Tempted, Tested, Tried

a reflection on Matthew 4:1-11 for the first Sunday in Lent

February 18, 2018



Can we talk about the devil? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up in congregations that ever talked about the devil. So as a kid, the only thing I knew about the devil was what I learned from 1970’s Saturday morning  cartoons. Maybe you know that devil? The little red guy with a pointy tail who sits on a character’s shoulder, urging him to do something very wrong. Meanwhile, perched on the other shoulder, there was always a miniature angel, urging the character to do the right thing. Of course, there was never any doubt about which shoulder held the voice of good and which held the voice of evil: moral ambiguity is not a hallmark of Saturday morning cartoons.

Things get a bit more complicated when you grow up, of course.  As our gospel reading suggests, the devil Jesus wrestles with is a much more subtle creature. In the Hebrew scriptures, this force that tempts Jesus, this force that tempts us, is known as the Hinderer. Which I think is a pretty helpful way to think about the devil: a force that seeks to hinder us from becoming who God is calling us to be; who God made us to be. The hinderer is the force within each human being that Resists the truth of who we really are and seeks to hinder us from living into that truth by doing the thing we were put on earth to do — the particular work God needs us to do, for the healing, and blessing, of the world.

It turns out that all humans seem to have this hindering, resisting force within us. It seems to be the way we are wired. Even Jesus, when we meet him in our gospel reading this morning, is struggling with the Hinderer. Surely, Jesus must know by now that God is calling him, and that God made him to bring a particular gift to a suffering world. Surely by now, Jesus has heard what people are saying about him. Jesus has seen the heavens break open above the river on the day of his baptism and heard the voice of God calling  him “beloved.” By the time he comes up out of that river and heads into the wilderness, Jesus, along with everyone else, surely realizes that God has a purpose for him, just as we, too, know that God must have a purpose for us. We know this in the deepest part of our souls! But how many of us know from the get-go what that purpose is? How long does it take us to let go of our own ideas about who we are (not to mention other people’s ideas about who we should be), and finally realize whom God is calling us to be? Is there any greater joy in life than the joy of  realizing what you were put on earth to do? Is there any greater pain than barreling through our lives without stopping to listen  long enough to find out who we really are?

Jesus seems to know that every one of us–even Jesus himself!–needs a time of listening for God’s call. And so, before Jesus does anything else at all–before he performs a single miracle, before he heals or teaches anybody–Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness of silent communion with God, so that when he does return to community, he will be able to fully embody God’s purpose for him.

And we are called to follow, so that we might do the same. Over these next 40 days, we are called to follow Jesus into the deep silence of self-reflection where, because we are fully human, we too, just like Jesus, are certain to meet the Hinderer in us: the reactive patterns of our conditioned mind. The reactive patterns of mind that keep us from becoming who God intends for us to be.

Turn this stone into bread! says the Hinderer. Talk about a real temptation! This is not  a cartoon devil, urging Jesus to do something clearly evil or harmful. Jesus is starving, after all. He’s been out in the wilderness fasting for 40 days! Surely God doesn’t want Jesus to starve. Surely no one would be harmed if Jesus turned a couple of rocks into loaves of bread. And not only for himself!  Imagine how much good Jesus could do in the world if he learned this great trick. Poor people are starving in the streets every day. How much suffering might Jesus alleviate if he could feed them all with a wave of his hand?

I don’t know about you, but I think that if I were in Jesus’ sandals, I would have been sorely tempted to take matters into my own hands, not only for my own sake but for the sake of a suffering world. I would have been tempted to use this great party trick — stones into bread! — to end hunger forever. For everyone. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

What our gospel reading suggests, however, is that if Jesus had listened to the Hinderer out there in the wilderness, if he had decided to serve the world by being a magic bread-maker (which is not a bad thing to be; it’s a great thing for someone else to be!)…he never would have become Jesus. Even feeding people–as important as this is–is not Jesus’ sole purpose. Out here in the wilderness, Jesus cultivates, he learns, the very difficult spiritual discipline of waiting and listening for God to reveal Jesus’ true call, which is to teach the world how to find its way back to God.

Clearly, this is not our ordinary cartoon devil, offering Jesus, and us, a clear, easy choice between right and wrong. In fact I don’t believe that our own greatest temptation is to do things that are truly evil. I’m looking out at all of you this morning and I don’t see a single one of you whom I believe could be tempted, even by the devil, to do something truly evil. That’s not what you and I are wrestling with this season. But I am pretty sure that every one of us, maybe every day, is tempted by the Hinderer in us, just like Jesus was. Tempted to do something–possibly something good, something helpful, something noble, even!–that even so, will hinder us from becoming who God is really calling us to be.

Well, since it didn’t work the first time, the Hinderer tries again. Be safe! the Hinderer says to Jesus. Use your magical powers to keep yourself safe and nothing will ever harm you! Which I think might have been a pretty tempting offer for someone like Jesus, who had some dangerous work ahead of him. Aren’t we, also, tempted to play it safe? To follow in others’ footsteps, or to keep doing the safe things we’ve always done, rather than heading into the wilderness this season and asking who God might be calling us to be, and what new thing God might be inviting us to try?

Out there in the vast and lonely silence, Jesus cultivates the discipline it takes to hear God’s difficult call to him: a call to be not a magician, not a superhero with super powers, but a different kind of savior: one who demonstrates, day by day, what it means to rely on God’s power. A savior who walks the dusty roads of his homeland, teaching and healing; a human being who walks into every life and every home carrying, in his body, the very presence of the living God. So that every other body who meets him can fall through the trap door of their own mind and keep falling — into God’s presence, and power, and peace. A savior whose job is to help every body fall back into God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus out in the wilderness is not willing to trade that purpose, the real purpose of his life, for anything. And that is real discipline in the face of real temptation.

Power. Popularity. Safety. Control. We all crave these. The conditioned human mind is wired to crave these. Even Jesus! If we watch what happens next, when Jesus goes back to town to start his ministry, we see that even  Jesus is tripped up at times by his mind’s conditioning: he doesn’t respond with perfect freedom every time. But what Jesus has cultivated out in the wilderness is the spiritual discipline of entering deep silence to witness his his own temptations, his own conditioned desires, and then let them go. What Jesus has cultivated is the ability to sit still as these habitual temptations arise, and to wait for God to call him. Without this discipline, Jesus’ own habits of mind will hinder him, just as they hinder us. And the stakes are pretty high, for all of us. If Jesus allows his conditioned mind to hinder him, then the particular gift he was made to offer —  gift that only he can bring–that gift goes ungiven for all time.

And that would please the Hinderer very much. And so it is that if we ourselves allow our own reactive patterns, our conditioned, habitual mind, to run our lives, then the particular gift that God created us to offer also goes ungiven. And the world desperately needs your gift: the particular flavor of God’s healing love that only you can bring.

This season, the Holy Spirit drives us, calls us, to follow  Jesus into the wilderness once again: the wilderness of uncertainty and openness; the wilderness of listening for our true call. This week, we head into the sacred, silent wilderness to listen for who in all the world God is calling us to be and what gift God has made us to offer. We were made to offer it. And that is a beautiful and wondrous thing! This week, we head into the wilderness to say a holy yes to offering the gift we were made to bring. Maybe (very probably!) a gift the world has never seen before, and will never see again. A gift the world desperately needs right now: your own particular gift of healing, and blessing…for the sake of this beautiful, broken, always holy world that God so loves.



My Soul Magnifies the Lord

A reflection on Luke 1:26-56 for the last Sunday in Advent


December 24, 2018
I have to admit that this is one of my all-time favorite Bible stories. Partly because it’s just so astonishing. And also because it paints such a vivid picture of who we ourselves are called to be, and what we are called to do –as people of God–during this Advent and Christmas season, and beyond.

The other reason I love this story is that it reminds me of my neighbor, Marty.

Marty died a few years ago, while I was away serving a church in Maine. But I still run past Marty’s house almost every morning, and as I run by, I think of him, especially at this time of year. Marty’s house is just up the road from me, in a part of the neighborhood that has more horses and sheep and apple trees than people. Which means that very early in the morning, it’s rare to run into another human up there. I meet coyotes and deer all the time, but at that hour, especially on cold, dark, winter mornings, most of the human neighbors are tucked into their warm beds. But not Marty. Marty was almost always out in his garden or his orchard when I would run by at dawn. We’d wish each other good morning. Sometimes we’d chat a bit– about the weather, about the farm dogs, about whatever crops were coming in. Then we’d wave goodbye and I’d be on my way, running up the road.

But one late November day, at the very beginning of Advent, I was running up the road when Marty called to me from the top of a ladder that he had propped against an apple tree. “Hold on a minute!” Marty called. “I have something for you.” So I stopped and walked back to where Marty was making his way down the ladder with a huge grin on his face.

“I picked these for you,” he said. Then he handed me an enormous cardboard box filled with the most beautiful little yellow apples I’ve ever seen. “Thank you,” I said. “But really, this is too many. We’ll never be able to eat all of these!” But Marty just grinned and held up his hand in a way that made it perfectly clear that this gift was not returnable. Then he told me that the apples came from the oldest trees in his orchard, so old that no one in his family could even remember what variety they were. I hate to admit it, but I tried several more times to refuse that gift. It felt like too much, too many, more gift than I could accept. But Marty wasn’t taking no for an answer. He stood there grinning at me until there was nothing left to do but thank him again and begin my slow walk home.

Now, what I actually wanted to do was run home–fast! Partly because slowing down has never been my strong suit. But mostly because I was so uncomfortable about receiving that gift. It was totally unearned. It was entirely undeserved. And, worse, I had nothing to give in return. That gift made me so uncomfortable that all I wanted was to run away so that the discomfort would be over as soon as possible. Maybe this has happened to you, too. We’re right in the middle of the season of gifts, and I wonder if anyone else has how much more comfortable it can feel to give a gift than to receive one with grace?

But there I was. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried running with a huge box of apples in your arms, but I can tell you that there is nothing like a box of rolling apples to force you to slow down and fully receive — as pure, undeserved gift–the fruits of the earth and the joy of friendship and the sweet scent of late autumn rising from your arms as you slowly make your way home, thinking about all the apple butter you’re going to give away as Christmas gifts this year.

Stephen MItchell, one of my favorite translators of sacred texts, has a very interesting definition of prayer. He says that “prayer is a quality of attention that makes so much room for the given that it can appear as gift.”  A quality of attention that makes so much room for the given–for whatever is given–that it can appear as what it really is: a gift.

That box of apples taught me something about this quality of attention, and about the practice of slowing down to pay that kind of attention–a practice that is  required of us if we are to fully receive a gift. This time of year, as we run around giving and receiving gifts, I find myself thinking about that box of apples and also about today’s scripture reading, in which we discover what our foremother Mary does when she herself is asked, out of the blue (by and angel, no less!) to receive — in her very body, with her whole being — a gift that is a lot bigger than a box of apples. A gift that is almost bigger than we can imagine. A gift that she must fully receive not only for herself, but for the whole world.

So I thought we might take a closer look this morning at exactly how Mary does this — how it is that she manages to receive this gift. Because it’s Christmas eve, and that very gift is arriving again tonight. The Promised One is arriving to be born new in us, and through us, for all the world. And maybe, just maybe, everything hinges on this gift. Everything:  the hopes and fears of all the years. I think maybe everything hinges on whether we learn from Mary how to fully receive the gift of God’s presence that we ourselves are called to bear into the world.

So how does Mary do it, anyway? To answer that question, we need to go back to the story we heard on the first Sunday of Advent: the one where Mary is at home, minding her own business, when an angel appears, out of the blue. Now I don’t know about you, but I sometimes wonder if I would have even stuck around long enough to hear that angel’s news. I think it would have been entirely reasonable to run out of the room right there.

But Mary does not run. Mary stays right where she is and holds still long enough to hear that angel out. And that’s when she receives the first gift: an amazing, unbelievable bit of news. The Promised One, the Savior her people have been waiting for–for as long as anyone can remember–the Promised One is finally going to arrive, and through her! Pretty astonishing news, not just for Mary, but for the world.

But that’s not all the angel tells her. The angel goes on to say that Mary’s cousin,  Elizabeth, even though she’s very old, is pregnant with a child.  For nothing is impossible with God.

This is a pretty smart angel. This angel knows that if we humans are going to receive a gift from God, we first have to be stopped in our tracks. And then, it helps to have a friend! It’s hard to do this alone. Left to my own devices, I would have raced right out of that apple-tree morning and on into my busy day. But Marty needed me to receive his gift. And because I cared about Marty, I somehow mustered the grace to do it.  

Left to her own devices, who knows whether Mary would have believed that angel, or whether she would have told herself it was all just a dream? Mary needs a friend to help her figure out whether she can even trust this gift. And so, when the angel departs, Mary sets off for the home of her cousin Elizabeth. And no sooner has she stepped across the threshold and called out to say hello than Elizabeth appears, pregnant–just as the angel said! Which is already pretty amazing. But more amazing still is the first thing Elizabeth says when she sees Mary on her doorstep:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!”

Okay, here’s where things get really crazy. How does Elizabeth know about the child Mary is carrying? Because the child in Elizabeth’s womb has just leaped for joy! And that child is none other than John the Baptist, who is the first person–the very first, before he’s even born!–to recognize the arriving Jesus.

At that moment, if Mary had any doubt about the angel’s message, that doubt is erased.

And in that moment, Mary does an extraordinary thing: she stops. She holds still. She doesn’t even walk into the house. Right there in the doorway, Mary brings Luke’s gospel to a screeching halt, as if the whole world were holding its breath, waiting to see what Mary will do with the astonishing gift that is arriving. And here’s what she does. She sings out:

“My soul magnifies the Lord!”

My soul magnifies the Lord? What does that even mean? God is already about the biggest thing we can imagine. How is it possible to magnify God, to make God appear even bigger?

By slowing down, says Mary. By slowing down and  paying attention: “a quality of attention that makes so much room for the given that it can appear as gift.” Right here in this season of God’s arriving, Mary says to us, Stop and make so much ROOM in yourself that you too are filled to overflowing with God’s presence.

Can we even stand it? Can we stand to receive such a gift? It’s not easy to believe God wants to love you that much. Especially if, like Mary, you are feeling small, insignificant, lowly. Believe it, Mary says. And then–and here’s the key–you have to hold still long enough for God to fill you all the way up, until you are overflowing with that love.

If you can do that, says Mary, then, you too will you be able to carry, to bear, that gift of God to a world that needs you. A gift by which, she tell us:

The lowly will be lifted up and the hungry filled with good things.

This beautiful, broken world is being filled and healed by God’s own love—not in some distant future but right here, right now, in the poor, lowly flesh of an ordinary human being. This is what it means for us to magnify the Lord. This, says Mary, is what it means to fully receive, and to fully offer the world, the gift of God’s healing presence and power that is arriving in us, and through us, tonight.

I think it’s safe to say that here in our familiar corner of the church, we don’t spend a lot of time with Mary.  We listen to her story on Christmas eve.  But then Christmas morning arrives and somewhere in all the chaotic joy of herald angels and presents and wrapping paper, Mary gets lost, and we don’t see her again until next year.

But I think we need Mary. I think Mary, standing on the doorstep this morning, is the one who can teach us what the world needs us to do with the great gift that is arriving tonight.  

And I wonder if we’ll do it. I wonder if together, in this season of Christmas that begins tonight, we’ll consent to slow down long enough to fully receive the gift of God’s presence and love? To be filled all the way up with the joy of this gift, so that when we go out from this dark and holy season, we too will be shining with the Light of the World.

Tonight, as we stand together on the threshold of God’s arriving, the world is holding its breath, waiting to see what we will do.

Waiting to see if we will linger awhile, making so much room in ourselves that we, like Mary, become magnifiers of the Lord.

I’m pretty sure God is praying that we will.

God who even now is whispering to you:

Beloved, don’t go yet.

It’s still early and your box isn’t even half full.

Stay with me a while, God whispers.


This is the God who is longing, even now, to fill your arms with apples and hope.

This is the God who is longing to fill us all the way up until we are overflowing with joy…with joy to this world that God so loves. Amen.


“To Care for Earth and All Her Creatures”

a reflection on Exodus 3:1-15


When was the last time you stood barefoot outdoors? When was the last time stretched out upon the ground and let your soul, your body, remember its home on the sacred body of the earth? Can you remember what it felt like? Sandy? Rocky? Warm? Damp? Skin to skin with the body of this holy ground. Only then, says the Lord to Moses this morning. Only when the soles of your feet are reunited with the sacred body of the earth, says the Creator of all that is… Only then will you come to know the plans I have for you. Plans to help me set the world right.

Once upon a time, our spiritual ancestors knew that God is alive and present to us in the very body of this earth. Moses, tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Jesus walking alone in the wilderness for 40 days and nights. They knew that we come from the earth and to earth we return, and that in-between, we are made for union, for deep communion with the living, breathing body of all life. But somewhere along the way, we forgot. This season here at Peace, we are remembering who we are, and whose we are, by making our way through our shared covenant – the promises we make to God and to each other as we make our way in beloved community. This morning, we’ve come to the line in our covenant where we promise “to care for earth and all her creatures, reconciling ourselves to them in love.”

That word, reconcile, means to reunite, or reconnect, those who have been separated from one another. To reconcile is to restore a broken relationship. The witness of our own wilderness tradition is that the sacred work of reconciling ourselves with God requires us to heal our broken relationship with the sacred body earth and all her creatures. And that requires connection. Through the soles of our feet; through placing our bodies in intimate contact with the skin of the earth. Moses knew this. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew this. Indigenous peoples all over the world still know this. We, however, forget all the time. We forget our own bodies as we lose ourselves in thoughts and fears, in our telephone screens and our cars. And as we forget our own bodies, we lose contact and sacred relationship with the body of the earth that is for us, as for our ancestors, the very presence of the living God. So much forgetfulness. So much harm we do when we forget that we, along with all creation, are one body. Sometimes it seems that not even a burning, talking bush would get our attention. Sometimes it seems that even a suffering, burning planet might not be enough to call us back into right relationship, into reconciliation, with earth and all her creatures.

And yet we believe, and we promise each other every week, that the way we live matters. That the spiritual practices we undertake have the power to change us, and to make us more able reconcile with a world, with a planet, that needs our healing love.

A few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks on retreat at a Buddhist monastery outside of Ukiah. While I was there, I visited a community of monks who belong to a Buddhist lineage that comes from the forests of Thailand. This lineage is called the Thai forest tradition and each monk in this tradition, high up in the forested hills of Ukiah, has a tiny, one-room hut. Outside of each hut there is a path that leads about twenty paces into the forest. Then it stops. And every day, each monk spends hours walking barefoot to the end of the path and back again. Walking very slowly, paying careful attention to the sensation of each part of the foot as it makes contact with the sacred earth. Walking and breathing, walking and breathing, praying peace into the earth with every step.

When was the last time you walked slowly enough to feel every part of your foot as it made contact with earth? When was the last time you walked slowly enough to bless the earth with every step?

I want to invite you this morning, if you’re willing, to give this particular spiritual practice a try, as a way of walking ourselves, praying ourselves, into reconciliation with earth and all her creatures. Now, if you are not comfortable walking, you can do this with us as you sit in your chair with your feet on the floor. But either way, walking or sitting, I invite you to go ahead and take off your shoes and let your feet find their way to holy ground. I realize that we’re not quite on the ground here, but this beautiful wood floor is made from the body of trees that spent their whole lives rooted deeply in the earth, and I’m pretty sure we can find the earth through them. So I invite you to take off your shoes, let your feet find the earth, and to rise in body or spirit. And now very gently, find your way to the outside edge of the room, where you’ll have room to walk. We’ll walk in a great circle this morning, counter-clockwise around the room.

One of the great teachers of walking meditation is the Buddhist teacher Tich Nhat Hanh, who advises us simply to begin walking, focusing our attention on the sensation of touching the earth with the sole of each foot. You’ll probably need to walk slowly in order to feel this sensation. Go ahead and find a pace that allows you to be aware as you lift each foot and place it down upon the earth. See if you can bring a quality of tenderness to your steps, with each footstep offering a blessing to the earth. When distractions arise, simply smile to yourself, acknowledge them without getting involved, and return your attention and care to the moment-to-moment sensations of walking. If you are sitting, I invite you to see what it feels like to breath up through the soles of your feet: breathing in peace; breathing out love. With each step, each breath, allowing the earth to support and heal you. With each step, each breath, blessing and healing the earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say, “The miracle is not to walk on water.  It is to walk on this earth with awareness.”

Very slowly, I invite you to let your feet carry you to this table where we gather as the community of all creation. Maybe as you walk, you can sing this blessing into the earth…


Peace before us

Peace behind us

Peace under our feet

Peace within us

Peace over us

Let all around us be peace.



Away from Home…

A reflection on John 4:1-9 for March 26, 2017

This morning, we mark the fourth Sunday in Lent. It’s the fourth Sunday of the season in which we do as Jesus does: we carve out some extra space and time to become more intentional about our relationship with God, and about the covenant—the sacred promise—we make with God, with one another, and with the world. This season here at Peace, we’re taking a close look at our own covenant – the one we use here in worship to remember exactly who (and whose) we are. And this morning, we’ve come to the place in our covenant where we promise to “take up Christ’s mission around the world, striving for justice and peace.”

So I’d like to take a look today at this word “mission,” and ask what it might have meant for Jesus in his time and place, and what it might mean for us, right here, in this place and time.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “mission’? We use this word to mean both our purpose, and the act of traveling away from home to fulfill that purpose.

And in fact, in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus finds himself pretty far from home. Maybe not geographically very far from home; after all, he’s walking wherever he goes. But culturally, he’s pretty far from home. As our text notes, Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ time are not on friendly terms. In fact, they do their best to separate themselves from one another. Jesus has crossed a border this morning into what we might call enemy territory. And there, all alone, he sits down beside a well.

Usually, when we read this text together, we move along at a pretty good clip, so that we can get to the part where Jesus has a very intriguing conversation with a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water from the well. But this morning, I’d like to hit the pause button and zoom in on this scene where Jesus is simply sitting, all by himself, beside this well.

Jesus’ friends, it seems, have gone off together to find some food. The text doesn’t say exactly where they’ve gone, but wherever it is, they are together—which is a good way to travel safely when you’re in hostile territory. But this is not at all what Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about finding safety in numbers. Instead, he goes all by himself to sit beside a communal well: a conspicuous place where he is certain to be found by the residents of this land. Which is exactly what happens, of course. But before he can meet anyone at all, before he can have a heart-to-heart or soul-to-soul conversation with anyone in that land, Jesus has to make himself available for that interaction. So Jesus sits himself down beside that well and makes himself highly visible (and, I would say, highly vulnerable) to anyone who might come along.

We tend to talk a lot about the way Jesus welcomes everyone to the table, and we love to do the same. What we don’t talk about quite as much is the fact that Jesus does not invite folks into his own, familiar home. Instead, Jesus does something even more risky, even more radical. Jesus leaves his home and walks around unarmed, undefended, thirsty and hungry, into other people’s homes.

Follow me, Jesus says, all through the gospels. Follow me. Do as I do. Be as I am. And very often with Jesus, actions speak even louder than words. Be unafraid, Jesus says by his actions this morning. Be unafraid to leave your home. Be unafraid to leave the familiar and the safe. Be unafraid to travel through a new land. And when you get there, Jesus says. Don’t rush through. Don’t surround yourself only with the familiar faces of your friends. Instead, Jesus says, do whatever it takes to make yourself available to the people who live there. Sit down and listen. Find out about their lives. Ask them for a drink of water, maybe. Then see what happens.

Scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann notes that this kind of vulnerable travel, far away from home, is a deep pattern in our tradition, going all the way back to Abraham, who was called to leave his home in order to become a blessing to the world. Brueggemann even has a name for this kind of travel. He calls it a “fearless neighborliness.” A “fearless neighborliness” in our tradition that involves “shared resources, inclusive politics, random acts of hospitality, and intentional acts of justice.”[1] It is fearless neighborliness that calls Jesus to cross a border this morning and make himself available to the souls he meets in a new land. And I think “fearless neighborliness” is a very good way of talking about what it means for us when we promise to “take up Christ’s mission around the world, striving for justice and peace.”

At a time when our nation’s leaders are screaming for bigger walls and ruthless border patrols, I can’t think of anything more important to talk about than the practice—the spiritual practice—of  “fearless neighborliness.”

So this morning, I’ve invited the Mulder family to talk with us about their own experiences of neighborliness, far and near. Chad, Jodi,  Levi, and Judah have done a lot of traveling in this spirit of neighborliness, and they’ve also arranged a trip this summer that will help us all to practice crossing borders in the name of love. So I want to invite all the Mulders up here to talk with us a bit…

(Peace United Church of Christ is going on an intergenerational mission trip to Tecate, Mexico, this summer. You can find out more about the trip here: http://www.peaceunited.org/service-trip)

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent, Westminster Knox Press, 2016.

You Are the Light of the World


a meditation on Matthew 15 and A Course in Miracles, Lesson 62

Peace United Church of Christ

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of Candlemas, which is the moment in the church the year when we affirm that the Light of the World has arrived. We talked about how Jesus came to be called the Light of the World, and about that surprising moment in his sermon on the mount when Jesus turns the tables and tells all of us that in fact, it’s we who are called to be the Light of the World; called to carry the spark of God, the light of our souls, into a world that needs our care.

This morning, I want to invite us to delve a bit deeper into this very important idea that we are called to carry the light of God—the presence of God—into the world, during what may feel like a particularly painful and chaotic time. And to do that, I’d like to extend our exploration into what might be considered the far reaches of Christian tradition, to the text known as A Course in Miracles. As many of you probably know, A Course in Miracles was first published in 1975, by a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University named Dr. Helen Schucman. Dr. Schucman’s experience was that she received the text of A Course in Miracles by dictation directly from Jesus. Some of us may find this idea to be a little bit out of our comfort zone, and I’ll include myself in that group. But as folks who are committed to the belief that “God is still speaking,” I think it’s not a bad idea for us to keep an open mind about how, and to whom, God might speak!

The reason I want to take a look at A Course in Miracles today is that this particular text has a lot to say about what it means for us to be the Light of the World. And the instruction it gives is very, very clear: the key to becoming the Light of the World is forgiveness. According to A Course in Miracles, forgiveness, in fact, is our entire function as the Light of the World. It doesn’t get much clearer than that!

It seems to me that this aligns very well with the picture of Jesus we get from many, many gospel stories. Right off the top of your head, I bet you can name a bunch of stories in which Jesus forgives somebody, maybe even someone who doesn’t seem to deserve it.

There are lots and lots of stories about forgiveness in the gospels. And yet, it seems that just maybe, at a certain point in history, say 1975, the still-speaking God noticed that we humans weren’t quite getting the forgiveness message, and that we needed a refresher course. So Jesus gets very, very specific:

Forgiveness is our function as the Light of the World. (A Course in Miracles, Lesson 62)

And if this is true, if forgiveness is what Jesus is always showing us, always calling us embody, then I think it’s worth our while to get very clear about what forgiveness is, and what it is not.

Psychologists, including Fred Luskin, who heads the Forgiveness Project at Stanford University, generally agree that forgiveness is a conscious decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed us, regardless of whether or not we think they deserve to be forgiven. A conscious decision – what we might call a spiritual practice – to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward the one who has done harm.

Sounds like Jesus, right? Forgiveness is not about who deserves to be forgiven or not. Forgiveness is simply a decision to release our resentment. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel anger or grief or loss. In the gospels, we can see Jesus feeling these very human, very real emotions, just as we do. Forgiveness does mean that even as we feel our legitimate anger and sorrow and grief—even so, we decide to free ourselves of the resentment that tends to build up when people don’t behave the way we think they should. In other words, forgiveness as spiritual practice changes us. By freeing us of resentment, forgiveness enables us to be as Jesus asks us to be: clear vessels, clear channels, for receiving, and freely sharing, God’s healing light and love.

One way to think about this Light of the World business is to imagine that every human being is a kind of glass lantern, each one of us with the flame of God inside our souls. The thing about Jesus is that everyone could see this flame shining out from him wherever he went. People saw Jesus and suddenly felt bathed in the light, in the presence, of God. I think this is because Jesus is an exceptionally clear lantern. There is no spiritual gunk on the lantern that Jesus is. And so, Jesus is able to walk through the world shining God’s healing, God’s blessing, God’s unconditional love, on every person and every situation he meets.

The rest of us lanterns are also meant to shine God’s light, but we tend to be a little sooty, in need of cleaning. And the thing that clouds up the glass of our lanterns, the thing that prevents us from freely shining as the Light of the World…that thing is resentment. Resentment gets in the way when we try to follow Jesus. You can’t shine your light, Jesus says – your God-given light—unless you take up a spiritual practice, a cleansing practice, of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the Windex that clears us to fully receive the light, the presence, of God, and then to shine it back, freely and without reserve, as we like to say, into the world.

It’s important to be very clear here. Forgiveness is not about ignoring harmful behavior or condoning injustice. Just as Jesus does, we still have to stand up to bullies; we still have to speak truth to power; we still have to defend the most vulnerable among us. Forgiveness does not exempt us from these responsibilities. Forgiveness, however, refuses to resent or condemn or seek vengeance upon the one who has offended us.

Here’s what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. has to say on the topic. He writes: “Here (then) is the Christian weapon against social evil. We are to go out with the spirit of forgiveness, heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society with forgiveness.”[i]

“The Christian weapon against social evil.” Have you been looking for one of those lately? I sure have. Apparently, we already have one! It might not be the weapon we had in mind, but that’s Jesus for you. If we are to be peacemakers, if we are called to be healers in our own time, it will not be enough, Jesus says, to attend demonstrations. It will not be enough, Dr. King tells us, to write letters and make phone calls. In a nation that is deeply divided, in a world that is crying out for healing, we are called to walk out carrying the light of forgiveness in our hearts.

I don’t know about you, but for me these days, that’s taking a lot of practice. And as with any spiritual practice, there are many paths—many ways to practice forgiveness. I want to suggest that you experiment to find the forgiveness practice that works best for your own heart. Because spiritual practice is never one-size-fits-all. I’ve brought a few of books, which you are welcome to take home with you, if you like. This morning, I want to offer you a practice that has been very helpful to me as I’ve struggled to forgive. It involves a truth that Parker Palmer, one of my heroes, states this way:

“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

And by “violence” he means any kind of harm we do to ourselves or others.

As we make our way into a time of prayer this morning, if you’re willing, I invite you to give this practice a try. You might begin by calling to mind someone who has done something you resent. Someone you’re finding hard to forgive. When you’ve called this person to mind, see if you can imagine that what this person has done is the only thing they knew to do with their suffering. A suffering we may not be able to see on the surface, but that is born of deep, unmet needs. This was the only way they knew, in their suffering, to get those needs met. There’s no need for you to condone or approve of their action. Just see if holding this person’s hidden suffering in your heart helps you let go of some resentment, and leaves the glass of your lantern a little clearer, a little freer to shine, and to love…

And so…we hold in our hearts, O God, all those who have wronged us, knowingly or unknowingly. And we ask that you might teach us the mighty art of forgiveness. Amen.

[i] http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol06Scans/1948-1954TheMeaningofForgiveness.pdf

Never Again

A reflection on Lamentations 1:1-11 for a nuclear age


If you’re anything like me, it’s probably been a while since you’ve cracked the book of Lamentations. It’s definitely not the cheeriest part of the Bible to dip into. The poems that make up the book of Lamentations were written in the midst of Israel’s enormous grief after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE. That’s the year when the Temple – the beautiful, sacred, dwelling place of God on earth – was destroyed, and Israel was taken into exile in Babylon. It can be hard for us to imagine this kind of grief; to imagine what it might feel like to lose not only your homeland and your freedom, but also the most holy place you know—the place where generations of your people have come to worship God.

The outpouring of grief we find here does not make for easy or comforting reading. In fact, what the book of Lamentations describes is a nightmare. Maybe every nation’s worst nightmare: its people killed or taken captive; it’s holy city reduced to ashes.

But it was the practice of our spiritual ancestors, long after the nightmare was over, long after they returned to their land and rebuilt the Temple—it was the spiritual practice of our ancestors to read aloud, in worship, these desperate, grieving passages from the book of Lamentations every year at this time, on the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction. In some communities, this is in fact still the practice.

And the reason for this is that just like the Big Friendly Giant, our ancestors, reading these poems and cries of lament year after year—our ancestors understood the value of a nightmare. Especially, the kind of nightmare that says, “Look what we have done. Can there be any forgiveness?”

Now, at first glance, it might seem that Israel, taken into captivity in Babylon, is simply the victim here. The victim of a hungry Babylonian empire that was devouring other nations left and right.

But that’s not really the way our ancestors saw their predicament. As our ancestors understood it, God’s people played a crucial role in the destruction of the Temple and the loss of their land. The people who wrote these laments understood that they were in deep covenant with God, and that this covenant had been broken. God offers Israel the gift of a good land, the gift of sovereignty, the gift of freedom—and in return, God expects the people to live a certain way. In return for this great gift of freedom and land, God expects the people to do justice, to care for the poor, to elect wise and just leaders, and to take care of the land. The gifts of God come with obligations. And when God’s people fail to meet these obligations, they forfeit the gift.

And so here in the book of Lamentations we find the people of God coming face to face with their worst nightmare. “Look what we has done,” as the BFG might put it. “Look what has befallen us because of what we have done.” This is the worst nightmare the people of God can imagine: to come face to face with the harm they themselves have done; to realize that by their own actions, their own broken covenant with God, they have caused so much suffering. And they are not sure whether, or when, healing might be possible. Look what we have done, says the book of Lamentations. Our worst nightmare has happened and we don’t know—we don’t know—if God will forgive us.

I want to pause here for a word about nightmares. For a long time – all my adult life, really – the study of dreams and dream work has been one of my most important spiritual practices. And I have come to believe that one of the most helpful ways to look at this sometimes perplexing book we call the Bible is to see it as our collective dream. A dream that offers us beautiful visions of healing and wholeness. And also dream that reflects back to us our worst nightmares: Look what we have done. Look, says our collective nightmare. Look at the great harm we humans inflict on ourselves, on one another, and on the earth.

But here’s the thing I’ve come to understand about nightmares. A nightmare does not come to do us harm. A nightmare always comes to wake us up. The purpose of a nightmare is to scare us enough to get our attention; to scare us enough to pay attention to something urgent—something we’ve been ignoring or burying underground. Something that needs our attention before it’s too late.

And so the people of Israel, our spiritual ancestors, wrote down this terrible nightmare about the destruction of everything they loved, and they made it a practice— an annual spiritual practice—to read it aloud, to read these nightmare passages from the book of Lamentations aloud every year, in public. So that they might wake up. So that they might wake up and say to one another: Look at what we did. Look what happened when we broke our covenant with the God of Life. Let’s stay awake this time. they say. Let’s be sure we never let it happen again.

This is a very difficult spiritual practice: to publicly, collectively, as a people, as a nation, tell the story of the harm we have done. We don’t like to do this. We avoid it when we can.

And yet, the deep wisdom of our tradition says that this is a crucial spiritual practice for us. If we seek to be the blessing God calls us to be, our tradition invites us to make this a regular spiritual practice – not for the purpose of guilt or self-flagellation, but to make sure we stay awake. Awake to the power we humans have to do great harm. Awake to the harm we might do again if we fall asleep at the wheel of our lives, or the wheel of the world.

This season, in just two weeks, we here in the United States have an opportunity. I want to say that it’s a spiritual opportunity: to undertake this practice of facing together some of the harm we have done. Coming up on August 6th and August 9th are the anniversaries of the days when American pilots opened the hatches of their planes and dropped two atomic bombs on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan – killing more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, and ushering all of us, forever, into the age of atomic warfare: a nightmare from which the community of creation has yet to awaken.

If we come to this anniversary as we often do, from a purely secular point of view, we might reflect on the complexity of a world war and its casualties; we might tally up lives lost on both sides and weigh the awful decisions that had to be made. And this, as always, is a worthwhile thing to do.

But if we come to this anniversary as people of faith, as people of God, I think we have an additional bit of work to do. Our tradition tells us that as people who are called to be a blessing, who are called to be peacemakers, we are also called to look squarely at this human-made nightmare and make sure that it wakes us up, every single year.

Because unlike Babylon’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the destructive power of our own nuclear arsenal is not a thing of the distant past. We don’t talk about it a lot these days, but it lies, literally, just beneath the surface of our lives, just beneath the surface of our cornfields and our amber waves of grain. And there is real danger that as nation, we might fall asleep, that we might forget the sheer destructive force that lies at the fingertips of our leaders. And there is a real chance that if we fall asleep to this danger, we will tip the world into a nightmare from which there will be no waking.

I want to suggest that as people of faith, it’s our job—it’s our holy vocation— to practice a collective prayer of confession at this season. To look squarely at the harm we have done; to ask forgiveness for any suffering we have caused; and by our example, to invite the world to do the same. That’s what a nation of peacemakers would do. This does not mean that we alone are responsible for the outcome of WWII or any other war; it does not mean that we value one life more than another. It simply means that we are called to confess, as we do right here every week, any harm we have done, and to do everything in our power to ensure that it never happens again.

Look, say the ancestors. Nightmares happen. They happen when we knowingly or unknowingly inflict unimaginable harm on ourselves and others. What redeems the nightmare is our willingness to look it squarely in the eye and wake up. What redeems the nightmare is our willingness to say, Look what we have done. God help us. God forgive us. God, help us promise our children that this will never happen again.

I want to propose that we undertake this spiritual practice together this year, for ourselves, for the world, and for the kids who need to hear that we’re on top of this—that we are doing everything we can to make the world a safer place. I want to propose that we take a cue from our spiritual ancestors and use this anniversary, these next two weeks, as a call to lament, a call to wake up, and a call to peace.

We made a start this past Friday night: I sent our kids home from our Fourth-Friday dinner with origami paper, and they’re at work making paper cranes of peace. You can do the same if you like: there’s origami paper in the narthex, and this week, I’ll email you links to YouTube videos that will show you how to fold paper cranes of your own. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to do my best to help parents find ways to talk with their kids about what those peace cranes stand for, and about how we might spend the next two weeks in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Japan as we remember together the events of the summer1945, and as we pledge ourselves to peace together. And then, on August 7th during our all-ages worship, we’ll gather up and bless those cranes; we’ll talk about how they came to be a symbol of healing and peace; and we’ll rededicate ourselves to the work of that healing.

This is humbling work. It is difficult work. And it seems to be unpopular work these days. But it is the holy work of the peacemaking people we are called to be. And I’m pretty sure the ancestors are praying we’ll do it. Don’t be afraid, they whisper. We’ll be with you, and so will the God who has made you for peace.




Water From the Rock

A reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 for a dry and desperate summer


It’s quite a scene that takes place out on the rock at Mt. Horeb this morning. A rock that might have remained anonymous were it not for the fact that Moses decides, at the end of a really long day, to name that place “Massah and Meribah.” Which translates pretty well as “Testing and Quarreling.”

Imagine for a moment that you are Moses. You’ve just struck the rock with your staff, and all of a sudden—clear, miraculous water has come pouring out. All God’s thirsty people are leaping for joy. You, Moses, are wiping your brow because it looks like the people aren’t going to stone you after all! And now it’s time for you to name the place where this great miracle has happened. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would have named it “Testing and Quarreling.” I think I would have been tempted to name it something like: “Water from the rock!” Or, “Look what God has done!” Or maybe, “Yay! We’re not thirsty anymore!”

But Moses doesn’t pick any of these names. Instead, Moses names that place “Massah and Meribah.” “Testing and Quarreling.” This is something like instead of celebrating the anniversary of our joyful wedding day, we decided that every year, we would go out to dinner to commemorate the anniversary of the worst fight we ever had. You know the one. The quarrel we thought our marriage would not survive. Imagine writing down that date and going out to commemorate it every year. We don’t do this! We don’t choose to commemorate our most terrifying times. We tend to name and celebrate the joyful, triumphant moments of our lives: the first day on a new job, the day a child is born. But the times of testing, and quarreling, and crying out to God that came before those moments of triumph? The long months or years of unemployment and despair? The long hours of almost unbearable pain in labor? We don’t throw a party every year to celebrate those. We forget those times as soon as new life begins to arrive.

But here’s Moses, watching his people splashing around in the miraculous spring of water, and he decides to name this the place of Testing and Quarreling. “Look, here it is,” the people will say in years to come. “The place we where we almost stoned Moses!” “Check it out!” they’ll say. “Here’s the very place where we actually wished we were slaves again in Egypt. Remember?” This is the place where we wondered out loud if God was with us or not. The place we named after our testing, our quarreling, our despair—as if those things were holy. As if they deserved to be remembered for all time.

Sounds a little crazy. But I want to think about this for a minute, here in this summer of our own testing, this summer of our collective quarreling and despair. Just in case maybe Moses knew what he was doing out there on that rock.

What if somebody wrote down this story of testing and quarreling because they knew we might need it? What if our spiritual ancestors knew that one day, we too would come to a dry and thirsty time. A summer of dry and burning forests; a summer when we would be so thirsty for justice, so tired of wandering in circles of old arguments and cynical politicians that even slavery in Egypt—where at least everybody had a roof over their head and three meals a day—even slavery in Egypt doesn’t sound that much worse than a corrupt democracy where the rich get richer and the poor go to bed hungry every night.

Maybe our ancestors knew we’d come to this summer when God’s people would gather for a protest on the streets of Dallas, just like they gathered in the desert, crying out to God: “Do our lives matter, or not?” Crying out, “Is the Lord with us, or not?” Only this time, instead of clear water, the only thing that flowed was more blood.

Here’s what I think. I think our spiritual ancestors knew a thing or two about despair when they wrote down this story. Those people out there in the wilderness were at the end of their collective rope when they cried out to God. Those people knew a thing or two about wandering in the desert of despair for so long that you forget what hope looks like, what it tastes like. And I think they knew that one day, we’d need to hear the story of what happened to them in their hour of deep despair. They knew we’d need a story that says, “Even now, even here in this place that you think is God-forsaken, in this terrible time when you’re beginning to wonder if even God can turn back the tide of greed and fear and despair—“Even now,” the ancestors whisper. “Even now, the waters of God’s healing are beginning to flow. Maybe you can’t see them yet because they are still deep beneath the rock. But trust us,” they say. “Even now, the healing waters are rising, and they will flow again.”

What our ancestors knew that it’s not only water we need in a thirsty time. We need the right story. A healing story. When you’re in the middle of a desert time, when the whole broken, suffering world seems to be crying out, “Is the Lord with us, or not?” this is precisely the kind of story that can save your life. It might even be the kind of story that can save the world.

Look. Everywhere you turn, you will find a story. Every headline, every news feed, every neighbor is telling a story—about what is possible, about what is hopeless, about who is hopeless. The power we have—the God-given power that no one can take from us—is the power to decide which story we will live our way into, starting today. And you can bet your life that if we fail to choose our own story—if we fail to choose the story we live into—you can bet that Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and the tabloid press and every power-hungry maniac with a microphone will be more than happy to choose our story for us and feed that story to us sound byte by sound byte.

It’s up to us now to decide whether we’re going to keep on swallowing, and retelling, a story of despair. A story of, “There’s nothing we can do.” What would happen if we pledged, right now, to start telling a story of wild hope, a story of almost unimaginable healing and grace springing from the hard rock of this desperate summer?

I think you already know the story the world needs. I think you already have that story in you. I’m pretty sure that if you look back over your own life, you’ll find your own story of a desperate, desert time. Maybe it was a time in your own life when you thought you could not take another thirsty step. Maybe it was a time in the life of community you loved, a community that was fighting for justice. Maybe you were there, carrying signs and singing freedom songs. In fact, I know you were there, because I’ve seen your photographs, and I’ve heard your stories—like the one about the time you went out to the hot, dusty fields to stand in solidarity with the ones who were picking grapes for your table. I bet you have a story about marching arm in arm with your sisters and brothers through dangerous streets, when you were not at all sure you would survive. I bet you have a story of a time in your life, a time in the life of the people you love, when right there, in the midst of your despair, the waters of change, the waters of new life, began to flow again.

That, my friends, is the story the world needs to hear from you right now. It’s the story your children and your grandchildren need to hear from you as you watch the news together this summer. It’s the story the people of Dallas and Minneapolis and Orlando need from us this summer: a story about how you came through your own time of Testing and Quarreling; a story about your own beloved community’s moment of despair. A story about how badly you wanted to just give up and go home but then somebody in desperation picked up a stick and struck the asphalt and somebody else struck a note on a guitar and a song, a freedom song, came gushing out like water from the rock. That’s the story you need to tell: your own story of wild, determined, crazy hope.

Maybe the most hopeful, radical thing you can do this summer is to tell the story of your own testing. Maybe the most healing thing you can do this summer is to find a way—pick up the phone, write a song, start a blog—find a way to tell a story of wild hope to somebody who is dying of thirst, somebody who even now is crying out, “Is the Lord with us or not?” That person needs to hear your story of a time when you were tested. That person needs to hear you say, “The Lord was with me in that terrible, lonely place, and that’s how I know the Lord is with you, too. And so am I.”

And if it turns out that right now, you are the one who is thirsting for a new story, I hope you’ll look around the room today and ask your friends for a story that will quench your thirst. And if you find this week that your own spring of hope is running dry, I encourage you to look just a little farther than the easy headlines that come at you all day long. In desperate times, it matters—it matters a lot—which stories we feed ourselves and our kids every day. I don’t believe we can afford any longer to feast on poisonous stories of despair. So if you need a nourishing story, I brought you a stack of them this morning. Do you read this? It’s Yes! Magazine and It’s a beautiful thing, filled with stories of hope, stories of restorative justice. You can pick up a copy and take it home, you read it online if you want, you can share it with the kids you love. Because our kids are looking to us to know what kind of story we will live, what kind of people we will become, in our own time of Testing and Quarreling.

Friends, there’s an aching world out there, longing for hope, thirsting for healing this summer. And I’m pretty sure that as we grope together for a way forward, as we let our hearts break again and again, we’re going to need stories to save us. Holy stories of our own testing, stories of the times we cried out Is God with us or not? Stories of how we came to answer a resounding Yes! Stories of how we found the courage, and the songs, and the friends, that kept us going until the waters began to flow.

I invite you to join me in prayer…

Holy One, as we hold in our hearts the world that you so love, we thank you for bringing us through our dry and dusty times. We thank you for the courage of our ancestors and for the stories of new life that sustain us. And we pray, O God, that you will teach us, as you taught those who have gone before us, to speak truth to power; to speak hope in a time of despair. Give us the words, God, to guide your people through this desert time. May the stories of our lives, the stories of Your love, and the stories of our most difficult, holy places, become living water for a thirsting world. Amen.