The Jokes of Jesus

Rembrandt’s masterpiece of 1642 is commonly known as “The Night Watch.”  Around the time of 1945, this painting was restored to something closer to its ORIGINAL state.  After a dark brown layer of varnish was removed, and the margins restored, we can see sunlight streaming in through a window in the painting – so it is not night!  The original of this picture is very different from what we were accustomed to!

When historic buildings in cities are cleaned from dark layers of urban grime and restored to their ORIGINAL state they look so very different and marvelous.  Examples include Notre Dame in Paris, the Boston public library, and St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The original aspect of these buildings is so very different from what we are accustomed to!

Jesus here in our Mt 5:13-20 gospel reading today said it was his mission to take us back to the ORIGINAL meaning of the law.  That original meaning of the law was not the legalism of the “scribes and Pharisees” .  Let’s acknowledge that Jesus himself broke the super important fourth (Sabbath) commandment repeatedly!

Rather, the original meaning of the law (Torah) looks very different from legalism.  The original meaning is that when we follow God in faith as learners and disciples, under the teaching of God’s Spirit, the Law and the Beatitudes become a promise. The Law and the Beatitudes become like fruit in our lives.  “You shall love the Lord your God” means that God promises that the faithful follower will grow to love God with our whole heart.  As faithful followers, we grow to have compassion on others.  We grow to be ever less jealous and covetous.

It’s like the 500 year old Reformation, which sought to peel away the accretions of church history and go back to the ORIGINAL meaning of the Gospel in Jesus, St Paul, and the early church of Jerusalem, Asia Minor, and Greece.

Furthermore, we hear Jesus speak (in our Matthew chapter 5 reading) of salt.  Salt refers to discipleship, table community, and the deep bonds of friendship.  Discipleship means following after God lovingly, wholeheartedly, in faith.

James Martin, Elton Trueblood and others referred to the humor and jokes of Jesus in the gospels.  Such humor is difficult to translate, recognize and appreciate.  This saying of Jesus about “salt losing its taste” could be one such joke.  For we all know that salt cannot lose its taste.  Sodium chloride is either salty tasting, or else, if not salty tasting, then the substance is something other than sodium chloride salt.  If it is tasteless, then surely what we taste is not salt, but it may be the light coloured sand that may be in the mined salt mixture.

Whether this is a “joke of Jesus” or not, at any rate, Jesus’ point here about the taste of salt (the taste of a disciple) is this:  Jesus urges a simple, wholehearted, and UNDILUTED discipleship, even if we stumble along.

The answer to the marriage vows is either yes or no.   Our response to the marriage vows is not “maybe”, “sometimes”, “occasionally”, or “somewhere on a scale of 1 to 5.”  Discipleship, like marriage, is just a wholehearted yes or no, even if you stumble along.  That is what Jesus is saying here: Discipleship is just a yes or no, wholeheartedly, and irrespective of whether you think that you only stumble along in your vows.

Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew may be like the great teacher Moses.  Yet Jesus may be even more like Joshua of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Remember how Joshua in his great speech before leading the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land said the following: “Choose here and now who you will serve… (idols?).  But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Katie Meyler was featured on TV (Jan 13 2017, PBS).  She is a person like that –wholehearted, and undiluted in her commitment and calling to create schools in Liberia.  She continued even when Ebola struck.  She was named “The Time Person of the Year”.

Jesus speaks not only of the original meaning of the law as faithful following, not only of discipleship as salt, but also of discipleship as light (Ps 112:4/ Isa 58:9b).

Like Katie Meyler, the light of the true and faithful disciples shines through their social justice and compassion, which shines as the light of the world.  It is compassion for those who hunger and thirst.

All of the “Peoples of the Book”, namely Jews, Christians, and Muslims have this for thousands of years in our shared scriptures (the first five books of the Bible):

(Deuteronomy 10: 19 You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.):

As Jews, Christians, and Muslims it is of our very nature and essential behavior as believers in and disciples of God to take care of the hungry, the homeless, the outsider and refugees.  We can do no other.

“Choose you this day the one that you will serve: (idols)? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord”.

Epiphany 5, Sunday February 5 2017, Trinity  Episcopal Whitinsville MA and St John’s Episcopal Millville MA

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A Rescue Boat

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Being watchful and wise stewards



The Gospel reading for today, the first Sunday of Advent, is Mt 24:36-44. Here, Jesus refers to the story of Noah in Genesis 6, and emphasizes the surprise with which the flood came, both negative and positive.

The flood was a negative surprise as widespread corruption was unexpectedly overwhelmed by God’s justice.  It was also a positive surprise in that God provided a boat as a way of rescue to Noah and to those who trusted in God.  So the faithful come through the flood without harm, while the faithless succumb in terror.

Even today we see the story of Noah as important. Firstly, baptism strongly recalls the story of Noah.  Secondly, the word for a ship in Latin is navis, which is translated into English by the word ‘nave’.  The nave is the area the people of God gather in church, and in which we journey together towards God. The gathered community of faith is like God’s rescuing boat in the floods of our lives.

In Matthew Jesus is a teacher (among other things), teaching us about how to live in the present with a view to the future, and eternity.  So, Jesus teaches that as Noah and his community saw surprising changes, so we should expect surprising changes around us, both negative and positive, at both the communal level and the personal level. Here are some examples:

At the larger, communal level, worldwide, on the negative side, recent examples of big surprises include these four:

  • Firstly, climate change, still resisted by many after over 45 years of scholarship and research
  • Secondly, AIDS (World AIDS Day on Dec 1) called a worldwide pandemic, and now growing again
  • Thirdly “globalization” which contains great benefits but also great pain
  • Fourthly, a sudden financial reversal like the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008

Positive surprises at the communal level include electric light, airplane flight, medical advances, electronics, computers and the cellphone revolution, all inconceivable just a few generations ago.

There are surprises at the personal level,

  • On the negative side, a vehicle lost control just in front of me in heavy and fast moving traffic on the expressway a few weeks ago. It was a reminder that life can change in a second!
  • On the personal and positive side, it was a surprise for you and for Barbara and me to come here six years ago, a surprise that has become a great joy and pleasure to us.
  • The surprising failure of our health or of the health of someone close to us; and vice versa, a recovery after illness
  • A surprising change in a relationship, for better or for worse, with
    • A spouse
    • A parent
    • A sibling
    • A child; or a pregnancy
    • Someone at work, like a superior, colleague, or customer

Such things forcibly remind us of all of the things that we do not know, which can quickly change; and of how transient life is.

 So we must take Jesus’ teaching seriously both for now and for eternity: To be watchful, and to be wise stewards.

The gospel this morning is a further reminder that even those in Jesus’ most intimate circle can be lulled into complacency or false security.  The apostles themselves could fall into faithlessness.  For that reason, in Advent we emphasize

  • That we should consider each day as a baptism; each day as an opportunity to be filled with the Holy Spirit; and each day as the day that Christ may return, with the Son of Man coming for the whole world as we read in Daniel 7:13-14
  • That our customary way of life can suddenly and greatly change or end: and that Christ will ‘soon’ return
  • That we should daily review our lives with this in mind

So let us stand lightly towards the things of this world.  As Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.” For our real life is found nowhere else than in our relationship of faith, love, and hope in and with Jesus Christ

Let us be hopeful, joyful and peaceful amid even the most startling changes of the world.

Let us be compassionate to others and constant in prayer; for we want to journey ever closer to the Lord (Ps 122, Isa 2:1-5) and to each other; there, where God’s reign is complete over all people and the whole creation.

To that end, let’s join in the collect for the First Sunday of Advent: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”


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The Greatest High You Can Get in Life


Prelude: “I vow to thee my country” Words Cecil Spring-Rice Music: Thaxted (Gustav Holst) in Ancient and Modern, and Songs of Praise

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.


And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.


Proverbs 3:13-18

Psalm 27:1 – “The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 91 – “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

“You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eye and see the punishment of the wicked.

“If you say, ‘The LORD is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

“‘Because he loves me,’ says the LORD, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.’”

1 Cor 3:9-16

Luke 23:32-43

In our gospel reading today (Lk 23:33-43) we have Luke’s description of Jesus on the cross.  He is called “The King of the Jews” as he lays down his life for them, and indeed for all of us. Especially in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus shows himself as our Lord Jesus as he is an example for us, as his followers, to be laying down our lives for others in the name of Christ.

People around us who reflect his example of service are firefighters and first responders, police and health care workers, and teachers and parents.  In fact all of us can take time for others, and be generous to those in need.

Regarding firefighters, I remember once myself waking up to the sound of smoke alarms, and rushing out of the danger in the house with our small family.  When the fire engine arrived, the firemen bravely raced into the house and danger.  They found that the oil furnace had burst into flame and had pumped thick, choking smoke through the house.

I read an ABC News report of one very brave firefighter.  The report reads as follows: “After 21 years of fighting some of New York’s toughest fires, including a 1998 blaze that almost killed him, firefighter Timothy Stackpole proudly served his first day as captain on Sept. 10.

“The next day, he was one of the hundreds of firemen who answered the call after the World Trade Center was struck by two airliners — and one of the 343 who was killed when the twin towers collapsed.

Stackpole, who was a legend in the Fire Department after surviving the 1998 fire, was dedicated to his job to the end.

“The greatest high you can get in life is by helping somebody,” he said in a public service announcement that was taped before his death. He taped the message for the hospital that helped him recover from the terrible burns he suffered in the 1998 fire.

“Stackpole grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Marine Park, the same area where he would eventually raise his own five kids.

“His family was his top priority, said his wife Tara. “That was like a million dollars to him. He just enjoyed being with the kids every day,” she said.

“Stackpole was also passionate about his job. While fighting a four-alarm fire at a Brooklyn row house in the summer of 1998, he heard that a woman was trapped inside. Without hesitation, he and two colleagues did what firemen do: they ran into the flames to save someone.

“While the three firefighters were inside, the floor collapsed without warning.  It killed one of the three firefighters, and severely burned Stackpole’s ankles.

“Firefighter Michael Brady rode with Stackpole. “In that moment, he was still Timmy,” Brady recalled. “He was still comforting the EMT workers, who were shocked with what was going on, and cheering them on: ‘Thank you brother. Thank you for helping me.’ His zeal could never be squashed.”

“After 66 days, Stackpole limped out of the hospital to a hero’s welcome, returning to work soon afterward. Though he could have retired from the department and gotten a pension, Stackpole chose not to.

“It was his life, his calling,” said his wife. “He couldn’t not do it. This is what he felt he was supposed to do in his life.”

“Tara Stackpole remembers Sept. 11 beginning as a normal day. “It was a normal routine Tuesday. He kissed us goodbye and told me he loved me,” she said.

“It turned out that Timmy Stackpole was among the first to get to Ground Zero. He led a team that ran into 2 World Trade Center to rescue victims after it was struck. He and the others all perished when the tower collapsed. Recovery workers found his body a week later.”

Someone else wrote this: “To some people, it might seem foolhardy to charge into the flames to rescue someone you never saw before and may never see again. It’s not that firefighters don’t think about the danger. They’re human and don’t want to die, just like everyone else. But … they do what has to be done despite their fears.”

This is the spirit of lifting up others at the risk or the actual cost of our own lives; that same spirit that we can see, for example, in doctors like our own Dr. David R King who has risked his life as a surgeon in Afghanistan and the Boston bombing, in nurses, in police, in teachers, and in parents.  That spirit of lifting up others is what we can all do in our best moments. At moments at least we have all done so.  It is reflected, par excellence, in the whole birth, life and death of Jesus to save us all.  It is the best and highest moment of humanity.

I would like to conclude with one last point.  There on the cross, one thief mocked the sacrifice of Jesus.  The other thief acknowledged his faults, and acknowledged Jesus as his messiah and king.  The repentant, believing thief’s word of testimony remains with us today, ringing through the ages and around the world.

Can you say in your life what dark place you found yourself, and you met God there?  See if you can describe it in a minute or so.  Then, like the thief on the cross, and like the first responders, have the courage to bring that life giving account of your experience, that word of testimony to those around you, regardless of their mockery.  By John Derek Stubbs



Gracious God, first responders have such dangerous jobs! Help them to dwell in your shadow and be sheltered by your protection. May you always be their refuge in difficult situations. May they trust in you completely and continually moment by moment. Show them your power when they find themselves in unsafe situations or when they face people who threaten or try to harm them. Keep them safe for the glory of your name!

Father, we are so blessed to have men and women who work diligently for our safety and well-being, even when their jobs are difficult or thankless. Help us to continually remember to give thanks to you for their sacrifices and service to our community. May we touch heaven with prayers of gratitude whenever we see or personally encounter first responders. Give them the strength that you provide so that as they serve, you will be honored.

Blessed are you, Lord, God of mercy,
who through your Son
gave us a marvelous example of charity
and the great commandment of love for one another.
Send down your blessings on these your servants,
who so generously devote themselves to helping others.
Grant them courage when they are afraid,
wisdom when they must make quick decisions,
strength when they are weary,
and compassion in all their work.
When the alarm sounds
and they are called to aid both friend and stranger,
let them faithfully serve you in their neighbor.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

– adapted from the Book of Blessings, #587, by Diana Macalintal

O judge and savior of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our community and country who in times of crisis and danger venture all for our safety.  Grant that we may always keep them in prayer and support them in their service.  This we ask in the name of the one who died to rescue us all, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Helping while bullets fly


Today, All Saints Sunday, we remember those we love and have died.  Often, they took generous and self-sacrificial care of us.

There is a great story of care for others which is depicted in the current November 2016 movie, “Hacksaw Ridge.”  It is the story of a United States Medal of Honor soldier, Desmond T. Doss.  In the terrible battle of Okinawa in 1945, as a young 26-year old army medic, Doss single-handedly rescued 75 injured soldiers, under direct fire.  He went on to a number of other such amazingly heroic acts of rescue and mercy.


On the other hand, there is a great deal of selfishness in our divided world.  Differences in quality of life may be reflected in vastly differing levels of education, housing, food, health services; and then, consequently, of domestic or civil antagonism and violence.

Gladstone said that selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race (Speech at Hawarden, May 28th, 1890.) William Temple (1880-1944) said, “All systems can be perverted by the selfishness of man” (The Malvern Manifesto). A prime example is that climate change is killing the world.


The only hope, then, is to nurture individual values of sharing.  To share generously is a central value of being a member of the people and the reign of God.

St Cuthbert, along with all the saints of the people of God, reminds us of our calling to be one with all the people of God, and especially the poor.

A modern example is Jean Vanier.  He was a Canadian who founded the L’Arche worldwide of communities for mentally disabled people.  He remarked that Jesus did not say: ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor’, but ‘Blessed are the poor’.  In some mysterious way, when I visit someone who is in prison, who is in hospital, or who is hungry, then I actually touch and feel the grace of God which is present with them.   This is Christ’s example, which Paul quotes in Phil 2:7-8: “Assuming the nature of a slave…he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death—death on a cross.”

When we care for others, Luke says the Spirit ‘leaps’ in us (Ps 50:5).   People who have cared for others provide us with the best chapters of Christian and human history. Our prime example is Jesus, whose joy finally came only after he humbled himself to achieve his purpose, in his death and resurrection (Phil 2:9).  After a life of service in Christ’s name (Rev 7:2-4, 9-17), we too can expect that the full measure of our joy will come in the resurrection.

Have we matured beyond selfish toddler attitudes?  Spiritually mature people are generous – they “give and do not count the cost” (Ignatius Loyola), and they care for those who suffer.  In sharing generously, we are not poorer, but we are even more blessed than the one who receives.

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Friend of sinners, outcasts, and justice workers

Our Gospel reading (Lk 19:1-10) contains the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and social outcast.  It shows us the Jesus who is a friend of sinners and the outcast; also, Jesus as a friend of justice and peace in our local community.

This idea of Jesus as the friend of the outcast, and of social justice reminds me a man named Trevor Huddleston and his work in Soweto.

Soweto is a large residential area near Johannesburg in South Africa.  Millions of black South Africans were forced to move to Soweto in the 1950s.  It was a horrific case of racial oppression.  Trevor Huddleston poured out his life to oppose and counteract this.  Part of the story appears in his book, Naught for your Comfort. 

Trevor worked to alleviate suffering for example by speaking out against Apartheid, by organizing for the only swimming pool there in Soweto; but also by changing and lifting up individual lives.  Trevor gave a trumpet to the youthful Hugh Masekela, who has become one of the great jazz musicians of the world.  And again, Trevor befriended the youthful Desmond Tutu, who has become a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and “the voice of the voiceless”.

He was driven out of South Africa.  I met him, and he was like a true prophet. In a sense, Trevor Huddleston was like the Jesus who is a friend of outcasts; and he was like the Jesus who highlights community justice.

We find this same element of faith in and friendship with God by contrast with social oppression in the other readings — Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32, and in 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12.

In our gospel reading, the surrounding community condemned Zacchaeus. Jesus did not condemn the behavior of Zacchaeus. Rather he befriended him and visited his house.  When Jesus pronounced the salvation of Zacchaeus in verse 9, Jesus did not even suggest that such sins as unfair extraction of money had even existed at all (Fitzmyer Luke: 1221). Rather, to the contrary, Jesus here announced that Zacchaeus was righteous, “a son of Abraham”, since Zacchaeus said that he was concerned for justice, “giving half his goods to the poor”.

In the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus did not attack wealth.  Rather this: In the Gospel of St Luke, Jesus insisted on the fact that all believers in Jesus must seek justice, and must share her or his assets with those that suffer or those that are poor.

We can see this when we look back at what Jesus said just one chapter before.  Back there, very close by, in Luke 18:18-23, there, Jesus challenged the rich lawyer or magistrate to share his possessions. However, that rich lawyer or magistrate would not concur with the challenge or invitation of Jesus.  He would not share his possessions with others. He walked away from Jesus.

In today’s  Gospel reading of Zacchaeus (Luke 19), we have the opposite.  We have in this gospel reading the story of a wealthy person Zacchaeus.  For the sake of justice, Zacchaeus shared his possessions to those who were poor, or to those who felt cheated,.

The meaning of the name Zacchaeus is “righteous”.  This man Zacchaeus behaved in way that befitted his name.  Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus, and showed to Jesus that he had understood Jesus’ ministry and message.  Zacchaeus showed that he had a concern for the long history of faith of father Abraham, for justice, for the poor and for the cheated (Fitzmyer Luke: 1222).

In verse 5 of our Gospel reading from St Luke, we must notice the phrase “it is necessary”, as well as “today” that Jesus was to enter the home of Zacchaeus.   These are important words and phrases.  Luke’s custom is to employ these words to describe the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, especially, that it is is necessary to go to the cross.  But, or also, here it is equally necessary to join himself to people like Zacchaeus; to recognize the importance of people of faith – of children of (the rich man) Abraham — who know how to share their assets. 

It is of people that work together towards a just future, that care for those that suffer that Jesus says, “I must visit your house today.”  It is of people (poor and rich) that work together towards a just future, that care for those that suffer that Jesus says (to Zacchaeus), “Salvation has come to this house today.”

But it is to those people who do not know how to share their material goods and assets to, it is they who walk away from Jesus; or, it is to people like them, it is to them that God in Jesus says “I do not know you.”  Of these two kinds of people, what kind of person are you and I?  Where do you and I stand?  Would you and I welcome Jesus?  Would Jesus come into your house or mine?

Working together on something important to a wonderful effect appeared at the annual Convention of our Diocese of Western Massachusetts yesterday, Saturday October 29 2016. We heard from perhaps up to a hundred people and parishes about their work over the last year, and what they planned for the future. We heard loving companionship messages from the Jewish and the Muslim community.  It was so inspiring!

One parish served Vets, some of whom said it was their only social event in the week.  Others served refugees from Syria.  Another example was supporting the Native Americans of Dakota as they try so hard to preserve the environment in their area against the forcible and insanely risky installation of an oil pipeline under the Missouri river that feeds into the Mississippi, an artery of the United States of America.

God’s call is to you and me as well.  Will we respond, like Zacchaeus and Trevor Huddleston?  

Jesus, the friend of sinners and outcasts visits us and reconciles us to God.  When we respond in faith, hope and love, our lives blossom and flower with true and laudable service, justice and peace in the earth.

Our prayer today: “It is only by your gift, Lord, that your faithful people offer you true and worthy service. Help us with your grace and heavenly promises, through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

Sunday, October 30, 2016

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Haunted by the tax collector

We have the current debacle of the Wells Fargo Bank (in October 2016).  According to the media, this is a bank which unduly pressurized economically vulnerable people like the elderly, burdening them with financial services they did not need: oppressive, manipulative, cruel, and less than honest.

We have tertiary colleges, which have drawn heavily upon students and upon Federal government study funds.  In closing down, ITT has abandoned students with no way to complete their certificates – which were not leading to sufficient jobs, anyway.  ITT appears to have been been oppressive, manipulative, cruel, and less than honest.

We have the TV series “The Sopranos”, about the Mafia in New Jersey.  Any such ‘Mafioso’ portrayed there was oppressive, manipulative, cruel, and dishonest.

These are all current examples of a bad kind of person: oppressive, manipulative, cruel and dishonest.

There is a connection with our Gospel reading (Luke 18 verse 9 forwards), about the prayers of the Pharisee compared to the tax collector.

Tax collectors were despised in Galilee and Judea, and for good reason.   For tax collection agents were seen as people representing oppression, Roman collaboration, manipulation, cruelty, and dishonesty.  With their terrible taxes, up to 60%, sent to Roman officials, with a slice for themselves, tax collectors bankrupted a good percentage of the Jewish population, and rendered them homeless.

Our bad actions have consequences – as we see in the reading from Jeremiah (14:7-10, 19-22), where the perverted Jewish nation was heading to exile in Babylon.

Back to our Gospel parable today:  So all that is about the bad tax collector in this parable. On the other hand, the Pharisee in this parable was of those who did all in their power to be good citizens.

Pharisees learned, lived, and taught the Jewish law, including the resurrection, and they helped the poorer Jews of the time. They tithed not only their money, but everything else.  They were probably better than most of us!

Pharisees were seen as respectable, or even admirable.  They were likely regarded as we may regard a hard working professional, who is a respected member of community organizations, urging everyone to obey God’s laws and take care of others.  Jesus and Paul were probably similar to them.

In this parable Jesus was not condoning the very bad behavior of the tax collector.  Rather, Jesus was saying, as bad as the tax collector was, he still had the one critically important thing: that he threw himself on God’s mercy.

Vice versa, Jesus was not denigrating the Pharisee.  Rather, he was saying, as good as the Pharisee was, yet he lacked that same critically important thing: he did not feel he needed God’s mercy!

We read that the tax collector went home justified, and the Pharisee did not.  This resonates with St Paul’s great theme, that we are not justified primarily by any type of good behavior.  However good or bad we are, we are justified with God only by trust and faith in God’s mercy through the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. This saving faith, this saving root then germinates through the love of God.  If it is true faith, it grows and flowers in better behavior later on.

One important and very humbling aspect of our depending on God’s grace is expressed in the offertory sentence, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”  Whatever intelligence, or ability, or beauty we may have is a gracious gift from God, an undeserved gift for which we should be grateful.

Another aspect of our depending on God’s grace is the truth that we are all sinners–as the tax collector prays, “Be merciful or gracious to me, a sinner”.

There are several times I have felt almost paralyzed with anxiety or grief, for example at the time of my parent’s divorce when I was a teenager.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” was a constantly repeated prayer that drew me through that valley of the shadow.

As illustration of, “God have mercy on me, a sinner” is visible in TV courtroom Judge Mathis who at one time traded drugs and was imprisoned; and then repented and now serves the community as a judge.

Or, again, Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston, who, despite alcoholism, has risen to an eminent position and seems to be doing a great job.

Or, again, the acclaimed poet Milton, who when grievously afflicted, wrote, “They also serve (God), who only stand and wait.”

The tax collector’s prayer in this gospel reading is reflected in the recurring and often sung strophes of the Kyrie in the Eucharist: “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”.

The tax collector’s prayer is also reflected in the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church through centuries, “Jesus son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

The first line of this litany “Lord, have mercy (or love, or kindness)” is like one finger of the left hand.  Then the second line of this litany, “Christ, have mercy (or love, or kindness)”, is like a finger of the right hand.  As the litany proceeds, the fingers fold together, one by one, until we are hand in hand, fingers interlaced with our Lord Jesus Christ, in loving companionship, every moment of every day.

It is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.  Not only that: at the conclusion of our lives, with Paul in his epistle titled 2 Timothy, we find again that the fear of the Lord is also the end of wisdom, and that same prayer: “Be merciful or gracious to me, a sinner”.

If you are going through fires, woes, or the depth of night, of floods, let this be your unending prayer, and song: Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.  Hand in hand with our loving Lord Jesus Christ, fingers interlaced, there will come the moment when, as you look back on this moment, that you will see that God has brought you through.

October 23, 2016

Trinity, Whitinsville MA

St. John’s Millville MA

Sun 27 October 2013; Sun 23 Oct 2016.



Another example of humility is in the case of Albert Einstein as a humble academic.  Einstein, who was something of an agnostic, said he believed in some kind of a God, yet, believed with “An attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”  Humility suits academics as well, for academics along with everyone else are all subject to subsequent generations, proved to a degree either correct or incorrect.



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9/ 11: In a world of terror, living peacably

On September 11th each year, we remember the terrorist attacks in New York City and in the USA in 2001.  In that connection, last month I reread the book Thunder Dog written by Michael Hingson with Susy Flory, published in 2011.  It is the account of how a blind man (Michael Hingson) and his Seeing Eye dog named Roselle escaped from the 78th floor of Tower 1 on that fateful day.

On page 82 of that book we read how the firefighters were climbing up the stairs.  They sacrificed their lives to assist others.  At such a moment, a firefighter will give you emergency commands: telling you to avoid the elevator, to leave any relatives to them to care for, and to leave everything you own to walk down the stairs without panicking or running; to obey them completely, in order to save life – your own, and others.

We have that same kind of emergency demand in our Gospel passage today (Lk 14:25f). “Jesus’ words set forth three conditions of discipleship… the willingness to leave family ties, the willingness to face radical self-denial, and the willingness to give up one’s material possessions.”

So we can think of Jesus as a firefighter who speaks to us, sternly, when our house is burning down.  The firefighter (Jesus), sacrificing his life, coming to rescue us, says, “Your only chance is to leave everything, and follow exactly what I say.”

To delay or to ignore the command of that firefighter would be to lose not only every person, and every possession, but also to lose one’s own self.   To follow the instructions and example of the firefighter would be our only hope.  Yet let us face it, many of us tend to ignore this stern demand from Jesus.  Many of us tend to remain in a burning house, rationalizing why we need all our stuff.

This warning is repeated three times in Luke’s gospel; also, in Deuteronomy 30v15-20, in Psalm 1, and repeatedly through Christian history.  It is the great choice of the two ways.  It is a choice between faith and obedience as the one way; or the other way of clinging to material things as idolatry.  It is an “everlasting choice, fraught with the destiny of life and death.”

Why would Jesus envision us as living in a burning house?  Are we really living in a burning   house?  Perhaps there are indeed some ways in which we could see that our house is actually burning down!

One way in which our house is evidently burning down is this:  On September 4 2016, the New York Times carried an article saying that the beaches of the USA are already under climate change erosion, which we can see on the sea coasts in this area (Massachusetts).   Each one of us contributes to climate change through carbon fuel, when we turn on a switch, or when we buy an item which required carbon fuel to produce it.  We appear to be in a vortex which cannot be stopped, and thousands of ocean side cities will drown.

Another way in which we could believe that our house may be burning is this: Consider the enormous risks of nuclear energy, both military and civilian.  Nuclear energy has proven time and again to bring millions of people and the environment itself to grave straits or to death.

Beyond those two examples, we could think about our house burning if we consider the ever increasing rate and extent of warfare over the last century; if we consider the massive confrontation that is building up between religious groups in the world; if we consider the confrontation between economic disparities; if we consider the enormous buildup of garbage floating as islands in the oceans; if we consider the rate of extinction of wildlife; and more.

St. Luke thought this message was an important thing for Christians to absorb: to follow Jesus with the willingness to leave family ties, with the willingness to face radical self-denial, and with the willingness to give up our material possessions. Taken with the book of Philemon, we read of St Paul’s call to do the same, in his statement of a Christian appeal to dissolve the bonds of slavery.

Don’t invest in a house which is already burning down.  The only rescue is to follow Jesus and invest in a house which will endure forever.

St Francis of Assisi and those in the religious orders through the centuries are examples of people who have carried out these words of Jesus in a literal way.  We thank God for Mother Theresa of Kolkata who was sainted today (September 4 2016).

Those of us who are married or have families would find it more difficult to implement these words of Jesus literally. We can perhaps take these words of Jesus in a way which refers to our attitudes.  Our attitude would be that any person, any relationship, any event, and any material good always depends on God’s will.  We should never consider it “ours”, and never deal with it in a way which is detrimental to the health of the planet. We should live simply, sustainably, and generously.

St Therese of Avila (whose words have been sung by John Michael Talbot) put this same thought in a beautiful way that we can dwell upon and contemplate:  Everyone who has God has everything.  Do not despair, do not doubt, and do not seize upon and clutch to things.  Do not fear, but have self restraint and patience.  Everyone who has God has everything.

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On the Loss of a Child (Lk 12:32-40)

In our Gospel reading (Lk 12:32-40), Jesus indicates to us, his “little flock”, the importance of watchfulness over our treasure of faith, and the importance of perseverance.

In terms of watchfulness, I remember once losing my son at an amusement park.  Fortunately, the park was a small one and the period until I found him was short.  He had simply wandered from the dodgem cars to the carousel.  Any parent will know the cold clutch of fear on my heart – and the importance of watching over such a treasure as a child.  You can pay a price for being distracted.  I remember that Abigail Adams wife of President John Adams) blamed her absence for the loss of one of her sons.  And we remember that God lost a child too.

Raising a child also takes faith, and perseverance, doesn’t it?  You invest your whole self in the future of this child – so there is faith; and you don’t stop half way – so there is perseverance.  So these things that Jesus mentions, faith, watchfulness, and perseverance are all three important elements of every family with children.  It takes parents, teachers, and many more to raise children, of course.  When children finally fly, however haltingly, it brings one of life’s great joys, does it not?

The importance of faith and perseverance is in our other readings today: In Genesis 15:1-6 we have the wonderful story of God’s promise to Abraham.  The reference to the stars and the whole promise recalls the creation in Genesis 1. Psalm 33 also recalls the creation.  Why the creation?  The reason is that the perfect relationship between God and Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 and 2, was lost in Genesis 3.   That relationship with God begins to be restored through the faith and obedience of Abraham in Genesis 15.  Abraham “trusted God and God counted it to him as righteousness.”  In Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 we read that Abraham trusted God persevering, trusting way, even though he and his son, and then his grandson, all died without receiving the promised land.   Yet God’s promise has been fulfilled at least in a degree, for we see billions of children of faith coming from Abraham, through the Jews, the Christians, and the Moslems.

IT HAS PLEASED GOD:  God has not done this begrudgingly or apprehensively, but God is pleased to entrust us with this right and responsibility, without any prospect of withdrawing it.  God is sure of our capacity to do it, equipped with the forgiveness we have in Jesus, with the power of the Holy Spirit, with the sacrament of the body of Christ.  In each hour, we are to follow the person of Jesus Christ.   As we grow in familiarity with Jesus Christ, our lives increasingly follow God’s constitution, and follow the contours of what God wants us to be.

So today, when we put our talents and abilities into action, we act in a spirit of trust and faith in God, and a spirit of continual watchfulness that the final curtain may come at any moment.  Noel Coward said “Thousands of people have talent.  I might as well congratulate you for having eyes in your head.  The only thing which counts is this: Do you have staying power?”

Staying power simply, that we choose this way or the other way in this one hour of the life that God gives us.

In these days we remember Albrecht Durer the artist, Laurence the deacon and martyr in Rome, Clare of Assisi, and Florence Nightingale of nursing fame.  They all expressed their faith in God, in their particular ways, and they persevered in doing so for their whole lives long.

In so doing, we will come to the point – perhaps tonight — that we will return to God the life that God entrusted to us.  Furthermore, that we can return that trust and that life back to God with the same pleasure that God handed our life to us.

In each hour, do you have staying power for one hour, to reach that great moment?

(Closing prayer from John Rippon’s hymn, #637 in 1982 Hymnal vs 3:)  “When through the deep waters I call you to go the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow; for I will be with thee thy troubles to bless and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress… [your] soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”

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The Revenant and The Lord’s Prayer

The Revenant was an Oscar winning ‘survival’ movie last year (2015).  Set in Montana and South Dakota, it was based on (but different from) the story of Hugh Glass in 1823.

As portrayed in this very bleak movie, Glass’ desperate journey was fueled not only by an attitude of rugged individualism, and the desire for survival but also for the desire of revenge.  As director-producer Inarritu said, surely, anyone who lives for revenge will meet not only disappointment but self injury.

Our Gospel reading today is Luke’s version of “The Lord’s Prayer” (Lk 11:1-13).  Here, there is a complete contrast in perspective from that of The Revenant.  For Jesus teaches us to seek not revenge, but forgiveness; he teaches us to pursue not rugged individualism, but community with God and God’s people.

On our TV screens, we watch destruction and terror, with extremist religion used as a tool of war.  We see men, women and children bleeding, starving, and suffering.

In Exodus 22:22-27, however, God says: “Be sure that I will listen if they appeal to me… for I am full of compassion.”  Ins Psalm 138 we read, “When I called, you answered.”

In Genesis 18:11-15, we see Abraham and Sarah learning that God’s promises are not impossible, not laughable.  They learn to converse and even negotiate with the God who is both near and yet also immense and majestic.  They learn to listen to God, to patiently expect and await God’s promised history changing action even when it seems impossible.  Prayer is about learning to listen to God.

A connecting verse between Genesis 18 and Luke 11 could be how Abraham, like Jesus, reached the point of praying that challenging prayer, “Thy will be done.”   I knew a woman whose young daughter was deathly ill with mercuric poisoning, in the mid-1950’s.

At that time, there was no cure known there in Durban, South Africa.  They sent off to London for advice.  The mother prayed on the beach, and as the Dutch people do, finished her prayer with, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, …”  But she could not say the next phrase, “Thy will be done.”  There was a great spiritual struggle there on the beach, before she eventually said, “Thy will be done.”

On her way home, she first dragged, then walked, then ran, then skipped.  Bursting into the home, she said to the nurse: “Old bananas and egg custard!”  It was a quarter teaspoon first, then a half later, until the child was eating again.

About a month later, the message returned from a London hospital: “A cure is not known.  But one nurse says that one should feed old bananas and egg custard.”  That young child is alive and well and living here in the USA today. I know her.

In Luke 11, we have Luke’s version of Jesus’ teaching on prayer.  There are the following seven important features:

[1] The intimate relationship between the disciple and God: “Father”; Aramaic “Abba”.  Prayer itself is not superficial saying of words.  Rather, prayer is our deep yearning cry to God.  And it is all about our lives becoming conformed to God’s will: “Thy will be done.”

[2] The depth of this yearning cry is reflected also in our decisions, choices, actions, and lifestyle.  The disciples are praying as they are carrying out God’s mission, in prayer and work. Admittedly, sometimes I have found that everything I tried to do came to nothing, but there is an honesty about prayer that is accompanied by action; and a divine wisdom about action that is woven with prayer.

[3] This deep yearning cry is “our” cry – rather than “my” cry, as we see in verses 11:2, 3, 4 and 5. There have been times I have worried alone and isolated, like Hugh Glass in The Revenant:  Rather, turn each concern into a prayer to God who is always listening, especially into prayer in which others share–perhaps around the meal table.  There is healing in that prayerful conversation together with God.

Notice when others around you seem to be worrying alone.  Share together the deep yearning cry to God of the heart with that person, with a friend, or with a prayer group.

[4] In our gospel passage, the health of the community and relationships appears in two ways:

  • Physical survival — in verse 3, bread [but not luxury food, cars, and housing!]
  • In verse 4, in the forgiveness of our sins as we forgive others

[5] Our deep yearning cry is persistent: “Day by day” in verse 3; and in the persistence of the friend. “Seek and ye will find; knock and the door will be opened unto you” (Lk 11:9//Mt 7:7-8).  I prayed for one person for 12 years, daily; another for 24 years so far: all these prayers being answered.  Persistence in relationships allows for adjustments, for growth, and for maturity.  Patience is one of the fruits of the spirit in Gal 5:22; and “Patience produces the proof” (Romans 5:4).   Stick to it!  The moment will come that you will again see what God has done.  Love never fails.  God never fails.

[6] Our deep yearning cry is effective: Earthly bread Luke 11:3; the friend who knocks finds the door opens; and when we ask we receive.

[7] Our deepest yearning is for The Holy Spirit; and the gift of the Holy Spirit is the Divine response to the cry of God’s children (Luke 11:13). This emphasis on prayer and on the Holy Spirit is a characteristic of Luke in his Gospel and in Acts.

Make this prayer your own: “O Holy Spirit, Lord of grace, eternal source of love: you searched for us and found us in Jesus; you unbound us and freed us; your love is all around us: inflame our hearts with love for you and for one another; inflame our hearts with faith, with hope, and with joy” (Fred Kaan in Hundred Hymns For Today #25; and C. Coffin 1676-1749, tr. J. Chandler in EH 453)

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A British massacre of German sailors

What Jesus calls essential: The loving care of the other

The British ship HMS Dorchester played a key role in sinking the German battleship Bismarck on 21 May 1941.  Then, in an act of vengeance and hatred, the HMS Dorchester sailed away and left 840 German sailors of the sunken ship Bismarck to drown.

That sad action is by contrast with the message of our gospel reading today from St. Luke 10:25-37.  This gospel reading begins with the great command of love, the summary of the law or Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”

Then Luke’s gospel continues with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  This parable is about the loving care of the stranger who is in need, and who is also from another ethnic group.  The antagonism between Jews and Samaritans appears at several points in the Gospels.  In this parable, Jewish leaders fail while it is the Samaritan who fulfils the by the summary of the Law and so gains the eternal life promised.

In our first reading today, from Deuteronomy 30:9-14 we are told that doing God’s law is not difficult.  Indeed, loving-kindness to our neighbor need not be difficult at all, except for our prejudices, racism, and hard heartedness!

Our psalm today (Ps 25) affirms that God “guides the humble in doing right, and teaches his way to the lowly” (verse 8).  That is, the proud, self-righteous, and arrogant will not find God’s way.

Around us at present we have cases of prejudice, hatred, vengeance, cruelty and violence in all the events of Ferguson, Orlando, Baton Rouge, St Paul, and Dallas; in Aurora, San Bernardino and in Sandy Hook; and in Paris, Turkey and Iraq in the week up to last Sunday.  Each action and reaction seems to be an increasing vortex of evil.

I remember a moment when a friend and colleague of mine named Phakamile Mabija was murdered by the authorities in 1977.  For some time, I was wracked with anger and the desire to retaliate, and indeed took some steps in that direction.  But the moment came that I felt I met with God directly, and God simply and quietly said to me that that was not the way.  I personally know those feelings of anger, vengeance, and prejudice, and I know that they are not the way.

On the other hand, we have wonderful examples of human beings who have shown a love which reflects divine love.

To me, one example of this is Eleanor Roosevelt.  She suffered great personal disappointment.  She could have turned inwards.  She could have taken vengeance just as HMS Dorchester took vengeance on the German sailors.  But rather, Eleanor Roosevelt decided to turn her energy and abilities outwards to others.  She is famous for the way in which she lovingly cared for others.  She built up the women of the USA, and loved her country.  She built up the world through her contributions to the United Nations.

Through this parable in our gospel reading, Jesus asks us all, “To which person are you a neighbor?”  Which stranger in trouble, in need, would say that we gave loving care to them?  This week, who will say that we expressed divine love to them?

As individuals, perhaps for good reason, we may feel frightened or angry; but Jesus calls us to reach out beyond that.  If your love is insufficient, you can know that God loves them.  Borrow God’s love, and lovingly care for some wounded and ignored person or group of people, however and however repulsive they may seem.

As Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) wrote: “Thou art giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest, well-spring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest! Thou our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are thine: teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.”

(The music to the above is adapted from Hymn To Joy by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

July 10, 2016 at Trinity Church Whitinsville and St John’s Church Millville MA

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