“Tongues of Fire for a New Day”

An image of a wooden Cross with swirls of red and orange coming from the image. A picture of a dove flying is in front of the Cross with the text "Paentecost" in the foreground.

Presented to the First Congregational Church in Salem, NH May 23, 2021

It has long been held that communication, or rather miscommunication, is one of the leading causes of conflict in our world. And this idea makes sense; for, if you cannot communicate effectively with another person, how can we resolve the issues in our world – our country – or even those conflicts in our personal relationships. That said, communication begins with language. And, when each person is speaking the same language, it would seem easier to communicate our thoughts and feelings. A reality, I suspect, contributed to the choice of 178 countries to have a single National language. However, the United States is not one of them. We are one of six countries who do not officially recognize any language, even though many people in this country do speak an Americanized version of English. Now one would think our multilingual country would help us find grace when someone is speaking a different language. Yet, we all know that even the most faithful people sometimes forget the blessings bestowed upon us on this day of Pentecost. We sometimes forget grace and patience during conflict especially when confronted by someone who is yelling at us in a different language. Our reactions to these conflicts are a problem, but one we understand. One which I hope everyone of faith is continually seeking forgiveness for as we learn and grow together.

Yet, what about when the person before you seems to be yelling in the same language. When the words spewed forth are Americanized English but the meaning – the meaning of the words is completely different than what you understand. Does this reality cause the conflict to escalate? I believe it does. I believe we forget about Grace and attack the person back verbally.

And we have seen this lack of grace and miscommunication play out many times amongst friends – couples – and even in many churches. Recently though another version of this miscommunication of words has come to the forefront of our world. It is not new – but it is escalating conflicts here in the United States. For you see, what many people fail to realize is that we are not all speaking the same language – even when we are all speaking an Americanized form of English. Even when we all live in the same area or go to the same church. There is also a generational language. A language which offers completely different meanings for the same exact words – and this miscommunication of words amongst generations is escalating conflicts instead of the unity offered on this new day when tongues of fire appear above the heads of every disciple.

Before we continue would you pray with me?

Holy God, invoke in us the blessings of Pentecost – light the tongues of fire above our heads once more this day – reveal o’ Holy One Your Truth to the wholeness of your disciples gathered here; so, we may all understand the languages which are foreign to us and become one whole fellowship in Your Holy kin-dom. May these words speak of Your Grace and inspire Your Truth in all our hearts. 

Now beloved I do believe the conflicts, like racism, facing our world today are much deeper than a simple miscommunication of generational languages. Much deeper but still relevant as our miscommunication amongst generations is escalating the conflict of racism, a truth which we have all witnessed over the last year. For, words like racism are taking on new meanings in the world today which according to the Millennial generation refers to an overarching system of power which limits people due to their ethnicity. Therefore, just by being Caucasian in a culture predominantly white, we are considered racist. However, we must understand that this term for the Millennial generation is neutral and not one meant to attack an individual person’s character.

Yet when I was growing up in the eighties, a racist was understood as anyone who hated anyone else because of their ethnicity. In other words, the KKK individual who hated all black people, the black person who hated all Asian people, or the individual native American who hated all white people. Now this reality may not seem that different except when we realize that my experience of the X- Generation revealed an overwhelming majority who deplored racists. We generally tried to accept everyone as equal – offer the same opportunities regardless of skin color – and fulfill the dream of the civil rights movement from the Baby Boomer generation before us. Therefore, being a racist for us is seen as a direct insult to our character. 

Do you start to see the problem? The Millennial generation has been talking about racism as something like a big tent we all live under and the X-Generation has understood racism as something more akin to a knife stabbing us. In other words, we are miscommunicating, and our arguments are escalating into divisions because the basis of our communication – our words understood generationally – have become a foreign language to each other. Yet, we all want the same thing – to live as Christ who loves one another equally regardless of ethnicity.  

This reality though is not new; for, humanity has had a multitude of divisions. This truth can be witnessed in our reading from the book of Acts. The very story of the Pentecost, celebrating the birth of the church. Here on this day, devout Jews from every nation came from Parthia to Asia. These people came faithfully together yet they all spoke their own language. They were all divided by their own homelands. They were all separated by distinctions of their particular culture. However, they all came together as one people to worship God. Not knowing the church would be born; but because, they were faithfully celebrating the Feast of Weeks. The celebration of when God gave the Jewish people the Torah, fifty days after Passover. In this unifying act of faith, God rewards them and us with the miracle of Pentecost. The miracle which the theologian Christopher Matthews supposes is the reversal of the confusion of languages which happened when humans challenged God at the Tower of Babel, the story from the book of Genesis which explains why we have over 6,500 languages in the world. 

Yet, the Jewish people came together today not to challenge God; but, in the loving unity of worship as one community of faith. Although they had differences in language, God made the impossible – possible. She sent the Holy Spirit to grant all people the ability to hear one another not in the language being spoken but in their own native language. Beloved, the Good News is found in that miracle. That miracle of tongues of fire from the Holy Spirit which were placed above every disciple’s head that day – today – and tomorrow. The Good News that God will grant us the ability to hear one another – reveal the way to communicate with one another – and recreate the church in each generation. He will do this miracle for all who are willing to come faithfully together, seek the unifying worship of the divine, and welcome the rebirth happening around us every day. 

And the church – much like language – is reborn or recreated in every generation. We are not the same fellowship as our parents; nor will we be the same fellowship in our children’s age. Many of our parents would not have worshipped online, even if it had been available let alone on Wednesday evenings. However, our voices spoke up and said that worship online is how we can continue to come faithfully together, seek the unifying worship of the divine, and welcome the rebirth happening around us every day. Much like how the Millennial Generation has said racism needs to be redefined for our black sisters and brothers are still suffering. We need to come faithfully together, seek the unity of the divine, and welcome the rebirth happening around us every day. So yes, even though many of us speak a different generational language, I am also witnessing the Good News of Pentecost happening today. For even though the new definition of racism feels like an attack for the X-Generation, many souls right here in this community are hearing the Spirit move through their words. We are hearing in our native tongue the desire to bring unity and equality to all people. 

This miracle though is not about our different generations, miscommunication, or even racism, it is about God’s Grace poured out through the Holy Spirit for all people who are in conflict. The gift of Grace for all disciples who come faithfully together, seek the unifying worship of the divine, and welcome the rebirth of the church happening around us every day. A message which seems particularly important today as we celebrate the discernment, confirmation, and fellowship of Jack, Luke, and Abby. For, we are recreated into a new church by each of you and your presence, faithfulness, and voice. I have witnessed the gifts the three of you bring – the language of a new generation seeking unity and equality for all people and I have grown in my discipleship because of you. Thank you. I have also witnessed you hearing through the Spirit the language of older generations and it would seem to me that you have grown in your discipleship as well.

This blessing, beloved, is the miracle of Pentecost – the call of today – the call to everyone who hears these words – the call to let the Tongue of Fire alight upon your head and hear one another through the Holy Spirit – hear in your native language – hear the meaning of each generation’s words even if those words seem painful – feel like they are changing our worship – or sound like a foreign language. For it is only through the Holy Spirit will we be able to hear one another and be recreated as the church which we are becoming each new day. May this call of unity and acceptance guide all our interactions this week as we celebrate the rebirth of our fellowship through Christ. In God’s eternal Grace for all people, we pray. Amen

“The Fruit of the Self: Commandment 1.5”

Two hands in black and white photo cradling a bright red heart.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem May 16, 2021

A month ago, Norma, asked for a Bible verse to place upon the cover of our Annual Report. The same ones which are now available here at the church. And I would like to say thank you, thank you Norma, for both this invitation and for your ongoing ministry. Yet, I will say that this invitation – this scriptural choice is considerably harder than one might think. For, how can we sum up a whole year in a single Bible verse. How do we share the wonderful callings that have brought us together as a community and the multitude of hardships we have endured throughout the pandemic? No, it is not easy though I suspect some may be wondering if the passage chosen was from the book of Revelation, perhaps the whole “lake of fire” passage? And, I cannot say it did not cross my mind, at least momentarily when I considered the divisiveness of the world today. Yet, God revealed another passage after some time and quite a bit of prayer. 

Prayer which brought one particular Bible verse to mind, “Love thy neighbor.” Love thy neighbor, yes if anything those words express what all people are being called to do throughout the world. And yes, I do mean all people on all sides whether you have loved your neighbor by wearing the mask to keep one another physically safe or have loved your neighbor by wearing the mask to help one another feel safe. Either way, you have made a sacrifice and chosen to love our neighbors. So, well done beloved for you have shared the fruit of God’s love. However, I wonder if you kept some of that fruit for yourself? 

Before we continue would you pray with me?

Holy God, invoke in us the third breath of your love into our lives. Invoke Your Love, Holy One; so, we know that it is alright to love ourselves – to be filled and refreshed by the fruit of your love – and empowered to share Your love with the world. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our heart be pleasing to you God.

Now beloved, this fruit of Love we have been speaking about the last two weeks is a blessing, a gift from God and one we can share with our neighbors. Yet, this gift has also been a sacrifice. Oh yes, we physically survived the pandemic – socially seem to be making it through and without any doubt in my heart we are spiritually closer to God in many ways today. Yet, that little piece of cloth over our faces is also a sacrifice. One which I think we feel now more than ever as the CDC says we can remove the mask if we are fully vaccinated. We can remove the masks; but, if we do I wonder – I wonder will you feel anxiety? I know I have. I have experienced a touch of uneasiness when the Governor dropped the mask mandate – felt just a bit exposed or worse yet possibly exposing others. Yet, this uneasiness was minimal for me, thank God. However, for many people this experience is intensified as they are also dealing with anxiety, stress, and mental health distress from a multitude of other sources.

To explain, last year there were an additional 1.5 million people who reportedly suffered from mental illness compared to the statistics in 2019. These numbers covered ailments from anxiety to full on suicidal tendencies. Currently today, the same percentage of 20.56 % of New Hampshire’s population are still suffering from mental illness in some shape or form. Now I do not believe all 1.5 million additional people are from wearing masks nor all from the isolation which we have experienced throughout this past year. Yet, the mask and the isolation which many people are feeling could absolutely be a contributing factor. For, humans as a general rule, need one another. We need to experience one another in smiles, smirks and frowns. And our inability to witness each other’s faces over the last year is one of the sacrifices we have made for love. But has this sacrifice actually caused damage to our emotional and mental well-being? 

Personally, I cannot say. Yet, I do know that this increase in mental illness has an additional unseen cost which is affecting many people. It is the cost which I felt the edges of when I took off the mask for the first time. For, these cases of mental illness are only the reported cases of mental illness in the United States. The people who are receiving help. How many more people are struggling in our world which has and is undergoing trauma.

And this beloved is the sacrifice we have really made as we chose to love our neighbors by wearing the mask – avoiding people – engaging lockdown protocols. We have all become traumatized by the missing events and joys, the missing social interaction, the isolation in our everyday lives. We have all undergone a traumatic event which is not quite over. We have undergone trauma and yet we are not all dealing with that wear on our mental health. Perhaps then it is time to recognize that the fruit of God’s love poured out for the neighbor has another part to the commandment, A commandment that we, especially in the Christian church, fail to always recognize; but an aspect which is most assuredly necessary to be full disciples of Christ.

Let us therefore turn to that scripture on our Annual Report which we all know so well, the passage from the Gospel according to Mark: The Great Commandment. The words which remind us to do three things according to the theologian, Pheme Perkins. He says this passage calls us to 1. believe in one God, 2. wholehearted devotion to God, and 3. love of neighbor. And this passage does do all three of these things. It is a clear commandment of what we are called to do as disciples of Christ, especially amongst a divisive world. For if you recall, Jesus’ world in the Markan Gospel has a consistent division between Jesus and the scribes. Yet, here the author describes this scribe as not a hostile questioner – but simply as having a different mindset and one who is willing to hear the truth of the commandment which is well received and what we are called to do as disciples – to end divisiveness in the world and simply love thy neighbor. Yet, what many Christians, as well as theologians like Perkins, forget is the last part of the commandment. In fact, almost every single commentary which I have read all seem to gloss over what I believe may be the most important. It is the problem we are facing today in this world as we start to anxiously peel away the masks and realize we have all been traumatized while loving one another. It is the problem we are dealing with throughout every division and one which is emphasized in the scribe. For, the scribe after hearing the word of God did not become a disciple of Christ – he does love the neighbor – listens to the teachings of Jesus – and accepted the words; yet he did not stop loving himself or who he was called to be by God. He remains a scribe.

This beloved is the good news of the great commandment. It is not simply to love your neighbor to the point and sacrifice of yourself but to love your neighbor as yourself – equal too and not more than our sisters and brothers. This truth is lost in the Christian way so often when we are being kind to one another we sometimes forget that we are actually called to take care of our own physical – social – spiritual needs and especially our own mental needs. For, how can we give God’s fruit of Love to our neighbor if we have no fruit left for ourselves. The simple reality is that we cannot. We cannot, nor should we give up everything at the destructive cost of ourselves – for we are all the beloved children of God and no one should be lost in any way.

This Good News of the great commandment is a hard one for many Christians beloved for many are taught from a young age that sacrifice and martyrdom are the key to heaven. We are taught that it does not mean anything unless it hurts – unless it costs – unless you feel pain in some way. These are the older teachings which focus not on Jesus’ sacrifice as the final sacrifice that was required or on my belief that Jesus came as the pure Love for all, but on our Jewish fore-parents who believed in sacrificial offerings to God. And, I will say there are times when sacrifice and the cost of loving one another to this degree is required – when a sacrifice is needed to keep the most vulnerable amongst us safe and secure – when the world is hurting from a pandemic then yes there are times for sacrifice which you have all revealed throughout our community. 

Yet there also comes a time where we must remember to love ourselves and care for ourselves. There are times where we must love our own spirituality and nurture our relationship with God through prayer, a walk on the beach, time of worship with other people – there are times to love our own social life and be in community or separated from community as our being requires – there are times where we must love ourselves and eat the foods best for us – workout as our body enjoys – or even go to the doctor when something feels off – And yes beloved there are times where we must love our own mental being for we have all been traumatized by this last year in a variety of ways. This does not mean everyone will need psychological therapy, but it does mean that you are important and there are wounds amongst us. Emotions and masks have divided people over and over again throughout the last year and we all need someone – someone to comfort us during our personal traumas. We all need someone, and please know that I am here as one of your resources which you will always have to talk too about whatever – for we are complete beings and whatever affects you affects your relationship with God. 

That said, I pray that you remember this Good News that many people forget in these days when we start to remove the masks and start to come out of the pandemic. In these days when we feel ever so slightly anxious or vulnerable. In these days when our mental health may be the most vulnerable for now is the time, we will begin to deal with the trauma and sadness we have undergone. When we come into the church and rejoin in fellowship – when we see how big Ginny or Matthew have gotten over the last year, I expect we may all feel the loss that we have endured this year.

This truth reminds me of a friend, Shawn, who pushed away all his sadness for years just to love the neighbor – care for his friends – nurture all the concerns in the world. He did this over and over for years. Until one day when the mask came off. He finally had everything he wanted in life – the perfect career and partner. Then, Shawn crumpled and was shattered by the weight of his sadness. For you see, he had forgotten to love himself along the way and none of us had any idea what he was going through; for, he kept it bottled up until it came pouring out like a flood. I still think about Shawn and the sadness that drove him to commit suicide. This difficulty, beloved, is what I pray that you never have to endure – the flood of pain and loss undealt with because you are always sacrificing for another without remembering that God’s loving fruit is there for you as well, not just the gift we give away. Therefore, I pray that this week each of you love yourself enough to care for all your needs, especially the mental – emotional support which no one else can witness without your voice. In the love of God given freely for all we pray, Amen.

The Fruit of the Parent

The image is of two red and yellow hands holding each other above two red and yellow hands reaching for each other. Between the bottom two hands is a outline of a yellow dove/ All of this is on a blue background above the text, "LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR" on a orange background.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on May 9, 2021

I would like to begin today by saying Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who are with us in person and online. To all of you who have given birth and those who have chosen to adopt children. To all the single mothers and the mothers who have a partner. To all of you who have at some point fulfilled the beautiful role of motherhood for a friend, a nephew, or a sibling. To all of you who reveal God’s love as a mother. But that is one of the difficulties of today – today as we become more inclusive and celebrate the breath of motherhood, we realize that the definition of this blessed calling is not so clear. We can no longer clearly define the mother as the definitive biological female who gives birth and raises children. Rather, the calling of a mother has become the person in our life who fulfills many roles. Yes, the people who fulfill these roles can be the biological female in our family; but they may also be one of the biological females, the biological male, or an older niece. So yes, this new reality of inclusivity we are living in today becomes difficult when we wish to honor and celebrate certain people in our life who believe in us – care for us – love us regardless of what we do – the people like our mothers on this Mother’s Day. 

Yet, I believe in all my heart that this difficulty is only because we are still struggling with the gender schisms of the past. Therefore, we are having a hard time accepting the loving fruit that God, our Parent, has and is providing us in the kin-dom to come.

Before we continue, would you pray with me:

Mothering God who reveals love. Invoke in us your divine love once more – teach us through our mothers – and guide us through the Spirit how to love one another as you have, do now, and will forever love us – Your beloved children. May the words spoken today share Your Love and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God. 

Now beloved these gender schisms I am speaking about today are built right into our societal structures, as old as Aristotle who around 350 BC distinguished between the public sphere as that of citizens, or men, in control of society and the private sphere which included slaves, women, and families. Basically, he defined the gender roles of men and women with the expectation that all women were mothers who worked inside the home, subservient to men. And we have all heard this theory in some shape or form. Furthermore, I assume, and it is my assumption, that some people have enjoyed this structure and others feel oppressed by this societal construct. Either way though, this societal framework has remained in place for thousands of years. Remained in place and created days like today. Days where we have traditionally celebrated our mothers in an exclusive fashion as the women who bear children and take care of the home. 

Yet not all mothers today give birth, work inside the home, or are even biologically female. Our perception of motherhood has grown to become more inclusive than Aristotle’s finite definitions of gender roles which is creating difficulties throughout society. Because change is always difficult, especially changing our perception of who we are lovingly called to celebrate on this day when the very concept of mothers is so ingrained into every aspect of our society. Yet changing who we are called to love into a more inclusive way is not new either. 

For Jesus in our continued reading from the Gospel according to John, reiterates his second commandment: “love one another.” The recurrence of this commandment which appears in all four Gospels reveals how important these words are for all of us to understand. Along with the importance we discussed last week, we must also remember the context of this important last speech. For, Jesus is speaking to his disciples who are Jewish in a Roman society full of schisms, divisions, and exclusions. These separations can be understood as the spheres of influence which separate the Jewish from the Romans – the citizens from the slaves – the men from the women. Leaving each person as part of an exclusive sphere within the greater society. These spheres or defined roles which people inhabited did not allow for upward progression – you could not be born Jewish and become a citizen – you could not be a woman and become part of the military. Each person either remained in their role or fell to a lower place on the societal scale. 

In many ways, we still feel the divisiveness of these spheres today. Today, when women are treated like objects – when women are paid less for the same occupation – or even when we expect a biological female to become a mother in order to be a valuable member of society. These gender roles and spheres are a hold-over from the Roman culture which perpetuated an exclusionary oppression on nearly everyone. Yet, Jesus’ words in this culture full of divisions were not spoken to the oppressors but to those who are oppressed. And to these souls, Jesus reveals the Good News. 

The Good News that the oppressed, the disciples, all disciples even us today are called to love one another. Jesus invites us to this love – this loving of one another without saying who the other one is – without putting disclaimers that he is only speaking about the disciples – without referring to only the people in one particular sphere; rather, Jesus simply says, “love one another” – love thy neighbor. Now, this may not seem to be profound for us here in Salem, New Hampshire as many of us have never felt oppression to this degree. But in the Roman culture where hate, exclusion, and oppression were commonplace it was an extremely profound change for Jesus to ask people who were already feeling oppressed -to love one another. This point is enhanced when Jesus says you are no longer servants, or slaves; but you are now my friends and the beloved of God as long as you do what I command. Beloved, do you see now what Jesus has done in this culture of exclusivity. He changed the world to lovingly include all the disciples – all people – all of us as part of the same sphere – the beloved friends of Jesus – equal to one another as long as we love one another. This commandment is the Good News, a calling to the oppressed, and the inclusive Way to the kin-dom.

But like I said, here in Salem on this blessed day where we celebrate mothers, this Good News may not seem profound. For our doctrine is love and we believe all are welcome no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey. But I wonder – I wonder would everyone here love another so much that they would sacrifice for another person. Sacrifice for not only our family as motherhood has often revealed; but love the other side – the enemy – our actual oppressor enough to sacrifice for them? That is the true depth of what Jesus is calling us to do – to love each and every person so much that you would be willing to sacrifice everything; so, they may be included – welcomed – loved by God. 

Sacrifice though does not always include our lives and I pray that none of you are ever called to that cost of love – the love revealed in Jesus. Yet, this love does require a willingness to sacrifice. And sacrifice can be as simple as giving up those traditional gender norms to allow ourselves to become more inclusive and welcoming to all people. It could mean sacrificing the territorial feelings some people have that Mother’s Day is only for biological females who are homemakers in order to celebrate the thousands of ways motherhood has enhanced all our lives. It could mean sacrificing part of the day; so, your daughter may celebrate Mother’s Day with her new boyfriend’s mother, or your son may celebrate Mother’s Day with his wife. It could mean sacrificing our preconceived notions that the mother and child are ethnically the same or that there is a biological female in the family. It could mean sacrificing our societal standards built on thousands of years of oppression in order to witness the fruit of inclusive Love which God is calling us too in the kin-dom. It could even mean sacrificing a relationship with someone who is oppressive in order to love one another from a distance. That beloved is the depth of what Jesus is asking us to do when he says, “love one another.” Love one another enough to sacrifice for another person; so, we may all experience the inclusive loving fruit of the Parent in the kin-dom to come. May you never have to, but always willing to, sacrifice for another; so, all people may witness the inclusive Love in the kin-dom of God. Amen.

“The Fruit of Love”

The image is a blue, partly cloudy sky over an ocean looking through a vine wall. The opening is in the shape of a heart.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem on May 2, 2021

I would like to begin today by sharing my gratitude to all of you – gratitude for granting me some time to get away and nurture other relationships in my life. Relationships like the one I have with my friend, Daniel. 

Although our homes are only an hour and a half away, we rarely see one another. And this reality is not only due to the pandemic; for, we went almost a year without talking. Not that we were upset with each other; but because our lives had become busy – so busy that it was not easy to find time for even a phone call. Yet last week, we were able to meet and nurture our friendship. As I consider our relationship today, I can testify that his friendship has and continues to enhance my life. I can see the outcome, or fruit, of our friendship in the joy we share when we challenge each other intellectually, share the mutual interest of a good superhero flick, or comfort one another over the loss of a family member. These fruits of love have brought us closer together over the years.

That said, our friendship is not perfect, none are. Daniel and I often disagree. However, we accept each other for who each other is and that – that is how we have nurtured the fruits of a true friendship based on Philia, or brotherlylove. 

Before we continue would you pray with me

Loving God who reveals Love through Creation and by sending Your Son, our Christ, to save us – reveal Your Love to us again; so, we may become the fruit of Love for the world to witness. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God.

Now Beloved, the type of love I described earlier is not the only form of love in the world. Countless poets and storytellers have defined love through their works. Every human being on earth, I pray, has or is experiencing love in a different way; for, it is the most powerful positive emotion we can express as human beings. Even the ancient Greeks believed love was so important that they used different words to define the different aspects of this beautiful emotion like Philia which I reflected on earlier. Yet, there is also Storge which is the love between a parent and a child; Eros which is the romantic love between people; and many more detailed definitions of love throughout the Greek language. However, there are three particular aspects of love which bind all forms of love together. Three aspects which are central to the divine Love of God – or the selfless love called Agape. Three aspects which reveal how the fruit of love is not only possible but nurtured throughout our lives.

However, to really explain these three aspects of Love, let us turn to our reading from the Gospel According to John. Here, Jesus shares with us the metaphor of the vine which is about Agape Love and the relationship between God, Jesus, and all disciples. We should also take note that this teaching is occurring after the Last Supper amongst all the disciples, except Judas who has already left to betray Jesus. To the rest of the disciples, Jesus teaches us how we are all called to “love one another” as they are leaving the upper room. Now, we know that Jesus shares this teaching to help keep the disciples from stumbling as expressed clearly in the following chapter. Yet, I also imagine that this teaching is important as this is one of the final teachings of Jesus’ human life. He will not be around to teach us after Judas’ betrayal – will not have time afterwards to show us how to remain loving to one another – will not be present to keep our love from withering away as we fall from the vine. Will not have time to do any of these things until after the resurrection and then it may be too late – some of the disciples may have already been lost.

Therefore, Jesus takes these precious moments to teach us the Good News of how to remain on the vine and continue to produce the fruit of Love through three aspects. First, love is acceptance of differences. The vine has many branches and each of those branches is different – just like all of us. In fact, Jesus is not the only vine but the “true vine” of our faith. Now the vines and branches do not judge the other branches or vines. No, the only way that a branch will be pruned is by the vinegrower, God, and only when that branch does not produce the fruit of love. I believe this aspect is not only a teaching for the disciples and how they may react towards Judas after the betrayal; but also, to every one of us who witnesses injustices in the world and feel like it is ok to attack the person instead of their hateful actions. Yet, Jesus teaches us another way – the way of love to accept the differences of people and let the fruit of love be the evidence for the vinegrower’s judgement, not ours. 

Second, love is a nurtured relationship. We are called to abide, be one with, Jesus as he is one with God. I would even argue that the whole metaphor of the vinegrower, vine, branches and fruit only relate to us because love requires each of us to be in relationship with one another. Much like the Philia love between Daniel and I is only brotherly love because we do nurture our relationship with each other – now. Similarly, I imagine that Jesus is speaking this Good News to sway the disciples from isolating after the betrayal – after Jesus is arrested – and after the crucifixion. All of which is a very real concern for Jesus, at this point in the story. For, he is clearly worried that the disciples will stumble in his absence. However, I wonder if Jesus is also speaking to us today, reminding us that our relationships must be nurtured with each other’s presence to continue producing the fruit of love. Perhaps this is a stretch – perhaps not; for, each branch is different and each relationship as well. But what I can say is that love – every love – even self-love does require one to nurture the relationship through mutual presence which can be anything from a card to gathering together in worship. 

Third, God is love. Although this is clearly stated in our passage from First John, Jesus tells of this truth as well. Teaches us this truth when he says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”  In other words, we cannot fully produce the fruit of Agape love – the selfless love of God – the love which is nurtured in relationship and accepts all differences in people – without God. She is the source of this love – the source sent through the vine of Jesus for us and into – our lives. This Good News is the fruit of love we are called to share with the world, Beloved. 

But we all know this third aspect – right? This blessed truth that God is the source of Love. We all know this truth; yet I wonder if we remember that the vinegrower has many vines – many branches – many ways that Love is shared with the world. Some of which do not make any sense to us; for, we cannot witness the whole crop of grape vines – let alone all of Creation as the vinegrower is able to. So yes, I wonder about this question as many of us would easily judge Judas as bad; for, he is the betrayer of Jesus. Yet, without Judas’ betrayal how would Jesus have fulfilled the prophecy and become one with God through the resurrection? How would we have been saved from our sins? How would God’s love continue to be revealed through the vine of Jesus? It would not be. Simply put, the love we are called to share today could not be present without Judas’ betrayal.

Mind you, I am not saying Judas revealed love as Jesus taught. I am also not encouraging any acts of betrayal, injustice, or hate as we are part of the “true vine” of Jesus which moves against these atrocities in the world. The “true vine” which produces fruit of love, which is accepting of differences, nurturing of relationships, and humbly following the source of all love – God. And Judas’ path is not our Way. Rather, my point about Judas is to explain how fruitless judgment can be for us mere branches. We do not see the whole picture in Creation. We are witness to only the vine of Jesus and on this vine, we know that we will wither and fall if we are not revealing God’s love through the teachings of Jesus, that simple.

That said, if we judge or hate the oppressors in our world – someone like Judas, someone who is unjust to others, someone who is hateful – I wonder: what is the fruit we are producing? If we use hate to defeat hate what is our fruit? I pray that you see it is not Love – not the Agape love of God through Jesus, our Christ – not the Love which requires acceptance of differences, a nurtured relationship, and God’s eternal Love for all people. May you each witness this truth, reflect on the Agape Love of God, and strive to produce the fruit of Love for all the world to witness throughout this week to come. In the name of Christ who shows us the Way. Amen

“Deceived by Our Own Eyes”

Black and white image of the left hand open from the point of view of the onlooker. There is a single drop of a clear liquid splashing on the palm of the hand.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH on April 18,2021

It is said that today, in the twenty-first century, we are living in a “post-truth” era. An era “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” according to Oxford Languages. And although we can witness this reality in the world today in everything from the environment to the pandemic, it is not how we are called to live as disciples. It is not how we are called to live and engage the world for there is truth – The Truth of God – truth which relies on both fact and belief. However, when we choose to only follow our emotions or beliefs without witnessing objective facts, we are being deceived by our own eyes.

As we begin, would you pray with me

Blessed teacher, teach us the Way of Truth – guide us in discernment and reveal to us Your Way to be whole in Your Holy kin-dom. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God.

Now beloved, the issue is not necessarily the post-truth era of today – but really the problem of deception and manipulation. For, we have been deceived many times – in many ways. People manipulate our emotions to convince us to follow – support – or even believe in a perception which may or may not make sense according to our beliefs. We can see this reality in our biased opinion-based news sources – on social media – and in the discussions about many journeys of shadow. We see this reality in advocates for environmental justice, like Greta Thunberg, who openly shamed society by saying, “How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” Although her message of environmental care may have been good, it was lost in the emotional plea and shame filled speech trying to manipulate people into action. 

This reality causes us to question everything. Even the statistical number of Covid-19 cases is in question – because we know there are false positive test cases – Yet we do not know how many? Were they removed from the overall statistical number? Are people even capable of tracking this information? These very real questions, which no one seems to answer, is leaving people doubting the statistical numbers, feeling deceived, and relying on fearful emotions or compassionate beliefs without any objective facts for there do not seem to be any objective facts left in the world today. This reality though is just another way to deceive ourselves. It is another way we will be deceived by our own eyes and fail to be Christ’s disciples discerning and revealing the Truth of God.

This same deception arose in our scripture reading today from the Gospel According to Luke when the disciples first saw Jesus after his execution. For in that moment, the disciples did not witness the Truth or even the objective fact that Jesus is standing amongst them again. Rather, our beloved disciples doubt – doubt what they see – doubt which caused them to rely on the emotion of fear. And this emotion of fear which filled their hearts would not allow our sisters and brothers to witness the Truth before their eyes. Not allow them to witness the objective fact that Jesus was not a ghost but is the resurrected Christ fulfilling scripture. In that moment, our brothers and sisters are deceived by their own eyes unable to witness the Truth before them.

Now imagine if Jesus had attempted to manipulate the disciples – to demand their acceptance of him through shame – or their compliance to his leadership through deception. What would have happened? Would our sisters and brothers ever be able to witness the Truth revealed – the Love of God revealed in that moment – and the fulfillment of the scripture revealed; or would they have simply felt deceived as the theologian Alan Culpepper suggests they felt when Jesus first appeared. Furthermore, if they continued to feel deceived, would the disciples have continued to follow Jesus or simply resisted the authority of Christ and the Truth revealed to them on this day? Thankfully, we will never know because that is not what Jesus did in this story. He knew the disciples needed to witness the objective facts – first – first to feel these facts through our beliefs which then became the revealed Truth. 

Jesus seemed to know this reality; for, he uncovers his hands and feet to show the disciples the flesh. Yet, doubt still clung to their hearts. To which, Jesus asks, “have you anything here to eat?” He then eats the “broiled fish” which changes the paradigm of the story, for this is a clear objective fact that Jesus is not a ghost. Now although variations of this story occur in all four Gospels and a similar sending of the disciples in the Book of Acts, Jesus eating the “broiled fish” is only present in today’s scripture from the Gospel according to Luke which confirms the objective fact that Jesus is not a ghost and proves the disciples are not being deceived. Beloved, in this very act Jesus helps the disciples let go of the fears and doubts which were deceiving their own eyes; so, they can witness the Good news being revealed. 

Good News which is emphasized more in this Gospel than by any other New Testament author according, again, to Culpepper. The Good News that Jesus and his resurrection is the fulfillment of scripture. Which sounds wonderful, but what does that mean? What does this theme throughout the Gospel of Luke mean for us today? Well, beloved, to understand the fullness of this Good News, we must understand that Jesus is speaking about the scripture we call the Old Testament – everything in these texts is fulfilled through Christ – Christ who is at-one with God. Add to this objective fact the part which comes next in the story:  Jesus commissions the disciples – all disciples – all of us with the gifts and Love of God. Commissions us to continue to fulfill the Mission here on Earth. 

The scripture from First John explains this best: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Children of God – siblings of Jesus – disciples of Christ. Commissioned and called to fulfill the promises of scripture. To seek the Truth and to not be deceived. the author of First John presses this point and says, “let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” So, what does this Good News mean for us today? It means be like Jesus. If you are a child of God and a disciple of Christ, be like the one who sent us: do what is right and you will be righteous, just as Jesus is righteous. It means, do not be deceived by others or by your own eyes. Do not let others manipulate your emotions to convince you of anything – seek the objective facts and witness if those facts feel like our beliefs; for, here is God’s Truth.

Finally, it means eat the fish – reveal the objective facts – be an example of discipleship so others may witness the Good News – the Truth which still exists. For, we are not in a world that is post-truth, no matter who may argue this position. We are in a world of manipulation and deception and the only way to counter these atrocities is by revealing objective facts and then showing how our beliefs follow or counter these facts. It means we cannot use fear, guilt, shame, or any other emotion to force another into the way we believe. It means we cannot alter words or definitions to win an argument. It means we cannot deceive – be deceived – or deceive ourselves. But today’s Good News does mean we can celebrate every person’s faithful discernment as we discuss objective facts with our beliefs. For, Truth is only revealed through both like the loving example set forth by Christ who fulfills and continues to fulfill the scripture through all disciples. So, beloved, may we all embrace Truth once more this week and the celebration of facts and belief – together – to find God’s Truth revealed through Christ and all disciples – past – present – and future. Amen.

“Recreated through the Spirit”

Image of the clouds in a blue sky. There is a cross on the lower right corner. The text, "Peace be with you!!!" "John 20,19" is written on the image.

 Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem April 11, 2021

Recently I have been drawn to an idea that humans understand very well. Even if we do not know the term. The name of this concept is “liminal space” and it is the space between “what was” and “what will be.” The theologian Richard Rohr explains that the “term ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold.” Therefore, the liminal space can be as simple as the physical threshold of your front door and the physical space between when you are within your home and when you are within the world. Yet, it can be more complex. For, it is also the transition which happens in our state of mind like when we go from being single to a couple, from youth to adulthood, or even from a racist society to the Dream of Rev. Martin Luther King JR, a dream that is summed up best in his own words: “a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That is how vast this concept is – a concept which we understand well. For when Christ was resurrected, we disciples entered a liminal space waiting to discover “what will be” in the kin-dom to come.

That said, these liminal spaces can produce quite a bit of anxiety – stress – and fear. It is these emotions we humans seem to focus on as our world undergoes the dreaded “C” word. You know change. And we fear the changes in this world and in our lives – the transitions and the liminal spaces when nothing is like “what was” and not quite yet “what will be.” However, these liminal spaces in our lives can also be full of innovation as we are recreated through the Holy Spirit.

Before we continue, would you pray with me:

Holy Creator – recreate us this day though the blessed celebration of your disciples operating in this fellowship – invoke in us the teachings of Christ whose breath commissioned us into Your Holy Mission – guide us through the liminal spaces into Your kin-dom of Heaven. And may my words speak only of Your truth and the meditations upon all our hearts be pleasing to You God.

Now, beloved, I bring these words to you today in celebration of our confirmands – Jack, Luke, and Abby. For these three souls are walking through their own liminal space of confirmation. One which I pray they will all choose to complete, especially as I believe they are already revealing that they are each disciples of Christ. A truth which I believe we are all witnessing today. To explain, the confirmands were invited to explore a part of Christ’s Mission as outreach is part of what we are called to do as disciples. The choice of their journey was left entirely up to them as was how they would reveal their growth on this journey. Without a breath, they three chose to bring awareness to the Mission of racial equality.

Now, mind you, of all the possible journeys they could have explored, these disciples were called to follow the one which is also undergoing a liminal space as we desperately try to discover how to live into “what will be” like the dream of Rev. King let alone the blessed unity of all people in the kin-dom – through God.

And that is the point. Rev. King revealed the Dream to us – a goal of “what will be” in the kin-dom where no one is judged by the color of their skin. Yet, we as a people are still in the liminal space between “what was” in our racist past and “what will be” in the kin-dom. As such, we are redefining words like racism – creating new words like microaggressions – and being told that some of our most basic truths like the dream of Rev. King is perpetuating racism. So, the whole Mission for racial equality seems to be in transition which can create anxiety – stress – and especially fear for people who feel persecuted for simply seeking equality.

The same fear of persecution our ancestors felt following the Resurrection of Christ in the Gospel according to John. In this reading, we are witness to the fear which the disciples felt – “fear of the Jews” – when the disciples locked themselves away. I bring this to our attention not as a judgement of the Jewish community. For, we know it was not all Jewish people who killed Christ or persecuted the disciples. Rather, this truth is to highlight the feeling the disciples felt during this liminal space – during this time after “what was” and before they discover “what will be.”

However, there is also Good News in our scriptural reading – Good News when Jesus appears in the locked room; reveals himself as the risen Christ; and is at-one with the disciples again. For in this moment, we witness the blessing of our faith – Christ came to that locked room to support his disciples – to assure them that the persecution would end – to reveal the liminal space would be over one day and all would be at-one with God in the kin-dom. The Good News though does not end there for Christ also reveals how to reach “what will be” in the kin-dom.

This revelation Beloved is called the commissioning which is when Christ breaths the Holy Spirit upon all disciples and empowers all of us to continue Christ’s Mission. And yes, I do mean all of us as the theologian Gail O’Day rightly points out Christ is not only addressing the “apostolic leaders” but the entire faith community. In fact, following our passage today the author of this Gospel explains that Thomas, “one of the twelve” is not part of the assembly. Now if only the twelve are considered disciples, why would the author need to point out that Thomas was one of them? It seems to me the author would not. Therefore, I do believe the disciples represented here are all the faithful disciples of Christ. And this truth is what we believe when we say all the faithful are disciples of Christ and ministers called to be sent forth from Christ to continue her Mission when he recreated us in the Holy Spirit.

But what does any of this have to do with racial equality or our beloved confirmands? Well, my friends it has everything to do with them for unbeknownst to Abby, Luke, and Jack God has worked through them to do what Christ does for all disciples – to support the African American community in their liminal space – to help bring peace by hearing the voices – the anxieties – and the fears of a community persecuted in our country. This truth is witnessed when these disciples chose to watch a film called “The Hate U Give” which reveals many of the fears and anxieties facing our sisters and brothers in the black community. After which, the confirmands, the mentors, Merri, and I gathered to discuss these issues not as anyone with authority but as equal disciples growing in awareness of the persecution felt by our beloved siblings. Finally, the confirmands then chose to share this awareness with all of you, both the racist past of Salem as well as some literary gifts of the African American community.

And I pray that you can witness their ministry is allowing all of us to know more about the Mission and journey to racial equality – helps us to let go of the anxiety in the liminal space of this journey – welcomes us to be free of fear of “what will be” in the kin-dom to come by knowing more about what is happening today. This truth reminds me of what Rev. King also said, “people fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” However, this celebration of the confirmand’s ministry is the first step of that communication. It is awareness and support of our African American sisters and brothers by giving voice to the joys, concerns, and feelings.

So, thank you, beloved disciples – to all three of you who have stepped into this Mission of Christ by helping bring awareness of our sisters and our brothers. This worship service and the three of you are the living example of Christ’s commissioning and Mission which we are all called to explore as disciples of Christ.

That said, beloved, there is more to do – we disciples are still living within the liminal space before Rev. King’s dream, let alone the kin-dom of God. We are all recreated through the Spirit – all commissioned to be disciples who support and love one another – all in need of growth in awareness and a willingness to recreate the world in love – all called to experience the anxiety while discovering the innovation God is calling us all to become as one people in the kin-dom.

This call though does not always require a march through the streets. It can be a handwritten letter of love – a conversation on a park bench – a phone call to our legislature. Christ’s commission of you and I is an ongoing continuation of Jesus’ Mission – a Mission which could include any of these and so much more. But it begins with awareness – awareness of the part of God’s Mission you are each called to support – So beloved disciples, what Mission is God calling you to embrace? May each of us discover and live into Christ’s commission and Mission which recreates us through the Spirit to be God’s hands and feet bringing all people together as one in the kin-dom of God. In the name of Christ who shows us the Way. Amen.


Image of a cross in front of a cloudy sky. The sun is breaking through the clouds and shining the sunlight on the cross.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH April 4, 2021

Happy Easter, beloved, the journey of darkness is over, and He is Risen. Love is … Wait, I mean Christ is Risen. Not yet at-one with the Father; but has conquered death and Love is… One moment, I mean not yet at-one with God. The prophecies are now fulfilled as the only begotten Son is revealed as our messiah on this Easter morning. Love is …difficult to express. Difficult to express in today’s world when we are in the midst of many – many different journeys of shadow. Words get in the way of expressing the beauty of this Easter morning. Words get in the way of having a conversation about the shadowy journeys we are walking in throughout this life. Words get in the way of embracing the celebration of Love Revealed on this Easter morning. However, words are important as they allow us to reveal the light of Love, like never before. 

Before we begin, would you pray with me

Holy Loving God, who revealed Your Love for us on this Easter morning, open our spirits to Your Love once more – reveal its beauty and make us whole through Your Word. May the words from my lips only speak of Your Truth, o’ God, and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You.

Now beloved, our world today is struggling with many different journeys of shadow. And I like that phrase – especially today – for it shares a different reality than simply saying a social justice movement – an issue – or even the sins of our world. This phrase changes the context to imply that these sins have not come to an end. And, that understanding is healthy; for, they have not. We are not in the kin-dom with Christ – yet. We are still on these earthly journeys along rocky paths. Sometimes the wind is at our back with a smooth downhill road. Sometimes the path takes us up the sheer climb of a mountain with a death-defying breath in each and every handhold. And sometimes – sometimes we witness the glory of Love revealed. Revealed when we come to an oasis in the desert – as people start to think differently about a journey of shadow. 

And we have seen these rest stops on the various journeys – many times. In fact, I am sure each of you – can recall at least one of these glimmers of paradise when Love has been revealed. Perhaps the end of slavery came to mind – though the journey of equality is not over as our society still struggles with racism; maybe, the affirming love we have here for the LGBT+ community – though this journey of equality is not over as this love is not fully revealed to all; or perhaps you thought of equal voting rights, an end to required gender norms, and an increase in educational resources regardless of gender – though this journey of equality is not over as we are still struggling to understand one another, and words get in the way.

Words get in the way like in our scripture this morning from the Gospel according to John. For, the author reveals something that is often overlooked: Mary Magdalene came to the tomb – alone, a clear difference from the other Gospels. Yet, when Mary refers to not knowing about Jesus’ whereabouts, the word used is “we” – “we do not know where they have laid him.” This point changes the context according to the theologian Gail O’Day who understandably believes that the author is not only having Mary represent all followers of Christ; but also, Mary is “ironically echo(ing) one of the decisive misunderstandings of Jesus’ ministry” i.e., “whence Jesus comes and where he is going.” So, why did Jesus come? To save us from sin as the Gospel of Matthew does explain Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” I believe so; but does the scripture tell us how we are saved? Not precisely and this difficulty along with the word “sin” becomes the basis for the misunderstanding around Jesus’ ministry of why he came, especially because there is still sin in the world – journeys of shadow – the Way has not been achieved in the kin-dom of God, for us – yet. Therefore, we fumble with words – not fully understanding Jesus’ ministry or where he went. 

However, the ambiguity of words throughout the Gospel of John also allows us to witness the Good News on this Easter morning – witness a reprieve from the gender equality journey of shadow – and witness God’s Love…revealed. For, here in this passage Jesus says, “go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to the Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” On the surface, this good news alone is beautiful; for Jesus by using this double identification formula of “the Father and your Father…my God and your God” is sharing that what is true for Jesus is now true for all the disciples. Moreover, this truth of the Way is for all of us as Mary is, as you remember, representing all the faithful throughout this scripture. 

Further, this beautiful representation of equal leadership in the early Church is highlighted by the word, “brothers.”  Not because of how we understand the word in English today or not even fully because Mary is the one commanded to bring this message, but because the original word in Greek was “Adelphos” which is not gender limiting, here. In fact, the word is being used inclusively to identify all of Jesus’ disciples as his family according to O’Day. Much like today when we use the word “guys” to inaccurately, and sometimes harmfully, describe a group of men and women. Again, words and the misunderstanding of words get in the way of witnessing the inclusive beauty of what we are trying to say and our scripture which does welcome all people into the kin-dom of God. Yet, when we know the context of the place, culture, and time – then – and only then is the Good News revealed.  

Still, one part of the story eludes us: The Love revealed today? For me, this part is the most beautiful aspect of our scripture reading and the gift from God which is now revealed to all of us because Jesus brought us all into his family. That aspect is the word “Father” and the relationship with Jesus as God’s “Son.” Now, I imagine the understanding of Father in reference to God could and does seem harmful to some people, especially as God created us all in the divine image and we humans have a hard time thinking beyond the physical image of a body, of a male or a female body, of gender identity. However, the reality is that we do not know God’s gender. Is God male as represented by Jesus – female as represented by the Holy Spirit – both? 

We do not know; for, our words are broken, and this truth is why I refer to God as both he and she. That said, we do understand the relationship between a loving parent and a child. We understand the love a Father must have when he watches his Son struggle on a journey of shadow; so, other children may see the Way. I can only imagine the many loving Mothers amongst us must also understand the immense Love God has for all of us to allow harm to come to her child; so, we may all witness the Way through the journeys of darkness. Imagine that for a moment, could you do what God does and allow your child to suffer – so, all your children could find their Way. Could you allow one parent to suffer – so, all people could possibly find their way back to you. The amount of Love that God reveals to us is the Good News beloved – it is a love I cannot imagine but this is the Love that God reveals on Easter morning. How are we revealing Love to God? Are we embracing these journeys of shadow and revealing God’s Love to one another? Are we climbing those mountains – risking all to reveal Love in every breath – are we listening to the meaning behind broken words and trying to find the Way to hold one another in Love? I pray that you are as our journey is not over – yet. Jesus’ journey of shadow is over when he reveals the Way to be free of sin along these journeys of shadow. But beloved disciples, our journeys are not yet over as we are not in the kin-dom, yet. So, let us remember the Love Revealed through God, Christ who shows us the Way, and the Holy Spirit which breathes divine Love into every one of our lives. May you always witness God’s Love Revealed and be a reflection of that Love as we walk through the journeys of shadow – together. Amen

“Witnesses of Truth”

Image of a green palm on the left with a cross engulfed in a bright light on the right.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH March 28, 2021

In March of 2019, we had 100 victims of “mass shooter” events in the United States; and we argued about the misleading truths that caused these atrocities. In March of 2020, we had 139 victims of “mass shooter” events in the United States; and we argued about the misleading truths that caused these atrocities. As of March 27th, of this year, we have had 196 victims of “mass shooter” events in the United States; and we are still arguing about the misleading truths that cause these atrocities. In fact, 55 of these 196 individual human beings became the victims of nine different individuals since last Sunday and this is the truth we are called to witness before the kin-dom of God.

Before we continue would you pray with me:

Holy Creator who created each and every one of us as wholly complete and beautifully broken individuals reveal to us Your Truth once more so we will become one with Your Mission to bring us ALL home along the road of palms leading to Your kin-dom. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You God.

Now, beloved, we have all heard the vastly different arguments surrounding the causes of a “mass shooter” event in the United States. We have heard arguments about what constitutes a “mass shooting”; but individual people are dying from individuals who have resorted to violence. We have heard arguments about how a “mass shooting” is possible; but individual people are dying from individuals who have resorted to violence. We have heard arguments about who is doing the “mass shooting”; but individual people are dying from individuals who have resorted to violence. Therefore, I wonder – I wonder if we are missing the actual cause of these “mass shooter” events because we are focusing on truths which seem to be misleading. 

And these truths are misleading. For, what constitutes a “mass shooter” event depends on the research. There is no one definition. How these events can happen depends on the research you find. There is research supporting both gun rights and gun reform. Even who the identified perpetrator of these atrocities is depends on which research you read. There are people of all genders and all ethnicities who have and are committing these acts of violence. When we miss this truth, we are doing the same thing as saying All people of one identity are the same according to one stereotype or one researched truth.

This reality is particularly important – today on Palm Sunday. But to understand why today is so important, we must recall how Holy Week will end. It ends, as we all know, with the execution of Jesus on Friday and the resurrection of Christ on Easter. That day alone will be a celebration as Christ becomes one with the kin-dom of God. But before this blessed event Jesus is tortured and executed, an atrocity of violence. This said, I wonder if you recall who causes the violence against Jesus – our Christ and Messiah? Do you remember? Some of us may say Pontius Pilot and some may say Caiaphas; however, the Gospel according to Mark clearly states that it is “The chief priests and the scribes” (14:1-2) who plot to kill Jesus. This statement is true, but it is a misleading truth; for, many people throughout history have placed the blame not on the chief priests and the scribes or even on Caiaphas, but on all the Jewish people. This misleading truth became a driving force of the anti-Semitic discourse in the later Gospels, in the atrocities of the holocaust, and even today amongst many of our Christian sisters and brothers who still blame all Jewish people instead of the individual people who resorted to violence.

This issue is what we are seeing today, not just in the “mass shootings” but in many areas of life. We are making logical fallacies by using one truth which one individual did – to misrepresent truth by comparing said person to a larger group. In other words, the Jewish people did not kill Jesus – Caiaphas, the chief priests and scribes caused this atrocity – Just like not all of any one group are the cause of a “mass shooter” event – the cause of these events begins with the individual mass shooter – themselves. When we witness this Truth, we are ready to see the full glory of Palm Sunday which is the Good News.

For, Jesus came to Jerusalem that day knowing that these events would happen, just like we do today. He knew these truths and still came to Jerusalem. He still came to save ALL people no matter who they were individually. This Mission, beloved, is witnessed clearly in our reading this week. To explain, Judas who will betray Jesus is with Jesus as he rides on the palms. Though our Christ does not judge the rest of the disciples for what Judas will do. Jesus will also share many of his beautiful teachings with all the Jewish people throughout this Holy Week. Though our Christ does not judge all Jewish people as sinful even though some individual Jewish priests and scribes will cause his death. In fact, Jesus comes on this day for all of us even though we are all broken individuals. Though our Christ still does not judge all people for the sins we commit individually. This Good News is the Truth of Palm Sunday, one which is witnessed throughout the synoptic Gospels. 

This Good News is also confirmed in our reading from the book of Isaiah. Here professor Christopher Seitz points out that our scripture reading is a poem called the “servant’s song” which details the suffering that an individual servant must endure. I can only imagine that Jesus knew these words well as he is a Rabbi, i.e. a teacher of the Bible. Words which continually ask us to open our ears to witness the Truth – endure the adversaries and do not be put to shame when you follow the Way of God. The beautiful aspect of this poem is that there is no malice or even “complaint” by the servant. The individual servant is not lamenting but revealing “God’s sustaining attention and strengthening presence.” This truth is best stated in the last stanza which says, “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” The Lord God who declares each of us individually as guilty or innocent for our sins. I imagine that these words were well known to Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on his Mission to show All people the Way to the kin-dom.

But we are not Jesus. We are his disciples fumbling around trying to find the cause of these “mass shootings” before it reaches us here in Salem, New Hampshire. Because that is what is at stake, beloved. The violence of these mass shootings is becoming more and more prevalent. Thankfully, these atrocities of violence have not happened here in this small town – in this community; but I imagine that is what the 2,486 people in Aliceville, Alabama believed last Sunday – only days before four people were shot, two of which died. 

So perhaps, the answer lies not in the systemic issues we love to talk about today but in the individual person who is committing these atrocities. Is there a link between these souls which would drive them to such violence? The truth is that I am not sure. I am not sure if the people who are resorting to violence and “mass shootings” are people who are socially, spiritually, or mentally ill; for, this part of God’s Mission is what I have been working on throughout Lent. However, what I do know is that they are individual people who needed help before it went too far, before they chose to pick up a weapon, before they committed their sin. Maybe we start with this idea on Palm Sunday and help the people – the individual people find their Way to the kin-dom. 

Reach out to one another throughout our community as you do with one another in this fellowship. Share our love and acceptance of all by being there for everyone. This can simply be awareness and a welcoming presence with the person next to us in the grocery store and in our schools. To a gentle inquiry in a private message for a person on Facebook who is acting irrationally. Mind you, I would never say put yourself at risk but perhaps the kindest thing we can do is sometimes make others aware that we are individually here without judgement, loving everyone, and witnessing the Truth that Jesus came for all people. May each of us be a blessing of this Truth as we witness all people as individually created and perfectly created in brokenness throughout this Holy Week. Amen.

“Called from the Darkness”

Image of Jesus in white robes with a staff standing on a cliff. He is in the shadow facing the rising sun.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH March 21, 2021

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

Mary Oliver wrote this poem called “The Uses of Sorrow” in 2007, well before the isolation and sorrow we are feeling today because of covid-19. Well before the recent divisiveness of politics, the violence of riots, the losses of a full year. Well before the depressive sorrow affecting most people today. No, she wrote this poem when there were just those “everyday” sorrows of living. But today, we are not only dealing with the “everyday” sorrows. We are also facing societal sorrow which means that nearly everyone has or is experiencing some sorrow – some loss – some heartbreaking wound due to the events of last year. So, perhaps now, as we start to reopen the world, it is time to remember those words of hope by Mary Oliver – remember that  

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

Yes, maybe – maybe in this Lenten season it is time to remember that in every box of darkness – every wound – every sorrow, there is also a hope – a gift – a calling to each of us waiting to draw us out of the darkness.

Before we continue, would you pray with me:

Holy Creator create in me a clean heart this day – scribe your covenant upon it and make me whole so we may all be called from the sorrow-filled darkness in our lives to be one with You in the kin-dom. We pray that our meditations this day be pleasing to you God and the words from my lips only speak of Your Truth.

Now, beloved, I do not believe that Oliver is speaking about God within this poem, nor do I believe God gives people sorrow. Rather, I believe she is simply referring to someone “I once loved.” And we all have that someone in our life. That someone who we have forgiven; but yet still, feel wounded by – in our lives. This someone could be our government, our family, our friends. That someone may even be ourselves and these wounds are creating a societal sorrow. For sorrow does not always happen when a tragedy happens – most often the sorrow, the unexpected sorrow which fills our life – which darkens every happy moment of our light comes only after the world resets itself. Then and only then do we have time to reflect on what has occurred and the darkness, at that point, can overwhelm our lives. 

I imagine this concern is what Jesus is trying to warn the disciples about in the Gospel according to John, when Jesus first prophesies about his own death, according to the theologian Gail O’Day. And it is in today’s reading that Jesus does teach about his own death – about why he needs to die – and about what will come afterwards. What a hard lesson that would have been to hear. But can you imagine the depth of sorrow that each disciple could have felt without this teaching – without knowing the reason why Jesus had to die. Of course, you can imagine this somewhat, for we all have witnessed death without knowing why. I have seen these types of losses many times as many people have. I have witnessed people die because of everything from addictions to depression – but still, to witness Jesus on the cross, tortured, and struggling to breathe fills my heart with a sorrow that I cannot fully imagine. And this sorrow is what Jesus is preparing the disciples for – for the sorrow and the pain of seeing their friend – their teacher – our messiah executed, a truth which Jesus knew was coming. So, he told of his death not to frighten them, but to help them find a way out of the darkness – out of the tragedy – out of the sorrow – after he died, and they returned to life. 

Thankfully, this sorrow is not the end of the story – there is Good News in the midst of Jesus’ teaching – He shares the hope which seems almost out of place: Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” When I read those words, I was reminded that Jesus – even Jesus – felt sorrow. His soul is troubled. This truth, beloved, is part of the human condition – we all feel sorrow when there are troubles – when there are boxes of darkness placed before us. The difference is what we choose to do with that box of darkness – that sorrow – that tragedy in our lives. Here Jesus offers another way, a way we can each find our way into the light, again – instead of dwelling in the darkness of sorrow. Mind you, this Way is not beyond forgiveness and prayer, those paths must come first. Those ways prepare us for this blessed teaching. But now, as we begin to reflect and feel the sorrow, Jesus teaches us the next step on the Way to the kin-dom. He teaches us how to be called out of the darkness – teaches our clean heart, there is hope – he teaches us that the sorrow we feel can also be a gift to the world so we may all glorify God through discovering the reason for the darkness we have endured.

So, how do we discover this reason? Perhaps through today’s lesson when Jesus also says, “whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Now the interesting thing is that O’Day believes this verse is analogous, or comparable to, the idea in the other three Gospels that one should “take up the cross” which in today’s understanding can be more symbolic – like taking up the cross of a tragedy, a burden, or a sorrow that we carry. We also use this phrase to speak about the Mission of justice or compassion we are called to do in life, like taking up the cause of justice for Equal Rights, for Women’s rights, for LGBT + rights. In reality, however, the phrase means something else: it means death – the following of Jesus unto death. It is this understanding of the phrase that O’day uses as she rightly points out that the scripture in the Gospel according to John is not only asking people to follow Jesus unto death like in the synoptic Gospels, but Jesus is also promising in our reading today that anyone who does follow him – will be with Christ in the kin-dom of Heaven. 

Thankfully, we are not speaking of death – today; but sorrow can feel like death. So, let us consider the scripture in this way. When we do, the symbolic understanding of this phrase seems entirely prudent. For, it shows the Way we may find freedom from sorrow. We do this feat by following Jesus into the darkness – by witnessing the pain – by realizing the wound which is drawing us deeper into sorrow. In other words, we “take up the cross” of this sorrow. But then, we witness the Way out of the darkness by “take(ing) up the cross” of God’s Mission we are each called to do in this life. By following this Mission, we are following Christ out of the darkness to the kin-dom of God. To put it plainly, by being the light – the hope – the healing disciple for the part of God’s Mission which you are called to do, you will heal your own pain – find hope in your own sorrow – shine a light in your own darkness as we return to the world. 

But how do you know what part of God’s Mission you are called to do individually – what is the present in your box of darkness? Well, what wound is filling your heart with sorrow? Perhaps, the very sorrow we are experiencing personally is the part of the Mission we need to fulfill most in our life. The part of God’s Mission which will not only glorify God but will also heal our clean heart and bring us out of the darkness. If this idea is true, where do you feel sorrow? Is it in the sense of loss – the isolation – the political wounds of today? 

Begin there, begin by witnessing your own sorrow and the Way will become clear. To explain, if your sorrow is that of missing family or friends. Embrace this sorrow and follow Christ. Then, let God’s Mission fill Your heart by reconciling with your loved ones. You may do this through a phone call, a card, or the gift of your smile across a socially distant spacing. This Way is part of God’s Mission, it is building the fellowship of Christ. Or perhaps you feel wounded by the violence over the last year – the inequality in our world – the hate perpetrated against people due to an identity – pick up that cross and recognize your pain so you can witness where God is calling you to personally serve her Mission. This calling can be experienced as awareness or teaching – can be the loving example of acceptance of another – can be the disruption of systemic inequalities. Or perhaps your sorrow stems from the political divisiveness, the growing number of people with addictions, the increase of mental illness, the plague of domestic violence or many other issues causing sorrow, today.  Basically, by witnessing your own sorrow, you will discover your part of God’s mission; and by embracing this Mission, you will free yourself of the sorrow and glorify God. 

Now beloved, it may take years to discover this present like it did for Mary Oliver in her poem but the gift is there – for the sorrows which affect us most also reveal how God is calling us out of the darkness – by knowing that darkness we can start to discover how to find the light together and thereby not just heal ourselves but glorify God through the blessed sharing of his Mission. May your week be free of sorrow as we turn from the darkness and follow Christ to the light of the kin-dom of God. amen.

“Living through Belief”

Image of two cliffs with a bridge shaped in the word "GRACE" between the two. A single person in the shadows is on one side and a single tree drenched in light is on the other side.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem March 14, 2021

This week marks our one-year anniversary of the Covid – 19 pandemic shutdowns. Let that sink in for a moment – one year ago today there were no vaccines, no masks, no covid tests. We were free to go out and play in the sunshine and in the snow. We imagined our next vacation and the smile it would bring to our children as they played with friends. How life has changed over this last year. We have lost over 530,000 lives, lost work and businesses, lost chances to mark the celebrations in our lives. And these are only the bare minimum of the tragedies and traumas we have endured this last year. 

Perhaps, that is why the loss of Dr. Suess’ books struck me so hard last week. We have already lost so much. Why do we have to endure censorship as well? Do we really need to cancel anything more? Now mind you, I do understand that this reaction was visceral. Society did not cancel the books. They were removed from publication by the estate due to their stereotypical depictions of minorities. Which seems to be an exceptionally good reason; but that is not what it felt like. It felt like another death – a death of the child inside – the witty whimsical words of a playful poet who inspired generations to play and accept all people, protect the environment, and enjoy a meal of green eggs and ham was cancelled – censored – silenced. And all I wanted to do was live into that imagination again and be free of the censoring death of separation. In those days of my retreat, I wanted to playfully ponder those words and live again through a non-judgmental belief in the goodness of a poet, like when I was a child.

Before we continue, would you pray with me:

Gracious God forgive me and grant me the ability to grant your grace to all people – invoke in us Your Grace which you grant to all of Creation so we can live again in the belief of this beautiful kin-dom which You are calling us to embrace. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You, God.

Now beloved, censorship – cancel culture – silencing of voices is not something new. Oh, many people act like this cancel culture is a modern-day phenomenon attributed only to one political point of view. However, this issue can also be seen in how the humanity of our beloved sisters and brothers were cancelled in the censorship of books like The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or the denial of same-sex marriage. We have seen this societal push over and over from different moral views during book burnings throughout history and even in the creation of the Biblical Canon. Yes, there are more stories about Jesus; however, they were cancelled – censored – considered hypocrisy by the religious leaders who determined what was in and what was out of our Scripture. Much of this will not change. Those in leadership or control will cancel other voices – opposing points of view – harmful voices to the current regime’s agenda. This alone is a tragedy for I believe we can only grow – learn – become better by witnessing the thoughts of opposing voices.

Yet, something more insidious is happening as of late. People have gone from a societal cancelling by the all-powerful regimes to an individual cancelling of a person. An issue which I learned about from an early age when my Father cancelled his sister for the last ten years of his life and when my grandmother cancelled her sister for twenty years. I always considered this issue particular to the Irish. But today, we are witnessing people cancel each other in all walks of life – if someone says one thing – ponders one counter idea – does one thing at some point in their life which someone else considers morally wrong today, then the first person’s entire life is cancelled – censored – silenced forever. No do-over – no grace – no compassion. This reality, beloved, is the very definition of sin – yet the sin is not necessarily being done by the one who did something wrong at some point in their life – the sin is being created by the person who cancelled another person – censored another voice – separated another relationship.

We see this same issue in the third murmuring of the Israelite people in the Book of Numbers. Here the people are not simply complaining to Moses which is accepted twice before. Rather the people “spoke against” God and Moses for the first time according to the theologian Terrence Fretheim. “Spoke against” – opposed – or better yet separated themselves from God and Moses. Almost as if the Israelite people are saying “you are dead to me” – cancelling – silencing God and Moses because the Israelites were not provided what they believed was the right “food.” The difference between this interaction and the previous ones reveals to us that this reaction is wrong; for, God punishes the Israelites with a plague of poisonous snakes. Further, this cancellation is clearly revealed as a sin when they ask for forgiveness – forgiveness for the sin of “speaking against the Lord and against” Moses.

Is this issue any different than when we personally or as a society silence the LGBT+ voice – cancel their humanity – censor their literature or silence the conservative voice – cancel their humanity – censor books like Dr. Suess. All because we think we KNOW what the right “food” for all people is. What about when we cancel our father – our sister – our “friend” because we KNOW the right “food” for them, and we KNOW their thinking is wrong? Is that any different – is our sin any less than the Israelites when we let our relationships die?

The Good News beloved is that there is hope – hope for redemption – hope for forgiveness while we live. This message of hope is shared with us through the apostle in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The author points out that the community of Ephesus was dead through their trespasses and sins; but they are made “alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved.” By grace – by the Grace of God who forgives all people of trespasses and sins. This gift of Grace is not given to us because of our “works” – because of something we speak against when we KNOW we are right. Rather, we are granted God’s Grace because of our belief in God, Christ Jesus, and the fellowship of us together as one people through the Holy Spirit. And when we live into this belief, we reveal our way of life is good.

Now this does not mean, we do not need to question – complain – or even counter the atrocities we see happening in the world. We do. We are called to challenge actions and inactions we understand as wrong. For, we are disciples who follow Christ and seek equality for all of Creation. But as disciples – as ones who follow the path of Christ – Christ who grants Grace to all people. I must ask, where is the grace we grant to people? Where is the grace we offer when someone says something which sounds hurtful to the LGBT+ community? Where is the grace we offer when someone says something hurtful to people who follow traditional societal structures? Is Grace only that which we receive as disciples or are we called to also grant this grace as well? Called to live – together – through Belief into the Grace offered and granted to ALL people. Called to be one without cancelling – censoring – silencing another person? 

Beloved, I believe granting grace is what we are called to do as disciples of Christ, walking in the Way to the kin-dom. But why, why is this important – today? Today as we mark the one-year anniversary of being locked-down from the Covid-19 pandemic – why do we even care when there are so many other tragedies and traumas that are affecting our lives. And there are: we lost celebrations – we lost work – we lost over 530,000 human lives which we will never be able to argue with again… Never be able to embrace again… Never be able to be in community with again – here on this Earth. Over 530,000 people have been cancelled – censored – silenced by covid-19. Why would we want to silence anymore? Why would we refuse to walk in the Way of Christ and offer grace; so, we may all live together through the belief that we are one fellowship through God. Now, perhaps the wounds are too great or perhaps it is our pride which keeps us from accepting others; but what if there is a chance – what if we can step beyond what we KNOW and grant grace to that person who seems hurtful – what if this grace we give someone else brings life to our relationship. What if we can live again through the belief of God’s kin-dom; so, we may experience each other again before one of us is cancelled from Earth? Would we then be living as disciples of Christ? 

I believe we would. But it requires belief – imagination – trust like that of a child who accepts all people – who is willing to play with all people – who can witness the thousands of good things in another person instead of the one bad thing which goes against what we KNOW as right. So, perhaps in this time of lent as we start to reopen the world – it is time to learn how to play with one another again. To reveal the forgiveness, we gave ourselves and the forgiveness we gave one last month. Perhaps now is the time to stop cancelling one another and learn to play again as one people. I believe this grace begins with compassion: Instead of calling each other out on each little thing – offer grace – consider their perspective – maybe even walk in the shoes of a person who wrote a book in 1937 before cancelling their voice. Hear their rhetoric and ask, why – why do you feel that way? Share your insights and maybe – just maybe these seeds of grace we plant will grow into a loving relationship. Then again, there may be no reconciliation; but at least, the relationship will have a chance to live again through belief that we are all part of one kin-dom, a relationship which could challenge, teach, and help you grow as a disciple of Christ. May your relationships live again as we grant the grace Christ has granted each and every one of us throughout Creation. Amen.