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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Before the Passion, the Hallel

 A Sermon Preached on Zoom Live Broadcast
March 28, 2021
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE

“When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Matthew 26:30

I don’t know why this line from Mark’s passion caught my eye this year. Actually, I don’t know how I’ve missed it all these years. 

Wait! What? Jesus sang? 

We know that Jesus wept when he heard that Lazarus had died. We know he got angry with the moneychangers in the Temple. We also know that he got annoyed when his mother asked him to get some more wine for the wedding guests. 

But, Jesus sang? A hymn?

Which hymn? We know that Jesus lived thousands of years before Martin Luther wrote, “A Mighty Fortress” sometime between 1527-1529. John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace in 1772 and “The Old Rugged Cross” was written by George Bennard in 1912. Guess he didn’t sing any of those.

Then I remembered that in 1972, Fred Pratt Green had written a beautiful hymn that made it into the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal. It’s called "When in Our Music God Is Glorified" which includes the stanza:     
And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the Light? 
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight, 
There’s a reason it is said that the hymnal is the theology book for those in the pew. Clearly, Mr. Green knows his bible better than I. 

I checked with a friend in New York who is a Rabbi and I asked him what hymn, what psalm, might a Rabbi sing before he walked into a situation which he knew meant his death. 

Stephen said, “Well, since your Rabbi Jesus was a good and faithful and learned Rabbi, I have no doubt that he would have been singing the same thing that all Jews around the world will be singing this weekend.”

Stephen heard my confusion in my silence. “For us,” he continued, Passover starts at sundown on Saturday, March 27th.” 

“Oh, my goodness!” I said, more than embarrassed. “That’s right! I’m so sorry. Chag Pesach Samech!”

Stephen chuckled a little and then said, “Thank you. Yes, and Passover ends on April 4th, the day you Christians will be celebrating Easter Day. It’s a wonderful confluence on the religious calendar,” he said. 

“So,” he continued, “I suspect that after the Passover Seder supper, Jesus and his disciples, being good Jews, sang the Hallel.” 

“The Hallel,” he said, “is a Jewish song of praise. It is the source of the word ‘Halleluiah’ which Christians also say ‘Alleluia’. It means “Thank God.”

The Hallel is best sung in a group, so I’m certain he and the disciples sang a rousing version of it as a collective way to express a profound gratitude to God.”

“The first Hallel in recorded history happened spontaneously after Moses led the people through the Red Sea on dry land. When the waters closed over the Egyptians, the Israelites knew that they were finally, actually free, and they sang the first, ‘Hallel’.”

“Now, Jews sing the Hallel on Passover and every holiday of communal salvation like Chanukah, Sukkot and Shavuot.”

“So, what is the Hallel hymn?” I asked. 

“Well,” Stephen said, “It’s actually Psalms 113-118 and all of them evoke images of transition, evolution and growth. So, for all these reasons and from what I understand happened in that Upper Room, I am pretty sure the hymn Jesus sang was the Hallel.”

Just consider that with me for a minute.

Jesus and his disciples sang Alleluia and praises in deep gratitude to God. The disciples had no idea, none whatsoever, that they were about to set out on a journey that would be every bit as perilous as the one the ancient Israelites took when Moses lead them across the Red Sea to their liberation. 

But, Jesus knew. And, yet, he kept the simple, sacred ceremonies of his faith and sang praises and gratitude to God. 

Then, Jesus walked in the footsteps of Moses, taking his disciples even further on their journey, leading them and every one who was ever to come after them, into the liberation from the bonds of death and hell and into the freedom of life eternal. 

But first, they sang. 

After the palms and before the passion, the Hallel.

Before the agony in the Garden, the hymns of praise to the God of creation (Ps 113) and the story of the Exodus and the memory of God’s power to transform the world (Ps 114).  

Before the abandonment by the disciples, a focus on the debt we owe God for our salvation (Ps 115) and our deliverance from death and tears and stumbling (Ps 116). 

And, before the betrayal and the arrest, psalms 117 and 118 would have been sung in a call and response (or, in The Episcopal church, antiphonally), with Jesus calling out a verse and the disciples responding in words that expressed gratitude, memory and the plea, “Please God, save us.”

Imagine that for a second or two. Jesus singing, “Please, God, save us.” Imagine Jesus singing that with his disciples. Close your eyes and imagine them singing together in harmony. 

"Please, God, save us."

It just simply breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes, that the one who was pleading with God to save us would soon become the vehicle of our salvation. 

“When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Matthew 26:30

I find myself deeply moved that we, too, will go out into this week, this Holy Week, this holiest of all the holy weeks in our lives as Christians, knowing that we, too, go with a song to sustain us. 

The BCP says, “even at the grave we make our song, “Alleluia”! We, too, have a Hallel – an Alleluia – buried deep in our souls that will be awakened and burst forth from its empty tomb on Easter Day.

But first the passion and the power; then the betrayal in the Garden and the Trial before Pilate; then the bloody steps on the Via Dolorosa on our way to the cross at Calvary.

It would be unbearable were it not for the Hallel which we know will carry us through in the same way it carried Jesus. 

And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night 
when utmost evil strove against the Light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight, 
Alleluia (Hallel)!   


Morning Prayer reflection for Palm Sunday


The Sunday of Passion: Palm Sunday
A Reflection for Morning Prayer
Facebook Live Broadcast - Sirach 26:10
The Headstrong Daughter

Every homiletics professor I ever had, every liturgics professor I ever had, always cautioned their students that the Palm Sunday Liturgy preached itself. By that they meant that the sermon should be the shortest we ever preached. 

You can ask any health care professional and you will learn that this week, Holy Week, and especially Good Friday, hospital ERs will be filled with people who have attempted suicide. 

So, it is with a keen awareness of the tension of these two realities that I enter into the awesome responsibility of preaching to you this morning. 

Later on today, I hope you tune into a proper Palm Sunday Service. Please do not stop at this service of Morning Prayer but rather allow it to provide a foundation for you to enter more fully into Holy Week.

When you listen to the Passion of Christ, it is easy to become disconsolate and discouraged – to take a dim view of humanity and see only the destruction and debasement of anything that claims to be civilization.

If that happens, please remember this story:

"Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. "We are at our best,” Mead said, “when we serve others. Be civilized.”

As you listen to the Passion of Jesus, please remember that, when Jesus was carrying his cross and fell the first time, some in the crowd came to assist him.

Remember, please that a woman named Veronica wiped his face of sweat and blood and tears.

Remember that Jesus was never left alone – not while he suffered on the cross, not while he breathed his last breath, nor when he died and was taken down from the cross by the soldiers.

Remember that the women never left him alone. 

Remember that the Sanhedrin had the political power to appoint the king and the high priest, declare war, and expand the territory of Jerusalem and the Temple. Judicially, it could try a high priest, a false prophet, a rebellious elder, or an errant tribe. Remember that they did not believe in resurrection as the Pharisees did. 

This will be important to remember when you recall that a man named Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin who had come to him by night and had been converted to being a follower of Jesus, gave up his own tomb so that the body of Christ would not become food for the jackals. 

If gloom and doubt about humanity and civilization begin to wear you down this week, remember all these things. Remember, please, that we know how the story ends. We know that, on the third day, that tomb will be empty and even though Joseph of Arimathea did not believe in resurrection, it happened. Anyway. 

And, know this: By his broken bones, Jesus provided a way for the brokenness of the world to be healed.   

When you feel the last temptation of Lent to give into despair, hold onto hope, my friends. Good Friday is coming, but so is Easter. Hold onto all that is good, all that is noble, all that is true, all that is hope, which Emily Dickenson described as “a thing with feathers”. 

And, if you can’t remember that, remember what Margaret Mead said, “We are at our best when we serve others.” 


Sunday, March 21, 2021

We Wish to See Jesus


A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
March 21, 2021 - Lent V B 

The first time I stepped into a pulpit to preach, my knees knocked together so hard I thought I was going to fall over. 

I was a brand new, first year, over-achieving seminarian at Christ Church, Hyde Park, Boston, MA. Christ Church was a small, struggling congregation in a neighborhood which was once home to some of Boston’s elite but now found itself in the midst of a rapidly changing demographic. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this sort of story before. Sounds familiar, right? Sounds like the story of lots of churches – Episcopal and other main line denominations as well as Roman Catholic churches – across the country over the last 30-40 years. 

I went there specifically because that church was in an interim transition and my supervisor would be a laywoman who was Sr. Warden and the Executive Director of the newly formed Neighborhood Food Program which was part of the church’s ministry. I thought it would be a helpful model with which to have experience because, the more I read, the more I became convinced that this type of ministry was something that would be replicated in many congregations. 

The first Sunday I went to visit to see if this church would be a good fit for me, there was supply priest who was filling in until the interim arrived. A rather portly man – "a corpulent cleric" – he actually waddled up the aisle in his green chasuble. When he got to his place in front of the altar, one of our little ones whispered – in that loud whisper kids have – “Mommy, why is that man dressed up like an avocado?”

A few people moved uncomfortably in their seats. I hushed her and got her to color something with the crayons we had brought along. The preacher was about 15 minutes into what turned out to be a 30-minute, rambling something that the bulletin said was a sermon, when that same child sighed loudly and said, “Mommy, I want to see Jesus. Where is Jesus?”

There were chuckles and giggles all around us. Right. It’s all fun and games until it’s YOUR kid who says something like that. 

A month later, I found myself preaching for the first time in that same pulpit. As the organ played and the choir sang the second verse of the Gradual hymn, I climbed the stairs that led into the pulpit.

The first thing I noticed was there was a small clock built into the left hand side of the railing. It was stopped at 1. Maybe the message was, “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”

On the right hand side was a built in, pullout ashtray. No joke. An ashtray.

Apparently, it was once the custom for clergy to smoke as they preached. I couldn’t imagine such a thing but then I remembered that all the men in my family smoked during their meals or while changing the oil in the car or as they raked leaves in the lawn. It was just what they did.

But, what hit me hard in the pit of my stomach and almost brought me to my knees was the small, tarnished gold plate in the center of the pulpit. It said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:21). Suddenly the weight of responsibility of preaching was almost too much to bear. I felt singularly unqualified for the task and completely overwhelmed. 

Well, I’m here today as proof that I made it through but I learned some very important things. At the end of the service as I greeted folks at the door, several remarked that I needed to slow down – that I talked too fast – which they kindly understood as my understandable anxiety. 

But it was one man who startled me when he said, “That was a good, solid sermon. You’ll need to slow down, but I must say that I was struck by all the feminist imagery.” 

Feminist imagery? What the heck was he talking about? I asked my beloved and she shrugged her shoulders. I read my sermon over and over and over again and couldn’t find anything that could be even vaguely construed as “feminist imagery”. 

Bright and early Monday morning, I walked over to 8 o’clock chapel and positioned myself to snag Sue Hiatt, one of my professors, at the end of the service. Sue was one of the Philadelphia Eleven – the first eleven women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church – and one of the wisest women I’ve known.

I shoved a copy of my sermon in her hands and pleaded, “Please read this and please tell me where you see ‘feminist imagery’.”

Sue chuckled that low chuckle of hers and said as she handed my sermon back to me, “I don’t need to read your sermon to answer your question.” I’m sure I looked completely bewildered as she said, “It’s YOU, Elizabeth. YOU are the feminist imagery.”

She put her arm around me as we walked to the refectory for some desperately needed coffee, “I’m guessing you are the first woman they’ve ever seen in the pulpit. Their eyes need to adjust. They are used to seeing what they think is the "alter Christus - the image of Jesus.”

“You thought you were there to learn, and you are. But you are also there to teach. What you are there to teach them is to see the Jesus in themselves and each other and then they’ll be able to see the Jesus in you when you stand in that pulpit. That’s the task of servant leadership – to help others find the holy in themselves so they can recognize it in others who don’t match their expectations.”

I’ve come to know the great wisdom in Sue’s words. 

This morning’s Gospel begins to set the stage for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, which are coming upon us fast in just a week from today. Jesus and his disciples have been visiting the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany where Jesus has raised his good friend Lazarus from the dead.

In many churches but especially in Orthodox Churches, the Sunday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Sunday. All day Saturday, many women in many kitchens were making Lazarakia Bread – a sweet, spicy bread, flavored with warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and cardamom and fashioned to look like a mummy, with cloves for eyes and a mouth. Next year, I’ll teach you how to bake it. 

The first part of the 12th Chapter of John’s Gospel (vs. 9-11) tells this part of the story, noting that “a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.”

The very next day, this crowd made their way toward Jerusalem for the celebration of the Festival of Passover because they had heard of the wonders and miracles and teachings of Jesus. Numbered among the crowd were some Greeks who came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 

Those are the very words which were inscribed in that pulpit at Christ Church, Hyde Park, MA. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” What I’ve learned is that there is great wisdom in the words of another of my professors who said that, just as people are hungry and thirsty for the real presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the wine, so are they also hungry for the Word of God to be broken open so they might feast and be nourished and fed by scripture. 

What I’ve discovered is that this is both the longing and the destination of the Christian journey: To see Jesus.

Here’s the thing, though. Our destination is as close to us as our next breath. Because of our baptism, Jesus lives in me and Jesus lives in you.

Indeed, in our baptismal vows, we promise “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (y)our neighbor as (y)ourselves.” (BCP 305). Having made that promise, the next vow follows naturally, we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

When we find Jesus “in all persons,” it is no longer a task to work for justice and peace. When we “love our neighbor as ourselves” it is not a struggle to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

My work in this sermon and in every sermon is to break open the Word so that you can see Jesus, who is the Logos, the Word of God in scripture, the Word of God among us, the Word of God within us. Every sermon is a response to the request of the Greeks, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Every Palm Sunday, I look at the characters in the Passion who make me most angry, or disgusted, or for whom I feel the most empathy. I pick one and look at what parts of my own soul they reflect. It's not an easy meditation, but it makes for an amazing Easter.

This quote from Carl Jung in his book “Memories, Dreams and Reflections” is always helpful to prepare me for the experience:
“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. (NB: Read that sentence again. Let it sink in.) That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. 

What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ.

But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness – that I myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then?

As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us, “Raca,” (which means, literally ‘empty head’ or ‘foolish’ or ‘worthless’) and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.” 
What if you honestly believed that Jesus really lives in you? How much more effective would you be as a baptized minister of Christ if you first understood yourself to stand in need of the alms of your own kindness? How might you be able to love your enemy if you saw the enemy within and loved him or her first? 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what if, when we saw someone new walking into the church, we saw the sign of the cross rather than a dollar sign (and, if we tell the truth, that’s exactly what some of us see, isn’t it)?

What if we recognized something in them because we knew it in ourselves? And, we were finally honest with ourselves about that.

Not to lord over them but to stand with them in solidarity and empathy. To say, 'Welcome to the Church of All Sinners and Saints. We’re broken, too. But, we are healing and you can find healing and hope, too.'

What then?

Might we stop looking at the externals of a person – beyond the outer images of old and young, rich and poor, male and female, race and creed – and begin to see them as God knows them: by what is in the essence of their humanity because we know that essence in ourselves? 

At the end of today’s gospel, we hear Jesus say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

As Desmond Tutu once preached, “All means . ..  all. Old, not so old. Young, not so young. Straight, not so straight. African. Asian (and Pacific Islanders). Native American. European. All. All. All. All. All.”

All is an embrace wide enough to stretch out our arms and find them, like Jesus, on the hard wood of the cross and know for ourselves the suffering of Jesus for the whole world. 

Oh, one last thing: If you ever feel your knees knocking and you feel like you’re going to fall over? Don’t worry. You won’t. It just means that Jesus is very near - as near to you as the words about to come out of your mouth. 


White Supremacy is White Supremacy


Note: I've known Tim Wong longer than I care to admit - from the time he was a Camp Counselor in Training at what was then Eagle's Nest Camp. He became my Missioner for Youth and Young Families when I was rector and was loved and respected and admired by the kids and their parents. I got this letter from Tim this morning. He has given me permission to publish it on my social media platforms. Please take a moment to read it. Tim speaks for himself, his wife, Amy and all AAPI people, including two of our granddaughters, Willow and Ivy and their dad Bob.

Dear Bishop Hughes,

      This is Timothy Wong, parishioner from St. Andrew's in Harrington Park, member of the Arrangements Committee for Diocesan Convention, and Director of the International Seafarers' Center in Port Newark for The Seamen's Church Institute.  It is with a heavy heart that I write to you regarding the tragic events that took place on Tuesday involving the shooting in Atlanta, GA that claimed the lives of 8 people, 6 of whom were women of Asian descent.

In recent weeks, there has been a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans.  According to a new report released by Stop AAPI Hate, Asian Americans were victims of 3,800 hate crimes in the past year.  The report was released on the same day as the horrific shootings in Atlanta, GA.  I won't repeat many of the things that have already been reported by the media, but I am writing to you to ask for your help to bring much needed attention to this matter.

Discrimination and hate against Asian Americans is nothing new, and I've experienced it first hand in my lifetime.  But we've all seen recently how powerful words are when they are said with malicious intent. Words like "Kung Flu" and "China Virus" are not only wrong, offensive, and racist, but also the rhetoric that put a target on every Asian American's back during this pandemic. The recent verbal and physical attacks and shootings of Asian Americans have personally built up a lot of mixed emotions for me.  Feelings of fear and anger, disbelief and sadness, but most importantly, concern for the safety of my wife, my parents, family and friends every time they step outside of their homes.

In a perfect world, racism and hatred would not exist and these senseless and cowardly acts of violence wouldn't either.  But in the reality we live in, we have law enforcement who publicly defended the actions of the shooter because the shooter had a "bad day" and that the motive for the mass shootings was due to his addition with sex and his need to remove the temptation by killing these Asian American women. While I understand local police and FBI continue their investigation, it is truly frustrating and unbelievable that the shooter has not been charged with what is clearly a hate crime.

After meeting with local Asian community leaders in Atlanta, President Biden and Vice President Harris denounced these attacks on Asian Americans and calling for Americans to speak out against the rise in hate crimes.  There have been many protests and demonstrations that have taken place this week, locally and nationally, and I am doing my part by asking for your help to condemn these anti-Asian hate crimes.  As our Bishop and leader of the Diocese of Newark, please help bring the attention this matter so desperately needs.  Asians are traditionally known as people who don't speak up, but we can no longer stay silent as we are being senselessly slandered, beaten, and killed.  Help us amplify our voice to those who don't know better, to those who need to be educated, and to those who were motivated and swayed by hatred and racist words.  Asians are not the virus and we don't deserve to be treated like we are responsible for this pandemic.  We suffered the ripple effects of COVID-19 just like the rest of the world and now we are suffering even more.

Most importantly, while the message from President Biden and Vice President Harris was necessary, and what I hope is a start to what will eventually bring the change we need, I ask for your prayers.  Prayers for peace and an end to this violence and killing of Asian Americans. Prayers for an end to racism and hatred.  Prayers for an end to this pandemic.  And of course prayers to all those Asian Americans who have been or will be victims of these hate crimes.

Finally, as a firm believer in the power of prayer and support, I've cc family and friends, along with my fellow Episcopalian brothers and sisters from the Diocese of Newark and beyond, to remember in their prayers this inconceivable, disturbing, and dangerous reality that Asian Americans are living through.

Thank you Bishop Hughes.


Timothy Wong

Sunday, March 14, 2021

" . . . and 17"


A Sermon on Facebook Live Broadcast

Sircach 26:10 - Lent IV B

March 14, 2021


The Israelites left Mt Hor (or Horeb, which scholars believe is Mt. Sinai) where Moses had received the Ten Commandments.  Mt. Sinai is a little over 500 miles from Egypt. The Israelites are getting close to home, but Moses decides not to provoke the Edomites into war by passing through their land so they take a little detour.

As you can imagine, after all they’ve been through, the people are growing impatient and started to complain among themselves about God and Moses. As they move closer to freedom - the The Promised Land - they have forgotten the worst of their captivity but they remember the sweetness of the pomegranates in Egypt.


They rail against Moses saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”


That line always reminds me of a story Woody Allen tells about listening to a group of Jewish women, kvetching ‘round the table at a hotel in the Poconos. One woman says, “Oh, and the food here is awful! Terrible! Miserable!” Another woman nods and says, “Yes, and the portions are so small.”


We laugh because we can relate, right? Maybe some of us even see and hear ourselves in those women. The misery of complaint not only begs to be shared, it is its own reward.


Now, according to the scriptural account in the book of Numbers, because of their complaining and moaning and kvetching, God sent poisonous serpents – snakes! – among the Israelites who were bitten and many died.


Or, maybe God didn’t actually send the snakes. Maybe they just came upon an area of the desert wilderness that was infested with snakes and, because they felt guilty about their complaining, they interpreted it as a punishment from God.

The methodology of ‘cause and effect’ (If this, then that) rates very high among the tools of spiritual interpretation for some people, often with dangerous consequences.


I’ll get back to the snakes in a minute and how they relate to this gospel but I want to tell you a story about complaining that I remember every time I hear this story from the Book of Numbers.


I must have been in the first or second grade when my grandfather died suddenly. Very suddenly and unexpectedly. My grandmother was in shock – as was the whole family – which intensified her grief. I remember her house being filled with mourners – family and neighbors and friends – who came by the house to pay their respects, as was the custom of the day.


My grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair in the parlor. In good Portuguese style, she was dressed all in black, wailing and moaning as she prayed, surrounded by other women, all dressed in black, who were also wailing and moaning as they prayed, their rosary beads rattling in rhythm in their hands.


At one point, my Grandmother raised her voice high over the others to where God might hear her, saying, “Oh, God, why did you take him? He was such a good man! Such a good provider for his family!” 


As she prayed, her voice grew louder and she rocked more vigorously in her chair.


“Why did you take him?” she cried. “Why didn’t you take me? I don’t deserve to live! I am a miserable sinner! Why didn’t you take me instead?”


And, just at that point, her vigorous rocking became too much for her old rocking chair and suddenly there was a loud THWACK! The chair gave way and my Grandmother was suddenly on the floor, sitting stunned into silence in the midst of the splintered wood that was once her chair.


After a moment of hushed silence, which followed the gasps and cries, my grandmother’s voice rang out in her most earnest prayer, “I didn’t mean it! Oh, God, I didn’t mean it!”


Now, I’m not saying that God broke the chair. I’m just sayin’ . . . Simple Cause and Effect – “If this, then that” – is not always the best or accurate methodology - especially when trying to determine the works of God.

So, back to the Israelites in the wilderness. 


At the instruction of God, Moses made a snake of bronze and told the people to look at it and they would not die. Notice, please, that this did not remove the source of the people's suffering; rather, it enabled them to survive it.


The Mishnah does not take literally the words "Every one who was bitten by a serpent would look at the serpent and live," but interprets them symbolically. The people should look up to the God of heaven, for it is not the serpent that either brings to life or puts to death, but it is God.  


Jesus applied this story as a foreshadowing of his own act of salvation through being lifted up on the cross, stating "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life".


Now, these words of John’s gospel are wonderful words – beautiful words of life as that old hymn goes – for many Christians. And, they are painful words for those of us who love people who are not Christians. Maybe those we love are Jews or Muslims or Buddhists; perhaps they don’t follow any particular religion and are agnostic. A few may even say they are atheists.


These words are often painful for those of us who love people who do not look at Jesus in order to see the face of God because we know that these words are sometimes weaponized and used as a cudgel to hurt people who aren’t “believers”.


Which always makes me scratch my head, wondering how they missed the irony of their supposed superior moral status which compels them to hurt or diminish or dismiss another child of God because that person doesn’t look and see God in the same way they do.

One of my favorite expressions from Anne Lamott is the one where she reminds us that you can be sure you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.


It seems to me that every time I’ve looked over a crowd at a football game, someone is always carrying a sign that says, “John 3:16”. I always feel compelled to run out and stand next to them with a sign that says, “ . ..  AND 17!”

Which is, of course, verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”


Did you hear that? God. Did. Not. Send. The. Son. Into. The. World. To . . . What? To CONDEMN the world. No condemning. Just saving. 


I would also like to point out that God sent a savior and that savior’s name was Jesus.


We already have a savior. Jesus. Not me. Not you. Jesus is the savior.


I believe that God has sent and is sending and will continue to send people and creatures and parts of creation to us, not to remove the suffering of the world but to provide a way for us to survive it. 


That way, for me, is Jesus. Indeed, I have been described by some as a ‘Jesus freak’. I wear that title as a badge of honor.


Jesus, for others, is not the way to survive the suffering of the world by seeing God in our midst. That said, you know and I know people who are not Christian who are kind and generous, patient and compassionate, gentle of spirit and loving and giving who put most Christians to shame. 


Know what I think? I think Mother Teresa and Buddha walk together in heaven. So do Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And, when it is time comes for young Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, to leave this earth – the young Muslim girl who was shot in the head because she wanted an education and miraculously survived and now continues to put her life on the line so that young girls everywhere of every race and religion, clan and culture can be educated – I think she’ll be embraced by Jesus himself who knew a little something about sacrificial love.


This is the fourth Sunday in Lent, often referred to as Refreshment or Laetere Sunday – from the first few words of the traditional Latin entrance into the mass for the day. "Laetare Jerusalem" ("Rejoice, O Jerusalem") is Latin from Isaiah 66:10.


Our faith is not one of scarcity even in the midst of the rigors of the discipline and depravation of Lent. Our faith is one of abundance, not scarcity. 


Yes, God will hear your cry about how the food is miserable but I suspect even God laughs when we complain that the portions of that miserable food are too small. 


I suspect God never loved my Grandmother more than when she prayed so vigorously she broke her chair.


I know this much to be true: God loves the world which God has created. God does not to condemn the world but sends those who inspire us to save it. 


So, keep your eyes on what you know is abounding in unconditional love. Hold fast to that which you believe to be pure and good and true. 


Practice the same random acts of kindness as God and be lavish and wasteful, as God is, with the love you give to those whom God has given to you.


In this way we, like the ancient Israelites and the early Christians, will not eliminate suffering, but we will know the way to survive it and thrive! 






Sunday, March 07, 2021

The Wisdom of Mr. Leroy T. Jones

A sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
Lent III B - March 7, 2021


This may come as something of a surprise to you but, long ago in another galaxy far, far away, I was once a registered nurse. Indeed, over the years I’ve become convinced that God called me first to be a nurse to prepare me for what it means to be a priest. And, a better mother. And, in fact, a better Christian.


It’s a long story, which I’ll share at another time but I want to tell you about the time I was a public health nurse in Maine. See also: long ago in another galaxy far, far away.


At the time, I was living and working in Portland, Maine. I was young and pretty full of myself. I thought I was going to save the world – or, at least, a little corner of the earth and maybe a few people along the way.


My title said it all: I was a High Risk Maternal and Infant Specialist. I worked with very young very new moms – teenagers – some as young as 12 or 13. I visited them weekly, teaching them the basics of childcare as well as providing them information about their own bodies so they wouldn’t get pregnant again – well, at least, not for a while. Preferably, when they were ready.


I can’t remember the specifics but I think either my census was low or the overall census was high, or nurses were out sick – whatever the issue, I was asked to help out on the medical-surgical team. I was not pleased. Most of the patients were old and dying and, remember, I was young and going to save the world. That’s why I put all my energy and passion into caring for young mothers and their babies.


I was young and arrogant and, despite all my education, quite stupid. I was about to learn a lesson in just how young and arrogant and stupid I really was.


I was asked to see an elderly man, one Mr. Leroy T. Jones who lived over on A Street – affectionately known as “The Alphabet City” – downtown, behind the old Greyhound Bus Station, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.


His street address told me that he was an African American man who lived in the “shabby” section of town. I knew the neighborhood well as a few of my patients lived over in Alphabet City.


It was a hot morning in August when I pulled up A Street in my car and I was rendered almost breathless at the corner lot of the home of Mr. Jones. While his home was small and modest, the flowers that surrounded it were an absolute riot of the luxury of color and beauty. It was really an amazing sight to behold amidst the rest of the shabby, almost shanty houses in the neighborhood.


I followed the path around the house and saw that the whole of the backyard was a vegetable garden, filled with corn and carrots, pole beans and tomatoes, potatoes and yams, beets and zucchini and watermelon, along with a apple tree and a pear tree and even a small grape arbor.


I stopped to put down my bag and wipe my brow and take in this amazing site when I heard Mr. Jones yell, “Ho! Is that the nurse? I’m over here, near the back steps, by the faucet.”


I looked, and sure enough, there he was. I can still see him in my mind’s eye. A wee little slip of a man, he sat upright on a wooden box, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and bow tie and a proper straw fedora on his head. A large pair of sunglasses completed his dapper summer look. He was ready for his visit with the nurse.


He greeted me warmly as he dragged another wooden box from behind him and motioned to it for me to sit down, all the while talking about what a beautiful morning it was and how lovely I looked.


This was all quite remarkable to me because, you see, Mr. Jones was blind. He was a brittle diabetic who had lost his sight years ago to the disease – no doubt because he had not gotten proper care, despite the excellent health insurance and pension he received as a former railroad worker. He also had crippling arthritis and had a difficult time moving around and, on bad days – which were increasing – walking.


After we exchanged pleasantries I mentioned the beauty of the garden and how fortunate he was to live in the midst of it – flowers all around and vegetables and fruit trees in the back. He threw back his head and laughed in delight that I had noticed. 


“Whose garden is this? Is this your garden, sir?” I asked.


Again, Mr. Jones threw back his head and laughed. “Whose garden is this?" he roared with laughter.

"Why, this is MY garden, of course,” he said.


“Your garden?” I asked. “My, my my!” I exclaimed in wonder. “But, excuse me, sir,” I asked. “Who tends your garden?”

Well, now Mr. Jones could hardly contain himself. He practically fell off his wooden crate, his little body was shaking so hard with laughter.


“Who tends my garden? Hehehe! Why child,” he said, “I do. I tend my garden.”


I was momentarily relieved that he was blind and couldn’t see the embarrassment on my face but then suddenly realized that you don’t have to have eyes to see. Still, I pressed on.


“But, Mr. Jones,” I said, “How can you tend your garden? You are blind, sir,” I said almost in a whisper. “How can you tell a weed from a sprout? And your body and hands are all crippled up! How do you manage? Shouldn’t you be taking it easy? I mean, a man of your age and condition?”


I suppose Mr. Jones could have been angry and yelled at me. Instead, he laughed again and took pity on me, poor young, arrogant, stupid soul that I was.


Mr. Jones reached behind his wooden crate and pulled out a few old burlap bags. “See these?” he said as he held them up. “Well, I just throw one of these down on the ground there. Then, I just throw myself on top of it. It helps me to glide better through the rows. I suppose I look funny but I can’t see myself so it don’t matter much to me,” he chuckled.


 “I feel around the rows for weeds, and I probably pull a sprout instead of a weed every now and then, but you know,” he chuckled again, “mostly, I do alright.” He sniffed the air, “Yup! By the smell of these vegetables and those flowers, I suppose I do alllll-right. Yes, ma’am!”


St. Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”


I suppose Moses looked and sounded foolish to the Israelites who had been newly liberated from Egypt when he came down from Mt. Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, saying that God had dictated them to him. It hadn’t taken them long to build a golden calf to worship while he was gone.


I suppose Jesus did not seem wise to his disciples as he tore through the Temple, turning over tables and chasing out the moneychangers, yelling and screaming that they had turned his father’s house into a “market place” or, in one translation, “a den of thieves”.

There’s a line from our collect prayer that serves for me as a key to open the meaning of these pieces of ancient scripture and connect it to the story of Mr. Leroy Jones: “Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls . . . .” .

There’s a wholeness – a whole-some-ness – about holiness. It’s about having greater synchronicity between “outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls”. 


That is the gift of those 10 Commandments which God gave to Moses and Moses carried to his people. If you look beyond and beneath all the negative “Thou shalt not’s” there’s a whole lot of interior work – a philosophy, a theology – a manner of life that must come inwardly from the soul and then is made manifest “outwardly in our bodies” by the way we live.  If they are just one-dimensional rules to follow blindly, they speak more of blind obedience than holiness of life.


Being seriously out of sync is what angered Jesus to the point of turning over tables and driving out those who had taken advantage of the kindness of changing money into a profit-gouging enterprise as well as over-charging for the animals of sacrifice. It brought Jesus to the point of rage to see that the laws made to enrich the inward, spiritual life were being corrupted in the outward, corporate life of the community that gathered to pray at the Temple. St. Paul would later speak of the difference of being obedient to the law vs. being freed from the letter of the law to follow the spirit of the law.


In my youthful ignorance, Mr. Jones connected the dots for me. I mistook the condition of his outward body for the status of his inward soul. He taught me that we are not here on this earth to be perfect either inwardly or outwardly. Like Mr. Jones, we often flop around in our appointed row of life. We feel around for weeds and sometimes we mistakenly pull a sprout instead of a weed, but mostly, we do alright – especially when our outward bodies are in sync with our inward souls.


That’s the task of this Season of Lent – to be have greater synchronicity between our souls and bodies so that the lives we live are more wholesome and holy. The 10 Commandments are not the beginning and end; they are the means to an end. Even the holy places in our lives – our churches and temples of worship – must flow authentically from places of goodness in our souls.


I want you to leave you with how my visit with Mr. Jones ended.

“This world can be an ugly place,” Mr. Jones explained, “filled with ugly people who do mean, ugly things. But, the world can also be a beautiful place, filled with flowers and trees and butterflies and bees that make food for the eyes and the soul as well as the body.”


“I want the people in my neighborhood to know that once there was a man who lived among them who chose beauty over ugly, food over hunger, hope over despair. I love giving my fruit and vegetables to he kids as snacks and to their families for their meals. And I give the flowers so there’s some beauty in their lives. That means I have to let a little bit of myself die every day. Got to let my pride die in order to do this work that the Lord has given me to do. Got to suffer a little bit of pain in order for beauty to grow and flourish.”


He lowered his glasses and his cloudy eyes looked straight into mine and asked. “See?”


“Yes, sir, I do, sir.” I answered looking straight into his eyes, “I believe I do – through your eyes. I stand accused of being blind.”


“And you have been found guilty,” Mr. Jones said, putting his glasses back over his eyes before he broke into a serious, wide grin, “but not of being blind, but of having a kind heart,” he laughed.


“Guilty as charged,” he roared, laughing so hard he almost fell off his wooded crate.


And, I laughed right along with him.

Please pray today’s collect again with me: Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.