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Posted on Mar 5, 2017

“Hear, O Israel…” Sermon for 5 March 2017

Hear, O Israel


Photo Credit: FotoGuy 49057 Flickr via Compfight cc

March 5, First Sunday in Lent:

Psalm 32;
Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

“Hear, Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might…”

And you know how the rest goes…

“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself…”

We’ll…not quite.

Here’s how it continues…”And these words I charge you today shall be upon your heart. And you shall rehearse them to your [children] and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you go on your way and when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as circlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and in your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Alter Translation)

It’s known in Hebrew as the Shema, (from the word “to hear”—Shema Israel—Hear, Israel); it has been called the creed and the catechism of our Jewish siblings.

It’s part of our creed as well. This we affirm…that God is one, and this is what we are to do…love God with all our heart and all our being (really our “life-breath” our essence) and all our might. And we are to teach this to our children, and remember this when we rise, and when we fall asleep, when we leave and when we return…this knowledge and practice should always be at hand…should always be before us.

It’s Jesus (the divine son of God, and the Jewish Rabbi) who long after this confrontation in the wilderness we hear about today, adds the familiar coda to it…a summation of the whole rest of the Torah which reminds us of the whole reason God puts humans into creation in the first place…we are put in the garden…in creation…”to till it and keep it.” We’re here to take care of…creation and each other…to be the servants of…all of creation. And Jesus sums this up by adding a phrase to the Shema, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these,” he says (Mark 12:31)

The Shema—this creed—this core value—is what lies behind, and beneath, and echoes through this whole conversation that Jesus has with this “tempter.”

His first response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” comes from Deuteronomy 8, and is taken from a long passage warning not to forget God—not to forget these core values—in times of prosperity.

In the wilderness God fed the Israelites with manna in order to “make you understand that that one does not live by bread alone,” but now, you’re about to enter into the promised land so:

“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments…When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is [God] who gives you power to get wealth.” (NRSV)

Do not say to yourself, “my power and the might of my own hand have gained this wealth.”

It’s all gift…everything is gift…but we are often tempted to take credit for all kinds of things…

The next two temptations: to religious pride, and to political power (isn’t it interesting that the last temptation is framed in a way that presumes that “all the kingdoms of the world” are already under demonic control…) to these temptations Jesus responds with other quotes from Deuteronomy, this time from the chapter 6 which begins with the Shema. And again with echoed warnings about forgetting what we’re supposed to be about.

When the LORD your God, “brings you to the land that [God] swore…to give you—[the] great and goodly towns that you did not build, and houses filled with all good that you did not fill, and hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant,” (sounds like the world we have all been born into), “you will eat and be sated. Watch yourselves, lest you forget…” (Deut 6:10-12, Alter trans.).

Watch yourselves, lest you forget…but we always do. This is supposed to be the core…the non-negotiable teaching…That God is one and that we are to be in loving relationship with God and with all God has created…we are to “till and keep” creation…loving God and loving our neighbor…and how are we doing with that?

Jesus easily deflects these temptations because he’s Jesus, but also because he is grounded in scripture and never, ever forgets this core principle.

But in the midst of multiplying temptations we forget, we take credit for it all ourselves, we just get it wrong. We act much more like the humans in the Genesis passage.

This is not a simple story, and deserves a longer study, but three details stand out that illustrate how humans typically respond when we forget this core truth. The first is: by amending the command. God says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;” except this one.

But that’s not the way the woman says it. She corrects the serpent…God didn’t say we couldn’t eat of any tree, God said we can’t eat of this one, but then she adds…“nor shall you touch it.” But God never said that. She adds another injunction to the divine command…She’s never seen talking to God, so we have no idea where this comes from, and maybe it’s meant to be helpful (if we can’t eat it, better to not even touch it) but it sets up the rest of the temptation.

The second detail is that once the serpent responds she starts to overthink the situation.

She sees that it’s good for food, and that it’s pretty to look at, but not just pretty…it’s actually  “lust to the eyes” (“delight” is a little too restrained here—she’s got an intense desire “to see” and “to know”)…so she takes the fruit (although I like to imagine that she touched it first because, remember she thinks she’s not even supposed to touch it), and when nothing bad happens then, she thinks “Ok…might as well eat it.”

The third detail is this: “She took of the fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” He’s standing right there the whole time. He doesn’t correct her. He doesn’t argue with her. He doesn’t tell the serpent to take a hike…he just goes along.

So here we are this morning; the vast majority of us living in houses we did not build, filled with things that we by and large did not make. We eat our fill of food we did not grow. We’re happy when the Dow goes up—when our silver and gold is multiplied—and it is so very easy to forget God, to think “my power and the might of my hand did this.” As our society become more complicated, and more fragmented, our temptations multiply and out opportunities for sinning…for “missing the mark”…expand exponentially…temptations to subtly amend those core demands “we can till and keep this part of the garden…but not that,” “we’ll serve them but not them”, “we’ll love God and our neighbors when it’s convenient”…Temptations to overthink…to act too quickly…too rashly…Temptations to stand aside and do nothing…to keep quiet…to wait…It’s a long list of possible temptations…a great litany of things…things done and things left undone, right?

How do we stay connected? To God, and to one another? How do we return to that core teaching? How do we continually remember that God is God and we are not? How do we remember that we are to work with God in tilling and keeping the world…in tending and serving our neighbors? Lent is a time to really work on these connections. To reconnect with this core…to hear once again the call to love God and our neighbors in new ways; to reengage with the practices that give life, and to put aside those habits that deplete life.

May God’s grace and mercy fill us and strengthen us to face our temptations, and remember that the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And we are to love the LORD our God with all our heart and with all our being and with all our might…” And that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves…Always.


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Posted on Mar 1, 2017

Ashes—sermon for Ash Wednesday, 1 March 2017


Unfortunately, this sermon was not recorded.

By Carl Spitzweg – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, Link

March 1, Ash Wednesday:

Psalm 103 or 103:8-14;
Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

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

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree,”wrote Thomas Merton.

Think about that. A tree gives glory to God in simply being what it is.

“The more the tree is like itself, the more it is like [God],” said Merton. And, “if it tried to be like something else which it never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore would give [God] less glory.”

A tree doesn’t need to do anything other than be what it was created to be. The same is true of every animal, every bird, every insect, every leaf and larvae, every cephalopod and crustacean, every amoeba and algae.

The diversity of life on this planet (and possibly on other planets) is not a sign of imperfection. But a sign of the divine perfection…unity in diversity…each created thing perfect in “its own individual identity with itself.”

“This particular tree,” writes Merton, “will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or will do…”

Take a look around at all the stones, the wood, the glass, and as you walk outside today, notice all the life around you…”each particular being in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what [God] wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by [God’s] Love and [God’s] infinite Art,” says Merton.

But what about us?

What about you and me?

That’s trickier…“Trees and animals have no problem,” Merton says, “God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.

“With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it.”

Or, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (Mother Night)

Ash Wednesday is our annual reminder of this…one of our many wake up calls to become careful with, to become aware of, all the things that we pretend to be…

and to ask…is that really who and what God is calling me to be? Is that really who and what God is calling us to be? Is that who God needs us to be?

Or are we simply being obstacles for one another…(as St. Paul says), are we putting obstacles in our own way, obstacles of pride…giving alms so as to be praised, praying so as to be noticed and admired, fasting for show…

“serving our own interests on our fast day…fasting only to quarrel and fight”

Storing up treasures…actual treasures, and ego treasures…for ourselves…our false selves and not for God and the sake of God’s realm of shalom.

These are all examples of what Merton calls “the false self” in action…The false self is that illusory person who shadows all of us. The person I want myself to be…rather than being the person God knows me to be…

The false self, says Merton, “is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love”—it’s the one that say: ’I can do it on my own.’ ‘I got this.’ ‘I don’t need anything.’ ‘God has nothing to do with this…’

Our spiritual work…the work we do with God…is largely about shedding this false self, and revealing more and more the true self underneath.

Think about this as you come forward for the imposition of ashes, because there is a double sign at work here. The ashes are a reminder of one aspect of our true selves…we are mortal…we are part of the created order…we come from dust and to dust we return…our physical bodies are part of what is deeply true and sacred and holy about us…the ashes that we use are made from the palms that you waved in celebration last Palm Sunday…every ending is a new beginning…and nothing is lost in God’s economy.

The ashes are also a sign of our false selves…that so much of our egos…the false self we wear around as a show to others…is as shadowy…dusty…transitory as the ashes themselves…and just like the false self actually covers up something deeper, and much more luminous. For those of us who are baptized, the transitory cross of ashes is placed over the permanent cross of chrism that was made at baptism…the sign that marks us as Christ’s own forever. The ashes cover up that mark…the sign of our true selves…our true identity in Christ.

This Lent…as you receive your ashes, and as you wipe them off later…I pray you will spend time contemplating what has been covered up, and what is longing to be revealed…what of the shadowy ashes of your false self can you let go of? What of your true self will you have the courage to let God reveal? So that all of us can give glory to God by living and being as we were created by God to be.


All Merton quotes taken from “Things in Their Identity,” by Thomas Merton. In, New Seeds of Contemplation. 1961. New York: New Directions. pp. 29-36

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Posted on Feb 19, 2017

#resist—Sermon for 19 February 2017



February 19, Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 119:33-40
Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

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

There’s a word that’s been popping up in my media feed a lot lately. It’s also word that also appears in today’s Gospel.

Anyone know what it is?


I’ve seen various admonitions to “resist” in the past several months…I have to admit my favorite has been the homage to Carrie Fisher. Just after she passed away I started seeing pictures of her on posters and t-shirts as Princess Leia with the phrase “A woman’s place is in the resistance.”

This word, “resist” shows up on Jesus’ lips today. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.”

I have to admit this is one of those phrases in the gospels that caught me up short…this whole passage, in fact, is difficult and troubling…It follows from the Beatitudes…and contains all that we heard last week and again this week. This whole list of “you have heard it said…one thing…but I say…something else.” And often that “something else” is hard to hear. And it might make us wonder…Does he really mean all this? Or is he just being hyperbolic?

“You have heard it said don’t murder…but I say if you’re angry you’re liable to judgement”…

“You have heard it said, don’t commit adultery..but I say if you even look at another with lust you’ve committed adultery in your heart.

“You’ve heard it said don’t swear falsely…but I say… don’t make vows at all to anyone but God.

And then there’s today…”you have heard it said an eye for an eye…but I say don’t resist an evil doer.” Does he really mean all this? Well, I think we have to proceed on the assumption that, yes, he really does mean exactly what he says. That we are to live, not in ways that are easy or necessarily comfortable but in ways that are honest, and just, and true to the values of the Beatitudes.

But then he goes on to describe all these actions that look and sound to me very much like they came straight out of the “non-violent resistance” playbook of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

Every example he lays out can be read as a form of non-violent resistance. Being struck on the right cheek, scholars point out, presumes a back-handed slap. Offering the “other cheek” is not returning the violence in kind—not retaliating, but neither is it just abjectly taking it. [Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 12].

Being sued for one cloak and giving up your only other cloak as well…in effect stripping yourself naked is also not retaliatory, but still reveals the unjustness—and the shame—of the situation.

Going the extra mile is not simply overdoing it…Soldiers were only allowed to conscript people to carry gear for one mile…going the second is a form of non-violent resistance…like the second slap, or the second cloak, this second mile is a way of highlighting some injustice, and responding with strength but without a similar kind of violence. Much like sitting in a “white’s only” section of a bus, or a lunch counter, or marching to the sea to collect salt, or across a bridge to register to vote. All these…as far as I can see…are acts of resistance.

And yet, he says… “do not resist an evil doer.” So…I have to wonder what does this mean?

The Greek word used is anthístēmi which means to take a complete stand against…a 180 degree contrary position. It was used in military terminology to indicate taking a firm stance against.

Could this be what Jesus is warning us against? Entrenching ourselves in our opposition? Becoming the exact opposite of whatever it is that you oppose…that you’re resisting…only results in becoming what we oppose.

As usual, Jesus is showing us a different way…a way through rather than a way against. And he does so by referring back to the core of the law…the essential and non-negotiable value that he is the living embodiment of…love.

We prayed this morning, “O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love.” Love not just for self. Love not just for tribe. Love not just for community, or country…but love for God and the world…love for self and for neighbor…love for friends and for enemies. Love for the sake of love.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article asking a variety of people what they meant when they used the word “resist,” today. My favorite response came from a 30 year old Rabbi in North Carolina named Dusty Klass. She responded by saying:

“For me, to resist means resisting the temptation to assume, to decide who a person is before spending time with him or her. Resist writing other people’s stories for them. Resist the urge to hide, to click over to something else when that difficult truth pops up on your screen. Resist the opportunity to just keep walking, to avoid eye contact. And more than anything, resist the ease of just being angry — dig down past that anger, toward the pain.” 

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? … And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Love your neighbors AND love your enemies, and pray for all…especially those who persecute you. Jesus never says that love is the easy way, or the comfortable way. Love isn’t the easy way…. it’s the only way.

Don’t resist an evil by becoming evil. Don’t resist what is hurtful by returning the hurt—by becoming what is hateful…don’t become so firmly entrenched in your own story that you start dictating what other people should or shouldn’t think, or do, or support…

Instead, stand firmly on the foundation that we have been given. The foundation of God’s love revealed through Jesus Christ. And draw from that the strength that only God—that only love—can give. The strength to stand firm and with vulnerability…the strength to offer yourself humbly in the the service of others…the strength to not merely remember, but to actively proclaim with all of our lives that love is the way…the only way…”the true bond of peace and of all virtue,” and without it whatever we do is worth nothing.

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Posted on Feb 12, 2017

Sermon for Absalom Jones 12 February 2017

Talking about race

Regrettably, the Evensong scheduled for February 12 celebrating the Feast of Absalom Jones was canceled due to a snow storm. Below is the text of the homily Richard had prepared to preach.

Absalom Jones, Priest 1818

February 13

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


In Harrodsburg, Kentucky…population 8,340…about an hour southwest of Lexington on the corner of Short and Chiles Streets stands St. Phillips Episcopal Church. It was built in 1860…and one of the first ministries it engaged in was tending the wounded during the battle of Perryville. A local legend has it that on the day following the battle in October 1862, one of the Confederate commanders, Leonidas Polk…who was both a Confederate General and an Episcopal Bishop, retreated with his troops to Harrodsburg (a pro-Confederate town in a Union controlled area) where he saw the church’s doors open. He entered and asked that the bell be tolled, and then he prayed for men on both sides, “friend and foe” alike. There is a large historical marker outside the church commemorating this event.

St. Phillips’ is also a neo-gothic building, like All Saints, but modeled more like a small country church, but the pulpit and altar are in the same relationship. When you stand in the pulpit at St. Phillips, you notice an odd architectural feature—running down the side of the building, is a small raised gallery, separated from the rest of the congregation and only one seat wide. It’s is raised and marked off by a railing. It’s part of the architecture, but nevertheless it stands out as odd. When I asked what it was for, there was some shifting and uncomfortable glances, and finally a muttered response… “that’s the former slave gallery…you know…where the slaves would have to sit.”

St. Phillips might have some uncommon stories and distinctive architecture, but it is not really unique in the Episcopal Church. It is full good, faithful people with hearts for the Gospel and for mission. They have an amazing feeding program that serves about 200 meals each month. They are an almost entirely white congregation, with a complex history…just like most of the rest of the Episcopal Church.

And it’s telling that the story about Bishop General Polk praying is commemorated by a historical marker out front of the church, and retold on the parish website, but the lingering reality—the palpable ghost—of a slave gallery, is only mentioned in embarrassed side conversations. In many ways it is a microcosm for how we (and by we I mean white people like me) continue to deal (and not deal) with race. Praising some of our good reconciliation work, while ignoring or diminishing the fact that we continue to just pick around the edges of the really hard work of actually confronting our own history, and dismantling the racist structures we continue to live with and in.

I feel this tension within myself as I stand here tonight. What do I, a white man, in a predominantly white congregation have to say about Absalom Jones? Maybe I should have invited one of my (few) African-American colleagues to preach? But then isn’t that just asking a person of color to preach about race, so I don’t have to? Speaking about race and racism is uncomfortable, and it’s something I as a white person don’t do nearly enough. Partly out of fear…I don’t want to appropriate Absalom Jones for my own purposes, not do I want to say or do anything racist. And yet…I know that there are times when…out of fear, or ignorance, or simply out of the white privilege that covers me like a protective cloak wherever I go…there are times when I speak and act in ways that are deeply hurtful to my siblings of color (or neglect to speak or act, which can be equally hurtful). And so I decided that I needed to preach tonight…about Absalom Jones and about race in America. I hope that by doing so, I can do justice to and walk humbly with God and this saint of the church.

Absalom Jones was born into slavery in 1746, in Delaware. At sixteen his family was sold off and separated. Absalom was taken by himself to Philadelphia where he was put to work in a shop, but was allowed to attend an all-black night school (previously he had taught himself how to read). He married an enslaved woman in 1770 and saved enough to buy freedom for both of them, by 1784. He served as a lay preacher for the black members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philly. He was a dynamic preacher, and an great evangelist, and the black membership grew.

One Sunday in November 1786, the vestry decided, without warning, to segregate the growing black congregation to an upstairs gallery. When Jones and others arrived at church, ushers attempted to move them from the main floor to the balcony. Insulted and indignant Jones and the others got up and walked out of the church as a body.

The next year he, along with Richard Allen, formed the Free African Society which cared for the sick during a yellow fever epidemic. From this emerged the African Church, which voted to separate from the Methodist church and align itself with the Episcopal church, with Jones as their leader. The African Church was received into the Episcopal Church on October 17, 1794 by Bishop William White. It became St. Thomas African Episcopal. In its first year, St. Thomas grew to over 500 members. The next year Bishop White ordained Jones a deacon, and in 1804 a priest. Making Absalom Jones the first priest of African descent in the Episcopal Church. He died Feb. 13, 1818. [HWHM, p 220]

170 years after the white members of St. George’s attempted to segregate the black members to the balcony, and 100 years after St. Phillips had built and begun to use their segregated black gallery, Martin Luther King Jr. noted that “the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11:00 on Sunday Morning.” It still is. Now there are a host of reasons for this, and we at All Saints do not intentionally practice segregation…the sign out front proclaims “All are welcome” and that is true.

But given the state of our world 230 since that Sunday in November when Christians attempted to segregate Jones and other blacks within their white community, we have to ask seriously, how far have we actually come? If we are to truly live into this commandment that Jesus issues tonight—and every night for the last two thousand years…the commandment that we are perpetually far too selective about enacting—that we love one another as he has loved us…that we love our neighbor as ourselves…if that we are to be true to that call, and that commandment, then we cannot simply be satisfied with honoring a handful of black people during the shortest month of the year and hoping that racial relations will simply get better.

As long as we continue to put historical markers up about reconciling generals, while at the same time only reluctantly looking at the reality of the impact of slavery…the reality of Jim Crow…of segregation…and dismissing or ignoring the ongoing reality of white privilege and white supremacy, then race relations will not get better and we will never fulfill Jesus’ commandment. This is our work to do.

In the recent documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” (which I strongly encourage everyone to see), author James Baldwin says, “the history of Black people in America, IS the history of America. And it’s not a pretty picture.” The history of Absalom Jones, and Bishop White, and Bishop Polk, the history of slavery and emancipation, the history of Civil Rights and mass incarceration, the history of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the history of blacks and latina/os and Asians, and Native Americans is our history. And we must see it clearly and courageously. Of course we need to work with our siblings of color, but we cannot expect them to do our work for us. It’s our job to understand how white privilege and white supremacy works…It’s our job to do the work of repenting from the sin of racism. No one can do that for us.

I admit, it is frightening to look, with eyes wide open, at the past and the present of race. And I know many of you have begun and continue to do work around dismantling racism. I thank you for your courage, and encourage you to please continue. There are many opportunities for you to learn about and get involved in diversity and anti-racism work. Province One, the New England province of diocese in the Episcopal Church is hosting on online event on how to implement General Convention Resolution 182 which “urges the Church to enter into dialogue, listening exercises, strategic partnerships, and internal analysis to address systemic racial disparities and injustice in the Church and the wider culture.” That online event is Tuesday February 21 and there is information about it on the board in the cloister and on the table in back of the church. There is also an anti-racism training at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul the weekend of March 10 and 11th. 

I am currently taking an online course through everyday feminism on Healing from Toxic Whiteness. It’s a ten week course that can be done at your own pace. If anyone is interested in joining me, please let me know. I’m sure there are many other opportunities that you may know about, and if you can recommend any, please share them with me.

There is no quick fix to repenting from the sin of racism. It’s hard, and scary, and it takes focused, intentional, and ongoing work…work done individually and communally. But because we strive to follow Christ, and Christ’s command to love one another, and because racism is a sin…we have no choice but to do this work…to repent and to keep repenting until all God’s children are free.

I’m grateful that you are here tonight. I’m grateful to Chris and the choir. I hope that celebrating the feast of Absalom Jones might give us white people the courage to continue this work that God has given us to do, and our world so desperately needs us to do. With that in mind, let us pray again the collect for Absalom Jones saying together:

Set us free, O heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of thy servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which thou hast given us in thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Posted on Feb 5, 2017

Salt and Light—sermon by Sarah Brock, 5 February 2017

Salt and Light

Epiphany 5A 2/5/2017
All Saints, Brookline

Isaiah 58.1-9a

Psalm 112.1-9 I Corinthians 2.1-12 Matthew 5.13-20

Salt and Light

“If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” At first glance, this question reminds me of a Zen koan. A seemingly impossible riddle that just might bring me greater enlightenment if I consider it long enough. I mean, how can salt lose its taste in the first place. None of this makes any sense!

And, with all of the variety of spices in the culture around him, why on earth would Jesus choose something as ordinary as salt to compare his followers; to compare us?

Salt, though we tend to take it for granted now, was actually highly valued in Jesus day. In fact, salt was often used as currency. The Roman word for salt, sal, is the origin of the word salary as it made up part of a soldier’s paycheck. Salt was routinely traded ounce for ounce with gold. It was also what determined the seating at a table- the most privileged places being the ones closest to the salt. So, when Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he’s saying you have immense value.

Though we may have lost this sense of salt’s worth, we certainly still appreciate its many diverse uses. Salt preserves, heals wounds, brings out flavors, and deices roadways. Yet, distinct as each of these applications may be, they all have one thing in common: the necessity of contact. Salt is of little use if it simply remains in its shaker.

Similarly, a lamp cannot serve its purpose if hidden under a bushel basket. Light has little effect if it doesn’t come into contact with darkness. And, it’s often at this point of contact that light is most beautiful and holy. The first few moments at dawn when brilliant color begins to chase away the dark of night. The dancing flames of a fire glowing in the hearth. The soft light streaming through stained glass in a dim sanctuary. And, as we well know, there is plenty of darkness in this world. Within us, as well as around us.

It’s in the holiness of our connection with others that our own light shines into the world. It’s in the holiness of contact with loved ones and strangers that we flavor the earth.

You are the salt of the earth. You heal, purify, enhance what is already there. You are the light of the world. You shine before others, glorify God.
We are in community to enhance, to heal, to shine, to point to God.

And yet, there are times when this feels impossible and exhausting and hopeless. Times when it feels like ‘this little light of mine’ isn’t doing much good. Times when our own value feels as diminished as that of salt.

I still can’t say that I understand how salt can lose it’s saltiness. But, I have experienced the frustration of a clogged salt shaker. Shaking harder and harder to no avail. Cleaning out the tiny holes and adding rice to keep the remaining salt from clumping together.

When your outlook is bleak, the key to restoring your saltiness is to find something to unclog your salt shaker. Perhaps, easier said than done. This is why we cultivate spiritual practices- the rice mixed in the salt that helps keep it from sticking together and clogging the shaker.

Whether it’s a prayer before mealtime, a physical activity like running, creative work like crafting, gathering for worship, or one of the millions of other ways of praying in community or alone, the spiritual habits we develop sustain us when we become bland.

One of my early experiences of monasticism was a retreat to the Community of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati as a part of one of my seminary classes. There was one conversation in particular that framed this visit for me. A classmate asked one of the sisters, don’t you ever get tired of praying so many times a day? Is it ever hard to focus on the psalms you’re reading? The sister quietly looked at us with a ‘well, duh’ sort of expression, before responding that of course it’s hard to focus some days. But, she explained, that is why they pray together as a community. So that when you feel tired, angry, or unfocused your sisters bear you up and carry you along. It’s connection to each other and to God that sustains the sisters through periods of weariness. It’s connection to each other and to God that sustains us when we lose our flavor. Salt needs contact to be salty.

What do you do to unclog your salt shaker? Who helps to keep you salty?

Light also needs contact in order to grow and spread. It’s easy to feel as though your own light doesn’t burn as brightly as someone next to you. Perhaps you feel less spiritual or less powerful or less influential than others you witness. But, you never know who your seemingly small light will touch. Or what small bit of darkness you can brighten for someone else. Again, it’s by cultivating practices that draw us closer to God and to our community that our “light shall break forth like the dawn” as we heard in Isaiah.

How do you invite God’s light to shine through you? Who helps you keep your light uncovered?

If you don’t have answers to these questions, or even if you do, there is one more property of salt that I find significant.

As someone who has spent a lifetime of summers at the beach, playing in the ocean waves, I’ve taken in a lot of ocean water. So, I can tell you with complete confidence that salt makes you thirsty. And, when you consume a lot of salt, repeated mouthfuls of ocean for example, it’s the kind of thirst that makes it really hard to think about anything else until it is quenched. It is with such a thirst that we most avidly seek God. And, I’ve found, that just as a mouthful of ocean water drives me to quench my physical thirst, a community of salty people drives me to quench the resultant spiritual thirst. It’s the saltiness of a friend or spiritual leader or author or even sometimes a stranger that spurs my own desire and motivation to seek God. In turn, helping to unclog my own salt shaker; providing the strength to shine my light before others.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

Stay thirsty, be salty, shine your light into the darkness.

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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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