His eulogy for Abraham Lincoln was front-page news. In his spare time, in between crafting a few sermons a week, he wrote the words for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” His name is Phillips Brooks, and a sermon that he preached in the 19th-century can comfort us during this strange and difficult time.
The Consolations of God, one of Brooks’s best-loved homilies, is based on a single verse from the Book of Job: “Are the consolations of God small with thee?” (15:11) Many people read the Book of Job as if it’s a form of theodicy, a branch of theology that centers on this question: if our world is so messed up, can we really say that God is good?
The problem with this interpretation, as Brooks identifies, is that it misses this point: God is the the subject of the Bible, beginning, well, at the beginning of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God . . .” In other words, God, in the Bible, addresses us in saga, psalm, history, prophecy, Gospel, epistle and apocalypse, a scary word which simply means unveiling. We’re in the hot seat, not God.
But perhaps the hot seat isn’t so hot, as one of the questions that God asks us in Scripture is “are the consolations of God small with thee?” Are you paying sufficient attention to the ways that God is reaching out to comfort you? This is a good question for us to ponder right now, as we face the reality of a pandemic.
Brooks highlights four primary ways that that God consoles us: being, sympathy, truth, and power. Let’s start with being, the sheer fact of God’s existence.
Brooks points out that the most important people in our lives are seldom valued for all the stuff they do. Rather, we appreciate people for who they are, their character: “It is the lives, like the stars, which simply pour down on us the calm light of their bright and faithful being, up to which we look and out of which we gather the deepest calm and courage.” So, if it’s like that with people, just imagine, Brooks maintains, the importance of God’s being and presence.
Perhaps this is why God, after so many chapters of silence, answers Job’s questions with another question: “Job, where were you when the morning stars sang together?” Job can only answer: “I wasn’t there until you created the universe and me, God. My existence, your existence is pure gift.”
We can take comfort in the very being of God, a God who not only exists but who creates a world of meaning, purpose and music (the morning stars sang together!). After the creation of the world, God called it not just good, but very good. But if that were all, Brooks continues, we would neglect that fact that God not only exists, but that God loves us and is sympathetic to our cause.
The God we meet in the Bible, according to Brooks, creates the morning stars that sing together and knows every single hair on our heads: “Read into the heart of the Book of Life until you are thoroughly possessed with its idea—the idea which gives it its whole consistency and shape, the idea without which it would all drop to pieces—that there is not one life which the Life Giver ever loses out of His sight.” You matter. I matter. Every single human being on earth is deeply loved by God because they are made in God’s image.
The God who addresses us in the Book of Life isn’t an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, but a passionate being who rejoices when we rejoice and weeps when we weep. This thought can console us as we move together through this crisis.
Furthermore, Brooks declares, God comforts us by revealing the truth to us through education, spirituality, and immortality: “You are a child of God whom He is training. You have a soul which is your true value. You are to live forever. Know these truths. By them triumph over sorrow that He cannot take away, and be consoled.” There is a balm in Gilead made of the healing ingredients of lifelong learning and knowledge, prayer and nurture of the soul, and the promise of eternal life. In a world filled with misinformation, it’s reassuring to hear that God reveals the truth to us about what matters most in this life.
Brooks, towards the end of the sermon, looks back and concludes that the first three points he’s made about God’s consolations are passive in nature. He ends by emphasizing how God acts with power to make us and the world new: “God comes and takes that soul, and positively, strongly lifts it up and away into the new life. He forgives the man for his sin, and He gives him the new heart.” For Brooks, we can’t come to this new heart through joy alone. God doesn’t cause human suffering, but God will use it to renew us and draw us closer to God and each other.
If I were to add one additional point to Brooks’s masterful sermon, it would be this: God is all about community and sharing in one another’s joys and burdens. God’s own “self”—the Holy Trinity—is communal. During this bizarre time of social distancing and disconnection, so many people have shared with me that they’ve never felt more connected to God and each other.
We have a long road ahead of us, but we never walk that road alone. If Holy Week teaches us anything, it’s that we are on this pilgrimage of faith and life with Jesus and each other. The consolations of God, the comfort that we can share with each other, are never a small thing, Job discovers. They are what matter most in a time like this.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”—Exodus 17:1-7
It’s the question of the week: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
If last week was like drinking from a fire hose—how to discern, among all the information flooding our overworked minds, hearts, and bodies, what is important to know and do right now, what can wait, and what is just plain untrue or unhelpful—this week is about letting the gravity of our situation sink in. Increasing infections and deaths, diminishing medical supplies, hospitals preparing for worst-case scenarios, borders closing, 1 in 5 Americans being asked to stay indoors, an economy grinding to a halt: this is our reality.
As a priest and human being, let me begin by saying that it’s okay to be scared and anxious. God gave us a nervous system to let us know when we face a threat. This virus is a real threat, and so it makes sense to me that I and so many others are feeling overwhelmed and anxious right now. If you’re feeling this way, it’s not a character defect or sign of weakness. The opposite is true: it means that you are alive and paying attention. Be vigilant about how you might be trying to numb that anxiety with things or behaviors that will ultimately make you less resilient.
I find myself going back to the basics: the joy of a simple meal with my family, riding my bike, and reading a good book. Right now, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is making me laugh out loud. I’m also enjoying the Library of America’s American Earth: Environmental Writing anthology (it begins with Thoreau, the original social distancer in his cabin at Walden Pond), and poetry by Dennis Nurske.
Our Lenten wilderness of pandemic is also an opportunity for us to dwell in God’s Word. It struck me that the reading above from the Book of Exodus (heard in church last Sunday) contains wisdom for this strange time. Let’s focus on how Moses responds during this crisis. He prays, listens for God’s response, asks for help, and holds on to a physical reminder of God’s enduring love and faithfulness. (I’m grateful to Dr. Terence Fretheim’s commentary on this Scripture; it informs my interpretation.)
He prays from the heart: “What shall I do with this people?” When you pray, don’t hold anything back from God. If you’re joyful, rejoice with God, who delights in you. If you’re scared or anxious, be honest with God about that and ask how God might comfort you. If you’re feeling that God is distant (or non-existent), offer that up in prayer, too. This is no time for self-editing of your prayer life. Read the Psalms: every imaginable human emotion can become an offering of prayer to God.
We are to speak to God, but most importantly, we’re called like Moses to listen for God’s response. In the coming weeks, make time for silence before God. St. John of the Cross once said that “silence is God’s first language.” Don’t confuse God’s silence with absence. As we quiet our souls and rest in God’s presence, suddenly we have the room in our hearts to hear what God has to say to us.
In the story above, after Moses listens, God replies with helpful advice to go and gather a team of elders who can assist Moses. In other words: times of crisis are times to connect with each other and work together for good, even if that means virtual connection. As many have said: this is a moment during which we love our neighbors best by keeping our distance.
And here’s an amazing thing! God in God’s own being social distances. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit both come together profoundly in communion and keep their distance from each other. In psychological terms, we would say that they are self-differentiated, yet remain in the closest of connection with each other through self-giving love. What if during this pandemic we discover anew the Trinitarian nature of life itself? This paradoxical differentiation and connection are the very essence of God, humanity and all of creation.
Now, what about that staff that Moses holds on to for support? Why does God tell Moses to take the staff with which he struck the Nile? The answer is that it’s a physical reminder of God’s enduring love and faithfulness during a crisis. (Moses strikes the Nile in order to turn it into blood and to split the Red Sea waters when he leads God’s people to freedom.) Moses’s staff is a tangible reminder that God will provide for us even in the most difficult of times.
I’ll conclude by inviting you to find one object in your home that will serve as a reminder of God’s enduring compassion and love. For me, it’s the Celtic cross below given to me by my cousin, Joanie, on the day of my ordination to the priesthood.
Joanie was a nun who lived and served in Chile. After the revolution, she and others with religious vocations were kicked out of the country. We grew up going to her home for Thanksgiving. It was a gift for me to bring her Holy Eucharist when she was in the hospital. I placed the wafer in her hands and said: “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” She looked at me and replied, “I am.”
Is the Lord among us or not? To each and every one of us, God replies: “I am.”
I admit it. I’m a library geek. If I wasn’t a priest, I’d probably be a librarian. My family has to put up with my visits to libraries when we travel: The Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library (my I.Q. goes up 20 points by just walking up those marble steps, past the twin lions, Patience and Fortitude, at the entrance), Bates Hall at the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Bodleian at Oxford University are among my favorites.
Given the fractious and noisome (two words I would have learned at libraries!) times in which we live, it’s good for us to pause and reflect together on the unifying and serene libraries that enrich our communities. As you approach the Boston Public Library, the first in our country, you’ll read this monumental inscription carved into the façade:
I know this sounds patrician (and, in fact, women were denied entry in the library’s early years), but the sentiment is sound: a democratic republic requires an educated, informed and wise citizenry in order to flourish. Libraries are our palaces of the people, free and open to all.
And while I love the grand libraries mentioned above, most of us dwell in far more humble palaces. I grew up in Ramsey, New Jersey, where the library wasn’t much to look at. However, every time I opened that front door and entered, I felt a sense of freedom.
This was the 1980s, pre-Internet, and a trip to the library, roaming from stack to stack, was our version of a Google search. During the summer, my mother brought my siblings and I to the library at least a couple of times a week. We’d go after spending most of the day at our town’s pool. Sun-kissed, smelling of chlorine, we wandered from stack to stack. I loved that feeling of adventure and possibility as I brought up a new pile of books to the check-out counter.
If you were to go to your local public library today, chances are you would see the wealthy and the homeless, an eighth-generation American and an immigrant, young and old, black and white . . . you get the picture. Our libraries truly are palaces of the people, gathering places where we jump on a wifi network or computer, take a quilting class, study for a Calculus exam, or vote. In our spare time, we can actually read a book or download one on a tablet. And it’s all free and open to all.
If it’s been a while, go and visit your public library this summer. Roam the stacks. Surprise yourself and take out a book that you never envisioned yourself reading. To get you started, here are seven books that I’ve enjoyed lately.
1. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
A fascinating reflection on the place of libraries in a democratic society told through the story of the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, set by an arsonist in 1986.
2. The Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick
121 authors, scientists, artists, businesspeople and other luminaries write letters to children about the joys and importance of reading. Each letter is accompanied by vibrant and inspiring illustrations.
3. The Overstory by Richard Powers
A novel in which the lives of nine strangers come together like the root system of trees in a forest. You will look at the natural world differently after reading this profound book, which won a National Book Award.
4. On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
An environmental journalist thru-hikes the Appalachian Trail and explores how and why human beings and creatures create trails. I read this before hiking with my family in Vermont and looked at the trails with new eyes.
5. Setting the Table by Danny Meyer
Meyer, CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group (owner of the Shake Shack, which makes the best burger and shake I’ve ever had), shares how hospitality can transform any business or enterprise (including the church!). The best business book I’ve read in years, as Meyer has learned much about making people feel at home.
6. The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr
Franciscan monk, Fr. Richard Rohr, really hits his stride with this new book, which boldly explores the theological meaning of Jesus’ incarnation for all of humanity and creation.
7. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love by Ilia Delio
Delio explores the connections between faith and science and calls for a paradigm shift in Christian thinking: “Shall we continue our medieval religious practices in a medieval paradigm and mechanistic culture and undergo extinction? Or shall we wake up to this dynamic, evolutionary universe and the rise of consciousness toward integral wholeness?”
So, go find a hammock, beach chair or nook in your palace of the people. Happy reading, and may you have a restful summer!
What does it mean when your wife gives you this framed cartoon for Father’s Day?
It means that your wife appreciates how you and your father have a close relationship. My dad and I often bond by going on bike rides and walking on the beach. This picture doesn’t, of course, mean that you and your father may just possibly have large rear-ends. No, your wife wouldn’t dare have a laugh at your expense. Wait a minute . . .
I love this cartoon because it’s honest about the messiness of any parent-child relationship. As both a father and a son, I know that the legacy of my genes and character will be a mixed-blessing for my four sons. One day, we’ll be on the beach, and one of my boys will turn to me and say: “Thanks for almost everything, Dad. Your prayer life and passion for the arts are inspiring to me, however I could do without your impatience and workaholism, among other faults.”
Father’s Day gives us an opportunity to look at parenthood theologically. One of the interesting aspects of the Christian faith is how we use the language of parenthood to describe God. We speak of a loving (and harsh) Father, an obedient (and rule-breaking) Son, and a comforting (and troubling) Spirit who binds the Father and Son together in mutuality.
We witness the selfless reciprocity of the healthiest familial relationships in Andrei Rublev’s vision of the Holy Trinity. This painting from the 15th-century is perhaps Russia’s most iconic artwork in all the meanings of that word.
Look closely at how the three figures bow to each other, their eyes shining with self-giving love. The Father (left) doesn’t overpower the others. His presence is generative rather than controlling. The Son (center) is the host at this feast, just as he is at the Eucharist. He welcomes the Father and Spirit to the table, saving us a seat.
The perspective with which Rublev renders this scene suggests that we, too, have been invited to take our place at the table. The Spirit appears relaxed, present to the others and assisting the others to be fully present to each other. Before us is a glimpse of heavenly Communion that we can experience in our own families when we empty ourselves of our false, ego-centered selves and pour out self-giving love into each other’s lives.
To speak of God in gendered terms, whether as Father or Mother (we can find both in Scripture), is, like any parental legacy, a mixed-blessing. Familial words for God are simultaneously vivid and limiting. Vivid in that we are human beings who are in relationship with a creative and life-giving God who desires that we have life and have it abundantly. This is God as ideal parent, as the author of our salvation.
Yet, even as we use words like “Father” to describe God, we come up against the limits of human language and concepts to describe God. Like a photo taken of the Grand Canyon, our words for God are, at best, approximations of a grandeur and presence that eludes our grasp.
This conundrum is described by the theologian Sallie McFague: “We imagine God as both mother and father, but we realize how inadequate these and other metaphors are to express the creative love of God . . . Nevertheless, we speak of this love in language that is familiar and dear to us, the language of mothers and fathers who give us life, from whom bodies we came, and upon whose care we depend.”
“The creative love of God.” McFague comprehends what it means to be a faithful parent. It’s my father, who could see that I was wandering off the right path during my early years of high school, and quietly worked behind the scenes to secure me a job at a local bike store, a job that would not only get me physically healthy by joining the shop’s cycling team, but would help me find joy in serving others. I worked at that shop for six summers during high school and college, and I learned as much there about life as in any classroom.
This Father’s Day, reach out to those who have worked behind the scenes and creatively loved you into the person you are today. Take a moment to say, “Thanks for almost everything, Dad.” And seek to be a generative steward of the people to whom God has entrusted you. Look upon them with the loving gaze of mutuality you see in Rublev’s icon and you will take your place at the banquet table that God has set for you.
It was an awkward lunch. We didn’t know quite what to say, and so my parents and I talked about the weather, my roommates, and their parents whom we had just met. Ben, the drummer from Hackensack whose mother worked in publishing in New York City. Justin from Staten Island. His father owned a billboard company, and he would regale us with stories of all the mafia families who lived in his neighborhood. Barry, with whom I played video games (Barry, if you’re reading this, I could still take you in RBI Baseball), listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, when I should have been studying.
We loaded all my worldly possessions into our car trunk: clothes, CD collection, ramen noodles, a pillow with those little arms on the side that I never used.
My parents had packed a picnic, which we spread out on a table near the dorm. The space between us was heavy with the unsaid as much as the said. I was their first child to go off to college and could tell that they were having a hard time with this transition.
I, like them, had mixed feelings. A part of me was ready for more independence. No one could tell me what time to come home. I could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I got to decide which classes to take. I could finally live life on my terms (as long as my parents were paying the bills). The prospect of this new freedom was exciting for me.
But I was also apprehensive. Making new friends daunted me. I wondered if I had the brains to succeed in college—maybe getting through high school was just a fluke. I had no idea what subject in which to major. Would I meet my wife in college, or at least have a girlfriend? Should I join a fraternity? The horizon seemed overwhelmingly uncertain, and I while I never admitted it at the time, my stomach was in knots during that lunch.
I wonder if the horizon seemed overwhelmingly uncertain to Jesus’ disciples after his ascension to the Father’s right hand. Were their stomachs knotted up with apprehension? I feel like I have a good grasp of the significance of Jesus’ Incarnation, his earthly ministry, his Crucifixion and Resurrection. The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is vivid and meaningful to me. However, I’ve always struggled to understand the significance of his Ascension.
Just before his Ascension, Jesus tells his friends: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:8-9)
I suspect that between the Ascension and Pentecost, there were some awkward meals, the space between the apostles filled as much with the unsaid as with the said. Will the Romans nail us to a cross like Jesus? Even if we receive the promised Holy Spirit, will that be enough to spread the Gospel in a world that is so often deaf to the Good News? The horizon is overwhelmingly uncertain for these followers of Jesus, who has disappeared from sight in order to be present in a new capacity to God’s people, a way that isn’t bound by time or place.
To re-imagine a phrase from Hannah Arendt: Jesus ceased to be everything so that his disciples could become something. That, to me, gets to the heart of the Ascension. Jesus ascends to the Father so that we can have the freedom and space to become the person God made us to be. That’s what my parents were doing when they dropped me off at college. They loved me enough to let me go, just like Jesus loved his friends enough to let them go.
It’s helpful for us, in this season of graduations and other transitions, to recall that Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples comfortless. He promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit, the abiding presence of God, the substance of which flows from the mutual love of Father and Son.
Last Sunday, as I listened to the profound sermons given by St. John’s graduates during our Baccalaureate Sunday services, I sensed God’s abiding presence with them and the whole congregation. I’ve witnessed these young people, including my own son, Danny, growing up. While my heart was breaking as they processed up the center aisle of the church in caps and gowns, it was also full to overflowing with love and gratitude.
Their family and friends, including their church family, now cease to be everything so that they can become the someone that God made them to be. Love has the courage to let go. God has been the wind at their backs, is the one who walks by their side right now, and will be the abiding presence who has gone ahead to prepare a future for them filled with hope.
There are no unforgivable sins at Katz’s Delicatessen, the New York City institution whose slogan is still, many years after the Second World War, “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.” Which is not to say that it’s a particularly friendly place to eat. The men who work the counters are famously surly.
Tonight is the Oscar Awards—you may remember that restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally” with Estelle Reiner’s line: “I’ll have what she’s having.” It brings down the house. That scene took place in Katz’s.
I used to go there in high school with my buddies. One of my friends, who knew all of the unwritten rules of Katz’s, told me that I had to order their world-famous Reuben sandwich. A mountain of corned beef on rye, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, homemade mustard—there was nothing better than a Katz’s Reuben, he assured me.
And so I stepped up to the counter, looked the surly counter man square in the eye, and with great confidence said: “I’ll have a Rueben.” The look on his face was one of sheer horror. He turned to the guy next to him, and yelled: “How about that? This guy wants a Reuben.”
Then, he yelled out loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear: “Hey, everybody, our friend here would like a Reuben.” I turned to my friend who had told me about Katz’s world-famous Rueben sandwich, and he was doubled-over in laughter. I knew that I was in trouble.
All eyes were on me. The man walked around the counter and proceeded to escort me out of Katz’s. When we got out to the sidewalk, he explained that this was a Kosher deli, and they don’t mix meat and cheese. He told me I could come back in if I apologized and ordered a pastrami on rye.
By now, he was laughing, enjoying my discomfort. With a penitent heart, I apologized and was re-admitted to Katz’s, where everyone welcomed me back to the fold with applause. After telling my friend that I was going to get him back, I waited for my pastrami on rye and now, the counterman couldn’t have been more friendly.
He gave me free samples as he sliced the meat for the ridiculously large sandwich. We made small talk about sports. I was back in Katz’s good graces. Bygones were bygones . . . we were reconciled.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying: “Change is good, now you go first.” The message we hear in our readings today is this: “Reconciliation is good—now you go first.” I appreciate these words because they’re honest about how hard reconciliation is. The truth is that it’s hard to take that first step towards those whom we’ve hurt, or those who have hurt us. Reconciliation is difficult work, but it’s good and holy work, and you and I are called by God today to have the courage to take the first step towards those from whom we are estranged.
Let’s begin with Joseph. Joseph of the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joseph the Dreamer, Joseph the insufferable little brother who has the gall to tell his parents and siblings that he had this amazing dream that one day, they would all bow down to serve him. Imagine what you would say if your child or sibling said that to you—you’d probably respond like Joseph’s brothers and throw him into a pit.
Like so many stories in the the Book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers is all about family members trying to get along with each other. While we so often sentimentalize family life in our culture, the truth is that not easy for us to get along with people, even people in our own families.
Some define family and home as the place where they have to take you in, but as a priest, I have to tell you, I’ve witnessed many families, including my own extended family, where that just isn’t true. If you’re family is like mine, you can point to that person or people who have been cut off by others, exiled, thrown into a pit.
And here’s the thing: sometimes those Josephs deserve it. They’ve ordered the Reuben and broken the unwritten codes of the family, bringing shame and humiliation to the house. They’ve manipulated and abused the trust of their loved ones too many times to be trusted.
And so it’s fair to ask: if we can’t even reconcile with our family members, those whom we are supposed to love and care for, what hope is there for us to reconcile with enemies who are strangers?
The story of Joseph and his brothers can answer this question and give us hope. Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, he rises to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and Joseph’s visionary leadership helps Egypt be prepared for famine. When all the surrounding countries are suffering, Egypt has enough grain to feed its own people and sell the surplus to its neighbors.
That’s how Joseph is re-united with his brothers. They come to Egypt to buy food that they can bring home to their families. It’s been so many years since they threw their brother in the pit, they don’t even recognize Joseph when they are in his presence. It’s like the moment in the parable of the Prodigal Son when the elder brother says to father: “Your son went off to far land and squandered everything you had.”
The father, heartbroken, looks at his elder son and says: “He’s not ‘my son.’ He’s your brother.” In his estrangement, the older brother doesn’t recognize his sibling. He refuses to acknowledge that they are in relationship with each other and because of that, both of their lives are diminished.
In our story this morning, it’s Joseph who takes the first step towards reconciliation. He says to his brothers in words saturated with sorrow and grief, but also with hope and forgiveness: “Come closer to me.” How many times have we wanted to say that to people with whom we are estranged?
“Come closer to me. Don’t walk away. Don’t leave. Stay here. Let’s work this out.” Joseph says this to his brothers because there is still a part of him that it’s in that dark pit. Yes, he lives in a palace. He’s wealthy and powerful. People really do bow down to him just as he dreamed so many years ago.
But there is still a part of him behind bars, a piece of his heart that is still in chains. Until he reconciles with his brothers, he can’t be truly free. “Come closer to me,” he implores, meaning: “I can’t stand this distance between us any more. Let me look you squarely in the eyes again and recognize you as my brothers.
Reconciliation is good, now you go first. Joseph has that courage to take the first step towards the healing of his broken relationships, a move that Jesus encourages in our Gospel story today. We’re still in the midst of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. We talked last week about how plains in the Bible represent places of human mortality and frailty, of broken relationships and unresolved conflict.
It’s right there, in the middle of the world’s brokenness, that Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd gathered around him: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Out of all of Jesus’ teachings, I think this is the hardest one for us.
He’s telling us to do something outrageous, something that doesn’t make any sense at all. We are to love even those whom are completely unlovable. Jesus tells us: It’s easy to love the lovable, it’s easy to love those who follow all the rules, do their fair share, never complain, are always on time.
It’s not so easy to love the kid who comes into the restaurant and orders a sandwich that breaks the rules. But God calls us to love even him, which doesn’t mean you can’t tell him the truth: “You can’t order that sandwich here!” Boundaries still matter. Reconciliation always starts by telling each other the truth and maintaining healthy boundaries.
But once the kid apologizes, you not only welcome him back in, you shower him with grace, with free samples and mountains of delicious food. Now, I know what you are thinking: what if the kid doesn’t apologize? Or what if the man behind the counter doesn’t welcome back the kid with open arms? These are good questions.
Jesus is a realist about human nature. He knows how hard the work of reconciliation is. He knows how much it costs to love the unlovable, but Jesus never counts the cost. Even on the hard wood of the cross, Jesus refuses to count the cost. He offer himself fully. His whole ministry is love poured out on behalf of those who don’t always deserve God’s mercy.
Sinners, criminals, tax collectors cooking the books, you name it, Jesus welcomes them to the table, giving them free samples and more food than they either asked for or deserve. That’s what God’s mercy is all about.
As recipients of God’s lavish mercy, we aren’t called to fix the world or do anything heroic. We are simply called by God to take the first step towards reconciliation with others and see what happens.
It’s in that reconciling spirit that St. John’s is undertaking several ministries right now. While we started the effort to build a memorial to men lynched in Leon County, we have now been joined by some twenty community partners. Work on that project is going well.
Last week, our young people returned from a Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Selma and Montgomery, and Mtr. Abi is currently planning a similar adult pilgrimage. These ministries are undertaken not to blame, shame or to judge others. Jesus cautions against that approach in our reading today. They are undertaken with the idea that we can’t move forward to a hopeful future of racial reconciliation until we have told the truth about the past.
When my sons came home from the pilgrimage, they shared: “Dad, we study lynching in history class, but we don’t spend much time on it. We had no idea how widespread it was and how it was used to intimidate all African-Americans.”
Just like Joseph and his brothers, there is always a part of us who remains in prison unless we face the truth of our past. Some of you may be saying: “I hear you, but I wasn’t even alive then. I didn’t lynch anyone.” Part of the facing the truth of the past is seeing how, to paraphrase William Faulkner, the past isn’t even past. We still live in a world in which racism is endemic. Racial reconciliation is not old news—it’s the work of every generation to break down the walls that separate us.
On a lighter note, but also a serious one, St. John’s is also partnering with our brothers and sisters at Temple Israel to slice pastrami for the Jewish Food Festival. As many of you know, volunteers from Temple Israel help us with the St. John’s Market. At first blush, this may look like no big deal: two congregations reaching out to each other in friendship. But if we go a little deeper, we remember and confess that the church has long been a source of antisemitism in our world.
In the earliest days of the church, the church was an exclusively Jewish organization. It was only later that Gentiles like Cornelius the Centurion and others were admitted. Much of the conflict in the early church had to do with religious laws, like not eating meat and cheese together as part of the kosher dietary customs.
Jews and Christians had a really hard time eating together at the same table. That’s why the partnership with Temple Israel is an example of real-world reconciliation. Both of us have taken the first step towards each other and said: “Come closer.” At the upcoming Jewish Food Festival, the whole community will come together at a banquet table of joyful generosity.
That is the future that God holds out to you and me today. That’s where we are headed. But today is the day to have the courage to take the first step towards healing the broken relationships in your own lives.
Reconciliation is good—now you go first!
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on February 24, 2019.
When he told his pastor that he was feeling called to ordained ministry, the pastor replied: “It would be a shame if we lost a great writer and gained a mediocre preacher.” Talk about tough love. The great writer was Frederick Buechner, the pastor was George Buttrick, the legendary 20th century minister. Buechner experienced a call to ordained ministry after hearing one of his mentor’s sermons.
The young writer, who had already published many well-reviewed short stories and a novel or two, was taking a risk by going off to seminary. Buttrick was worried that Buechner would become a half-baked writer and preacher.
Buttrick’s fears were unfounded, as Buechner went on to live into both vocations fully. After ordination, he moved to the green hills of Vermont with his family, where he found both profound fulfillment and heartbreak.
In mid-life, Buechner went through a particularly difficult time, a period that he describes by referring to a pane of stained glass that hung by his writing desk. The colorful pane depicted the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz crying and bound up by those creepy flying monkeys sent by the Wicked Witch to terrorize Dorothy and her friends. In the movie, the Cowardly Lion sings “But I could show my prowess, be a lion not a mou-ess, if I only had the nerve.”
During this period of his life, Buechner lost his nerve. He resembled the Cowardly Lion, all bluster, no courage, tied up by a particularly vexing Flying Monkey: his daughter was very ill, and he felt utterly powerless to understand what she was going through or how he could help her. He believed that if he could just control and manage his daughter’s life, then she would regain her health and live happily ever after.
The people whom we meet in our readings today desperately want to regain their health and live happily ever after. They desire the storybook version of life, not the nightmare that they wake up to every day. These people who flock to Jesus are like us: they’ve lost their nerve. They live in a time of widespread fear and uneasiness.
This week, we witnessed continuing conflict over the issue of immigration in our country. We marked the solemn occasion of the first anniversary of the Parkland school shooting. On a table outside our capitol building just a few blocks from here were the framed photos of seventeen students and staff who will never again be held by their parents or loved ones.
More than anything else, we want to be delivered from our fear, weakness and suffering. We want to be made whole and live a life of joyful abundance. In that, we’re just like the people who crowd around Jesus. Note that our Lord has just spent the whole night in prayer.
It’s wise for us to focus on the basic pattern of Jesus’ life: he alternates between periods of intensity and rest, work and prayer. Before getting to work and making the crucial decision of who will be included in his inner circle, the twelve apostles, Jesus takes time for serious prayer.
What decisions will you need to make in the coming months? What difference would it make if before making those significant decisions you took the time to pray and open yourself to God’s guidance?
Jesus calls the twelve to him on top of the mountain and then comes down with them to the plain, where a crowd of people awaits to listen to Jesus’ teaching, be healed and have their demons cast out. Luke shares that “all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then, he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you . . .”
Notice Jesus’ location in this story: he is standing on level ground. We imagine that his disciples and the crowds may be on slightly higher ground than he is because in Luke’s telling of the Beatitudes, Jesus humbly stands looking up at the crowd.
Compare this with Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus is like a new Moses, receiving revelation from on high and then teaching his people from an elevated position. Jesus stands above his students and looks down on them.
Luke presents a very different picture. Jesus is below the crowd and looks up at them from a level place. It’s the Sermon on the Plain rather than the Sermon on the Mount. Why does this matter? In the Bible, mountains and plains mean very different things.
Mountains are where God calls special people to witness spectacular visions of God. Think not only of Moses receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai but also of Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mt. Hermon. In Scripture, mountains are thin places where heaven and earth come very close.
Plains, as you might expect, are where ordinary, everyday life is lived out. To put an even finer point on it, according to the scholar Ronald Allen, in the Bible “the word ‘level’ often refers to places of corpses, disgrace, idolatry, suffering, misery, hunger, annihilation, and mourning.” So, plains mean not just ordinary, everyday life, but the grounds on which we so often lose our nerve.
We’re shattered by the loss of a loved one. Reputations can be undone in a single day. We fall in love and grow attached to everything but God—that’s what idolatry is all about. It’s when we bow down and give ultimate love to penultimate things and people. We suffer and experience misery in body, mind and spirit and fear annihilation after death. On the plains of life, as we experience these fearsome challenges, we’re in good company with those who have gone before us.
Throughout the Bible, we see God’s people losing nerve and giving in to human weakness. In our readings today, Jeremiah invites his people in exile to take courage. If they trust in the Lord with their whole heart, they will be like a fruitful tree growing by a river. But if they trust in their own strength and abilities, then they will be more like a shrub in the desert, stunted and desperately clinging to the earth for life.
St. Paul exhorts his people to have courage that God will one day raise them from the dead even though they now are standing on the plains where they have buried their loved ones. One day, Paul promises his people who have lost their nerve, they will share in Jesus’ resurrection.
The Bible is full of people who have lost their nerve and then found courage by placing all of their hope in God, the Holy One who never lacks for courage to bring justice, peace and healing to all of the broken plains of our world. The most amazing thing is that God, in working in our world, operates with what Frederick Buechner calls “passionate restraint.” Our God never overpowers us or manipulates us into doing what God’s desires for us.
Instead, God works quietly, subtly in concert with our own will and desires, giving us the freedom and space in which to grow and develop. For Buechner, he needed to come to terms with how he was trying to manage and control his daughter’s life and illness, even though she was now an adult.
Here Buechner describes the moment when the Cowardly Lion finds courage. He and his wife travel thousands of miles to a strange city in order to visit their daughter in the hospital. There, as they walk down the hospital corridor, just like God’s people walk on the plain towards Jesus, Buechner experiences the power of God in a new way:
“The power that created the universe and spun the dragonfly’s wing and is beyond all other powers, holds back, in love, from overpowering us. I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was.
Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air—God is in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us.”
When he stopped trying to fix his daughter, Buechner was able to love her, and that love made all the difference as she recovered from her illness. You and I are called to love the people in our life, not fix them. If God gives them the freedom and space to grow, then we can surely do the same, if only we had the nerve.
Be of good courage. As you walk down the aisles and corridors of this church today, feel the presence of God surrounding you like air—God is in God’s very stillness, holding God’s breath, loving us all.”
A sermon preached the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on February 17, 2019.
If you grew up in a house like mine, sometimes it took a while for your mother to call you by the right name. First, she would go through my siblings’ names: “Erin . . . Peter!” On a few occasions, my mom even called me by my dog’s name, Tip. Finally, she would get it right: “David, I need you to set the table for dinner.” And I’d reply: “But you asked Erin, Peter and Tip to do it first. Why do I have to do it?”
Love’s children, according to J. Paul Sampley, are too numerous to count—who can keep track of all of them? My mother’s love has touched more lives than I can possibly count. It’s the same with my wife, Carol. We’ll be in the grocery store, and I will look down and see two little arms wrapped around her legs. For years, Carol led children’s chapel here at St. John’s. She also is a substitute teacher at Holy Comforter Episcopal School.
Wherever we go, children will run up to Carol out of the blue and give her a big hug. In those moments, I witness what a difference she is making in their lives by loving them. As any teacher will tell you, teaching isn’t about conveying information. It’s about love. No child can learn and grow without love, and love’s children are too numerous to count.
That’s the thing about love. It grows. It never keeps to itself. It’s constantly on the move from God to us, from us to each other. Love, as St. Paul reminds us today, never ends.
The Spanish painter El Greco knew this. He painted a masterpiece meant to be displayed on a church altar. It’s called the Modena Triptych. Made up of three stunning panels, it’s the center picture that I’d like for us to imagine this morning. The center panel depicts the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
The sinewy figure of Christ is prominent, but at the center of the scene, towards the bottom of the picture, there are three women walking side-by-side. These three women are personifications of what are called the theological virtues: faith, hope and love.
Love, it won’t surprise you, is in the center of the three, and she is surrounded by children who are hugging her legs, just like those children who run up to Carol in the grocery store. The figure is also holding a child in her arms.
Love is never alone. People, especially children, are drawn to her, people too numerous to count. It’s like when God reveals to Abraham and Sarah that they will be the mother and father of a great nation, that their children will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore, more numerous than all of the stars in the sky.
This is God’s way of saying: Abraham and Sarah, I love you. You are a part of my family and through you, I will share my love with every child. No one is cut-off. No one is less-than. No one is worthless. Every single human being is made in my image, stamped with my love and purpose. Love’s children are too numerous to count.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, knows all about this. Right after he gave his Royal Wedding sermon all about love, he became a sensation overnight. Carol and the boys ran into Bishop Curry at the Asheville airport a week after he gave that sermon. Carol told me that she’s never seen anything like it. Bishop Curry was surrounded by a crowd of people, who just like children in a grocery store, wanted to give him a hug and take a selfie.
Love’s children are too numerous to count. They wanted to be close to Bishop Curry not because he was famous, not because he was a spiritual rock star. They wanted to get close to him because they recognized someone who loved God and loved them.
If there was one takeaway from that sermon, it’s this: God loves you, and it’s God’s love that brings us together in relationship with each other. Or, to return to Paul: Love never ends. If Paul looked at El Greco’s Modena Triptych, especially at the theological virtues portrayed so beautifully, I think he’d declare:
“El Greco, you got them right. Faith and hope are beautiful, but some day, they will fade away. When we see God face to face, we no longer will need faith. Hope will also be unnecessary. For who has faith in what one can see for oneself? Who hopes for what has already come about?
Faith and hope are good things, but they are not eternal. They are virtues made for this side of heaven. Children flock to love, for love never ends. There will be a time when we see God in full, when love itself is all in all. Until that time, faith and hope will walk by love’s side, until they are no longer needed.”
This was the point that Bishop Curry made in his Royal Wedding sermon and just about every sermon that I’ve heard him give. The first time that I heard Bishop Curry preach was right here in the Diocese of Florida. It was my first Diocesan Convention, held at Camp Weed about 12 years ago, just after I moved to Florida.
At the time, Bishop Curry was serving as the Bishop of North Carolina. As he preached that night, the congregation was electrified by the Holy Spirit. He preached about how love never ends, that love’s children are too numerous to count, that if it’s not about love, it’s not about God. He’ll bring that same message here tomorrow.
I had a Holy Spirit-moment this week that I want to share with you. As I was opening up my copy of God Willing, the history of St. John’s, in order to double-check a historical fact, I gazed on the title page, a page that I’ve seen many times before and not really read carefully.
So much of life is slowing down to notice what God is trying to show us. On the title page of God Willing, the author Carl Stauffer dedicated the book in these words: ″There are those who have attended St. John’s, And those who have served St. John’s; And those who have supported St. John’s; And those who have received spiritual nurture from St. John’s; and those who have been infatuated With St. John; but this book is not dedicated to them. This book is dedicated to those who have loved [sic] St. John’s.
And then, just below the dedication, Stauffer includes this quote: “Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love; and then for the second time in the history of the world man shall have discovered fire.”
Some of you may recognize these words. They come to us from the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin. If those words sound familiar, it’s because Bishop Curry quoted them in the “Royal Wedding” sermon. Remember that “God Willing” was published in 1984.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t believe that it’s any accident that the Presiding Bishop is visiting St. John’s tomorrow evening. The Holy Spirit is up to something here. The Holy Spirit has been up to something here since 1829.
St. John’s was first a mission of the whole Episcopal Church. The church now led by Bishop Curry generously pooled its resources and set aside funds back in the early-19th century to start churches in what was then the Territory of Florida. From our founding, we’ve had a strong relationship with the larger Episcopal Church, and it was at this parish that the Diocese of Florida was started.
All of that is wonderful, but it’s 2019. How is St. John’s doing right now? I can only comment on the last 9 years, and right now, I believe that St. John’s has never been stronger, never been more faithful, never been more loving than it is right now.
That has everything to do with the Holy Spirit, and that has everything to do with your response to the Holy Spirit. That is what our strategic plan, Fruits of the Vineyard, is all about.
It is a faithful and creative response to the Spirit’s leading. In looking ahead at 2019, you can expect to see our new strategic plan come alive. And rather than a multitude of new programs, you can anticipate expanding and going deeper on ministries that are already in existence.
Initiatives from the strategic plan such as historic preservation of the church and enhancing other buildings on campus is another key priority. You will get a full update on construction from Charley Redding and Michael Spellman, our Building Committee’s co-chairs, during the Annual Meeting.
If you haven’t had a chance to read the strategic plan, I commend it to you. During our annual meeting, you’ll be hearing more about the implementation of Fruits of the Vineyard, which is our blueprint for the next five years.
Other than bringing Fruits of the Vineyard to life, there will be one additional area of focus in the coming year. This month, I will be asking the Vestry to appoint a consultative group to discern whether this parish will offer same-sex marriage.
At the last General Convention, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution called B012, which makes it possible for all clergy in the Episcopal Church to officiate at same-sex marriages, even if they are resident in Dioceses where the Bishop historically hasn’t allowed same sex marriage. Florida is one of those places.
But now it’s up to the rector of each parish to decide whether or not to offer same-sex marriage. I believe that the best course forward isn’t a unilateral decision by the rector. I think you know me well enough by now to realize that’s not how I lead. Instead, I’m going to ask the vestry to appoint a consultative group made up of people who, as Carl Stauffer once wrote, dearly love St. John’s.
These will be long-time, faithful members of the parish who will meet with me for about nine months for prayer, study and reflection. We will proceed prayerfully and carefully. It will a time of Sprit-filled discernment.
The consultative group will provide a recommendation to the vestry by the end of this year, and early in the 2020, the vestry will make a decision regarding our marriage policies at St. John’s.
The Bishop is aware of our approach. We will remain in close contact with the Diocese of Florida and keep the parish well-informed of the group’s work. I am deeply grateful to Mary Call Proctor for agreeing to chair this consultation. I first met Mary Call on that day when Bishop Curry preached at Diocesan Convention. It turns out that St. John’s was responsible for organizing that convention. Caterers from Tallahassee made the food. We had fried grouper, shrimp and grits, and hush puppies. It was amazing, because that food had been cooked and served by members of this parish with love. You could feel that love.
I can remember meeting Mary Call that night, and she tells me that she can remember meeting me. At the time, it would be three years before I was called to St. John’s, a parish where I have felt the love of God more strongly than I have anywhere else.
Love’s children are too numerous to count. Think of all the lives shaped by this church through the years, all of the children of every age embraced by God, who is love that never ends.
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen during the Annual Parish Meeting on February 3, 2019, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL.
Have you ever heard God’s voice? Growing up, I heard God’s voice every time I went to Yankee Stadium. For 56 blessed years, from Joe DiMaggio to Derek Jeter, God spoke through a man named Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer for the Yankees. His nickname? You guessed it: The voice of God.
Sheppard wasn’t flashy. “A public-address announcer should be clear, concise, correct,” he once counseled. “He should not be colorful, cute or comic.”
Two priests who mentored him as a student encouraged him to study speech. One of the priests was known as a fiery orator. The other was known for being poetic and understated. Both styles made an impact on Sheppard, who would go on to teach speech education at a New York high school and St. John’s University.
My favorite detail of Sheppard’s life is that he also served as a lay reader at his church. He read the lessons in the same dignified voice he used to make announcements at the ball park. Or as he explained, “I don’t change my pattern. I speak at Yankee Stadium the same way I do in a classroom, a saloon or reading the Gospel at Mass at St. Christopher’s.”
He also didn’t change his pattern according to which player was coming up to bat. All-stars and rookies, Yankees or members of the visiting team: every players’ name was pronounced with equal dignity. As the voice of God announced their name and echoed through the stadium, every athlete felt as if they mattered.
In our readings today, we hear the voice of God reverberating in the wilderness.
The location of today’s story is important. A group of people, including Jesus, have fled from the city to the desert. For any faithful Jew, there was no way that you could go out into the desert without thinking about how your people wandered for 40 years through the wilderness after God freed them from slavery in Egypt.
God’s people take the long way home to the Promised Land, just like we do in our own lives. Speaking for myself, on this, my birthday weekend, there are many things I’ve learned in middle age that I wish I knew in my twenties. Life would have been a lot easier with that perspective.
The wilderness is a place to discover what matters most in life, to simplify, to gain hard-won wisdom. Love God with complete abandon. Hunger and thirst for the only One who can truly satisfy our restless hearts. Live lives centered on prayer and worship. Care for the poor, sick and lonely. Give generously to our neighbors.
Turn from evil and temptation. When we fall, as we inevitably will, let God pick us up and mercifully forgive our trespasses. Honor our elders; care for our children with patience and kindness. These are the ways of wisdom that the wilderness teaches God’s people then and now.
Finally, after their 40-year freedom march, God’s people arrive at the Jordan River. Joshua, Moses’s right-hand man, is now in charge, and he leads the people of Israel through the Jordan River into the land that had been promised to Abraham and Sarah so long ago.
You know what they were thinking when they went across the Jordan—this is just like when we went through the Red Sea so many years ago. As we cross this threshold, life will never be the same. Now, we are truly free. Here, we can take hold of the life that truly is life.
That’s why we’re here today in this church: our deepest desire is to be free from everything that holds us back from the life God wants for us. As we begin this new year, we’re seeking to take hold of the life that truly is life.
Baptism is how we cross the Red Sea and Jordan River with God’s people. It’s the beginning of our journey to freedom and abundant life in God’s Promised Land, a journey that we make as part of a community. That’s why our baptisms here at St. John’s take place during Sunday services. There’s no such thing as a Christian alone—we’re journeying on this road with Jesus, just like Jesus’ disciples followed him on the road that leads to freedom and abundant life.
Even at his own baptism, Jesus is just another face in the crowd. Did you notice how Jesus gets on line just like everyone else? Luke writes: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized . . .”
When we hear this story, we tend to focus on Jesus, the drama of the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. Maybe we also picture his cousin, John. But the fascinating part of this scene is that Jesus and John are just two faces in the crowd.
Jesus, the Son of God, has humbly gotten in line just like any utility player on the team. And this, even after the All-Star introduction we hear in the beginning of the reading. John the Baptist is stepping up to the plate, and everyone is filled with expectation. The announcer’s voice reverberates through the story.
God’s people want John to knock the ball out of the park because they think that he’s the long-awaited messiah, God’s anointed one who will lead the team to victory. But John points his bat away from himself and speaks of a baptism of fire. He tells the group that he’s just a rookie compared to Jesus: “Someone who is more powerful than I,” John exclaims, “is coming to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And then John uses an image that would have made a lot of sense to the people around him in a mostly agricultural society.
He speaks of a field of dreams, a harvest of wheat. Imagine in your mind’s eye a barn. Golden wheat covers the threshing floor. The doors are open on both sides of the barn so that the wind can freely move through the structure. John says that Jesus has a winnowing fork in his hand, and that we’re all like wheat stalks that Jesus hoists up unto the air, so that the wind can do all the work.
That’s why winnowing is so effective: the wind separates the wheat from the chaff, the good stuff that we can eat from the husks that we burn and throw away. John is saying that the Holy Spirit is just like that wind that separates the wheat from the chaff.
No human being is either/or. We’re all a little of both. We need that wind of the Spirit to shake lose the infinite ways that we take our eye off the ball and strike out.
Make no mistake: baptism is a life and death matter. We’re marking the occasion when the Holy Spirit courses through our bodies, shaking free the chaff of sin and death and leaving us to freely turn towards Jesus, our Lord and Savior, the One who makes us whole in this life and the life to come.
We’re God’s children now, and no one, or nothing can take that away from us. There is a dignity in baptism: we’re marked as Christ’s own forever, made in God’s own image, washed in the holy waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan River.
When Jesus comes up out of the water, he prays and then hears these words from heaven: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He hears the voice of God, clear, concise, correct, announcing his essential place on the team.
I want you to hear God’s voice calling out to you. If you listen carefully and pray just like Jesus listens carefully and prays in the story today, you will hear God announcing your name with equal dignity. It doesn’t matter that you were just called up from the minor leagues. It doesn’t matter that you can’t hit a slider. It doesn’t matter that you’re on the visiting team.
In God’s eyes, from that announcer’s box high in the stadium, you are precious. You bring gifts to the team that only you can bring. You are an essential part of the whole. Step up to the plate with confidence for you are God’s beloved child and with you, God is well-pleased.
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on January 13, 2019.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1968. America is at war, protesters are in the streets, people are divided over politics and civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy are assassinated, the President isn’t very popular, the economy is tanking and three American astronauts are hurdling in a tin can through space.
50-years-ago tonight, this trinity of ordinary men—men, as one commentator put it, with the lunch-pail names of Jim, Bill and Frank—gazed out the window of their spacecraft and witnessed a scene that no human being had ever seen before: an earthrise.
Imagine what it must have been like to look out over the horizon and see the earth rise in the distance, blue with water and teeming life, cloud cover like gauze binding together the wounded earth. Immediately below their orbiting craft, they couldn’t help but see the difference between earth and the lifeless surface of the moon.
With tears in their eyes, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman tenderly read these words from space: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good . . .”
That silent night, that holy night, Borman concluded with these words: “From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas―and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
Not just “earth.” Borman called our island home the “good earth.” He echoes the poet of the Book of Genesis who tells us that we inhabit a moral universe, a cosmos of meaning and purpose, of beauty and love.
The astronauts cried when they saw the earth rise. They cried tears of reverence, joy, and hope. They read from Scripture with love in their hearts for humanity and the good earth. It was a tender moment in a very tumultuous time.
That’s my message for you this Christmas Eve, 2018: when times are tumultuous, try a little tenderness. I’m quoting of course from the song of the same name, sung so famously by Otis Redding in 1966, not too long before the Apollo 8 mission.
“Try A Little Tenderness” has been part of the American songbook since the 1930s. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Eddie Murphy as a singing donkey in the movie Shrek, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Florence and the Machine have all offered up their own take on this song.
But no one sings it like Otis, backed up by the Stax Studio band in Memphis. When you listen to Redding perform the song live, he sings it with complete vulnerability, total abandonment. Redding lived in those same tumultuous times as the Apollo 8 astronauts and his response, like them, was to reach out in song, to try a little tenderness in our harsh world.
Mary and Joseph know something about the harshness of our world. There’s a reason there’s no room in the inn: Mary’s pregnancy is a scandal.
Ponder this with me for a moment: Mary and Joseph are living in a time and place in which hospitality is the highest value. If a family member, friend or even a perfect stranger knocked on your door, no matter the hour, you got out of bed, welcomed them in, stoked up the fire, and prepared a meal.
It’s a sacred responsibility to care for the sojourner in your midst, because someday, you may be that traveler in need of care. Joseph and Mary are traveling to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, which means House of Bread. Under normal circumstances, they could have expected the royal treatment from their family and friends.
A hot cloth to wipe the dust off their face and hands. Freshly-baked bread still warm from the oven. A refreshing drink of water, the best wine. A dinner made with love. No one would have let them clear the table or do the dishes.
Their only duty should have been to receive hugs and kisses from their loved ones, to talk and laugh well into the night, to relax and enjoy the company as embers of contentment glowed in their hearts.
Instead, they’re alone, like astronauts hurdling through a cold and dark void. No fresh-baked loaves to be found in this House of Bread. Mary is very pregnant and exhausted. Joseph is at his wit’s end, and there’s no room in the inn.
The only way that we can explain their predicament is to conclude that their family has rejected them. Joseph’s family has heard that Mary is with child and that Joseph isn’t the father. To make matters worse, at least in their eyes, Joseph doesn’t have the guts to dismiss Mary. We can imagine Joseph and Mary knocking on their relatives’ door, only to be met with these words: “You’re on your own. There’s an inn a few blocks away. Good luck.”
If that were not enough, remember that Mary and Joseph aren’t in Bethlehem to visit relatives for the holidays. They’ve made this journey to register with the government so that one day, they’ll have the privilege of paying heavy taxes that will finance Rome’s wars and the emperor’s lavish lifestyle.
That’s why St. Luke begins the Christmas story by listing the names of Roman political leaders. He paints the backdrop for this play by starting with the cast of characters presiding over this corner of our wounded planet.
It’s a 1968-world of war, palace intrigue, violence and poverty. There’s nothing cozy and comforting about the manger that holds the Christ child. It’s a filthy trough used to feed livestock. After Mary gives birth, she and Joseph desperately wrap the child in bands of cloth so that the infant will survive the bone-cold night.
Mary and Joseph are at their very limits—just like there are so many people in our world right now who are hanging on by a thread. It’s into this harsh tableau, this tumultuous scene that God is born then and now.
God doesn’t come wearing the boots of tramping warriors as we hear in our first reading tonight from Isaiah. God doesn’t come as an emperor or a religious authority bossing people around. God comes to us as a holy infant so tender and mild, as vulnerable as three astronauts hurdling through space on a wing and a prayer.
When our Savior is born, it’s like we witness the first earthrise. Suddenly, you know that God holds the world in God’s good hands. You understand that this planet we inhabit isn’t random or meaningless any more than our lives are random or meaningless.
As you gave upon the face of the Christ child in the manger, you grasp the sheer depth of God’s love for you and for all of humanity. You comprehend how God sent his son not to condemn our world, but to save it, to unwrap the gauze binding our wounds and setting us free.
Your eyes blurred by tears are the first to see the renewal of all creation, a new heaven, a new earth asleep in Mary’s arms. That transformation is wrought not by force, but through God’s tender love, a kindness that extends to every place of tumult and pain in our world and in our hearts. My brothers and sisters, this is a night for us all to try a little tenderness.
The silence of this night is broken only by the singing of the heavenly host. They sing like Otis Redding, with complete vulnerability and total abandonment. They hold nothing back, just like we should hold nothing back tonight. This news is too good to keep to ourselves: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.”
Or in the words of the Apollo 8 crew: “We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas—and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”