Sermons

Engage with out most recent sermons.

May 12, 2024

One of the oldest and most perplexing questions in Christian theology is called “theodicy,” which means “vindication of God.” Classically stated, it is the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.  In other words, is the Almighty responsible for everything that happens – and, if so, how come such awful things keep happening?  In just this past week we saw people killed and injured and homes destroyed in tornadoes that swept through the southeast.  Was someone who lost their life unlucky or doomed?  Was someone who lived nearby but was unscathed saved by serendipity or divine intervention?  To some of you, I know, these questions are pointless and irrelevant, but to many they are troubling and echo around in the deepest chambers of the heart.  When you slammed on the brakes, swerved, and narrowly missed hitting someone who stepped out into the road, did you breathe a little prayer of gratitude?  When the awful event does happen to you, do you find yourself at some level asking what you did to deserve this?

The composer of the psalm we heard this morning had an answer for you – very simple and very clear: “. . . the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”  That was, in fact, the orthodox theology of the day.  It was the same theology that Job was confronted with by his so-called friends.  According to this way of seeing the world, if something awful happens to you, it means you’ve done something awful to deserve it; righteous people are rewarded with good things in life.  I have to tell you that theology has never set well with me (it didn’t set well with Job either, by the way).  It’s a kind of circular logic – reminds me a little of the old witch test: throw her in the river, and if she drowns it means she was a witch.  That notion never took into account the fact that some people can swim and some can’t.

I may be reading a bit into the story, but it seems to me that the disciples we read about in the book of Acts were viewing things differently.  When it came to making a crucial decision about who should assume one of the leadership roles in this community of the followers of Jesus, they didn’t do interviews and check references to determine who was most qualified or who was more holy.  They threw the dice.  Scripture says, “they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias.”  What “casting lots” meant was that they wrote the names of each candidate on stones, and put the stones into a vessel, then shook it until one of them fell out.  That was their guy.  Now, the clear implication of scripture is that they were seeking divine guidance in casting the lots, but my reaction to it is that, at some level, they were acknowledging that random chance was not, as you and I often think, a totally separate thing from divine providence.

Maybe it’s not all as cut and dried as the Psalmist seems to think.  Maybe the rain does, indeed, fall on the just and unjust alike.  And maybe sometimes you get rained on simply because you happen to be outside at the time.  But is there in the randomness of what may befall any of us at any time still a divine hand at work in a manner of which we may have only the slightest hints?  We’re in very murky and uncertain territory here.  Let me talk about that murkiness for a moment.  I’m reminded of something from Jeffrey Brown, the outstanding PBS NewsHour correspondent, in his book of poetry called The News Poems.  In it there is a poem titled “The Art of the Interview”.  He describes a time during a news interview when the lights suddenly went out in the studio and writes, “. . . still, again, always in the dark.”  I love that line.  It reflects a raw existential truth.  Whether the lights are on or not, you and I are in many ways “still, again, always in the dark.”  I think that’s partly how it’s intended to be.  The deepest truths in life are clouded in mystery.  Faith is little more than groping around in the dark hoping to touch a portion of that truth, but the task of groping in the dark for truth is growth-producing and, ironically, enlightening.

Well, my groping in the dark and attempting to touch the mystery of grace, providence, luck, and serendipity leads me, as is often the case, to the adjoining dark room where the mysteries of science are housed.  Albert Einstein famously said, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”  He said that in reference to the theories of quantum physics that were being put forward by others.  Einstein simply couldn’t quite get his very consequential mind around the uncertainty and randomness that quantum theory predicted to be at the heart of existence.  But, indeed, scientists have found that uncertainty – that constant rolling of the dice – does turn out to very predictably describe the workings of the sub-atomic, quantum realm of reality.  In scientific circles it’s called the uncertainty principle.  Basically, it means that because uncertainty lies at the heart of quantum existence, anything can happen.  For instance, it’s possible for the broken pieces of a coffee cup that has fallen on the floor to come back together on their own and make a new, whole coffee cup.  It’s not that it is impossible, it’s simply that the probability of it happening is so astronomically remote that it might as well be impossible.

Here’s my contention: kind of like the disciples in the early church did, the Almighty does indeed play dice with the world.  But it’s the Lord’s casino, and the dice are loaded.

The fundamental question that motivates much of cosmology is this: Why should there be something rather than nothing?  Why are there sunsets, and Toyotas, and people, and stars, and galaxies?  Why is there matter, and energy, and laws of physics?  I can’t answer that question to the satisfaction of many scientists, but I can suggest that the existence of existence argues for the existence of Divine grace.  This is so because in order for stars, and sunsets, and Toyotas to be, the universe has to contain all the necessary ingredients (matter and energy and laws of physics), and if those elements and laws were not balanced in a way for order to emerge, there would be nothing but chaos – or nothing at all.  To put this in another way, all of the randomness at the tiniest heart of existence, in the realm of quantum physics, has to be ruled by laws of probability that ultimately lead to an ordered universe in order for our world to be.  To put this another way, the created order, even though ruled by a great deal of random chance, is heavily tilted by its very existence in the direction of things working, being held together, and continuing.  To put this another way, Mr. Einstein, God plays dice with the world, but the dice are loaded.

This all should not come as a great surprise to you.  You know that terrible things can and do happen.  But if you give it a little thought, you know also that most of the time, on most days, in most places and most circumstances, terrible things do not happen.  Horrific tornadoes make the news because it is a rare occurrence.  If devastating, life taking, home destroying storms were happening in all places at all times, our species could not survive.  Yes, people died and many were injured, and our hearts go out to them, but in millions of homes across the land people live in relative peace and comfort. The nature of nature is that it all manages to work.  Even human agencies and activities, as bumbling as they often are, mostly succeed.  Reality is tilted in the direction of order, and creation is tilted in the direction of grace.  Terrible accidents happen; misery befalls us.  But how many times have you breathed a sigh of relief when the terrible accident was narrowly avoided?  How many days, how many hours and minutes with sufficient food, shelter, and even a degree of love can you tally up in your life?  If you add it all up and put in the balances the catastrophes and hurts on one side, and the times of life basically working and offering possibility and promise on the other, it’s not even close.  This is not by accident; it’s how the world is put together.  I’m telling you, the dice are loaded.

What are grace, providence, luck, and serendipity?  Here’s my answer: they’re all different words for the same thing.  No, I don’t think the Almighty decides one day that there’s going to be a tornado and these particular people are going to lose their lives.  And I don’t think that holy and righteous people get all the goodies in life or that if some terrible thing happens to you it’s because you did something to deserve it.  But I do think that grace and providence are built into the created order.  Just ask the disciples.  When they went to fill Judas’s place, they had sufficient confidence in how the world was put together by divine providence that they simply rolled the dice.

 

May 5, 2024

I’d like everyone to open up your bulletin and take a look at my sermon title.  That’s right: “flabber dabber.”  In fact, “flabber dabber, flabber dabber, flabber dabber.”  Think my elevator finally stopped going to the top floor?  Well, that’s exactly what they thought about the man who wrote those “flabber dabber” words.  His name was Christopher Smart, and all the way back in the eighteenth century he wrote an incredible poem about the “great Flabber Dabber flat clapping fish with hands!”  The line is from a voluminous work titled Jubilate Deo, which means “Rejoice in the Lord.”

I was first introduced to Christopher Smart and his “flabber dabber” language by Thomas Troeger, who referred to this extraordinary man and his mind-bending poetry in a sermon one day.  I have been fascinated by it ever since.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who has been intrigued by this bizarre poet who ended his life behind bars over two hundred and fifty years ago.  The modern composer, Benjamin Britten chose Smart’s words as the basis for an equally amazing cantata by the same name.  The cantata doesn’t actually contain the line about the “Great Flabber Dabber.”  It’s the 11th of 237 lines which comprise the fourth fragment of Smart’s poem . . . an epic work that took almost seven years to write.

What are we to make of a guy who writes something like, “The Great Flabber Dabber flat clapping fish with hands?”  It sounds like jabberwocky.  But Smart’s manuscript contains a note that says “vide Anson’s Voyage and Psalm 98th ix.”  Now, Anson’s Voyage is a natural history book of Smart’s time.  It contains pictures of flatfish and seals flapping their fins.  Psalm 98 reads in part: “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it!  Let the floods clap their hands . . .”  “Flabber dabber, flabber dabber” – it’s the sound of seals and flatfish and oceans slapping out praise to the Almighty, who, as Christopher Smart saw it, was not only the recipient of such praise, but was also the conductor of the great universal symphony which itself is a song of praise.  The Lord not only hears the sound of the seas slapping their waves against the shore in time with the joyful leaping of fish, but is “the Great Flabber Dabber flat clapping fish with hands.”

Well, they locked up ol’ Christopher Smart for seven years.  He was committed to a series of mental institutions because he was a little too extraordinary for his time.  The official charge was “praying in public,” but it certainly didn’t help his cause any that over the course of those years in the asylum, he wrote such lines as these:

“Let Ishmael dedicate a tyger, and give praise for the liberty in which the Lord has let him at large” . . . or “consider my cat, Jeoffry.  For he is the servant of the living God, duly and daily serving him. . .” or “For the mouse is a creature of great personal valour.”

But if Christopher (or “Kit,” as he was called) was a madman, he was also brilliant.  His seemingly rambling words are, in fact filled with obscure references to biblical passages and natural events.  His poetry is written in doublets, and draws on the pattern of ancient Hebrew poetry, creating balanced sections that mirror each other.  One could write volumes about the cryptic allusions and deeper meanings of his verse.  But one theme recurs consistently and persistently.  It’s summed up perhaps most beautifully in the line Britten chose for the final chorus of his cantata:

“Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.”

That was his theme.  Shut up in Bedlam, scratching verses of poetry on the walls of his room with a key, cut off from normal social contact, not able to publish, alienated from most of his former friends, his poetry, from first to last, was his “Hallelujah from the heart of God!”

There was another man, many centuries earlier, who was also considered loopy for saying things like that.  His name was Jesus of Nazareth, and in the verses you heard this morning from the Gospel of John, he says that his whole purpose was “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” He said this kind of thing all the time.  In John chapter 10, it’s almost the same thing.  He says that he came, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly!”  People thought he was crazy.  Scripture says that many of the Jews thought he was, in the words of John, “out of his mind.”

All of which is entirely understandable.  “Hallelujah from the heart of God,” and things like “complete joy” and “life abundant,” are messages that sound absolutely crazy in the midst of the kinds of days and years and lives we lead.  We who stand on the outside of the asylum walls, know the world to be a far sadder place than Kit Smart realized.  We who have the vantage point of history from which to hear Jesus’ words about abundance in living, know the truth about life: that it can be sparse and lean.

Life gets pretty lean when, instead of Fred Flintstone lunch boxes, children bring guns to school.  Life gets pretty lean when everyone seems eager to line up and join demonstrations against either Israel or Gaza accusing one side of atrocities when both have an enormous amount of blood on their hands.  And every one here knows what I’m talking about when I say there are times when no one is in the mood to utter a “Hallelujah.”  I know what struggles many folks all around are dealing with.  I know about the fears for their children, and the daily stomachache from the crisis that won’t go away, or the one that seems to keep looming on the horizon.  I know about the times of such deep loneliness that you think you simply won’t be able to bear it any more.  I know about the wait for lab results, and the prognosis no one wants to hear.  I know about the daily agony over the fate of our country and our world.  I know about families and the families of families, about the marriage struggles, and the drug problems, and the brushes with the law, and losses – the losses that just seem to keep coming.  And there’s no one here who’s immune.  So you and I can have a bit of empathy for those who have considered it certifiably crazy to talk about “hallelujahs” and “abundant life.”

But, you see, it’s never been any different, not in the first century, and not in the eighteenth century.  Jesus was considered a madman, and Kit Smart was locked up.  Apparently, you do have to be a little off your rocker to live with joy that’s “complete.”  Apparently, your train has to be missing stops at a few stations to see the divine power at work in the heart of life and sing about it.  Apparently, your marble count has to be a little short to offer fullness and hope and abundance in living to another human being.

People in this congregation have given their lives to caring for others as a nurse, or have volunteered at Project Hope, tutoring and nurturing children in need, or preparing community suppers, or organizing food drives.  You have to be a little off your nut to care more about others than about yourself.  You have to have a few screws loose to greet every day with a wide smile when those days are filled with problems and pain.  You have to be little wacko to believe in children who are failing, and give your life and your time to them.  I think that’s exactly right!  Because Lord help us if we ever gain our right minds according to the standards of a world that so sanely teaches children to kill, politicians to lie, and millions to tune out with drugs, alcohol, or television.

I am so thankful for this community of people who’ve gone off the deep end!  I am thankful that here we come together once a week, dragging our hurts and fears and trauma and terror behind us, to sing “hallelujahs” and speak to one another of complete joy and abundant life!  It doesn’t come easily, but when it comes, it’s one heck of a testimony.  At times, just the act of declaring our belief in that joy, or repeating that hallelujah, can turn our heads and hearts around and help us to find the wonder and beauty of small things like Kit Smart found in his cat, a mouse, a flower.  Or it can help us to see more deeply into existence, as Jesus compelled us to do, and to discover there the trust in divine power that can change lives and change the world.

Joy is often suspect.  And perhaps rightly so, because the smiles are too frequently plastic, and the “hallelujahs,” transparently desperate.  But there is a better way.  When we come with our sorrows and hurts intact, bringing our tears and our rage, and stand together in the presence of love, every so once in a while we’re fortunate enough to lose our minds – and gain our hearts.

I believe there is a “flabber dabber” person in all of us, just waiting to find expression.  But we can become so constricted by our lack of vision that we withdraw from hope.  And then we become a little less alive with each day of quiet despair that we live.  There is complete joy and abundant life to be found!  It begins, even in the midst of pain, with an appreciation of the simple wonders and beauties of life; it grows to fullness in the presence of a loving community; and it finds fruition in a depth of understanding, trust, and praise that, quite frankly, is a little wacky in the context of a hopeless world.

So, my prayer for all of us is that we will be considered looney, that they’ll want to lock us all up for failing to grasp the true hopelessness of our situation.  May we forever be so out of touch with reality, and may we thereby hear the “Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.”

Amen.

April 28, 2024

I’m sure many of you have heard things like this, but it’s good to be reminded from time to time.  The college graduating class of 2024 shares the following characteristics:

-They have no memory of the Bill Clinton presidency.

-They have always lived during an age of AIDS, and were still in high school when the COVID pandemic started.

-They have never known a world without computers and cell phones.

-They have no clue what the expression “you sound like a broken record” means.

-They have never seen a TV with only 13 channels.

-They have never paid only a dime for payphone call.  In fact, most of them have probably have no idea what a payphone is.

The speed at which the generational odometer spins is mind-boggling isn’t it?  But if the cloud of dust from the wake of the newest generation as it races toward its destiny is bewildering, so is it awe-inspiring to behold the footprints left in the sands of time by those who have passed this way before.  I am one of those who can be absolutely carried away by being in a very old place and imagining the lives of the people who lived there.

I had that feeling a while back on a trip to visit family in Arkansas.  While there, we went to the Pea Ridge civil war battleground.  It’s now a national military park, but on march 7th and 8th in 1862, its large open fields, wooded ridges and roads were the site of one of the early decisive battles between Federal troops and the Confederate Army.  We looked at artifacts from that two day long blood bath: pistols, bayonets, canteens, and uniforms of soldiers – some with bullet holes in them.  We went to the Elkhorn Tavern on Telegraph Road where in 1838, thousands of Cherokee Indians had walked on their forced exodus from ancestral lands in Georgia and the Carolinas – the infamous “Trail of Tears.”  Twenty four years later, the lawn and road in front of the tavern were strewn with the bodies of young soldiers in blue and grey uniforms.  I wandered over to the big stone fireplace, and shook my head in amazement, thinking about what kinds of meals have been cooked within that hearth over how many generations, what amazing things those stones had seen, and what has been said in conversations shared within those walls.  That’s the sort of thing that gives me “goose bumps.”

And so, at least for someone like me, something very large and very ancient stirs from its slumber in the depths of my soul when I hear these words put down thousands of years ago by some unknown person of faith:

“Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,  and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”

When I see photos of my great-grandchildren smiling with the joy of youthfulness, there are moments when I imagine them, years hence, studying their own great-grandchildren, and in an instant I am transported back to my own childhood, and the smells and sounds of my neighborhood, and I find myself strangely connected to other generations, past and future — to my grandparents as toddlers, to my grandchildren as elders,  and to, in the words of the ancient Psalmist, “a people yet unborn.”

Those are fleeting moments, but they are magical.  Most of the time, I’m not thinking about the future, or the past, because today has problems enough of its own.  You know what I mean.  It’s the garage door opener not working, the project deadline looming, and the appointment at 3:00 that’s got to be over in time to get to the grocery store because dinner is early to make time for the evening meeting, and . . . on it goes.

So on this Sunday morning in April in the year of our Lord, 2024, I’d just like for all of us to stop for a minute, and draw a breath, and put ourselves into a “context” — see ourselves as we are, links in a very, very long chain.  And I’d like to ask you: what are you proclaiming to a people yet unborn?

Your life is a story, and it’s written in the hearts of the people you touch.  That story becomes part of the oral tradition of a family and of a people.   Like it or not, you are speaking to those who come after you; you are speaking to them with the substance of your life.

There are so many examples around of this dynamic.  People are telling stories with their lives all the time.  Just pick up the newspaper and you can read about them.  Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuala has been described as an autocrat and a dictator.  According to estimations by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, under Maduro’s administration, more than 20,000 people have been subject to extrajudicial killings and seven million Venezuelans have been forced to flee the country.  He has been accused of crimes against humanity including murders, thousands of extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and torture.1  Maduro has made a statement with his life.

On the other hand, there was “Fanny.”  Fanny was an elderly woman in a church that Dadgie pastored years ago.   She was the matriarch of her large clan (she herself had nine children), although “matriarch” was a pretty highfalutin’ word for someone in a family that poor.  They had enough to eat — at least they had milk and bread.  They had milk because one of Fanny’s brothers had a farm with a few cows.  They had bread because Fanny baked six loaves every other day.

Fanny was a church lady.  She had her own spot in the third pew from the front on the right side, and she was there every Sunday.  Her grandfather founded the church.  But then, this isn’t a story about her ancestors; it’s a story about Fanny.

How Fanny lived was evident in how she died.  You see, Fanny was absolutely aware of the presence of the Spirit, and the goodness of the Lord in her life, but she felt that she herself was a poor follower of Christ, because she just didn’t know enough.  She didn’t feel that she understood the Bible, and didn’t know all the things that educated folks knew about religion and such.  So, she read.  She read the Bible, and she read every book about the Bible she could get her hands on.  But it never seemed to her that it did any good.  She still just never quite “got it all.”  By the time she was in her 80’s she had read more books, and more books about the Bible, and more of the Bible itself than just about anybody in town.  But she considered herself grossly uneducated.

Fanny approached every day as a gift.  She approached it with a smile, and with an eager spirit, and a loving heart.  And all those smiles, and all that eagerness, and all that love was repaid again and again.  Everybody loved Fanny.  And everybody felt just a little closer to the Lord when they were around her.

She didn’t die quickly.  The disease spread over her body in the course of months.  She lost weight, then she lost strength, then she lost the ability to walk.  In the last days, as people gathered around her bed to talk with her, she still gave them that warm, loving smile, and did her best to brighten their spirits.  She was at peace, you know.  She knew the Lord would hold her in everlasting hands, and never let her go.

One of the prominent men of the community, a banker, came to Fanny’s bedside and talked to her for an afternoon.  As he sat there next to her, talking about the little church, and Fanny’s big family, he couldn’t help remembering a Bible study group he was in with her once upon a time.  He had asked the question, “If people ask, ‘Are you a Christian?’ what should we say?”  A little tear started to well up in the corner of his eye as he remembered her answer.  “I don’t know what anybody else would say,” she said hesitantly, “but as for me, I don’t think I’m doing a very good job at it, but I’m just doing the best I can.”

Fanny’s daughters and granddaughters drove in from different towns during the last weeks, taking turns staying with her night and day.  They wouldn’t have thought of doing otherwise.  Pretty much all of her children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren went to church.  They were a powerfully faithful family.  But then, this isn’t a story about Fanny’s descendants, it’s a story about Fanny.

When she died, the money flooded in to the little church in her memory from all corners.  It was used to build a library of religious books — a place for other little girls who didn’t think they knew anything about the Bible to sit and read.

I share with you Fanny’s story as a loving act of sacred “journalism.”  It’s a report, of sorts, on what David Watson refers to as the “message of good news. . . [that’s] still unfolding.”  And that’s our calling, I believe, as Watson said, to be journalists rather than salespeople.  Journalists, because the good news is a story to be told, not a commodity to be sold.

And whatever your life is about, hatred or love, violence or faithfulness, you are, by your living of these days, telling a story.  It’s a story with a context.  We tell it in the context of our ancestors and our descendants.  We tell it as brothers and sisters of Christ.  We tell it as children of Abraham.  And, as Paul made clear in his letter to the Galatians, that lineage is not in blood, but in faith.  We are all children of Abraham.

Anyone who tries to count the stars of heaven and knows that they represent the spark of Divnity in the lives of generations too numerous to count is a child of Abraham.  Anyone who learns how to gently smile through the pain of dying because of the certainty of being held in the loving arms of the Lord of Life is a child of Abraham.  Anyone whose eyes well up at the bedside of an old woman with the overpowering recognition of, as Jacob said to Esau, “seeing the face of God” in her is a child of Abraham.

In the end, for those who live by faith, all of our stories are the same story.  And it is this: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever! . . . Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,  and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.”

1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicol%C3%A1s_Maduro

April 21, 2023

I’m not a big hockey fan. I’ve always thought that hockey seems like an excuse for grown men to get into fistfights.  There’s the great old Rodney Dangerfield line: “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”  At any rate, the one thing that impresses me is the NHL tradition of both teams lining up on the ice after the game and shaking each other’s hands.  I thought that would be a good idea for all professional sports teams.  It would be a great example, I think, for the drunken lunkheads who start street riots after championship games.

There are very few of us died-in-the-wool Red Sox fans who don’t hate the New York Yankees and everything they stand for.  But I’m starting to wonder: is the whole rabid rivalry thing in sports just another outlet for a need that dwells deeply in the human breast – the need to have an enemy?

This was all going through my head as I reread this icon of our tradition, the 23rd Psalm.  And this line practically jumped off the page at me, “[the Lord] prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  The first thing I began to mull over is: What is an enemy?  That may seem like a silly question, but I’m not so sure it is.  I wonder if we ever think very deeply about what we mean when we refer to someone as an enemy.  The best I could come up with is that an enemy is someone who is trying to win at the expense of my losing in a zero-sum game, or, to put it succinctly, someone who hurts me or threatens to hurt me.  So, it all comes down to this: the existence of an enemy is predicated on my desire to not be hurt.  So an enemy is not an objective reality in the world beyond me, it is an extension of my own hurts, desires, needs, and fears.  In short, the enemy does not live “out there,” it lives “in here.” I love the old “Pogo” comic strip, particularly the episode where Pogo and his crew are on the way back from a campaign in the swamp with cooking pots on their heads for helmets, and I think it was Albert the Alligator who said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

All of which seems like a good basis for looking at this line from the 23rd Psalm.  What might it mean that the Lord “prepares a table” for me “in the presence of my enemies?”  Can you take a moment and try to get that picture into your head?  You are surrounded by your enemies, and, what do you do?  You sit down to eat.  That is a stunning image, and it speaks volumes.  First, it says that you are, in the face of an imminent threat, making yourself vulnerable.  There is perhaps no more vulnerable position you can get into than sitting down to eat – particularly in the ancient Near East, where the tradition was to sit on the floor either with legs crossed, or reclining against a cushion.  It is the ultimate expression of pacifism.  It says to those who may be regarded as your enemies that you are not prepared to fight.  In fact, you are prepared to suffer the consequences of their attacks rather than fight.  Now, I have struggled through most of my adult life with pacifism.  Most of you know I am a former police officer.  I carried a .357 magnum and a nightstick and was prepared to use either of them, and did.  But I have also always wrestled with the teachings of Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  I believe their insistence on non-violent non-cooperation with evil reflects the kind of soaring humanity to which we are all called.  Before my police years, as a younger man – it was, as I recall, 1966 – I was on my way home from a basketball game one night in the Chicago suburb where we lived.  I was walking toward a bus stop when I found myself surrounded by a gang of young black men.  With no provocation I suddenly felt a ringing knock to my head.  One of these guys had hauled off and hit me in the head.  He kept beating on me.  I had been hearing those words of Dr. King, and they had resonated with my Christian upbringing, so I just kept saying to these guys, “I’m not going to fight you, man.”  To this day, I don’t entirely know how much of my refusal to fight was noble, non-violent resistance, and how much of it was just fear of getting killed.  Needless to say, I got beat up pretty badly that night.  But the incident has stayed with me.  It has been a kind of experiential keel around which I teeter and yaw back and forth between belief in non-violence and a commitment to self-defense, and the defense of others.  All of which is to say that I’m no pacifist, but this image of sitting down at a table to eat surrounded by one’s enemies captivates me, and makes me think there is something yet more wonderful that I and you are being called to here.

Secondly, the one who sits down to eat when his enemies are upon him is making a profound statement about the nature of enemies.  Sitting to eat is perhaps the most common, routine thing that any of us do.  We do it three times a day, generally speaking. And we do it unceremoniously and almost unthinkingly.  To take a seat and eat when supposed enemies are upon me is to virtually deny their existence; it is to say, in effect, I have no enemies.  It is to acknowledge what I was suggesting earlier, that enemies exist within, not without, and are therefore only a product of our minds.  If I choose not to be threatened, I have no enemies.  So, what’s for dinner?  I’d love to be that grown up.  I’d love to be so unattached to my possessions that I didn’t fear losing them, so secure in my life that I didn’t fear losing it, so evolved that I was beyond playing zero-sum games, and was therefore beyond allowing any enemies to be generated in my mind.  I sincerely doubt that I’ll ever get there, but I’d like to think that, reflecting again on Dr. King’s words, as a people we’ll get there, someday.

And finally, I think sitting down at table in the presence of enemies is a staggering invitation.  I think it says to those presumed to be enemies, “join me.”  Breaking bread together is one of the most intimate things we do in human relationship.  That intimacy is reflected here when we gather around the table once a month.  Something wondrously loving passes between us as we take the bread and the cup.  We find ourselves on the most level of grounds.  We share an experience that is rich in empathy.  We know, in the breaking of the bread, that we are all full of goodness; we are all tainted with evil; we are all worthy, and all in need of grace and forgiveness.  It’s at the table, when the food is offered and the shared meal begins, that barriers are broken down and we see one another as true sisters and brothers.

I wasn’t eating at the time, but I had an experience of this kind of dawning empathy that nearly knocked me over when I read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.  It’s the story of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North and West during the course of the twentieth century in America.  It follows the true life stories of three black migrants over the course of several decades.  One of them, a man named George Starling who took a job as a coach attendant on the trains that ran up and down the East Coast, was reading the newspaper one day and reflecting on all the abuse and beating and murder of blacks he had witnessed growing up in the south.  He was reading about, “Hosing and police dogs and people watching it as if it were a made-for-TV movie and the blacks just had to take it like they had for generations.

“‘I had the paper in front of my face,’ he said, ‘And I got so mad.  I dropped the paper down, And when I dropped the paper, I’m looking right in a white man’s face just sitting across from me.  I had never seen the man before, didn’t know him from Adam, but he was white.  And the hatred just surged up in me after looking at this thing in the paper.  I just wanted to hurt somebody white.  And I had to just really restrain myself to keep from just getting up.’”1

I was sitting in my living room as I read this in Wilkerson’s book.  And at that point I set the book down and rubbed my face, and stared off across the room for a long while.  I felt as if I were privy to the inner thoughts of that young black man who had beaten me in the head that night so long ago on the north side of Chicago.  And as I weighed all this in my mind, it struck me that I was beaten up right around the same time that Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a protest in Cicero, on the southwest side of Chicago, and a white mob had attacked him and his marchers.  Someone threw a rock at King’s head and he bled from the wound.  I found myself almost breathless as I, for the first time in all those decades, stepped for one brief moment inside the head of my attacker.

Kierkegaard asked, “But what, then, is love?”  And he answers himself, “Love is to presuppose love; to have love is to presuppose love in others; to be loving is to presuppose that others are loving.”2  That sounds like so much pie-in-the-sky, mush-headed, idealism.  But there is something deep within our souls, and stirring around beneath the lines of this treasured ancient psalm that tells us there is truth to be mined here.  Perhaps our greatest challenge is to learn enough about love that we are finally able to know the hurt within the one who wishes to hurt us.

But there’s more.  In the final analysis, as Christians – those who profess Christ – we have a further slant on this ancient psalm and its picture of eating in the presence of enemies.  It was summed up beautifully by Gordon Marino commenting on those words of Kierkegaard.  He wrote, “Kierkegaard counsels that I can love those who have wronged me because that is precisely what Jesus commands me to do. Loving my enemies is not an option, but a requirement.”3

Well, I doubt that I’ll stop being a rabid Red sox fan, or stop hating the Yankees.  But, who knows, if I grew up a bit more, maybe I could even admit that some Yankees might be nice guys after all.  But seriously, folks, here’s the skinny: if you can muster the courage, the next time someone wrongs you, maybe the best response is, “What’s for dinner?”

1 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Random House Vintage Books, 2010, pp 379-380.

2 Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, Harper Classics, 2009.

3 Gordon D. Marino, “Leap of Love,” The Christian Century, July 17, 2002

April 14, 2024

There are many variations of an ancient Hindu story about what holds the world up.  In my favorite version the novice comes to his master and asks what holds the world in place.  The master says, “The world is held up by a giant elephant.”  The novice thinks for a moment, then asks, “But what holds up the elephant?”  “The elephant,” says the master, “stands on the back of a huge turtle.”  “And what about the turtle?” comes the next question.  “The turtle stands on the back of another turtle,” says the wise old master, “but you can stop right there.  It’s turtles all the way down.”

I don’t think the story is really about what holds the world up.  I think it’s about the need to have answers.

I recently needed some answers.  I bought a new generator a little over a month ago.  I had trouble with it from the get go.  It had trouble starting.  I had techs from the company that sold it to me at the house twice.  Finally, they discovered that it had a defective battery.  So they replaced the battery and the problem was solved.  The generator started up just fine without the pull chord.  Then, as you may recall, a couple of weeks ago the power went out.  So, I started up the generator, hooked up the line to the house sub-panel, and the lights worked, but the refrigerator went on and off and the furnace and well pump didn’t work.  So, I wanted the people who sold it to me to take it back and return my money.  They wouldn’t do that, and insisted there was no problem with their generators.  I was preparing to file suit against them, so I hired an electrician to come to the house and test the generator and the continuity of the sub panel.  I wanted answers!  Then, I got my answer.  It turned out, much to my chagrin, that the problem was a prong on my 220 plug that was loose and not getting a solid connection.  I had some crow to eat.  Well, at least I got my answer!

We all want answers.  You and I would like to know what holds the world up.  We’d like just a little clarity about things that seem to be a kind of theoretical, metaphysical mush.  We’d like the Divine intentions for humanity to be unveiled, and the world to be a bit less confusing.  We’d like it to make sense that children starve in a distant war-ravaged land and homeless people die of exposure on city streets in America while corporate executives get six figure salaries and outrageous pensions.  We’d like to be wrapped in comforting bands of reason and divine revelation that would close out all the nagging questions about why greed and pride and violence seem to sit enthroned in our world, while loving-kindness, understanding and forbearance seem always to be on the chopping block.  We’d like answers.  What holds the world up?  Does anything?

Has there ever been a generation that didn’t want such answers?  Has there ever been a soul on this earth who didn’t want to have it made a bit more clear, and a bit more easy?   You may have found a few answers to your questions; and if you are very, very fortunate, you have discovered that there are many more questions yet unanswered.  What you have been doing most of your life, and to a large degree, what we’re acknowledging here today, is a journey – a journey of questions and of discovery.  In a crowded world of ideas, doctrines, expectations, assumptions and dictates, you have been finding and making room.

That is, perhaps what we most need, you and I.  With everyone around us seemingly clamoring to say the same things, to mouth the popular slogans, and pay lip service to the gods of our culture, the air starts to get a little thin.  With folks all crammed into the same fashions and fads, and pushing to get to the head of some arbitrary line, life can begin to feel a bit cramped.  With authorities telling you what to do, politicians telling you what to think, and preachers telling you what to believe, it can all start to feel a little confining.  With generators not powering the house and squabbles with dealers, one can feel like it’s just one more hassle to fill up life with troubles.  You and I need room.  We all need room – room to think, room to question, room to grow.  I believe with all my heart that’s what is intended for us.

The Psalmist certainly felt it.  He looked around at all the people who were grasping for easy answers and knew that was not for him.  The writer of this Psalm calls attention to the “. . . many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!’” And it’s apparent that they are simply looking for the Almighty to make everything OK, so they can stop wondering and questioning and searching.  They want to always be content with life, as they had been “when their grain and wine abound.”  You see, life seems relatively easy when things are good.  When there’s a shiny new car or two in the garage, and several hundred thousand in the 401K, it’s easier to not be troubled by the deep and disturbing questions of meaning, and faith, and mortality – or so we think.  In truth, these comforts of life, are simply smoke screens to hide the fear that lurks always beneath the surface of daily existence.  We crowd our world so full of possessions and desires that we don’t have space anywhere in our minds to be reminded of how scared we might be beneath it all.

In the midst of this mindless press of desire and gratification, what is it that the Psalmist gives thanks for?  It’s here in the first verse: “You gave me room when I was in distress.”  Isn’t that an amazing affirmation?  “You gave me room.”  The Psalmist is grateful because fear is gone – because in the freedom of faith, in the security of knowing that your life, and all of your tomorrows are held in the bosom of the Lord, there is room – room to think, room to question, room to grow.  It’s so much easier to openly question, and freely grow when you’re not pressed in on all sides by the raging competition to succeed over others, or desperately chasing gratification, or accumulating possessions to crowd out the fear.

That’s the gift of faith.  To live with faith is to live free from fear.  And to live free from fear is to live with the capacity to become more than you are.  It is to have room.

Today, we affirm that in our time together and our praise and affirmation, there is room – room in our lives for questions, room to challenge authority, room to find your own path, room to grow.

Along with our Discernment Committee, all the congregation is engaged in an effort to spy out our common values and our identity and future as a church.  In this process we are also seeking room.  It is that room to question, and room to differ and learn from one another that makes us who we are.  Ours is the kind of church that celebrates the individual soul in search of truth.  That’s why we don’t require new members to recite some long creed as a test of true faith.  That’s why we lift up the freedom of the pulpit and the freedom of the pew (you can’t tell me what to preach, and I can’t tell you what to believe).  We center our community around our common commitment to Christ.  But each of us understands in his or her own way what it is to follow Christ, and none of us (including myself) has the authority to dictate what others must believe.  We cherish this “soul liberty” because it allows us to question authority: whether it really is “turtles all the way down,” and gives us that essential gift that the Psalmist celebrated those thousands of years ago, the gift of room.

I love the verses by Mary Lathbury, the Chautauqua Laureate, from her Song of Hope.  I leave you with them:

Children of yesterday,

Heirs of Tomorrow,

What are you weaving?

Labor and sorrow?

Look to your looms again,

Faster and faster

Fly the great shuttles

Prepared by the Master.

Life’s in the loom,

Room for it – room!

 

May all of you be blessed on your journeys.

April 7, 2024

Remember the wonderful Doctor Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who? It was fun. But the basic theme really grabbed me. Horton the elephant heard a little sound coming from a tiny speck of dust or pollen or something that had settled on a flower. He was the only one who could hear the little sound because he had such great big ears. What he heard was the sound of the mayor of Whoville letting out a big yell. Whoville was so tiny it was invisible, existing on the surface of that little speck. When Horton and the mayor became able to hear each other, they each had a problem. In Horton’s world no one could believe that there were tiny people living on a speck so small you could barely see it. Down in Whoville no one could believe that there was a giant elephant in the sky talking to the mayor. Each had a problem convincing all the others in their world of that which they alone could perceive. The kangaroo in Horton’s world put it bluntly: “If I can’t see it, hear it, or touch it, it doesn’t exist.” I thought of this old tale when I was reflecting on the story of the disciple Thomas who would not believe the testimony of his friends about the risen Christ because he had not seen, heard, or touched him himself.

Horton’s dilemma and Thomas’s disconnect raise some profound questions for you and me; for instance, what is this thing we call reality? Does it consist only of that which we can see, hear, or touch? There are, indeed, worlds so minuscule that we can’t see them, worlds that display amazing things: atoms, electrons, subatomic particles that operate with a brand of physics that makes the most brilliant particle physicist’s head spin. You and I can’t see these tiny worlds, but we believe they are there, making up all the things around us, and even ourselves. They are part of the reality that we all “know” – even though we have never seen them. We are a step ahead of the kangaroo in this regard, because we believe the testimony of those who say they have, through mathematics, electron microscopes, and particle accelerators, heard a little “who” from these tiny specks.

Not only do these invisible particles comprise part of the reality we all know, but so do things like the “fact” that the earth is round, that it orbits the sun, that human beings evolved from other species, that the universe as we “know” it sprang forth from a “Big Bang”, and that the earth is currently warming in large part due to human activity. But I ask you, do you have any direct experience to confirm these “facts”? Have you ever personally circumnavigated the earth? There are other explanations, you know, for the evidence of our eyes; for instance that the earth is stationary and the sun orbits around it. You consider such a notion to be laughable, but why? Because you have been taught to believe otherwise. You have been given the picture we all hold in our heads of the solar system and the cosmos by people you respect, and by people who have written books, and have sent rockets into space.

The truth is you and I are each creating reality every minute in our own heads. That “reality” is a composite of everything we see, hear, and touch, but also everything we “believe” to be true – things that people in authority or with many degrees after their names have told us. So “believing” is part of what we call “reality”. Problems arise when the beliefs that comprise our reality turn out to be distortions, or even outright falsehoods. It happens all the time. It happened in the seventeenth century when the Pope sentenced Galileo to house arrest for the remainder of his life for the heresy of declaring that the earth orbited the sun rather than the other way around. After all, it was obvious to everyone that the earth was stationary and the sun moved across the sky. Besides, Psalm 104, verse 5 says, “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved (NIV).” Belief so easily creates reality. And when beliefs held firmly are in conflict, then realities are in conflict. And it is intolerable for one’s reality to be shaken by someone else’s claim to reality. This is the genesis of so much hatred and so much shed blood across the pages of human history. It was at the root of what was happening all around them at the very time Thomas and the disciples were caught up in their own alternate realities. John tells us that the disciples were in their house with the doors locked, for “fear of the Jews”. And what was the crux of this fear that made them lock the doors? It was the conflict in realities that had led to violence among the zealots, the Sanhedrin, Jesus and his followers, and the Romans.

I’d like to suggest this morning that both “believing” and “reality” are not all they’re cracked up to be. Since beliefs are so often distortions or even falsehoods, and reality is so greatly comprised of beliefs, I suggest that we all hold both our beliefs and our sense of what is real and what is not very lightly, or perhaps at arm’s length. I suggest that the reality that exists outside your mind is, by definition much larger and in many ways different from the reality in your head.

If I haven’t lost you by now (or even if I have) let me put it simply: there is another kind of “believing” that is sound and dependable. It is “believing” with the heart, rather than the believing of the head. I’m using the word “heart” to refer to that undefinable, inner aspect of being that seems to reside somewhere deeper than consciousness and rationality. This “heart thing” is not a conviction about some notion, it is simply a bedrock awareness, a point of connection, if you will, to that which lies at the Beating Heart of existence – call that God if you like, and call this bedrock awareness faith if you like. But for now, we’re calling it believing with the heart. The heart doesn’t believe “something” or believe “in” something; the heart just experiences, feels, and relates.

That’s what was happening among the disciples in that room. It’s clear that the episode described in our scripture this morning involves some kind of extraordinary experience that touched and engaged their hearts. That sort of experience is not unknown to us. I have heard so many of them related: a man I know who was visited in the night by his daughter after she was killed in a car crash, a man whose image appeared on the windshield of a car on the way to his funeral service, a father who came to his daughter after his death to say that everything was alright. Those who have never had such moments easily dismiss them, as did Thomas. But when the heart speaks, it behooves us to listen, and to recognize that reality is perhaps larger than we know. It can encompass a depth of Love that itself transcends even death.

The author of the Book of Acts in our lectionary reading this morning alluded to this when he tried to put words to what happened when Christ’s Church was about to be born. As you heard earlier, he wrote, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Apparently this “believing” thing had much to do with the heart and soul.

Frederick Buechner ( who is the author of most of our bulletin meditation thoughts) captures all this beautifully. He writes, “Thomas is called the Twin in the New Testament, and if you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you. I am the other twin, and unless I miss my guess, so are you. . . . ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’ Jesus asked Thomas, our twin, and my guess is that Thomas believed not because of what his eyes had seen but because of what his heart had seen.”

Buechner is right; Thomas is our twin. It is you and I who are standing in that locked room with skeptical eyes. And perhaps our own hearts could learn something from what his heart eventually saw. Not only that, but maybe Horton the elephant has some important lessons for us. One is to pay close attention – watch and listen – very closely, very carefully; you never know what different reality you might stumble upon. Secondly, hold your own beliefs and notions of reality very lightly so that when you do encounter an alternate reality you won’t be too quick to dismiss it; there may lie waiting for you glorious new things to learn. And finally, is “seeing” really “believing”? Trust your heart; it may actually be smarter than your head.

March 31, 2024

“Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome . . . went to the tomb when the sun had risen . . . And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back . . . [and] they saw a young man…[who] said to them, ‘Do not be amazed . . . .’”

 

I like Franco Zepherelli’s production, Jesus of Nazareth.  Particularly his depiction of the resurrection story.  He adds no angel choirs, no trumpets, no dazzling special effects.  He simply offers the image that is foremost in our gospel reading this morning:  a few women walking through a garden on a quiet morning to the sound of chirping birds, and finding nothing; finding an empty tomb.

 

We’ve been conditioned over the years, not only by Hollywood but by Renaissance art, to visualize the resurrection in great other worldly images: angel wings fluttering all about and a 120 piece orchestra accompanying the Mormon Tabernacle choir.  Medieval paintings provide us with an angelic-looking Jesus floating up in the air with the clouds parting, soldiers falling to the ground  in shock, and a blinding light emanating from the tomb.  Our individual images of the first Easter are surely cluttered with people, noises, lights, angels, and most certainly wouldn’t be complete without trumpets.

 

We are unprepared for the stillness of the morning, the soft sound of footsteps on the garden path, the chirping of the birds, and the silence of the empty tomb.  To imagine it all in that way makes it seem like ordinary experience – much less amazing.  But why not?  After all, that was the advice of the “young man” who greeted those women at the tomb on that quiet morning.  He simply said, “Don’t be amazed.”

 

We have as hard a time hearing and heading that word as did those three women in the graveyard.  We expect that if new life were to burst forth from our deadening experience, it would have to be something amazing!  If something is truly going to happen to resurrect our hope and send our spirits soaring out of the darkness of our stone-covered cynicism, it would need to be earth-shaking, with trumpets and choirs, no less.

 

In our own experience, we look for the old and ugly, the pesky and pernicious, the deadly and destructive

of our lives to be somehow blasted away by religious ritual or proper penance.  And then, when we don’t hear the trumpets, when we look at our broken promises, our selfish tendencies, our superficial commitments, we find despair moving into our souls like a cloud, to darken the joy of hope for new life. Then, Easter seems unrelated to our experience; the resurrection becomes just another church story.  Amazing things don’t seem to happen anymore – at least not to us.  So, if unable to find satisfaction, we at least find a little distraction in the family dinners, the painted eggs, and the chocolate bunnies.

 

But my message this morning is: Don’t give up on Easter.  Don’t leave it to the righteous believers and the exemplary holy ones.  The distance from Jesus’ surprisingly empty crypt to your unremarkably full life is not as great as you might believe.

 

The resurrection, you see, is not amazing.  It’s a prototypical experience.  It’s the miraculous nature of things woven into the very fabric of life.  People who have been dwelling among the breathless tombs of alcoholism have been raised from that creeping demise into sobriety.  Every day, someone caught in the death grip of an abusive relationship finds help and rises up to new life.  Even hour by hour, the power of resurrection breathes through your experience.  When you find yourself facing the dead-end of the same argument with your spouse, the same challenging relationship with a parent, the same incorrigibility of a child, the same humiliating experience with a colleague that you’ve dealt with over and over, and you feel the hope for any better outcome draining out of your soul, sometimes all it takes is a touch, a look, a laugh, a brief conversation, to feel the breath of possibility coming back into your lungs.  Resurrection is not amazing; it’s the way things are.  That’s what the young man at the tomb said: “Don’t be amazed.  Jesus is raised from the dead, and he is going on ahead to meet you – as he said he would.”

 

Jesus, you see, was one of those remarkable oddities: he was a man of his word.  And his words were always about new life and possibility.  He spoke of new wine in new wineskins, and being born anew.  He told parables about people finding something of great value, of growing into something grand, of turning for home and discovering joyous living.  He said that the whole purpose of his ministry, of everything he was about, was that we might have life, and have it abundantly!   And he was a man of his word.  Scripture even portrays him as a man who could defeat death itself to keep his word.  But don’t be amazed.  That’s just the way things are.  Jesus is gone from the tomb as naturally as a bird on the wing.  He is not there as a matter of course.  He is risen, as he said.  No trumpets; no choirs.  Life always comes out of death for the children of the Light because we are people of life, not death.  It’s the way things are.

 

You may not see the skies open up, or hear fanfares, or the flutter of angel wings.  But you are likely, on some quiet morning, to be walking through a garden (or sitting in your kitchen with your coffee cup), and quite unexpectedly stumble upon the empty tomb of that within you which you thought was hopelessly dead, and yet lives, abounding in hope!  Even now, as you sit in this room there is some divine principle of quantum physics that’s working away in you to peel off the layers of cynicism that build up in the course of each day’s disappointments.  Even now, there’s some incomprehensible army of natural properties hammering away at the shackles of defeatism that you take up every time someone you love lets you down.  Even now, there is some ancient and unknowable impulse urging the song of life from deep within your throat, a song that something within you knows already, a song you are able to sing, even in the shadow of death.

 

Loren Eiseley knew about that.  He saw it all right before his eyes one day.  He had leaned up against a stump at the edge of a small glade and fallen asleep.  He described the scene upon awakening:

“When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral.  I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.

 

“The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing.  The sleek black monster was indifferent to them.  He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still.  Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern.  But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise.  Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.

 

“No one dared to attack the raven.  But they cried there in some instinctive common misery.  The bereaved and the unbereaved.  The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries.  They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer.  There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew.  He was a bird of death.

 

“And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.

 

“The sighing died.  It was then that I saw the judgement.  It was the judgement of life against death.  I will never see it again so forcefully presented.  I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged.  For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence.  There, in the clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush.  And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten.  Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing.  They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.  They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven.  In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.”1

 

Loren Eiseley’s story is our story.  There is an irrepressible force in the universe.  And it’s not amazing.  It’s the message of the empty tomb, and it’s as common as the birds in the glade.  It’s this:  amidst the jungle of values in conflict, lives in torment, hopes and dreams in pieces, the un-amazing empty tomb is the Divine and tenacious declaration that, no matter what, love wins!

 

And that’s just the way it works.  So don’t be amazed.

1 Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 33-34.

March 31, 2024

When I was in high school one of my favorite subjects was math.  I enjoyed doing math, and learning math, so I did fairly well in my mathematics courses.  I’ll never forget the surprise I had one day to come home and discover that my parents had received a note from the principal’s office warning them that I was about to flunk my algebra course, in part because I hadn’t been in class at least half the time.

 

I remember stammering a little, and going through incredible contortions to convince my parents that this couldn’t possibly be me they were talking about.  “It has to be a case of mistaken identity!” I said, “I was framed!”

 

Much to my relief, it turned out to be just that.  There was, coincidentally enough, another Mike Scott in that school – one who was indeed flunking algebra.  Boy, were my parents surprised.

 

We may be just about as surprised to discover that in one of Christianity’s most treasured stories, the story of the resurrection, there lies a baffling case of mistaken identity.  There are, in fact, a couple of problems with identity in this story.

 

The first one is something that has intrigued me since the first time I ever read the gospels.  It’s John’s repeated reference to this “disciple whom Jesus loved.”  He’s mentioned four times in the gospel of John, and nowhere is his name given.  John, for some reason only refers to him as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  That’s a fascinating identification.  Does it imply that Jesus did not love the other disciples, only this one?  Does it suggest that Jesus loved this one disciple in a different way, or more profoundly than he did the others?  And why is his name not given?  Whoever he was, he was obviously very close to Jesus, and very dear to him.  John says that at the last supper, “he was reclined [lying down] in the bosom of Jesus.”  It’s a very tender and loving image.

 

Maybe he doesn’t have a name because he represents the place in the picture of Jesus’ ministry and passion where we are to see ourselves.  If I’m wrong about that, well, that’s a case of mistaken identity I’d be happy to live with.  Who among us would not like to be mistaken for “the disciple whom Jesus loved?”

 

But all of this is dwarfed by what is perhaps the most glaring case of mistaken identity.  Mary, caught in her grief at the empty tomb, turns and sees Jesus standing before her, and she mistakes him for the gardener!  Mary, who was brought by Jesus to overcome multiple inner demons – Mary, who had traveled with him, and been one of his closest followers – Mary, who had stood by him to the very end, keeping vigil at the cross – Mary mistook him for the gardener.  And, apparently, she did not have a very high opinion of gardeners.  The gospel account says, “Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” In other words, supposing him to be the gardener, she naturally assumed that he was a grave-robber.  She didn’t know who she was talking to.

We make mistakes like that all the time.  We look at people with fleeting, superficial glances, and size them up in an instant.  We determine much about their character, their trustworthiness, their relative importance or insignificance in the virtual blinking of an eye.

“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said ‘Where have you taken the body?’”

 

“Supposing him to be from the other side of the tracks, she said, ‘How nice to meet you; excuse me, I have to go now.’”

 

“Supposing her to be a Christian fundamentalist, he said, ‘I don’t think we have anything to talk about.’”

 

“Supposing him to be mentally retarded, he said, ‘O boy, that’s a really nice wheelchair!’”

We can hardly blame Mary for mistaking the identity of Jesus at such a crucial moment.  Half the time, we don’t know who we’re talking to either.

 

He gave us very clear instructions for recognizing him when we see him.  He said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” and “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

 

But we still don’t recognize him when we see him in a face that’s a different color, or a different gender, or from another part of town.  Like Mary, we are often too consumed by our own hurts, or hopes, or agendas to look very deeply into the face of another.  Or maybe it’s simply that we really don’t want to know – don’t want to know that something holy and sacred might reside in an experience we have not had, a life we have not understood.

 

For all these reasons, and surely many others, we are entirely with Mary in that garden.  Her experience is ours.  Her tears are ours.  And her mistake is ours.

 

But Jesus doesn’t leave her there.  He doesn’t leave us there either.  A second chance and reborn hope rise up from that one precious instant – a moment of identity – a solid point of contact – a clarifying word – a word that puts the world, and self, and the Power of Divinity all into clear focus: “Mary.”

 

He spoke her name.  It was then that she remembered who she was, and realized who he was.

 

She answered in awe:

“Rhabbouni!” [my teacher].

 

Jesus changed the ground rules of that encounter in a split second.  He didn’t bother to challenge her preconceptions, counter her charges, or justify his presence.  He broke through it all, and simply called her by name.  He engaged her at a deep level and shattered the superficiality of her assumptions and agendas.  “Mary,” was all he needed to say.

 

The message of Easter is the story of a man who broke through everyone’s assumptions about reality, and life and death, and appeared face to face with a woman in a garden, and called her by name.  Our laboriously crafted structures of defense and carefully guarded prejudices crumble to dust in the face of a genuine personal encounter with the Divine.  It is an encounter that both transcends and pierces the depths of our superficial relationships and perfunctory exchanges.

 

If by some divine miracle we find ourselves able to recognize Jesus in the person of our neighbor, then our reality can be changed.  To be truly known by another, and intimately engaged, is to see the face of Christ.  To leave behind our generalizations and theories about each other, and instead meet another profoundly and deeply, eye to eye, soul to soul is a sacrament.  It is like hearing the voice of Jesus calling our own name, calling us back to ourselves.

 

If each of us is “the disciple whom Jesus loves,” and if he is present with us when we come together in his name, even when we meet up with “the least of these,” then the implications are clear: every encounter has the potential to shake us, to capture us, to transform us.

 

Christ is risen.  Christ is risen, indeed.  And he is among us, amidst the two or three, in the least of these, seeking you out, ready to call you by name.  When you hear it, in a garden or a crowded room, don’t be mistaken about whose voice it is.

March 24, 2024

This morning I’d like to take some time to focus on the familiar Palm Sunday hymn, “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” It’s an old chestnut. Written about the year 820 AD, it’s been a Palm Sunday favorite for centuries. The words come from the pen of Theodulph of Orleans. Theodulph was born in Spain among the remnants of the Visigoths. But he traveled widely in his younger years and ended up as a monk who in time was accepted into the royal court of Charlemagne and appointed Bishop of Orleans in 781. He was an exemplary man. Influenced by the great centers of learning in Rome, he devoted much of his energy and influence to the building of public schools throughout the region. And he was humble and generous-hearted. Theodulph had a peculiar custom; he never closed his door. He believed that the door should remain open so that people traveling on the road or poor folks could wander in for a meal or a bed for the night. I’m not sure I could live up to that example, but it’s a beautiful concept.
However, when Charlemagne died in 814, Theodulph wound up on the bad side of his successor. Louis the Pious suspected Theodulph of conspiring against him, deposed him from his bishopric and threw him in a monastery in Angers. As they say, no good deed ever goes unpunished. But Theodulph’s faith sustained him inside those walls, and he turned to writing poetry. It was there he wrote Gloria, laus et honor, the Latin hymn that has been translated into All Glory, Laud, and Honor. The hymn is a glorious celebration of Jesus’ entry into the Holy City, and it was written in the midst of the most dire and lonely circumstances.
It is as though the good Bishop, in his imprisonment during the last chapter of his life, was looking forward to the joyous inauguration of the “New Jerusalem”, as the author of the book of Revelation saw it, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”, the Holy City reborn into the fullness of God’s intentions. These days it’s pretty hard to imagine that glorious city of Revelation’s vision. Jerusalem, the city whose name means “peace,” is currently caught in the midst of a brutal war. Many years ago we had a friend, Rabbi Barbara Simons who, when Dadgie and I were in Franklin, Massachusetts, was the Rabbi of Temple Etz Chaim (which met in the sanctuary of our church building). Rabbi Simons went to Jerusalem with a tour group of American Rabbis. On her return, she presented a number of us clergy who were on the Interfaith Council with small stones taken from the ground around Jerusalem. She said that each one of these stones she brought back was “one less stone to be thrown at someone.” Dadgie and I had the masons work our stone into the chimney at the Royalston house. We call it, “One Less Stone.”
Our lives, from cradle to grave, are far too full of stones: stones thrown at others, and those thrown at us. So much in our world seems to be “out of whack.” I love the sign in the hardware store window that says, “If it ain’t broke, just keep fixin’ it ‘till it is.” Sometimes it seems that’s all we manage to do: keep stumbling across the brokenness of the world and in our efforts only managing to make matters worse.
But the vision of St. Theodulph is our vision. It’s the astonishingly improbable vision of the Holy City as the incubator of peace in a world of hate. It’s the vision of our hopes for the children, a vision that seems equally improbable in a world where children bully others until they commit suicide, or take guns to school to shoot their classmates. St. Theoldulph’s vision seems improbable in a world where women are forced by fundamentalist regimes to virtually disappear from society, and the murders of wives by husbands or brothers is quietly condoned. That vision seems improbable when people systematically slaughter others simply for being members of a rival group or for not adhering to their strict beliefs and practices.
But hope is that which sings in the face of the storm. It’s the voice of a brighter vision lifted up while others are slinging mud and throwing stones. Dadgie got an email from a dear friend while she was awaiting surgery some years ago. It said only: “Hope is good! Hang onto it.” I remember as soon as I saw that email, I thought, “That’ll preach.”
This sad world desperately needs some Theodulphs, some people with the temerity to sing a song of celebration for the emerging Holy City of peace, while wasting away in the prison of discouragement. That’s what we need to counter the semi-automatic fire of news reports about hate, and rage, and inhumanity. We need a sprinkling of people here and there who can still laugh with the abandon of boundless faith, a people consumed with meaning and purpose rather than consuming the world’s trinkets, a people who know the value of self-restraint and conservation, a people who recognize integrity when they see it and value substance over superficialities. We need a few intrepid souls in our midst who are willing to believe in goodness in spite of news to the contrary. We need a critical mass of witnesses who will testify to the grandeur of the coming city of peace.
That’s the sort of thing the Psalmist was looking for a few thousand years ago. He was clearly suffering some kind of dreadful experience and in the throes of anguish when he wrote, “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” But he lived with indomitable hope and moved from distress to these words of confidence: “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy.” It is the singers for joy who brighten our world and inspire us to live in hope as well.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was not only riding to Gethsemane and Calvary, he was raising the shouts of the people, and proclaiming that if the people didn’t shout, then the stones themselves would. It’s an interesting choice of metaphors. Because the ritual that was being reenacted in his triumphal entry was taken from a very ancient and well-known liturgical procession based on Psalm 118. It is the same psalm that includes the lines, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” In Ancient Hebrew tradition, the verse from this psalm “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!” was sung by the priests as they circled the altar during the feast of booths. As they did so, the congregation waved their lulab, which consisted of branches from trees, often palm branches. That repeated verse begins, in Hebrew: Hôshia-na’ which means “Save us, please!” It is this phrase that morphed into the word Hosanna. So this is the ritual, pulled right out of the tradition of the Feast of Booths, that was being played out on the streets of Jerusalem. And it is a ritual that comes from verses about one who has been outcast, like St. Theodulph languishing in prison and yet redeemed by his own faith and hope, one rejected, as the Psalmist said, like a worthless stone. But the rejected stone, like those that are picked up in the dust of the Holy Land and thrown at bitter enemies today, can be redeemed, and even end up offering witness set into a fieldstone fireplace halfway across the world.
No matter where you find yourself, no matter what the circumstances, you can shout, “Hosanna!”, a shout that, as Jesus said, will either come from you or from the stones themselves. You can proclaim along with the people of Jerusalem who turned out in hope to see the carpenter of Nazareth on a donkey: “Don’t despair! Don’t give up! Lift up your heads! Look at what’s coming!”
St. Theodulph’s hymn originally had thirty-nine verses. Our red hymnal has that chopped down to three. I had considered having us sing all thirty-nine in the original Latin, but I guess the truncated English version will do. Let’s sing it together.

March 17, 2024

Today, we continue with a time of reflection and self-examination during this Lenten season.  We begin with this rather weird passage from the Gospel of John – actually there’s a lot in the Gospel of John that’s pretty weird.  According to this account, there were some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover, and they came to the disciples and asked to see Jesus.  When Jesus was told these guys wanted to see him, he seems to have simply ignored the request and launched into a monologue about           the hour coming to be glorified, and grain falling to the earth, and talking to God about glorifying his name, and a lot of other stuff.  He appears to have totally blown off the request by these guys to see him (sometimes I think John was on something when he was writing these things down).  Be that as it may, apparently the implication here is that the act of these Greeks wanting to see Jesus was a reflection of the spread of the gospel to the gentiles, and that was the moment when all was fulfilled, and “the hour” had come – or, at least that’s how some biblical scholars interpret it.1

Anyway, the part of this rather rambling discourse that interests me is this: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”  It’s a little oblique, but I’ve read it over and over, and it finally struck me what he’s getting at.  It’s this: faithfulness – “bearing fruit” in this Christian life – means getting caught up in something so much bigger than yourself that you kind of lose yourself in it.  And when that happens you discover that you’re walking in the very footsteps of Jesus (“where I am, there will my servant be also”).  I think that’s a lot like Jeremiah’s high, sweeping vision of the “new covenant.”  He says that “days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant,” when, in other words, the Divine Law will not be just a book or a bunch of teachings; it will be written on everyone’s heart.

Clearly the New Testament writers thought Jeremiah’s vision was fulfilled in their time.  They recount the last supper with Jeremiah’s phrase on Jesus’ lips.  He says, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood.”  And the Apostle Paul says, “[God] has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit.”  In fact, what we refer to as the “New Testament” is simply another name for the “New Covenant.”  So, is it true?  Is Jeremiah’s vision a reality?  Are we living in the time of the “new covenant?”  Is faithfulness the rule?  Is the law written on our hearts?

All we need do is pick up the newspaper to have some serious questions.  The law of mercy, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” – let alone “turn the other cheek” – was clearly not written on the hearts of Hamas raiders when they murdered children and babies and raped women in Israel.  And it was not written on the hearts of Israeli soldiers and rocket launchers when they wiped out city blocks and killed men, women, and children by the score.  All we have to do is read a little history.  That law was clearly not written on the hearts of white “Christians” around the turn of the twentieth century in Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Central Illinois who slaughtered black residents and set fire to their homes in orgastic binges of racial hatred.2  And if we take that peek in the mirror, we suspect the law of God is not entirely written on our hearts either.

And yet . . . and yet . . . I don’t think I’d be here doing what I’m doing if I didn’t think we were living under that “new covenant.”  I think the divine law of love that holds the universe together is, in fact, “written on our hearts.”  I think it’s imprinted on our DNA.  How can I say that?  Because over the past seventy years or more I’ve been keeping score.  And I have met more and more and more people like all of you, people who don’t care a lot about rules but care deeply about love, people who don’t pay as much attention to appearances as they do to the needs and hurts of others, people who aren’t as interested in getting as they are in giving.  And this place is not unique.  We’ve got churches full of them, all over this country – in fact, all over the world.  The reason a fanatic with a gun makes international headlines is that it’s the extraordinary exception.  The reason racial hatred gets attention in the media and the history books is that it represents a stunning divergence from the irrepressible tide of human history, a history that reveals a halting but sure evolution toward a more human humanity.

Faithfulness – the kind of faithfulness that comes from losing oneself in the bigger picture of justice and love, the kind of faithfulness that means the Divine law is written on your heart – is, I’m convinced built-in to who we are.  When times and circumstances get chaotic, when lives and institutions turn ugly, those are the anomalies.  Jeremiah’s vision is here, dwelling beneath the surface of all our lives.  Its full realization is emerging, painfully slowly, but dependably.  And each one of us contributes our share to that evolution with every choice we make.  C.S. Lewis said, “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think,” he continues, “that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”3  That’s a wonderful insight; every time you lose yourself a bit in a choice for the greater reality, you’re reflecting more of the law that is written on your heart.

Does this mean we don’t need laws written in books and constitutions?  Of course it doesn’t.  We need to have a social contract to set some boundaries on human behavior.  But looking over your shoulder and thumbing through the rules of the road to see what you can get away with is no way to live a life.  And it’s no way to run a church.  That’s why we don’t post any list of rules or dogmas around here, or say who’s in and who’s out.  Trying to live by the rule book can suck the life right out of a church.  That’s the testimony of Michael Lindvall in his wonderful little book, The Good news from North Haven (a place which I suspect is a little like Lake Wobegone).  He tells the story of “Second Presbyterian Church.  There is no First Presbyterian in town,” he writes, “and there hasn’t been for years.  More than a century ago, the newly founded First – and then only – Presbyterian Church enjoyed a fine church fight.  Folks still tell the story of the Sunday in June when half the congregation walked out during the sermon and founded Second Presbyterian.

“All memories agree as to what the fight was about: whether young women ought to lead discussions at Christian Endeavor meetings or keep a low profile and ask questions when they got home, as St. Paul seems to have counseled.  What memories do not agree on is who was on what side.  Some people now say that the Second Presbyterian group that left was in favor of women speaking at meetings, some say they were against it.  Whatever the truth, everyone agrees that Second Presbyterian church was squarely established on the firm foundation of an important principle, even if no one is now quite sure what that principle was.”4

Lindvall makes a humorous but worthy point.  What matters most in a church?  Not correct interpretation of the admonitions of the Apostle Paul, not adherence to officially sanctioned doctrine.  What matters is that we all come here and find a place where we can lose ourselves in something far greater than ourselves.  What matters is that we recognize that our presence here, our faithfulness in attending, is not a matter of fulfilling a duty, it’s a whole-hearted devotion to this wonderful living organism that we call a church family, and a recognition that it is a little crippled by each absent one of us.  What matters is that here we eagerly learn, as if in a kind of laboratory, about the power of love and the presence of the Spirit of holiness.

So what is true faithfulness?  I don’t think it’s toeing the line, or watching one’s p’s and q’s.  With all due respect to our Trustees and financial officers, I don’t think it’s making the right size of monetary contribution.  With great appreciation to all those who give of their time and talents to the church, I don’t think it’s putting in time on church Boards, or programs, or even singing in worship.  I think true faithfulness is an ultimate kind of freedom.  I think it is becoming so caught up in the greater good and the larger truth of divine love that we kind of lose ourselves and therefore find ourselves – find a deeper more meaningful life.  I think it is, in the words of Richard Foster, “nothing more than falling head over heels in love with the everlasting lover of our souls.”5

1 cf: Wilbert F. Howard, The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 8, pp 660 ff.

2  Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Random House, 2010. p. 40.

3 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Comprising the Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, Touchstone Books, 1996.

4 Michael L. Lindvall, The Good News from North Haven, Simon & Schuster, 1991.

5 Robert J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Harper, 1992.

[email protected]