Monday, May 20, 2019

Our Alpha & Omega Stories

You can listen to the sermon preached yesterday, May 19, the 5th Sunday of Easter, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, here

Wednesday, May 01, 2019


Like most people growing up I had many coaches, and I was lucky enough to have some very good ones who managed to teach me more about life than about whatever athletic endeavor we were playing at.  But there was only one man who I only called "Coach," and who I could never in my adult life get myself to call anything else.

And the heck of it is, he wasn't my coach in the strict sense, because he did not teach me athletics.  When I was in junior high, I signed up to be a manager for the wrestling team at Avoca Central School.  I'm not sure why, but I think it probably had to do with the fact that I was not a basketball player (the two sports have concurrent seasons), but I felt like I had to do something.

And so I met Walter Peterson.  I was terrified of him.  He was big and loud and demanding.  He actually got on the mat and wrestled.  I also knew that sooner rather than later he was going to discover that I was not wrestling material and that meant my helping with the team would not have a long life.

I was wrong. So very, very wrong.  I mean he did discover that I was not going to be a wrestler, but he also sensed, I think, that I needed to belong, and he watched me closely enough that as I grew he discovered I had other gifts that could serve his program.  I was an organizer, so he had me keep close tabs an supplies and the care of equipment.  I was his recorder in the weight room, making sure the refs were giving his boys a fair deal.  I made sure each home match was video-taped.  And, most importantly, when he was in charge of the sectional tournament, he had enough faith in me to let me run it, as I did many tournaments for him.

He was always Coach.  That came out of the deep respect I developed for him, and the respect he gave me back.  When I coached my own summer track team I tried to emulate him.  And the sense that creativity comes out of mutual respect has served me well all my life.

He wasn't perfect. He could be fiercely competitive, ornery, and stubborn to a fault.  But he always loved fiercely too.  His family, and his wrestlers, which sometimes included those not destined for the mat.

Coach Peterson, Coach, died this past Sunday after a long struggle with ALS.  It was a grossly unfair disease for him to struggle with, a wrestling coach losing control of his body.

I am grateful for him, more than these words can possibly say.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Here We are so Drawn

Sermon preached on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath.

           Jesus speaks three times from the cross in John’s Gospel.  They are more than words, however.  They are actions.  They accomplished something in the moment, but they ring across the ages to speak to us and compel us, also, to action..

           The first words Jesus speaks from the cross are directed at his mother and the one who is called the Beloved Disciple.

To his mother: Woman, here is your son.
To the disciple:  Here is your mother.

           These two are the only followers of Jesus left with him.  The others have all fled.  I want to notice one thing about them:  they do not have names.  Neither of these characters have names in John’s Gospel.  Now we assume we know their names:  Mary, of course, Jesus’ mother, and the Gospel writer John himself, who most people assume was the Beloved Disciple.

           But John does not tell us these names, and I find that very odd.  Why not?  Why not speak the name of Mary, and why not identify yourself as the Beloved Disciple?  It has to be a deliberate choice John has made. Why?

           I think it is because John wants us more easily to imagine ourselves in these roles. We might recoil from the presumption, but I do think we can imagine being the two people who care so deeply for this man that we will not leave him, despite the horror and the danger.  And I think we can imagine being the two people about whom Jesus cares so deeply, so as to refer to them with affection, “mother,” and “beloved.”

           I know on Good Friday we are “supposed” to identify with the mob that calls for Jesus to be crucified.  We are the sinners in this story, and, indeed, we are.  But I believe the Gospel also invites us to be the beloved in the story.

           I said that Jesus does more than say three things from the cross, he does three things.  And what he is doing here is very important.  He is creating that new community of love that he promised, the community of the new commandment, to “love one another as I have loved you,” and “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

           In essence, in giving his mother and the disciple whom he loved to each other, Jesus is creating the church—not the institution, but the communion, people, to use this gospel’s language, who abide in God and who abide together in love.

           Jesus then says, “I thirst.”  And he receives some sour wine on a sponge lifted up to him with a branch of hyssop.  In his thirst Jesus is showing us his humanity in union with ours.  But there is more than the sheer physicality of the moment.

           “Thirst” is one of the major metaphors from John’s Gospel.  Jesus provides living water, so that no one need thirst.  “How can he do such a thing?” people ask.  He is showing us right here on the cross.  Jesus is thirsty humanity, thirsty for union with our Creator.  This is a thirst for abundant life.  “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly,” he has said.

           We seek that abundant life in so many ways on our own.  Through human relationships, through an accumulation of wealth, through social and political commitments that fool us into believing we are on the right side, and sometimes through addictions that make us feel temporarily better.  But none of these things work.

           We must know that our thirst for God is absolute, and we must drink from the well of God’s love without restraint.  Jesus wants us to know we are God’s beloved, but he wants us to know it as if we were the parched woman or man in the middle of the desert with no oasis in site, or as if we ourselves were on the cross, thirsty in the depth of our being, helpless to have that thirst slaked any other way than by crying out to God.

           And Jesus is showing God’s thirst for us.  He is the word made flesh, in his body speaking God’s thirst for the love of you and of me.

           And then Jesus says, “It is finished.”  But, again, not just words.  He says “It is finished,” and “gives up his spirit,” in Greek, paradoken pneuma.  Literally, “gave up his breath,” but again we know this is about more than the physical act of dying, when someone breathes their last breath.

           We could just as easily translate those words, “He handed over the Spirit.”  In his last breath, he knows he has accomplished the purposes of God, to give God’s very Spirit to God’s people.  And we might remember that conversation with Nicodemus, near the beginning of John’s Gospel.  It is time for God’s people to be “born from above,” “born again,” “born of the Spirit.”

           And we might also recall words from that great opening chapter of John.

And to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God, who were born not of flesh, nor of human will, but of God.

           There is much more coming from the cross than the simple transaction of salvation.  God is angry with sinful humankind—Jesus dies to satisfy that anger—and we are saved when we accept this act.

           No, a union, a communion, flows from the cross, a communion that calls us together in a new family, satisfies our thirst, however deep it may be, and hands over the Spirit of Truth and Love, enabling us to live out his new commandment.

           Jesus had said, not once, not twice, but three times, “When I am lifted up I will draw all to myself.”  And here we are so drawn, drawn into a new way of being with one another and with God.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

I am about to take a journey . . .

[This a quote from James Baldwin.  I offer it for your journey through the end of Lent and Holy Week].

I am about to take a journey, and this is a journey which I always knew I would have to make, but had hoped, perhaps, certainly had hoped, not to have to make so soon.  I am saying that a journey is called that because you do not know what you will disclose on the journey, what you will do with what you find or what you find will do to you.

James Baldwin 6/30/1979, from a letter to Jay Acton of Spartan Literary Agency.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Something Beyond Us

Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on the 7th Sunday after Epiphany, February 24, 2019:  Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38

           Who does not want to be in control of their life?  Who does not want to have a confident sense of who they are and what their purpose is in this life?  Who does not want to see a clear path into the future?

           In spiritual terms, who does not want to who God is and what God wants for us?  Is that not why we come to church in order to be clear about the ways of God with our life?

           The truth is that we can do all these things, and, in fact, we must do all these things.  We must make decisions, and hopefully wise ones.  We must plan for our futures.  We must take responsibility for our lives.  And we must seek God.

           But.  There is always a but, isn’t there.  There is something larger in play.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:

There is something hidden, inscrutable, playful, and unresolved about our lives that warns us not to be too sure.[1]

           Something beyond us is also always at work in our lives, outside our total control, with purposes that are mysterious.  Sometimes we get a glimpse of this purpose and sometimes it is difficult to knoe and understand.

           A false choice is sometimes presented to us that life works one way or the other.  Either I am in complete control of my life, have complete responsibility, because there is nothing but me trying to live my daily life.

           Or, the something outside of myself is in total control.  God determines the direction of my life, knows ahead of time what will happen to me and why.  That sounds as if it is the only way for religious people.

           The Bible, however, does not tell us that it is simple.  Oh, it does sometimes.  Sometimes it is clear that if you do this you will be blessed, and if you do that you will be cursed.  All the choices we make are simply choices for good or for evil.

           But the Bible also knows that God remains uncontrollable and unpredictable, shrouded in mystery, and that sometimes we human beings do not understand what is going on in our lives, that sometimes it is OK, even necessary, to shake a fist at heaven.

           If both these things are true—that we are in charge of our lives, but there is also this mysterious presence with mysterious purposes—than perhaps the best way to say how these two ways work together is to say that we are co-creators with God of our lives.  Although even then we must not assume that makes everything clear and simple.

           One of the test cases in the Bible for how God works in our lives is the story of Joseph.  Joseph the Dreamer, eleventh son of Jacob, but first son of Jacob’s true love, Rachel.  He has a special place in his father’s heart, and his brothers know that.  And Joseph exacerbates their resentment by telling them of his dreams, all of which put him on top of them.

           Their resentment boils over at one point, and they determine to be rid of their brother.  Some want to kill him, but the eldest of them convinces the rest to sell Joseph to some Egyptian traders and report him dead to their father.

           Joseph is taken to Egypt, and he ends up in prison.  But the gift of his dreams not only gets him out of jail, but eventually brings him into great power. He becomes Pharaoh’s viceroy, in charge of getting the Egyptians through days of famine.

           The famine brings Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy grain.  They do not recognize him because he has taken on the trappings of an Egyptian.  Joseph certainly recognizes them and he wrestles with what to do.  He has every right to his own resentment and he has the power to do anything he wants to do to them.  He can choose to ge even with him, and, at first, it looks like that is what he is going to do.

           But in the end he chooses not to play out his resentments.  Why not?  Because he realizes life is bigger than his own private concerns.  In essence, he takes a second look at his life.  It is no doubt a painful one.  It is hard—and all of us know this—to give up old hurts and to act in trust where there is no trust.

           So he tells them the simple truth. “I am Joseph.”  They are terrified.  Who would not be?  The chickens have come home to roost.

           But Joseph’s second, painful look at his life has led him to forgiveness.  Why?  Because something else has been going on.  Joseph says, “God has sent me before you.”  He says it three times, as if he is trying to convince himself as well as them.  “God has sent me before you.”

           It may seem in that statement that Joseph is absolving his brothers from responsibility.  It sounds like he is saying that God was really pulling the strings all along, that somehow it was God’s idea to sell Joseph into slavery in the first place.

           I think we have to be careful about going that far.  Joseph certainly knew the role that his brothers played, and he knew the role that he himself had played once he was in Egypt.  But Joseph is also saying that what could have been disaster, and what could now be resentment and the need for payback, doesn’t matter anymore because God used this situation for good.

           And this is primarily the God of the Bible.  The God who can bring good out of anything, even what appears to be disaster.

           And Jesus teaches us this is how we are to operate, to bring good out of evil.  He gives us some very difficult imperatives for our lives:

·       Love your enemies
·       Do good to those who hate you.
·       Bless those who curse you.
·       Pray for those who abuse you.

           All summed up in the simple statement:  Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.

           Brueggemann says

Jesus teaching [here] is not a scolding. And it is not a little romantic lesson in feeling good about everybody and acting silly. It is rather a rich, evangelical statement that there is more to life than our capacity to contain it all in our little moral categories, whereby life is reduced to a simple set of black/white, yes/no moral choices.[2]

           If you want to spend your life keeping score, well, anybody can do that.  You, he is saying, know more than that.  You know there is more to life—vastly more—than being afraid and judging others. You know God has much larger purposes in mind for you and for the world.

           If we settle for our sense of being wronged or being right, and love nothing more than to hang onto our resentments, we are denying the power of God in our lives.  To know this power of God you have to, like Joseph, take a second look,

·       Take a second look and consider that God is a player in your life.
·       Take another look and see that God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
·       Take another look and see that your Father is merciful, and then choose to be merciful yourself.

I’ll give the last word to Brueggemann:

I’m sure that it occurred to Joseph that if he was large-spirited his brothers would take advantage of him. But then, he reasoned, it does not matter, because God gives and intends more than the brothers can either give or withhold. In his trust, Joseph decided not to let the smallness of his brothers dictate the terms of his future.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Take a Painful, Second Look,” in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 10.
[2] Brueggemann, 13.

Monday, January 14, 2019

A Promise Forever

Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Epiphany (The Baptism of Jesus) with the baptism of Alexandria Grace VanHusen at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.  I don't yet have the text for this sermon, but below is the link to the audio.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Blessed Strangeness

Sermon preached on The Epiphany, Sunday, January 6, 2019 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

          This is a strange story about strange people.

          First of all the magi.  That’s the word I use for them because that is the Greek word used in the story.  Who were these people and where did they come from?

          Despite the song we just sang, they were not kings.  That makes no sense at all, or, rather, it makes too much sense of these strangers.  To call them kings means that the notable and powerful were seeking the notable and powerful and that is not what this story is about.

          We’ve tried so hard to make sense of this story.  We decided there were three of them because there were three gifts.  But the story doesn’t say how many there were, only that they were plural, more than one.  In the 7th century we even given them names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

          But the story is that these strangers came from the east and they were perhaps religious figures of some sort, but Matthew the Gospel writer doesn’t give us any details because the only thing he wants to make clear is that these were foreigners, strangers, aliens.

          And they knew something, saw something in the night sky that drew them to the land of the Jews.  They went to Jerusalem, the capitol, and to Herod, the king, which is really the only sensible thing that happens in the story.  Where else to go to look for a new king of the Jews?

          But in Jerusalem the strangers found the even more strange.  Herod, a strange and evil tyrant who lived in the trappings of power but really had none at all.  He was a puppet of the Roman occupiers.  His court was all pretense.  The Romans let him build great monuments to himself, and they looked the other way when he chose one of his four sons to be his successor and just to make sure his choice was honored murdered the other three.

          Herod was a man who believed his own press releases, and the strangers from the east, whoever they were, were certainly smart enough to figure that out, but, at least, his religious flunkies could give them a clue as to where they should take their search.

          So, no doubt with a great deal of relief, they left the strange king behind and headed for Bethlehem.

          But what they found there was nothing like they were looking for.  The strangers again found the strange.  Not a king, but a child, found in a common house, with two unimportant parents.  But the child more than the child, the star in their eyes could see his strangeness, the strangeness of God, as a vulnerable baby, a human being, destined to live, but also destined to die, just like them and all the rest of us.

          But in this meeting of the strangers from the east with the stranger who gathered heaven and earth into himself, a spiritual super nova.

          Conventional religion explodes.  Conventional religion, which seeks to divide the world between the godly and the ungodly, the sinner and the righteous, the accepted and the unacceptable, the welcomed and the stranger—is obliterated in this child.

          In the centuries that follow we have tried to make this religion conventional and we have, unfortunately, succeeded, mostly, but no one can ever quite get rid of this uncomfortable and amazing truth—that the strange is the blessed, the strangers are welcomed, the unacceptable made acceptable, sinners declared righteous, and all men and women drawn into the divine.

          Whoever these wise guys were, they knew that what they had encountered was the ultimate stranger declaring himself to be more than a king—a friend, a friend to all who seek him.

          And they were smart enough not to do the conventional thing, and return to the seat of power, check in with the religious officials and the king, but to find a different way home.

          And they left us with this one question that we should carry like a star in our eyes all of our days:  Is there a different way home than we thought? Is there a different way to see? Is there a different way to be with one another, and, most importantly, with the stranger?  Are we willing to live our days as blessed stranger to blessed stranger?

          To seek to answer these questions is to find a new way home.

Ask for Wonder

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY (early service).

          I wonder what part of this story draws you in the most?  I wonder what Mary wondered, pondered in her heart that Christmas morning?

          I wonder if we need to exercise our capacity for wonder?  By this I mean: learn how to use it and make it a part of our life?

          I wonder what a life of wonder might look like?

          What is wonder?  I like the proposal of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, probably the greatest Jewish writer, and one of the greatest religious writers of the 20th century.

          [In case you think it rather odd I am quoting a Jewish rabbi on Christmas, let me remind you that what we are witnessing is a Jewish family coming into being, relying on their tradition to grasp, to wonder at what is going on in their lives.]
          Any way, Rabbi Heschel’s understanding of wonder:  Wonder is

An intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things are not only what they are but also stand, however, remotely, for something supreme. [Wonder is] a reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things . . . to sense the ultimate in the common and simple . . . What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in [wonder].

          To increase our capacity for wonder is to train ourselves in a way of seeing, of seeing more in the world, and in one another, than meets the eye.  Wonder is not opposed to science and the knowledge of provable things, but wonder is always looking for more, wonder recognizes that there is nothing or no one we can understand completely, that mystery is a fundamental part of life.

          Why this talk about wonder on Christmas Eve?  It is because the mystery of Christmas, that God and humanity are not opposed to each other, but are meant to be partners in living, in creating.

          The one thing we need to increase our capacity for wonder is found in a favorite line from a Christmas carol, “It came upon a midnight clear,” the third verse.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not
the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife
and hear the angels sing.

          We need to be quiet. We need to shut up.  And we need to set aside our differences, which is especially important in the polarized climate we live in.

O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.

          And what are the angels singing?  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to men and women.”

          Just before the end of his life, Rabbi Heschel was asked if he had a message for young people. He said,

Let them remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity.  Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world is spite of all the absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments.  And, above all, [let them] remember . . . to build a life as if it were a work of art.

          And I would add that if you, like me, are no longer a young person, we can always begin to do these things, to begin again to live a life of wonder.

          If you haven’t yet asked God for a Christmas present this year—and even if you have—ask for the gift of wonder.  It was Rabbi Heschel’s primary prayer. He prayed

Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.

The quotes from Rabbi Heschel in this homily can be found in the anthology, I Asked for Wonder.