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"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Beatitudes in the Rise of White Supremacy

I want to start with the word 'Blessed'.

Those of us who consider ourselves Christian and still attend church - either in the actual building or on some internet platform - are going to hear that word a lot tomorrow.

We will hear Jesus apply the word blessed to people and situations that, in any age and time, would not be considered 'blessed' much less 'sanctioned' by God.

And, preachers all around Western Christendom will try to help us understand what Jesus meant. And, some of it will actually make some sense. Some of it will actually be comforting.

Parts of it will provide a few moments of relief from the atrocities of what's happening in Ukraine and Memphis, or Palestine and the Southern Border, or the 'plague that lays waste at noonday' in hospital Emergency Departments and Pediatric Wards and Extended Care Facilities (AKA Nursing Homes) with the Tripple Threat of COVID, Influenza and RSV.

One sermon I heard, oh, it must be more than 30 years ago, has come back to visit me this week, especially these past few days. Martin Smith, Episcopal priest, author, retreat leader, and former member and Abbott of SSJE, wrote and delivered it.

As I recall, he said that most of the words in the English language have come to us from the Gregorian monks - the religious order that surrounded themselves with the teachings and spirituality of St. Gregory.

Gregory was a bishop of Rome after the city's fall in 476. He is the patron saint of musicians and teachers. It was said that when he dictated homilies to his assistant, a dove could be seen speaking from his mouth.

Gregory favored preaching on the Jacob cycles and did so often. Apparently, his favorite story was the one of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22–32), which ends with Jacob walking away with a limp and a new name: Israel.

Here's that passage:

<<25 When the man (angel) saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”>>

Gregory said that the moment when the angel touched Jacob's hip was a kairos moment, a God-incident, when the past and the future fold into the present and the blood sacrifices of the past come together with the blood sacrifice of the future on the cross and Jacob, was "bloodded".

Jacob, he said, was "bloodded with the blood of the cross."

When the monks transcribed Gregory's sermon, the "d' looked to future eyes like an 's'. Thus, 'bloodded' became 'blessed'.

If you look up the etymology of the word "bless" in the OED, you will find one of the definitions as "to mark with blood for sacrifice" (In my version, Second Edition, Volume II, " B.B.C - Chalypsography," this can be found on page 281).

"To mark with blood for sacrifice".

This, for me, moves us away from the temptation to pick the low-hanging sermonic fruit and choose the translation of "blessed" as "happy". As in, "happy are they who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Which has never made a lick of sense to me, except in some super-saccharine, Monty Pythonesque "always look on the bright side of life," kind of Christianity.

Blessed as bloodded.

To mark with blood for sacrifice.

Blessed as entering into that point of human suffering when one is "beside oneself" with grief or hunger or wanting or persecution or pain - and we enter into a kairos moment, God's time, the time of the sacrifice of Jesus, who was a part of and one with God - who suffered in every way a human can suffer - on the cross.

And, in that suffering, in that kairos moment when time becomes past, future and present, we are "bloodded" - marked with blood for sacrifice - and we are changed and transformed and will never again be the same.

And, like Jacob, we are "bloodded" and we limp away with a new understanding of who we are.

I think we have entered such moments with the brutal murder of George Floyd and other innocent black men and women like Dante Wright, Philandro Castile, Botham Jean, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Janisha Fonville, Tanisha Anderson, and many, many, many others.

We have entered yet another kairos moment with the beyond brutal, sickeningly savage, inhuman death of Tyre Nichols who was beaten to death by five Memphis police officers who held him down and repeatedly struck him with their fists, boots, and batons as he screamed for his mother who was only three houses away.

Bloodded are those who are persecuted.
Bloodded is his mother who morns.
Bloodded are the meek.
Bloodded are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Blessed - to mark with blood for sacrifice.

The thing about this kind of blessing or beatitude is that the sacrifice is not senseless; rather, it has deep, spiritual meaning.

Sacrifice is a vehicle of transformation.

We are already seeing this transformation in the way Tyre Nichols murder was handled. The transparency on the part of elected officials. The immediate firing of the five officers. The immediate charges of murder were brought against the five men who beat Mr. Nichols to death. The quick release of the video of the beating.

Imagine it: The very people who are persecuted by White Supremacy - those who are bloodded - are changing the way in which we deal with these horrific injustices.

Imagine it: The very people who hunger and thirst for righteousness - those who are bloodded - are teaching us that White Supremacy is an equal-opportunity disease, its toxins can poison people of any color.

Imagine it: The very people who mourn - those who are bloodded - are teaching us that there is life after death, that a person's life not only has meaning but their death can provide a legacy that can bring about real change for justice.

As I sit and begin to process the images of violence of not only Tyre Nicholas but Paul Pelosi as well as this time of extreme political violence and social and cultural turmoil, I find myself reflecting on what Jesus said in his first sermon with new eyes.

We are being marked with blood for sacrifice.

We always have. We always will.

That's not the question.

The question is how will we allow our sacrifice to be a vehicle of transformation - of our souls and our lives; individually, as a people, a nation and the world?

Bloodded are you who are persecuted, who are meek, who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will become vehicles of transformation and change.

Know their names:

Sunday, January 15, 2023

What are you looking for? Where does your heart dwell?


St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Millsboro, DE
Epiphany II - January 15, 2023 


There is something in all of us that loves a story. The first magical words I heard were, “Once upon a time . . .”. I hear those words and even now, I’m four or five years old, sitting cross-legged on a braided rug in the library, listening intently.


I don’t know about you, but one of the reasons I love coming to church – even when I don’t have to – is because I’m going to hear another story. It may be something from the Hebrew scripture – something that happened centuries before even Jesus was born – or it may be yet another story about Jesus and his kindness and his love and his teaching.


Normally, St. John is a pretty good storyteller. He reports seven different miracles that Jesus performed. I think the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana is my favorite, but you have to admit that the story of Jesus walking on water is pretty spectacular.

John tells stories differently than Luke or Mark or Matthew. John is less concerned with or in awe of the actual miracle itself; rather, John is more in awe of the deep spiritual meaning implicit in the story.


The miracles are signs not of the coming of God's Realm but of the presence of the Logos, the Word or the power of God, which brings about a transformation in people's lives.


That’s really what John is keen about – the transformation in people’s lives because of the miracle that is Jesus. That’s why John uses poetry and metaphor more than the other evangelists. He knows that mere words can’t contain the Logos, the Word, the Power of God.

It’s about experiencing the presence of the miracle that is Jesus which transforms lives.


That’s the way I understand this morning’s gospel from John which, truth be told, is not his best effort at storytelling. He’s really all over the place, isn’t he? And who was the guy who brought his watch so that we know that it’s 4’o’clock? Seriously.

John strings together two stories, a day apart not because the details of the story are important but because the story is the vehicle to make his point. And, his point is this: Jesus is the Lamb of God. Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world.


What caught my eye in this story of John’s is what Jesus says to two of John’s disciples. After John says, again, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” two of his disciples heard him and they turned to follow Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”


What are you looking for? It’s a great question, actually. It’s one I think we who follow Jesus should ask ourselves from time to time. What are you looking for?


That’s the question that’s been following me around all week. I don’t have to be in church every week. And, I have the option of watching several church services on YouTube. I’ve been attending the 5 PM Saturday service at St. Peter’s, Lewes, which I love. It’s like the 8 AM service with no music, straight up church, except I get to sleep late on Sunday morning if I want to. But the truth is, I find myself in my jammies, with a cup of coffee, “church-surfing”.


Typically, I find myself watching the service from the Washington National Cathedral in DC, the service from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC, and maybe a couple other churches where I know some of my clergy friends will be preaching or some of my musical friends will be playing or singing.


It’s a wonderful buffet – a feast for the eyes and the ears and the soul. By Sunday afternoon, I’m had my full of the Gospel and I’m satisfied that my soul burbs. But lately, I’ve been calling my own habits into question. Why isn’t one service enough?

What am I looking for?


So, I’m bringing that question with me into this church this morning, and I’m going to ask you the same question. I’m not looking to embarrass you. I’m not going to ask you to stand up and say why it is you come to church. Although, you know, I do think that, every once in a while, Episcopalians might learn something from our non-denominational sisters and brothers who offer their testimony in church. Witnessing and testifying about one’s spiritual journey is inspirational and transformational.


That said, you can all relax and take a deep breath. I’m not going to ask you What are you looking for. But I do want you to consider the question. And, I have a story that I think just might be instructive as well as helpful to you as you do.


It’s a story that was told to me by a Buddhist monk I met while I was doing some work in Thailand. I was helping a friend who had set up an orphanage for young children who had lost both parents to the AIDS pandemic. About 50 steps from my apartment was a Buddhist Temple – or a ‘Wat’ as it is called. Every day I would pass by the Wat and stop in to pray in my own way, surrounded and uplifted as I was by the beautiful chanting of the Monks.


The Abbot of the Wat took an interest in me and we began to have wonderful conversations after their prayer services. He had enormous curiosity about Christianity which matched my curiosity in Buddhism. I think I learned more from him than he from me and I will be eternally grateful for all he taught me.


As my time in Thailand was coming to an end, The Abbot said to me, “I have a little gift for you. I will tell you this story which I think Christians need to hear. I will make of this story a gift to you.” It is the gift of that story that I share with you now. 


So, ready?


“Once upon a time . . . . “ there was a village in Thailand that had been settled by the banks of a very large river. The river provided the villagers water for drinking and cooking, bathing and cleaning. It also had a very strong current, so if you went out too far, the current could swoop you up and carry you away only to drown and never to be seen again.


One day, a young man who had been bathing waded out too far and was swooped up by the strong current. He began yelling for help. Person after person went into the water, trying to get as close to him as they could without getting caught up in the current themselves, and they yelled to him, “Give me your hand!” The man just flailed about, screaming for help.


Just as everyone feared for the worst, one of the old women in the village came into the water, getting as near as she could to the man caught in the current; she stretched out her hand and said to the man, “Take my hand!” And, miraculously, the man reached out his hand, and took the hand of the older woman, who pulled him from the current.


Everyone was wild with happiness, cheering and yelling at the miracle they had just witnessed. One of the villagers went to the woman who was sitting on the water’s edge and said to her, “You are a hero. You saved that man’s life. How did you do it?”


The old woman said, “It is not hard, when you think about it. Everyone was yelling, ‘Give me your hand’. A drowning man does not think he is able to give anything, not even to help himself.”

“I simply said to the man, ‘Take my hand.’”

“When you are drowning, when you are desperate for help, you need others. A drowning person can’t hear ‘give me your hand’. When a person is in over their head, they can hear, ‘take my hand’. The difference, she said, can save a life.”


The Abbott looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, smiled and said, “I think this Jesus, your savior, knew a little something about drowning and being in over his head.”


When John’s disciples started following Jesus, he turned and asked him, “What are you looking for?” They answered, “Rabbi/Teacher where are you staying?” Which is to ask, Where do you dwell? Where is your heart?”


And, Jesus didn’t say, “I live in Nazareth.” He didn’t say, “I’m sort of in between homes right now.” Or, “Well, I’m not from here, I’m staying with friends.”


No, Jesus said, “Come and see.” Which is to say, Take my hand. Follow me.


Not, do this. Not, don’t do that. Not, give me this or that.

Not, give me your name. Not follow these rules and pay this price and you’ll be saved.


No. Jesus said, “Come and see.” Take my hand. Experience it for yourself.

I’m going to take a risk here and say that I think that’s why many of us come to church. I think that’s what we’re looking for. Some who will take us by the hand – especially when we feel we’re going under.


Baba Ram Dass, and American spiritual teacher and guru of modern yoga once said, “We’re all here to walk each other home.” You know, I think that’s just about right.


I think many of us are looking for the stories of the lives of our faith so that we can find ourselves in those stories. I think we are looking for the “once upon a time” to be “once upon a time in my life.”


I think we are looking to find our way out of the strong currents in our lives that sometimes sweep us up and away in anxiety or depression or confusion and we feel in over our heads, pulled along by forces out of our control. 

I think we strengthen our faith and belief when we actually repeat the actual words of John the Baptist – becoming like him – when we say (or sing), “Here is/Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”


And Jesus doesn’t say, “Give me your hand.”  He says, “Take my hand. Come and see.”


And so, just as we are without one plea, O Lamb of God, we come.  We come.  


And, Jesus tells us stories – we call them parables and they don’t start with “once upon a time’ but they could – about people just like us. 


Women who can’t conceive and Husbands who can’t imagine.

Daughters who are near death and sons who squander their inheritance.

Women who have lost coins and Shepherds who leave 99 sheep in search of the one that is lost.

People who are wealthy in things but poor in spirit and people or have faith as small as a mustard seed but who can move mountains.


And, we listen to the stories Jesus tells us and we take his hand when he tells us to come and see for ourselves.


And when we do, we are changed and transformed and our lives will never again be the same.


What are you looking for?



Sunday, January 01, 2023

Who were those shepherds, anyhow?

A Sermon for
January 1, 2023

Today is the day the church celebrates The Holy Name of Jesus. For a long time, the church celebrated this day as The Circumcision of Jesus, because that’s the time, eight days after his birth, that  Mary and Joseph, being good, observant Jews, would have called a Mohel to circumcise their newborn male in accordance with the covenant God made with Abraham.


Today, our Roman Catholic friends are celebrating The Solemnity of Mary. It’s a celebration of her motherhood and the role she played in the salvation of humankind as a Theotokos, a God-bearer, the Mother of God.


The designation of the feast in honor of Jesus' Holy Name is new to the 1979 BCP. Celebration of the Holy Name reflects the significance of the Holy Name of Jesus, and the emphasis of the Gospel of Luke on the naming of Jesus rather than his circumcision.

And, that’s the end of the lecture portion of this sermon. So, here’s what I want to know. You know those shepherds? The ones in Luke’s Gospel to whom the angels appeared? They were the first ones to hear the Glad Tidings – the Good News – of the birth of Jesus – and to tell others. So, what were their names?


I mean, naming is obviously very important. We had to give Mary another name, one that sounds all ancient and fancy like “Theotokos”. We even know that one of the angels is named Gabriel. So, it seems important to name the first heralds of the Savior’s birth. Doesn’t it?


Let’s say that there were three of them. Three’s a good, biblical number. So, I’m thinking one has to be named David after the great Shepherd King. But, the other two? I’m sure they had the Palestinian equivalent of the names of regular guys like Caleb, Ali and Ahmad.

Names like . . . oh, I don’t know . . . .Ed.

You know, I always liked Ed Norton. Remember him, the guy from the Honeymooners who worked the sewers in New York? He was a real underground philosopher.

He once said to his buddy, Ralph Kramden, “
A sewer worker is like a brain surgeon. We're both specialists. Like we say in the sewer, time and tide wait for no man.”


Yeah, one of them is definitely Ed. So, Dave and Ed and one other shepherd. What shall we name him? What about Norman? Do you remember the great TV program, Cheers? Remember Norm? Norm had previously served in the Coast Guard but then lost his job defending Diane in their accounting firm and, after struggling for years as an independent accountant becomes a housepainter.


And, every time he came into Cheers, everyone said, “Noooorm!” Diane would always say, “Norman.”

Sometimes, someone would say, “Hey, Norm, whaddya know?”

And Norm would say, “Not enough.”

Or, “How’s life, Norm?”

And Norm would say, “Not for the squeamish.”


Names are very important. When you think of the shepherds being Dave, Ed and Norm, they sound more like guys we’d know and the whole story becomes more believable.

My point – and I do have one – is that this is the Octave of the Incarnation – the time when we celebrate God in the flesh – and nothing grounds things in human reality better than human names.


In fact, I learned something very important about the incarnation from a real shepherd named Fred. Alfred. But his mates called him Fred or Freddy. I was doing some study in England and, while there, I had to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road, you know, as the English do. Not only that, but I had to learn how to deal with the occasional herd of sheep whose shepherd let block the road while they crossed from one pasture to another.


There was nothing to be done but to sit and wait it out. Eventually, I learned to strike up a conversation with the shepherd – mostly because I was curious to learn about sheep and shepherds, since that’s one of the metaphors used for Jesus and the people of God – that’s you and me – who are part of His flock.

Here’s the thing I learned best about sheep from my Shepherd friend, Fred: the problem with sheep is not that they are dumb. They are decidedly not. Sheep have a very keen sense of smell. They can actually smell the new green grass and they can smell where the water is and they know how to find it. They really don’t need a shepherd to find it for them.

That’s not the problem. The problem with sheep is not that they are dumb. The problem with sheep is that they get very excited when they smell the new green grass and the water.

The problem with sheep is that they can get so excited about getting to the new green grass and the water that they don’t watch where they are going. They can trip over each other and hurt each other – especially the new little lambs. They will run into big trees or stumble over rocks. They have even been known to head over a cliff because they smelled the water beneath.

As I considered what my shepherd friend, Fred, was saying, the whole Good Shepherd Sunday thing began to make more sense. We’re not dumb sheep, but sometimes, we do get excited about life.

Well, at least I do. I have been known to go running off with half-baked plans that were doomed to fail until, in prayer, Jesus sort of tapped me on the shoulder with his shepherd’s crook and said, “Hang on. Wait just a minute. Have you considered this?”

I was feeling a bit better about the whole Sheep-Shepherd thing, but a question continued to nag at me. As luck would have it, I got a chance to ask the question of Fred before I left.

My question to Fred was this: “Why is it that the sheep follow your voice and not mine? They know my voice after all these weeks, I can see that, but they follow your voice. Why?”

“Ah,” said Fred, “that’s the other thing about sheep. Not only are they not dumb, but they have a great sense of smell.”  


“Well, yes, you’ve already told me that,” I said, wondering whatever any of that had to do with the price of wool.

Fred smiled and said, “You see, I smell like them. When I help with the birthing of new lambs, or when I sheer the sheep, there is a sort of lanolin that is given off. After a while, that lanolin gets under your skin. You can’t smell it, but the sheep can. They know my smell and they know that I am one of them. And so, they follow.”

And then, I got it. Like a dumb sheep finally smelling the new, green grass, I got excited and said, right out loud, “It’s the Incarnation, stupid!”

Fred, thinking that I was talking to him and questioning his intellect, got a bit startled and then distressed. I quickly explained to him that, suddenly, this passage of scripture made sense.

God came to earth and put on human flesh. God got ‘under our skin’ the same way that the lanolin from the sheep gets under the shepherd’s skin. God in Christ Jesus smells like us, so when God speaks to us in the name of Jesus, we hear and recognize God’s voice. And, we follow.

Well, I got so excited about this new insight that I tripped over a rock and fell flat on my backside. I suddenly remembered what the shepherd had said about the problem with sheep not being dumb but getting excited, and I started to laugh. So did Fred.

Some of the wee lambs and momma sheep came over to check me out and make sure I was okay.  “Careful now,” Fred called out. “Besides the smell of lanolin, the other way sheep know you is if they pee on you.”

 I wasn’t that dumb. I got up very quickly.


Friends, today we are celebrating the Holy Name of Jesus. "Jesus" is from the Hebrew Joshua, or Yehoshuah, "Yahweh is salvation" or "Yahweh will save." We also know him by Emmanuel, “God with us.” He is the Great Shepherd. The King of Kings. The Lord of Lords.

He has a name and he also has a shape and flesh. Which means he thinks like us and feels like us and, yes, smells like us. He knows who we are so that we will better know who God is. And so, we follow Jesus when He calls, because we know the sound of His voice and we know His name.


Scripture tells us that His name is above all names. Higher than Elizabeth or Alice or Diane. Higher than David or Ed or Norman.  It is the name that was given him by the angel Gabriel before he was conceived in Mary’s womb.


Even so, Jesus loves us so much that he walks with us, as close to us as our next breath. The birth of this Christ child is about God coming to us in our everyday lives and saying to us, "Don't be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news."

  • It's about God meeting us in our pain and loneliness as well as our failures and success.
  • It's about God meeting us in our frustration and anger as well as our happiness and joy.
  • It's about God wanting to be a part of our lives every day, in the field or woods or in the office, even when we get excited and ahead of ourselves and trip over our own feet.


Because we are promised that our names are written in the palm of God’s hand.

So yes, we know God’s name, but God also knows ours.

And to God, we are also holy. Amen.