To See and To Be Seen
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church
Easter 2021, Sunday April 4th
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Rev. Kim Murphy and I arrived at the beach, while was still a little dark. In the pre-dawn light the Quincy Point Congregation and those of us from Wollaston trod carefully down the rough stones steps onto the beach. And we stood on the dry sand, scatters with broken shells and pebbles. There was a faint smell of salt in the chilly air. We took in the quiet of pre-dawn, the birds just beginning to wake, a little traffic passing by. This is a thin place – the beach at sunrise – a place in which heaven and earth seem to meet.
In our scripture reading this morning we heard “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb …”
The tomb is not on a beach, but in a garden. The smells are the pre-dawn smells of earth and vegetation. The flowers have not yet opened to release their scents. The sounds, still, are the birds beginning to stir. There is damp earth, instead of dry sand, beneath Mary’s feet. We do not know if the sunrise will be visible from this place.
This setting will be a thin place for Mary, because it is a place where heaven and earth certainly meet on this first Easter morning.
According to John, on this morning after the Sabbath and following the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone, while it is still dark.
It is still dark, because Jesus is understood to be dead and gone. It is still dark, because Mary, with all the disciples, is grieving. It is still dark, because they do not understand what has happened.
Mary and the other disciples are traumatized. They witnessed their beloved teacher and leader being tortured and hung until death on a Roman cross. They observed his wounded, lifeless body taken from the cross and sealed in a tomb. And so, at the first opportunity, Mary comes to the tomb: perhaps to grieve, perhaps to spend time alone in prayer.
Instead of tranquility, she experiences trauma yet again, when she discovers that the tomb is has been broken open and Jesus’ body is gone.
She is distraught and runs to meet Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, telling them that the body is gone. Peter and the other disciple come running to the tomb, they witness its emptiness. They do not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead. And so, they leave as rapidly as they had arrived, perhaps in fear. Mary remains alone, weeping outside the tomb.
Suddenly she notices two angels inside the tomb, at each end of the place where Jesus was laid. They ask her “woman, why are you weeping?” She repeats what she told the disciples “They have taken away my Lord …” she still believes the body has been stolen.
Now, she turns, looking away from the tomb and into the garden. Perhaps the dawn is just beginning. Perhaps the sun is showing its first arc above the horizon. She sees a man, who is Jesus. But she still doesn’t know it. She supposes he is the gardener.
He repeats the words of the angels, asking “woman, why are you weeping?” and then “whom are you looking for?” Still she doesn’t perceive … and asks if he has taken the body of her Lord away, where has he laid him?
Finally, the sun rises and dawn breaks, the birds break into joyful song, the flowers burst open and releasing their scents. He has seen her before she sees him, and exclaims “Mary!”
And she responds “Rabbouni/teacher!”
She wants to embrace him, but he will not let her. Instead he instructs her to go tell his “brothers” that he is ascending … to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. He SENDS her, and because he does, she becomes the first apostle.
And so she goes and tells the others, “I have seen the Lord!”
The metaphors of light and darkness crop up throughout John’s gospel. These symbols stand for revelation, and for that which is hidden. Jesus, as the light of the world, shines on that which is hidden and reveals it.
The passage we read today reveals something that has been hidden in the telling of the gospel. We met Mary Magdalene for the first time only a few verses before this episode. She was among the women who stood at the foot of the cross.
And yet, we can see, from this extravagantly told this intimate encounter, that Mary and Jesus know one another very well. He is her beloved Rabbi or teacher. She is his devoted disciple or student.
She is from Magdala, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, close to Capernaum where Jesus began his ministry. We can assume she has been among the disciples from the beginning.
Western Christianity has not been kind to Mary. She has been conflated with the nameless woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany. And that woman has been assumed to be a prostitute. I suspect that this shaming of Mary led to other references to her being edited out of the gospel.
I have been curious about Mary Magdalene since I first visited a retreat center named the Hallelujah Farm a few years ago.
The Hallelujah Farm is a lovingly restored post and beam farmhouse, sitting in the midst of rolling hills in south-western New Hampshire. In the springtime flowers are bursting and birds are singing. It is the perfect Easter setting.
Guests of the retreat center meet for discussion, prayer, and worship in a great room at the end of the farmhouse. This room is named the “Mary Magdalene Chapel.”
A huge stone fireplace serves as an altar. On the mantle there is an icon depicting Mary Magdalene resplendent in red. On either side are windows overlooking a meadow and a valley.
The whole space is bright and airy, the floor is natural wood, gently polished, with a large circular cutout at the center that contains fine sand. Candles may be set in the sand. And over the course of a retreat, participants create swirls of art in it.
The guests gather, seated on chairs or cushions arranged in a circle around the cutout. Whether they are praying or in conversation, everyone is seen and everyone can see everyone else. There are no back rows, no one is hidden.
At the doorway to the room, guests are requested to remove their outdoor shoes. Practically speaking this preserves the floor. Spiritually, it is a reminder that those who enter are walking on holy ground.
A plaque tells guests that the chapel is dedicated to Mary Magdalene, the first Apostle, fitting for a center named the Hallelujah Farm.
The chapel epitomizes the warmth and hospitality of the Farm. The circular arrangement of the space creates an atmosphere of levelness and equality. It is a thin place, in which earth and heaven seem to meet.
We are fortunate that the author of John’s gospel placed Mary in the thin place of the garden at dawn. The first person to witness the resurrected Christ cannot be edited out. Light must shine on her.
She has been seen here.
Perhaps you have seen the picture of African children, sitting on the ground in a large circle. They are bare-footed and they sit with the soles of their feet facing into the circle. There is no space between the feet: the little side-by-side soles form a perfect circle.
In the circle each child is seen, and each child sees each of the other children. In the garden Mary “sees the Lord” and equally importantly she is seen.
Today we celebrate the first resurrection dawn, with all the joy of Easters past. And still we – Christians – remember that we live in an “already and not yet” time. Jesus has already walked the earth. Christ has already been resurrected and has ascended.
Meanwhile, we do not yet live in a world where all God’s children are seen, called by their names, fed, cared for, and know that they are beloved.
And so, as we walk away from the garden or the beach, this morning, may we prepare our hearts and minds to see the Jesuses and the Marys in our world.
- Perhaps, Jesus literally is the gardener – the immigrant landscaper – who mows and trims all day and returns to his lodgings at night.
- Perhaps Mary is the Asian American grandmother, who is beaten in public, and bystanders choose not to see or intervene.
- Perhaps Mary is the black American grandmother who fears that the next child to be born will be a boy, destined for the school to prison pipeline.
- Perhaps Jesus is the unkempt person, hovering outside the liquor store or hanging on the street corner.
- Or perhaps they are the many children, who have been lost to the system, in the chaos of a year of online and hybrid learning.
Friends, we will experience the resurrection dawn each time we see and are seen: we are seen by our family or by our neighbors, by those who serve us in the grocery store, the gas station, or the coffee shop.
This morning, (in this thin place) may you see the Lord, and may you know that you are seen.
And then know that you, apostle, are sent, both to see and to tell
“I have seen the Lord!”
May it be so,
Preached for the Inter Church Council of North Quincy and Wollaston Good Friday Service
Friday, April 2nd, 2021
"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
Years (and years) ago, when I was a pre-teen in secondary education, my school would hold a morning assembly several times each week. At that time and in that place, this took the form of a worship service, in which we would sing hymns from our school hymn book and read together prayers from a little blue prayer book taped inside the hymnal.
The headmaster frequently led us in a prayer that stays with me to this day.
It begins “Into your hands, O God, I commend myself this day.”
In my mind this was the perfect prayer to begin a school day. I could pour my pre-teen concerns into those few words: acne, friendships and cliques, the in-crowd and the out-crowd, romantic crushes, and of course the stresses of grades and homework.
This was the prayer of my pre-teen self, who did not know what else to pray, and still wanted God to go with her through the school day.
The gospel writer, Luke, presents Jesus primarily as faithful to God, his heavenly Father. Jesus is faithful his whole life long … born to a faithful mother, Mary, … and faithful as a child, in the temple, many years before our scene today.
Jesus was faithful through the 40 days he spent being tempted wilderness, faithful in his calling to ministry to declare “good news to the poor.” And now he is faithful even in death, as he cries out
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit"
and breathes his last breath. These are his last words of faith and trust.
I am comforted by the thought that perhaps Jesus, also, learned these words as a child, not from a school prayer book, but from Israel’s song book.
Jesus is reciting a verse from Psalm 31, a psalm Jesus might have used as a bedtime prayer throughout his life. The entire psalm expresses a deep faithfulness and trust in God: God as our protector, God as our redeemer, God as our refuge.
Even though I take comfort from the thought that Jesus and I prayed very similar words as children, Jesus’ trust and faithfulness far exceed my faith.
While I cling to the illusion of control, Jesus submits to what must be. He submits what is done to him by a world that would stamp out goodness and innocence.
Over this past year of pandemic, we … children, adults, teens, pre-teens … have had much more to worry about than acne, friendships and homework.
Children have had their world turned upside down by social isolation, the loss of loved ones, exhausted and anxious parents, online learning frequently without a stable internet or adult support. And many students who relied on school for support and guidance, structure or protection, have been lost in the chaos.
Meanwhile, adults and children have gone through the pain of sickness and death, often alone, the stresses of overwhelming responsibilities in their work and family life.
The pandemic has revealed much about what is broken in our world, but perhaps the greatest revelation is that our sense of control over our world is an illusion. While Jesus made the choice for faithfulness and trust, we are left with no choice but to trust in God.
And so, may we pray together, as Jesus prayed:
In times of pain and exhaustion, “into your hands O God.”
In times of confession, “into your hands O God.”
In times of anxiety, when we want to fall asleep but cant’, “into your hands O God.”
In a time of overwhelming responsibility and confusion, “into your hands, O God.”
It’s the prayer of a pre-teen who doesn’t know what else to pray. And it’s also the prayer of Jesus, who knows exactly what to pray …
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
The Woman Who Anointed Jesus: Practice Acceptance
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church
On Palm/Passion Sunday
March 28th 2021
Scripture: Mark 14:1-10
Today we reflect on the sixth secret of the Mister Rogers Effect, “Practice Acceptance.” We have also heard a story of an event during Jesus’ last week, before the crucifixion.
Once we see the connection between this story and the need for acceptance, we will not be able to un-see it. We will be reminded of the disciples’ failure to truly accept who Jesus was, why he had come, and what would happen to him in Jerusalem. And we’ll reflect on our own struggles with acceptance.
Palm or Passion Sunday begins on a high note. The disciples are made hopeful by Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem on a colt, or baby donkey. The entourage that has traveled with Jesus since Galilee, sees the crowds throw their cloaks down in the road as Jesus approaches, giving him the pathway of a king. People from the countryside and locals come out and join the parade, shouting “Hosanna, save us now! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The movement is gathering support, and Jesus’ popularity is increasing. His followers must be feeling confident about the week ahead, when Jerusalem will be packed to overflowing for the Feast of the Passover. The hopes for liberation will ring out loud and clear, and Jesus will be at the front, leading the charge. Or at least that is what they think.
Memories of Jesus’ predictions of his suffering and death are fading away. Surely he didn’t mean it. Perhaps he just brought that up when he was feeling low. Now, he must be encouraged by the crowd. Now, surely he, too, is feeling confident that his mission will work out perfectly!
Jesus spends the week traveling into Jerusalem, teaching in the temple, engaging in heated conversation with the scribes and Rabbis, and on one occasion making something of a ruckus. Each night the group retires to the village of Bethany, walking 2 miles up the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. They stay with friends, eating together each evening and sharing stories.
As the days go by, it seems that the religious elites are becoming more and more concerned about the influence of Jesus and his followers on the crowds in the city. A sinister atmosphere begins to develop.
In today’s gospel reading we hear that two nights before the Passover, “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”
On that same night, Jesus and his followers dine in the home of Simon the leper. In the middle of the meal while Jesus is sitting at the table, a woman comes in with a surprising gift. It is an alabaster jar, filled with a very costly lotion, called nard. She breaks open the jar and pours the amber colored aromatic oil over Jesus’ head. Other gospels tell us that the aroma fills the whole house.
The other disciples are angry at this outburst, complaining that it is a waste. They could have sold the nard, and given the money for the poor. But Jesus says
"Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
The mood of the group changes dramatically. One disciple, Judas Iscariot, can’t get over his anger at what the woman has done. Outwardly, he complains with the others about the waste. Inwardly he is disappointed by the turn of events.
If this is how Jesus is going to play things, Judas is done with him. Rather than wait to be arrested with Jesus and the rest of the group, Judas goes to the chief priests in order to betray him.
The irony is that, according to Matthew, Judas asks the chief priests for money, in exchange for turning over Jesus. Even as Judas complains that the woman has wasted her nard on Jesus instead of feeding the poor, he takes 30 pieces of silver in exchange for turning Jesus over.
And so we come to the sixth secret of the Mister Rogers Effect, Practice Acceptance.
As Fred Rogers said “When we love a person, we accept [them] exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way.” (Fred Rogers) 
Rogers projected acceptance to his TV audience, singing “It’s You I Like” at the end of every show. He “believed that self-acceptance was a prerequisite to other acceptance” and he was determined to cultivate self-acceptance among his young viewers. 
For Christians, self-acceptance is essential, and so is the conviction that we are accepted, by our loving parent God. And yet both self-acceptance and the belief that we are accepted can be very difficult in our times.
We are encouraged to self-criticism to the point of self-judgment. Both narcissism and self-loathing are on the rise, in a culture that emphasizes material success, achievement and popularity based on social media hits and likes.
The 20th century German-American theologian, Paul Tillich, delivered a famous sermon on the grace of God, in which he urged Christians to “accept that you are accepted.”
He said “[Grace] strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. … it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. … Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’” 
Self-acceptance and accepting that we are accepted by God are critical steps toward accepting others as they are. And, of course, accepting others as they are is the only true way to love. Wishing someone was different and trying to change them is about control over others. Loving is never about controlling.
When my husband and I were married, our wedding was officiated by our minister. I remember only one piece of advice from our marriage preparation meetings. The minister said, and I paraphrase “never try to change the other, it will only cause them to resent you. You both will change, of course, as you grow together. And if you do not try to change the other, they will grow into the way they are supposed to be and become all the more beloved.”
It has not always been easy to remember this advice, but I know that when I have felt accepted for who I am, accepted for my own hopes and dreams, I have grown in ways that feel good, right and true.
One of the most difficult things to accept, from a person we love, is that they are suffering, or that their life might be reaching its close. The most natural human response is to try to fix or deny suffering and death.
Perhaps you have not been ready to accept the truth of what a loved one has told you. They say that they are sick and they won’t get well. They want to discuss how they will leave this life, or what will happen when they are gone. Often family members are not willing to listen and the sick or dying person is left without anyone to share their worries and fears.
I want you to know that I am always available to talk about end of life issues or anything else, particularly, if your family and loved ones are having trouble accepting.
For now, though, we return to the gospel story for this morning, looking through the lens of acceptance.
The disciples, who are angry at the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with lotion, are in denial. They have not taken in what Jesus has been telling, them: that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem, that the only way forward, now, is the way of the cross.
These followers do not truly accept Jesus. They do not accept who he is, why he has come and where he is going. Instead they project their own goals and agenda onto him. Perhaps they imagine taking power in Jerusalem, or raising an armed rebellion.
When the woman comes forward to anoint Jesus, the others see exactly what she is doing. The woman understands Jesus. She has listened to his predictions of suffering and death. She does what she can to care for him, without denying what the outcome of his actions will be.
But, we must wonder about Judas and his agenda. He is so outraged at the woman’s actions that he goes to betray Jesus. We might wonder if this is the product of his lack of self-acceptance, his own self-loathing.
According to Matthew, Judas’s life ends by suicide. He throws away the money he receives from the temple elite in an act of self-disgust. Judas can’t accept himself, and so he cannot accept Jesus for who he is. How things might have been different if he could.
So often we, as individuals and institutions like the church, do not accept Jesus for who he is and why he came. We also project our own goals and agenda onto him.
But, how might things be different, if this Holy Week we accept ourselves, we accept others and we accept that we are accepted by the one who humbled himself even to death on the cross.
May all God’s people say,
 Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect (p. 137). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., p. 141
Secret 5: Develop Empathy
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church
On March 21st, 2021
Scripture: John 12:20-33
Today we come to the fifth secret of the Mister Rogers effect, which is “Develop Empathy.” When Oprah Winfrey invited Fred Rogers onto her show, and asked him “what is the biggest mistake parents make?” he replied “not to remember their own childhood.”
The two went back on forth on the challenge for parents of remembering what it is like to be a child, and the need to do so. Rogers closed the discussion by saying “ … children can help re-evoke what it was like, and that’s why when you’re a parent, you have a new chance to grow.” 
Empathy is not necessarily automatic, but we are given new chances to grow into it, over and over throughout our lives.
Our scripture reading this week, comes from the gospel of John. This passage is a snippet of teaching Jesus gives the disciples in Jerusalem, during the week leading up to the feast of the Passover. This is just a few days before Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus uses the metaphor of a grain of wheat, which needs to fall into the earth and die in order to germinate, grow and produce more wheat. He tells them that those who love their life will lose it, but those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The analogy might be heard as words of comfort for believers: when they die and are buried in the earth, they will transition to eternal life. But this interpretation does not make sense in the context. Jesus wants the disciples to serve and follow him in this life. He wants them to bear good fruit before they actually die.
In the gospel of John, this world, refers to the “fallen realm” that is estranged from God. This world is set up to oppose God’s purposes. It is this world that values winning over mercy and compassion. It is this world that seeks violent revenge for perceived slights. It is this world that drives young men to shoot up spas that employ young Asian women. This world is the system that treats certain people as expendable objects, instead of beloved children of God.
To die to this world, or to hate one’s life in this world, means to break open, like a seed in the ground, to new, Christ-like life. It means to break open to empathy, with the suffering of the world, on both a small and a grand scale.
There is a double meaning in this text. As Jesus goes on to tell the disciples how he will die, and be raised up again, he is telling of God’s great act of empathy for humanity. God’s body – incarnate in Jesus - has lived the a life of a servant in the world – and now God’s body – incarnate in Jesus – will be broken open on the cross.
The disciples are called to die to self, in order to break open to empathy. And at the same time, God shows empathy for all people by coming in Jesus and going to the cross with and through Jesus. This is empathy on a grand scale.
Anita Kuhnley, author of our Lenten book “The Mister Rogers Effect”, writes: “True empathy feels what another feels from their frame of reference … Empathy requires true adventuring and walking around in Joe’s world so that I might be able to understand him better.” 
Kuhnley explains that psychologists break down empathy into the cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another’s perspective. Affective empathy is the ability “to respond to another’s emotional state with a corresponding emotional state of our own.” 
Affective empathy takes courage, because the other person might well be feeling pain, they may well be suffering. This is why we often resist empathy: we do not want to feel the other’s pain.
I remember a time when I had become friendly with Alana, a woman who cared for some children in my neighborhood. The family’s children and mine were close in age, and we’d often find ourselves at the same activities. Alana was from Brazil and she looked as though she might be African American. She told me that when she brought the children in her care to activities at the gym, the staff on the door were unfriendly toward her. She told me that she was experiencing racism. I minimized her experience, saying “oh those staff are not friendly to me either.”
I didn’t empathize with Alana’s experience of the micro-aggressions she was experiencing in our mainly white community. I only heard what she was saying from my own perspective. I regret that now, and I realize that it is probably the reason we fell out of contact.
The chapter “Develop Empathy: Begin with People Where They Are” opens with the quote “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” 
This reminds of MM the person who supervised me during my Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE program in an eldercare facility. As part of my preparation for ministry, I was required to provide spiritual care for residents in the facility.
I noticed the way that MM showed love and empathy for practically everyone in the program, and also for the staff and residents of the facility.
One day, I asked what was her secret?
How did she manage to love so many people?
She responded, “oh well, if you look hard enough … you’ll almost always find something to love in anyone.” MM is a listener, like Fred Rogers. In her program she works to develop empathy in all her students.
To develop greater empathy requires us to break open, like the seed Jesus talks about. When I first began my CPE program, I was shocked by the suffering of the people I would be providing spiritual care for.
Many of them suffered from dementia and other mental challenges like depression. In addition they had physical challenges: hardness of hearing, macular degeneration, loss of mobility. And of course, many had experienced the loss of loved ones: spouses, children, close friends and relatives. This is what often happens to those who grow very old.
Each week I’d return to MM for supervision and we’d talk through my interactions. I confessed that I was having trouble getting close to my residents. I’d arrive on the floor in the morning, ready to work. I’d greet whoever was already up and dressed and ask if they’d like to talk. In the back of my mind I figured that I was only going to be there for a few months, so I couldn’t get too attached.
Looking back, I must have seemed brisk and business like. When I asked someone if they’d like to talk the answer was usually “not yet” or not at all. They seemed suspicious of me, and they were reluctant to open up.
I realized that I need to build trust, to get alongside the residents. I needed a way to use my time, too, so I’d join the group activities, like bingo, or help to serve snacks and drinks at the social gatherings.
Gradually the residents began to communicate with me. Gradually I began to listen to their various stories. Gradually my heart broke open to the residents and their circumstances.
I began to understand how much energy it took to get up in the morning, or why some would be withdrawn and uncommunicative at times. I began to understand why someone in pain might snap at me, when I approached.
It was as if I had been a seed, protecting myself with a hard shell avoiding getting close and involved. In order to develop empathy, I needed to be broken open. This process brought about good fruit. I developed powerful connections with my residents.
Empathy is a quality that begins with oneself. We learn empathy if we are shown empathy when we are very young. Ideally a caregiver responds to an infant’s smile mirroring a happy face, and their crying, by mirroring their sad face. But, we all know that parenting is rarely perfect, and some infants are barely shown any empathy at all.
Fortunately, empathy can also be learned. Anita Kuhnley recommends “putting on our own oxygen mask first” saying “Replacing the internal critic with a compassionate, kind friend can be transformational.” 
Empathy toward oneself includes many benefits, such as seeing the good in others, because you are not rating yourself more favorably, or experiencing respect for oneself, and an increased likelihood you will forgive your own mistakes. 
Empathy for ourselves is where we begin. We then progress to one-on-one empathy. In order to participate in God’s empathy with all humanity, as shown in Jesus, we will also need to embrace empathy on a grand scale. This means showing empathy in the neighborhood and in the community. It means being mindful of the language we use. It means never dismissing anyone who says they feel unsafe.
Developing empathy on a grand scale means believing people who tell us they experience discrimination or oppression:
- Women know when they are experiencing sexism
- LGBTQ people know when they are experiencing homophobia or trans-phobia
- Non-white people know when they are experiencing racism
- Older people know when they are experiencing ageism.
- And children know when they are experiencing bullying or abuse, even if they don’t yet have the language to express it.
Our fifth secret of the Mister Rogers Effect opens us up to care and compassion for ourselves, our closest friends and loved ones, and also to care and compassion for the whole world. This is a life long journey of breaking open and breaking open yet again. It is a quality that we develop, and God develops in us if we will allow.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies” … Richard Rohr describes this as “The Path of Descent,” saying “Authentic spirituality is always on some level or in some way about letting go.” 
This is the way of the cross. And so, as Jesus comes closer to Jerusalem and to the cross, may we prepare to break open, yet again, to new Christ-like life.
May all God’s people say,
 Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect (p. 118). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 119
 Ibid., 120
 Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, director, Monasteries of the Heart
 Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect. (p. 132). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 128
Secret 4: Show Gratitude
Preached on March 14th, 2021
for Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Numbers 21:4-9
This morning the focus scripture for our sermon is from the book of Numbers. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever preached from this book before. After all “Numbers” is not a very inspiring title.
This morning we might want to refer to the book’s Hebrew name, instead, which is “In the Wilderness.” This may still sound a little dreary, but at least it is more descriptive.
Also, “In the Wilderness” is the perfect title for the journey of Lent. The 40 days and nights of Lent correspond to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, where he was tempted. The writers of the scriptures love recurrent themes, and so Jesus 40 days in the wilderness reflects the 40 years Jesus’ ancestors, the Israelites, spent wandering in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.
The Israelites are the people who were led, by Moses, out of Egypt, where they had been enslaved by the king, Pharaoh. They received the gift of the law at Mount Sinai and then God leads their encampment into the wilderness. They remain there, wandering for 40 years before they are allowed to enter the land God has promised them.
By any standards, this is a long time. It seems excessive, to say the least. And we might wonder, why couldn’t they enter the land sooner?
Perhaps 40 years is the length of time it takes for them to transition from being enslaved people, to independent people who trust in God, and not in Pharaoh.
Or perhaps this is the length of time the people need to learn to live compassionately and wisely in the Promised Land. Perhaps God is testing the people, to make sure they are deserving of the land promised to them.
Whatever the reason, God provides for the people in the wilderness.
At first God’s provisions seem miraculous: fresh water and manna, a kind of crispy bread that appears on the ground each morning. But the manna only lasts for one day. If the Israelites try to store it, it becomes worm infested and spoiled. They have to rely and trust in God, daily, for their daily bread
In spite of this miraculous provision, the early harmony of their encampment evaporates over time. The people become impatient with the wilderness wandering, the people complain to God.
They complain about their monotonous diet. They remember how they were able to eat fish, various vegetables and fruit, while they were in Egypt. They forget that they were slaves, but they remember the menu.
The passage we heard today describes their fifth and final episode of complaining. We don’t know how long they have been wandering at this time. It’s safe to assume they are well into the 40 year long journey. This fifth and final complaint is directed at both God and Moses.
The people have suffered enough. They might be expected to lament the trials they have been through and they are going through. But instead, they complain about the food. They are tired of the daily bread God is providing for them. They have lost patience and they stop trusting God and God’s provision for them. Gratitude is non-existent.
God gets angry about the Israelites’ complaining and sends a plague of poisonous serpents. These venomous snakes bite the complaining people. But there is an antidote.
God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent, set on a pole. Whoever looks at the serpent will be healed. This is a success. And the snake on the pole serves as a reminder to trust in God and give thanks for God’s provision and protection.
The people survive their punishment and their time in the wilderness. They do finally enter the land. And I expect that this story would be all be forgotten, if the evangelist, John, had not referred to it in today’s gospel text.
We return to the theme of gratitude today. We’ve talked about it before, on a number occasions. Gratitude is the cornerstone of a spiritual life in many traditions, including Christianity.
In the Christian faith, we are called to gratitude for God’s gifts in creation and in each new day. Ultimately we are called to gratitude for the gift of Jesus, God’s own child, who lived among us as John says “full of grace and truth.” Jesus’ life, death resurrection, and ascension, demonstrate to us God’s grace, in the face of humanity’s lost-ness.
As the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, said “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.”
The fourth secret of the Mr. Rogers effect is “Show Gratitude.” Fred Rogers had a particular take on gratitude. As a “people person” Rogers regularly showed appreciation for the people, especially the children, around him. In his speeches, in person and on television, he reminded us to pause and take a moment to remember the people who had “loved us into becoming [ourselves].”
Mr. Rogers didn’t only feel appreciation for people, he expressed it even to his TV audience, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive” was his signature tune and opening to his TV show.
You may remember that one of the aspects of the first secret of the Mr Rogers effect, “Listen First”, was to practice “prizing.”
“Prizing” means showing appreciation for the person we are with, by lighting up when we see them, and genuinely appreciating their presence with us. Prizing isn’t fake or phony. If you smile and say “it’s good to see you” to each person you meet, you will mean it.
In the book “The Mister Rogers Effect”, author Anita Kuhnley talks about the “science of gratitude.” She says that gratitude engenders hope. It’s less a feeling and more an attitude. It’s a state of mind, or a moral affect. 
Gratitude is both giving and receiving. The recipient, being appreciated, feels good. And we feel good giving appreciation. There are many quantifiable health benefits, including lower blood pressure, enhanced immune function, decreased depression, increase resilience and happiness. 
I’ve discovered that a “circle of appreciation” is a failsafe exercise for Youth Groups, often during the last session of a semester or at the close of a youth retreat. We’ll go around the group, each person having a turn to receive appreciations from each other members of the group. Let me tell you, even the toughest groups will melt their own hearts and yours when they do this exercise.
As Kuhnley says, gratitude has a ripple effect “not only does gratitude make the grateful person happier, healthier and more successful, it also impacts those around them positively.” 
With all the benefits of gratitude, you might think it would be simple. But, of course, we know it isn’t. Our moods impact our ability to be grateful. As for the Israelites in the wilderness, there is a lot for us to lament and grieve in these times.
Our hope of hopes is that we are very close to the end of the pandemic, at least in the United States. And still, grief and lament are appropriate responses to the tragedy of the human suffering of the past year. As we look forward to the year ahead for our community, anxiety might surface. We might well wish that we were back in 2019, and that 2020 was just a bad dream.
We may look back with rose-colored glasses, to days in crowded restaurants and coffee shops, sports events and concerts. We may wish to go back to times when using telecommunications was fun and convenient, instead of an annoying necessity. But, as with the Israelites in the wilderness. there is no going back. We have no direction to go but forward.
Going forward we can try to learn from the past year’s experience.
-Have we learned to appreciate one another’s company all the more?
-Have we learned that our church is the “body of Christ” rather than a structure located on the intersection of Winthrop and Lincoln Avenues?
-Have we learned not to take transportation and travel for granted?
-Or not to forget to say “I’m sorry”, “I forgive you”, “thank you”, or “I love you” whenever we say good bye?
This past week, a number of clergy from the Quincy Interfaith Network put together a beautiful Interfaith Service of Grief & Hope, following one year of pandemic. The service will premier on March 23rd at 7 pm on Quincy Access TV (QATV) and will also be available online.
Elements of this service were recorded at the QATV studio on Wednesday. The presenters were carefully scheduled to minimize contact with one another, and of course everyone was appropriately masked and distanced.
The service includes litanies, songs and prayers from a diversity of religious traditions and community members. The format was designed to begin by acknowledging grief and loss. And then, having taken the time to grieve, there is a turn toward gratitude and hope, lifting up the resilience of the community and our people.
I had the honor of presenting a litany of Gratitude and Hope, with our congregational representative and dedicated worker for the health of the community, Kim Kroeger. Kim and I arrived at the studio on that sunny afternoon, to be greeted at the door by our colleague the Rev. Alissa Oleson, of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
Recording was running a little late, and so we stood outside, catching up on the latest community health news. How is the vaccination roll out going? What is testing looking like these days?
As we were given the go ahead to go inside, a group of Hindu women were just leaving. These women were delighted to see so many women religious leaders, and presented us all with a delightful box of sweet treats. Rabbi Fred Benjamin, of the Milton synagogue, had just recorded his message and so we were able to greet him too.
Once we had completed our recording a local Imam arrived to offer his words. As a member of the Interfaith Network, I’m aware how difficult it has been to contact and involve the Islamic community. I was so pleased to see that they had been included in this service.
The fact that this service was so lovingly created and so beautifully inclusive warmed my heart. I could not help but feel gratitude and joy, in midst the sadness of the occasion.
These days, at least for me, emotions rise and fall rapidly: despair, and then hope, joy and then sadness, lament and then praise. We’ll probably be riding this rollercoaster for a while.
And so, I invite you, any time you can, any time it feels even a little bit possible, to show gratitude and to show appreciation. Because, as I read on a one church newsfeed this past week “It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that bring us happiness.”
May all God’s people say,
Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect (p. 104). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 104-105
 Ibid., 111
Pausing to Think
Preached on March 7th, 2021
for Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: John 2:13-22
Our theme for today is “pause and think.” This is the third secret in our reading of the Mister Rogers Effect, secrets that we hope will help us bring out the best in ourselves and others.
“Pause and think” are not words we read in the gospel, we are not often shown Jesus pausing to think in any given situation. The way that Jesus is presented to us in the scriptures is generally “the product” rather than “the process.”
Each of the four gospels was written for a particular end or goal. This often involves an argument in which we do not hear from “the other side.” In the case of John’s gospel, the argument is with the people John calls “the Jews.” This term does not refer to all the Jewish people, rather it refers to the strict religious leaders of the time. They are the ones who collaborate with the Roman rulers in Jerusalem for the sake of peace.
In the passage Jonathan read today from John today, Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem. He makes a whip out of cords and uses it to drive the animals that were to be sold for sacrifice. And he overturns the tables of the people who exchanged temple currency for Roman coins.
In our reading from John, this morning Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover at the beginning of his ministry. In this gospel, Jesus is makes his position on who holds the power in the religious institution known from the very beginning.
John, in particular, likes to present a product in which Jesus is in control. The pausing to think is over. Jesus acts with confidence and authority.
But a couple of weeks ago we noticed Jesus pause to think when stopping to listen to the story of a woman with a hemorrhage. And in Luke’s gospel there is a passage that really belongs with John, in which Jesus very deliberately pauses to think about the situation of a woman about to be stoned having been caught in adultery.
Today we have to examine the passage from John quite closely to determine what kind of pausing to think went into Jesus’s actions. The first step is to let go of past assumptions we’ve made of this story. This dramatic scene has often been told in illustrated children’s Bibles and coloring pages, sometime a little too simplistically.
Despite what we may have been told in Sunday School, there is no indication that the money changers were cheating people. There’s no mention of Jesus’ objection to the noise or bustle in the temple courts. Jesus is known to have participated in the heated arguments and exchanges of outer court of the temple campus. Writer and retired pastor, Steve Garnaas Holmes puts it this way:
“Let's correct a few misconceptions
from your Sunday School comic book pictures.
First, he doesn't use the whip on people.
He uses it to herd the animals out.
“Second: he's not mad. This isn't an outburst.
(It takes time and patience to braid a whip.)
It's carefully staged symbolic street theater: a protest.
“Third: the moneychangers belong there.
They exchange Jewish coins, acceptable for offerings
or for buying sacrificial animals,
for the ‘unclean; Roman money that people carry.
It's how you make a sacrifice.
And they aren't overcharging.
Jesus isn't criticizing ‘commercialization.’
He's protesting sacrifice.
(Mark says he wouldn't allow anyone
to carry a vessel through the temple.)” 
This is carefully staged symbolic street theater, a protest. This sets the scene for Jesus’s future ministry. From the get-go Jesus is aligning himself with the prophets, like Hosea, who heard God say “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6) or Micah who proclaimed “what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
Jesus protests the sacrifice of animals in the temple because it is a distraction. The animals are literally scapegoats. They are supposed to take away all the sins of the people. The people focus their attention the rituals of religion and on sacrifice. Meanwhile, their lives may be made miserable by the lack of justice and mercy they are being shown by the Roman rulers.
The religious leaders fear that there is a potential for rebellion, which would bring about the downfall of Jerusalem. The temple rituals allow them to keep things under control.
The Jewish religion stopped sacrificing animals when the temple was finally destroyed in the uprising that took place from 66-73 CE. But scapegoating did not stop there. It has continued even in to our times.
Notably, Hitler chose to scapegoat the Jewish people for the ills that the people of Germany were facing in the 1930’s. He found it convenient to unite the so-called Arian Germans against a common enemy.
In America in the 1700’s, Virginia lawmakers created the concept of race by separating slaves of African descent from whites, whom they upgraded to indentured servants. The white upper classes were fearful of a rebellion if the two groups joined forces, and so the “plantation owners consciously encouraged racial hatred between blacks and poor whites.”  The African slaves became a scapegoat for the white indentured servants, who were distracted by blaming their misery on the black slaves.
And sadly, scapegoating continues to this day. PBS news reports that hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked over the past year. Some of this violence has taken place in Quincy, with two recent attacks on elderly Asian residents. Asian people, assumed to be Chinese, have been blamed in ignorance for the spread of the coronavirus. They have become the scapegoat of the pandemic and of our times. 
While we do not always see Jesus pause to think about what his next action would be, we certainly see Fred Rogers pause to think in his interactions on the TV. Rogers’ speech is punctuated by pauses, his interactions with fast paced interviewers are slow and deliberate.
One outcome of Mr. Rogers’ intentional thought process, achieved through prayer and reflection, was to invite François Clemmons to appear on his TV show as the neighborhood character, Officer Clemmons. Clemmons was a young gay African American man who had a beautiful singing voice. He first joined Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s.
In 1969, African Americans were protesting segregation in public swimming pools, by going to swim in “white only” pools. The news of the time showed violent images of pool managers pouring bleach and acid on the swimmers. 
Rogers must have paused to think about the impact of these images on the young minds of his TV audience. And so he did some street theater of his own. It was simple: he acted out a scene on a hot day in the neighborhood when Mr. Rogers invites Officer Clemmons to soak his feet and share a wading pool with him. This must be one of Mr. Rogers’ most Jesus-y moments, as he modeled love and care for his African American neighbor.
Of course, Rogers wasn’t Jesus, he was simply a man. A blot on his lifelong friendship with Clemmons was to forbid Clemmons to appear on the TV show if he came out as gay. He went so far as to suggest Clemmons should marry a woman. Clemmons recalls that Rogers said:
"I want you to know Franç, that if you're gay, it doesn't matter to me at all. Whatever you say and do is fine with me, but if you're going to be on the show as an important member of The Neighborhood, you can't be out as gay ... I wish it were different, but you can't have it both ways. Not now anyway. Talent can give you so much in this life, but that sexuality thing can take it all away." 
Even so, Clemmons was confident that Fred Rogers loved him, just for being himself.
Crises in our world bring out the best and the worst in humanity and a lot of in-between too. This holds true for the past year and the pandemic. As we reach the anniversary of the first death to COVID of a Quincy resident later this month, we are called to pause and think.
This time last year, I remember going out walking in the Wollaston Hill neighborhood, the day of our last evening Lenten meeting before the suspension of in person meetings. We hadn’t yet adopted the use of facemasks. We were just washing our hands and cleaning surfaces. I don’t think that the depressing term “social distancing” had not yet come into use. But we all knew that things were about to change.
As I met a woman and children coming up the hill from school, I carefully stepped out of the way. I was a mindful that they might think of close contact with me as a risk. And then as the year progressed, we learned that keep our distance from one another was the loving thing to do.
Now, though, there’s a real concern that as we really hope to emerge from this pandemic, children and adults will need to unlearn the fear of contact with others. I’m concerned that scapegoating might rear its head in many shapes and forms. There might be blaming and shaming of those who would not or could not follow restrictions. As we struggle to rebuild the economy, leaders may deflect criticism by projecting blame onto targeted groups.
This Lenten time is giving us a season of pause, before activities tentatively begin again. And so, let’s ponder, what acts can we do to overcome the scourge of scapegoating? Jesus’s dramatic act was to overturn tables. Mr. Roger’s act was to simply share a wading pool. What will be my act, and what will be yours?
May we pause and think and may all God’s people say …
 “Right Sacrifice”, https://www.unfoldinglight.net/
Feelings are Mentionable and Manageable
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church
On February 28th, 2021
Scripture: Mark 8:31-38
This morning we read a story from the gospel of Mark, that tells of an interaction between Jesus and the disciple, Peter. And we are also thinking about the second secret of the Mr. Rogers Effect: validating feelings.
The story and the second secret do not seem to have much in common at first glance. Until we notice that Jesus and Peter experience anger in our passage. This is mentioned by the writer as a simple matter of fact. And we remember that Fred Rogers’ said that feelings are mentionable and manageable, even those feelings we think of as “ugly”, like anger.
We have been reading from the gospel of Mark these past few weeks. This is a spare, matter of fact gospel. It is the earliest of the four gospels, closest to the eye-witness accounts and oral traditions that came directly from the life of Jesus.
The passage we read today comes later in the gospel. Jesus has already traveled the countryside between Galilee and Jerusalem, teaching, healing, casting out demons, and feeding the multitudes.
His ministry has been with the rural poor of his time, he has been inspiring them with messages of hope. The healings in Mark's gospel are not showy spectacles. Their purpose is to restore disabled, suffering people to a place of dignity in society. These events have been demonstrations of what God intends for the people: recognition of their suffering, and restoration of themselves and their hope for the future.
The disciples have been focused on what was right in front of them, but Jesus has been carefully observing what is going on in higher places.
He notices the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem paying close attention to what he is doing. And he is aware that John the Baptist has been executed by Herod. He hears that Herod fears that Jesus is John come back to life. At this point, Jesus is well aware of the danger of his continued ministry of hope and healing.
At this point he tells the disciples that he is the long expected Messiah, but they must tell no one. Jesus’ being Messiah doesn’t mean the greatness and glory that the disciples are hoping for … at least, not yet. It means that Jesus must undergo great suffering. He will be rejected and disowned by the temple authorities, and be killed – and then in three days he will rise again.
Peter objects. This isn’t what he signed on for. He signed on for positivity and glory. Peter is the voice in all of us that wants to avoid the ugly stuff of humanity. Peter wants to prepare the world for Jesus’ greatness, he isn’t ready for Jesus’s suffering. He isn’t ready to walk alongside Jesus to the cross, weeping with Jesus and sharing in his pain.
Peter would prefer to go from pancakes and sausage on Mardi Gras to the chocolate and flowers on Easter. Peter doesn’t like the painful times of Lent and Holy Week in-between the festivals.
Peter gets angry because he doesn’t want to accept the reality that Jesus will suffer and die. He rebukes Jesus, who also gets angry and rebukes Peter in return. Peter wants to avoid the painful ugly stuff of humanity, but he can’t. It is surfacing right here, as Jesus cries out “get behind me, Satan!”
Fred Rogers had a saying “feelings are mentionable and manageable.” Mr. Rogers did not shy away from the most difficult feelings on his TV show for children … instead “he fearlessly plunged headlong into topics rarely spoken of, such as loneliness, sadness, divorce, anger and much more.” 
Before the era of Mr. Rogers’ TV show and groundbreaking research in child development, it was generally assumed that children do not have a full range of emotions. It was assumed that children’s feelings are not as intense as adults.
Perhaps you, like me, grew up at a time, or in a family, when children were scolded for being sad or angry or for crying too much. It’s strange to think that children were expected to have better control over their anger or their sadness than adults.
When a child is told that a particular emotion is unacceptable, they do not stop having that feeling, but they learn not to express it. This is the classic definition of depression: burying emotions like anger and sadness.
Perhaps you, like me, were sent out to play with the other children when there was a death in the family and the grown ups needed to make arrangements. While the adults grieved, the children were expected to go on with life as though nothing had happened.
Fred Rogers realized that children needed to express their difficult emotions. He concluded that what can be mentioned can be managed. The first step was to encourage children and adults to talk about what they were feeling with someone else.
Rogers validated all of his viewers’ feelings: it’s OK to be angry, it’s OK to be scared, it’s OK to cry. But it’s not OK to express our anger or sadness or fear by harming or hurting ourselves or others.
Mr. Roger’s song “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” posed a unique question for children of his time. It reminded them that they have feelings … that they are not ruled by their feelings. This is a major developmental milestone for young children.
Author, Anita Kuhnley says “If children grow up learning how to regulate their feelings, they emerge as adults who are able to regulate their feelings. If they grow up resorting to violence or substances to regulate feelings, then it is more difficult to adopt new coping skills during adulthood.” 
Of course, adults ought to know that they have feelings. And still, if someone has never been allowed to acknowledge anger, fear, or sadness, they will not have any experience in managing these things.
Managing our emotions is known as emotional regulation, something that Fred Rogers did very well. This did not happen that automatically, or simply because Fred Rogers was a “good person.” As Kuhnley points out, “Rogers had at least seven ‘built in’ practices that helped him to mention and manage his own emotions.”
These days the practice of “putting on our own oxygen mask first” is known as self-care. Rogers’ self-care included: having someone to talk to, spending time in nature, seeking regular solitude, reading regularly for inspiration, expressing himself artistically, encouraging himself, resting.
I recommend practices like these, for our spiritual journeys this Lent. Perhaps you have already made plans to read from scripture for inspiration each day, or to use a form of art to express yourself, or you’ve made a commitment to exercise outdoors in nature. Have you remembered that you also need rest? And most important of all, do you have someone to talk to about your own feelings: trusted friends or family members, perhaps a therapist, or even your pastor?
It is entirely appropriate for every one of us to have experienced all kinds of emotions, even ugly ones, over this past year of the pandemic. We have been experiencing the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These are not linear stages, each may come and go at any time as we grieve.
This Sunday, as we observe the deaths of at least 500,000 Americans from COVID 19, anger, even anger at God, over the pandemic and its impact is understandable.
Our faith tradition makes it clear: anger at God is OK. The book of the Psalms, in our Bible, contains many songs or poems that express anger. These are Psalms of Lament, which begin with anger at God or an unnamed enemy, and resolve themselves in lament and praise. In the end, lament is anger that has been appropriately channeled. We arrive at a place where we can sit with anger, or grief, or fear, or sadness, and simply accept it.
Some years ago, when I was serving as Moderator in my home church, my pastor asked me to call a long-time member, Jeff, who was upset over some changes that the church council was making. I was concerned about speaking with Jeff, who was a former Moderator himself, who had power in the congregation. Not only that, his feedback was coming from a breakfast group, made up of other long-time members. But when I called Jeff, he was very gracious.
He said “Liz, I know you need to make these changes … don’t worry about me and the breakfast group. We were just lamenting the changes of the times.” This was the best gift that Jeff could give, modeling the transformation of his anger to lament, and accepting the things that needed to change.
And so, we return to our gospel story for today. In Jesus’s time there was no psychology, and no “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, of course. And yet we generally encounter Jesus as emotionally regulated in the gospel.
We observe him doing some of those practices Fred Rogers used to employ. We see Jesus taking time away in solitude to pray, we see him going up into the hills, or going out across the lake. We hear him confiding his feelings in his heavenly father.
In today’s story, we observed an interaction between Jesus and Peter, in which both men become angry. It is mentioned as a matter of fact.
Looking at the exchange between Jesus and Peter, I suspect Peter is scared. I suspect that fear is underneath his anger: the things that Jesus tells him are worrying and upsetting him.
And I suspect that Jesus is sad. He is realizing that his disciples are not in the same place as he is. They are not ready to accept what must be. Jesus will probably have to continue his walk to Jerusalem alone with his feelings, until, well a little later, there is someone who shares his burden. Even for Jesus that must have been a scary prospect.
But then it’s OK to be scared, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to cry.
May all God’s people say,
 Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect (p. 62). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect (p. 61). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church
On Sunday February 21st, 2021
Scripture: Mark 1:9-15
This week we enter the season of Lent, and we revisit – yet again – the first chapter of the gospel of Mark. If you thought that today’s reading sounded familiar, you are right. We have already heard the story of Jesus being baptized by John, and then being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. This time we focus on the second part of the reading, the 40 days and nights that Jesus spends in the wilderness.
Only, Mark tells us next to nothing about that time. He doesn’t tell us how Satan tempted Jesus. He doesn’t tell us how Jesus resisted temptation. All Mark says is that “[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with wild beasts and the angels waited upon him.”
We have to look closely at this brief verse and its context in the larger story, to understand the meaning of the time in the wilderness for Jesus and his ministry. And, according to Mark, the time in the wilderness is the last experience Jesus has, before beginning his ministry.
The 40 days Jesus spends in the wilderness are significant and symbolic. They reflect the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness before they came to the promised land. Or the 40 days of the flood, during which Noah and his family and the animals sheltered on the ark.
We can imagine that the period of time in the wilderness is not necessarily literally 40 days long, but a symbol of a time of trial. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the time Jesus spent during his early life, listening to God, and wrestling with his own resistance to the call to his ministry.
Anyone who has ever experienced any kind of calling will relate. Perhaps you are being called to a new vocation or career, to a new level of spiritual devotion and commitment, or perhaps you are being called to have a difficult conversation with someone close to you. If you are feeling a calling, it’s probable that you are also feeling resistance. There is the call of God, and there is the resistance within ourselves that might be attributed to Satan.
According to Mark, at the end of Jesus’s wilderness experience he emerges and is ready. He has worked through any resistance. He begins ministry, with the gifts and attributes he will use as he travels the countryside. One important attribute we will consider today is that Jesus listens. Jesus listens to God, Jesus listens to the people that he heals and teaches.
Throughout the gospel we see Jesus take time away from the crowd to pray and listen to God. And we notice his perception when encountering people along the road. We notice his attention to those who are ignored by others.
Over the Lenten season that began on Wednesday, we will be considering the “Mr Roger’s Effect” and the “7 secrets to bringing out the best in yourself and others.” Anita Kuhnley, the author of the book “The Mr Roger’s Effect”, looks at seven secrets that children’s TV presenter, Fred Rogers, used to communicate with children and adults. Today we begin with the first secret, “List First: Listen with more than your ears.” 
As a young man, Fred Rogers attended the Pittsburgh Theological seminary and was ordained by the Presbytery of the United Presbyterian Church. But Rogers did not pursue a typical ministerial career. Instead, he created a children’s TV show for WQED, Pittsburgh.
Rogers was concerned about the kind of programming being directed at children, in the 1950’s and 60’s. He was disappointed by shows that were full of pranks and gags, like throwing a pie in someone’s face. He realized there was a need for something more substantive to meet children’s needs. And so the Presbyterian church gave Rogers the leeway to create his TV show as a ministry, and that is what he did for his entire career.
Rogers had been bullied as a child. He was overweight and suffered from asthma. One day he had been chased by bullies, and only just made it to a safe house in time to avoid being beaten up.
Rogers also spent a good deal of time sick in bed. He had created imaginative play within the limitations of his surroundings. He also loved to pour out his feelings by playing the piano. Perhaps the period of bullying, the time alone in bed and with the piano was Mr. Rogers’ wilderness time. He came out on the other side, contradicting the saying that “the bullied becomes the bully.”
Rogers became a listener, even though he communicated with his audience through television. He listened to understand, bringing children onto his show and listening to them with patience, kindness and respect. Rogers practiced listening to people who are often ignored. Children are among those ignored people.
As we’ve noted, Jesus also practiced listening to people who were otherwise ignored. In one very poignant example, Jesus encounters a woman, who is practically invisible to those around her. She is hidden in the great crowd pressing in on Jesus. But she touches the hem of his cloak and in that moment he feels the power of healing go out from him. (Mark 5:25-34)
This woman had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. We learn she has endured a great deal at the hands of physicians. And we may wonder if she endured because the physicians never really listened to her. But, now she tells her story to Jesus and he listens. Then he declares that her faith has made her well, she goes away healed.
The example of the woman with the hemorrhage plays out even today, in medical settings. It is notable that when black women go to the hospital or to the doctor in pain, they are not taken seriously, they are not listened to. An implicit racial bias in healthcare is beginning to surface as many black women tell their stories.
Often pregnant black women who are in pain are ignored, and in some cases this results in the losses of the pregnancy or even the mother’s life. In circumstances like these, a lack of listening costs lives. Besides people of color, especially women, the elderly often have difficulty being heard in healthcare settings.
Over the summer, I took on the responsibility of calling residents of an elder housing location in Boston, to offer support during this time of isolation. One of the residents I most enjoyed speaking with was a woman who had a career history in healthcare. She told me that in healthcare interactions, elderly people need to be listened to most of all. They need the time to tell their stories. It takes a while to get to the heart of what is going on.
Physicians, who are under severe time constraints, they often do not take the time to listen. And so this woman has volunteered to train medical students. She was assigned a student that she would talk with on the phone, over a period of months, helping them understand the importance of taking the time to listen.
The student would learn, simply by listening to her and learning from her experiences. And, of course, the aspect she didn’t mention: she was being heard by being a part of this program.
In the book “The Mr Rogers Effect”, author Anita Kuhnley makes that point that being heard and being listened to are essential for a person’s emotional, mental and spiritual health. Kuhnley says “we can listen to ourselves better as we are listened to and heard by others.”  She equates being listened to with being loved, and listening with loving.
Probably we can all recall times, as children, when we were not listened to. Growing up, I wanted to be heard more often than my parents had the time to listen. But I was incredibly blessed to have four doting grandparents who all listened in their different ways. My grandfather was the greatest listener of all: he’d listen to me in his workshop, he listen to me on the long, long walks we took together. And after he’d listened, he’d pause. The reply would always begin, “well, love …” and then he’d slowly impart words of encouragement. What a gift it is to be listened to.
In our culture today, we are bombarded with noises and sounds that demand our attention. Kuhnley says that on average we spend 45 percent of our time listening.  But this is not active listening, it is passive listening to things we would sometimes rather not hear.
Students are expected to spend most of their time listening to teachers and instructors. And meanwhile, other outlets call out to us to listen: news programs, social media, phone calls and texts. In many ways we learn to tune out rather than listen. Because of all the noise we are exposed to, we need to relearn the art of listening.
Those of you who participated in some of the group discussions we have had at Wollaston Congregational Church may remember the guidelines I have on “active listening.” These guidelines reflect Fred Rogers’ approach to listening to children.
So often in conversation we are busy preparing our reply while the other person is speaking. In active listening, we are reminded to listen to understand rather than to reply. In active listening there will be a pause while the listener considers their reply after listening to the speaker. In active listening, interruptions are avoided. Clarifying questions are saved until the speaker is finished.
Like Fred Rogers, if we can we make eye contact. If the person with whom we are speaking is at a different level, because they are small or because they are sitting, we sit or crouch to get on the same level. We express interest in their story, and reflect back what we understand they have said. Listening means letting go of fixing problems, it means refraining from giving unsolicited advice.
And so, I wonder, how carefully have we listened, recently, to the people we love most?
And, how much do we listen to those who are listened to least in our culture?
How often do we pause to listen to God, and to our own deep inner wisdom?
And most important of all:
Who listened to you and who listens to you? And who is longing to be listened to by you?
 Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect (p. 39). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
 Ibid., 46
 Ibid., 48
Sermon: Entering the Liminal Space
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church
On February 24th, 2021
Scriptures: 2 Kings 2:1-12 and Mark 9:2-9
This morning, on Transfiguration Sunday, we come to the end of the liturgical season of Epiphany and we stand on the threshold of the season of Lent. We are at an in-between place.
We could rush on, planning for what we will do next: maybe our Lenten program, Holy Week observances, or even our Easter celebrations. Or we could stay here for a moment. In many ways, staying here for a moment is the most difficult thing to do, because this is a liminal space, a thin place. And this kind of place can be an excruciating place to stop.
This morning we heard of two encounters in thin places or liminal spaces. Thin places are the places where heaven and earth seem to meet. And liminal spaces are the spaces in-between the “this” and the “that”. In many ways liminal spaces are spaces of emptiness. And at the same time, because of their emptiness of earthly things, there is a fullness of God.
In our scriptures, thin places or liminal spaces are often found in the wilderness, or on a mountaintop. These are not the tourist-trap places of scenic overlooks we often associate with mountaintops. They are places of separateness, and silence, places of pause. Dwelling in these places can be excruciating for us who like to know where we are going and what we are doing. And, as it is often noted in the scriptures, being in the raw presence of God is unbearable for most human beings.
The first story we heard today was of the ancient Hebrew Prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha. Elijah has not lived a comfortable life. He has often found himself on the wrong side of those in power: the kings and queens of his time. Speaking up for the God of Israel has been quite a terrifying calling. And he has had to flee, he has had to hide.
Elijah has lived most of his life “on the other side,” on the east side of the River Jordan across from the land given to his people. At one point, Elijah spends 40 days and nights in the wilderness, like Jesus after him. At the end of this time, the angel of the Lord tells Elijah to stand on Mount Horeb, where Moses received the law, because the Lord was about to pass by.
As Elijah shelters in a cave in this desolate liminal space, a whirlwind passes by, and then an earthquake, and then a great fire passes by. But God is not in any of those elements. And so, after it is all over, the Lord comes to him in the still small voice of silence. The silence causes Elijah to wrap his face in his mantle, in awe of God’s presence.
Elijah will not live forever, and so he is given an apprentice, Elisha, to continue his work when he is gone. Not long afterwards, Elijah and Elisha are traveling together with a company of many prophets. The prophets keep interrupting their journey to tell Elisha that Elijah will soon be taken away from him.
This is not what he wants to hear, Elisha tells them to be silent. And yet, he knows this is the truth. Elisha refuses to leave Elijah, who plans to journey on alone, and so the two of them cross the Jordan - to the other side - by means of a miraculous parting of waters.
Now they are together in a liminal space, Elisha asks that he might inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Perhaps he wants an extra serving of Elijah’s courage and Elijah’s profound relationship with God. Elijah tells him this will only be possible if Elisha watches Elijah being taken. And then, as if on cue, a chariot and horses of fire appear between the two men, and Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Elisha stands watching in awe and in grief. He has experienced the most excruciating pain of the liminal place, seeing his beloved mentor being taken up. And at the same time, he has passed the test. He will be blessed with Elijah’s spirit. He will take up Elijah’s mantle. He has graduated on to the next stage in his life as a prophet.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus takes three disciples: Peter, James and John, up onto a mountaintop. This happens toward the end of Jesus ministry in the gospel of Mark. Jesus has just revealed to the disciples that he will undergo great suffering, be killed, and in three days rise again. The disciples are still digesting this weighty news.
The mountaintop is a liminal space for Jesus and the disciples. They are far from the crowds and in a silent place. This is a place where heaven comes close to earth, and in the moment that happens Jesus becomes transfigured before the disciples. His clothes shine brilliantly white, he glows with the glory of God that has been hidden just beneath the surface up until now.
And then the disciples see a vision of Moses and Elijah, the Hebrew Bible “greats”, talking with Jesus. The coming together of heaven and earth is indescribable. To simply stand and observe in silence is excruciating for Peter, and so he rushes to do something. He wants to build shelters: places to commemorate the moment that is still happening. But Peter’s suggestion is overruled, as a cloud overshadows the group and a voice speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved: listen to him!”
There is no doubt of God’s mighty presence in these two scenes. Jesus glows, shines with the light of God, he is transfigured. A chariot and horses of fire come down and Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind up to heaven.
The experience is not the mountaintop, nor the east side of the Jordan. The experience is God. This isn’t about the view, it’s about what happens there in that thin place.
Next week, Lent will have begun, and we will start our study and sermon series on the book "The Mister Rogers Effect: 7 Secrets to Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others from America's Beloved Neighbor" by Anita Kuhnley. But today, I’d like to give a little sneak preview from the Mr. Rogers book, because it fits so well with our stories today.
Kuhnley writes about the 7 secrets, or habits, that Fred Rogers used when communicating with adults and children, in order to better listen and understand.
The chapter on secret number 3 is entitled “Pause and Think: Take Time to Discover What is Inside.” This chapter begins with a quote from the book “The Little Prince”: “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: one sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” 
The author reflects on the way Fred Rogers communicated with people by making time to pause and think when they had spoken. He made use of whitespace like a book. Whitespace is the part of a page that is intentionally left blank, so that the text or pictures on the page are more readable, and easier to take in.
Fred Rogers used pauses and silence to sit with others in their stories, even the painful ones. The author says that in Mr. Rogers’ view it is essential to “Have compassion for each person’s inside story, even if it is a painful one” and recommends sitting with them in their pain. 
Rogers had developed a way of sitting in the liminal space that many of us find intolerable. Too often we are like Peter on the mountaintop, quick to rush with the doing and the fixing. We want to fill the silence with chatter, or the empty space with fullness.
This was my experience in my nuclear family as a child. I come from a family of hustle and bustle. My mom has always been brisk in everything she does. She is quite efficient at making and ending conversation. Sharing news is the purpose of a phone call, and when all the news is shared the conversation is over.
I appreciated her style for many years. It made life easier for me. I didn’t need to make the effort to make conversation, I’d sit back and listen to the chatter with my grandmother and aunts, enjoying the entertainment. I am naturally quiet, so when I got older I’d always ask my mom to go along with me when I went to visit family members. That way I didn’t have to think about what to say.
Gradually I realized that my mom’s conversation style does not suit my own pace. I discovered that if I didn’t have someone there, filling in all the spaces in the conversation, I’d learn much more.
When I sat with an elderly relative: a grandparent, or one of my aunts, we’d stare at the fire for a few minutes, or swish the tea leaves in our cups. Then new memories would surface. New things would come to light. They’d share with me their fears, perhaps they’d even weep. I’d assure them that it was OK with me. I learned I could actually sit with the discomfort. It would be better for us both in the long term.
This was one of the ways I learned how I would be a minister. It was a strange revelation, that I had this gift within me all along. I just needed to sit for a while in those liminal spaces for it to emerge.
And so, as we stand at threshold of Lent, this Transfiguration Sunday, I wonder what is your liminal space?
What is God’s invitation to you, to pause, to come into the silence, to listen?
It may be the pause you need to determine who you will be in your next stage of life.
It may be the silence you need, to hear God calling you beloved, as you wrestle with fears and doubts.
It may be the pause you need, as you wait for difficult news.
And so, I invite you to visit the liminal spaces often, over the next six weeks. There is no need to be afraid, because it is God who meets us there.
May all God’s people say,
 Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect (p. 81). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Kuhnley, Anita Knight . The Mister Rogers Effect (p. 85). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
A Year of Pandemic: Lifted by Eagle’s Wings
Preached for Wollaston Congregational Church
On February 7th, 2021
Scripture: Isaiah 40:21-31
Today our Hebrew scripture reading is from the book of Isaiah. The prophet writes to the people of Judah who are held captive in Babylon. Some 70 years earlier, Babylonian invaders had razed city and the Jerusalem temple to the ground. The invader took the people from Jerusalem and the surrounding area of Judah into exile. The former center of the Judahites’ religious and political life and the very residence of their God, had been destroyed.
Now, the Jewish people have grown accustomed to life in Babylon. The elite members of the community have assimilated and made themselves new lives. But life has been harsh for the poor, servant class. They have been required to serve their foreign captors, without even the spiritual comfort of their home and their temple. Only the elders of the community remember the former grandeur of Jerusalem and the temple. For the children, Jerusalem is remembered only as a story of long ago.
But now, Cyrus of Persia has taken over, and he has declared that the Israelites should be allowed to go home. This is what they have been dreaming of, all these years of exile. And, still, it seems that the people no longer have the energy to go. They have been exhausted by their years of grief. Over these past 70 years, they have buried their dead, birthed their young, and their youths have married in this strange new world.
Could they ever truly return to Jerusalem? The long journey home and the arduous tasks of rebuilding the city and the temple seem insurmountable.
And so, the prophet does not write words to reassure the returning exiles that their life back in Judah will be as before. He does not minimize their suffering in Babylon, or paint a rosy picture of what the journey back will look like. He does not deny that the restoration of the city and temple will require years of hard work.
Instead he reminds them that God is their source of strength. The prophet creates an image of God as a mighty eagle, the largest, most powerful bird of prey. He helps the exiles to imagine God lifting them on mighty wings. Even as they are exhausted and weary, God will renew their strength, bringing them home to Jerusalem to live into the future that God imagines for them.
They are to reconstruct and rebuild, creating a new community.
They are standing at the threshold of an entirely new era for their people.
This past summer I took some time for continuing education with the Hebrew Seniorlife organization. The Spiritual Care department was offering a program in Pandemic and Tele-chaplaincy, I didn’t want to miss this unique opportunity.
At the beginning of the program, the other students and I were provided with a very useful model: the emotional lifecycle of a disaster. 
This is a graph of the ranges emotions experienced as a community works through a disaster. This lifecycle can be applied to many community disasters, such as storms and hurricanes, mass shootings, events like those of September 11th, 2001, to name a few.
The cycle tracks emotions beginning before the event, possibly with warnings and threat. Those emotions begin to move from neutral gradually downward until the point of impact.
Do you remember around this time last year, when we knew that the novel coronavirus was spreading through China and some European countries? Our hearts were sinking as we realized that there was no escape from this pandemic and that the virus was already on our shores and in our communities.
In the disaster lifecycle, emotions track downward until the point of impact hits, when there is a rapid boost of emotional energy. This is known as the heroic phase of the lifecycle, peaking in what is known as “community cohesion.” First responders rush to help. Healthcare providers work overtime, and back to back shifts, running to greet the gurneys of the victims arriving at the hospital. Community groups like churches respond to the need for emergency food and housing. Community members donate money, food and clothing.
But, of course, human beings have a limited ability to remain emotionally “on call” in this way. This heroic phase can only last so long. Do you remember the pictures we have seen, over this past year, of exhausted nurses, doctors, hospital employees, and even morticians on constant call to the hospital?
Under “normal” circumstances, if a disaster could ever be described as normal, energy subsides after impact. The next phase is known as disillusionment. In this phase the responders take stock and realize that if things had been different they would not have been required to sacrifice so much. And so, last year some healthcare providers were angry over the lack of PPE available to them. They were overwhelmed the great onslaught of victims, that may have been avoided by better planning. They were tired of being called “heroes” as if that was an excuse for expecting far too much of them.
The disillusionment phase of the disaster is the time for grieving. The lowering of emotional energy is interrupted by a few trigger events, until the disaster anniversary comes around with its own reactions. In this phase there are memorial services, times of reflection, discussions on how to handle things better in the future.
Churches and places of worship play a major role in this phase, as we facilitate grieving and reflection. The emotional energy gradually rises as the community enters a time of reconstruction, working through grief with some setbacks.
I don’t need to tell you that the COVID-19 pandemic has not followed the typical lifecycle. There have been many numerous occasions when the impact has repeated, with new surges of infections and new quarantine restrictions.
Some community leaders say that we will have a time of memorial when the pandemic it is over. But, religious and spiritual care providers recognize that there will be no clear end for some time. We need to reflect and acknowledge our grief now, especially at the one year mark.
Healthcare providers, first responders, even funeral directors are exhausted. And we are weary … weary of being apart, weary of taking precautions, weary of thinking about sickness every day. And we are exhausted by the other challenges of life that are still going on in the midst of all this.
We do have the hope of the vaccinations, of course. The roll out has been a little rocky, but we hope it is getting on track. We have the hope of lowering infection levels. Still, our hopes are often tempered by new concerns such as variants of the virus arising from different places in the world.
And so, we long to be rid of this disaster, we hope for post-pandemic world. We imagine a return to the “good old days” pre-COVID. And, perhaps, there are children, even now, who do not recall what life was like before the pandemic. We elders will need to tell stories of those times before.
The pandemic has impacted our economy, our work lives, our schools, sports, travel, leisure and cultural activities. Will these things return to “normal” automatically when it is all over?
And what about us?
How will this experience change us?
Where will we draw our strength to reconstruct our church and our community?
As we hope to transition out of the pandemic, do we have opportunities to rebuild our religious and communal life better?
Do we have opportunities to address questions of inequality, inclusiveness, and stewardship of the environment?
The phases of the disaster lifecycle I shared with you today have been observed, time and again in disasters that have played out in history. It is interesting that the final phase, “reconstruction”, is mirrored by something in our reading from the book of Isaiah this morning. The exiles will return to Jerusalem and begin what was known as a period of reconstruction. The will rebuild the city and the temple. This will be a new era: the second temple period.
The Jewish diaspora has begun. Various sects will form, including the Pharisees, who are foundational for Rabbinical Judaism. This group will allow Judaism to move from temple ritual, to religious practices in the home and synagogue. And, of course, Jesus of Nazareth will be born toward this era. Early Christianity, began as another Jewish sect that was birthed in the second temple era.
It’s hard to imagine that the exhausted, weary exiles from Babylon would be able to even think about this new era in their relationship with God. They have an arduous four month journey of 900 miles back to Judah, just to start with. It’s doubtful they would have any idea what the new city, and the new religious-political structure, and the new temple will look like.
For now, they do not need to know. They simply need to wait, or trust, in God, who will give them the strength they need to do the task. And likewise, we who are weary, from this pandemic, and have a hard time imagining life: work, school, sport, travel, even church, in a post-pandemic world.
And here at Wollaston Congregational Church, as we discussed during Annual Meeting last week, we are making plans to do something different in our church and with our building. We know that this must coincide with the needs of the community for the years to come. Our imagination may fail us, as we journey to get on track with whatever our communal life will look like then.
But we are reminded, that we do not need to look to our own strength, or our limited human vision. Because God will raise us up on God’s eagle wings. We might even run, and not grow weary, and walk and not faint toward the future God imagines for us.
May all God’s people say,