Here Comes That Dreamer

Sermon preached at St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, WA
August 10, 2014

[The brothers] said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; … and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”  – Genesis 37

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Today I want to talk about dreams – the kind of dreams that change the world. The kind that show us how life could be. The kind we struggle to believe in.

Today we read the story of Joseph – the passionate, precocious, slightly annoying youngest son of Jacob.  Joseph, the favorite child, spoiled by his father, loved more than all the others.  Joseph, whose Amazing Technicholor Dreamcoat got himself thrown into a pit, left to die, and then sold into slavery in Egypt.

This story is partly about jealousy; partly about brothers who could not stomach their father’s un-equal love.  But the story is also one about dreams. Dreams that Joseph had about himself, his brothers, their future.

“Here comes this dreamer” they sneered at him, during his visit to the flocks at Shechem; a not-so-subtle mission from his father to check up on the other brothers. But what were these dreams of Joseph? What made the brothers so mad? Our lectionary leaves these verses out, but I’ll read them now:

“Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.

He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”

What kind of dream is this that you have had, Joseph? What world do you live in, Joseph? What makes you think that the oldest would ever bow to the youngest? What makes you think these dreams might come true?

And yet, they did come true. Joseph, annoying younger brother, sold into slavery, thrown into prison becomes not only a dreamer but an interpreter of dreams, advisor to Pharoah, ruler over the land, ruler over his brothers.

Joseph’s dreams of bowing wheat and bowing stars seemed to have no basis in reality, seemed to be a far-fetched fantasy of a spoiled, self-important, disruptive seventeen-year old. But in those dreams was revealed the plan of God.

They were, in the end, not so much about Joseph, his fancy dreamcoat or delusions of grandeur. They were a glimpse into an unlikely series of events that would, in time, save his people from famine and disaster.

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Today, I have the honor of visiting St. Mark’s with Kids4Peace: an interfaith youth movement of Christians, Muslims and Jews; a community of young dreamers from Palestine, Israel and here in Seattle (a few from St. Mark’s), who are gathered for a camp this week in Mount Vernon, Washington. Fortunately for all of us, their dreams are a little different from Joseph’s.

Dreams not about ruling over others, but about living together–

Dreams that Muslims, Christians and Jews can partners in healing this world

Dreams that children of the holocaust and children of the Nakba can lead the way to a different future.

Dreams that violence will one day cease.

Dreams that hope will one day prevail.

Dreams that truth can be spoken in love.

Dreams that enemies can be friends.

Dreams … that one day Jerusalem will be the city of peace, again.

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But this summer, as violence rages across the Middle East – as rockets fall and bombs drop, as death and devastation seem to be the norm, these dreams of peace can appear as naïve and far-fetched as Joseph’s sheaves of wheat.   For nearly a month, I was glued to Twitter — restless in my sleep, haunted by images of suffering, waking up way earlier than I usually do, to check the latest live feeds from Gaza and Jerusalem.

For nearly a month, I heard broken-hearted stories from our Kids4Peace Jerusalem staff and families.   Stories of vengeance unleashed in the streets, stories of homes raided in the West Bank, stories of peace activists assaulted on their way to demonstrations in Tel Aviv, stories of Palestinian family friends killed while calling for justice, stories of parents tearfully sending their soldiers – their children – off to war.

The pain, the fear, the injustice of it all can be so overwhelming that we lose the ability to dream. 

And yet, we must dream, because these dreams of peace are from God. These visions of hope are from God. And these dreams are good for our soul.   In addition to a week at camp, we bring our Kids4Peace groups to a church, a mosque and a synagogue. For many campers this is their first time to set foot in the house of worship of another.

A few years ago, at our camp in Atlanta, we visited a synagogue where we had been for many years. This year, though, the Rabbi did something different. He invited three children, one from each faith, to speak during the Friday prayers, each in their own language: an Israeli Jew, an American Christian, a Palestinian Muslim sharing their dreams for peace. It was the first and perhaps only time, that Arabic was spoken from that pulpit, that a young Muslim was the spiritual teacher of the day.

And as he explained this choice to his congregation, the Rabbi said this: “All year long, every day, I struggle to change in the world as it is. With Kids4Peace, I get to experience the world as it should be.”

Dreams are not enough, for sure. Change will come only through hard work and courageous action. It will take advocacy and activism, pressure as well as dialogue.   But we must dream. We must remain in touch with our deepest hopes, our wildest visions.

For if we live only in the world as it is, we risk not only endless frustration and despair, but also doing violence to one another because of our pain.   We risk become captive to our present reality, enslaved to our past. We can spend a lifetime blaming ourselves and others for what is and what might have been. For wrong decisions and missed opportunities, all clear in hindsight. We need to learn from the past, to acknowledge its power, to heed its lessons – but we need no less to be moored to the future, propelled forward by a powerful hope which keeps oriented to God’s true vision for this world.

Dreams draw us into and through uncertainty. Joseph, I’m sure, had no idea what his sheaves of wheat and bowing planets would ultimately mean for his family and his people. Our understanding of dreams is always imperfect, yet our challenge is to take the next faithful step along the path that God is unfolding for us.   And as we go, to listen to the dreamers: to hear in them the heart of God, the hope of the Spirit.

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And so this summer, as violence spread through the Holy Land, as calls for vengeance became the norm — every parent of our Kids4Peace Jerusalem community — Jewish, Christian and Muslim, Palestinian and Israeli — more than a hundred strong.

Every parent chose to continue meeting, chose to send their kids to camp.   As rockets fell and bombs dropped, they reached out to one another, they spoke together, face to face, in the pain and the anger and the tears, amid despair and hopelessness.

They knew there was at least one place in their life that still held a dream, and they would not let it go.   Because of that dream, a new reality is coming into existence: a new creation.  Where Muslim, Christian and Jewish children grow up together. Where trust and respect, understanding and equality, dignity and justice are the foundation for the future. Where a new generation can dream their dreams.

Earlier this week, our camp facilitator Pam asked the kids this question: “what kind of world do you want to live in?” And so the dreams began….

  • I want to live in a world where everyone cares about each other
  • Where there is no starvation, and no war.
  • Where everyone is equal.
  • Where each person can wake up in the morning and choose what to do
  • Where poor people have opportunities
  • Where we all care about the environment
  • Where people can live without harming each other
  • Where there is no violence
  • Where there is freedom.

Among our campers is our very own Joseph (Yusuf from Jerusalem), and his dream is one I share: for a world where everyone can go to a camp like Kids4Peace.   It’s not because I love Kids4Peace so much, though that is true. It’s because I believe that we all need this chance to see and live in the world as it should be.   We need to experience this new reality for ourselves, to come close and discover that it is more possible than we ever imagined.

  • What if every child of Israel and every child of Palestine had the chance to see each other face to face, to hear each other’s stories and know each other’s pain.
  • What if thousands upon thousands of young Kids4Peace grew up together, in the Holy Land, and in our land, side by side in security and freedom.
  • What if prejudice and injustice melted away in the face of powerful relationships of love that would not tolerate anything less than full dignity and freedom for all

What if we let ourselves believe, just for an instant, that this dream might come true?

Probably we would find ourselves, like Joseph, the object of hatred. They may say of us, as they did of him, here comes that dreamer.  We may find ourselves in our own pit of isolation, we may lose friends, suffer ridicule, loss and even more pain.

Buy we may also find other dreamers, unlikely friends, partners, companions who share a vision of the world as it should be. Because we know in our heart that these dreams of peace are true, that they come from God, and so we continue to dream, to listen to the dreamers, and to live – for a while – in those places where dreams come true.

For Joseph, his dreams changed the lives of his family and his people. May our dreams do the same, this day and always.

The Daily Work of Good Soil

Sermon preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill (Washington, DC).
July 13, 2014

His name was Donald Sheehan, a long-time adjunct professor of English at my alma mater, Dartmouth College. He was a wise old man, and he looked the part. A long white beard, tweed jacket with well-worn elbow patches, dozens of index cards scribbled with his latest thoughts – stuffed in the left pocket of his never-ironed shirt. He even had a dog: a trusty old black lab, usually found curled up on his office floor.

By day, Donald Sheehan was a renowned English professor, whose freshman seminar on Rene Girard’s theory of violence was one of the college’s most popular courses. With a gripping, soft-spoken tone, he unraveled the mysteries of human desire, imitation, rivalry, and scapegoating that lay at the deadly core of civilization.

By night and on the weekends, Donald Sheehan had another life. It was nothing scandalous, so don’t get any wild ideas.

sheehanOutside the office and the classroom, he was Subdeacon Donald Sheehan, a leader in the local Orthodox Church. He was one of the world’s foremost scholars of theologian Pavel Florensky, a Russian priest, scientist and mathematician, who was dubbed the DaVinci of his generation. Florensky’s life was cut short by the Bolshevik revolution, but not before he authored his great work, The Pillar and Foundation of Truth.

Donald Sheehan had a study group that read Florensky’s masterpiece, chapter by chapter, every Tuesday night on the second floor of the college library. I was a Russian major, interested in diplomacy and the foreign service, but also with a curiosity about theology, so one of my other professors encouraged me to go. I was petrified as I stumbled into a room full of faculty and grad students, having understood almost none of what I was reading.

But then, much to my surprise, Don invited everyone to stand and pray.

Before any study, before any discussion about whether Creation, as a physical manifestation of the feminine Divine Sophia is in fact the fourth hypostasis of God (yes, Florensky argued for a Trinity, plus one), before debating whether the ancient orthodox liturgy of friend-making (adelphopoesis) was historical evidence of the holiness of gay marriage (yes, Florensky wrote about that too, nearly 100 years ago).

Before any debate about the influences of secular philosophy or the blending of science and religion, Before anything, the group stood and sang, in meticulous four-part harmony…

Come Holy Comforter, The Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things.
Treasury of blessing and Giver of Life: come and abide in us,
and free us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good one!

And so began my journey with Donald Sheehan, who would be my thesis advisor, mentor, and spiritual companion all rolled up in one. He introduced me ­– a proud, Pennsylvania Protestant – to the desert fathers and the spiritual traditions of Orthodoxy.   He taught me to pray the psalms (all of them) and the Jesus prayer – that monastic shorthand for prayer without ceasing: with every step, and every breath, offering the words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And so when I became the intern at the Episcopal campus ministry Center, I invited Don to speak to all of us students there. He opened his session with a question that I remember still to this day: “Is there anything we can do, in order to receive the grace of God?”

Ready to show off for my professor, I just about raised my hand and shouted, in true Protestant fashion “No, it’s a free gift!” We’re saved by grace through faith, not by works!  Martin Luther would have been proud.

But Don had a different answer. “Yes,” he said, “We can. The daily spiritual practices of the church, the ascetic path – prayer, fasting, study, service – prepares our hearts to receive the Spirit.”

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“Listen!” Jesus said, “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up, and you know how the rest goes….

This Parable of the Sower is deceptively familiar to us, especially since Jesus gives us a seemingly straightforward explanation. God is the sower, the seeds are the Word of God (grace, for short), and we are the soil. There are several soil options: rocky, thorny, bird-infested, or good. And we know which one we want to be.

But the fact that Jesus is telling this parable at all means that some in the crowd – and some of us – have soil that is not in the good and fruitful category.

I expect there might have been some mean snickers, judgmental grins and snarky comments in the crowd listening to Jesus that day, pointing fingers: rocky, shallow. But I expect, too, that some people found the words of Jesus cutting to the core of their soul, speaking an uncomfortable truth about the way their own hearts had become choked by thorns of wealth, whose faith was more shallow than they cared to admit, whose lives had been derailed by temptation, over and over, with every bit of goodness snatched away before it could take root.

I wonder what kind of soil we are here today. Rocky, thorny, bird-infested, good. Anyone want to raise their hand and confess?

It would be tempting to categorize ourselves and others as permanently good or bad, ready or not ready to receive God’s grace, fruitful or not so fruitful, worthy or not so worthy. And we could imagine all kinds of reasons why some of us have good soil and some do not. Christian history is full of the deadly wreckage of this kind of thinking; saved, damned; righteous, heathen; holy, sinner; and the list goes on.

But I have to believe that Jesus tells this parable not to judge, but to inspire us toward better soil; hearts more ready to receive the seed of the Gospel, more hospitable to the grace of God.   If you’re like me, all those soil types feel so familiar; at different times, different places.

If this is true, if the parable is meant to move us, then there is another wrinkle to this story; we are not just the soil, but the soil-tenders, gardeners of a sort… acting on ourselves to become more rich, fertile, open, alive. We can see the state of our dirt, and do something about it.   We can soften the path, prune the thorns, add depth to our lives with God.

But, before we do too much soul excavation and fertilization, we need to remember the most important part of this parable. Seed is sown everywhere; not just on the good soil. It is free. It comes to us as God’s gift, no strings attached. It falls on us, ready or not. And it keeps falling, over and over again. The seed of the word of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit, is alive! The initiative to grow comes from within it … and the seeds of God are powerful ones.

Like other stubborn seeds that manage to grow between the cracks of the sidewalk, that take root in the shallowest of soil, the seed of the Gospel can strike us with such power that it changes everything, so much so that we might say we are born again.

And we know that even sturdy plants that grew up from seeds in the best of soils – seeds that bore fruits a hundredfold in their day – can still be undone, by a flood that washes their roots away, wind that renders them feeble, weak; human violence that cuts them off in a tragic end.

Despite the seeming simplicity of this parable, the clear categories of good and bad — we know that the seed of the word of God grows in ways we cannot fully control. It may take root in us despite the poor condition of our soil; and good soil is no guarantee that the fruits will last forever. We are all of us rocky, dry, bird-infested, shallow AND good.

And yet, if this parable is true, the work of our lives is to cultivate, more and more, an openness, a readiness for the presence of God. With all the uncertainty in our lives and our world, with all that is beyond our control, the best we can do, the best chance we have for the fruits of the Gospel to flourish in and through us is to tend our hearts, day by day, inching closer to better soil.

How do we do this?

That’s what Subdeacon Don Sheehan was trying to teach me with his question many years ago: “Is there anything we can do, in order to receive the grace of God?” Yes, there is a well-trod path of spiritual practice, a treasury of wisdom, teachers that have probed the depths of the human heart, prophets who have led the way in transforming this world – and themselves.

We know what makes for good soil: pray, study, serve, give, fast, listen, care, forgive, love, tell the truth, confront evil, confess our faults and each time we fail stand up and begin again. It was Martin Luther King who said “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

And that struggle, a joyful struggle, every day is what will – more often than not – prepare our rocky and shallow soil for yet more of the grace of God; prepare us to be more faithful in our work as Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

But we have to actually do these things.
It’s not enough to want good soil, we have to work for it.

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In my day job, I am the Executive Director of Kids4Peace – a global interfaith youth movement that is working, with all our might and by God’s grace, to bring a measure of peace to Jerusalem, and to divided societies here at home. We are now more than 500 strong, youth and families, driven by the values of our faith; Jews, Christians and Muslims – working together, side by side, to create a world more like the one God intended, where all can live with dignity and hope.

These last few weeks have been so difficult for us. Our prayers have been mixed with tears, and fears, and anger. Our Jerusalem chapter of Kids4Peace is a community of Palestinians and Israelis, from all parts of the city and the neighboring West Bank. Our youth and staff are personally linked to all sides of this conflict.

After the deaths of Eyal, Gil-Ad, Naftali; Muhammad Dudeen, Mohammad Abu Khdeir, we have watched vengeance spread through the streets, fires burn, rockets rain down, hatreds fester and erupt in a deadly, fear-driven reality that has consumed now over 150 more lives in Gaza, whose names we have already forgotten. It is madness, a spiraling of violence, a mimetic rivalry like the one Rene Girard described, like I read about in Don Sheehan’s class, seeking resolution through the destruction of the other, no matter the cost.

Many voices have risen up against this escalation of violence. And while denouncing violence is good, it is not good enough.

Thomas a Kempis, the author of the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ said this: “All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace.”

Just as it is not enough to wish for good soil, it is not enough to wish for peace. We need to work for it, day by day, week by week, with all the effort of our lives. We need to offer an alternative to the violence that we deplore.

In Kids4Peace, we see this happen: courageous Palestinians and Israelis step toward each other, not in a naïve harmony that papers over the unjust realities of the status quo, but in honest, painful, loving conversation where hard truths are spoken and heard.

Kids4Peace is not a one-time encounter, not a carefully-crafted photo-op or idealistic mountaintop experience. It is a way of life. When kids come to their first summer camp at age 12, they are beginning a six-year, year-round commitment to a program of interfaith dialogue, leadership development and nonviolent action. More than that, they are growing up together; week by week, across real and imaginary borders, struggling to know and understand and love and trust their supposed-enemy enough that they can live differently in this world, as friends and partners.

It’s a community of people like Nitzan, a Jewish girl whose father, a bus driver, was nearly killed by a suicide bomber in the second intifada. Like Nizar, a Muslim boy beaten and arrested by the Israeli police in a nonviolent protest outside his home. Like Michael, a young Israeli from a posh settlement looking for an alternative to his friends who shout “Death to Arabs” at every soccer match; like Amin, a Palestinian from the Qalandiya refugee camp desperate for an alternative to throwing stones.

This past Wednesday, more than sixty youth and parents gathered in Jerusalem for an interfaith iftar; breaking bread together, as one family, at the end of the day’s Ramadan fast; at the end of a day of rockets and bombings. They spoke and listened, prayed and cried together, seeking strength for the work ahead. It was a small step, but a brave one, in a world that is driving them apart.

They are cultivating in their communities, and in themselves good soil, places ready for the gift of peace to take root and grow. Each year in Jerusalem, nearly 200 families apply to join this community, but we can take only 50 of them, limited by finances alone. With enough support, Kids4Peace could be ten times bigger, not 500 strong but 5,000.

There is so much soil in this world that needs daily cultivation – in Jerusalem, countless places of violence, poverty and injustice around the world, and here at home. We know the change that is needed, but what will we do? With enough support, and enough work, by enough people, strong communities of peacemakers and justice-seekers could be the loudest voices, the one shaping the agenda in Jerusalem, and beyond.

It is an ambitious goal, but it is possible to do as we move from desiring change to doing change, from wanting good soil to creating it. The work of peace, like the life of faith, like the cultivation of good soil, is a struggle for the long haul. And we continue, with only one guarantee – that the grace of God will continue to be sown in us, powerful seeds of the Spirit coming our way, over and over again, until that day when the whole earth will be made new.

That’s what I learned – and still learn — from Donald Sheehan, now of blessed memory.

May it be said of us, that when the sower went out to sow, the seeds fell on good soil.

Amen.

Fr. Josh Thomas
www.frjoshthomas.com

 

 

Because of the Works Themselves

Sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati, OH
May 18, 2014
| The Fifth Sunday of Easter (A)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me”

Her name was Miss Daisy Jones (Miss Daisy, for short). The distinguished, silvered-haired, perpetual Sunday School superintendent at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania.   For more than a decade, Miss Daisy was a fixture of my Sunday morning routine. As a child, I would walk the four blocks to church, with or without my parents and siblings, always on time for the 9AM Opening Exercises of Sunday School. Now, I wasn’t always crazy about the rest of Sunday School. Classes were kind of boring, and gluing cardboard cutouts of Jesus onto popsicle sticks got old fast.

But in Opening Exercises, the kids of all ages came together to sing.

Sometimes, we would sing the Welsh hymns of our ancestors (Guide me O thou Great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land). Other times, it would be more theologically questionable songs like Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War. But there was one song that we sang every week, without fail. In words that would make a Stewardship Committee swoon, as we dropped our quarters into the miniature offering plate, we would belt out “Our giving time is a happy time, a happy time, a happy time. Our giving time is a happy time, we give our gifts to thee.”

And as Mr. Ralph, the perpetual Sunday School pianist, improvised on that catchy tune, we would recite together the words of John’s Gospel: “In my Father’s house are many mansions; and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”

In those days, my world was comfortably small. In the safety of my working-class town, my loving family, my old time religion, Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ table, science fairs, Boy Scout camp, everything was pretty good. Most of all, I knew I was going to heaven. I knew I would spend eternity in one of those mansions in my Heavenly Father’s house, and I was so excited (especially that I wouldn’t have to share a room with my brother in this world without end).

Sometimes during Sunday School, I would daydream in exquisite detail about my mansion – what it would look like, what would be in each room, who would be there with me. It was cozy, happy, secure.

The biggest conflict in Plymouth, Pennsylvania was between Catholics and Protestants, but not because of religion; it was because of football. Protestants cheered for Penn State, Catholics for Notre Dame. And the rest was history.

If you told me then that I would become the director of a global nonprofit organization committed to interfaith understanding, social change, and the end of violent conflict in Jerusalem and around the world, I would have had no idea what you were talking about.   My world was too comfortably small.

But a lot changed in the past twelve years, and here I stand, bringing you greetings today on behalf of more than 250 teenagers, 500 parents, and 1,000 volunteers at 10 local chapters in Jerusalem and across North America, who make up the community of Kids4Peace.   We are a movement for change – dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in divided societies around the world.

We are women and men; Muslims, Christians and Jews; Palestinians, Israelis, Americans (even some Canadians!) who are giving our lives for peace. We believe that religion can bring us together and not simply drive us apart.

That children can create a new reality, not just in the future, but now, if we give them half a chance.

That the conflict in the Middle East will not last forever.

That violence in our cities can come to an end.

That children of the Holocaust and children of the Nakba; children from the East Side and the West Side, from downtown and Over the Rhine, can live together and chart the way to a different future, a new possibility ­– one so big and so bold that we can barely dream it for an instant, before the tempter tricks us into hopelessness and despair.

On the surface, Kids4Peace is a lot of fun. We bring together twelve year-old children for summer camps and year-round after-school programs. They laugh and play soccer, swim and sing songs, they stay up late rocking out to hits by One Direction and swapping stories about being a kid in Jerusalem, in Atlanta, and hopefully soon, Cincinnati. Being together seems so natural for them.

They observe one another at prayer – the most intimate moments of their lives. You can almost hear a pin drop at camp, as a twelve year-old Muslim boy, often with a shaky voice, begins the call to prayer Allahu akbar! God is greater. And the laughter and smiles beam so strongly, as Palestinians kids and staff learn to braid challah from their Jewish friends, and feel the joy of Shabbat.   They step into new worlds, as they visit a synagogue, a mosque, a church for the very first time.

But Kids4Peace is not a naïve, pie-in-the-sky fantasy; it’s not wishful thinking born out of optimism. To the contrary, Kids4Peace came to life in Jerusalem during the worst fighting of the Second Intifada, when hostility between Palestinians and Israelis was at an all-time high. And Kids4Peace came to the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, when all of our wonderfully small worlds were rattled by a new reality.

It wasn’t enough for me, anymore, to dream of mansions in heaven. Something was happening here on earth, and I needed to pay attention. My faith was undone by the consequences of the unholy alliance between religion and violence, in what scholar Scott Appleby calls the “ambivalence of the sacred.”

While some parts of our society wrongly lashed out at Muslims the enemy in our midst, my gaze turned to my own Christian faith and our legacy of violence, an ambivalence of the sacred which runs through our texts for today.

Stephen, one of the church’s first deacons becomes its first martyr, stoned to death because of a theological dispute gone awry.

And if, as a child, I had read further into the Gospel of John, beyond my heavenly mansion, I would have discovered the haunting verse that “no one comes to the Father but by me.” A battle cry of Christian exclusivism, damnation and superiority, wielded by those who would say to the unbeliever “convert or die.”

And even our lesson from Peter has a tragic legacy. None other than the golden- tongued St. John Chrysostom would say that the stone the builders rejected was Jesus, and builders who rejected him were the Jews. And because of their rejection of Jesus, they also ought to be rejected – crushed by the stone into powder, was the image he used. And so this saint of the 4th century laid a theological foundation for generations of persecution and death, all in the name of God.

Where in this is good news? What does it mean to follow Jesus, the way, the truth, the life, in a world where religion can so easily become a conspirator of evil, suffering, and pain? Where is the power of life in the midst of death, on this Sunday when we pray for the church in South Sudan, bravely working to the end violence that has displaced more than a million people in the last five months, where famine and genocide may come yet again into our world?   Where is the good news when this week’s New York Times editorial declared: “Mideast Peace Effort Pauses to Let Failure Sink In?”

The good news is not found in a return to cozy, comfortable realities which probably never existed in the first place. It’s not found in circling our wagons, walling ourselves off, closing our ears or hardening our hearts. It’s not found in building a protective shield against those who are different from us or leaving people to their own devices to let failure sink in.

For me, the biggest temptation in the work of peace is giving up, losing hope, washing my hands Pontius Pilate style and letting the sin of this world run its course. We can so easily feel powerless in the face conflicts, divisions, and injustices; the barriers can seem too high to cross, the pain too strong to heal, the fear too intense to melt, the first step too hard to take, the sacrifices too great to bear.

And yet we follow Jesus, who says this week to the always-confused disciples not only am I in the Father and the Father is in me but if you still don’t believe THIS — “then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

Each time I read John’s Gospel, I am drawn into this mystical connectivity between Jesus, the Father, and us. Thomas and Philip can’t seem to wrap their minds around the fact that in Jesus they have seen the Father, they have seen the way. The distance, the separation, the confusion that seems so strong is just an illusion. Abide in me, Jesus will tell the disciples, in the next chapter of John, dwell in the very life of God.

And here in Chapter 14 there is I think something even more interesting, another avenue into divinity through the works themselves – not just the works of Jesus, the miraculous healings, the compassionate forgiveness, the revolutionary fellowship that turned his world upside down … but also the no-less-miraculous works that God is doing through us.

As we step into the way of Jesus, as we follow his footsteps into the broken, fractured, conflicted parts of our world – and ourselves – we will discover there the power of God.

The Holy Spirit pulsing through our veins. The energy of life. The possibility of peace.
A new world in Jerusalem, and here at home. Worlds we were told are impossible coming to life before our eyes. On the hardest days of Kids4Peace, I believe because of the works themselves

  • Because of David, who refuses to chant “Death to Arabs” at a soccer game with his friends.
  • Because of Daniella who confronted her Jewish teacher about stereotypes against Christians
  • Because of Nitzan, whose father barely survived a bombing that destroyed the bus he was driving; a father who sent Nitzan to Kids4Peace so she would not grow up to hate.
  • Because of Nizar, a Palestinian teenager arrested, beaten and jailed during a nonviolent protest to protect his village, who spoke with honesty, dignity and challenge to his Jewish friends.
  • Because of Asiya, a Muslim American, who turned to Kids4Peace for support, after her “friends” at school asked if she is “one of us” or “one of them.”
  • Because of Kenzie, an Episcopal college student who put her Kids4Peace lessons to work by rallying the Jews on her campus to provide a prayer space for Muslims.
  • Because of Sewar, who in the face of rejection stays with Kids4Peace, because, she says, “I’m doing this for me.”
  • Because of hundreds more stores I hope to share, as we take this peacebuilding journey together.
  • Because against all odds, there is a community of Christians, Muslims and Jews who come together in the midst of conflict, in the midst of pain, to undo a legacy of violence and fear, and to live a new dream of peace, no less miraculous than turning water in to wine.
  • Because even a little kid from Miss Daisy’s Sunday School class can grow up to change the world.

In these stories, in these works themselves, lies the power of God. The way of Jesus. There is truth. There is life. There is the cornerstone for a house we can barely imagine, the first fruits of a dream we can barely dream.

Where is Jesus leading you today? What world-changing dream does he have in store? Take the first step, and find the power of God.

The True World

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
November 25, 2012

The core act of faith for us as Christians, the most basic thing we do, is to trust that God’s world, revealed to us in Jesus, is the true one.

Many preachers have a love/hate relationship with this Sunday’s theme: “Christ the King.”It’s the church’s newest big feast day, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a way to combat secularism and nationalism.  To remind the world that Christ is the only one who deserves our ultimate loyalty.

Since then, this day has been variously named “Christ the King,” the “Reign of Jesus Christ King of the Universe,” or (my favorite) the “Sunday of Doom” — an invention of some Swedish Lutherans to remind us not to get so excited about Christ’s Kingly glory that we forget the judgement implied in these Scriptural scenes of the end times.

A love/hate relationship with Christ the King, because we like having “our guy” on the throne.  It’s fun to sing those exciting songs of triumph: O worship the king all glorious above.  Praise my soul the king of heaven, to his feet my tribute bring.  And, a childhood favorite of mine, Crown Him with Many Crows, the lamb upon his throne, hark how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.

The nerdy part of me wondered how Jesus could possibly wear so many crowns at once (it seemed like one should be enough) but these songs capture the spirit we find in today’s readings from Daniel and Revelation.

Apocalyptic scenes, visions of the end times, when God and his Anointed King will rule the world with justice, when wars will end once and for all, when all nations will live in harmony, when hunger and abuse and fear and rejection and pain all will come to a final end.  Lion and lamb will lie down together, God will wipe away every tear, we will eat and drink without price, at the wedding feast that lasts forever;

The earth will be renewed, rivers of life will flow through the valleys, with healing trees on every side. No hurt, no destruction, no lies, no worry, no disease, no stress.  Even death itself comes to an end.

This reign of God is the desire of all our hearts. Deep down, beneath the scars and the illusions that this world has given us, deep at the heart of our souls, where the breath of God still lives. There lies this dream for a world made new. For our own life, made whole.

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What names do you claim?

Sermon at Church of the Apostles, Seattle

Feast of the Holy Name, January 1 2012

Today’s grandiose-sounding “Feast of the Holy Name” is really nothing more than an official remembrance of the circumcision of Jesus.  A human act, marking a turning-point in the human life, of this baby born Son of God, Son of Man.

Like every other Jewish male since Abraham, Jesus son of Mary, joined the Covenant of Israel by having skin cut from the foreskin of his penis, a permanent, bodily symbol of incorporation into the company of the people chosen to be a light to the nations, partners with God in the redemption of the world.

During this ceremony, a child is also given the name by which he will be known.  And for Mary and Joseph, there was no question what that name would be –

Jesus, the name given by the angel in dreams to each of them;
Jesus, prepared for this baby before he was conceived;
Jesus, because he would save his people from sin.

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Christmas Eve ReVerb

Shared at Church of the Apostles, Seattle
December 24, 2011

Earlier this week, while stuck in holiday traffic, I heard a story on NPR about birds and noise.  Apparently the ever louder, human-created sounds of the city are making it almost impossible for birds to recognize each other’s songs.  Intrigued, I read some more in articles titled: “To Flirt In Cities, Birds Adjust Their Pitch” and  “Noise Pollution Causing Songbirds To Cheat On Each Other.”  A more scholarly version put it this way: “Human-generated noise pollution now permeates natural habitats worldwide, presenting evolutionarily novel acoustic conditions unprecedented to most landscapes.”

Now, maybe the analogy is a stretch, but at Christmas, I feel a little like those songbirds trying to hear the true call of their beloved – amid counterfeit melodies that masquerade as the real thing.  We seem to be surrounded by competing versions of the “Christmas spirit.”  Idyllic scenes of family around the fireplace.  Doorbuster sales, set to a soundtrack that tells us this is the “most wonderful time of the year.”  Even at church, we have cute pageants complete with shepherds in bathrobes and sheep with cotton ball noses.  We sing songs about silent nights and silent babies, away in a manger.

But is any of this real?  Is this what Christmas is about?

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Lord, Show Us the Way

Sermon preached at Christ Church, Tacoma
May 22, 2011

I have a hunch that I’m not the first preacher to share a bit of embarrassed delight at the seemingly inexhaustible foolishness of the disciples.  You might call it holy schadenfreude – a perverse pleasure in their misfortunate inability to ever understand what Jesus means.

Over and over again, despite their years of life together, despite overhearing the teachings and parables, despite seeing the healings and transformed lives, despite the dinners with tax collectors and loving moments with prostitutes, despite prophetic proclamations and near-misses with persecuting Pharisees, and despite all the long explanations of all these things which John’s Gospel gives us – despite all this – over, and over and over again, the disciples just don’t understand.

The humanness, the imperfection, the struggle that are so much a part of my own life of faith are here, on display, in these twelve.  I smile, laugh a bit at the absurdity of it all – that Jesus chose them, chooses me, to bear witness to God’s good news for this world.

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Amazing Love. How can it be?

Sermon preached at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel
March 21, 2010

Click to listen to the audio recording

As we approach the end of this Lenten series on Atonement, I can’t help but wonder whether our centuries of elaborate theories, on which the whole church has never agreed, don’t point to a more basic hesitation to believe the fundamental claim that we have indeed been reconciled with God. That somehow, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, whatever barrier may have existed between us and the Holy One has been definitively torn down.

We puzzle at this possibility and ask with Charles Wesley’s hymn:
And can it be that I should gain 
an interest in the Savior’s blood! 

Died he for me? who caused his pain! 
For me? who him to death pursued? 
Amazing love! How can it be?

How indeed can it be, we wonder – probing the mechanisms by which Jesus might bring humankind into union with God.

But we miss the point altogether if we forget to marvel at that union itself, at the reconciliation which exists and the connection which endures. It is this kind of wondering that Wesley invites in the next verse of that same hymn:
‘Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies! 
Who can explore his strange design? 
‘Tis mercy all; let earth adore. Let angel minds inquire no more.

A strange mystery indeed … stranger still if we can imagine how un-like us God is sometimes, most of all in the amazing extravagance of unconditional love. Can it be, atonement theories aside, that God might simply love us, for no reason, and with no reservations, through a strange mystery that boggles our minds as much as the Psalmist’s proclamation of rivers in the desert.

Can it be that we are saved by love? Full stop.

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Led Forth in Peace

Sermon preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta
July, 2008

For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

I greet you this morning on behalf of Dr. Henry Carse, director of Kids4Peace, who would normally be standing here on this Sunday morning, to bring you words of gratitude and hope from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim kids and families of Jerusalem and from our peace pals and peace parents here in the Diocese of Atlanta.

It is an honor to be here at St. Anne’s, and to offer to you, on behalf of Kids4Peace, our gratitude for allowing us to make your home – our home, for a while–– a place of refuge, safety, and welcome on our difficult journey of building peace. It has been an honor for me to serve as a counselor and dialogue facilitator with Kids4Peace over these last three years, to share with 72 Jewish, Christian and Muslim young people from Jerusalem and Atlanta their lives, their struggles and joys.

And there are many struggles and many joys here at Kids4Peace, as a new group of twenty-four children of Abraham from Palestine, Israel and America come together each summer to spend two weeks at Camp Mikell and here in Atlanta learning about each other’s religions, cultures, and ways of life, in order to develop friendships strong enough to last in the face of conflict, division and pain. In these last two weeks, we have shared the struggles of living in close quarters, sometimes too close for comfort.

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On Snakes and Salvation

Sermon preached at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA
March 26, 2006

The people spoke against God and against Moses,
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”

In the name of the one who was, and is, and will be for ever. Amen. •

The night has long been my time for writing.  Whether it’s term papers due the next day – or sermons, the stillness and mystery of the night slow my mind and open my heart. It was during the night that I wrestled with God about my vocation. The night is a time of secrecy, danger, and unexpected encounters … like the one between Jesus and Nicodemus – the setting for our lesson from John.

John 3:16 – It’s one of the most-quoted verses of the Bible.  For some, it’s a summary of salvation.  I remember the King James Version from Sunday School:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  It seems so simple then: believe in Jesus, and you will live forever; don’t believe, and you will die.

Many of us, for good reason, cringe when we hear things like this. Perhaps we remember the sermons of our childhood, knowing too well the damage these teachings have done to so many who fall outside the narrow bounds of what certain people think it means to be saved. We may have friends and family of other faiths, and find it impossible to stomach the destructive claim that salvation belongs to Christians alone.

Many of us come to St. Bartholomew’s looking for a different kind of Christian faith, one that involves more than confessing Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.  It is tempting to tiptoe around words like “salvation,” sticking to more familiar territory like service and justice and love and inclusion.

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