teller to meet their own unmet needs. We all need some time for healing, before we are ready to tell our stories in a public setting. The intention of the liturgist program is to tell stories of grace, rather than sharing open wounds.
If your story is not ready for prime time, fear not! There are other places where light can be shone in the shadowy corners. Our small groups, such as the book group or our weekly Lent groups might be a good setting for your story. If not please meet with me, your pastor, with a trusted friend, or a therapist.
Sometimes seekers from outside the church come through our doors to looking for some kind of healing. They may seek healing from loneliness and lack of connection. Or perhaps they are looking for a community that will help them in their recovery from addiction. Some come with the pain of anxiety and depression.
Their expectations are often high. After all, we are the people who are supposed to have it all figured out. We are supposed to treat one another with kindness and love all the time. We “have the love of Jesus in our hearts.”
Sadly, we have to disappoint those high expectations. But I hope we will not disappoint those who are looking for God’s grace and mercy.
The first step in showing God’s grace and mercy, is to confess our own need. When we bring our stories before God and before the congregation, there will be touching points. Confessions ring true. People who struggle with the same issues are reminded that they are not alone and there is hope. When we recognize our own need of grace, it is so much easier to be gracious to others.
The devil will try to tell us lies. He will say that our members and guests want to see the magic of stones turned into bread. He will say that they expect this church to show power and influence in the public square. He will say that they are hoping for dramatic stunts.
To defeat the devil’s lies, we simply need to shine a light on who we really are and who we are called to be. And so, this Lent, may we begin our practice of “getting real.”
Jesus will be true to his calling as Son of God. And we will be his humble truth-seeking followers.
 Phinney Baskette, Molly, Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession, (Cleveland, The Pilgrim Press, 2015), 9
Seeing the World the Way God Loves the World
Preached on March 3rd, 2019
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Luke 9:28-43a
It’s been a rough week in our corner of the world.
Yet again, our attention has been drawn to the pervasive nature of human trafficking. This came to light through the charges of solicitation leveled against a popular celebrity.
It also seems that the political administrations in this nation, as well as the United Kingdom, are in disarray.
And our siblings in Christ, the United Methodist Church, voted to tear their denomination apart rather than welcome LGBTQ individuals to the church and ministry. In their General Conference, UMC delegates voted to pursue the “Traditional” plan which reaffirms the denomination’s prohibitions against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
From our vantage point, the world is not looking too lovable.
Add to that the stream of local news: stories of anger and violence, drug deals in our communities, robberies and animal abuse. And the world is looking even less lovable.
This Sunday we stand on the threshold of Lent, but still in Epiphany, the stunning season of light and revelation. The three disciples closest to Jesus experience light and revelation is on the mountain. What is their view down from that mountain, over the mountain’s base and out into the world? When we look out from the mountain what do we see? Is it a world in need of healing?
Some years ago, I traveled with my family to South Africa for a very special vacation. I was celebrating a significant anniversary with my husband, and we had decided not to delay going to Africa any longer. We wanted to visit my younger cousin who had lived there for many years, and also to take in the experiences unique to that part of the world.
Our first stop was Capetown, close to the southern most tip of the continent. We arrived during South Africa’s fall season and Capetown was characteristically windy and brilliantly sunny. On our first day we decided to stretch our legs and hike the nearby Table Mountain. Before we reached the summit the path changed from a hiking trail to more of a climbing trail and so I decided that was enough for me. My family went on and I found a rock on which to perch and take in the scenery.
The view was spectacular, taking in all of Capetown: both the city and the bay. I basked for a while in the peaceful sounds of nature, the birds that flitted back and forth to the sparse bushes. And the sound of the town below drifted up to greet me.
As well as my panoramic view, I could see details of the life going on at the foot of the mountain. I could hear church and playground bells, and take in the sights and sounds of children running and playing in their neat little uniforms. I could also take in the blue bay, and the harbor in the distance, and glimpse the infamous Robben Island out in the ocean.
I enjoyed a spiritual time reflecting on the beauty of it all, and my good fortune – being on this amazing journey. That was just the beginning of course.
The next day we took a ferry out of the harbor to visit windswept Robben Island. This is the place where anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned during the time of apartheid. We saw Nelson Mandela’s tiny cell and felt the chill of the place. A former political prisoner shared with us his horrific experiences of the prison. We viewed the quarry in which the prisoners were forced to break up limestone rocks, and learned that Mandela’s eyes and lungs were permanently damaged by the brilliant sun and the dust of the rocks.
During the week, as we were walking around, sometimes children would stop and ask us for money for food, or offer to “watch” our car in exchange for a few rand. We always took up the offer. As we traveled we noticed the still vast wealth gap between white and black South Africans.
The world does not look so lovable, when we are up-close and personal.
It’s hard to love the world, when we drive by rundown strip malls, and notice those massage parlors, that are not about health and healing at all.
It’s hard to love the world in the places where violence seems to rule, and those who should find a welcome do not.
It’s hard to get engaged in the political process when those in power disappoint us.
Sometimes it’s too hard to love, and all we can do is to turn a blind eye.
Perhaps this is why we need a transfiguration experience on the mountain, to see the world the way that God loves the world.
And, perhaps, that is why Jesus chose to take those first disciples: James, John and Peter, up the mountain that day.
Maybe it was a hard hike. Or maybe the three disciples were exhausted from the teaching, healing and the casting out of demons they had been doing over the past months. Or perhaps they were simply weary from the needs of the world and their own inability to meet those needs.
By the time they reached the mountain top and they began to pray, the disciples were falling asleep. Perhaps that is why they missed Jesus stepping a few paces away from them. Perhaps that is why the whole event seemed to take place in a dreamlike mist.
And yet, they most definitely glimpsed the holiness embodied in Jesus, his face glowing and his clothes shining like lightning. They witnessed his mysterious meeting with the “greats” of the Jewish story: Moses and Elijah. Then a great cloud descended shrouded them all on the mountain top and they heard the mighty voice of God, blessing Jesus for the hard days ahead. God’s voice reminded them “this is my Son, the chosen one” and telling them to “listen to him.”
Once the voice had spoken, the cloud lifted and they were alone again with Jesus. They were left with only the view, from the mountain top, over the surrounding land.
Perhaps, at that distance, they could see the world the way God loves the world. They could understand why God would send God’s only dear Son for the sake of that world. They could return to the base, to the crowds, with a vision of that love.
The next day, when they had come down from the mountain, they come across a chaotic scene. The crowds have not gone away. A man emerges from the huddle with his young son who is tormented by terrible seizures. He is understood to be possessed by a demon.
The boy’s father cries out “teacher I beg you, look at my son, he is my only child.” The disciples who stayed behind have tried to heal him, but they have been unsuccessful. Only Jesus can heal the boy, which he does.
James, John and Peter have seen Jesus heal many times before. Yet now they have a new perspective. On the mountain they heard God’s voice, and they heard God claim Jesus, once again as God’s own Son. Now they see the world as Jesus loves it. They see the child as Jesus sees him, beloved of his father and beloved of the Father in heaven.
They see that God, in Jesus, loves the world up close and personal. Each child suffering from sickness. Each terrified trafficked young woman, held hostage in a sleazy massage parlor. Each young person, forced to choose between the church where they thought they belonged, and a life true to their God-given orientation and identity.
The disciples have gone to the mountain top, they have seen Jesus transfigured, they have heard the voice of God claiming Jesus as God’s own Son. And they have seen the world as God loves the world, as Jesus loves the world.
That love does not stop at the mountain top vista. In the weeks ahead they will learn about the extent of that up close and personal love. That love will take the Son all the way to the cross.
And so we are left with the question: how do we see the world as God loves the world in every day life?
It’s unlikely I’ll be going back to Table Mountain very soon. And even if I did, I doubt I’d be able to take you all with me.
Still, there are ways even the ones of us who have no desire to go up any mountains may be able to see the way God loves the world.
This past week, I attended my monthly meeting for supervision, a group of ministers and chaplains of various faiths. One member of the group had no childcare that afternoon, and so she had brought along her 9 month old baby boy. I laughed to watch the little one, clapping and waving from across the conference table. His secure and healthy attachment to his mom gave me another vision of the way God loves the world.
And in the midst my social media stream there are little videos and photographs of Carrie and Katie’s delightful twins and Jenn’s beloved foster babies. I see LGBTQ colleagues resplendent in their robes and stoles, leading worship, preaching the word.
Last week we admired Linda’s grandson, Silas, here for a visit on his first birthday showing off his walking skills. Another vision of the way God loves the world.
We pause from daily life each week to come to worship, to sing the hymns, take in the lovely music provided for us by Jing and JiaRong, and lift up our prayers. We meditate on the stories of God so in love with the world, the only Son is sent to be with us, up close and personal.
And, for that moment of transfiguration, from that beautiful view, we can see the world as God loves the world.
Love Your Enemies and Pray for Those Who Abuse You, Really?
Preached at Wollaston Congregational Church
On February 24th, 2019
Scripture: Luke 6:27-28, 35-36
“… I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
We have been hearing about clergy sex abuse on children and on women including nuns in the Catholic Church for some time now. Victims have been blamed, priests have been shuffled, and all too often the church has closed ranks to protect abusers. Just this weekend there has been a Roman Catholic summit on the issue of pedophilia. We will wait to hear of the outcome.
Now a similar story of abuse is emerging from the Southern Baptist Convention. Victims have been blamed again. When churches are asked how they have dealt with this situation, they say that the abusers have repented and so the abuse has not been reported. The Southern Baptist Convention maintains autonomy of the local church, as we do in the UCC, and has claimed that this as an excuse for under-reporting crimes. Yes, crimes.
And so, I wonder, about today’s passage from Luke and this command to pray for those who abuse you, and to love your enemies, and to forgive all. We hear of priests, ministers and others in authority using this text as an excuse. We see clergy in positions of power put themselves in Jesus’ place, directing victims: women and children, to pray for and forgive their abusers. And, like many others, I am angry and I am upset.
And still, Jesus has something to say in our gospel reading for today. Abuse of power is not a new problem. It is addressed in this “sermon on the plain” in Luke.
Perhaps what we need is a key to unlock the mystery of what Jesus is saying. And on this unusual 7th Sunday in Epiphany, the Revised Common Lectionary provides us with a story we don’t often read. And is a story of abuse and forgiveness that might provide that key.
Do you remember Joseph, son of Jacob? Perhaps you colored his coat of many colors in Sunday School. Joseph is the one who had the wild dreams. He was Jacob’s youngest and favorite child. And also he was a bit too big for his boots. As a result he was abused and then trafficked by his jealous older brothers.
Jacob’s family led a nomadic lifestyle and kept sheep in the land of Cana. The brothers traveled far and wide, tending the sheep. On one occasion Jacob sent the young Joseph to check on his brothers who were following the herd. Joseph wandered alone for some distance looking for his brothers. As they saw him coming across the wilderness, they plotted to kill him.
“Here comes the dreamer – in his fancy coat – let’s kill him and throw him into a pit, then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams."
Before they could carry out the plan, a caravan of traders traveling to Egypt arrived on the scene. The brothers saw a way to get rid of Joseph and make money at the same time. And so they sold their brother as a slave to the traders for 20 pieces of silver. They returned to Jacob with the story that they had found his coat bloody and ripped and assumed that he had been devoured by a wild animal.
At first Joseph worked as a slave in Egypt. Then he was falsely imprisoned and attracted attention with his ability to interpret dreams. He was summoned by Pharaoh, who was having troubling dreams. Joseph was able to tell the king that his recurring dream was a warning from God of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine for the land of Egypt. And so, Joseph was freed from the prison and promoted to be a close advisor of Pharaoh. The seven years of plenty came to pass. The Egyptians stored away grain so that when the lean years began they would have enough in store.
Over time, Joseph matured and became more humble. He learned to credit God with his ability to interpret dreams. When famine came, it spread throughout the land. Joseph became governor and was entrusted with control of the Egyptian storehouses. People from all over the known world came to Egypt to buy grain.
The famine affected Jacob’s family too, and so Jacob sent his older sons to Egypt to buy grain. They arrive, dusty, hungry and exhausted, seeking relief. They do not realize that they are standing in front of their long lost brother, but he recognizes them.
At first Joseph plays with them, like a cat with a mouse. He is in a position of power over them for the first time. And still, he is curious asking whether their father is alive, and whether there are other brothers. He learns that there is a younger one, Benjamin, who has remained at home with Jacob.
Joseph holds one brother, Simeon, hostage, so that the others will bring Benjamin to him on the next visit. And then, when they return with Benjamin, Joseph finds way to accuse his younger brother of theft, so that he can keep him imprisoned in Egypt.
But the brother Judah challenges Joseph. They cannot return home to Jacob without Benjamin, it would break their father’s heart. He could not bear to lose another son.
At this Joseph is finally overwhelmed. He sends away the Egyptians and he is alone at last with his brothers. He breaks down – weeping loudly – and exclaims “I am Joseph.” And, again begs to know, is his father still alive?
The brothers are horrified and ashamed. Here they are, confronted by the brother they sold into slavery. And now he is in a position of power and authority. He is in a position to punish them, to seek revenge. Instead he embraces them and forgives them. He assures them that his time in Egypt has been for the best. God has been working through the situation and is still working through them all to preserve the Hebrew tribe.
This is the story only Joseph can tell.
This is the forgiveness only Joseph can give.
Centuries later, Jesus lives in the same land as Joseph and his brothers. Jesus is descended from the same tribe, now known as the people of Israel. The people have experienced much more displacement and disruption over the generations. At the time of Jesus they are occupied by a power even great than Egypt: the Empire of Rome.
The people of Jesus’ time are downtrodden by the Roman occupying forces. Both women and men are abused. And so, as Luke tells us today, Jesus comes down to a level place and preaches to the crowds. He does not stand in a position of “power over” but on an equal footing.
He tells them that though they suffer now, one day they will be blessed. He tells them that God’s kingdom looks like a reversal of the status quo. The ones who exert power over them will be powerless in God’s order. And then he tells them they are to start living as though God’s order is already happening, because that is how it will be born.
He tells them to love their enemies and pray for those who abuse them. He tells them to forgive the debts owed to them by the ones in power. And, here, again he is talking reversal. In the first century culture, nothing is owed to them by people who had power over. The only way to be in debt to another person is to be lower in the hierarchy.
The person with greater wealth, authority and power can forgive a debt, if they choose to do so.
People with wealth and influence can make loans and give gifts to put a poorer person in their debt. And then they can call in favors when they need them.
But it is unheard of for the poorer, less powerful person to forgive. It doesn’t make sense. It makes least sense of all, to do as Jesus says, and to give and forgive without expecting anything in return: no repayment, no social capital.
Now Jesus wasn’t a leader in a religious order in which the priest or minister has all the authority and control. He wasn’t telling women and men to forgive because he needed to keep the exploits of the clergy under wraps. He wasn’t protecting an image.
Jesus was living out a story of mercy and forgiveness. From the beginning, Luke’s story foreshadows the end. Jesus’ preaching, about the poor and powerless being blessed, and the common people forgiving and praying for their abusers, turns the social order upside down. Forgiving enacts God’s great and boundless mercy in the world, and it also empowers the crowds with the love that Jesus has brought to the world.
This is a love that takes Jesus all the way to the cross. And even there Jesus will ask God’s forgiveness for his executioners.
And so, this is the story only Jesus can tell. This is the forgiveness only Jesus can give.
I cannot tell you, if you are a survivor of abuse, to forgive. Only Jesus can do that. And it will be between you and God, to decide when is the right time for that forgiveness.
What I can tell you is that forgiveness and praying for an abuser does not mean that the abuse is allowed to continue. Far from that, praying for an abuser includes praying for their repentance and recovery. Forgiving also means protecting oneself, remaining safe, and preventing further abuse.
What I can do is prayerfully consider how I am to forgive those who ridiculed, teased, and manipulated me when I was a child. And I can seek forgiveness, from God, for the children I, in turn, ridiculed and teased. I can release the debts of those who think they “owe me one” and I can give forgiveness, in a heartbeat, to anyone thinks they have something to apologize for.
One day, perhaps those children, those women, those nuns will be able to pray for their abusers and even forgive them. Until that time, may those priests and ministers of the church who used today’s text to silence the victims and send them back to situations of abuse, follow the apostle Paul’s directive and “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling.”
May all God’s people say,
Preached on February 17th, 2019
At Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Jeremiah 17:5-10
Our passage from the writings of the prophet Jeremiah this week is a psalm or a song. It is a refrain, sung to and by a people in trauma. Jeremiah writes in the midst of the great exile, of the people of Israel who are captured and taken to Babylon. Babylon is a foreign nation whose customs, beliefs and practices are quite different from the Israelites’ own. They fear that their identity and their relationship with the one-God, YHWH, will be erased. They fear that their children will be seduced, drawn in by the worldly wealth and power of Babylon.
In the book “Inspired …” Rachel Held Evans claims:
“One cannot overstate the trauma of this exile … in the sixth century BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying both the city and its temple. Many of the Jews who lived there were taken captive and forced into the empire’s service … If the people of Israel no longer had their own land, their own king, or their own temple, what did they have? They had their stories. They had their songs. They had their traditions and laws.” 
And so, in the midst of this trauma Jeremiah calls out the words of a song:
“ Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:5-8)
Jeremiah’s song reminds the Israelites to trust in God and maintain their community. This way of trust and loyalty was difficult in the seductive culture of the empire. But they would be blessed, like the ones of Jesus’ beatitudes we read today from the gospel of Luke. They would draw on a deep well of hope like those trees planted beside water. This resource would be readily available for those who planted themselves in the community of their one-God.
The song gives a warning, too. Those who do not trust in God will be like a shrub in the desert. Desert shrubs have some impressive adaptations, they survive. Their skins are thick, to minimize the evaporation of scarce hydration. They have prickles and spikes, to resist the attacks of predators. They remain small and stunted, they do not bear fruit, their surface area of their leaves is optimized for photosynthesis and minimal water loss.
Both the tree and the desert shrub survive. They are each resilient in their way. And yet there is no doubt which one Jeremiah’s song lifts up, which one is blessed by God.
The exiled Jewish people keep themselves rooted by coming together and maintaining their community. They tell stories and sing songs to remind one another that ultimately all creation belongs to God. Their trust and rootedness is secured in that truth.
We – here are Wollaston Congregational Church - do not always acknowledge that we are an exiled people in our current day world and culture. The surroundings, the neighborhood, the city, look familiar. Some of us have lived here for many years, even many generations.
And still, we are living in the same kind of exile the people of Israel experienced so long ago. There is a difference between those of us here in this place, and those who are out alone in the community. We have a story that tells us that this is a strange and sometimes inhospitable world. We notice that our culture is seductive, offering opportunities for wealth and prosperity, celebrity and popularity. We notice the “quick-fix” routes to happiness and the things that distract: the entertainment industry, the diet culture, addictive drugs and other substances, the hookup scene.
And also recently I’ve also noticed what I describe as an “epidemic of trauma” in our communities.
I see it in the church members and others who come to me to talk. When I use public transportation, stop by a coffee shop, or go to buy groceries, I invariably find someone who needs to talk about the trauma in their lives. These people are often caregivers for others who are experiencing trauma: they are parents, teachers, nurses, caregivers, adult children of elders.
And I notice the same trauma in the social media community I belong to. My fellow clergy members post a constant stream of prayer requests for sick or dying spouses, parents, friends, and congregants. There are the children who are addicted, have suicidal thoughts, or have even died by suicide. I hear of loved ones, or my colleagues themselves, in the grip of anxiety and depression, a troubling medical diagnosis, or simply exhaustion. These tragedies seem to group themselves, snowballing in many families and systems.
I was trying to understand why so many caregivers seem to be suffering too, when I came across a book: “Trauma Stewardship” by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk. These authors have identified “secondary trauma.” This impacts anyone who gives care in their family or community: from police officers, social workers, medical care providers, correctional officers, to those who work helplines or staff resource centers. 
I’m sure that this describes many of us here today. Even if you do not have one of those specific titles, you who come here to church are engaged every day in caring in your families, your circle of friends, your communities. And that work must be taking its toll on you.
One response to this assault of trauma is to become like the desert shrub of Jeremiah’s song. We isolate, hunker down, grow prickles and spikes and develop a thick skin. We can try to be impervious to hurt and pain, in order to survive this time of drought.
Some years ago, I was providing spiritual care for some very elderly residents of a nursing home. A number of “my” residents were living in the exile of dementia. Some were afraid of me because I was a stranger. They lashed out, when I visited, cursing and sending me away. I knew it was only their disease speaking and still I wanted to protect myself from their disorienting world. I looked for excuses to avoid them in the future.
Others had physical disabilities, loss of mobility, hearing or vision. I worried for their frail limbs, when I pushed them in their wheel chairs. I was afraid I would be clumsy and catch an arm or foot and I flinched every time I had to negotiate a doorway or elevator.
And then a number of my residents were in the final stages of life. If I was afraid to get close to them, because that would mean I would grieve them when they were gone.
During my first few weeks at the facility I was not sleeping well, worrying about the residents and the ways in which I might fail in caring for them. My usual coping mechanism for a situation like this would be to grit my teeth and get through it. It would be over in a few months, and then I could put the experience behind me and get on with my preparation for ministry.
My supervisor wasn’t going to let me off the hook, though. When I admitted to her that I was having trouble sleeping, she smiled and told me that it was time to make a new learning goal. I was to find a way to let go of my residents at the end of each work day. I was not to bring them home with me, and into my nighttime routine. That way I would be well rested and better able to care for them when I came to work the next day.
First I tried visiting the synagogue in the facility, for a time of reflection at the end of each day. It was a peaceful place, subtly lit by tiny lights set to come on in remembrance of those who had died on a given date. By the end of the day the space was empty of services and concerts, the prayer shawls had been returned to their basket. I could find a few moments of silence there. But it was not effective, the worries and fears still returned later.
My next attempt was more successful. I realized that I could take my lunch break in the arboretum next door to the facility. I could slip out and walk in the fresh air, among the sturdy trees. I could experience the brilliant colors of the deciduous trees in the fall, the white snow against the evergreens in winter, and the splashes of yellow forsythia and fragrant lilacs in the spring. Breathing the air and walking among these trees rooted so close to life-giving water enabled me to let go of my charges. It reminded me that I had to trust my residents to God’s care, I was not responsible for them. I was reminded that my own rootedness was in my church, where I would be made resilient by the life-giving water of community, story and song. I was reminded to be a tree rooted beside water ready to grow, rather than prickly and isolated desert shrub that was simply surviving.
The authors of Trauma Stewardship list the warning signs of secondary trauma, these include hyper-vigilance, chronic exhaustion, guilt, anger and cynicism, addiction and grandiosity. They recommend self-care and following five directions.
North, East, South and West, each represent a different aspect of self-care. South is the direction of “compassion and community” – what a great description of church! And then there is a fifth direction, the daily practice of centering oneself: our personal spiritual practices.
So it seems Jeremiah, or the people who sang the songs in exile in Babylon, were onto something. In times of trauma we are to remain rooted in God, connected with this our community, the church. So let’s remind one another, this and every week, not to isolate, not to stay away, but to return. And then this place, in these times of trauma, will flow with the life-giving waters of story, song and connection with God.
May all God’s people say,
 Evans, Rachel Held. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, (Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.), 7, 8-9
 van Dernoot Lipsky, Laura with Burke, Connie, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, (San Francisco, Barrett-Koehler, 2009)
Rescuing God’s People Alive
Preached on 2-10-19
at Wollaston Congregational Church
We had said that Epiphany is the season of revelation. God is revealed to all people in the person of Jesus, come into the world. There is another theme, too. It is that of discipleship. This is fitting, because disciples are called to play a part the revelation of God to the world.
And so in our gospel reading today, we heard Jesus call Simon the fisherman: the first disciple in the gospel of Luke. Simon thinks he is too sinful to be around Jesus, but Jesus calls Simon to “fish for people” or rather, to “rescue people alive.”
Imagine the scene. It is early on a bright warm morning on the shore of the expansive lake Gennesaret. Jesus is in his favorite setting for teaching: outdoors among the people. Here he can reach people who are about their daily lives. These are not the religious people, they do not often get to synagogue. Perhaps their boss does not give them time off on the Sabbath, or perhaps the journey is too far at the end of an exhausting day of work. Whatever the reason Jesus goes and meets the people where they are: in the village, on the shore of the lake.
The crowds gather and press in, hungry for the word of God that Jesus is preaching and so he sees the need for a stage of some sort. He needs a little distance so the crowd can see him and hear what he has to say.
Simon and his friends are sitting a little way down the beach, listening to what is going on with half an ear. They have pulled their boats onto the shore. They are cleaning and mending their nets. They’re exhausted and out of sorts. They have come in from a night of fishing with nothing to show for it, other than the accumulated silt and sand in their nets.
Simon is surprised to see Jesus coming to get into his boat. Jesus then asks Simon to push him out a little from the shore. Jesus sits in the boat, the posture of the Rabbi, continuing his teaching.
When he is done, he surprises Simon even more, telling him to take out the boat again into the deep water and let down the nets. Simon protests. They have just spent a fruitless night – the best time for fishing – out on the water. Even so, the experienced fisherman obediently takes senseless advice from Jesus, a rabbi and a carpenter. They go out, much deeper into the lake.
And, lo and behold, extra assistance is needed to bring in the huge quantity of fish that is caught in their nets. The weight of the catch almost sinks two boats!
Simon knows at this moment that he is in the holy presence of God, and falls down in front of Jesus crying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Simon’s response is the human recognition of the disconnect between his earthliness and Jesus’ holiness.
But Jesus’ simply says, “do not be afraid.” And then “from now on you will be catching people” … or more accurately “you will be rescuing people alive.”
And so, the great catch of fish, the haul of a lifetime is left behind in the boats. Perhaps the fishermen who remain clean and sell the catch. Perhaps the crowd takes what they can and feasts happily that night. Simon, James and John do not look back.
The fishermen go from a night’s fishing with no results, to being recruited to bring in Jesus’ haul. The sea they now fish contains great masses of people waiting eagerly and hungrily to hear God’s good news. And to the best of our knowledge they succeed. We are here today because they heard and acted on Jesus’ call to them.
Over centuries and millennia, disciples have traveled the world, sharing the good news of Jesus. Their nets has been spread wide, and many, many people have responded. They have been rescued alive.
The disciples have cast their nets wide by sharing stories of lives transformed by placing Jesus at the center. They have cast their nets wide by creating hospitals and schools, soup kitchens and hostels for the poor. They have cast the nets of initiating labor reforms, and by calling for education and healthcare for all God’s children. They have cast nets by creating places of sanctuary and safety, for people who live on the edge of life. Over the centuries millions of people have been rescued alive.
We often talk about the ways in which Christians have failed to live up to Jesus’ example. But today we’re talking about how disciples have done what they were called to do: cast a wide net and rescue God’s people alive.
Here in Quincy, there are some wonderful examples of obedient disciples. In 1947, following the laying off of thousands of employees by the Quincy shipyard, the local faith communities founded Protestant Community Services, now known as Interfaith Social Services. The participating congregations provided emergency assistance and hope for many Quincy families. And today, the organization feeds families through their food pantry, provides housing assistance, counseling, and clothing in their thrift shop. Since its beginning ISS has rescued 1000’s of people alive. 
Another example of a Quincy disciple is Esther R. Sanger. Sanger was born in 1926 and was raised in foster care. She studied literature at Eastern Nazarene College and at the time she felt called to missionary service. However, she went on to become a nurse and columnist, she married and raised three children.
This sounds like a sufficiently productive life, and yet in her 50’s Sanger became seriously ill and almost died.
She said that this experience convinced her to "to hang onto the real and let go of the phony." Sanger heard Jesus’ call to go deeper.
She returned to Eastern Nazarene, earning a BA in social work and an MA in family counseling. Sanger began casting her nets by posting handwritten flyers on telephone poles and in subways and laundromats, which read, "Do you have problems? I'll be glad to help.” She included the phone number for her hotline.
She was determined to reach the people thought as “throw away” by society: the homeless, hungry, alcoholics, drug users, AIDS victims, battered women, elderly poor, and single mothers. Beginning in 1979, Sanger started ministering to the homeless, serving food from a van and counseling those who called her 24-hour hotline. She formally established the Quincy Crisis Center in 1981 to help individuals and families who were not reached by the existing agencies. 
Quincy Crisis Center, ISS, and others supported by the Quincy faith community, are still going strong! Over the years, we, Wollaston Congregational Church, played our part in all of them and we still do.
And still, I wonder. What is Jesus calling to us today?
Are we sitting here on the shore, trying not to make eye contact with the passionate preacher a little way off?
We may be feeling dejected and exhausted. We may feel like we have worked all night, with nothing to show for it. Our nets are all silted up.
Did you think that your many years of work and saving would guarantee a comfortable retirement, and now it is difficult to make ends meet?
Did you think that college loans and years of studying would lead to a lucrative day job with time for family and friends, and now find yourself exhausted from long days, commutes and the unreasonable expectations of your employer?
Did you think that your loved one had been rescued and was safe, only to see them slip back into addiction?
Did we think that the time and money we invested in church revitalization in years past would fill the sanctuary to overflowing for years to come … That the promise of “success” would give us time off, as we aged, to simply sit and enjoy?
Are we sitting on the shore, washing our silty nets, trying not to make eye contact with Jesus, because we know he’ll try calling us, yet again, to be disciples.
We are looking for the abundant catch – to rescue people alive – Jesus is directing us to find. It’s hard to miss them really, they are everywhere. They’re the lonely elderly who’d love a visit a cup of coffee and a chat … they’re the shivering young men inadequately dressed looking to get high down at the station … they’re the young women who’ve burned their bridges and need a shoulder to cry on … they’re the ones who were labeled “sinners” by churches because of who they are, how they’re oriented to love, how they understand their gender.
They’ll be the ones - volunteers and survivors - who will be participating the Sewing Studio with All Hands In learning the craft and creating together. Even if they are a few in number they’ll make abundant, lasting friendships.
And so, out of the corner of our eye, we see him again. He’s calling to us …
“Hey you … let’s go out and try again. This time push out into the DEEP WATER, yes that’s right … go deeper.
What’s that you say? You’re too old, too young, you’re not up to it? Or maybe it just didn’t work out the last time you tried?
Don’t be afraid … don’t be afraid of my holiness, my weirdness, my neediness, my vulnerability. Don’t be afraid of my directness, my passion and sometimes my anger.
Don’t be afraid because I look different from the people you’ve had success with before. Don’t be afraid because the last time you tried with someone who looked like me it didn’t work out.
Don’t be afraid … because I am with you.
And together we can go deep, really deep. And you know out there in the deep there are many, many fish. Just waiting to be rescued alive.
I know, you’re tired, you’re young, you’re old, you’re busy.
Remember that great catch that Simon Peter and his friends brought in?
It’s waiting for you … come on, let’s go!”