Monday, September 15, 2014

Whose Woods These Are*

My dog, Wilbur, and I had been for a walk after supper.

I opened the gate, stepping into the back yard. It was a dark night and quiet. And I heard the call: who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? It was a Barred Owl in woods nearby. Wilbur and I stood still and listened. Eventually it moved off, the call more faint, then gone.

The Barred Owl is a non-migratory species, preferring old woodland habitat near water. Nesting, they lay their eggs in the cavities of standing trees.[i]

I rarely hear them. Far more, lying in bed at night in February or early March—if I happen to be awake—I hear the breeding call of the Great Horned Owl, the classic hoot owl of children’s storybooks.

For the last twenty-three years, Sukie and I have lived in Cumberland Foreside, in what had been an old summer colony, now a year round community.

Three years ago, we installed functioning central heating in our drafty cottage built in 1920. Our neighborhood, Wildwood, adjoins the Payson estate of one hundred acres of woods and fields and waterfront along Broad Cove.

A thousand years ago and more, the land, like much of the land and islands in Casco Bay, was frequented by the ancestors of the Wabanaki tribe, leaving their tell-tales signs of seasonal migrations in the shell middens and other artifacts they left behind.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Town of Cumberland built a poor farm on what is now the Payson estate, where indigent residents would make oakum, a loose fiber obtained by untwisting old rope, and used in caulking the wooden ships built in the Spear’s Shipyard nearby.[ii]

Phillips Payson bought the land in 1936 from property then owned by his wife’s parents. In 1938, he built the estate house overlooking the bay beyond.

When we moved to Cumberland, the matriarch, Mrs. Marion Payson, then in her nineties, was generous toward the Wildwood children, allowing them to tramp through the forest and sled down a long hill through the snowy woods into a field below.

For many years, I’ve keep notes in our family calendar that hangs in the kitchen, writing down when the migratory birds return to the Payson woods, their telltale songs delighting us anew every spring.

Warblers abound—Black-throated green, Chesnut-sided, Yellow-rumped, Ovenbird and many others. The Hermit Thrush sings its wild sweet strains from woods beside vernal pools, where the peepers hold forth on spring evenings. And year round the cackling call of the Pileated Woodpecker, the massive bird that sometimes visits the suet feeder hanging from the white pine in my backyard.

Mrs. Payson died many years ago, leaving the property to her daughter, who in turn passed it on to her children. The grand house on the bluff overlooking the cove stood empty more often than not, too expensive to maintain, the property taxes prohibitive. The caretaker was let go by the family, and inevitably, the estate was put up for sale and was bought by a local developer last spring.

Plans have been drawn up for seven building lots for high-end homes on a parcel of the property. The Town of Cumberland hopes to purchase the remainder of the land from the developer, making available walking trails and waterfront access for town residents. The Paysons donated a conservation easement to the local land trust, although the interpretation of that easement is presently in dispute.

Whatever the outcome, the land will inevitably change. And with that change will come loss.

The house lots alone will mean the degradation of acres of prime woodland habitat. Many of the bird species I mentioned may disappear—far fewer warblers may nest there, the numbers of owls and Pileated woodpeckers, depending on stands of dead timber for nesting, will surely diminish. The Hermit Thrush may pass through on its way to forests further north, but it will no longer dwell in the woods.

If Cumberland does purchase the remainder of the property, it will be a mixed blessing—town residents, while obtaining waterfront access, will enjoy only a fraction of the land’s former glory.

While the story of the Payson property is unique, throughout the country land is threatened by unrelenting pressure from development and large-scale agriculture. By far the greatest threat to bird species is the loss and degradation of habitat. The ongoing loss of our intimate connection to the earth and its creatures, sustaining of the human soul from time immemorial, is itself incalculable.

For we are not only the stewards of God’s creation—tenders of the earth’s garden—we are part and parcel of the fabric of life itself, in which we, and all creatures, live and move and have our being.

In an article entitled Saving our Birds in the New York Times last month, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, John Fitzpatrick, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, writes of the passing of an entire species:

Possibly the most abundant bird ever to have existed, he says, this gregarious pigeon once migrated in giant flocks that sometimes exceeded three billion, darkening the skies over eastern North America for days at a time...100 years ago this week, the very last pigeon of her kind died in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, and her passing merits our close attention today.

Mercilessly slaughtered by the tens of millions at breeding colonies in the North and at huge wintertime roosts in the South during the post-Civil War era, passenger pigeons were shipped by trainloads to dinner tables in homes and restaurants across the East. Their population fell from biblical numbers at mid-century to tiny, aimless flocks in 1890. By around 1900 the few birds that remained were all in captivity. The last male died in 1910, leaving Martha as a barren relic of past abundance.

We need to imagine Martha asking us, “Have you learned anything from my passing?”[iii]

Fitzpatrick cites the 2014 State of the Birds report, a periodic assessment of the health of our nation’s bird populations compiled by leading bird conservationists, that notes 230 species on a watch list of birds that are currently in danger of extinction or at risk of becoming so without significant conservation efforts.

But then he goes on to remark on the pioneering conservation work of many, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, and the huge difference that such initiatives have made. We need to redouble our commitment and investment even now, Fitzpatrick asserts, insuring that our great-grandchildren will continue to hear the birds calling from the woods, just as I have heard the owl and thrush from my own backyard.

Aldo Leopold, the author of the great conservation classic, A Sand County Almanac, wrote: We only grieve for what we know.

Leopold was commenting on the increasing rarity of a once abundant species of prairie wildflower in his home state of Wisconsin. How could this beautiful plant have come so dangerously close to extinction, he wondered? Why did its impending disappearance from the world not provoke a stronger response?[iv]

Leopold would suggest that our ability to mourn the loss of species and entire ecosystems is itself a reflection of the ties of kinship that bind us to the lives of other beings. We only grieve for what we know.

I grieve for the impending loss of nearby woods and the banishment of birds that have enriched my life, and that of my children, for years.

Our grief at the degrading of the natural world, though, is a sure sign of our affection and tenderness toward all creation, and of an underlying joyous affirmation of life.

It is the doorway to renewed action and the healing of the world.

And in that, we take hope and even greater consolation. AMEN

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough; First Sunday of Creation Season; September 14, 2014

Photo: Farm owned by Maria Dalton, worked by the Cram family, late 19th cent., on land that became the Payson estate. Courtesy of Thomas Bennett, Prince Memorial Library, Cumberland, ME.





 [i] Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds
[ii] see Bennett, Thomas Maine’s Pauper Laws and the Cumberland Overseers of the Poor
[iii] Fitzpatrick, John Saving the Birds New York Times August 31, 2014
[iv] Christie, Douglas E. The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology Oxford University Press 2013

Monday, August 18, 2014

Generous Love Lavished Upon All*

This sermon wants to be painted with vibrant colors—red, green, yellow, purple, orange and blue, pink, then black like a blackbird.

Because, according to an ancient folktale from Zambia, the blackbird is the most beautiful bird in the forest because his feathers gleam all colors in the sun.

These words want to be made with seaglass and papier-mache, like the new windows that adorn the island church.

These words want to be a puppet—made with seashells and seal bones and lobster claws and bits of old cloth and driftwood shiny smooth and silver from wave upon wave upon the shore.

These words want be a poem recited out loud, with all the island school children gathered round rapt with wonder.

This sermon wants to invite everyone—all colors and races and kinds—into the infinite circle of God’s embracing love because God’s generous love is lavished on all.

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, writes Paul; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 

We paint, we write poetry and we express ourselves out of our desire to bring people together in a way that goes beyond who we are as individuals. So says Ashley Bryan, the ninety-one year old African-American painter, poet, puppet maker, and illustrator of over fifty children’s books.[i]

Ashley lives on Little Cranberry Island, a vibrant year round lobstering community downeast that welcomes artisans of every stripe.

This summer, the Islesford Historical Museum on Little Cranberry is hosting an exhibition celebrating Bryan’s 70-year career as an artist. When the exhibition opened, crowds gathered outside the red brick museum by the harbor to cheer him.

Two years ago, the island grade school was renamed after him. At the bar at the Islesford Dock Restaurant, when the rum ran short, the bartender saved the best for last for Ashley’s favorite cocktail, a Dark and Stormy.

The island folk love Ashley because he loves them, they who welcomed this black man from the Bronx when he first came ashore in the forties of the last century.

His unconditional regard extends to all, especially children. All who come within the sphere of his embracing love—a love that feels true and deep as the sea that cradles this island—are made to feel special.

Every morning is a whole new day of discovery, Ashley says. The one thing I have in common with any adult I meet is childhood. Every person has survived childhood. The most tragic experience you can have in life is the death of a child.

That’s why I say, ‘Never let the child within you die.[ii]

Sukie and I visited Ashley at his humble home, partially hidden by overgrown gardens that are the subject of many of his paintings, last summer. His door is always open and he invites anyone all who wish to visit him. He only asks that those who visit yell loud enough so that he can hear them in his studio.

Every inch of his home is filled with toys and knick-knacks and books and puppets and mobiles hanging from the ceiling. Stacks of canvases lean up against the wall. Seaglass, collected on his ramblings along the rocky island beaches, is spread out on his workbench. Bowls of snacks and candies for those who drop by array his kitchen table.

Heaps of driftwood are stacked and stored away. Odd bits of things that the sea throws up on the shore—wire and old netting and non-biodegradable refuse—is stashed here and there, all of it eventually transformed into winsome objects that delight the eye and lift the spirit.

In an article in the Maine Sunday Telegram last week, Bob Keyes writes that growing up in the Bronx during the Depression, Bryan  and his siblings collected scraps of colored paper and fabric in the streets that his mother would twist into flowers to decorate their tenement apartment.

In the segregated Army during World War 2, the man who would go on to become a widely celebrated author and illustrator of children’s books drew pictures of the scenes he witnessed on toilet paper that he hid in his gas mask.[iii]

Wholly embracing the beauty and artistry and folkways of his own African-American heritage, Ashley moves through that to make of his life an unveiling of the beauty inherent in creation and in every human being blessed and loved by God.

Ashley’s life is a testimony to the life of faith of which Paul speaks in this morning’s epistle.
By faith, writes scholar David Clendenin, we accept God's free gifts. By faith we get precisely what we don't deserve, and even more.
Faith believes that God isn't a Divine Accountant or Probation Officer.

[God is] an indulgent father who throws a party for his indigent son.

[God is] like an employer who pays employees a full day's wage even though they only worked for an hour.

[God is] like a lavish wedding host who provides copious amounts of the best wine...

For Paul, Jews are no closer to God and Gentiles are no further from God. We're all equidistant to the heart of God's love.

[God] includes those whom I'd exclude, and embraces the people I would shun.

This good news, [Paul] says, is for "all" people and for "everyone."

No one is excepted.[iv]

Like Ashley Bryan, gratefully greeting each day with wonder, we all alike are artists of God’s love—God’s lavish gifts—making with the odd bits of our lives, beautiful creations. AMEN

*A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME;  August 10, 2014; Proper 15, Year A; Revised Common Lectionary

Photo: Bill McGuinness


[i] Keyes, Bob Author and Illustrator Ashley Bryan Comes of Age Maine Sunday Telegram August 6, 2014
[ii] Ibid.;
[iii] Ibid.;
[iv] Clendenin, David Listening for God’s Love: What I Did This Summer Journey with Jesus Online Webzine August 4, 2014

Lean In And Listen*

I saw them out of the corner of my eye on my desk—some flowers in a small ceramic vase. I thought: “How nice. Sukie must have made a bouquet for my birthday.”

And then I went on in my head with whatever pressing issues preoccupied me at the time, passing i
nto forgetfulness.

I didn’t notice them again until three days later. They were still there. They hadn’t moved. I just happened to see them—different kinds of flowers.

One I recognized as a nasturtium--deep, rich yellow petals with orange and blood red accents radiating outward from the stamen.

And then others alongside— more yellow flowers, flowers with shades of purple and blue and tiny pointed buds. Getting closer, I noticed one of them smelled minty. And there was another, with a delicate soft white flower...

I finally thanked Sukie and asked what they were. Nasturtiums, she said, and lemon gem marigolds. And some lavender. And catmint. And white flox. All from our garden.

I almost missed them. Another day or two, and they would have been wilted beyond recognition.

And truly seeing them, my life was, in that moment, touched, even changed. My awareness heightened, sharpened; my spoken gratitude consummating that kind gift.

That experience of truly seeing the flowers reminded me of a favorite scene from a movie.

The film stars Robin Williams as John Keating, an English teacher at an exclusive boys boarding school. Dead Poets Society was filmed at an Episcopal prep school—St. Andrew’s in Middletown, Delaware, established in 1929 by a member of the DuPont family.

The scene I recall takes place in the foyer of one of the buildings, with school banners adorning the walls. There are glass trophy cases containing memorabilia and old photographs of athletic teams. The room has the feel of a chapel, the sacred precincts of sports and boys long since gone.

Keating instructs one of the students gathered round to read from the school hymnal. It’s a poem entitled To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by the 17th century Anglican priest and poet Robert Herrick.

The student reads aloud: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

Keating says to the students: ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’ The Latin word for that sentiment is Carpe Diem. Now who knows what that means? A boy answers: Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

Keating responds: Why does the writer use these words?

Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.

Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. Keating moves them over to the trophy case and huddles them close, turning their gaze upon the uniformed schoolboys in the old photographs.

You've walked past them many times, he says. I don't think you've really looked at them.

They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you.

Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.

But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. Do you hear it? And behind them, Keating whispers in a gruff voice: Carpe. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.

How fitting these lines, as we grieve the loss of this genius, this  gifted comedic and improvisational genius so tragically imprisoned within by dark forces from which he  felt himself unable to escape, except by taking his own life.

And yet his Keating teaches us even now:

Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

Wake up. Pay attention. Of the schoolboys in those old photographs, long since deceased, he remarks: You’ve walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them.

So we might ask ourselves: what or whom do we walk past everyday without looking, without really noticing or truly seeing?

The disciples can’t imagine that a Canaanite woman could be real, says Sara Miles, a priest on the staff of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, as she comments on this morning’s gospel reading.

Jewish scripture was full of these horror stories about the Canaanites who occupied the promised land and who had disgusting religious practices like worshipping idols and cross breeding with people of different faiths, among other abominations.[i]

The Canaanite woman is a heathen. So when she accosts Jesus pleading, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ she has no standing to do it and moreover she’s acting completely shamelessly, just waving her hand around in the air begging for recognition and insisting that Jesus should heal her daughter, something that she’s unqualified to even ask for.

And the disciples believe that they should keep non-persons like the Canaanite from raising their hands and demanding God’s attention.

They see themselves as keepers of the holy traditions. They’re protectors of the true people of God.

And they’re supposed to stay on guard, so that God won’t waste any precious mercy on the unpedigreed, on some stray mutt yelping around the flock.

And it seems that, at least according to Matthew’s gospel, even Jesus sees it this way. He tells the Canaanite woman to shut up and go away. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he says.

Not truly seeing her, he dismisses her.

And then, as Miles asserts, this becomes a healing story, a story first and foremost about the healing of Jesus.

Something happened.

Jesus is challenged by this woman’s back talk, by her pushy insistence that she needs and wants him. This [woman] breaks Jesus open with her faith that God recognizes her too, that God calls her by name and that salvation is for everyone without exception.

And then Jesus knows— [he sees] suddenly—that he’s not just here for the chosen people...he’s here for us all, that salvation is for everyone without exception.

It’s a rough moment and it teaches us, the way that everything Jesus does in his human life teaches us how to be human...Jesus has to undergo the fully human pain of conversion.

He has to be broken and humbled and changed by the realization that someone who he has written off and insulted has consciousness—[is real]—and it hurts.

But it’s healing and like so many of God’s healing acts, the good news is that it happens in unexpected ways...

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I expect everyday to be broken open and humbled and changed. Because to really pay attention, to really see the person sitting in front of us as real—which is to say, to listen attentively and with care—will transform us.

Everyday, I walk away a new person, my universe expanded by listening carefully to the words of  another or at last seeing the flowers on my desk for what they truly are.

That conversion—that change of heart—is the challenge and the gift of being human, something we all share, whoever we are, whatever our work.

So lean in and listen. Do you hear it? It’s uttered every moment if you have the ears to hear and the hearts to respond.

Carpe. Carpe diem.

This is the only day. This is the only moment. Take hold of it gently. And let it change your life. AMEN

*A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME ; August 17, 2014;
Proper 16, Year A; Revised Common Lectionary

[i] Miles, The Rev. Sara Food for Dogs August 14, 2011 St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Come and See*

The Rev. John Buehrens, a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, married to an Episcopal priest, tells the story of his daughters, Erica and Mary, being exposed to both traditions.

At a certain point he writes they were told, “This year you can go to either Sunday school. You choose, but you can’t stay home.” ...When Erica was two and a half, we found her one day with a towel draped down her back like a vestment, holding a hymnal (upside down), and marching around the couch singing “The Hokie Pokie.” Obviously, an Episcopalian!

...Mary, on the other hand, goes to All Soul’s, [UU]. She loved her Sunday school class this year, which studied stories from Genesis and Exodus—putting Jacob and Rachel on trial in the matter of Esua’s birthright, and conducting a protest march against Moses and Aaron, with signs reading “Meat, not Manna!” “Impeach Moses!” and “back to Egypt.” When she grows up, Mary says, she might like to be Jewish. [Clearly, the Unitarian!][i]

My dear friend, James Ford, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island, when I told him of the UU Folk Ensemble visiting with us this morning, quipped in a Facebook message that Episcopalians are just Unitarians with a sense of style.

Though it may be dangerous to say so—thankfully, the Bishop is on sabbatical in the Midwest somewhere—I largely agree. I have great sympathy with Unitarian Universalists, having attended the Allen Avenue UU Church (the other UU church in Portland, affectionately know as A2U2) briefly after taking leave of parish ministry in 2006. My wife, Sukie, comes from a long line of venerable Boston Unitarians dating back to the Nineteenth century.

It goes without saying that Unitarian Universalism represents liberal religion in its broadest, most comprehensive and all-embracing sense. But I would also argue that the Episcopal Church (and by extension, Anglicanism)—within the larger rubric of the Christian Church—is, at its heart, a liberal tradition.

I was raised in the Congregational Church and became an Episcopalian in college. While I valued my religious upbringing, the Episcopal Church attracted me by its liturgy and rootedness in an age-old tradition rich in history and with a global reach. I understood that the Anglican Communion’s common prayer was its guide to theology and practice and that tests of orthodoxy, and censorship of thought, were anathema to its essentially liberal spirit.

Most importantly, I was advised early on not to leave my intellect and my reason at the door when I entered the church, but to bring it—along with my heart—and honor it as an important means of seeking the truth.

I share this with you this morning as we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are some today, particularly among my daughter’s generation, who are unaware that King was a Christian minister. King came from a long line of orthodox Baptist ministers—his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather, only brother, and uncle were all clergy. “I didn’t have much choice, I guess” he said as an aside in his great sermon “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.” Throughout his life as a great civil rights activist, King served as pastor of Baptist congregations.

But his faith was essentially liberal and it was that liberal faith that inspired his prophetic witness, including his civil rights leadership, his commitment to non-violence and pacifism, and his advocacy for the poor of all ethnic and racial backgrounds across America and indeed around the world. Some have even argued that King’s was a Unitarian Christianity.

Be that as it may, Robert Scofield, in his essay entitled King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Martin Luther King, Jr.. says that despite being raised in a lineage of orthodox Baptist ministers, King at a young age demonstrated skepticism of the irrational claims of religion, and embarrassment at the emotionalism of his father's preaching.
 King carried these suspicions with him when he entered Morehouse College in Atlanta at the age of fifteen. He had originally planned on being a doctor or lawyer. At Morehouse, under the guidance of  [the President of the college] and [a] professor [of religion and philosophy], he began to believe that religion could be both "intellectually respectful and emotionally satisfying."

 Scofield writes that the purpose of the church for King is not to create dogma, theology, or creeds but rather "to produce living witnesses and testimonies to the power of God in human experience," and to commit to action. From a young age, King understood the importance of combining his religion with social justice.

From this perspective King viewed the church's role as promoting a way of life rather than a belief system, saying, "Jesus always recognized that there is a danger of having a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.” He stated that Christ is more concerned with how we treat our neighbors, our attitudes toward racial justice, and living a high ethical life than he is with long processionals, knowledge of creeds, or the beautiful architecture of a church.[ii]

So much for the Anglican Church!

But at the very heart of King’s faith was his experience of God, a God whom he knew as a personal presence, transcendent yet immanent; that is, a God of love and whose Spirit is synonymous with seeking justice. King tells us in his own words that, God is not a process projected somewhere in the lofty blue. God is not a divine hermit hiding himself in a cosmic cave. …God is forever present with us.

In 1955, as a young pastor, King’s life was transformed, his vision of the religious life unalterably deepened and clarified, by a profound encounter with God at his kitchen table in Montgomery, Alabama. Albert Raboteau, a professor of religion at Princeton University writes: That encounter was precipitated by the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott which King had neither started nor suggested, but which irrevocably changed him from the successful pastor of a moderately comfortable church to the leader of a national movement for racial justice...[iii]
As spokesman for the boycott, King was overwhelmed with a load of back-breaking responsibilities and frightened by serious threats against his life and his family's safety. Reaching the end of his endurance, King sat at his kitchen table one night over a cup of coffee, trying to figure out how to get out of the movement without appearing a coward.
Of that experience, King later preached:
But I never will forget one night very late. It was around midnight. And you can have strange experiences at midnight. I had been out with the steering committee all that night. And I came home, and my wife was in bed and I immediately crawled into bed to get some rest...
And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it uup. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “[N-word], we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow your house up your house.”
I’d heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief...
Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something...that your Daddy used to tell you about. That power than can make a way out of no way.
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it.... I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak.”

And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world." ...I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.[iv]

And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me.

In the reading from John’s gospel, two disciples were standing with John the Baptist. And turning, Jesus addresses them, saying: What are you looking for? One of them responds: Rabbi, where are you staying? Jesus replies: Come and see. Just that. Come and see.

As if to say, see for yourself. Experience God for yourself, here and now. Experience first hand that inmost connection with the divine, that inmost connection with all people everywhere and all creation; that larger life that embraces you and sustains you and calls you to works of justice and compassion. Come and see.

My friend the UU minister, James Ford, in a sermon preached three years ago on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and reflective of King’s own experience that night in 1955 at his kitchen table, states that his own understanding of God is our direct knowing that we are not alone. What UUs call that interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

God, he says, is that knowing of our connections down to our bones and marrow. Not just a head knowing, but a body knowing, a heart knowing, a knowing that permeates the very fiber of our being.

It is the sustaining experience that allows us to continue the endless work of feeding the hungry, of seeking compassion and justice for all, [of] trying to help transform our own lives and the life of this country in an ever more generous, open hearted direction.[v]

We are not alone. No never alone.

Come and see. AMEN

*A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald
St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough
January 19, 2014
Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Year A
Isaiah 49:1-7; Ps. 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42



[i] Buehrens, John A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism Beacon Press, 1998
[ii] Scofield, Robert James “Be” King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tikkun Magazine
[iii] Raboteau, Robert J. A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.
[iv] King, Jr., Martin Luther Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool
[v] Ford, The Rev. James Martin Luther King’s Liberal God: A Meditation on the Soul’s Longing

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Wading in the Waters*

In the measure of one short week, from the Second Sunday after Christmas Day to the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we have been catapulted from the birthplace of Jesus to the banks of the Jordan River; from the wise men bearing gifts to the sweltering throng wading into the muddy waters; from a new-born babe to the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John.

It all leaves me feeling breathless and not altogether prepared. Perhaps it’s because I was abroad in England for Christmas. It seems as if the tree was just put up, the lights strung, the decorations unveiled from their year-long captivity in the battered cardboard box where they had been stored away.

Perhaps I am reluctant to let go of Christmas because it is for me the most beloved liturgical season of the Church year. All the seasonal uproar that surrounds it aside, it is simple and direct. It is a season of contemplation and adoration. It speaks to the heart.

It reawakens in me that longing and desire—as I quoted the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams last week—for the sheer presence and accessibility of God, that bare fact of the child in the manger, the life in Galilee, the mystery laid open.

Perhaps because in a fifteenth century chapel in Cambridge, England—with my family by my side—I experienced that sheer presence anew and my heart is still laid open to the mystery. And being laid open, it is tender and vulnerable.

Yes, I am reluctant to let go of Christmas.

Yet, here we all are, at the muddy banks of the River Jordan, propelled over the thirty years or so that it took for Jesus to meet his destiny—and ours.

I said last week that it is my conviction that our most powerful moments are profoundly simple even prosaic, like that of the barefoot shepherds in the carol: our day’s work done, sharing our love, our hopes, ourselves, giving all to the child.

And this precisely because our lives are so complicated, we live so much in our heads and not in our hearts, trying to figure our lives out, get it right; in short, striving to be good, competent, fulfilled people.

It then it happens.

We lay that heavy burden down and we find ourselves welcomed and loved and embraced, wholly and completely, through no merit of our own, but by sheer gift.

Just that.

And when I’ve had that experience, it’s enough, and I’ve felt that if it were my time to depart this earth, so be it. I would go in peace.

I wonder if, in a sense, that was Jesus’ experience in the muddy waters, with that swarming mass of ordinary, struggling men and women swirling around him: the descent of the Spirit like a dove, the voice from heaven saying “You are my Son, the Beloved.”

But here’s the thing: Jesus was not at the end of his ministry but at its beginning. He was not at the conclusion of his life but at its commencement; and the life he would live would be for the life of the world, for all those women and men with whom he waded into the waters. 

Through the power of the Spirit, this Son of God was embraced by God’s unconditional love for the sake of all people everywhere. The same may be said of us as well: we are the sons and daughters of God, we are loved by God, and through the Spirit bestowed in baptism, the life we have been given is for the life of the world.

William Sloane Coffin, for many years chaplain of Yale University then senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, once observed that Yale students were much taken by the Descartian assertion cogito, ergo sum—I think therefore I amwhereas, Coffin felt, it should be amo, ergo sum—I love therefore I am.

I love therefore I am, which is to say: the life we live is for the healing of the world. As with Jesus, baptism sets us on our journey. We have a calling to be heeded, a purpose to be realized, a destiny to be upheld.

At Christmas, the mystery was laid open. It is now ours to show forth for all to see. AMEN

* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; First Sunday after the Epiphany; January 12, 2014 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Late Arrivals and Cold Comings*

What can we say about the wise men? Well, they were not kings and there were not three of them, at least, that is, according to Matthew. We may presume that they were not historical figures but characters in a parable. Matthew imagined them to be magi, a word from which we get magician.

But they were not magicians in any sense in which we understand that term. Rather, according to the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, they were quasi-religious figures. Some have suggested that they were astrologers, although to think of them primarily as such is misleading.[i]

They came from the East, presumably Mesopotamia, but more from a mythical geography, following the star. They were Gentiles and not Jews, drawn to Jesus as one who was the “light of the nations.” I imagine that these wise men were clever, complicated, with mixed motives, and even, as we are fond of saying these days, more spiritual than religious. 

And they were late arrivals. The simple barefoot shepherds were at the manger long before, even the cattle.

They may even remind us of ourselves.

I trust that you all had a delightful Christmas Eve, as I have been assured you did. London was crazy. Half the globe, it seemed, was on Christmas vacation in London. One of you said to me recently, having been on a trip spanning the continents, that traveling is for young people not for us oldsters. I tend to agree.

However, amidst the crowds and chaos, we had a great time; except, that is, when I got trapped beside a desiccated mummy at the British Museum. Unable to move due to the press of hundreds of people, I was barely able to breath... 

If you ask me what the “high” point of my trip was, I can tell you precisely. Not surprisingly, it was not in London but in Cambridge on Christmas Eve, at a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel.

Standing in queue with six hundred for six hours from before dawn with a brisk wind blowing out of the west, though not the high point, was delightful. All were in good Christmas cheer and we met friends with whom we hope to stay in touch with for years to come.

But the service itself, in that glorious space of soaring fan vault and stained glass as the sun slowly set in the western sky, was sublime. Because the acoustics are so fine, there is no need of sound amplification in a sanctuary vastly more spacious than this, just the sweet voices of the choristers accompanied at times by the organ.

We heard for the first time a piece for unaccompanied choir by Bob Chilcott, a modern British composer who, in earlier years, was a chorister at King’s. It’s titled Shepherd’s Carol, a tune set to words by an anonymous author.

In it the shepherd’s address Mary at the manger, reflecting on their epiphany in the hills on a calm winter’s evening, watching the frosted meadows that winter had won, and a star shone in the night, the silence more lovely than music.

They heard a voice from the sky...telling of God being born in the world of men. And so we have come, they say, our day’s work done, Our love, our hopes, ourselves, We give to your son. It’s a lovely, meditative piece that exudes calm and transcendent peace.

Of course, there is now no way to recreate the sound or the mood, the melody repeating and enhancing, weaving a beautiful web of music in that candlelit space. Nor is there any way to convey my experience in that moment though, I found later, Sukie was equally touched. That it brought tears to our eyes hints at its gracious power to move us.

But I’ll try, in the hopes that you too have had a similar experience, though perhaps in a different setting.

It is my conviction that our most powerful moments are profoundly simple even prosaic, like some barefoot shepherds, our day’s work done, sharing our love, our hopes, ourselves, giving all to the child.

And this precisely because our lives are so complicated, we live so much in our heads and not in our hearts, trying to figure our lives out, get it right; in short, striving to be good, competent, fulfilled people.

It then it happens.

We lay that heavy burden down and find ourselves welcomed and loved and embraced, wholly and completely, through no merit of our own, but by sheer gift.

Just that.

On the plane back home, while being entertained by 40 teenage Irish school boys on their way to a skiing holiday in New Hampshire, I happened to be reading Choose Life, a collection of Christmas and Easter sermons by the now former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. It seemed to me that he captured something of my experience at King’s. In his Christmas sermon The Kingdom of the Simple, he talks about the wise men coming to the manger.[ii]

He reflects on the wise men, like us clever, resourceful, complicated people, who manage to screw things up more often than not, late-comers to the manger. And so I close by sharing a few excerpts from that sermon.

He says: Yet—here is the miracle—the three wise men are welcome. You might expect that a faith which begins in such blinding simplicities, the child, the cattle, the barefoot shepherds, would have no place for the wise men...

Coming to the Christ child isn’t always simple. It just is the case that people come by roundabout routes, with complex histories, sin and muddle and false perceptions and false starts. It’s no good saying to them,’You must become simple and wholehearted’, as if this could be done just by wishing it.

The real question is, ‘Can you take all your complicated history with you on a journey towards the manger? Can you at least refuse to settle down in a hall of mirrors, and go on asking where the truth really lies? Can you stop hanging on to the complex and...recognize where the map of the heavens points?’

So: don’t deny the tangle and the talents, the varied web of what has made you who you are. Every step is part of the journey; on this journey, even the false starts are part of the journey, experience that moves you toward the truth.

We know how much we long for that sheer presence and accessibility of God, that bare fact of the child in the manger, the life in Galilee, the mystery laid open. But we come as we are; room is made for us, healing is promised for us, even usefulness given to us if we are ready to make an offering of what W.H Auden called our crooked heart.

In the straw of the stable, the humble and complicated are able to kneel together. If God is there in the simplicity of the baby in the straw...that means he is there in the naked simplicity for the sophisticated and troubled as well, those who have had long and tortuous journeys, cold comings, to the stable.

The childlike response of longing and delight can come even from a heart that has grown old and tired...let no-one think they are too compromised, to entangled to be welcome.


* A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME; The Second Sunday after Christmas Day;
January 5, 2014



[i] Borg, Marcus; Crossan, John Dominic The First Christmas Harper Collins, 2007
[ii] Williams, Rowan Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral eBook