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Posted on Jan 29, 2017

Starting with why—sermon for 29 January 2017

Starting with why


 Mar Elias Educational Institutions (MEEI), Ibillin, Galilee, Israel. The Beatitudes in different languages are written on the steps. Photo Credit: hoyasmeg Flickr via Compfight cc

January 29, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany:

Psalm 15;
Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.


Simon Sinek is a marketing consultant and popular speaker…his 2009 Ted talk is still listed as the third most popular Ted Talk of all time…undoubtedly some of you have seen it…It’s on How great leaders inspire action, and it focuses on his core concept of “Starting with Why.”

His argument is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Why you do something, he argues, is vastly more important in terms of motivating others than the product or the program that you are trying to interest them in.

In his Ted Talk he uses the example of Apple computers…most marketing would have Apple’s pitch be: “”We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?” “Meh.” 

What Apple marketing does instead, he says, is flip this around and start with: “we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” There’s a different emotional pitch to that.

Ok. Despite the fact that I am preaching this from an iPad, this isn’t an Apple marketing pitch. But since I saw this talk a number of years ago, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of church. What is it that we’re trying to do? Where are we going? Who is coming with us, and why? Why. What is our “why?”

I find it a provocative question. When we talk about Christian formation, and mission and evangelism and stewardship…those are the “what we do…” But the why is embedded within it. What if we started with “why?” Why do we want our kids to have a rich faith formation program? Why are we involved in outreach to MANNA, and pilgrimages to City Reach and El Hogar? Why is music and communal singing so important? Why are we trying to be more welcoming, and more explicit about the many ways we practice our faith?

I also find it a very biblical one because Jesus actually starts with “why.” He doesn’t start with a 12 point plan to bring the realm of God on earth. He says, “it’s here.” “Repent—turn around—pay attention.” He goes up to the top of the mountain, sits down and starts…Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

Well, in one version he goes up on top of a mountain. In another he starts with a bold pronouncement in the synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor….release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The context changes…but the message is the same, the realm of God is here…the goodness of God, the mercy of God, the justice and peace—the Shalom—of God can be seen in the land of the living. Because God is with us. Follow me and we’ll help others see that too.

That’s why.  The values of the Beatitudes are the core truth, and the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the clearest, and sharpest lens we have for seeing and acting on that truth…the truth of the love of God. That’s what we’re about.

Sinek says:  “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it, and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.” Or as Jesus would say, “by their fruits you shall know them…”

The Beatitudes, and these words from Micah (O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”), and Paul (“For [some] demand signs and [others] desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified”), are our core values…our “why” … and maybe we could add the words from the Psalms as well…”no guile upon our tongues, not heaping contempt upon anyone, but speaking truth from the heart.”

These are the values that are non-negotiable…they are why we do what we do. When we lose sight of that—and we often do because we are humans and the church is a human institution—when we lose sight of that, we can easily start to follow other paths and other gods…

We can also lose sight of them because the world very often claims the exact opposite to be true…in every conceivable way, through every medium we are so oversaturated with…the world proclaims (and makes a very compelling case), that the poor just get poorer, the meek get trampled on, and those who hunger and thirst for food, water and righteousness just keep getting hungrier…and the church is destined to slip further and further into irrelevance.

Not succumbing to that means we need ways of remembering those core values…and we need practices and patterns in our lives that can interrupt the incessant drumbeat that separates the world into merely winners or losers. We need places to be re-centered in our core values and where we are strengthened to go back out into the world able to see and witness to the goodness of God in the land of the living.

How do we do that? What are those patterns, and where are those spaces? Jesus’ life and ministry offers a pattern. It’s a pattern that has been used and recommended and passed down for thousands of years. It functions like a breath, like a infinity loop, or a moebius strip, that draws us ever deeper into the heart of God. It’s the pattern of formation and mission…the pattern of contemplation and action, the pattern of retreat and engagement. It’s an iterative and ongoing process…like breathing.

We are drawn in and learn about these core values, the stories of the bible, the stories of our faith, and then we go out and try to live that out, in our jobs, in our parenting, in our caretaking, in our volunteering. And out there we see a lot of things…some of it looks like God at work, but a lot of it doesn’t…so we come back and share what we’ve seen, we question, we discuss, we sing, we learn about prayer and other spiritual practices that will sustain us in our daily lives—practices that will be “strength for the journey”—we’re fed, and we go back out. Day by day, week by week, year by year.

If we get stuck in one part of that cycle bad things happen…if we get stuck in the action/mission part…we burn out, we become cynical…if we get stuck in the contemplation/formation part…we become completely ineffective, truly irrelevant, and easily ignored. If we are not intentional about our practice we quickly lose sight of the core values and the world starts to look very dark.

We need both…rich, vibrant, life-giving practices (both individual…those you do regularly on your own, and communal…those you do regularly with others), and we need to have experiences of coming into contact with an “other.”

Right after the service, we’ll all head downstairs for a community lunch…everyone is invited…and we’ll have our annual meeting. In the annual report that was sent out through the email this week, and is available in hardcopy downstairs, you’ll be able to see the many, many ways we have of working both sides of that infinity loop…the formation we offer for children, youth, families, the prayer retreats, and book groups, the small group ministries we are forming.

You can read about the outreach opportunities we have: the Brookline Food Pantry, the MANNA lunch programs, the pilgrimages to City Reach, and El Hogar, and others…you can read about how we are sharing the treasure of our building by hosting numerous twelve step groups, arts groups, choirs, the Corner Co-Op and the Korean Evergreen Church…you’ll be reminded, yet again, of what a vibrant, spiritual center All Saints is for so many. And I hope that you are as energized and excited about all of that as I am. But I also hope that through it all you can see, and feel, and know the core values we hold…the truth that we proclaim and strive to live out every day…that the poor are blessed…the meek are blessed…the merciful…the peacemakers…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed…and it is Christ Jesus who helps us see that. That it is Christ Jesus who teaches us how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

That is it God’s love…God’s all encompassing, creative love…revealed through the light of Christ…that’s why we do everything we do.


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Posted on Jan 22, 2017

See me…sermon for 01.22.17 Epiphany 3

See me…


Photo Credit: id-iom Flickr via Compfight cc

January 22, Third Sunday after the Epiphany:

Psalm 27:1, 5-13 Isaiah 9:1-4 ; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.


This is not the way it usually happens.

A solitary figure walks alone by the shore. He is a stranger—an unfamiliar silhouette in a foreign landscape. He doesn’t appear to be looking for anything, he merely walks.  But suddenly he sees something. Two fishermen, working at their craft. Throwing nets, hauling them in. He sees…something. He calls out.

This is not the way it usually happens.

They are hard at work, practicing the craft their fathers taught them. The craft passed down from their fathers, and their fathers before them. Passed down through generations. They are going through the old, familiar motions, over and over again. Hauling, gathering, throwing over and over. So familiar are the movements that they could do it with their eyes closed, they move in sync, not a word needed between them. It’s a day like a thousand thousand other days before and since. Days when the routine of work goes on and on…but suddenly they hear a voice. They turn and look. They see…something.

This is not the way it usually happens.

The call of the master and the disciple usually works like this…the student goes in search of a master, and asks to be taken on…often with a series of tests…Luke seeking out Yoda is an archetypical example.

Last week we heard another archetypical narrative…one master pointing out another, and the disciples following. John the baptizer stands for several days saying “Look, here is the Lamb of God”…he’s the one I’ve been talking about.” And finally Andrew goes, and sees and then brings his brother Peter.

But this story—Matthew’s story—is out of frame. It breaks the expected pattern…it is not the students, it is the master who sees and calls. It’s the disciples who hear, and respond. It signals that something different is happening, it reveals a different way of seeing and being seen.

It’s not the way it usually happens, but then again it always happens this way…when God calls. When God sees that something…and calls…and we are interrupted in our routines…and turn aside and look. And see.

What was it that they saw in him? This stranger making mysterious promises of “fishing for people?” What was it that made them drop everything…leave everything and follow?

What did they see in him?

Even more perplexing: what was it that he saw in them?

I wonder about this. Because he must have seen many other fishermen, and other tradespeople as well. Capernaum in the first century had maybe 1,500 people living in it. He might have passed by hundreds before he saw Peter and Andrew, and maybe several hundred more before he saw James and John. What was it about them? What did he see in them?

What does he see in us?

It’s hard to imagine isn’t it? Hard to imagine what God sees in these rough-hewn fishermen. Harder still, possibly, to imagine what God sees in us…who have been called in our time to do God’s work…to proclaim Good News. It’s hard, because we can’t see ourselves as God sees us…or, we rarely do…We tend to see ourselves as the world sees us. As our culture, and our society, and our families see us. As our insecurities and our need…the gremlins of our psyche…see us.

We see how well everyone else is doing, and wonder why we aren’t so lucky. Or we see that we’re really doing better than many others and feel bad about it. We see ourselves in completely skewed ways, as either utterly insignificant or the center of the universe…often both at the same time—little specks of dust that the world revolves around. And since we can’t exactly have the experience of seeing ourselves as God sees us, the closest we often get is the experience of seeing God see us. Really seeing us. Not seeing our awfulness or awesomeness but seeing all of us. The whole picture: what we have been, what we are, and what we will be…simultaneously…just as Jesus standing there sees Peter the fisherman, blundering, too eager, the one who will deny him and the rock upon whom the early church is built.

I think that’s what happened. I think Peter and Andrew, and John and James saw Jesus (God) see them, and that changed everything. Another word for this experience is “judgment.” When we know—when we see and understand—that God sees the totality of who and what we are…sees what we can and can’t be…and loves us…and calls us to “Come and see.” When that happens, we stand in judgement.

And something else happens. It’s not explicit in the text, but it must have happened, because it always happens like this. When he saw them; when he made a judgement about them, and called. They heard, and they turned.

Interrupted in their deeply familiar routines, they stopped. They looked up from their nets, and they turned around…which is the definition of his call to “repent!” Repent means, “Turn around!” The kingdom of God…the realm of God’s justice and peace is here. Now. Look. Come and see.

They turned and saw and nothing was ever the same.

We need to have those experiences of being interrupted, turning, and seeing. “You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” Your face, Lord, will I seek.” That’s a beautiful line…from today’s Psalm. This is what our journey is largely about…continually seeking God’s face, seeking the experience of seeing God see us…being seen and loved by God. And next week I’ll have more to say about how we can go about having those experiences. Seeking God’s face is largely what we’re about. But the lectionary cuts off what I think is an even more important line. 

It get’s translated various ways, but my favorite is this: “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living.”

The goodness of the Lord, even here…even today…amidst all the challenges we face. I am confident that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Maybe that’s what he saw in them…their faith. The faith to hold on to that knowledge that they would see the goodness of God—that they could see the goodness of God—not in some far distant time and place…not in some fantastic dreamscape…but here. Now. In this world. In this broken, hurting, glorious, desperately beautiful world. Here. Among them. Among us. Repent. For the realm of God is here.


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Posted on Jan 8, 2017

One step at a time-sermon for 8 January 2017

One step at a time


Tintoretto, Baptism of Christ (detail) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 8, First Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord

Psalm 29;
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.


I was looking forward to hearing the bishop preach today, but as you undoubtedly have all heard, he came down quite ill while on a vacation to London and had to reschedule. {Update}

But this found me wondering what preach about, and then one morning as I sat in prayer Pastor Jack reminded me of a story.

Most of you have been introduced to Pastor Jack. He’s a truckstop preacher out west. He travels the highways and byways of middle America pastoring the destitute and the downtrodden, the diffident and the doubtful. He’s a trickster, and true believer…he’s part people that I’ve known, and part people that I’ve only heard about, and part an imagined and hoped for better angel of all our natures.

At any rate, Jack appeared to me in my prayer and reminded me of a baptism story—it’s also the story of how he became a truck stop preacher. See, that wasn’t what he set out to do. At first he was a regular pastor/priest/minister…whatever you want to call him, at a mainstream parish, in a medium sized town along the front range of the Rockies. He’d been there for several years, preaching, pastoring, bringing people to Jesus. But all that changed one Saturday morning when a man showed up with a two big boxes of bagels—“miracle bagels” Jack used to call them.

Jack didn’t recognize him as a regular member of the 12 step group that met at the church early on Saturday mornings, but he figured he must be part of that group, because just about the time they were ending their meeting, this guy appears in the door of Jack’s office with these boxes, saying, ‘These are leftovers. I figured you could use ‘em…you know…take ‘em somewhere or something.’ And gives Jack the boxes and then just disappears.

Well, Jack’s thinking, “what am I gonna do with this many bagels? They’ll be stale by tomorrow. I don’t want to take them home.” So, grumbling, he started to haul them out to the dumpster, but just as he’s getting ready to pitch them in, he hears a voice say, “Shelter.”

A new shelter had recently opened in town, hosting a fair number of migrant families he had heard, but he hadn’t been there. But he figured this was as good a time as any, so he put the bagels in the car and drove over.

When he got there there were no lights on. He walked up and knocked on the door, and…the way he tells it…”the door creaks open and this little hand reached out, grabbed the box and snatched it inside.”

It turned out there were several people there, mostly women and children, and the power had been out for almost 24 hours. And they were out of food. “They acted like those bagels were manna from heaven.”

Jack was convinced that God knew those bagels had to get to that shelter that morning, and so had choreographed this whole roundabout relay… “The Holy Spirit’s a heck of a dancer” he’d say.

But the “miracle bagels” were just the beginning of the day’s transformations.

While at the shelter someone told Jack about a sick relative over across the state line and would Jack please go see her.

Jack said, “Now I never do stuff like that, but, well, I agreed to go.” The visit was pleasant, but not terribly eventful. But on his way back, Jack was hungry and pulled into a truck stop to eat. And that’s where he met Mitch.

Mitch was a ranch hand and thought of himself as “a hard case.” In truth he was a poet at heart, but when he met Jack he was wrestling with both angels and demons.

So Jack falls into conversation with Mitch, as they’re sitting at the counter eating biscuits and gravy. Before long, Mitch finds out that Jack’s a preacher and says, “Come on. You don’t believe all that stuff, do ya?”

Jack says, “I sure do.” And proceeds to tell Mitch the story of the miracle bagels.

Mitch isn’t buying it, but he stays with it, hangs in, keeps asking questions…sometimes baiting Jack, sometimes really curious. And Jack finds that he’s talking about God, and Jesus and the Bible in ways he never has before. And then something happens.

Jack said, “I’m telling him about God’s love and forgiveness…and I’m trying to explain to him, like Paul does in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God…and I see his eyes darken…and he stops me and says… “What about sin?”

Jack says, “I start telling him how Christ died for us while we were still sinners, and God doesn’t love us because we’re good, God loves us because God is good…God loves us even if we’re broken…maybe especially when we’re we’re broken.”

Mitch just stares at him. And finally says…”No. I’ve done too many bad things.”

Jack says. “Don’t matter, God loves you.”


Jack doesn’t say anything just looks at him with those liquid blue eyes of his, like two pools of clear water.

Mitch says, “No. You don’t know. I done a lot a stuff I shouldn’t’a done. God don’t love me. God can’t love me.”

Jack just looks at him and says, “Yes. God does love you.”

They started at each other a long time and then Mitch sat back and said…”well that’s the craziest thing I ever heard.”

It’s probably the craziest thing any of us will ever hear.

That God loves us even with, and maybe even because of, our weaknesses…our brokenness.

And what’s even crazier is that God uses weak, broken people like us to further God realm of justice and peace. And all we have to do is trust that love and act on it. act in faith.

Jack used to say: “None of us know where we’re going when we start this journey. But you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, following Jesus best you can…and you’ll end up alright.”

Those people Isaiah is writing to today can’t imagine what God is telling them…they’re still trapped under the boot of their imperial rulers…they’re miles away from their homeland…they’re imprisoned themselves and God tells them…you will bring the prisoners out…They’re still in the darkness of exile and God says “you will be a light to the nations.”

How? One step at a time. With God’s help.

Peter, a humble fisherman and faithful Jew, could not have imagined that he would be standing face to face with a Roman Centurion about to baptize him and his whole household…but there he stands.

How? Step by step.

Jack never figured that a box of bagels would take him on a journey that would reveal his true calling…as a truck stop preacher.

Growing up along the front range of Colorado, I could not have imagined that my journey would take me here…But it was four years ago this Sunday that I first stood among you as your priest and rector. I could never have anticipated the gifts and blessings I’ve received because I acted in faith and responded to God’s call and your call, and it is my deepest hope that you’ve all have likewise been blessed by acting in faith and calling and welcoming me and my family into this community. It is a profound joy to be ministering in community with you.

In just a few minutes it’ll be time to welcome Maxwell into the Christian community of faith through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is an act of faith…it’s the first step into a larger world. Who knows where life will lead Maxwell? His parents and godparents…and his grandparents…all have hopes and dreams for him, but none of us knows for sure. None of us knows what this new year, or the next or the next will bring. But “if you just keep following Jesus you’ll end up alright.”

And so we will take that next step. We’ll do what we can do…we’ll do all that we can do.  We will act in faith. And pledge to support Maxwell, and his mom and dad, and one another in putting one foot in front of the other, day by day, and following Jesus. And we’ll do this because God loves us…as crazy as that may sound.

I said this was a baptism story, and it is…because it wasn’t just Jack’s journey that changed that day. Years later, Mitch stood looking into the ocean of Jack’s eyes, that now reflected a baptismal font. Mitch was nervous and just before he bent over the font to be baptized himself, he whispered, to Jack, “I’m not sure I can do this.” Jack put a big arm around him and said, “Sure you can, with God’s help, after all, it’s just the first step.”


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Posted on Jan 1, 2017

What’s in a name?—Sermon for 1.1.17 The Feast of the Holy Name

What’s in a name?


IHS is a Christogram created out of the first three Greek letters of the name Iesous. Photo Credit: Bernardo Ramonfaur Flickr via Compfight cc

January 1, 2017, Holy Name:

Psalm 8
Numbers 6:22-27; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet;” (Romeo & Juliet II.ii.43-44)

Which might be true. A pen might also be called a “Frindle,” and still write a sonnet. But it’s also true, as Gertrude Stein famously said, that “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” and not an onion, despite Hemingway’s glib retort.

When Juliet asks “What’s in a name?” she isn’t thinking about this philosophically. She’s wondering why the beauty she’d met at the dance has to belong to a rival family; but would Romeo still be Romeo if his surname wasn’t Montague? It’s doubtful, because being named something other than Montague would mean he grew up in a different family, with a completely different set of life experiences. Just as a rose bush split and raised in two different soils, in two different climates won’t produce exactly the same roses. Names are more than just functional handles for various objects.

Names are microcosms of an entire universe. Names reveal history, culture, sociology…knowing that “John Smith” was actually named after his grandfather whose birth name was Johann Schmidt brings a great deal of history and nuance…a whole world might be viewed from another perspective through a different name. Names are powerful.

In folktales names are often associated with power…either the power to control people, or the ability to free yourself from their thrall (remember the tale of Rumpelstiltskin). In Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful movie, Spirited Away, the witch Yubaba enslaves people by stealing their names. As we know, a similar process was used by actual slavers…African and Native American names were stolen and replaced with slave names and English or Spanish surnames erasing one history and replacing it with another.

Names are powerful, and the ability to name is powerful, in fact, it is close to divine.

God creates by naming: “God said, Let there be light…and [then] called the light ‘day’, and the darkness ‘night’.” God names earth, and sky and sea, but naming all that is on the earth, and in the sea and the skies, God gives that power to the human. “And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.” (Genesis 2: 19). It’s in this context that “Adam” is first used as a name for a specific human—that he is first “named”. Adam is really a Hebrew pun; “Adam” comes from “Adamah.” which is a word that means “earth”  or “ground.” Adam is literally “from Adamah—from the ground,” so Adam really means, “groundling, or earthling,” something like that.

In scripture it’s always good to check and see what names really mean, what they refer to, because that often provides even more depth and meaning. The figure we call “Eve” in English, or “Ava”…in Hebrew “hawwah,” also derives from words that mean “to breathe” and “to live.”  So just as God forms out of the earth and breathes life into Adam, so earth (Adam) and breath (Eve) will become the parents of all living humans.

God renames Abram, (which means “father”) to Abraham, which means “father of multitudes.” Jacob, “the supplanter” is renamed Israel, after wrestling all night with the divine being. We’re told in Genesis 32 that Israel means “strives with God,” but scholars say it might mean something closer to “God rules.” (Jewish Study Bible, 63).

And then there’s Jesus, at “whose name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess him now.” Only, Jesus isn’t exactly the name he was given on that 8th day after his birth when his parents took him to be circumcised and named as was the custom. Jesus is the English version of what the Gospel writers put in Greek. They said his parents named him Ιησους (Iesous). But Iesous is just the way the Greeks wrote the Hebrew name Yeshu’a or Yehoshu’a which we know in English in another form…Joshua. When Mary and Joseph (or Miriam and Yosef) named their little boy, they probably named him Yeshu’a ben Yoseph or Joshua son of Joseph.

Now why would the angel tell Mary and Joseph to name their son Joshua? Well, remember the other biblical Joshua and what he did? He was the one who became the leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses. Just as this infant Jesus is to become the leader of all of us who continually wander in the wilderness. It is Joshua, not Moses, who actually leads the Israelites into the promised land, just as Jesus is the one to lead us into the promise of God’s realm of justice and peace. And most significantly, Joshua…Yehoshu’a/Yeshu’a means “God saves.” That’s what we’re proclaiming by celebrating the feast of the Holy Name. Not just a remembrance of a long ago ritual, but the ongoing reality of God’s saving grace in our lives. The reality that God saves and God is with us—Emmanuel, the other name he is given by the prophet Isaiah (whose name also means “YHWH is salvation”).

God’s salvation is bound up in the life and death of Jesus—Yeshu’a—and Yeshu’a/Jesus reveals the totality of God’s salvation.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot.

William Porcher DuBose, professor of moral philosophy at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee back in the 19th century, wrote: “Jesus Christ is to me, not a name, nor a memory, or tradition, nor an idea or sentiment, nor a personification, but a living and personal reality, presence, and power. He is God for me, to me, in me, and myself in God. Wherein else do we see God, know God, poses God than as we are in Him, and he in us? … Where does God become knowable but in His Word to us and His Spirit in us and that is what we mean by Jesus Christ, and what He is, to and in us.” (Love’s Redeeming Work, p. 493).

Not a name, or a memory, or a tradition, but a living, personal reality. That is what we proclaim by celebrating the Holy Name…the truth and the reality that it is God saves and nothing and no one else…that God’s love and mercy and power are greater than any of the problems we face…that God is with us…always…that God is known and active through the life and ministry of Jesus/Yeshu’a and continues to be active and known and shared and experienced through the body of Christ today and in all the days to come.

“Name him, Christians, name him, with love as strong as death…In your hearts enthrone him…and let his will enfold you in its light and power.” (At the Name of Jesus, Caroline Maria Noel)


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Posted on Dec 24, 2016

Understanding, darkness, and light—sermon for Christmas, 2016

Understanding, darkness, and light


Photo Credit: Pasi Mammela Flickr via Compfight cc

Christmas Day

Psalm 98
Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

That’s Good News, right?

Christmas is our yearly reminder that the light still shines and the darkness does not overcome it.

And here in the darkness of early winter. In the dark uncertainty of our world; with fear roaming unchecked; and hope in short supply…hearing again that the light, the true light, the light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…that’s good news. Isn’t it?

Wait. Was coming? Is coming? Did it already come but is now guttering out? Did it show up 2000 years ago and then just disappear? Or is it still to come? Where is it now? I think is a fair question.

I wonder about that, but that’s not what’s really troubling me this year. Right now, it’s that verb “overcome.” “And the darkness did not overcome it.”

It is bothering me not because the darkness does seem to be overcoming the light right now…but because it’s the wrong metaphor. To overcome something is to what? to defeat it; to conquer it, to trounce, trash, rout or vanquish it. And as relieved as we might be that darkness does not…cannot not…ultimately defeat, or overwhelm or triumph over the light, it’s still a dangerous metaphor because it frames the whole relationship as purely adversarial. It makes it seem as though the whole point is that one is supposed to defeat—dominate—the other. It separates the world into winners and losers, which creates walled compounds of filter-bubbled animosity pitting one side against the other…which is not good news…and not the Gospel…and it’s not the way the light works. Overcoming is not what the light is about. Victory is not the same as reconciliation…or salvation…or liberation; which is the purpose of Christ coming among us…of God being with us…of God living and dying as one of us so as to reconcile us and all of creation to God. Darkness might seek power as a means of attaining victory at any cost, but the light shines not to defeat, but to illumine. Not to trounce, but to transform. It’s a significant difference, and one that’s hard to understand.

The first chapter of John’s account of the Divine Light of Christ coming into the world…indeed, John’s whole account of Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, has perplexed churchgoers and scholars alike for generations. It is not like Luke’s story of shepherds and angels, and babies in mangers…John’s is a mystical text, a text full of riddles and paradoxes, it is difficult to understand.

Which interestingly, is an alternate, yet completely legitimate translation of “overcome.” The original Greek word means: to seize tightly, to overtake, or to comprehend. So this line is sometimes translated as: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not understand it” cannot grasp it, cannot comprehend it. The darkness neither recognizes nor understands what it is that the light offers…salvation…liberation.

And that’s something we all struggle with. It’s not us and them…the children of the light vs the children of the dark…it’s the darkness in all of us…that has trouble understanding…it is the fears which we harbor, that prevents us from comprehending…it is the uncertainty and the worry that blinds us…the animosity towards others…the desire to win at any cost…that is what diminishes the light.

We all struggle with this, when we see the horrors taking place in Aleppo and feel the sick bile of helpless rage well up in us as we wonder how anyone could allow this. When we see videos of people shouting vile racist things and wonder why isn’t anyone stopping this? Or even more troubling, would I step in to stop it? When we feel the inky black claw of dread wrap around our heart at the latest terrorist atrocity, it’s easy to want some bright ball of fiery light to blaze in and not simply dispel, but utterly destroy the darkness. But that doesn’t seem to be how the light works…when we want God to come in power and great glory; God comes as the most helpless of creatures—a human infant. When we demand a king who will utterly destroy the evil empires of the world, we get the same helpless creature, now a naked, vulnerable man nailed to a cross. When we appeal for assurances of the time and place when Jesus will return and everything will be put right; we are told tend the sick, to free the oppressed, to live in solidarity with the poor, and the marginalized, to be vulnerable…to take up our crosses, give up our privilege and our possessions.  Oh and we get a promise, that Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the age.

We are gathered here tonight, to celebrate the light that continually comes into the world…this incomprehensible light transformed into human flesh. And if you wonder where the light is now…it’s still here…in us. Jesus reminds us in the other Gospel we heard tonight, that “you are the light of the world.” That’s where the light is…It’s in us. The light, the true light which has come into the world, says that we are light of the world. “And that we must shed light among our fellow people, so that they may see the good you do, and give glory to God in heaven.”

The light that shines in the darkness…even in the darkness of your own fear-filled heart…the light that shines from a stable in Bethlehem, that light is in you. That light is made brighter by coming together in community. It is made more penetrating by reaching out to those in need. It is made more luminous by standing up for justice. It is made more radiant by speaking out against systemic evils of greed, racism, sexism, and so many others…It grows and glows more brightly through our daily actions of sacrifice, and commitment, and compassion.

Tend the light that is within you. Seek the light that is in others. Magnify the light—and gain strength and sustenance for yourself—through community. Let the light—the true light that proclaims release to the captives, good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind—let that so shine that all may see it and be drawn to it.


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Posted on Dec 14, 2016

Phenomenal Cosmic Power, Itty Bitty Living Space-sermon by Sarah Brock, 11 December 2016, Advent 3

Phenomenal Cosmic Power, Itty Bitty Living Space

December 11, Third Sunday of Advent

Canticle 3
Isaiah 35:1-10James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

by Sarah Brock


“My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

What?! What does that even mean?! How can Mary, or any human for that matter, possibly magnify a God who is infinite, transcendent?!

“For he that is mighty hath magnified me.”
Mary, ‘you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.’ [The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner (1987), DVD.]

If anything, isn’t it the opposite that is about to happen? Are we not waiting for the infinite, transcendent God of Abraham to be made smaller, more tangible, incarnate? In fact, there is a particular internet meme that always pops up about this time of year. The frame is filled with two side by side icons. The first, Jesus, illuminated from behind, sitting on a cloud resting his feet on a rainbow is captioned ‘Phenomenal Cosmic Power.’ The second icon of Mary depicted with baby Jesus in her womb is captioned ‘Itty Bitty Living Space.’ If you or a beloved child of yours grew up in the 90s, you probably recognize the quote from Genie in Disney’s Aladdin.

But, it isn’t just God that seems to become smaller and more limited in these circumstances. Doesn’t this pregnancy, separate from her betrothed, have far more potential to diminish Mary’s place in her family, her society, the world?

How can Mary possibly magnify God? How is this pregnancy magnifying Mary?

There is an old Jewish folktale about a man who goes out into the world in search of true justice. He believes that somewhere such a society must exist and he is determined to find it. After searching for many, many years he comes to a mysterious woods at the end of the known world. In the midst of the forest he finds a cottage, larger on the inside than it appears on the outside.

His eyes widened as he realized the cavernous expanse was filled with hundreds of shelves, holding thousands upon thousands of oil candles. Some of the candles sat in fine holders of marble and gold, while others sat in holders of clay or tin. Some were filled with oil so that the flames burned as brightly as the stars, while others had little oil left, and were beginning to grow dim.

The man felt a hand on his shoulder.

He turned to find an old man with a long, white beard, wearing a white robe, standing beside him.

“Shalom aleikhem, my son,” the old man said. “Peace be upon you.” “Aleikhem shalom,” the startled traveler responded.
“How can I help you?” the old man asked.
“I have traveled the world searching for justice,” he said, “but never have I

encountered a place like this. Tell me, what are all these candles for?”
The old man replied, “Each of these candles is a person’s soul. As long as a

person’s candle burns, he or she remains alive. But when a person’s candle burns out, the soul is taken away to leave this world.”

“Can you show me the candle of my soul?” the man asked.

“Follow me,” the old man replied, leading his guest through a labyrinth of rooms and shelves, passing row after row of candles.

After what seemed like a long time, they reached a small shelf that held a candle in a holder of clay.

“That is the candle of your soul,” the old man said.

Immediately a wave of fear rushed over the traveler, for the wick of the candle was short and the oil nearly dry. Was his life almost over? Did he have but moments to live?

He then noticed that the candle next to his had a long wick and a tin holder filled with oil. The flame burned brightly, like it could go on forever.

“Whose candle is that?” he asked.
But the old man had disappeared.
The traveler stood there trembling, terrified that his life might be cut short before he

found justice. He heard a sputtering sound and saw smoke rising from a higher shelf, signaling the death of someone else somewhere in the world. He looked at his own diminishing candle and then back at the candle next to his, burning so steady and bright. The old man was nowhere to be seen.

So the man picked up the brightly burning candle and lifted it above his own, ready to pour the oil from one holder to another.

Suddenly, he felt a strong grip on his arm.
“Is this the kind of justice you are seeking?” the old man asked.
The traveler closed his eyes in pain and when he opened them, the cottage and the

candles and the old man had all vanished. He stood in the dark forest alone. It is said that he could hear the trees whispering his fate.

He had searched for justice in the great wide world but never within himself. [2 A Year of Biblical Womanhood, “July: Justice”, Rachel Held Evans]

I suspect that many of us, if we’re really being honest, would have to admit we have much more in common with the man in this story than with Mary. I know well the experience of witnessing the death, destruction, and tragedy in the world and wondering, ‘where is God?’. Most recently, in witnessing the events at Standing Rock, I’ve frequently thought, ‘Where’s the President? Why isn’t he putting a stop to this?’. And, in the wake of last month’s election, seeing the stark division of the nation manifest in increased violence, “How could we let this happen? Why are these political figures not denouncing the cruelty being committed on their behalves?’. I’ve very clearly been searching for justice out in the world, and like the man, coming up empty handed.

However, while the man spends much of his life searching for justice in the world, Mary proclaims this beautiful song of God’s justice within her. This, I believe is what she means by ‘my soul doth magnify the Lord.’ She goes on to illustrate God’s justice in all of time.

  •  ‘His mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.
  •  He hath showed strength with his arm;
  •   he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
  •  He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and
  •   hath exalted the humble and meek.
  •  He hath filled the hungry with good things,
  •   and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

    Mary is beginning to understand that God’s promises for the future are coming to pass within her own body. She isn’t just preparing to birth God incarnate. She’s preparing to

    birth God’s justice into the world. She’s preparing to magnify the Lord. And, Mary calls us to do the same.

Mary calls us to look for justice, first within ourselves. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds incredibly daunting and uncomfortable and a little scary. Mostly because I’m pretty sure I won’t like all of what I find there. But, we don’t have to go there alone! This is one of the glaring differences between Mary’s experience of seeking God’s justice and that of the man in the story. The man spends his life seeking justice alone. Mary finds God’s justice within herself in community. She sings the Magnificat to her sister-in-law Elizabeth. And, even unborn John the Baptist makes his presence known by leaping in Elizabeth’s womb.

It is in this spirit of community that I challenge you to join me in seeking justice within yourself during these last few weeks before Christmas. I challenge you to join me in paying closer attention to the ways each of us drains the oil from someone else’s candle. Perhaps by spending money on fast fashion, fast food, and other goods that are not sustainable or don’t provide living wages. Perhaps by spending too much time and energy indulging our own selfish desires and neglecting the people we meet each day. Perhaps by only using our talent to the benefit of those who are like us.

Mary’s is a song of revolution, literally of turning the priorities of the world upside down. This is the justice she birthed into the world all those years ago. This is the justice we can bear into this world if we only pay attention to what is already growing within us.

In the words of the wise, 13th century German mystic, Meister Eckart, “We are called to be mothers of God — for God is always waiting to be born.”

Go with me and seek God’s justice first within our selves, then unleash it on the world. May all our souls magnify the Lord.

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