A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 – 1669 The Return of the Prodigal Son (1642) - from Wikimedia Commons

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 – 1669 The Return of the Prodigal Son (1642) - from Wikimedia Commons

Ash Wednesday

March 6, 2019

St. Paul’s, Bellingham

In this service we will recite together Psalm 51, in which we’ll read these words:

16     Open my lips, O Lord, *

        and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. 

When we pray Morning Prayer we’ll recognize these words as those which open Morning Prayer: “Lord, open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

Psalm 51 is a powerful expression of confession and repentance that begins with, and is made possible by, God’s mercy: “Have mercy upon me O God, according to your lovingkindness.”

We are all under the mercy today, regarded with lovingkindness.

For the Psalmist, this awareness of mercy and lovingkindness enables an honest self-evaluation and admission of responsibility for evil.  The Psalmist admits fault, not projecting those faults onto others.  And in the process the Psalmist is freed of a burden, and in that new freedom gives praise to God for mercy and grace.  The mercy of God opens our lips.  The mercy of God opens our mouths to offer thanks and praise to God.  The mercy of God is the occasion for joy.

13     Give me the joy of your saving help again *

        and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. 

I want to address one verse of Psalm 51 in particular.  It’s the verse that reads:

6       Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *

        a sinner from my mother's womb. 

Some of you may be aware that this verse has put to use to support the idea that the physical act of procreation itself transmits sin.  This is unfortunate, because it denigrates a process which God created, and which is in itself beautiful and wondrous.  God created sex and procreation, and we have no reason to accept those gifts as anything other than good.

What I would say is that this verse of the Psalm does reflect a reality, however, and that is that there are none of us who are born into a situation free from sin.

Our Prayer Book Catechism gives us a concise and useful definition of sin, which is that “sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

There are none of us who aren’t born into a situation where that self-seeking isn’t going on, where that distortion is not present in some form or fashion.  We learn those patterns.  They hurt us.  With those patterns we hurt others.

Lent is a time to focus on unlearning those patterns.  I encourage you to think: “who in my life can help me unlearn those patterns?”   “Who in my life will benefit from me unlearning those patterns and finding a new pattern of thinking and behavior?

We come to this day from different places.  Maybe some of you come from a background in which you never felt good enough, never felt worthy enough.  There was no deep assurance of the gift of love and grace that God has to give you. I call that “punishing moralism,” the kind of thing that leads to a weariness of soul.   Jesus warned religious leaders of his time about placing upon people burdens which they were not themselves willing to bear.
To you, in the name of Christ and of Christ’s Church, I proclaim that God’s love for you is free and without condition, that God looks upon you with great affection, and is pleased by your desire to be in relationship, and will accept at any time with grace and mercy the attempts you make toward repentance and amendment of life.

Maybe some of you come from a background in which you came late to a sense of personal responsibility for your behavior; you feel a bit stung, humbled, perhaps embarrassed, shamed.

To you, in the name of Christ and of Christ’s Church,  I proclaim that God’s love for you is free and without condition, that God looks upon you with great affection, and is pleased by your desire to be in relationship, and will accept at any time with grace and mercy the attempts you make toward repentance and amendment of life.

Today’s liturgy will help all of us in our Lent, in that the Litany of Penitence from this service is a useful means for self-examination.  It is a diagnostic tool with which we can evaluate the ways in which we’ve sought our own will rather than God’s will, and found ourselves in a distorted relationship with God and others.

Through this penitential season of Lent, may God’s mercy open our lips, that our mouths may proclaim God’s praise, and may we be given the grace to lead others to the place of grace and mercy as well.


Raphael, The Transfiguration  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/Transfiguration_Raphael.jpg

Raphael, The Transfiguration



This sermon is indebted to Archbishop Michael Ramsay’s retreat address on Transfiguration reprinted in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness. (Oxford University Press, 2001), 670.

A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Sharon and I visited the Vancouver Art Museum on Friday to see 19th Century French paintings on loan from the Brooklyn Museum.  For me, it’s the light in the landscapes that holds me, has me lingering to gaze.  It’s the light. 

 It’s the light on water and sky that brings people to Boulevard Park, the sunsets and sunrises around here that amaze us, that dazzle our eyes and lift our soul.

And it’s the light in today’s readings.  The resplendent light of Moses’ face coming down from the mountain from converse with the Divine.  The splendor of a Jesus transfigured in dazzling light, bathing in an aura of brilliance that also includes Moses and Elijah.

The light of God shines through the biblical tradition and our tradition of prayer and worship.

There are 35 pages in the Book of Common Prayer that the word  “shine” is used.  The word “light” appears on 193 pages.  Jesus Christ is the light of the world.  Epiphany is the season of light, where before each Eucharistic Prayer we acknowledge God’s gift of Christ as “a new light to shine in our hearts.”  We pray to be “illumined by the Word and Sacraments”, to “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.”  Today we read that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

We read of Jesus transfigured today, and we hear that as we look on the light of Christ we will be transformed ourselves, becoming more our true selves.

There are so many ways to explore this, and today some thoughts from Archbishop Canterbury Michael Ramsey have me thinking how this applies to our lives in our day and time.

Ramsey tells us about reading the historian Arnold Toynbee’s reflections on various human responses to what Toynbee described as a “declining and frustrated civilization.”  And I have to say that when I read these words they had a very contemporary ring.

The first attitude in a declining and frustrated civilization is archaism.  This is the “let’s put the clock back” attitude, seeking to reconstruct a state of affairs that had previously existed, or that we imagine to have existed. This is the “I don’t like the new news, I like the old news better,” to borrow a line from Bob Dylan.  This is the “back in the good old days” attitude.

The second attitude is futurism, the impulse to despair of the current order and try to force our way forward to some totally new state of affairs, so new that it can only be attained by violence.

The third attitude is escapism; we despair of everything and we retreat into a private zone of spirituality that we think is apart from the troubles of the world.

Ramsay notes that Toynbee rejected these three attitudes in favor of what he actually labeled transfiguration,which he defined: “to accept the situation just as it is and to carry it into a larger context which makes sense of it and gives the power to grapple with it.”

Ramsay, finds these words of Toynbee “very suggestive” for Christians in finding the meaning of transfiguration.

The Transfiguration story helps us accept the situation we are in, and carry it into a larger context, and that larger context for us is Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

The story of Jesus transfigured takes place as Jesus is turning toward Jerusalem, which has for him an ominous prospect.  In Jerusalem he will suffer and die.  And the Gospel writers want us to know that this event is to be carried into a larger context in which this will make sense. The light that bathes this story is that of the glory of God, and the glory of God is to be revealed in the suffering Christ.

The glory of God is God amid human suffering and confusion. The events that will take place in Jerusalem are not a defeat for God or the Christ of God.  The crucifixion of Jesus will show us God with us in the depths. Rather than God abandoning us to suffering, God is with us in suffering.

Our participation personally in this transfiguration happens as we allow our suffering, the suffering of others, to be lifted into this larger context.  The transformative presence and power of God is not frustrated by the decline and fall of civilizations.  The light of Christ shone brilliantly, for example, in the community of the French Protestants of Le Chambon sur Lignon in France during the Nazi occupation of France. They were shaped by the Gospel story of Jesus in their worship life. Their French Protestant ancestors had suffered tremendous religious persecution.  Powerfully influenced by their history and their spiritual formation, they resisted the regime in power in France and took in Jewish refugees from Nazi oppression, sheltering them through that terrible time, at great personal risk.

Witness like this reminds all Christians everywhere that we will find God where people suffer, and that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  We will not look back to the good old days that never were. We will not retreat from the world, and we will not give ourselves to violent schemes which divide and conquer. Instead, we will go with Christ to the neighbor, who is everyone.

And in the realm of our personal lives God’s transformative power is still present to our situations of failure, disappointment, pain, or when our lives are ebbing away.

Ramsay reminded me to think of my life as a priest, in which I’ve met so many people, who, having suffered, nevertheless display a power to love, a resilience, a gentleness and a capacity for hope.  I hope you’ve met and are meeting those people, who are among us here today.

In the midst of what seems like a declining and frustrated civilization, in the midst of suffering, we Christians are to lift our situation as it is into the light that is shed by Christ into our lives.  We are to behold Christ, to let our gaze linger there. And in so doing we’ll be changed. We’ll grow in likeness to who it is we behold.

Is this happening in us?  I sometimes ask myself that question.  Is it happening in me?

The truth is, it isn’t something we ourselves can see. It certainly doesn’t seem that way a lot of the time, I can tell you.  And any evaluation I’d make of myself would certainly be wrong.

I believe we’re simply invited to trust that the Holy Spirit will help us to trust in God, to trust in the face of God we see in Christ, and to give ourselves in simple faith to this process.  We’re simply to ask God to make it happen, and trust that God will make it happen.

Ruth Burrows gives words* to this way of trusting:

If I let God take hold of me more and more; possess me, as fire possesses the burning log, then I give off light and heat to the whole world even though the influence be completely hidden.


·      *Quoted by Suzanne Guthrie at http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/epiphanylastc.html

Pastoral Letter from Bishop Rickel on Suspension of Statute of Limitations for Clergy Sexual Misconduct

Bishop Gregory Rickel

Bishop Gregory Rickel

Dear friends: 

I’m grateful to Bishop Rickel for following pastoral letter that I will read aloud in church services on Sunday, January 12, 2019.

It is extremely important to send a message that sexual misconduct has no place in the life of the church, and that those who’ve suffered abuse deserve every bit of help we can give them to find healing.

If you have a story about misconduct to tell, please note carefully the information in this letter about how to report it.  I’m ready and willing to support you.

I want to emphasize what Bishop Rickel writes here about this resolution and our diocesan policy, which is that the goal of both is “to break down every possible barrier to reporting an allegation of sexual misconduct in this church.”

A translation of this letter into Spanish is linked below.

Yours in Christ,


To all the good people of the Diocese of Olympia,

This past summer, at our General Convention in Austin, Texas, the Episcopal Church took some historic and much needed steps in addressing past abuses by clergy toward lay persons and toward other clergy in the church.   For far too long there has been too much silence, and often misdirection, when persons in our church were brave enough to bring such allegations forward. I am writing this letter, and asking that it be read in every congregation,on Sunday January 6th and/or January 11th,  in order to make you aware of the implementation of one specific resolution from General Convention, namely, D034, which called for the lifting of the statutes of limitations as spelled out in Title IV.19.4 of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church specifically as it relates to sexual misconduct of clergy. That three year period of suspension begins on January 1, 2019 and will run until December 31, 2021.

While the canon in question, and all the wording of D034, is attached to this letter and available on our diocesan website, the bishop’s blog, and in hard copy for anyone who wishes to have it in that form, the basic result of this suspension is that any allegation against a cleric in this Church for acts of sexual misconduct may be brought forward in this three year window regardless of any prior invoking of a statute of limitations. In short, you do not have to wonder if the allegation comes from too long ago.

In our diocese, the Intake Officer for such allegations is the Rev. Canon Joan Anthony. She can be reached at the Diocesan Office or by simply emailing her at janthony@ecww.org. She can also be contacted directly by phone by calling the diocesan office. If, for any reason you do not feel comfortable reporting this to her, you may also report to the Canon to the Ordinary Marda Steedman Sanborn, your local cleric, any diocesan staff member, and finally the bishop himself. Keeping your confidentiality, especially in the early phases of any allegation and investigation, is our duty.

While I am in complete support of this measure, and voted for it at General Convention, I also want to make clear that since the moment I walked through the doors of DHouse to become the 8th Bishop of Olympia, whenever this particular clause regarding statute of limitations has arisen, my response has always been, “there are no statute of limitations in the Body of Christ.” This has been our policy for the past nearly 12 years and will remain so even beyond this 3-year suspension. Also attached to this letter is the letter on this topic addressed to the church, from the President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings, and our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. I urge you to read that too.

There is yet much more work to do on this topic. Our diocesan convention passed a resolution at our most recent convention which calls for the creation of a Task force on Sexual Harassment in our diocese. At our upcoming clergy conference all of these topics will be a major focus of our time together, including input from clergy on the make up of the Task Force. I invite anyone in the diocese, clergy or lay, to also offer your input on the creation of this committee. You will be hearing much more about all that, and many other topics in the days to come.

I want to summarize that this resolution, as well as our diocesan policy, has as its goal to break down every possible barrier to reporting an allegation of sexual misconduct in this church. As President Jennings and Presiding Bishop Curry said so well in the end of their letter, I will end this one. May this resolution and other steps help “our church move closer to the day when, having repented of our sins and amended our common life, we may be restored in love, grace and trust with each other through our Savior Jesus Christ.”

Please pray for all those affected by misconduct, and pray for our Church. I remain your faithful servant.

The Rt. Rev. Gregory H. Rickel
VIII Bishop of Olympia

Spanish translation

Renewal of Ministry: Reflections from Glassboro

Together in the rectory

Together in the rectory

Recently Sharon and I were with Josh and Christy and Sarah Hosler for a Celebration of New Ministry with Church of the Good Shepherd in Federal Way, Washington. We witnessed a congregation that has embraced their new rector and the family and looks to be off to a good start together.

This past weekend, Sharon and I have been with Todd, Becky, Aviva, and Eli Foster in Glassboro, New Jersey for the Renewal of Ministry Celebration with Todd as Rector of St. Thomas Church.

The weekend is full of reminders for me of the connections the Spirit makes in us and for us in the Body of Christ. There is now a connection between St. Paul’s in Bellingham and St. Thomas Church in Glassboro. We saw Todd’s call to the priesthood begin with us and come to fruition, and we all had some part in that process.

I spoke of that connection in my sermon for the occasion, bringing greetings on behalf of all of you to the congregation and to Bishop Stokes, who presided over the occasion.

l-r: The Senior Warden, Bishop William Stokes and Todd leading the Renewal of Baptismal Vows

l-r: The Senior Warden, Bishop William Stokes and Todd leading the Renewal of Baptismal Vows

Todd and Becky are nine months into the relationship with St. Thomas, and the people there clearly glad to have the Fosters among them. Bishop Stokes noted that in his remarks. A woman who has been a member of St. Thomas for 45 years greeted us after the morning Eucharist, smiling and crossing herself as she spoke of her affirmation of the call.

St. Thomas has been a congregation since 1791. They worship in a small gem of a 19th Century sandstone building with gothic style window frames with warm stained glass depictions of biblical scenes and saints. Surrounding the building is a cemetery in a grove of trees, and on the property sits a parish hall constructed in the 1950’s by parishioners, and a rectory. A few blocks away is another cemetery with graves going back to the 18th Century, on a plot of land on which once stood the log cabin that first housed the congregation.

And, to my joy, St. Thomas is an integrated congregation of black and white people. Growing up in rural and small-town Oregon, you just don’t see that. In the midst of renewed manifestations of overt racism in this country, and because of the enduring legacy of Jim Crow, and because of the still highly segregated reality of American Christianity, I was deeply moved to experience St. Thomas at worship together. in God’s eyes there is a wonderful diversity of races and cultures and that God’s love intended that. We are all one in humanity, one in Christ.

The final hymn at the morning Eucharist was Lift Every Voice and Sing, written by James Weldon Johnson for the occasion of a visit to the segregated Edwin M. Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida by Booker T. Washington on the occasion of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln in 1900. It always brings tears to my eyes, and it did then.

“Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty…”

The final hymn at the afternoon Eucharist celebrating new ministry was Alleluia, Sing to Jesus. We sang: “…his the scepter, his the throne…his the triumph, his the victory alone….”

While we sang I was reminded of Todd’s sermon in the morning dealing with the words of Jesus in Luke predicting the destruction of the Temple and assuring them that even that catastrophe would be but a prelude to the birth of something new.

Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, and following that we again enter Advent. On Christ the King we affirm that all authority in heaven and earth belongs to a humble son of a Jewish maiden from far-off Galilee. It’s an outrageous and bold prophetic affirmation that puts the human politics of division and conquering in the place it belongs, which is in the rubbish bin of history. It’s an affirmation that no matter what, God still reigns, and because of that, we have hope.

James Weldon Johnson’s hymn, which the NAACP adopted as the “Negro National Anthem”, has these words which express the faith and fortitude of a people who have had to overcome the politics of hate and fear and division in our history:

“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way. Thou who has by thy might led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path we pray.”

As I sang them, I silently prayed that we all might be on the path together as one people. I pray that Advent will be a time for us to increase our longing for the day in which we see fulfilled the longing of one of our Eucharistic prayers:

“Put all things in subjection to your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country, where with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our salvation.”

The Ministry Fair and what it shows us

Fellowship at Ministry Fair

Fellowship at Ministry Fair

On October 21 this congregation enjoyed a Ministry Fair. After the services on this day worshipers could wander throughout our spacious Great Hall and Sports Hall learning about the many and varied ministries that people of St. Paul’s carry out in this building and from this building.

On your behalf I’ve thanked our two chief organizers, our Senior Warden Rob Vollkommer and Junior Warden Joanne Clark. With the support of vestry members and representation from these varied ministry groups we had a great turnout! People met each other, too, as they toured the displays. That’s what I heard from several of you.

The Ministry Fair highlighted the health of this congregation. Baptism calls us into many and varied ministries, and the ministry appropriate to each of us is shaped by the natural gifts and talents we possess as gifts from God and the interests and perhaps even the passions that motivate us. I use the word “ministry” intentionally. It bears repeating: ministry is not simply the function of people who are deacons and priests and bishops. Ministry is anything we do for God. Ministry is that which we do because we are responding to God.

A light moment

A light moment

I encourage you all to be aware of those interests and perhaps even passions that motivate you, taking time in prayer to ask God how you might give fuller expression to those interests and passions in ways that help your church and your community. Don’t hesitate to bring to our attention an idea or interest where you could help us develop a fuller representation of the goodness of God. We’ll listen with you to God and see where that goes.

I encourage us all as well, during this time in which the Stewardship Ministry people are calling for our financial commitment for 2019, to support St. Paul’s with your financial giving. We all have a need to give to God, and many, if not most of us, have the need to do so with our finances, as well as with our presence and with the giving of our talents and abilities.

I believe St. Paul’s is worthy of your generosity. Our staff is excellent, hardworking, smart, supporting the ministries of our membership. They deserve our support, so that we can adequately pay them and keep them with us. Your financial support is essential.

Consider making your first check to the church, giving of your first-fruits, the practice of many of our givers. If you haven’t done so before, consider giving a percentage of your income to the church.

Prayer Shawl Ministry brings joy

Prayer Shawl Ministry brings joy

The Ministry Fair showed us a healthy church, growing healthier. The Ministry Fair showed us a church in development, in an age when many churches are experiencing decline in energy. God’s been good to St. Paul’s over many generations, and people have responded over many generations with their ministries. This is our moment. What will future generations enjoy because of us?

God is love. The world needs a witness to God’s love, and ministry is what we do to spread love. May God bless all of us, and use St. Paul’s for God’s purposes to bring forgiveness of sins, works of charity and justice, and hope in these trying times.

Money, Eternal Life, the Age to Come

Proper 23 Year B Oct 14, 2018

A sermon on the text of Mark 10:17-31 by Jonathan Weldon

As Jesus was seeing out on a journey, a man ran up to him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

For He Had Great Possessions, George Frederic Watts, 1894

For He Had Great Possessions, George Frederic Watts, 1894

With these words we hear again a text which, more than just about any other of which I can think, has Christian people in the wealthy society of the West - preachers and congregants alike - scrambling to try to manage and contain the radical challenge of Jesus.   In speaking of this text I may well expose myself as one who is no better than anyone else in this regard.

There are a great many fascinating details in this encounter between Jesus and this man, an account of which is told in Matthew and Luke as well.  There’s one detail I want to treat today in the time allotted, and that is the phrase “eternal life.” Hear again the man kneeling before Jesus, asking:

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

What does the phrase “eternal life” mean here?

The answer heard in many Christian contexts for a long time - and certainly in my own upbringing - has been that the gospels are telling us “how to get to heaven.In my life this meaning was reinforced by many repetitions of John 3:16 in the context of sermons and exhortations about becoming saved and being rescued from an eternity in hell:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

Is this man asking Jesus about how to get to heaven when he dies?

N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop and celebrated New Testament scholar, wants us to know that the phrase translated “eternal life” refers in the gospels and the writings of Paul to “one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up.”  Time was divided in this view into two ages. There was the present age, and the age to come.  Jews who understood the world in this way looked forward to the age to come, when the justice and peace and healing intended by the Holy One would come about on the earth.  For ancient Jews, God’s project was not to rescue people out of the world, but to bring restoration to the world.1

Eternal life, then, is the quality of life in the age to come, the age in which God restores the world, establishes justice, makes things right, establishes God’s rule.  This is the “age to come” spoken of by Jesus in this very passage, when those who have left all for the sake of Jesus and his good news will “receive a hundredfold now in this age... and in the age to come eternal life.”

Eternal life is synonymous with the life of the kingdom of God, which Jesus announces as present now, and coming into fullness.

The man kneeling before Jesus is asking how he may inherit a share in this eternal life, this life of the age to come, and Jesus, looking at him with love, gives him a challenge which pierces right to the heart of the man’s attachments and loyalties.

It seems to me that Jesus is telling this man, who we later find out has “many possessions”, that the life to come is not granted in the way that we inherit something.  We generally don’t have to “do” anything for an inheritance.  It’s just given to us.

But Jesus, asked by the man what he must “do” to gain the inheritance of the life to come, actually gives the man something to do that will ensure his inheritance.  After having given away all his possessions and relieved the burden of the poor around him, and after joining Jesus on the road in his itinerant band, he’ll have no stake in anything but the life of the age to come.

This proves to be too much for the man to do, and, shocked and grieving, he goes away.

Jesus’ comment deserves to be heard deep down by all of us who, in this Western world in which we are the richest people who have ever lived, and yet live in a world of haves and have-nots; a world in which the accumulation of wealth and the suffering of real people are all too often linked in very discoverable and traceable patterns of relationship.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

His comment strikes right to my heart, and I imagine to yours as well.

How hard it is for those who have wealth in this age to welcome with our hearts and hands and voices the desires of God that are essential to the age to come, and to give ourselves whole-heartedly to the cause. It is hard for us, because money - which is the form of wealth common to most of us - is a power in our lives.  And like all powers of this world, we can either use it for the aims of the age to come, the age of God’s peace, and God’s justice, and God’s healing - or not.  We can leverage our access to money for God’s purposes, or we can be controlled by money such that the acquisition of it, the preservation of it, the accumulation of it, gets control of us.  Money, unless we are very deliberate, becomes an idol.

In short, the power money has over us can keep us from investing ourselves in caring for others. It can keep us from enjoying the world as a gift, of seeing in the world the abundant possibilities for creative action for the common good.  This is a form of oppression to which we easily submit.

This power need not have dominion over us.  William Stringfellow wrote of the sacramental possibilities of money:

“Freedom from the idolatry of money, for a Christian, means that money becomes useful only as a sacrament -- as a sign of the restoration of life wrought in this world by Christ.”

He turns our attention the centrality of the offertory in our liturgy as our way of representing the offering (oblation) of the totality of life to God.

And, observing that, “in American society at least...every relationship in personal and public life is characterized by obtaining or spending or exchange of money,” he goes on to say that about the offertory in the Eucharist: “it is well that Americans use money as the witness to that offering.”2

In other words, our money is not our own, because our lives are not our own, just as Jesus Christ’s life was not his own, but belonged to the world.  In the same way, we belong to the world for which Christ came in love and forgiveness and challenge and blessing.

Another great Christian thinker of our age spoke similarly:

“How to overcome the spiritual “power” of money?  Not by accumulating more money, not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings.  The law of money is the law of accumulation, of buying and selling. That is why the only way to overcome the spiritual “power” of money is to give our money away, thus desacralizing it and freeing ourselves from its control….To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.”3

There are many more things that can said about this encounter, but there’s not enough time.  I close with what I take to be a comforting sign in the midst of this extremely challenging Gospel story.

We see that Jesus, before he leveled his great challenge to this man, “looked on him and loved him.”

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, you promise us such fullness of life, and you invite us into your abundance, into a world made new by deeds that are just and loving and healing.  Look upon us as we come to this Eucharistic offering today, knowing our lives belong to you, but scared of handing them over in full, as you have handed your life over to us in full.  Love us, please, as you did that man long ago, and grant that we may not turn away from you sad but follow you along your way. Lead us into the age to come, this very day, and may there be blessing for all those around us because of our response to your invitation.   Amen.


2Bill Wylie Kellerman, ed., A Keeper of the Word, Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994) 248-249.

3Jaques Ellul, quoted in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Vol. 4, (Westminster John Knox, 2009) 169.

Forward Day by Day

Do you find yourself desiring something more each day?  Some spiritual grounding and support? Have the idea that you want inspiration from the Scripture and a chance to pray but aren't sure how to get started?

Forward Day By Day

Forward Day By Day

Since 1935, there's been a resource available to Episcopalians.  It's called "Forward Day by Day."  It is a booklet of daily meditations on a specific passage of the Bible, each month written by a different author.

I'm grateful to Fr. Don Smith for calling our attention to Forward Day By Day, and for making sure we have copies available at church.  I join him in commending this resource to you.

Daily Scripture reflection and prayer is basic to spiritual growth for a Christian.  In this practice we  turn our attention to what the Spirit will say to us, reminding us of our grounding in God's daily provision of life and orienting us to our calling to receive and reflect God's love in every circumstance of life.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who visited us recently, is inviting all Episcopalians to "The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life."  One of those practices is "Learn."  He asks us to reflect on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus' life and teachings.  Forward Day By Day is an excellent way to do this practice.

Forward Day By Day is available in regular print (can fit in a shirt pocket), large print, daily e-mail, e-book (Kindle, Nook, iTunes), a daily podcast, a smartphone app for iOS or Android, and on Facebook and Twitter.  You can access these options at the link provided here.  Some of you will be best served by picking up your copy at church.  We're glad to continue offering that option.

I encourage you to subscribe to your favorite version of Forward Day By Day and use it every day.  I know that two of our youth read it every day and got their parents to follow suit!

I'd love to see more and more members of St. Paul's adopting a daily practice of prayer.  It will change us!

And thanks again, Fr. Don Smith, for your reminders to us about this wonderful resource.

Thoughts for the Fourth of July


Did you know that the Fourth of July is considered in our current Prayer Book as a major feast of the church, with its own collect and Scripture lessons for a celebration on that day?  

This wasn’t always the case.  When the first Book of Common Prayer was set forth in the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the newly-independent United States of America, a proposal for such a celebration was omitted out of deference to those clergy of the church who had remained Loyalists.  The 1928 BCP first established such a feast day as a lesser celebration, and the 1979 BCP made it a major feast.

The collect for the day acknowledges the “Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations yet unborn….”

In this appeal to God as inspiration for the founding of the United States, I suppose the framers of this prayer were referring to well-known words from the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What is the church saying by having the Fourth of July as a major feast?  What does this mean about the role of religion in the public square? Currently the question of the relationship of Christianity to the state is a live issue.

I read a news report this week about a prominent clergyman who recently delivered a sermon entitled “America is a Christian Nation.”   I’m close to people in my life who seem to embrace this idea. In support of this idea, proponents cite evidence, for instance, of a few signers of the Declaration of Independence who were traditional Trinitarian Christians, while overlooking the well-established historical evidence that most of our founding fathers were Deists.

Is the United States a Christian nation?  My response to this assertion is to ask “what does that mean?”  What is meant by “Christian?” What is meant by “nation?” Are we talking about the Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, or the Christianity of those who kept human beings as chattel and cited the Bible to support it?  Is this the Christianity which either directly or by silence countenanced the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Trail of Tears? Does this Christianity countenance the separation of children from their parents at our borders and approve the method of proof-texting the Bible to justify the policy?  Does this version of Christianity follow the example of the Pharisee or the publican in Jesus’ famous parable?   Would this “Christian nation” meet the standard for the judgment of nations set forth by Jesus here?

In terms of nation, are we talking about the Jamestown Colony, or some other manifestation in the process toward 1776?  Are we willing to grant that many Muslims were here as slaves in colonial times and that Washington and Jefferson at least showed some respect for their freedom of religion?   Can we acknowledge Washington’s demonstration of support for the religious liberty of Jewish people?  

What was intended by the framers of our present Prayer Book in designating the Fourth of July as a major feast?

A clue lies later in the collect, in which we ask God to “grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.”

I think the framers of the Prayer Book intend for we church members to give thanks for the benefits of freedom which we enjoy, and use that freedom to righteous ends.  Those ends are works of mercy and charity and the pursuit of just laws which demonstrate a love of neighbor, especially the weakest and most vulnerable neighbor. In this pursuit we Christians are to make common cause with “all the people of this land,” many of whom will not be believers, and many of whom will profess other faiths.

Today I listened in on a conversation with two eminent historians of American religion: Stephen Noll and George Marsden.  They are believers, and they are serious scholars.  Their work as historians recognizes the strong role Christianity has played in the life of our nation from the beginning, and they recognize the power for good of Christian religious conviction in the political and cultural life of America.  They warn, however, of the tendency to idealize or sanitize history.  If Christian believers want to make a case in the public square for a Christian perspective on the common good, Noll says they should seek to

“frame arguments that appeal to the broad population that exists in the United States, the pluralistic religious population that exists, and when history is evoked, to get the history right...that would be much better.”

To this Marsden adds:

“To have a voice, you have to treat the other side fairly.  Be willing to be self-critical of your own tradition and say if we have a voice, other people have to have a voice too, and try to treat everyone with equity.”

I’d say that right now Christianity in America is being tested.  What does it mean for us to be Christians? Is ours the Christianity of civil religion, or the path of being a disciple of Jesus?  Is ours the Christianity that looks longingly back on an idealized American past, or the one that looks forward to "the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God?"   (Hebrews 11:10)  Is ours the Christianity the search for a lost Christendom, the feeling of being “on top” of the pile?  Or is ours the Christianity which is willing to follow in humility the Christ of Galilee, the Son of Man whose compassion is over all God’s works?

While we think on that, we can reflect on the Prayer Book’s collect “For the Nation,” which also gives us a Christian vision of citizenship in this country of ours.

17. For the Nation

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the

earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace:

Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the

strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in

accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our

Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one

God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Have a good Fourth of July.




Sabbath: Give it a Rest!

Proper 4 Year B, June 3, 2018

“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you….”                         - Deuteronomy 5:12 (NRSV)

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so, the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”   -Mark 2:27-28 (NRSV)


Wildflowers seen on hike above Lake Whatcom - author photo

Wildflowers seen on hike above Lake Whatcom - author photo

I take a sabbath day every week if possible.  My sabbath is Friday since Sunday is a work day.  Friday is a day to cease and desist. That’s what sabbath means: it means to cease activity, to desist from daily concerns, to rest.

I need my sabbath days for rest.  So do you. We’re not made for endless striving.  We’re made for relationship with God and one another.  And that relationship with God requires rest.

On my sabbath I don’t look at work email.  I will respond to emergencies, but I will try to leave other work until the sabbath is over.  I’m struggling on my sabbath days not to overindulge on the media, but to rest from it.

We all require rest.  When I walk on a pleasant spring day down to Boulevard Park and see others there; their phones stowed away, walking, watching children play on the playground or tossing stones into the waves; I see rest.  When I see people riding a bicycle, teetering along a slackline, throwing a frisbee, scanning the sky for the volleyball that swiftly comes their way, reading a book on a blanket, or simply sitting and staring out across the bay, I see rest.  And when I see all of that, and see that we all need rest, I feel my kinship with all these people. I recognize that in other contexts in which we meet some of the people I meet might get on my nerves, and I might get on theirs. When I’m resting, I’m more inclined to see the unity that’s right there in front of my face, a unity that is given by God the Creator.

It's a funny thing what you notice when you’re thinking about sabbath.

While looking for something on YouTube to relax a tired mind, I found video from a camera mounted in a railroad train cab showing the sights and sounds of a rail trip through a snowy, forested landscape.  I watched that video for 20 minutes. It was relaxing. And I could see that the video went on for hours. The experience reminded me how much my dad loved trains, and how I loved to ride them with him, staring out the window for hours at the plains of Nebraska on a trip east.

Then, undoubtedly because of some algorithm that Google has, I later found something else in my feed; a story from an American network Sunday show about “Slow TV,” a phenomenon in Norway.  As it turns out, it was Norwegian TV I was watching on that train ride. It’s enormously popular there. At any given time, half of Norway’s population may be watching a cow wander in a field, or 51/2 hours of salmon fishing, or the knitting of a sweater, beginning with the shearing of a sheep.  It’s called “Slow TV.” Its creators took a risk of boring people, and as it turns out, people are willing to be bored on the chance that they might find something interesting during slowing down and noticing.

I then saw the ad for the “Slow Watch,” a Swiss product with only one hand which shows no minutes or seconds, just hours. “With its 24-hour one hand concept it will remind you to stop chasing minutes and live for the moment,” the watchmakers claim.

Then yesterday morning I noticed in my news feed the story about the world’s quietest room and research into the need humans have for silence.

Clearly, human beings have the need for the sabbath that Holy Scripture commands, don’t they?  

Sabbath affords the opportunity for rest, and rest affords the opportunity for perception, for insight, for reflection, for play, for creativity, for fresh approaches to problems, like how to get along with each other.

And I think of what the first creation story in Genesis tells us, which is that when God had completed creation God pronounced a blessing upon the newly-created human couple and said “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed….”  Our NRSV weakly and inadequately translates the Hebrew hinneh as “See,” and I’m convinced by reading Maggie Ross that “Behold” is a superior translation. It communicates so much more strongly the call to contemplation inherent in “Behold”, to call to what the late Jesuit Walter Burghardt calls “the long, loving look at the real.”

I also find moving her insight that the command to behold was the first covenant that God made with humanity, and all the other covenants that follow are given us because we couldn’t keep the first covenant, which was to behold the gift of our being in creation and live gratefully and securely with one another in the beholding.

I think there’s a big clue to the importance of sabbath in our collect for today, in which we pray “O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth.”  Rest and reflection allow us to behold that God is in charge, not us. Rest allows us to behold that God is everywhere, within us, without us, transcending us, giving birth to us constantly.  In the words of St. Paul, in God “we live and move and have our being.” And in this realization, we come inevitably to a deeper respect for every human being.

To behold, through sabbath rest, that God’s never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and on earth” leads us to entreat God to “put away from us all hurtful things and give us those things that are profitable for us.”

Sabbath helps us put away from us those hurtful things: the feverish pursuit of the Almighty Dollar as if that were the only way to gain what is profitable, the many voices of cranky and vituperative people paid enormous sums to broadcast back to us our prejudices and our fears about gender or race or politics, the temptations of the enemy to see in others only evil and to ignore the evil that resides within us, the temptation to divide the world simplistically into the good guys and the bad guys, placing ourselves in the latter camp, the culture of lying and dissembling that we’re seeing today.  All these things, and more, are hurtful.

God wants to give us what is good for us.  In our Gospel story Jesus sets the sabbath in proper context. Jesus is angry in this passage; angry at hard-heartedness.  He declares himself Lord of the sabbath, and defying convention, he heals a man, showing the true meaning of sabbath. The purpose of the sabbath is to prepare us to give and receive love and mercy.

We’re commanded to keep sabbath, because God knows we need it.  We need it to sustain us in that for which we are created, which is love.

And love is hard, but also joyful.  Let’s hear from Dorothy Day about that:

Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife, which may at any moment become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself, "What else is the world interested in?" What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships? God is love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other. We want with all our hearts to love, to be loved. And not just in the family but to look upon all as our mothers, sisters, brothers, children. It is when we love the most intensely and most humanly that we can recognize how tepid is our love for others. The keenness and intensity of love brings with it suffering, of course, but joy too, because it is a foretaste of heaven.                                    
-Dorothy Day, 1897-1980, The Reckless Way of Love.  http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/proper4b.html

Where are you in accepting the commandment to sabbath?  Where are you in accepting this gift?

Let us pray:

O God, in keeping sabbath we behold your never-failing providence setting in order all things both in heaven and earth: Incline us to keep sabbath, so that in it we may find you removing from us hurtful things and giving us those things that are truly profitable for us, through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Lord of the Sabbath.  Amen.

Fr. Kamal Farah to visit St. Paul's: Some Background

St. Paul’s members will soon be privileged to be taught more about the Bible and our faith by Fr. Kamal Farah, an Anglican priest and scholar.

photo from stthomas2israel@wordpress.com

photo from stthomas2israel@wordpress.com

Fr. Kamal’s visit comes to us through the efforts of Laurie Parrish, supported by our Adult Formation Committee.  Laurie has traveled in the Holy Land with Fr. Kamal along with Fr. Chuck Whitmore and a group of St. Paul’s parishioners. 

Fr. Kamal was born in Galilee in the village of Kefar Bar’am.  He is a Arab Israeli Anglican Christian.  Ordained to the priesthood in 1967, he served as rector of Anglican churches in North Galilee and Nazareth.  He holds the PhD in Advanced Linguistics from the Catholic University at the Sorbonne in Paris, as well as a second PhD in Church-State laws, also from the Sorbonne. He’s held a number of positions in the Anglican Church diocese headquartered in Jerusalem and served as Course Director at St. George’s College in Jerusalem, an Anglican institution which has hosted many people – including myself in the year 2000 – for studies of the lands and language and peoples of Israel and Palestine.

In May of 2000 I lived and studied at St. George’s College, located within a block or two of the Old City of Jerusalem.  During that time, I was with a group of English-speaking Christians from Europe and Australia, Asia, Great Britain, and the United States traveling throughout Israel, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Sinai learning about the history and culture of the world of the Bible and about the underlying issues that cause such pain and violence and division and continued suffering in the Middle East.

An experience like that changes perspective.  It’s possible to live your whole life as a Christian in America with little to no awareness or understanding of the world of Christians elsewhere. My observation is that many American Christians view the Holy Land and contemporary politics there through the prism of a theology known as “dispensationalism,” which is a system of biblical interpretation with origins in 19thCentury Great Britain, later popularized in United States.  My father graduated from a seminary in Dallas that was founded upon this system of biblical interpretation.  The advocates of this theological system have had great success with the promulgation of its tenets, as evident in the massive success of the “Left Behind” series of novels and related movies, and the association of the idea of “biblical prophecy” with a particular scheme which attempts to map out a timeline for the “rapture of the saints” and the end of the world.  Advocates of this system currently hold great influence over American policy toward Israel, as evidenced by their prominent roles in the recent ceremony dedicating the site of the American embassy in Jerusalem.  This move is seen by many of dispensationalist opinion as a necessary step in the preparation for the return of Jesus.

Dispensationalism's concerns with the so-called "pre-tribulation rapture of the saints" are foreign to the churches of the Middle East: Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Anglican, Lutheran. The concerns of these churches are focused, not on speculation about the “rapture” (not a biblical word) and the end of time, but on daily concerns of followers of Christ in a culture that is already fraught with tribulation.  The concerns of our Anglican sisters and brothers in Israel and the West Bank, for instance, are in worship and teaching, the running of hospitals and schools, in efforts at making peace and learning to live with and find common good with people of other faiths (Muslim and Jewish), and in trusting that Jesus is Lord and that ultimately the reign of Jesus will prevail over hatred and violence.

These sisters and brothers maintain their worship and service in a context in which many Christians are leaving the Middle East for good.  I learned more about this first-hand in 2000, and that lesson was learned again during my recent trip to Eastern Turkey and Northern Iraq.  The exodus of Christians from the Middle East is a matter of grave concern, for many reasons.

As Fr. Kamal comes to us, he represents Christianity formed and shaped in the lands of the Bible.  As a student of Scripture in the original languages, and as someone for whom the history and culture and contemporary political issues and the lands and flora and fauna and wildlife and physical geography of Israel and the West Bank are constantly present, Fr. Kamal is in a position to share with us a perspective on Christian believing that will refresh and challenge us and raise new issues for being disciples of Christ.

There’s a saying I’ve heard, and in the midst of a culture in which speculation about heaven-by-and-by is rampant at the expense of Christian discipleship in the here-and-now, it bears repeating.  “Let’s not be so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly good.”

My hope and expectation is that Fr. Kamal’s presence among us will encourage us to love Jesus, love God and our neighbor, seek justice, stand for love amidst division, and to make no peace with oppression.  My hope and expectation is that Fr. Kamal’s visit will help us to realize that Jesus’ reign is not for some time to come only but for now.

Reclaiming Jesus as Lord: Church Leaders Speak Out

On Ash Wednesday this year, some Christian leaders - including our own Presiding Bishop  Michael Curry - got together in retreat and from that retreat spoke to professing Christians of our country words I believe we need from them.

In their statement, and in the accompanying video, they say this:

Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession. It was central for the early church and needs to again become central to us. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was not—nor any other political ruler since. If Jesus is Lord, no other authority is absolute. Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God he announced, is the Christian’s first loyalty, above all others. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.

They then pose the question with which they wrestled:

The question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history? We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what “Jesus is Lord” means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.

The statement goes on to affirm six beliefs and expound on the ethical commitments that follow from those beliefs.

Those ethical implications they sum up by citing the Great Commandment, the core commitment to which the confession "Jesus is Lord" calls us:

The best response to our political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries is the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:38). As to loving our neighbors, we would add “no exceptions.”

The statement ends strongly with these words:

Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair. If Jesus is Lord, there is always space for grace. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ—to whom be all authority, honor, and glory. It is time for a fresh confession of faith. Jesus is Lord. He is the light in our darkness. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

To read the entire statement, view a video of these leaders reading the statement, to view the list of the original signatories, and to find resources, follow this link.

I commend this entire statement to all members of St. Paul's for reflection and conversation in your homes and among your friends. 


A Mother's Day Sermon from Marsha Vollkommer

A Sermon for Sunday, May 13, 2018 

 John 17: 6-19  

Marsha Vollkommer.jpg

I am always at a bit of a loss as to how we, in the church, are called to find synergy in the Gospel message and secular, cultural celebrations. I know I am called to the love of all people – which, on a day like today, means remembering a friend who did not go to church on Mothers Day for forty years, because she was a mother for only four months before her baby died. It means remembering those who could not become mothers when they wanted to – and those who did not choose to do so. It means remembering another friend in a grief support group, who only realized after allowing herself to become totally vulnerable, that she was grieving the mother she never had rather than the one she did. It means honoring those who have buried their children, and those who are estranged from their children. It means honoring those who have suffered neglect, and abuse, from their own mothers. It means, for me, weeping at this time every year for the past 16 years with my nieces, whose mother died when they were little girls, yet whose annual tributes to her express both their longing and their gratitude for the brief time she was their mom. 

It was in this frame of mind that I read John’s gospel for this morning…and I have never encountered the words before in such a bittersweet way.  

Jesus has, for the past few weeks in our readings, been spending the end of his time on earth with his disciples. Although our attention has not been drawn to it, the readings take place at the time of the Last Supper. The disciples don’t know this will be their last night with Jesus, but Jesus knows. And he has set about preparing them to continue what he has begun. He didn’t do anything attention getting. He performed no dazzling miracle to remember him by…provided them no riveting metaphor to keep his message in focus…two things he was really good at. The disciples were to continue Jesus’ life – just as we are called to do – when he was no longer physically there. But how? 

Jesus got up from the table, took a basin of water and a towel, and proceeded to wash the feet of the disciples. Peter objected, but Jesus overrode him and continued the washing. Then Jesus began to talk, and he talked a long time. This is the longest conversation of Jesus we have in the New Testament. He tells the story of the Vine and the branches, and invites us all to live in him. He gives a new commandment – to love one another, and make ourselves at home in his love…to put our lives on the line for our friends. 

And then Jesus prays. He prays to his Father, our Father – his Mother, our Mother – in heaven, asking God to fuse his life and work with the life and work of his disciples…with our life and work. And in his words is a poignancy we don’t hear in other passages and other writings…the sadness of a man who is about to leave those he holds so dear…those who have put such trust and faith in him. He prays to God to “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” asking God to help them have trust and faith in one another when Jesus is no longer with them. “ “While I was with them,” he prays, “I protected them…I guarded them…I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them.” 

Jesus knows God’s love as parent – just as he has, in his way, parented the motley crew of men and women who have given away all that they had and all that they knew because they recognized in him the love that is from God…whether they could name it or not. And Jesus’ prayer was asking God to wrap God’s love around them as they faced what came next in their lives…to keep them safe, to keep them strong, to keep them in the love they felt for one another and for the one who loved them into being.  

And that’s it – that’s how Jesus chose to spend that last evening with his disciples, preparing for the transition from Jesus present to Jesus absent. He began by washing the feet of his disciples, down on his knees before each of them, getting his hands dirty with the dirt of their feet. He ended by praying to his Father and their Father that what they continued to do would be in harmony with what he had been doing. That God would protect them, and that God’s love would live through them.  

The pattern holds for us, as well: Whatever we do in Jesus’ name, we begin on our knees before our friends and neighbors and, indeed, before all God’s children and conclude looking up to heaven praying to our Father. Washing dirty feet and praying to the Holy Father of us all bookend our lives. 

Lest you think I’ve strayed away from Mothers’ Day…and perhaps landed on Fathers’ Day…I don’t think so. What John’s words in the Gospel tell me of Jesus is that he was many things to, and for, his disciples…and one of those things was parent. None of the twelve were his biological children, and Jesus certainly doesn’t have the gender qualifications to be called Mother. Yet what this passage opens up is the notion that some of us may find ourselves the children of loving mothers, may hope ourselves to be loving mothers to our offspring…and yet all of us have the capacity – and the calling – to be loving in the way God loves to all whom we encounter.  

I had a really awesome mother…but she wasn’t the only mother in my life. She wasn’t the only person I was blessed to meet who taught me what love is, what love looks like, how love feels. Some of the best mothers I’ve encountered are men. And when it comes right down to it, some of the most unconditional love we ever encounter – are ever blessed to receive – comes not from mothers or from fathers but from little children. Jesus shows us in his plea to his father, on behalf of his own “children,” that God’s love fills us all with the capacity to teach and to learn, to guide and to follow, to protect and to be protected by God’s children whether they live on our family tree or not. 

Every year, the author Anne Lamott brings out a column she wrote ten years ago explaining (in her humorous, but on point way) her argument with Mothers Day. In it she admits that there were times she could have literally died of love for her son Sam, and she admits (and I quote) “I’ve felt stoned on his rich, desperate love for me.” She takes issue with the celebration of a day solely for mothers – at the exclusion of all those I spoke of earlier – because, she says, “it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat…You want to give me chocolate and flowers? (asks Anne) Great. I love them both. I just don’t want them out of guilt, and I don’t want them if you’re not going to give them to all the people who helped mother our children. But if you are going to include everyone, then make mine something like M&Ms, and maybe some flowers you picked yourself, even from my own garden, the cut stems wrapped in wet paper towels, then tin foil and a waxed-paper bag from my kitchen drawer. I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain.” This, I believe, is what God asks of each of us. 

I used to tell my children that we can never know what pain is in the hearts of those we meet. Because my children are now far wiser than I, they often say the same to me. And I also told them we can never imagine how much love is in the hearts of those we meet. In their own beautiful way, they remind me of that quite often, too. Being mother, father, sibling, child – biological or not – are relationships full of pain and full of love. It is the love of God – something beautifully plain – that holds it all together – that holds us all together – that helps us find our best mothers (male and female) in so many places and helps us be the best mothers (female and male) to so many others in the world. May this Mothers’ Day be yet another reminder – another celebration – that God’s love is alive in the world – it is there for the taking and it is there for the giving away. 


Thoughts upon hearing of the defacement of Judaic texts at Wilson Library

The Bellingham Herald reported recently on the defacement of library materials in the Jewish Studies section of WWU's Wilson Library with anti-semitic symbols on Monday, March 12.

On March 21 one of our parishioners who is an employee of Western Washington University informed me that vandals had one week later defaced materials in this section, and gave me information about what the University is doing in response.

This kind of behavior has a long history.  Unfortunately, the Church encouraged the development of hateful attitudes toward the Jewish people from the earliest days of the church's growth into a separate movement after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Statements from some of our most revered theologians from Augustine to Luther can be cited in evidence.

One of the earliest images of Jews being persecuted in Britain from the 13th century*

One of the earliest images of Jews being persecuted in Britain from the 13th century*

The Church has taken steps to repent of all of this in modern times.  The reminders are still with us, however, in Holy Week, when we read passages from the Gospel According to John which have been used by anti-semites to justify their attitudes.

So it is that I recommend for your reflection as we enter Holy Week the statement about this which Fr. Josh provided for all of us to read and which we have published in the last couple of weeks.  Fr. Josh says the statement is essentially the work of Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, whose work is helping Christians understand some background to our own sacred texts.  Here it is:


Jesus was a Jew. Christianity began as a movement within Judaism that took time to form and evolve into the institutional Church of today. There were areas of contention and disagreement among the Jews in Jesus’ time, and the leaders of the early Jesus movement did not shy away from hostile rhetoric against their detractors, as evidenced by a number of New Testament passages. The Greek term usually translated here as “the Jews” varies in meaning and application, alternately referring to the most powerful Jewish religious leaders; Jews of the region of Judea specifically; or to those Jews who had reservations about Paul’s mission among Gentiles. In essence, “the Jews” functions in the New Testament as “the other” against which Christianity came to define itself. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion, Christian rhetoric against Jews gained power, and Christian texts inspired anti-Semitism, most notably during the Crusades and the Holocaust. In our modern context, it is important for us to remember that while New Testament writers took issue with Jews who disbelieved in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, these texts do not take issue with anyone’s race or origin. Nor do they prescribe for us, in contradiction with Christ’s central purpose, mistrust or hatred of non-Christians. 

Christians have every reason to celebrate the heritage we've received from the Jewish people through Jesus, a Jew of Palestine.   We need to follow him, and find every way we can to celebrate God's continued faithfulness to the Jewish people, and through them, to us.  With them, we're called to bring reconciliation and healing to a broken world.

As Holy Week approaches, the recent incidents at Western alert us to the need to always be on the alert against anti-Judaic attitudes, which miss the whole point of being a follower of Jesus.

*Image scanned from Four Gothic Kings, Elizabeth Hallam, ed.

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:en. La originala priskribo estas: Marginal Illustration from the Rochester Chronicle (British Library, Cotton Nero D. II.), folio 183v.

A Day of Lament and the March for Our Lives

The clergy of the Diocese got a report from Bishop Rickel this week about the meeting of the House of Bishops in Texas last week, and I want to pass on to you their urging that we keep a focus on gun violence in the wake of the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The Bishops declared March 14 a Day of Lament and Action.  This date is a month to the day after the Parkland shooting.  This is a day to lament.  Come to Eucharist at 6:30 am or 5:30 pm at St. Paul's and take a moment during the Prayers of the People to pray for all those affected by gun violence and for the wisdom and will to take action to prevent such events.

I will be present at 12:15 pm in the nave of St. Paul's tomorrow to lead any who can come in some prayer and scripture meditation to mark this Day of Lament and Action.  Please join me if you can.  This will be about 20 minutes in length.

March 14 is also a day to take action.  This could be contacting your elected officials to express your concern about gun violence.  It could be making your plans to attend the March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24 at 10 am at Bellingham City Hall at 210 Lottie Street.  In preparation you can read the evidence provided by Bishops Against Gun Violence.  You could also see what many General Conventions of the Episcopal Church have had to say on the subject of gun violence.

Here are this websites again:






The Prayers of the People are really y/ours

Bishop Rickel picked the Book of Common Prayer for our focus this Lent.  He always picks a book for our consideration during Lent, and this year it is the book that shares with the Bible a place at the center of our faith and practice.

Page 383 of the  Book of Common Prayer , 1979

Page 383 of the Book of Common Prayer, 1979

In that spirit, today I write to encourage the people of St. Paul’s toward more active and intentional participation in the Prayers of the People.

What do I mean?  I mean that I’m encouraging all to feel free to speak up as appropriate during the Prayers of the People during the Sunday and weekday celebrations of the Holy Eucharist.  I’ll explain further.

As you know, every celebration of the Eucharist has some form of the Prayers of the People.  The idea here is that the people of the church join with Jesus our leader to offer up prayers for ourselves and the world.  We do this because we share Jesus’ concern for the world.  We do this because in baptism we willingly take on the sharing of his priesthood in the world; his way of bringing the world’s concerns to God’s attention and his bringing to the world God’s intention to bless the world.   We pray as he taught us: “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Book of Common Prayer on page 383 gives instructions for the orderly conduct of these Prayers.  The scope of concerns to be covered in the Prayers is outlined there.  There are additional rubrics (that language in italicized text) to give some flexible guidelines for this prayer.  The six forms for Prayers that follow are offered as basic forms for use at any time, but the church is not limited to use of these forms.  They “may” be used.

My point is this: I encourage members of St. Paul’s to speak up during the Prayers of the People at the times appointed within the form of prayer being used.

Here are some examples of what I’m writing about.   In Form I on page 384 there is a provision - a “fill in the blank” - for the immediate concerns of the community to be voiced.   The leader of the intercessions is free to invite individual members of the congregation to say “For _______, let us pray to the Lord,” to which the congregation can respond, “Lord, have mercy.”

In Form II on page 386 the invitation is very specific.  The rubric and the examples read as follows:

Members of the congregation may ask the prayers or the thanksgivings of those present

I ask your prayers for ___________________.

I ask your thanksgiving for _______________.

After Form III and in the midst of Form VI there is a rubric which direct as follows:

The People may add their own petitions.

I encourage readers to check out your Book of Common Prayer and find the places in these forms where it is appropriate for someone other than the person leading the intercessions to speak up.

I encourage those appointed to lead the intercessions to see where these places are in the forms from the Book of Common Prayer or the other form we are using, and to make allowance for the members of the congregation to speak up.  Give some space.

Do you have someone for whom you want us to intercede?  You are welcome and encouraged to speak their name out loud.  A concern for the community or the world to voice?  Give it voice in public.  A thanksgiving you’d like us to share?  Name it out loud.  You never know how the Spirit might use your contribution to enrich the community’s worship that day.

And I encourage us all to bring not only our requests, but our thanksgivings to this time of prayer.  God hears many requests of us, and God welcomes those requests.  We do have much for which to be thankful, and it does us good to give voice to our thanksgivings.

Yes, I know there are good reasons to pray silently for some of the concerns you bring to worship with you.  There are also good reasons for bringing concerns to voice.  Either way, you make the Prayers of the People more fully your own prayers, our own prayers as a congregation.

Thanks for your attention.

"Silence May Be Kept." Words from our Bishop

Bishop Rickel chose the Book of Common Prayer as the book for Lent 2018, and here he reflects on the call for silence as found in the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.


He's flagging something very important for our consideration.   I want pass on what he wrote to you.

He writes:

In our Lenten focus, as we take up our closer look at the Book of Common Prayer, I hope to offer several reflections, some of which you might deem "rants", around our use, and misuse (my opinion) of our BCP.

We need silence to be able to touch souls. Mother Teresa

Many of you have heard me say that I believe the most often abused rubric in the Book of Common Prayer is "Silence may be Kept".   I am constantly amazed at how little silence is offered in our parishes where this rubric appears in the Prayer book or in the Prayers of the People.     It is strange how blind we are to this plea, which appears quite often in the book.

Compline, and in the opening confession during Lent, are such places.   In both, right after the Officiant says, "Let us confess our sins to God", we see the rubric, "Silence may be kept." We seem to take far more seriously the "may" then we do the idea that silence might actually be good here.   I often want to blurt out, after an officiant races right over this rubric, designed to give us time to confess, "So, let me confess already!" "Give me time".  

Another good location for the rubric "Silence may be kept" should be, in my humble opinion, after the salutation "The Lord be with you" just before the Collect.   The whole idea of a "collect" is a prayer to COLLECT the prayers of the people.   If this is the case, then we need some silence to offer those.   I like to leave some here.  

In the Ordination services it states at the consecration, "A period of silent prayer follows, the people still standing." This does not seem to me to be permissive, but directive. It says "A period of silent prayer follows".   Here we do not see the word "may".   And yet, so often, this does not happen.

After each reading, in just about any service, including Eucharist, we find the rubric, "Silence may follow."   This is most often not offered.  

Why not?   I always thinks some silence, after each reading, helps it sink in. Let's our minds and hearts go a bit with the imagery we just heard.  Where it is offered I relish it. 

We seem to be in a rush. What is our rush? Maybe the writers of the Prayer Book should have been been more directive. Maybe the rubric should be, "Silence will be kept!"   I am not sure it would help us, but I have to wonder, and I often wish we had the chance to find out.     What is our fear of silence? Maybe we are not sure what might happen to us in it, what we might find there.   But, I am convinced we need it right now, in this world, more than ever.   I know I need it.  

So, as you pay attention to the Book of Common Prayer in this Lenten season, take a closer look at those little italicized words, rubrics, and think about them.   And if you lead worship, contemplate following them.   There is wisdom there. It is clear many do take the time to practice the words,...practice the silence too.   You are our leader for the words, but you are also our leader for the silence. Practice both, lead both.  

In our prayers and worship, It's not just the words, but also the experience that surrounds them.

A plea for Lent.   Silence may be kept.



To which I say, "Amen."  Now, how can we help each other accept silence as appropriate in worship?

Is there anything that we can do about gun violence?

This morning I called my congressman to urge him to take action to repeal the Dickey Amendment.

The reason I did this is that the author of the Dickey Amendment, former US Congressman Jay Dickey, has written that he regrets the effect of his amendment on research into gun violence.

In a 2012 opinion piece co-authored with Mark Rosenberg, Mr. Dickey tells us that his rider "removed $2.6  million from the CDC’s budget, the amount the agency’s injury center had spent on firearms-related research the previous year."  

The authors explain that this amendment, "together with a stipulation that 'None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control,' sent a chilling message."

The chilling message has had the effect of discouraging the CDC from seeking federal dollars to fund research into the causes of gun violence.  Since the passage of the bill in 1996, they explain, the government has spent $240 million per year on traffic safety research, but "there has been almost no publicly funded research on firearm injuries."

The authors entitled their opinion piece as follows:  "We won't know the cause of gun violence until we look for it."

I'll let them explain in their own words:

As a consequence, U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries? We don’t know whether having more citizens carry guns would decrease or increase firearm deaths; or whether firearm registration and licensing would make inner-city residents safer or expose them to greater harm. We don’t know whether a ban on assault weapons or large-capacity magazines, or limiting access to ammunition, would have saved lives in Aurora or would make it riskier for people to go to a movie. And we don’t know how to effectively restrict access to firearms by those with serious mental illness.

Mr. Dickey and Mr. Rosenberg, a former CDC official, admit that they were on opposite sides sixteen years ago, but now find themselves in agreement that research into gun violence is necessary.  They ended their opinion piece with these words:

Most politicians fear talking about guns almost as much as they would being confronted by one, but these fears are senseless. We must learn what we can do to save lives. It is like the answer to the question “When is the best time to plant a tree?” The best time to start was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

In 2015 Mr. Dickey sat down for an interview on this topic.  The interviewer summed up what he was hearing from Mr. Dickey in this way:

You're saying there might be some way to not interfere with anybody's right to own a gun but regulate it in such a way that fewer people are killed by guns?

Mr. Dickey replied:

That's correct. I can't tell you what that might be, but I know this. All this time that we have had, we would've found a solution, in my opinion. And I think it's a shame that we haven't.

So today I called my congressman to urge him to support repeal of the Dickey Amendment.

Thoughts on the occasion of Black History Month

Old St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where Absalom Jones and Richard Allen protested being assigned to the balcony by leading a walkout.

Old St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where Absalom Jones and Richard Allen protested being assigned to the balcony by leading a walkout.

Black History Month is here, and I have a few thoughts as an citizen and a would-be follower of Jesus.

Black History month came out of a need to tell more of the stories that shaped our nation, the stories of Black Americans.  Many of these are stories I never heard growing up.

First of all, Black History month is an opportunity to learn from the story of someone like Absalom Jones, the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church, whose feast day in our calendar is February 13.  On that occasion we remember how in 1787 he and other black parishioners of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia were told one Sunday morning that they had to sit in the balcony.  The white members of the church had met without these brothers and sisters and decided this all on their own.  Absalom Jones and his friend Richard Allen walked out that morning with other black parishioners.  They were received as a group by the Episcopal bishop of Philadelphia, and eventually Absalom was ordained priest and served the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, while Richard Allen eventually started the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Alexander Crummell

Alexander Crummell

Black History month also reminds me of the refusal of the General Theological Seminary (my alma mater) to receive Alexander Crummell (born 1819) as a student.   Why?  He was black.  This learned man went on to graduate from Cambridge University and be ordained, and to found the Union of Black Episcopalians after it was proposed that a separate missionary district be founded for African-American Episcopalians.

There's lots to celebrate in terms of overthrown barriers to fellowship in the Church.  We have an African-American Presiding Bishop, after all.  That couldn't have happened in the earliest days of our church.

So where are we with racism in this country?

I remember a conversation a few years ago at a summertime family picnic when a relative asserted that racism in America was over.  As proof, this family member - a white man - cited personal experience in military service as evidence that equality between the races is here.

In that the military was de-segregated very early on, it's not surprising that my relative would have a perception of equality.

I don't agree that racism is over.  There are plenty of signs it is alive in America. Just today I read about high school students at a basketball game on the East Coast throwing racial slurs at each other.  Students at a Christian high school, no less.  That's the kind of evidence of racism that isn't hard to find these days, sadly.  The lack of leadership at the highest levels of society is encouraging this trend.

Racism isn't simply a matter of these kinds of actions, however.  Racism is not just discrete actions that people do.  Racism is evident in lasting social structures that privilege one part of society over another.  For example: Michelle Alexander's ground-breaking book The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, opened my eyes and the eyes of many others to the issue of mass incarceration in this country, and of the overwhelming degree to which African Americans are represented in the prison population in a way disproportionate to their presence in society.  The tour of history through which she takes us and the way in which she links history to the present-day realities cannot be easily dismissed, and an agenda for reform in our justice system becomes more clearly apparent.

The discussion of racism is really difficult these days.  Some people want to be labeled as racist, and they've been emboldened of late.  Few people, however, actually want to be labeled as racist.  I know that I don't.  Conversations about race easily lead to feelings of defensiveness, because most of us don't think of ourselves as being purposefully offensive.  We probably think of ourselves as personally liberated from racist attitudes.   We don't want to offend.

I believe Christ can help us out here.   He commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He told us in no uncertain terms that we were not in a position to decide who our neighbor is and isn't.

Love of neighbor entails certain disciplines, like the discipline of humbling oneself to hear what another person has to say.  And I believe that if I'm listening only with a defensive attitude to a story that may not be what I want to hear, I'm not going to be able to hear what's being said.

The Scriptures are frank about structures of oppression, those "evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God" that our Baptismal rite asks us to renounce.  The Letter to the Ephesians, for example, is frank about the fact that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."   Slavery and Jim Crow laws are examples of those powers which corrupted and destroyed, and that kind of thing doesn't happen in society without lasting effects to our present day.  The struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of the Civil Rights movement was the struggle against these principalities and powers as manifest in lynchings and beatings and abuse hurled at our brothers and sisters who only sought recognition of the dignity with which they were endowed by our Creator.  Those principalities and powers were also manifest in practices like real-estate "red-lining" and the other remnants of Jim Crow which persisted so long.

Christians must acknowledge the enduring power of these forces, and are given power by the Holy Spirit to resist these powers.  This - and here I'm speaking to my fellow members of the white majority in this country - means a stance of humility, which allows us to listen to the stories that are emerging, and to be part of the healing.

There is coming a day, after all, in the not-to-distant future, when people of Northern European descent will be in the minority in this country.   That's me and my descendants.  Demographers are showing us a different world ahead than the one many of us considered normative in our youth.

How we face this reality has a lot to do with where we are grounded spiritually.   Are we grounded in God?

Speaking to the Athenians, the Apostle Paul said:

"From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’"   (Acts 17:26-28)

Grounded in the knowledge that we're all God's offspring, and that God is just and merciful and kind and forgiving, we can face our future with hope.

The choice is ours.

Black History Month, Absalom Jones, and HBCU's

The Most Rev. Michael Curry  Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

The Most Rev. Michael Curry

Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

February is Black History Month, and in honor of this occasion and of Blessed Absalom Jones, the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has called for an increased understanding and commitment to the Episcopal Historically Black Colleges and University, known as HBCUs. 
The Presiding Bishop invites Episcopalians "to deepen our participation in Christ's ministry of reconciliation by dedicating offerings at observances of the Feast of Absalom Jones to support the two remaining Episcopal Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCUs): St. Augustine's University in Raleigh, NC, and Voorhees College in Denmark, SC." 
The two institutions of higher education were founded in the later 19th century as an Episcopal Church missionary venture. "These schools bring educational, economic, and social opportunity to often resource-poor communities, and they offer many blessings into the life of the Episcopal Church," he said.  
Donations to the HBCUs will provide much needed help to: offer competitive scholarships and financial aid; attract and retain exceptional faculty; support cutting-edge faculty research; install new and upgraded technology campus-wide; provide state-of-the-art classroom and athletic equipment. 
"The Episcopal Church established and made a life-long covenant with these schools, and they are an essential part of the fabric of our shared life," the Presiding Bishop noted.  HBCUs Once there were 10 HBCUs; however, St. Augustine's and Voorhees are the only two remaining.  
Saint Augustine's University (SAU) was founded in 1867 by the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.  Located in Raleigh, over 1,000 students pursue Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees at SAU, while adult learners engage in advanced studies in Criminal Justice, Organizational Management, and Religious Studies.  The mission of the university is to sustain a learning community in which students can prepare academically, socially, and spiritually for leadership in complex, diverse, and rapidly changing world. www.st-aug.edu

Voorhees College is a private historically black four-year liberal arts college located in Denmark, SC. Voorhees was founded as the Denmark Industrial School by Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, a young black woman, in 1897.  A former student of Booker T. Washington, Miss Wright dreamed the seemingly impossible dream of starting a school for African American youth in rural Bamberg County, SC. www.voorhees.edu  
To donate Donations are accepted here   www.episcopalchurch.org/Give  For more information, contact Tara Elgin Holley, Episcopal Church Director of Development, tholley@episcopalchurch.org

Absalom Jones, first African American priest in the Episcopal Church

Absalom Jones, first African American priest in the Episcopal Church

Absalom Jones Absalom Jones is commemorated in the Episcopal Church on February 13. Jones was an African American abolitionist and clergyman and the first African American ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church.  Absalom Jones was born enslaved to Abraham Wynkoop in 1746 in Delaware. Jones moved to Philadelphia after his master sold his plantation along with Absalom's mother and six siblings. Jones bought his wife Mary's freedom and later his master granted Absalom's emancipation in 1784. In 1787, with his friend Richard Allen, they founded the Free African Society, a mutual aid benevolent organization that was the first of its kind organized by and for black people. Bishop William White ordained Jones a deacon in 1795 and a priest on September 21, 1802. Jones faithfully served the people at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, a church which remains a vibrant congregation.  "As we approach February, the remembrance of the Blessed Absalom Jones, the first AfricanAmerican priest in the Episcopal Church, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate his memory and to honor the witness of two schools that continue to form new leaders," Presiding Bishop Curry said. "In honor of Jones' commitment to advancing the education of African Americans and promoting the development of African American leaders in all areas of life, the Episcopal Church is delighted to designate Saint Augustine's University and Voorhees College as the beneficiaries of the 2018 Feast of Absalom Jones offerings."

Pride and Prophets

The Rev. Marsha Vollkommer preached the following message in St. Paul's on the Third Sunday of Advent.  She's given me permission to share it with you in this space. - Jonathan

A Sermon for Sunday, December 17, 2017 

Pride and Prophets 

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 – The Magnificat – John 1:6-8,19-28


There’s a voice in the wilderness crying… 

We heard some mighty voices, speaking mighty words, this morning. Did you listen? Did you hear what they said? 

Did you hear Isaiah say, “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn…”? 

Did you hear Mary say, “he has scattered the proud in their conceit, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty…he has remembered his promise of mercy…”? 

Did you hear John say, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal…”? 

Three people – three prophets – born of fatherd and mothers, living lives as flawed and humble human beings – who listened to God and answered the call to be part of the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth – to bear witness to God’s love for God’s people – a love literally embodied in Jesus. 

And if we listen to them – if we truly hear what they are saying – then we have some serious questions to ask ourselves. 

Every year at this time, we in the church turn our hearts and our minds (and our time and our energy) to the glorious celebration of the birth so very long ago of God made flesh. In the midst of the hustle, the stress, the fatigue imposed by all that is attendant to our secular celebration of Christmas, there is still within us a warmth – an awe – a feeling of gratitude for what the season really means. The greatest prophet – the greatest teacher – the greatest living, breathing embodiment of the love of God was born to humankind. We listen – and we hear – and our belief is so strong we can feel it humming through our bones. 

And while I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on a good and joy-filled thing, the question is: what will we do with this gift? 

Another question – and I’ll make this mine – you can decide for yourself. When Mary talks about God scattering the proud in their conceit, and casting down the mighty, is she talking about me? “Surely not!” I’d like to protest – vehemently – and yet the simple notion that I stop to wonder somehow tells me that I may, indeed, have moments when I’m far too proud – far to “haughty” – placing myself among the mighty and not the lowly. 

Here’s the reason I think this is a particularly important question…and in the telling of the story, I am making my confession that I am, indeed, oftentimes too proud and haughty. Rob and I moved to Bellingham from a very beautiful place that was populated with far too many of the proud and haughty – a place where your house and your garden and the car you drove were important – were idols. We moved to a street in Bellingham that I have come to cherish…but I didn’t at first. It is a street of small, crowded houses – some with five or six or seven cars (in various stages of wholeness) in the street – some with window blinds akimbo, and garages overflowing into the driveways. I am ashamed to say that, at first, I would explain to people that when you got down the street a few blocks, things opened up and there were newer, bigger houses, etc, etc. A few months in, I began to notice the broad and beautiful diversity of the people living on my street – young and old, black and brown and Asian – multigenerational – couples (and families) in every configuration – and animals galore. I started waving at people as I passed…and of course they waved back. I started to see them…really see them…and, although I still don’t know their names, I know the ones who walk to take the bus to work every day, the moms and dads who walk their kids to school, the gaggle of middle-schoolers getting of the bus, the smiling black man (always smiling) walking home in his scrubs after his shift at the hospital. I see them all, now, and I can truly say I love them. And I can truly say that a pretty deplorable pride on my part kept me – at first – from seeing them at all. 

I can only hope, as Thomas Merton so aptly prayed, that God will recognize my (newly found) good intentions.

The reason I think searching our souls for pride is so important – perhaps the reason (or at least part of the reason) that God doesn’t want much to do with the proud and the mighty, is that hanging onto our pride, our “betterness”, keeps us from seeing the lowly, the hungry, the brokenhearted, those who are held captive and imprisoned by so many circumstances over which they have little, if any control. We don’t see them – so they don’t exist – because when pride and striving are at our center, the only place we look is in the direction of the next rung up the ladder of power and influence we have decided to climb. And yet these are the children of God that the Father watches over with special care – the children of God our Father implores us to see, to care for, to love. 

One last question…Who are the prophets whose voices you value – the ones to whom you listen – the ones whose words you take in to shape and form your life? 

We live in a time in the world that is full of voices. It is often said that in our sophisticated, 24/7 world of communication we all suffer from information overload – too much to know – too much to hear – to much to take in. I would suggest, instead, that we live in a world with too many voices. Too many people, for too many reasons, trying to tell us what to think, what to do, what we need, who we are supposed to be, how we are supposed to live…and what our full, accomplished, meaningful lives should look like. Too often those voices tell us what we should get, rather than what we should give. Too often those voices tell us what we must do to be more important than someone else. Too often those voices tell us that we (and the tribes to which we belong) are the most important, and we had better hang together or the “others” will overtake us. Too often those voices tell us that we have to stand up for “us” because “they” are out to get us. And they make us nervous, and they make us suspicious, and they plant in us a fear of what might happen, and we give ourselves over to their will. There are many voices that would like us to believe they are prophets because of their power…their power in governance, in wealth, in the marketing of what we buy, and what we consume, and what we value. And the pride of their conceit not only makes them haughty, it makes them feel as though they are the only true prophets any of us need hear. 

But. They. Are. Not. God!!!! 

Isaiah and Mary and John were prophetic witnesses to the love of God! If the stories are to believed, John was actually a bit of a kook…living in the woods, eating nuts and berries, apparently never combing his hair. He didn’t claim to be anything – and even denied being a prophet, calling himself unworthy even to perform a task left to slaves who stooped down to remove a person’s shoes. All he claimed was that he was called to be the voice crying in the wilderness “make straight the way of the Lord” – open up to the path of God’s love. And yet it was this man – whom we would no doubt choose not to see if we passed him on the street – a man who was challenged by the religious elite – a man who would be beheaded at the hands of the proud and the haughty – John was the one was called to baptize the incarnate Jesus. 

God asks us to listen to and truly hear only one thing – to love God with all our hearts, and minds, and strength…and to love our neighbors. The request – the call – is so simple that we all know it by heart. And yet it turns out to be one of the hardest things we are ever asked to do. To love with one’s heart isn’t so difficult…but to love with one’s mind – to value and dedicate one’s self intellectually to a love that is radical, and counter to the voices we hear all around us requires an overwhelming effort. And to love God with all one’s strength – which surely means God is calling us into action – into living, minute by minute, day by day, year by year, in accordance with that love, is a pledge that is daunting to make. To love one’s neighbor, in the way God asks, means not only loving those with whom we feel comfortable, or with whom we feel aligned, or with whom we prefer to be grouped. No, it means loving every single child of God with the same love God loves us. It means loving those who look and speak and act differently than we do; it means loving the frustrating and the annoying, and even the despicable…because in God’s eyes they are all God’s children…and when it comes down to it, if we believe what we profess to believe about God, we have no room to question who God loves, and why. 

The scriptures are full of powerful words and powerful stories of prophetic witness…and it come as no surprise that the message shared throughout the ages has been the same. God does not value the worldly idols we create, but values the children he created. There are prophetic voices around us, still, if we have ears to hear. My best guess is that the ones worth listening to – the ones in whom we put our confidence and to whom we give our respect – are the ones that talk to us about loving and valuing and respecting and reaching out to what Jesus called “the least of these.” Love and respect and reaching out can build many, many bridges…to the poor and the marginalized…to those we see as enemies…to those we see as other. Following God’s prophets, we will begin to find our connections, rather than our divisions…our commonalities rather than our differences…our sisterhood and brotherhood with Christ as children of a compassionate, forgiving and loving God. Make straight the way of the Lord, John said…open up – build a bridge – clear the path – reach out – share love. God is with us.