07 June 2015

Unforgivable Sin and the Gift of Grace: A sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost B

Today’s readings are packed full of things that we as a church would rather not talk about: disobedience, shame, exile, despair, demonic possession and the unforgivable sin. Oof. It’s no wonder that the first commentary I read about these suggested that preachers talk about Jesus expanding the boundaries of family. That’s a nice gentle thing to talk about on a Sunday morning, isn’t it? Jesus sitting with his followers and claiming them as his brothers and sisters. I’ve already written at least one sermon about that idea, and I’m sure I could write another. But I’m not going to do that today.

I’m also not going to spend a lot of time on the Fall of Man in our Old Testament reading. If Carol would like to invite me back to preach in June of 2018, when this reading comes up in the lectionary again, that might give me enough time to put together a coherent sermon on snakes and apples, maybe.

Our Gospel reading is just a snippet of Mark which we’ll be hearing more of as the summer goes on. Mark is the earliest and the shortest of the Gospels. It begins with John the Baptist proclaiming “Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight paths for him.” At the time of today’s reading, Jesus has been baptized, has spent 40 days in the wilderness being tested, begun his public ministry, called his disciples, driven out unclean spirits and healed many people, even on the Sabbath. In short, he had made a lot of noise, gathered quite a few followers, annoyed a lot of people, made himself notorious.

A crowd of people, both disciples and critics, had followed Jesus into a house. There were so many of them that Jesus and the disciples couldn’t sit down to eat. Now, Mark is not big on colorful details, but I imagine that the room was chaotic. In contrast to the peaceful paintings of Jesus teaching while disciples sit a respectful distance from him, quietly eager to absorb knowledge, this crowd jostled to get closer, to hear better. Men who had studied scriptures their whole lives didn’t just listen, they would have questioned and debated with Jesus. Healings would have been met with outbursts of surprise, delight and disbelief. Multiple small groups would be having side conversations about what they had heard and seen.

One of those groups was the scribes. No mere local rabbis, these scribes were the equivalent of a group of Vatican theologians. They had come, or been called, specifically to see Jesus, to figure out what was going on with this itinerant rabbi that was causing so much trouble. They had watched and listened and discussed among themselves, maybe they even had a small crowd gathered around them listening in. They had seen miracles, heard testimony from the crowd of even more miracles, and they knew that whatever this Jesus person was, he was not a charlatan. He has real power. It’s possible that they considered and rejected the idea of Jesus as God, but more likely the idea of God walking among them was so outrageous, so outside of the boundaries that defined their relationship with God that they couldn’t see it, even with the evidence in front of them. So they declare that Jesus is Beezlebub, the devil himself. And they say it loud enough that Jesus can hear them.

The upstart rabbi had been called out by the respected, established religious leaders. Shock must have rippled through the crowd as the Scribes declaration was heard and repeated, and then there was quiet, because everyone, disciples and Scribes alike, would have wanted to know what was going to happen next.

Jesus is not known for giving straight answers to religious authorities, especially the ones who are questioning his identity, so it’s no surprise that he starts by asking them a question: “How can Satan drive out Satan?” And before they can start to answer the question he tells a two sentence parable.  “No one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.”

This short parable is also Jesus’ mission statement in the Gospel of Mark. This world is controlled by an evil power, and our job is to tie it up. But, as our Old Testament reading shows us, we lack the character to choose good over evil, and we don’t have the power to make good come out of evil. The Gospel of Mark is short, but it could be even shorter. It could be just this parable. Jesus has come to bind up the strong man and loot Satan’s kingdom. It plays out small when Jesus casts out demons, and then on a much larger scale when Jesus, having annoyed too many Scribes, is arrested and crucified, only to bind up the strong man that is death, freeing God’s good creation.

The Scribes of course, can’t see that. The gift of Grace that Jesus offers them is too different from the rigid structures of their faith. The radical change necessary to heal the sick and cast out demons, even on the sabbath, to eat with sinners, that love it is too hard for them, they’d rather follow the rules. So where they should see the Holy Spirit, they see the devil instead. And it turns out that deciding that “Love is too hard.” is the only unforgivable sin, that’s the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

So maybe I am going to talk about the expansion of family after all. The crowd pressed in on Jesus, wanting to hear his words, to be healed, to have one touch, one point of contact with the grace they saw in him. But Jesus tells them that they are his brothers and sisters, his family, and all they have to do, all we have to do  is see the gift of Grace that is placed before us, and do God’s will, and follow Jesus in healing and love. We will fail as Adam and Eve failed, as men and women have always failed, but if we get back up again, follow again, we will find that the touch of grace we were looking for has been paid out more abundantly than we could possibly imagine.

Lectionary Readings (Track 2)
God Calls Us to Expand Our Family (Sermons That Work)
Preach This Week (Working Preacher)

19 April 2015

Wounds That Do Not Heal: A Sermon for Easter 3B

I love Liturgy. It’s one of the reasons I am an Episcopalian. But there’s no doubt that because we say the same words week after week, year after year, we sometimes say them without giving much thought to what they really mean.

In the Apostles creed, the one that we use every time there is a baptism, we say

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting.

My guess is that most of you are like me, and don’t give a lot of thought to the resurrection of the body most of the time. And when we do think about it, we don’t think of resurrection in our current bodies. We imagine better bodies, taller, thinner, stronger bodies, bodies that don’t ache when it rains or wheeze when the flowers bloom, bodies that don’t grow malignancies, bodies without depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

One of the things that we say to each other when someone dies after a difficult physical or mental illness is “at least they aren't in pain anymore.” Whatever we believe about the afterlife, we seem fairly sure that we will shed these broken bodies. It’s comforting to think that way, and in the case of the things that affect only our physical bodies, it’s what I believe. But what about the wounds that aren't just physical, The broken-ness of our minds and our souls that shapes who we are? How can we split what is good about us, our compassion, our resilience, even our humor, from the pain that made us this way?

When my first child was stillborn, nearly ten years ago, I was approached by many women who offered their sympathy, and told me that it had happened to them, too. They meant to tell me that I was not alone in my grief, and I was grateful for it, but what struck me as I looked at them, was how open that grief still was for them, years, sometimes decades later. These were women with full, happy lives, healthy children, even grandchildren, and yet the wound was still open. And I thought, “I am never going to get out of this. I am going to be this person forever.” And it terrified me.

Ten years later, I have a full and happy life, and two healthy children. But I am still that person who has lost a child, because no matter how much journaling or therapy or reading or writing or exercising or praying you do, you cannot go back to being the person that you were before the lid was blown off your life. Many of you, most of you, have wounds of your own. They are the unavoidable result of living in a broken world. And some of them will never heal.

The disciples had their own wounds, loss and fear, wounds that were as real as the holes in Jesus’ hands, wounds that were still bleeding away their courage and their vitality, wounds so fresh that they could not see what was happening in front of them despite many signs. The women had found the empty tomb, in the passage just before today’s Gospel reading Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and now he appears to them in an upper room and says “Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you” is another thing we say every week without giving it much thought. It’s a powerful blessing, if you’re paying attention. The Hebrew word Jesus would have used is “Shalom” which means “Peace”, but not just the absence of conflict, completeness, fullness and rest. Shalom is a full relationship with God and with each other. Think about that when we pass the peace this morning, and what it would mean for the world if we were sincere about it.

But the disciples weren't ready to receive the peace that Jesus offered. They didn't know what what happening until he showed them his wounds to prove he wasn't a ghost. It’s an understandable confusion, even with the signs and the scriptures. Who among us, faced with a loved one thought to be dead would think “this is the fulfillment of the scriptures!” instead of pinching ourselves, or wondering if someone had slipped something into our drinks.  Jesus then asked for a piece of fish, maybe to give further proof that he was alive, or maybe he was just hungry. Either way it gave the disciples time to process what they were seeing. Only then could he open their minds to the scriptures, and they were able to see how God was using the crucifixion and the resurrection to bring the peace that Jesus offered. It wasn't that they hadn't known the scriptures before, it was that they were too wounded to see clearly.

With the guidance of the resurrected Jesus, the disciples were able to see that the resurrection was about more than life after death and embarrassing human powers, it was about repentance and forgiveness and peace not just for chosen people but for all people, where repentance is not just being sorry for what you did wrong, but having a changed mind and a changed heart, a new perspective, a new community.

That’s the story that is at the heart of the crucifixion and resurrection. The same story that weaves through the whole history of God’s people. In the midst of destruction God is working. Jesus appeared with hands still wounded from the crucifixion, because there are wounds that never heal. Our wounds may never heal, but just as Jesus’ wounds were no longer bleeding, the promise of the resurrection is that our wounds do not have to bleed us of our lives and our vitality, and we can use our whole selves, wounds and all, to offer fullness, rest and relationship to others.

Peace be with you.


16 April 2015

The Story of Caleb Joseph, an Invitation to the New Fan

If you're not already a baseball fan, then Caleb Joseph is the reason you should become one.

A year ago, Caleb Joseph was stuck in the minor leagues. After four seasons with the AA Bowie Baysox, he was up a level at AAA Norfolk, making almost no money, not as much money as a man with a new wife and hopes for a family would need. He’d planned to give it up, to go find a real job and be a guy who had once played professional baseball but that you’d probably never heard of. Maybe he would tell stories, and maybe he’d be a coach somewhere in his spare time. He didn't want to quit, of course, but four years in AA ball is not how you get to the Major Leagues. I’m sure he thought it was time to grow up and stop dreaming about baseball.
It was Caleb Joseph’s wife who convinced him to give it one more shot, one more season of minor league ball, one more season of watching hotshot prospects get called up, of playing with big leaguers when they came to the minor leagues to rehab after an injury, one more season of trying to take everything the coaches said to heart and making his body perform the way they needed it to. One more season of subsistence income, bus rides, cheap motels, carrying his own gear.
Read the rest here. 

09 April 2015

American Vanilla Scones

Mmm . . .

Monday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the air was warm. It was Spring Break so the boys were home and no one was complaining about school. Friends came down the hill and invited the boys to play at the playground across the street. It was the Orioles opening day and the good guys won. There was a brief moment where it felt like summer and when I remembered it was just a brief respite from the school year it was sort of a bummer.

The two days that followed were cooler and more Spring-like, and I had to make the older boy buckle down and work on some homework so there was no forgetting what month it was.

The biscuits that started the whole thing. So fluffy.
I made biscuits last night, based on this King Arthur Flour recipe, which came out beautifully, and went well with the bean stew I made. But I noticed on the recipe that I could add up to 4 Tablespoons of sugar and make them scones.  So I made a few adjustments and made scones this morning, because it may be April, but at least there is no morning rush. I used vanilla sugar, which is just a jar of sugar with some spent vanilla beans stuff in it, and vanilla bean seeds, but you could use a splash of vanilla extract if that's what you have to hand. There's a quick vanilla scraping tutorial here. I also added a bit of whole wheat flour, because I like the added depth of flavor.

Same ingredients, different method, very different crumb.
A picture of said scones on Facebook naturally led to a wide-ranging conversation on the nature of American vs. British and Irish chemically leavened baked goods: biscuits, scones, crumpets, muffins, etc. This is what happens when you have friends from all over who like to eat and bake. The consensus is that these are not scones because they're triangular, or because they don't have raisins, or because they don't have an egg. Or maybe only because they do not have clotted cream on them. The triangular part seems to be the thing that makes these truly American scones as opposed to English ones. I did serve them with strawberry jam, so maybe that's something. Also they are tasty and quick and if you have clotted cream you might as well use it on these as anything else. If you don't have clotted cream they're good fresh and warm with no adornment at all.

American Vanilla Scones
makes 12 medium-sized scones

4 ounces whole wheat flour
8 ounces all-purpose flour
1/4 cup vanilla sugar (or regular sugar)
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
seeds of one vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 Tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks
1 cup milk


Preheat oven to 425 Fahrenheit. Cover a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Combine flours, sugar, baking powder, salt and vanilla bean seeds (if using) in a medium bowl, or a in a food processor work bowl. Whisk together for at least 30 seconds or 5 pulses of the food processor.

Add butter and cut in using two knives, a pastry cutter, or more pulses of the food processor, until butter pieces are the size of a pea or smaller.

If using a food processor, transfer flour mix to a medium bowl.

Add milk (and vanilla extract if using) all at once and stir just to combine. Turn out onto the counter and smoosh the dough together into a ball. It will be sticky, like a cookie dough.  Cut dough in half, and shape each half into a circle about 3/4 inch thick on the baking sheet with lightly floured hands.  Using a floured knife or bench scraper, deeply score each circle into 6 triangles.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly browned.  Allow to cool for ten minutes, then cut into triangles and eat plain or split in half and top with strawberry jam, butter, clotted cream, honey, or whatever will make your morning better.

25 February 2015

Am I supposed to believe?

This is a repost from an old blog. Apologies if you've seen it before.

Am I supposed to believe that God walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve?

Am I supposed to believe that God asked Cain where Abel had gone?

Am I supposed to believe that God gave Noah detailed plans for building the ark?

Am I supposed to believe that God told Abraham to take his family and go to another land?

Am I supposed to believe that God sent an angel to save Isaac at the last minute?

Am I supposed to believe that God wrestled with Jacob, blessed him, and named his Israel?

Am I supposed to believe that God had a purpose for Joseph?

Am I supposed to believe that God spoke to Moses from a burning bush?

Am I supposed to believe that God sent many prophets?

Am I supposed to believe that God spoke to Job from the whirlwind?

Am I supposed to believe that God sent His only Son to walk among us?

Am I supposed to believe that God sent the Holy Spirit down like tongues of fire?

And if I am supposed to believe all of that, am I then supposed to believe that God has had nothing new to say, no new revelations for us, in the two thousand years since? Am I supposed to believe that words that were written down nearly two thousand years ago are God's final words to his people? Am I supposed to believe that God spoke to His people in many tongues for thousands of years and then just stopped?

I don't believe it.

22 February 2015

Stolen Pumpkin Muffins

Saturday Muffins, Plate 1
Muffins can be tricky business. They're great things to make fresh for breakfast, because they're small and bake quickly. On the other hand, they go from deliciously moist to dreadfully over-baked in the time it takes you to finish typing a status update.  Add in all the usual pitfalls of quick-breads and you really need a good recipe and good technique to make good muffins.

It started with Christine's pumpkin bread recipe, which I stole shamelessly, because in cookery it's not stealing, it's sharing. It's a fine pumpkin bread recipe, not a thing wrong with it. But I have never been one to leave well enough alone. Perhaps because I don't want to feel like I'm making someone else's recipe, because I want to prove I'm a special baking snowflake who can fiddle with baking recipes.

So I fiddled. And the first time it was all wrong. The bread was overly dense and a bit sad looking at the top. Multiple slightly sad, if still edible, attempts followed. Often they were all wrong because I was trying to double a recipe as I went and I always forgot to double something. Eventually I just wrote down the doubled amounts and worked from there, which a sensible person would have done in the first place. A week ago the stars finally aligned and I had the muffins I wanted. 

A note on spices: I just use what I have hanging around the pantry waiting to be used. Sometimes it's store bought pumpkin pie spice mix. Sometimes it's my own mix, which is like store bought, but heavier on ginger and nutmeg. Last time I used only cardamom and ginger. You can use plain cinnamon if that's what you have on hand.

Stolen Pumpkin Muffins
Makes two 8.5" x 4.5" loaves or 18 standard muffins.

360 g (12 3/4 oz) (3 cups) White Whole Wheat Flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons  spice (See note above)

4 eggs
3/4 brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
can (15 oz) pumpkin puree
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup orange juice (water)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Prepare 2 standard loaf pans or 18 standard muffin cups. (I always use non-stick baking spray with flour for this, but lightly oiling the pans works too.)

In a medium sized bowl, combine flour, salt, baking soda and spices. Whisk well, 30-60 seconds, to evenly distribute the baking soda. This will give an even crumb. Set aside.

Break eggs into a large bowl and whisk them until slightly lightened in color and they have a nice foam. This is where you beat the air into the muffins, so don't skimp. 

Add the sugars to the beaten eggs and beat again. If you're like me you'll have to crush more than one brown sugar lump. Get the big ones but don't worry about the tiny ones. They'll be fine.

To the egg and sugar, add the pumpkin, oil and orange juice. Whisk to combine.

Put down the whisk. Dump the flour mixture into the wet ingredients. Using a silicone spatula, fold the flour into the batter, slowly, using large strokes, just until all the flour is wet. This is not where you beat air into the muffins. If you stir too long or too hard you'll just make tough muffins.

Distribute the batter in the muffin tins or loaf pans. For muffin tins I like to use an ice cream scoop with a release scraper. Mine is 1/3 cup and is the perfect size for muffins.

Bake 18-22 minutes for muffins or 40-50 minutes for loaves. Remove from the oven when a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean or with moist crumbs. Remember that the muffins especially will keep baking after they're removed, so don't over do it. 

Allow to rest in tins, 5 minutes for muffins, 10 minutes for loaves, before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Saturday Muffins, Plate 2

14 December 2014

Oaks of Righteousness; A Sermon for Advent 3B

It’s a good time of year to hear about John testifying to the light. The days are short, and even when the sun is supposed to be out the sky is often grey. It’s no surprise that when early Christians talked about God they talked about light. Darkness used to be dangerous.

For us, it’s easy enough to push back the darkness with the flip of a switch. I got a letter from PEPCO last week that compared my home’s electrical use with other similar homes. We are “better than average” but not “the best.”  And according to the helpful line graph, most of my electricity use happens between 5 and 11 PM.  “Think about who is using electricity in your home at that time.” said the letter.  The answer is we all are. That’s dinner time and bath time and if I don’t start laundry now my son won’t have clean pants for school tomorrow time. It’s also a time when I am prone to leave lights on in rooms I’m not using simply because it drives away the gloom.  I put the letter on my refrigerator, to remind myself that I should turn off the lights I’m not using and learn to live with a little gloom, but our Christmas tree is up and decorated and electric bill or no electric bill I’m going to have it lit in the evenings.

The stores this time of year are brightly it and aggressively selling CHEER at you. Cheer is not light, but it sure does use a lot of electricity. Cheer apparently comes in red and white stripes and is both peppermint flavored and spruce scented. Outside it’s dark and rainy, but inside it’s warm and bright and there’s cheerful music playing and there is not a problem in the world that cannot be solved with a cleverly packaged gift set of books or toiletries or a six foot tall pre-lit artificial fir tree on a rotating stand.  Commercial culture will tell you that no matter what the source of the gloom, you can spend your way out of it.

Into all of this artificial brightness comes our reading from Isaiah, healing words spoken to an exiled people. Listen to the words “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . “ just as in the beginning the Spirit of God moved over the waters. Isaiah is telling a creation story, a recreation story, a story about coming home.  For the exiled Israelites who were returning to Jerusalem it was a promise of return to a real place, just as some of us are preparing for a Christmas journey to our childhood home.

But many of us aren't making that journey, because home is too far away, or we’re too busy. Maybe home isn't there anymore, or maybe the kind of home we sing about at Christmas was never part of our lives in the first place. That’s why all those stores are selling us peppermint flavored, spruce scented memories, it’s why we bake the same cookies and play the same songs. In a world as broken as this one, as broken now as it was for the exiled Israelites of Isaiah’s time, we long to build a home for Christmas where we are, just like the one we remember or the one we wish we’d had.

Isaiah reminds us that the home we are yearning for has a source greater than the shopping mall.  “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” he says, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” The phrase “proclaim liberty to the captives” reflects the commission of the Jubilee year, a time when debts were forgiven and captives were literally set free.  Isaiah is saying the Spirit of God is upon me to bring these people home.

Isaiah’s people had been in exile and were returning to Jerusalem, but the place had been sacked in their absence. They weren't coming home to warm hearths and bowls of wassail and celebrations. They had come home, and yet they were still in exile. They were coming home to ruins, and had to build up not only a temple but a society, one that met God’s expectations for justice. “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

Frankly that sounds like an overwhelming amount of work. It must have been tempting for those that had the means to put on the garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and just pretend that the rest of it was true, too. Just as we are tempted to buy the tallest possible Christmas tree and pretend that makes up for all the missing merriment.  That’s why we have prophets, of course. Isaiah role was to keep people moving in the right direction, even when the work was hard.

It was this passage in Isaiah that Jesus chose for his first sermon.  To begin his public ministry Jesus stood up in front of his synagogue and read that passage from Isaiah, then he told the assembly that the the words of the prophet were fulfilled in him. He was telling them that the time of exile, of injustice, was over, and it was time to come home.

And here we are this Advent season standing in the devastations of many generations. Sure, our church building is beautiful, and we all made it here this morning with clothes on our backs and if you stick around after the service, which I hope you’ll do, there will be an ample coffee hour.  But once you step out of this building you will stepping into world so broken, so violent, so hungry, so unjust that just the daily headlines can break your heart.  The problems we face, the problems of racial inequality, of economic inequality, of unjust treatment of prisoners, are the work of many generations.

Where are these oaks of righteousness that Isaiah promised, that Jesus promised?

And then I read the scripture again. “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

“They will be called.” Isaiah doesn't say “I will be called an oak of righteousness.” or “God will be called an oak of righteousness.”  “They will be called.”  Isaiah was sent by the Spirit to bind up the brokenness, not for the sake of wholeness alone, but so that the people of Israel could be oaks of righteousness, so that they can do the hard work in front of them, so that they can build a just society for everyone. There’s no easy way out promised by this passage. We can’t just say “God will sort it out.” because the promise isn't that the problems will be magically swept away. The promise is that we will be strengthened to do the work. The Spirit of God will be upon us, and God will work through us.

To do this work, to restore justice, it will take more than a memory of a more just time, even if we had such a memory, just as creating a true Christmas in our homes requires more than a memory of the kinds of Christmases we loved or wished for as children. We must, as God does, love justice and hate robbery and wrongdoing. We must, as Isaiah did, bind up the brokenhearted. We must, as John did, proclaim the light not only in words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts but in real, concrete actions in our voting booths, in soup kitchens, in schools, in prisons, in the protests on the streets and wherever the Spirit takes us.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28


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