Sermon: on healing

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I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 23, 2020 using lessons for the common of Healers of the Sick from the 1963 Book of Common Worship of the Church of South India.  These are from the second Book of Kings (5:9-14) and the Gospel of Mark (1:40-45).


Good morning, and thank you for welcoming me into your homes. As far as I know, this is the first time a service from Universalist National Memorial Church has been broadcast to you, instead of being held at the church. We all know why; there’s no reason to rehearse the endless stream of COVID-19 news. But, given the occasion, I’m going to depart from my usual practice of preaching from the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary, but instead use a set of lessons from the 1963 Church of South India Book of Common Worship for special days commemorating the Healers of the Sick.

At one level, this is an act of thanksgiving for all those who practice the arts of healing, including not only nurses, physicians and pharmacists, but therapists, medical researchers, nutritional staff, chaplains; and by extension administrators, cleaners and engineers. We thank those working double-time to produce masks and ventilators, and develop new vaccines and therapies. And I will remember those who care for the sick at home, and those who keep food and other supplies available, and those who watch out for their neighbors. Indeed, there are too many people to name even by category. May God bless and protect those helpers of humankind, today and always.

In our first lesson today, Naaman, “commander of the army of the king of Aram” suffered from a skin disease. His wife’s servant was an Israelite, and so he went to Elisha the prophet for healing. But Naaman was unimpressed by what little the prophet seemed to do in order to heal him.

In the second lesson, a leper asked Jesus (who knew about Elisha and Naaman) to heal him, which Jesus did. And Jesus asked the healed man to keep this a secret, but he proclaimed it openly and so people flooded to Jesus to be healed also.

So, from what exactly were Naaman and the unnamed man healed? After all, today we expect to have information about disease. How many days can you be contagious? Is my cough COVID-19 or just allergies? What kind of alcohol should I get? And so on and so on. If never see another one of those spiky ball graphics of the virus it’ll be too soon.

Which makes the diseases in today’s lessons that much more unusual. They were obvious to those who suffered them and to other people, but were evidently not life-threatening. And they assumed to know the cause. Back then, they thought illness depended on sin: either their own, or sin inherited from their ancestors. In other words, bad things happen for a reason, so clearly you are at fault for your own misery. This confuses personal responsibility over what we have control, with responsibility for those things we cannot control.

I’d like us to keep that in mind whenever it seems plausible that persons get what they deserve. Are they really? But I digress.

Now, we know that this “leprosy” wasn’t leprosy in the way we use the term today. Naaman and the man Jesus healed may have had psoriasis, a condition where the skin overproduces and comes off scales. It can be painful, embarrassing, debilitating. And while we no longer think it’s punishment for sin as they would have, it does attack one’s sense of self. In Jesus’ world, it was a sign of impurity, and so kept its sufferers from fulfilling their religious duties.

That is, it was an illness that kept sufferers away from away from God. So when Jesus healed the man and told him to go to the priest, it was so the priest could certify his re-inclusion into the community, and allow him to fulfill his religious obligations. The disease wasn’t, at root, about the skin, but about the soul. It may not be medicine as we know it, but the soul needs healing, too. I tell you: I think the secret that Jesus was trying to keep in that moment was that none of that blaming is true, and none of it from God, the rules about purity included.

Jesus, and prophets before him, healed diseases of separation: the leprosy here, but also blindness and paralysis. He healed those possessed by demons, for what other language did they have for the diseases of the mind. And he healed that greatest separation of all: the separation of life and death. Jesus healed the person or persons depicted, giving them health, function and life. But the people around the healing saw these miracles, and were changed by them.

We, too, hearing these accounts are changed by these healings. We empathize with the people who suffered in these passages, but it’s not at all clear that the people then did. Though empathy, we grow closer to God and to one another. We are also healed from a hardness of heart and a vision that excludes other possibilities. It’s a good lesson for how we regard people too. By not relying on the approval of others to measure our own worth.

This is part of the lifelong path of spiritual healing. In the moment, we could use a little emergency medicine.

Right now, we are physically separated in order to protect one another. That hurts. I’d love to be able to stand close and talk, or shake your hand or give you a hug. But we can’t do that right now. Even though we’re about a month into the pandemic, its effects have just begun. Something that seems easy, even thrilling now, might soon become burdensome, annoying and anxiety-provoking. And the longer we go, the harder it will be to be apart. Tempers will rise and nerves will shake. We’re still in that giddy, novel phase, like the when the winds and rain of a hurricane pick up, but before the power goes out.

So, let me offer some advice. Stay close to the church, even in this virtual form. This is a place of grace and caring, and something you can look forward to if you feel adrift. Keep in touch with one another, and especially pray for one another. Prayer isn’t a kind of magic, but a commitment to that closeness we have with God, and a listening to what God asks of us. And know that others are praying for your well-being. I am, and others, too. If you have a passing thought that nobody cares for you, remember that we not only care, but miss you, and carry you to our God and Creator.

After that, search out wisdom. Read the preaching passages for yourself, and other part of the Bible besides. You may find more in them that speaks to you directly. Read the spiritual classics, because wise people rise up in every generation and this is not the first time human beings have had to cope with epidemics (or economic downturns) in religious terms. Use that wisdom to preserve your health: physical, mental and spiritual. A deeper religious life doesn’t fix all your problems, but it does give you more language to interpret the world around you. Like Naaman, who wondered “is that all there is to it?” let’s accept that little bits of faith can unlock larger resilience and compassion. It’s this way that we find health and peace.

Friends: let us care for the sick, mourn the dead, support the healer, and grow toward health. In this unexpectedly challenging Lent, let us deepen in faith so might live in the fullness of life.

Sermon: “Mountaintops”

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 23, 2020 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew.


From the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus:

Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, and this is why that’s important. To transfigure here means to transform in such a way that improves and elevates, namely by being brought closer to God in space and purpose but mostly in spirit, and in so doing becoming more like God. It’s this becoming more like God that I think is the main purpose of life, and how we are able to enjoy a life of blessing here and now. If you want to know the point of the sermon, it’s that. It’s one thing to believe we are loved by God (and we are) but another to become more wise, more loving, more compassionate, more creative, more forgiving and so much more. In other words, to accept the inheritance we have as beloved children of the God who is. So I believe that we can, by grace and patience, grow in a God-like way.

Which makes the Transfiguration — the feast and the concept — very important. The passage we heard in the second reading is its warrant. It’s marked today in some Protestant churches: the capstone of the season following Epiphany. On the day of Epiphany, last month, Jesus’ divine essence was disclosed by the presence of a star and discerned by foreign sages, the “three Wise Men.” Now at the Transfiguration, the dim light of a star has become a light that is unavoidable and blinding, though seen only spiritually and not with the eyes. At Epiphany, we come as seekers, but at the Transfiguration we approach as trusted (if unsettled) friends. But the message is essentially the same: we will have more understanding, and that is what will guide us towards God. The wonder and amazement remain constant.

Today’s last-Sunday-before-Lent observance is a Christian minority opinion though. Catholics, Episcopalians and the Orthodox observe it on August 6, which you will recall is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. That makes me shudder. But perhaps reminds us that dramatic change can also be traumatic change, and that bright light and power can also utterly destroy. And yet that horrible coincidence, which chills the blood and might move you to tears, is also a reminder that change for the sake of change promises us nothing more than change. What we want is a change towards something better. And yet the Godwards life has no promise of happiness, or sweetness or creature comforts in the usual sense. There’s so much pain and hurt in our world. To both love the people and living things in it, and yet hope for something greater and eternal, will stress us, will tear us, will break our hearts.

And so being changed is usually unwelcome, often distressing, and sometimes painful. But it is not optional. To live is to change. How you change, and what you become, relies in part on what you choose to become. Growing into the likeness of God means taking God as your guide. There are other options, but I cannot recommend them. Becoming an indifferent person (say) with a callous soul is also a change and a path, but one where where others pay the price for your comfort.

Sometimes I complain that the recommended passages from the Bible are hard to preach. After all, in any number of lessons brought together by custom or committee, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection. Or there’s a bit of Iron Age morality that needs to be interpreted for the Silicon Age. But I’m not complaining today; the lessons lock together like puzzle pieces. Someone early on, hearing the passage from Matthew, might have thought, “I know where this is going.” And like any good story, you’re happy to hear it in a new voice or from a new angle. Even in Jesus’ time, the story from Exodus about Moses and the rest was ancient. Arthur and Merlin and Guinevere ancient. Moses took his key deputies to a high place, where God was made manifest to him in the others’ presence. And Jesus took his key deputies to a high place where they had a stunning, divine vision of Moses and Elijah. So Jesus made the connection himself, and it was obvious to the disciples, if overwhelming.

These are both hierophanies, manifestations of a higher power like God, but can also be legendary heroes, angels and the like. We can anticipate them or prepare for the to a degree —that’s part of taking a pilgrimage, say — but we don’t have control over them, and there’s no reason to believe that any of us will have this transcendent experience. But can try and understand experiences like those in the reading. And we do have moments in our lives on which we must pivot or chose, and very often we don’t have control over those either.

But what if we have experienced something. Moses experienced hierophanies, and one can say that Jesus was a hierophany. What makes a manifestation a manifestation? Perhaps you’ve had an experience that defies description, or didn’t demand an explanation: an experience where you were called by God without words, or were just pulled up by a sense — somewhere between grief and elation — to a new place where you understood something in a new way. And that leads us to the devouring fire atop the holy mountain. Its light reveals what we carry in our hearts.

On the mountain in the gospel reading, Jesus was also joined by a manifestation of Elijah, and Elijah also had a hierophany It was one of my preaching texts a few months ago, but I don’t expect you to recall the details. He had just slain the priests of Baal — that’s another sermon — and now was on the run for his life. From the first book of Kings, chapter nineteen (7-12):

And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

The New International Version translates the sound of God as “a gentle whisper” and the New Revised Standard Version as “the sound of sheer silence.”

And so seems to me that the violent storm surrounding Elijah, the “devouring fire” on the top of Moses’ mountain or even Jesus’ sure crucifixion mentioned in his disclosure to his disciples that a hierophany isn’t made up of troubles and tumult, violence and strife, but that they surround and perhaps hide it.

And one thing is sure: you don’t return from the mountaintop the way you came. The experience changes you. And even as we live, we are not exactly the same people we were. We do have some choices: to grow or to wither; to learn or to ignore; to take on a greater likeness to God or withdraw and betray what we might be.

Hierophanies give an experience of great and holy things, but not the means to interpret them to others. That is what we add to our experience of the holy. But direct language fails, even though we have vocabulary and concepts the people living millennia ago didn’t. We can speak meaningfully (if partially) of the working of our minds, of language, of various religious experience, of economics, of the natural world in the micro and macro scale and much more besides. Little wonder we turn to figurative descriptions and the arts to help. Little wonder we relive them though ritual. Preaching is supposed to help explain or at least describe sacred encounters, but can only go so far with the words and gestures we have in common.

Nevertheless, once we have experience of the Holy (if we have it) and once we have some interpretive means for understanding it in our lives — and this interpretation will take on new meanings over the years — you have to do something with it. Growing into a greater likeness with God has responsibilities.

Universalists have not, historically, made much of the Feast of the Transfiguration. An exception is Edwin Hubble Chapin, long-time minister of the church now known as Fourth Universalist in New York. He described a painting in the Vatican by Raphael depicting the Transfiguration, and what its moral implications were.

Writing in his Living Words (1860), he had to paint his own pictures in words of what he saw. The first thing you would see is Jesus is blazing white garments, lifted up as if swimming in the air.

But [Rafael] saw what the apostles at that moment did not see, and in another portion of his picture has represented the scene at the foot of the hill, — the group that awaited the descent of Jesus, the poor possessed boy, writhing, and foaming, and gnashing his teeth, — his eyes, as some say, in their wild, rolling agony, already catching a glimpse of the glorified Christ above; the baffled disciples, the cavilling scribes, the impotent physicians, the grief-worn father, seeking in vain for help. Suppose Jesus had stayed upon the mount, what would have become of that group of want, and helplessness, and agony? Suppose Christ had remained in the brightness of that vision forever, — himself only a vision of glory, and not an example of toil, and sorrow, and suffering, and death, — alas! for the great world at large, waiting at the foot of the hill ; — the [280] groups of humanity in all ages: — the sin-possessed sufferers: the cavilling sceptics; the philosophers, with their books and instruments; the bereaved and frantic mourners in their need! (pp. 279-80)

Raphael tied the scene of the Transfiguration with the next passage in Matthew, where Jesus healed the boy with epilepsy and scolded the faithless around him. Chapin carried the point in his own ministry in New York. The experience of God demands a change, and that change demands positive action that shows that each of us are heirs to God, whether we know it or not. And it shows God that we have heard and seen.

Now, if you know your Moses, Elijah and Jesus, you’ll recall a span of forty days. It’s a biblical convention for a long period of time. Elijah survived forty days on the divinely provided food he ate. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. And Noah had his forty days of rain and flood when all the earth was destroyed.

Friends, starting this Wednesday, we are beginning our own forty days with the coming of Lent.

In our society, Lent has become something between a self-improvement opportunity and a running joke, if it is known or understood at all. This is fine, so long we see the forty days as a preparation for a persistent change in our lives. We wouldn’t give up cruelty for Lent, only to re-adopt it for Easter. At its best, Lenten discipline changes you for the better, putting your steps in a Godwards direction. So I charge you not simply to do better but to be better. If you choose a Lenten discipline, make it something practical than will stretch you, but you can accomplish. Tie it to the direction that you feel God leading you towards. If you do not have a clear sense of how God is directing you, make your discipline an act of discovery. Review your life, so as to get a better scope of your life. Learn from the example of others who have gone before you, both to test your self-examination and to encourage you.

And with renewed focus, you can be better by adopting those habits of love and mercy that the logic of this world can not readily understand. Or if it does understand it, it is through the evidence of our lives made glad, living in a way that honor loving kindness.

In short, we will be known by our love for one another, with love to spare and overflow.

Christmas sermon, 2019

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on December 25, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Letter to Titus and the Gospel of Luke.

The service format was drawn from the twelfth order of service (for Christmas Day) from the 1937 Services of Religion prepended to the Hymns of the Spirit. The responsive reading used the alternative, second-person text of the Magnificat from the English Language Liturgical Consultation.


Merry Christmas.

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me to preach again, and thank you for welcoming me back.

Plainly put, Christmas sermons tend to write themselves. The stories are well-known and well-loved, and they say something different to us in our different stages of life. And we fill in the details with the singing, the shared companionship and the general warm feeling. My sincere hope for anyone struggling now (and struggling with Christmas in particular) that these moments will bring you rest and refreshment; you’re among friends.

And yet for the familiarity of the Christmas stories — I learned part of today’s lesson in King James English through repeated viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas — it takes years of living to recognize what strange stories they are, and to appreciate the differences between them. Today, we have two lessons from the Gospel of Luke, the most familiar version of Jesus’ origin story. We heard the part about the manger, the shepherds and the actual birth from chapter two, and Mary’s song from chapter one, which we read as the responsive reading. Though considered separately, they are part of a whole. In Mary’s song, she recounts her place in cosmic history. We took her part, and declared to God:

You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation. You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

This is perhaps less familiar than the angel and Bethlehem, but it is very much part of the same story.

Mary speaks of those who fear God; they will receive mercy. Similarly, the shepherds were terrified: God was being revealed for them, as an infant and nearby. Yet it’s awkward to speak of fear and think of the love of God at the same time. Too often, we fear that which can and would hurt us. This is not what we mean by the fear of God. Rather we also fear what we cannot understand, and we fear disruption to our customary and ordinary life, even it means something good might be coming.

Divine living is not customary or ordinary, and we can scarcely understand how it might come about. That itself is frightening, but also gives us cause for hope. God’s ways are not our ways. In Mary’s time and ours, the proud get their way, the mighty get their way, the rich get their way and it’s hard living for the rest. When Jesus said “the poor will be with you always” we was not mandating poverty, but recognizing what had always been, casting a light on it, dignifying the suffering rather than ignoring it. Divine living is living with a God who knows us and sees us, and desires our good. And God acts by confusing our expectations. Thus a baby, not a warrior or Caesar. Thus Bethlehem, not Rome. Thus a word and not a sword.

And so too, the confusing, unexpected love that God shows us. It can make us afraid because we may not want to love so deeply. God would not hurt us, but love often does. It breaks our hearts, but also gives us life. We can be afraid of being loved so deeply. Consciousness of God’s love pulls out out ourselves, and away from anything low and self-serving. It can lead us to a life of serving one another, as Deacon Eliserena spoke of on Sunday. Is this how God scattered the proud, and cast down the mighty? And it is how God lifts up the lowly?

Or as the author of the letter to Titus puts it, “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…” We do not earn this love and cannot earn it; it’s God’s unreserved gift. Accept it. Let it take you to a moment of tenderness, answered by gentle tears. Let it take you, like the shepherds, to the manger.

And then, on returning, what? Where then do the Christmas stories take us? At the very least, this tender goodness and loving kindness should lead us to reflect on how we regard one other in families, among friend or at work, as a nation and in the world. Have been too hard on one another? And in doing, have you been too hard on yourself? For the gift and goal of Christmas is that nearness to God which draws out our likeness to God. Day by day, we can (by God’s grace) strengthen and express those same divine qualities, and above all, a heartfelt love for the world and the people in it. By it, we fulfill the angel’s song of peace and goodwill.

God bless each and all of you this Christmas morning.

Sermon: “Work”

I preached from this sermon manuscript at Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 17, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Luke.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back. And I’d like to start, not with the sermon directly, but with an illustration I really wanted to work into the sermon, but doesn’t really fit.

Back in 1982 Ridley Scott’s neo-Film Noir movie Blade Runner introduced viewers to a dystopian future Los Angeles, where nearly perfect copies of human beings — essentially slave labor on other planets ― would only live (or last) three years, by design. They were forbidden from coming to earth, but some do, with hopes of extending their lives. The blade runners, one is the lead played by Harrison Ford, are the agents sent to find and destroy them. The title suggest our identification with the blade runners, with humanity and order, but is that how it works out? Watch and see.

That disturbing future took place in the far future of November 2019. That future is now, and so I wanted to work it into the sermon, in part to reflect on today, and also because science fiction provides such an easy and accessible window into theological discourse.

If you want to talk about human nature, what better contrast is there than to introduce a non-human character with human characteristics, whether living or an automaton. If you want a metaphor for a spiritual journey, you can depict it as a journey through space, into the literal heavens, where you will find nothing familiar except yourself. If you want an idea of what God is, or properly what God is not, have the characters meet a force which is greater than humanity — perhaps unseen — and whose good or evil works force crises and decisions.

Blade Runner adds another twist. There are several, slightly variant versions of the film, edited to suggest the different answers to the mystery underlying the story. (In fact, my brother worked on one of them.) So it’s not clear which version is canonical, or authoritative. All of them, perhaps? We approach biblical interpretation the same way, so this is another way to look at the film theologically.

But I’ve not seen Blade Runner in two or three years, certainly not contrasting the variations, and haven’t seen the recent sequel. Apart from the coincidence of dates, I couldn’t work it into the sermon. And (ironically, you’ll see) it was a heavy week at work, so I didn’t have time to run down all the leads: I’ll leave Blade Runner aside. I hope to come back to it, and other films, some day.


Instead, I started by going back to that article that Pastor Gatton referred to last week — the one from the New York Times (5-Hour Workdays? 4-Day Workweeks? Yes, Please”) by Cal Newport — since he preached from the prior passage from Luke. (I have his book on hold at the library; there’s quite the wait.) The editorial’s main illustration was an experiment by a small German tech firm to have a distraction-free five hour work day instead of a longer day peppered with Twitter, email and urgent texts.

Imagining a world where we work less is also something frequently posited by futurists and in science fiction. It prompted me to lift out the ideas about work in the lesson from Second Thessalonians.

It’s funny that work itself isn’t more of a theological topic. For most of us, it takes up most of our waking hours, working either outside the house, in it, or both. Work for pay gives us access to the necessities and pleasures of life, even as it keeps us from them. A good work life will make you happy, a bad work life will make you unhappy and not having work or not being sure of what work would be good can be the worst of all. Work, like sleep, growth, family and food, is one of those foundational realities of human existence.

And yet, any number of commentators would have us believe that the future of work is optional or minimal, and with a science fiction-like zeal that the robots will take care of us, and so we need to look past work for both fulfillment and the distribution of goods. I’m not convinced, but not because I think people should be forced to work, but that it’s not so easily brushed away.

To be sure, work doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in St. Paul’s time.

Technological advances in the last nineteen centuries have moved us past the power of human and animal power and faster than sailboats. Electric light makes us a little like God for the day and the night are alike to us — but that means we can or must work longer than ever before, not to mention faster communication than even the last generation knew. The ideas of retirement and vacation are revolutionary. And we are less stuck — I can’t say not stuck — in the work paths our parents and grandparents set before us. Indeed, we may not work (and live) in the same place they were born or where we were born. And tomorrow we might be working halfway around the world, or speaking with someone who is. For most of us, and by us I mean the whole human family, work doesn’t mean farming or finding the next meal. It’s different, less physically demanding, but easier or better? I’ll leave that for you to decide. But work is different now than in the first century.

The first and second letters from St. Paul to the Thessalonians — that is, what’s now the the city of Salonica, in northern Greece — are essentially practical advice to that young church, and he was helping them in their own time. The churches were very young at this point, as old (more or less) as social media is to us, and the “rules” were still being developed. We take from the context that some of the people in the church in Salonica didn’t think they should work, or that they needed to work. Were some of the people taking the message of a liberating gospel so literally that they didn’t feel that they needed to work. Or perhaps took the injection to “give away all you have” so literally that they became dependent on the good-will of others. Or perhaps they believed that God would provide in all things, and too that to mean the supernatural supply of natural needs. Well, eventually. It’s not clear, but there’s indirect evidence of conflict.

So his warning, “if they don’t work, they don’t eat” should be read not as a kind of punishment but set a standard of how they members of the community should regard one another. Egalitarianism is implied for one thing. And that bit about “not being busybodies” might be translated idiomatically as an injunction to work, but not work each others’ nerves.

But this is a short passage, and to read it without inquiring and generous minds would miss the point. What about those who really cannot work? The sick or injuried or debilitated? The very old, and the very young? Are they left hungry? Of course not. This goes against good sense, and cuts against the kind of care that drew people to the gospel in the first place. So the lesson for us is that work is important, it resources our needs, it can build mutual understanding, but it’s not the ultimate good. Work has its place.

Five days a week I work as the operations director of a small international health nonprofit, working up budget, payroll, contracts and the like. It’s typical office work, with the typical mix of rewards and challenges.

It’s no secret that I used to be the minister of this church, but after that pastorate ended I didn’t want to leave town. The quality of life is good here, particularly for gay couples, and there were few if any churches that might appeal elsewhere. Those that did would pay very poorly in isolated communities, and would offer my husband few good opportunities. So I traded ministry for administration. I bring my theological training into my work: active listening, a kind word, and a willingness to get the bottom of a story have all been a part of my nonprofit life.

But I do miss church work, sometimes, and I do feel that God is keeping me in the ministry. One of the reasons I like preaching here, in fact is that it helps me work out my ministerial vocation when that will never again be my main source of income. St. Paul was himself famously and literally a tent maker, from which we get the term “tent-making ministries” when you refer to a minister who has a day job to cover most of the expenses.

Work has a value apart from earnings. It’s not an original thought to say that you get a lot of our sense of self from my work. We build collegial relationships with sometimes turn into friendships. Our work structures our daily lives. The problem is when our work let’s become our daily lives. When we have no other sources of validation or encouragement apart from work. Which also means that work has a power over us in more than providing earnings. And then subsumes that you somehow enjoy your job, or have one. I recall being unemployed and hating it. It was like I was always waiting for my life to restart.

I know that one from personal experience. I’ve had four multi-month long spells of unemployment and I remember how corrosive the experience was. I was lonely. I started missing the presence of co-workers who annoyed me. I worried about money. I doubted my worth. In one case, I’m pretty sure I took a job just to make the grind of not-having go away. That’s also why I don’t believe the stories of the “end of work” and that robots will do everything, and that we will have to prepare for a time past work. You need something to make life seem meaningful, and we have millennia finding that kind of value in our work.

But what if your job stinks, and you don’t have very good options? Sometimes you need to take or keep a job because there’s no time or energy to change. Or the one you have took a long time to get, and you don’t want to go through that again. Or it provides medical insurance you or a family member needs. Or if you can get through three more years you can retire without imperiling your retirement years. Or a hundred other variations.

Then take my advice: find your vocation, even if it’s not your day job. This is opposite of that cloying work advice, “Do what you love” which sounds like the kind of advice given by people with lots of options and cash to fall back on. Instead, find out what God is leading you towards, and be prepared to follow that off the clock.

That brings us to our lesson from Luke. The passage in Luke is different than the Thessalonian letter, both in that it’s not meant to be practical, and not meant to be clear. In it, Jesus is speaking of a final time, but doesn’t say when it will be, or clearly how to anticipate it. A time when nothing will be the same. It’s heavy and apocalyptic, and can unsettle you deeply if you’re not aware.

Time, of course, means nothing to God, but it does to us. So this future time, when even the Temple, falls in meant for us. The most we know, and this is so banal that I resist even mentioning it — the most we can know is that it’s terribly important. And that we should be ready.

But a cautious, moderate kind of readiness, I think. We cannot become extreme by denying what we can have now. We cannot become extreme by predicting exactitudes we cannot know. I feel a bit of sympathy towards those people who prepare not only for disasters but prepare for a full collapse of society.

They act as though it is inevitable that everything will collapse around us. Food supplies, safe water, public safety, the rule of law and the electrical grid. All things which human beings have built and must maintain. It makes me deeply sad that it makes more sense to some to run to the boondocks and try to reproduce society rather than to make it part of your life’s work to preserve all these things from collapse in the first place.

When we find our calling, and pursue it where or not it’s our job, we orient ourselves to that Day that Jesus speaks of. We live for the future. The past is done. Nobody can add anything to it, or take anything from it. We can, and should, be grateful for those who worked and struggled, usually unnamed and unrecognized, for us to be where we are.

In the meantime, what can we do until we find our calling. Reflect your faith in daily life.

To jump from Sunday prayer to Monday work then means taking on new habits that we may not directly benefit from. For instance, we might try and create virtuous circles in the workplace. No winking at little cheats or pilferage. We show our workplace — our coworkers and vendors, if not our bosses and clients — our honest, kind and careful intentions.

Be thankful and show thankfulness for the special contributions others bring to their work, including taking on work that’s unpleasant to do or has low status.

And outside of the workplace, we find alternatives to the Washington question. You know the one at social occasions? where we categorize each other by what we do.

In short, work to live, and find a better way of living. But do not live to work.

Find places were we have friends and not just coworkers or contacts, and interests that makes life interesting and rewarding that is not dependent on having any particular job. I will include church in that number.

Don’t treat your religion as a niche interest just because others project theirs badly. Your religion can be deep without being intrusive. The good ones are out there; you just may not know their religious motivations. May your behavior at work, at home and wherever you are the first way you express your faith.

Let your life’s work be a blessing for you and for others.

 

Sermon: “Memory”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on October 6, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the First Letter to Timothy and the Gospel of Luke.


Memory

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for having me back.

Now that the weather has finally turned cooler(-ish), it’s beginning to feel like October. The Halloween advertisements and displays begin to make some sense: the gently spooky ones that combine pumpkins, the changing color of leaves, ancient headstones, bed-sheet ghosts and big bags of chocolate candy.

But truth be told, the candy seems like an inadequate bribe for the ever-present truth that life ends. The pretty red and orange leaves will soon dry out and fall. We see the pumpkins in their patch because the green leaves that fed them have withered away. For new life to thrive, it means that old life has to give way.

And yet the dead are present with us.

Washington, more than most places, is stuffed with constructed memorials: Greek temples, pavilions, engraved stones, benches, ceremonial walls and pathways, grottoes, pillars and obelisks, statues and fountains. Not to mention lecture series, endowed faculty chairs, scholarship funds, arts centers, even commemorative walls and plaques. We are surrounded by remembrances of the dead.

There are also the burial places, both those as famous as Arlington National Cemetery, but also the private and religious cemeteries that ring this and most cities. Places where even the rock-ribbed cry.

And then, as in every town or city, there are the informal, spontaneous memorials — made up of candles and flowers, pictures and signs, made up of teddy bears and crosses and too many tears — those memorials that that pop up on street corners and plazas or on lonely stretches of highways when something terrible happens, like when someone dies violently or senselessly. The dead may be gone, but we put up a fight to keep them.

Some of the memorials were created after a life of service or a moment of heroism, and are the people’s thanksgiving. Others were secured by substantial philanthropic giving. Some are homemade, the loved-one known by relatively few in this life. And each is evidence of dedication and love, that the dead may have their “part and lot with all thy saints.” We even pray in this memorial church, one of many in D.C. in dedicated that way.

So, who really, is the Universalist National Memorial Church a memorial to? John Murray? The people mentioned on the fading “scrolls” in the lobby? Someone else? That answer is now out of the hands of its builders. Because before the stone constructions, before those flowers laid, before a child’s toy left with sobbing, before any visible reminder were words. Perhaps thought and not spoken, because voices crack under grief. But words that say I loved her, and she’s gone. I miss her. I will remember her.

So in this church and all temples, at heroic monuments and roadsides, the memorial begins with our words, and our words become our prayers.

Memorials aren’t necessarily religious, but the answer to the questions they raise are. And in a Christian setting, the answers to those questions relate to God’s relationship and promises to us. Why do we make memorials of word and stone? Will they touch the heart of God?

I didn’t pull this theme out of the air. The first Sunday in October is, or was, Universalist Memorial Sunday, “for commemorating those friends who, during the year, have been taken away by death.” Although I don’t know of any churches that still celebrate it. It was one of a number of observances commended by the Universalist denomination that became a part of today’s Unitarian Universalist Association.

It was originally combined with All Souls Day, on November 2 or the nearest Sunday. All Souls, however, is an ancient observance, and served a different purpose. Ecumenically, it is for those Christians not included the day before, on All Saints Day. In the Episcopal Church is is officially called the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed”. But it could also be to remember all who lived. That second one is the Universalist take.

It’s hard not to see the bigness of All Souls Day if it includes everyone who has ever lived and arguably everyone who will yet live. Possibly angels, too, possibly pre-human ancestors, maybe beings on other worlds if they exist, perhaps all that lives. There’s a vastness and inclusion in this vision of God’s reconciliation of all souls. So great perhaps that our own personal need to remember those we love gets lost in its vastness. What about Grandma and Cousin Joe? So in the 1870s Universalist Memorial Sunday became a thing. The memories of the Civil War must have been fresh and raw; in any case, it must have been perfectly clear that life was fragile. Our religious ancestors needed to say so in their own words.

Speaking of the Civil War, of the monuments on the National Mall, I think the greatest among them is the one dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Having been brought up mostly in the South, where Lincoln is not as revered as he is in other parts of the country, I nonetheless choke up a little when I see the words above the seated statue of Lincoln there:

“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

And his memory is a blessing.

When I think of Lincoln, Washington, D.C. and the Civil War, I also think of Walt Whitman. In part, because May 31 was the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. In part because I see his poetry every time I take the subway (more about that later). In part because a new commemorative stamp came out last month: a portrait of Whitman with a lilac bush and a hermit thrush, a reference to one of his more famous poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” That’s the one many of us read in school, about his grief and the nation’s grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d womenstanding,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

and ending

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Whitman gave us a new, free way to feel and so to speak. He gave people words to grieve by. He came to Washington during the Civil War to look for his not-very-hurt brother: a soldier listed as a casualty at Fredricksburg. He stayed (ten years in all) to care for the broken and dying in the hospitals as something of a one-man volunteer morale officer.

Washington was swollen during the war. Universalist ministers started holding services here, perhaps in response to members relocated from the north, and Whitman attended services in that period. (A note. Ford’s Theater; the Lincoln death house; Whitman’s hospital, now the National Portrait Gallery; the Masonic Temple, the site of the Universalist services in D.C.; and Clara Barton’s missing soldiers bureau are within a short walk of each other, and all are still standing, if you wish to see for yourself.)

If you came today by subway, that inscription around the north entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro station is from the end of his poem, “The Wound-Dresser” and shows us what he saw and felt, but earlier he writes:

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

Let us thank and remember Walt Whitman, a poet for the living and the dying.

I’d like to talk about the two lessons today.

As those of you who’ve heard me preach before know, I use the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical reading list for worship. It’s one of the few places Unitarian Universalist Christians have had an impact in the ecumenical church for decades. It keeps me from cherry-picking lessons, and in return there are a lot of resources out there, as so many churches use in world wide. Today’s lessons are from the Revised Common Lectionary, and I didn’t want to avoid the passage from the Gospel of Luke just because it was hard. The fact there’s no obvious tie to Universalist Memorial Sunday doesn’t help.

The thing that sticks out is the reference to slavery; that you wouldn’t thank a slave for doing their job. Formal legal slavery was the norm in the Roman Empire and would remain a formal part of human relations for centuries. There were slaves in these lands four hundred years ago, with first-hand survivors of American slavery surviving into the middle of the twentieth century. The echoes of the African slave trade continue to this day: people who too often have to be remembered en masse, for there was nobody to write their names, save the Almighty, who inscribes them in the book of life. The recognition and memorials to slaves owned and sold by Georgetown and George Washington Universities, though relatively few in number, multiply in the mind to how many millions of lives were disrupted and destroyed by the slave trade. Of the many losses, sufferings and indignities the enslaved faced, I’m thinking today (in connection with memorials) of the broken connection with home. To never know what happened to the kidnapped, and to those left behind. To have families broken as a commercial transaction: the grief without recourse and without resolution.

And that makes me think of migrant children separated from their parents today. Or of those kept in human trafficking: modern slavery. Will they ever be reunited with their families? Will that break be healed? It’s not history, it’s not even the past. Something could be done about it. It’s not really the point of the passage from Luke, but if it sensitizes us to what must be and what must not be, then it has given us a blessing.

The passage from the second letter to Timothy is closer to the theme. While internally attributed to St. Paul, the consensus is that it (with the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus) weren’t written by St. Paul but together make up a set of letters offering advice to the very early church. So, we heard:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

The rest of the passage is about remaining firm and strong in faith. This is the only place in the Bible we hear about Eunice and Lois, and given the context we might think that they were both dead, but remembered and respected. What’s true of Timothy is true of us; he could hold on their memory as encouragement. We also carry traces of the characters of those who influence and molded us. When we act out of those influences to do the good, we honor the memory of those who went before us. Which doesn’t mean necessarily mean those influences started good. Take pigheadedness, for instance. You can transform pigheadedness into perseverance to defend the what’s right. Or remembering someone who struggled and faltered with addictions. That might make us more compassionate toward someone who struggle, knowing that some challenges can’t be wished away, but are are extraordinarily difficult to overcome. My point is this: someone doesn’t have to be perfect to deserve our memory, and those who are the most imperfect need it the most. That includes ourselves. We can and should pray for one another. For in prayer we witness to one another before the living God.

What then, will touch the heart of God when we remember those who have lived before us, and especially those whom we love? Nothing we can add. We trust that God already leans towards us. Our memorials of stone and candle and prayer reach to the mystery of God call out, and say “hear us.” “Hear us, and make us whole again.” God waits to hear. We are bound together across life and death, by love, and by God “whose nature is Love” for whom time is no thing.

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

May God bless you all, this day and forever more.

Printing out sermon or service book pages

My face is still a bit sore from dental work, so another shortish article.

Back in 2015, I shared my workflow for printing out pages of a sermon or service that can be put in an attractive binder using half-size pace protectors. It’s neat and professional looking and not hard to assemble.

Here am I bringing that up to date. I use LibreOffice, which you can download and use for free. I’ve used it for years at home and in my day job, and can attest that it makes a good replacement for Microsoft Office. Since 2015, LibreOffice has added new features. In particular, it supports OpenType features, including the much desired small caps and old-style numerals, if they’re embedded in the font. This is a good tutorial for using this feature, and this is a good reason why you shouldn’t use your word processor’s “small caps” feature, in so far as they’re not true small caps and not good replacements. The Libertine (formerly Linux Libertine) font has those features, and you can now make use them in the standard release, rather than the Graphite text features I wrote about in 2015. Very few fonts support Graphite, so I won’t labor the subject.

I’ve also been modifying the template I use. Here it is to download. Or copy it to your own Google Drive and try it out with one of their available fonts.

Sermon: “Ourselves, Alone”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on August 4, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke. The ad-libs are not included, and I named this sermon before I wrote it, so don’t make too much of the title.


Ourselves, Alone

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, to Sean for reading today, and to you for welcoming me back.

We’re continuing our lessons in the Gospel of Luke. As I looked at our lesson today, I realized that the obvious sermon is about probate law and binding arbitration. (I’m joking of course: let’s save that for the holidays. Thanksgiving, perhaps.)

But this passage about a family squabble and an inheritance raises an important to look at scripture. Instead of looking at a passage like this as a guide for behavior, let’s think of it as a longer story that’s missing some pieces.

First, we consider who’s present. Jesus, of course, and the two feuding brothers. The crowd and presumably Jesus’ own students. Likewise in Jesus’ embedded parable, we hear about the rich man with the productive farm. Then we can ask ourselves who’s missing from the stories, perhaps implied but still important to understanding what’s going on. For example, the source of the family wealth, perhaps a mother or father, or another relative. In any case this person must be dead. You can just imagine the hard feelings born of family crisis. The same feelings played out in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in families today. In the parable, we hear about the productive farm but presumably the rich man to not till the soil or harvest the crops himself. The missing people are the farm hands and his domestic workers, the ones who did the work to create the wealth. They’re missing. Even the rich man’s family is missing.

And then in this approach — who’s present in the story; who’s missing from the story — makes a demand of us. Who do you most identify with here? The feuding brothers and the rich farmer are what we would call bad examples; models of living which we use as object lessons of what not to do. If we see ourselves in them, we judge ourselves and (I hope) reform your lives for the better.

But we aren’t stuck with seeing ourselves in one role. What about the unnamed laborer? The unnamed benefactor? What do we make of our own possessions or work while we yet live? And do we, like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, rue the work that we do under the sun? Because this reading is not not simply about personal possessions, though possessions have their place. But rather, what values do we ascribe to possessions that they don’t deserve? If you “are what you eat” (as the saying goes), are you also what you wear? what you drive? where you live and what you own? Is our value as a producer or a consumer?

I mean this is not exactly a trick question. You are in church. Of course you value is not as a producer or a consumer. After all Jesus said:

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

It’s really more of a warning. Because how we approach our wealth (or lack of wealth) cuts right to the root of what it means to be a human being filled with dignity and joy. And if you can reflexively know that your value as a person is not based on being a producer or a consumer while you sit in a church, is it as easily to think that about yourself the other hours of the week?

Several years ago, I was working for a government transparency and accountability organization that specialized in technological and policy. Two of my responsibilities were finances and purchasing, so I know first-hand that we used Amazon Web Services for data storage, processing and other solutions. This is the same goliath Amazon that has taken over online shopping and may provide you streaming video. What’s less well-known is that their huge computing capacity is itself a suite of products. One of which is Amazon Mechanical Turk. This was a service where real human beings would take on small discreet tasks that weren’t well suited for computers. Think of it is artificial intelligence done by human beings. The name came from a automaton in the form of a Turkish man, a mechanism that could play chess. The idea is that you would be impressed by the intricacy of the device which was in fact a human being dressed up to be an automaton. My responsibilities also included human resources, and (as you know) my first calling is in the service of God: I found this service incredibly chilling. I was at work looking at the future of work: unseen people doing that which the tools that human beings created to relieve us of unnecessary burden could not do. People being made into robots.

Was this right? Was this what we were promised? Along with flying cars and trips to Mars, one of the great science fiction promises of the coming age was the end of toil. The future where are we, well anyway most of us, would be spared difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing or repetitive work. But since so much work is difficult, dangerous, mind-numbing and repetitive, the promise has to be that we would have less work overall.

If you read articles on productivity, automation, business processes or robotics, you know that it’s a matter of time until many of the jobs we do today will be automated. We might as well plan on what we are going to do with all that free time. (I don’t think writers of those articles have much experience with manual labor, or have too much faith in robotic barbers.) I know serious people who are looking at Universal Basic Income as a policy to mop up all that excess labor, as if people were rational when it comes to providing funds for people without work.

It’s one thing to say that work gives life meaning, or to say that “idol hands are the devil’s playthings.” But it’s altogether another to realize how little we may regard one another if large blocks of the population are first unneeded, then unwanted and finally expendable. The Black Plague killed so many people that the labor of those who survived became more valuable, and so those workers could demand more money and better treatment.

I’m sort of workaholic killjoy, but because without work, experience shows that it’s way too easy to devalue the people who don’t work. If you’ve ever been out of work and didn’t want to be, and then someone asks you the quintessential D.C. question, “what do you do?” you know what I mean. If you are wanted you are valuable, if you are not wanted, you aren’t.

Without economic pull, without political pull, I think we do have something to worry about.

I am one middle-aged man with bad knees and I cannot solve this for myself let alone anyone else. I do worry about our future, particularly those who do not already have accumulated wealth. Instead, we need a new way to measure human worth. A way that doesn’t reduce us to how best we can exploit one another. And if we can’t force that appreciation on society-at-large, then at least we can’t give up on it personally, and the groups of people who matter the most to you.

It’s all that more important that we find additional ways of measuring value. And I think this is at its heart a religious question.

In today’s first lesson, we heard “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (2:22) Ecclesiastes has a philosophical, world-weary tone that distinguishes it from the Technicolor way we normally talk about scripture. Perhaps because in was much later than much of the Old Testament.

The Teacher’s complaint in Ecclesiastes has a particular rhythm, and keeps coming back to that phrase “under the sun.” His “labor under the sun,” “wisdom under the sun” and so forth. In the middle of summer, I’m certainly aware of the sun. Seeking out shade where I can. Walking my dog Daisy with the sun to our backs so it doesn’t blind us morning and evening. There is too much light and too much heat, and we wilt under it.

Ecclesiastes was the book that the protagonist chose to memorize in Fahrenheit 451, that cautionary tale against book-burning, mass-culture and soothing consumption. Elsewhere in Ecclesiastes (12:1-8) the tension breaks as poetry:

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

The tone, in reading, is the tell. Shall it be read with knowing bitterness, or weariness, or surrender? Perhaps the kind of cheer that makes the best of bad situation, and in giving one’s best, does very well. Or, as I personally suspect, that disgusted tone that comes from having no choice. But that’s not be at my best, hopeful self. What does work mean? Depending on the tone, the occasion, the person you will get different answers.

But it should be what not defines us. Our lives are precious. They don’t have to be measured against an outside standard to be valid or important. They’re important because their ours. If we choose to share our lives with other people can we give a gift of ourselves to others. But our attention, our friendships our presents — these things are not rent we pay in order to justify our existence. Our lives are a gift from God. No king or president, no company or party, no “tide of history” or fashion of the day. Nothing has a mortgage against your personhood, your dignity or your soul. And because the giver has the nature of love, we can trust that we are endowed with that love from which springs all good things.

Among these are the spiritual gifts of kindness, humility, perseverance and fortitude. The kind of things that are terribly valuable and have lasting value if your sense of worth and freedom are strongly challenged.

And once we appreciate our freedom, once we have it and no one else can lay claim to it. Then we are able to fully appreciate what it means to live together. Because it is in having a full and healthy esteem for oneself that we are able to appreciate how much others value their own lives, their own paths their own hopes and their own futures. And our own worth is far more valuable than anything that the crowd can provide. Instagram celebrity is a new way to become conspicuous, but the desire to be seen and praised by others is hardly new.

The good news is that we have time to recognize these spiritual gifts. We have them already. Strengthen them; help them grow. The capacity of the gifts of the Spirit dwells within us. It’s a question of cultivating these gifts, talking about them, praising them, including them in the decisions you make. Again and again this returns us to the life of faith, which knows you and seeks you and “makes all things new.”

Sermon: “Teach Us to Pray”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 28, 2019 with the lectionary texts from Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Gospel of Luke.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, for Shaun Loria kindly serving as the liturgist — and thank you for welcoming me back.

It’s usually bad form for preachers to talk about their families from the pulpit, but I’m going to talk about Daisy all the same.

She’s is a twelve-year old bichon frise, weighing about sixteen pounds with white curly hair and big, round black eyes.

White dog with bow on head
Freshly groomed

Today, she charms everyone she meets when we walk in the neighborhood. I’ve heard her called a teddy bear, a little lamb and a muppet. But when my husband Jonathan and I got Daisy from the then-Washington Area Rescue League, she was sick and underweight (just over six pounds), with lopsided buzz-cut, and obviously very scared. Already a “senior dog” it would have easy to look past her, and to be fair, we weren’t sure what we were getting. We didn’t know much about her background, other that she came in with other dogs and was surrendered by a relative of her original owner, who had died. But we took her home. She shook all the way, and that night she slept under our bed. She’s doing much better now, almost six years later. Now, she sleeps up top and is a good as gold. I mean: sometimes she’s fussy, but who isn’t? When she wants to cuddle, she’s sweet as all get-out.

Thin dog
Day four. So many questions on both sides.

But when she wants something, she will let you know. I will be sitting on the sofa, working on a sermon say, and I’ll hear her tip-tap down the hallway. Then arriving, she’ll stop and look me dead in the eye and whirr. And then she’ll whirr again. And tap her paw on the wood floor, and then whirr again.

What does she want? Food? To go on a walk? Attention and a cuddle? A second chance at puppyhood? Who knows.

But if I choose wrong, she’ll whirr and tap her paw and then I try again. She usually gets her way. It’s sometimes a nuisance to have a fuzzy, four-footed perma-toddler, but she doesn’t ask for anything that’s not appropriate for a pet dog. And even if she did, how would I know?

The unknowing is the hard part, particularly when she’s stressed, or pained or afraid. I still think of her on that first day. But she can’t tell us what’s wrong, and we can’t tell her how we will help, if we can.

So, it makes me wonder what she thinks of us. Are we our fathers, her pack or her puppies? Or are we simply the catering staff? Ae we something more like God, a God who answers prayer with Milk Bones and bully rubs?

I didn’t sign up to be a Dog God, and I certainly don’t have a god-like disposition. And besides we — you and I, human beings — have more in common with dogs than we do with God. There was a time when we were not alive, and are now alive, and sometime when we won’t be. We have bodies, which must be fed and cared for. We have emotions that sometimes enhance our understanding of the world, and sometimes distort it. We are social and depend on others of our own kind, and suffer when we’re deprived. All of that we share with dogs, and none of which we share with God.

And if it’s hard for me to understand the one dog that I live with, how much harder is it to understand the One God, whom none of us has seen. That’s why I want to speak to you about prayer.

Prayers are a tricky subject, and not always happy. Coming from the South, I know that phrase “I’ll pray for you” can be just as easily an insult as a real concern of one’s welfare. An insult in meaning that you need prayer because something is deeply wrong with you. There’s nothing kind about it. It also implies a kind of spiritual superiority from the speaker, and right to claim spiritual dominance, perhaps even abuse. Nobody should give that any room at all.

We also have that cultural, verbal fudge “keep me in your thoughts and prayers” to broaden what prayer means and to rescue it from sounding trite, or well-wishes from sounding sectarian. Or at least until recently when activists rightly pointed out that “thoughts and prayers” is another way of saying “let’s do nothing” about the scourge of gun violence, for instance. Thoughts and prayers cost no resources, no time, no anxiety, no stained friendships, no angry quarrels. In too many cases, it’s literally the least one can do, so I can’t say that it’s wrong to be tired and frustrated with “thoughts and prayers.” At least not in a civic arena where the full power of prayer is neither appreciated nor particularly welcome. The age of mandatory religion is, fortunately, behind us. That’s one reason that I’ll tell people that I’ll pray for them if they ask for prayer in the first place. And if they don’t ask, I’ll still pray for them, but that’s between God and me. I don’t want to come off as manipulative or saccharin. Prayers are tricky.

But that also means for those of us who do pray, who choose our faith, who sacrifice to strengthen it, and benefit from growing within it, prayer takes on a new value in a new meaning. We can’t take it for granted, and need to explore what should and shouldn’t be.

Today’s passage from the gospel of Luke is some of Jesus’ teaching on prayer.

You probably noticed in the middle of the lesson, Jesus teaching his students (the disciples) how to pray. So when I start, “let us pray, as Jesus taught his disciples, saying…” this is what I mean. We are not only worshippers, but also Jesus’ students.

The Lord’s Prayer is one of the most valuable and universal resources that Christians have. You will find it well-used and well-loved wherever you find Christians, whatever else might divide us. It’s one of the things first memorized in attending Christian worship, if only from sheer repetition. In seminary, we could joke “are you a debtor or a trespasser?” And one of the ways that Christians in the Unitarian Universalist Association have measured if something — say a church or an event — is Christian or not is whether or not the Lord’s Prayer is present. I even use it to time the silence after the pastoral prayer.

A aside: you might have also noticed that what Jesus taught the disciples isn’t quite the same as what we pray here. The form of the Lord’s Prayer is one of those things that distinguishes Protestants and Catholics: the Catholics stop with “deliver us from evil” as Jesus says in this passage, while Protestants continue with a doxology, “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” Why the difference? Simply, the doxology was a part of the worship in the Byzantine court, and in time it got slipped into the biblical text. So by the time the Protestant reformers translated Luke into their native languages, the doxology was part of the Greek they were translating. Later generations of translators had earlier, and more authentic texts, so the doxology wasn’t present to translate. But it was by then already a fixture in Protestant worship.

But the passage in Luke is arguably about how to pray, not a particular formula of prayer. In Jesus’ time, the Temple at Jerusalem was still standing. There, priests made sacrifices of animals, grain, oil and incense. Jesus does not speak of them, but sincere and simple prayer, as in fact other Jews had made since the Exile centuries before. The Temple was gone by the time Luke recorded these words, and the sacrifices ended; prayer is what the Jewish community in its place, including its not-yet-broken-off Christian minority. Simple heart-felt petitions, directed to God as Father rather than God as Overlord, for a balance between heaven and earth, and a hope for a universal good. Paul’s lesson to the Colossians underscores this: do not be distracted by that which is optional. The prophets, speaking for God, warned their hearers about useless sacrifices, when the people lacked mercy and gentleness. The psalmist comforts us “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51: 17, KJV) The age of prayer is the age of the sincere spirit.

Little wonder the Lord’s Prayer spread. But then there’s that other part of the lesson from Luke: the parable of the Bothered Neighbor. (That’s not what it’s usually called, but maybe it should be.)

Did Jesus mean that we should bother God in prayer? How else are we to interpret the passage about asking your sleeping neighbor for bread, who then relents. Or the parable of the Unjust Judge — that’s in the eighteenth chapter of Luke — who wouldn’t do what was right, but would do the right thing just to just to get this widow off my back. Or the Jesus’ words in the gospel of John, when he teaches about the coming of the Holy Spirit: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14 NRSV) There’s a theme here: bother God persistently, and you will get what you want. Except that runs counter to both scripture and plain common sense.

Anyone who has lived long enough knows that one’s wishes and desires are not always fulfilled. Not often fulfilled. Sometimes not fulfilled at all. It’s not foolish to expect God to help, especially if nobody else will. After all we profess that God loves and cares for us, and why would God want to make us more miserable or feel more alone? So we rely on God’s human community. Sometimes God puts us in the right place and right time to be the right help for others, and we should take that call. I’m not saying it’s logical. I’m not even saying it’s anything more that confirmation bias. But to those who need a prayer answered, it is an answer to prayer.

And yet prayer is more than a prelude to good work. Our good acts won’t undo hurricanes or earthquakes. They come too late to undo ethnic cleansing or structural racism. They are powerless before “the last enemy”: death.

Our prayers are sometimes answered in the ways that we wouldn’t want them answered. Sometimes there’s an absence that leads to new prayers. Or the unstated “no” forces us to abandon what seemed to be the right path for us. And sometimes we get answers when we didn’t ask the question, like an inkling of that “peace which passes all understanding” without praying for anything at all, without asking or even knowing that we needed it. All of this is tied up in the mysterious way that prayer happens. These answers and non-answers and presumptive answers drive us, in so far as in us lies, to greater spiritual depth, and more prayer.

What we should avoid is treating God as some kind of vending machine which will dispense wishes, or clear answers, or happy thought on command, and then thinking “it’s broken” if you don’t get what you asked for. Maybe you learned this kind of prayer while growing up or from your neighbors, relatives and friends, but you’re unlikely to hear that at this church.

There’s more than a couple of problems with this approach. If you don’t get what you prayed for, you can blame God. Bad theology makes confirmed atheists. Or if you don’t get what you prayed for, then it’s easy to blame your lack of faith. You should have prayed harder or believed deeper. And what kind of help is that? Or what kind of God is that? It’s just another way of saying that you’re not worthy of God’s love, and that also needs to stop right now. A God who would work on those terms isn’t worth worshipping.

Treating prayer as a payment in a transaction with God is also a violation of what God has taught us through scripture and tradition. One of the Ten Commandments is that you shall not take the name of God in vain. When Jesus went out into the wilderness and was tempted by the accuser, Satan, that he might have all things it was Jesus who reminded him not to put the Lord God to the test. Which is another way of saying that God is not our wishing box in which we pour our desires and hope to have a predictable, desirable outcome. Life with God, instead, is our reward and portion.

Looking back at the passage from Luke, there was a detail I don’t want to miss: the pesky neighbor’s particular request. Jesus could have used any example for any need, but he spoke of needing bread to give to guests who had just arrived: ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’

That, as we say, is a clue. An arriving guest. Loaves of bread. There are echoes of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three angelic visitors. There are earlier echoes of Melchizedek, the king of Salem and the priest of the Most High God — it’s all a bit ambiguous, and ripe for a mystical interpretation — Melchizedek who greets Abram with bread; whose priesthood is seen in the letter to the Hebrews as a foretelling of Jesus’ eternal high-priesthood. And speaking of Jesus, bread and friends, one of the reasons the communion service is so powerful for so many people is in it he is made known to us in the breaking of bread. We do not commune with the bread and wine, but with the God who made it — and us.

I have to think this detail is about prayer, too. Prayer is how we meet deity, whether formal or informal, planned or spontaneous. For whatever else we can say of prayer, it is in God’s nature as we understand it to draw us toward God’s self, that we might have the divine life “on earth and it is in heaven.”