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Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Point of the Transfiguration

Last Sunday in Epiphany
February 27, 2022
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
Livestreamed broadcast via Facebook 
Sirach 26:10  

What’s the point? 


That’s the question I kept asking myself as I thought about the Transfiguration of Jesus. Because, you know, I’ve heard this story many times. Preached on it even more than that. And, I’ve never really understood what exactly is the difference between Transfiguration and Transformation?


Well, armed with those questions I took another look at this gospel, but this time I looked beyond the shiny face of Jesus, past my fascination about the symbolism of Moses and Elijah, and into the bewildered faces of Peter, James and John. 


And that’s when I realized that, lo these past 36 years of preaching, I have had it all wrong. I cannot tell you how many times I have wagged a sermonic finger at Peter and his wanting to build three booths for Jesus, Elijah and Moses as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all bassakwards. 


Well, it’s not my fault, really! How many sermons have you listen to when this is exactly what the preacher told you? Well, I’ve sat through at least the same number. As a preacher, I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.


From there, the traditional arc of a sermon on the Transfiguration can go one of two ways. I can hear the nuns and priests of my youth reminding me that being a disciple isn’t about preserving spiritual mountaintop experiences. 


No, we’re supposed to get our sassy selves down off the mountain, into the nitty gritty of everyday life, and feed the hungry and clothed the poor and do everything that upwardly mobile and middleclass Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.


The other way a semon could go is to project all our human stuff onto Peter and provide ourselves with some measure of comfort in saying that Peter is just like you and me, and we are just like Peter – a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and us) and builds his church on him – Simon, the Rock. 


That’s how I’ve learned to preach this text: go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’ Or, look at Peter—he’s just like you.


Well, after all these years of preaching one of those sermons, I had to ask myself, ‘What’s the point?’ What significance does the Transfiguration have if it doesn’t end in Transformation? 


And, I’m not just talking about the change to being ‘nice’ and doing ‘good’ things for others. I’m talking about the Transformation that makes you such a follower of Jesus that helping others in need is simply second nature. You don’t even have to think about it. It’s what you do. 


So, I took another look at the text, fixing my eyes on the disciples – especially Peter – and all of a sudden, I realized something. Do you see it? Jesus didn’t scold or correct Peter. Or, in the language of scripture, he wasn’t ‘rebuked’. 


When Peter professes, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” why doesn’t Jesus correct him? 


Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’ Why doesn’t Jesus gently scold Peter? “Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences, the Son of Man came to serve.”


If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ So, I wonder: Was Peter right – more or less?


I mean, what did Peter see when he looked into the Transfigured face of Jesus that Transformed him into the disciple who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down? 


What ‘flash of insight’ did Peter have when the flash of the Transfiguring light of God hit the face of Jesus, just as it had Moses before him? 


Here’s what I think: I think Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus absolutely saturated with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become more like God.


Teillard de Chardin wrote, We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Eventually, our mortal flesh will fall away and we will fly home to God as the spiritual beings we are and have been since God first created us. 


So the point of the Transfiguration IS our Transformation. That’s the point. That’s the mystery of our faith that we are going to explore starting Wednesday, which is also known as Ash Wednesday. 


That’s the day when I’ll be over at the Circle in front of Charlie Koskey’s Jewelry Store at 7 AM and here in this church at noon and 7 PM, smudging ashes on the foreheads of everyone and saying over and over and over again, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 


Remember that you are human. Remember that you are mortal. Remember that your time on this earth, in this earthly frame is limited. So, what are you going to do with your one, wild, precious life? What difference will your life make? 


It is humbling to realize that for all those years, I had it wrong and Peter had it right. It’s not about going back down the mountain. The entire Christian life is an uphill climb, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured and transformed ourselves. 


As Richard Rohr says, "Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about humanity. Jesus came to change humanity’s mind about God." 


You know when newborn babies make those faces and smile people always say "Oh, that's just gas!" My grandmother would shake her head and say, "That baby is smiling because she's getting last minute instructions from the angels."


If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than it has always been. And, what’s the point in that?


There is something Peter gets wrong, however. What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build three tabernacles. 


Well, Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus.  


The flesh of Jesus, his very humanity, is the tabernacle.   



Sunday, February 20, 2022

Love your enemies


A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
Georgetown, DE and simultaneously broadcast on 
Facebook Sirach 26:10
Epiphany VII - February 20, 2022

In this morning’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”


The Hebrew scripture this morning, gives us an example of what Jesus was talking about. Let me give you the very short version of Joseph’s story:

Joseph was one of the 12 sons of Jacob and Rachel. You may remember that Jacob was the twin brother of Esau, and they were the sons of Isaac and Rebecca and the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. Esau was the first to be born to Rachel, with Jacob following, holding his heel.

Jacob’s father loved Joseph more than any of the others and gave him a colored cloak. His brothers were jealous of him and sold him into slavery. He was taken to Egypt and eventually became steward to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials.

Potiphar's wife tried unsuccessfully to seduce him and after false accusations were levelled at Joseph he was imprisoned. While he was in jail, he was able to interpret Pharaoh's dream and, as a reward, he was made governor of Egypt. He wisely rationed the country's produce in preparation for a time of famine.

During the famine Jacob's sons – Joseph’s brothers – came to Egypt to plead for supplies. They did not recognize him but after Joseph was satisfied that they were reformed he identified himself with great joy. Joseph invited his father and brothers to come and settle in Egypt.


Now, I don’t know about you, but I have certainly had my issues with my siblings. I remember when my sister caught me smoking a cigarette out of my bedroom window. I was blowing the smoke into a wet facecloth because my girlfriends said it was a good way to hide the smell of smoke, but my sister’s bedroom window was one down from mine and she opened her window, shoved her head out and caught me red-handed, mid-drag, right in the act.


HA! She yelled as she practically flew down the stairs to tell my mother. I, of course, was no dummy. My girlfriends had also taught me what to do should I ever get caught. So, I wrapped the cigarette in the wet face cloth, wound my arm up for the pitch, said a quick Hail Mary and threw it in the midst of my father’s garden where it landed safely hidden between the rows of corn stalks and the heads of lettuce. I would sneak out early the next day to hide the evidence.


I can’t even begin to express my anger at my sister in that moment. I heard my mother say to my sister, “You mind your own business. Your sister is 16. She has her driver’s license. She takes you where you need to go. Stop spying on her and don’t be a tattle tale.”

Parental attitudes about smoking were very different back in the day. So, even though I knew I wasn’t going to get punished, I still hated my sister with a hatred so hot my face felt on fire. Had she come into my room at that moment, I probably would be standing before you today, an ex-con, having done time for doing murder.


Okay, I exaggerate to make a point. My point is that I can’t even begin to imagine what Joseph felt when he saw his brothers. Remember, they didn’t rat on him for using his father’s tobacco shisha or hookah. They beat him up, stole his coat of many colors, threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery! Big difference, right?


Here’s the thing: Joseph is considered a prefiguration of Jesus, the one who forgives all sin. So, it’s no surprise, really, that the folks who put together the lectionary fit together this story of Joseph and this story from Luke’s gospel about loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you, and to pray for those who abuse you.


Are we expected to be like Joseph and Jesus? Well, if you listen to the psalmist and read St. Paul’s letter to the ancient church in Corinth, that’s pretty much the message, isn’t it?

The Psalmist tells us: Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; /do not be jealous of those who do wrong. / For they shall soon wither like the grass, /and like the green grass fade away.


I don’t know about you, but I want to say, “Define ‘soon’. How ‘soon’ will they wither away?”


You know, I no longer hate my sister. In that moment when I really hated her I couldn’t ever imagine saying that. I’ve grown. I’ve matured. I’ve experienced life. I’ve been hurt and betrayed. I’ve hurt and betrayed others. I’ve come to better understand what’s been called The Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”


It’s not as easy as it sounds is it. It takes real maturity, real strength of character to treat others as you want to be treated. It’s so much easier to justify our behavior to hurt or malign or treat others with malice than it is to take the time to understand what may be motivating others


It wasn’t until my first high school reunion when in a casual conversation with a friend whose younger sister was in the same class as my sister, I mentioned that I was amazed that so many of the teachers we had were still teaching. My friend said, “Yeah, your poor sister was in the same situation as mine. All they ever heard was, “Oh, you’re Elizabeth’s sister. Let’s see if you can do as well as she did.”


I gasped. I had no idea. I couldn’t imagine how I would have felt if, in every class, every teacher expected me to do as well as my older sister. Suddenly, I understood why she always tried to set me up for failure. Just once, just once, if she could lower my standard, maybe she’d have a chance to shine all on her own, instead of always having to lurk in my shadow.


Maybe it took Joseph spending some time in prison, having been falsely accused, to consider his privileged position among his eleven brothers. Maybe he thought about how it would feel if he were jealous of one of his brothers. How would he respond? Maybe the second worst thing to happen to him – being falsely accused and in prison – helped him understand why the worst thing happen to him. And, that helped him to take an even longer view and made sense out of all of his suffering as part of a mysterious path in life that was just now being revealed to him.


All I know is this – it sure would be nice for us not to think in terms of each other as friends and enemies. Us and them. North and South. Red and Blue. Black and White. To let our differences be what defines us. I catch little glimmers of it now and again, so I know it’s possible.


Strangers still say “bless you” when you sneeze in line at the drug store. Or sometimes when you’re in the grocery store and you go to take a potato and a few of them tumble onto the floor, someone else will suddenly appear and help you pick them up.

And, sometimes, the lady at the diner will call me honey when she puts down my cup of tea and I delight to see that she has remembered the lemons I requested – and I thank her, even though yes, it’s her job. Or, the guy driving the big, red, Loud pickup truck with equally Loud political stickers stops to give me the right of way and then smiles and tips his red baseball cap.


In those moments, I’m sure no one is thinking, “Well, I’m following the Golden Rule.” I’m even more positive no one is thinking, “I’m walking the way of Jesus.” And, I’d bet solid money that no one is thinking, “There, I’m loving my enemy.”


But, they are. Or, they just might be. Think of that next time you find yourself arriving at the door of the dentist’s office at the same time as someone else and they say to you, “No, go ahead. You go first.” Or maybe you say to someone, and mean it, “I like your tie.” Or, “Gee, love your hat.” Or, you might even call up a sibling and maybe laugh over a memory – or, clear the air so you can laugh over it.


To practice the Golden Rule in our own actions and to see it in others is to follow the way of Jesus. It takes self-reflection and care, walking for a while in another person’s shoes. But, in it we grow and mature. By it we can help turn enemies into friends. With it – through one simple rule – we can change and transform the world. Because, my friends, the energy of the Golden Rule is the energy of love.




Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Blessed are the cheesemakers

When I was a kid, my grandmother made Queijo Fresco - Azorean Fresh Cheese all the time. We would have a slice of it on a hunk of the fresh Portuguese bread she had made - crunchy crust on the outside, buttery soft on the inside. She would put a pimento on top of the cheese, drizzle EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) on it and finish it all off with a little sprinkle of salt and pepper. 
And that, my friends, was a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack of champions.
Her "cheese molds" were cans of cat food or beans or vegetables that she "rescued" from a neighbor's trash. She'd boil them in water on the stove, then she's punch holes in the sides and bottom for the whey to drip through. She'd use her old, threadbare dishtowels as the cheesecloth. 
So now, two generations later, I have fancy-schmancy cheese molds of various shapes and sizes, and I buy "super fine" cheesecloth but I do believe I have captured the taste and consistency of my grandmother's cheese. It's a farmer's cheese but it's more the consistency of a mozzarella. 
The key, I'm convinced, is in the squeeze.  You really have to separate the curds from the whey. Curds are the by-product of coagulated milk. They happen naturally when milk sours. The whey is the liquid that is left over. 
Whey is jam-packed with protein, good bacteria (AKA "probiotics") and calcium. It also contains zero fat and aids in digestion. Some sports jocks use it to rehydrate after a strenuous workout.

My grandmother never threw anything out - the woman used old cans as molds for her cheese and old newspaper and calendars for toilet paper (hand to Jesus!) - so you know she never threw out the whey. She used it in some of her recipes for puddings or breads instead of water or milk. I've heard some people use it in smoothies.

I'll tell you what, though: You don't want to drink that stuff on its own. It is, as they say, an acquired taste. 

She made large vats of the stuff. I've cut down her recipe to make two medium blocks of cheese. It's not difficult to make and there are only three ingredients: milk, salt and rennet powder. It's just the process that's time consuming. 

I couldn't find rennet powder anywhere around where I live - not in stores or health food places. I couldn't even find it online. I did find rennet tablets which I pulverized in my mortar and pestle to a powder and it worked just fine. 
I also got the cheese molds online but, you know, if you want to make your own with old cans of cat food, beans or veggies, just make sure you make lots of holes in the side and bottom. You'll be amazed at how much whey there is in milk. 

I have not made this with anything but whole milk. I am going to try 2% and see how that works. I'll let you know.

So, here's how you make two medium molds of cheese which makes 10-12 servings

Queijo Fresco - Azorean Fresh Cheese

1 gallon whole milk
1.5 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon rennet powder (about 4 tablets, crushed and pulverized)
Preheat oven to 250 degrees F. As soon as preheated, turn off the oven and keep the door closed. 

Pour milk into a Large stockpot and add salt. Warm milk on the stove top on medium heat until lukewarm, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Once milk is lukewarm, immediately remove from heat. Be sure not to overheat or allow to boil. 

In a small dish, add approximately 1/3 cup of warmed milk and rennet powder. Stir until rennet powder is completely dissolved and then pour back into the stockpot. Stir well to incorporate dissolved rennet evenly throughout. 

Cover stockpot containing warmed milk and place into the oven. Be sure the oven is no longer on, but is warm after having been preheated. Leave milk in the oven until it coagulates and has the appearance of yogurt - approximately 1-2 hours. 

Once milk has coagulated, remove from oven. Cut through the milk with a knife, making horizontal and vertical cuts throughout, into a crisscross pattern. Leave uncovered for approximately 20 minutes to allow the whey (liquid) to separate from the milk curds. 

Place a cheesecloth or very thin dishcloth in a large colander/strainer on top of large bowl /pan and set in the sink. Pour or spoon coagulated milk into colander and allow to drain for approximately 20 minutes. After much of the whey has drained, grab ends of the cheesecloth, bringing the ends together and squeezing into a ball to drain more liquid from the milk curds.

When you think you have squeezed enough, squeeze again. It's easier at this point to separate most of the whey from the curds. Take advantage of it. 

Place drained milk curds in a cheese mold on a flat plate. Set a clean cheesecloth / dishcloth on top of cheese in the mold and press firmly with your hands to squeeze out more of the whey. To drain the liquid out of the plate, carefully hold the cheese mold and tilt the plate into the sink. 
Repeat the process of pressing cheese with your hands several times to get most of liquid out of cheese. Exactly how much liquid you want to squeeze out is a matter of preference, depending on whether  you like a more or less watery cheese. 

As for me and my house, we prefer this cheese the consistency of mozarella. But, you do you.

When the majority of liquid has been removed from the cheese, sprinkle a little salt on top and around the sides and then place the cheese mold in the refrigerator overnight. Discard any additional liquid that drains out onto the plate. 

To serve, remove cheese from the mold and carefully place on a serving dish. Serving possibilities are limited only by your taste and imagination.
I like to set the cheese onto a cheese board and then surround it with possibilities:
EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
Salt and pepper
Italian seasoning 
Syrian bharat seasoning
Red pepper jelly
Honey (I love lavender honey best)

I like to include plain crackers, a crusty bread (French, Italian, or Portuguese), baked pita chips, garlic bagel chips. You might also like to serve it on vegetables like slices of zucchini or cucumber or fruit like apples or pears. 

BTW, I also use this as a pizza topping instead of mozzarella.
Note: I understand some people like to add seasonings like fresh, copped basil or thyme in with the curds as they pack the mold. I've not tried it, but you might. If you do, let me know how it works. Personally, I like the simplicity and versatility of it. But, you do you.

Sunday, February 06, 2022

What if there is life after love?


Epiphany V - February 6, 2022
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
Live-broadcast on Facebook Sirach 26:10

A few decades ago . . . . (I guess I’m old enough now that I can admit it’s been THAT many years) . . . I was on retreat and quite distraught. I felt stuck. Cornered. I really needed to move from where I was and what I was doing but for whatever reason, I felt I couldn’t.


My retreat director asked me what it was that I wanted to do – where I wanted to go. She asked me, “What is your heart’s desire?” So, I told her. I put into words what I’d dare not say aloud, even to myself. I poured it all out honestly along with my tears. I ended by sniffling, “But, that can’t possibly be. It’s not about what I want. It’s all about what God wants. Right?”


I’ll never forget the kind look in her sparkling, steel blue eyes as she stared into and then past my own eyes and asked, “What if your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you?”


What if? What if our wildest dream is not so wild? I thought of something my grandmother used to say, “The best things in life are sitting on the other side of your fear.”


So, knowing that, it won’t come as too much of a surprise to you to hear me say that I understand Peter’s position in this morning’s gospel from St. Luke.


For the Gospel nerds in church this morning, I want to point out that St. John also tells this story but places it in a different context. Luke places the story early in Christ’s ministry. John tells it as part of the resurrection stories. No matter, really. It’s Peter that catches my attention.


Peter wants fish. He needs the fish. Catching fish is how he makes a living, how he puts pita bread and humus and wine on the table and cares for his wife and family. But, he’s tired. Exhausted, really. He wants nothing more than to get a large net of fish to bring to market. He’s a professional fisherman and he’s done everything he knows to catch some fish, to no avail.


But, Jesus – the master craftsman but not a professional fisherman – says to put out into deep water. Okay, boss, says Peter – wanting the fish, of course, but afraid there would be none.


And then . . . and THEN . . . no sooner had they let down their nets but the net was so full of fish it was breaking. There were so many fish, one boat was not enough to contain them so they called for another boat.


Simon Peter –  that thoroughly relatable, flawed and faulted human being – is instantly ashamed for doubting Jesus. He fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”


Silly Peter. He doesn’t know in this story from Luke what he does know in the story from John. Peter doesn’t yet know about the resurrection of Easter. But, you know, even in John’s version of the story, Peter doesn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus even when he’s standing right in front of him. 


What if . . . .  What if your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you?


Now that I’m able to talk about my decades in the church, I’ve gotten bolder about saying things out loud and from the pulpit that I only used to whisper to one or two of my trusted colleagues.


When I was a brand-new priest, I was called to help out at a little inner-city church in Newark, NJ and be the executive director of the AIDS resource center which operated out of the Parish Hall. The bishop told me that I would probably close the church but he had every confidence that I could write a grant to keep the AIDS center going.


I wasn’t entirely sure I was up to either task. I mean, the folks over at the church were small in number but strong in Spirit. And, our little AIDS resource center was in direct competition for government funding with the Health Department of the City of Newark.


Well, very long story made very short, I felt empowered by this gospel story and, like Peter, I let down my nets anyway. I wrote a grant for $500,000 and, to my total amazement, was awarded the money. Shortly after, during the first Easter Vigil that little inner-city church had ever celebrated, I baptized 12 souls to God and marked and sealed them as Christ’s own forever.


By the grace of God, the church began to rediscover its mission and began to thrive. Now, some of my colleagues were completely amazed. So much so that they found it hard to believe.


Some dismissed it as the new-priest version of “beginner’s luck”. Others said that it wouldn’t last – nothing ever does, I remember one brother saying that I looked at the church through rose-colored glasses – implying my naivete. One even implied that there may have been something between me and the city officials to “grease a few palms” (As if I had that kind of money!) or otherwise play a political game.


I remember talking to my spiritual director about it and she laughed. “That’s a very typical reaction from clergy,” she said. “They are always amazed when God wins.” And then she added something I’ve never forgotten. She said, “In my experience, many Christians – but notably some clergy – are scared to death that Easter just might, after all, be true.”


Stanley Hauerwas says that our culture is built on the fear of death. He thinks this explains our health care system, our economy, our government, Gold’s Gym and all the rest. I am now fond of saying that this culture is built on an even greater fear than death. We are scared to death by the threat of being raised from the dead. Resurrection scares us to death.


What if . . . what if your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you?


What if, as Cher once sang, there is life after love? Do you believe in life after love? Do you remember the words to that song? I keep hearing the refrain, “I can hear something inside me say, ‘I really don’t think you’re strong enough’. No! Do you believe in life after love?”

It’s hard to risk. It’s hard not to hear the voices inside telling you that you’ll fail, and then what? It’s especially hard after you fear that you are losing something you love. Or, you won’t get to do what you love. “Put out in deep water and let down your nets,” says Jesus, not a professional fisherman, to professional fishermen. What does he know?


I don’t know if you’ve ever had an experience like that but I can tell you, it’s disturbing. It’s disturbing because we all get comfortable with what is – with the status quo. At least with a routine, we’re safe. At least, we know what to expect. And, in that, we discover that the lower the expectation, the less difficult the work. Indeed, the less we have to work.


Failure, if you hang around it long enough, can actually become comfortable. Some kids in our schools have figured this out. Some teachers know who they are. And some teachers – the good ones – disturb themselves and work a little harder to disturb the kids by creating challenges for them – ones they know they can achieve – so they can taste the sweetness of success and be inspired to move out of complacency and move into achievement.  


What if . . .  What if there is life after love? What if your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you? Would you be willing to let down your nets? Would you be willing to raise your expectations? Would you be willing to be disturbed out of your complacency in order to dream the dream which God has for you?


I want to close with this prayer, attributed to Sir Frances Drake (believe it or not) in 1577


Disturb us, Lord, when
     we are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
     because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
     because we sailed too close to the shore.


Disturb us, Lord, when
     with the abundance of things we possess
          we have lost our thirst

          for the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
     we have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
     we have allowed our vision
     of the new Heaven to dim.


Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
     to venture on wider seas
     where storms will show your mastery;
          where, losing sight of land,
          we shall find the stars.


We ask You to push back
     the horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
     in strength, courage, hope, and love.  Amen.


As my grandmother said, “The best things in life are sitting on the other side of your fear.”


Do you believe in life after love?


What if . . . your heart’s desire is exactly what God wants for you?