Archives for 2012

‘Us’ and ‘them’, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2013

January 6, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Today we pass out of the Christmas season, beyond the simplicity of Luke’s story of a humble birth with angels and shepherds, and beyond John’s exquisite message of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.

Today we begin the Epiphany season – shifting from rejoicing at God’s coming among us to reflecting on what it means – to us and to the life of the world.

Christmas is a traditional time for unity. Even during world wars, combatants often stopped fighting and sang to their enemies or even walked across the battle line to share gifts with them. Christmas ceasefires also became common during the Korean, Vietnamese and Gulf Wars. At the local level, rarely is conflict tolerated at Christmas, a time when everyone seems to be able to focus primarily on peace.

But Christmas has passed. And if we are honest, we understand that also any temporary spirit of peace has passed away. If we are honest, we will admit that no assessment of the current world and national culture is clearer than the realization that people everywhere seem willingly to tolerate a deep ideological divide. We live in a time when compromise is often seen as a negative – as a weakness. We live in a time of party and tribal purity, in which the classic “us”  verses “them” dominates.

“We” are the good people, the ones with the right way of thinking and acting. “They” are the bad people, the ones with a wrong way of thinking and acting. “They” constitute a threat and everything about “them” is suspect.

This is a time of asserting that every social ill is “their” failure. Emotionalism, blaming and scapegoating take precedence over reason and accepting responsibility. This is a time of believing that if you are not like us, you must be against us. If you do not agree with us, you must be wrong. Only “we” have the right answer or access to God.

This is a time when the list of “us” verses “them” seems almost endless: whites against people of color; pro-life advocates against pro-choice supporters; liberals against conservatives; Westerners against Middle Easterners; Muslims against Christians; rich against poor; male against female; native against foreign; whoever against someone else. “Us” against “them.”

The early biblical story is instructive in this regard. It presents an account of ancient Hebrew people developing a strong ethic of internal unity against all who were “other.” In part, this resulted from an understanding that God set them apart as an example to the nations. It also served as a form of self-defense, as they sought to acquire or protect land their considered God-given. And in part, it came from an attempt to maintain the purity of their faith; the intrusion of outsiders into their realm threatened the integrity of what they saw as God’s demand. Therefore, they divided the world into “us” and “them”  – the people of Israel on the one hand verses all others, whom they termed “gentiles.”

They felt forced into a distinction common among human beings and similar to the opening lines of “Outwitted,” a poem by Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”

Israel, out of a perceived necessity, drew a circle around itself, seeing its particular people as a race specially chosen by God. Gentiles, foreigners, were anathema.

Nevertheless, there were other faint voices in Israel’s literature that envisioned a more universal reality. That view finally found fulfillment in Christian expression. Today’s classic gospel story opens the door for a new understanding. Jesus, born in a small town in a totally Jewish environment, was visited by wise men from another world. These foreigners came into the midst of the chosen people and claimed it for their own. And in so doing, they claimed it for all people.

The story of wise men paying homage to the Christ child marks the beginning of the new understanding. It is the story of a God of all people, a God of unity, a God who moves his people beyond the trap of “us”  against “them.”  It is like the final two lines of Markham’s poem:

“But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”

Wise men, bringing gifts, highlight the fact that the ultimate gift is that God loves all people, in all times, in all places – a gift for every contentious “us”  against “them,” empowering movement toward a spirit of fundamental unity.

The Epiphany gospel story is a powerful symbol of something critically important in the development of our faith – in the understanding of who and what God is. The transition from “us”  versus “them”  to a clearer view of the unity of all people does not come easily, however. The early church struggled mightily to understand what God was doing in Christ. One of its earliest conflicts centered on whether Christians had to be Jews first, whether the new faith would be only a reformation of Judaism or a whole new and expanded one. Ultimately, the Spirit moved first-century followers of Christ to accept a broader understanding.

Today’s epistle reading provides an insightful view of this new reality. The writer of Ephesians, speaking in Paul’s name, clarifies the truth that beneficiaries of Christ include not only Jews who followed him, but also gentiles, like the wise men. He spoke of a mystery being revealed by which “the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The meaning of today’s readings reminds us of the challenge for all people to live in a spirit of unity. The Body of Christ is a unifying image that can draw us toward the challenge of eliminating the current divisiveness of our national and global environments. Clearly, this also applies even among Christians today, because an uncompromising spirit of “us”  against “them”  continues to divide and damage.

The three foreigners of today’s gospel remind us once more that our task is to embrace and teach the view that no one is so different that we dare treat them with less love or less respect than we would show those whom we know as brothers and sisters. The epistle reminds us that there is no gentile, no “other” who exists beyond the circle of God’s love. It reminds us that divisiveness like we experience so often is not consistent with the values of God.

Both lessons remind us of the Godly reality of the unity of all people – Jew and gentile, Christian and Muslim, conservative and liberal, rich and poor, male and female, black and white and red and brown, brave and cowardly, married and single, gay and straight, young and old – “us”  and “them.”

Through a unifying God, we are related to all people – not just related like the kinship of a common humanity, but related in a much more profound way – through the Christ honored by the wise men and acknowledged as Lord of both Jew and gentile.

Today’s lessons help us paraphrase Markham’s poem into a useful watchword in a divisive environment:

They drew a circle that shut “us” out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love of God had the wit to win:
Christ drew a circle and took all in!

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

An invitation to intimacy with God, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2013

January 1, 2013

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

When we think about January 1st, usually, what comes to mind isn’t the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – also know as the Feast of the Circumcision. Nonetheless, today was the Feast of the Holy Name long before it became New Year’s Day. In fact, January 1 has only been called “New Year’s Day” since 1752. Before then, for more than a thousand years, we observed March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as the beginning of the year.

At the same time, finding some significance in the ceremony by which every Jewish male was formally given his name eight days after he was born is a bit trickier than putting up the new calendar. It’s tempting to see the whole thing as just odd; and to ask, with Romeo, “What’s in a name?” The answer, as Romeo himself found out none too happily, is that there’s a great deal in a name, and that names are pretty special things.

This may be easier to get at when we start with ourselves and our own names, and the names of people around us. After all, we not only have a name, we have quite a few of them: We have first names, and middle names, and last names and titles; many of us have married names, maiden names, nicknames, pet names, and those other names we would rather forget. And which of those names we use and the way they are used says a lot.

For example, one male priest described his family’s reaction when he was first ordained; his brothers and sisters had a ball talking about “my brother, the father,” or one sister who still sometimes calls him “Father brother.” Which is all good fun, but imagine what it would mean if he actually insisted that his brothers and sisters address him only as “father.” It would not only be weird, but also hurtful, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he’d be saying something harsh about his relationship to them, since the names we use acknowledge and express our relationships. And second, since his name is a sort of key to who he is, insisting on a title instead of a name would be a way of hiding the real him, his personal self, from his family.

The opposite thing is going on when some 16-year-old smart aleck working in a fast-food restaurant insists on calling customers by their first names. And we all know plenty of other examples of that sort of thing.

What’s happening in all of these cases is a sort of dishonesty. These are times when names – which do turn out to matter quite a bit – get used in ways that don’t properly acknowledge and express the relationships that in fact exist; and so, an important insight into who we are and what we are about is being misused – and something false is implied.

Now, with all of this in mind, we can look at another name, the name of God the Father. Remember, God the Father has a specific name – a name he revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Depending on what translation we’re using, both the reading from Numbers and the psalm make this point more or less clearly. Both readings include God’s name, Yahweh, which is sometimes translated as “THE LORD” in capital letters. Yahweh is probably the way that the proper name of God was pronounced when it was spoken in Hebrew, but there’s some debate about that.

About 600 years before Jesus was born, and well after today’s readings from Numbers and the psalm were written, the divine name, the name God gave Moses, was not spoken in Israel, so attempts to re-create how it sounded have led to a variety of conclusions.

The name of God was not spoken, in part to keep it from being profaned – you couldn’t take the name of God in vain if you didn’t say it – but on an even deeper level, not speaking God’s name says something very important about how Israel had come to understand God, and Israel’s relationship to God.

The name of God was not spoken – and at the same time Israel came more and more to understand God as distant, as apart from his people.

In other words, Israel was no longer on a first-name basis with God; and this lack of the use of God’s name was both a way of expressing and of constituting this new, and more distant, relationship, and of removing from Israel an important key to God’s immediate presence.

This is why the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is truly important; and why it belongs right next to Christmas.

The point here is not that we’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was named “Jesus” instead of, say, “Floyd” or “George.” Instead, today we celebrate the fact that God has again spoken his name to his people – and not just as a word, but as the Word made flesh.

God has spoken his name to us as a person. Eight days after Christmas, God again gave us his name, this time with a force, a potency and a significance that overshadows Sinai, and for us, supersedes whatever Moses was told on the mountain.

For in speaking his name as “Jesus,” God has changed forever his relationship to us – from the studied formality of a name too holy to speak to the special intimacy that is implied by being on a first-name basis at its best – and more.

It’s not that in the name “Jesus” we have some kind of magic word, a sort of verbal talisman we can wave around and make things happen. That’s not it all. That’s superstitious magic. Instead, God has given us the fullness of what is only hinted at in our own names. We have been given the gift of a new relationship with God, a first-name relationship that is more intimate than casual, more immediate than informal.

And with that comes an invitation; an invitation to intimacy with God – to intimacy with all of the power, the love and the inherent connection to all of creation that are parts of who God is. Remember, the name of Jesus is the name of God the Son, and it is in the person, the whole person, of Jesus Christ that we see and know most clearly and most completely who God is, and what God is about as far as we are concerned.

So we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus for the same reason we celebrate Christmas: the promises to Mary and Joseph and Israel have been fulfilled, a virgin did conceive and bear a son, and his name most certainly means that God is with us. It is the name that is above every other name, and – in joy and thanksgiving – at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.


— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

The Word, the logos, the Christ, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2012

December 30, 2012

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Love Christmas. Love this Gospel. For this is John’s Christmas story. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that this is John’s version of the Incarnation. No shepherds, no star, no kings, no Bethlehem, no manger, no Joseph and no Mary. Had John been Rogers and Hammerstein, he would have started his version of the good news of Jesus with the words, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

And so we are transported way back to the beginning of time. To before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word, the logos, the Christ, was with God and was God.

Was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. Astonishing! We are meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed. All our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced by this pushing back of the story to the very beginning of all things.

For the very next thing we are told is that “all things were made through him.” That would be as in all things, everything and every one. Simply breathtaking.

Which would explain everything about who we are. We are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Not some people, not most people, but all persons.

Most unfortunate, this good news John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel. Unfortunate because very often we do not want to recognize the Word, the logos, the Christ, in all persons. There are some persons we might not want to be of Christ so as not to have to serve them!

So we might not wish John had started at the very beginning. The beginning is not a very good place to start at all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background, and hay in the manger, and shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story.

Until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Martin Luther is said to have lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky!

Now when you light a candle, you tap into an ancient and nearly never-ending cycle of life-giving energy. The chemical energy of photosynthesis in plants is passed up the food chain, for instance, to grazing cattle and then on to tallow in a candle. As Roger Highfield, in his book “The Physics of Christmas,” explains,  when the candle is lit in the gloomiest of nights, it releases “cryptic sunlight” and returns the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

And here’s the kicker: the Word, the logos, the Christ is in all of that. The logos is in the photosynthesis and the cryptic sunlight. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Oh, my. That no doubt includes fruitcakes, that awful necktie from Uncle Joseph and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers in town for one day only to make or break the Ravens’ season.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas as seen through the eyes of the fourth gospel, John. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … and from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.”

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. This means that when we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word can pull up and travel with us. And the fullness of this Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. Have received this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”

So here in this corner is the Word, and all that he has done since before time, in time and beyond time. And in the other corner is John, the man who was a lampstand. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

So now, maybe we could do that, too. We could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. Maybe we could be like John and be a lampstand from which this light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning can shine forth. Think here of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Think Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam, think Gandalf and Aragorn, think Pippin and Merry, think, yes, even Boromir and Gollum.

We might ask, which character in “The Lord of the Rings” is most Christ-like? But then, that would be the wrong question. Each character of Middle Earth fighting the forces of darkness carries something of the light, the logos and the Christ within them. All together they are the body of Christ. Alone, none of them can get the job done, move history and the world forward. Together the world is saved. Changed, but saved.

This is what we are called to be and do: bear witness to the light and do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is best done by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

None of us can be Christ-like unto ourselves. Yet, we each carry some particular Christ-like characteristic. We each carry a piece of the light. All together we can make up a Christ-like community. That is why, when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ, the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make seriously. Especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Because the piece of Christ that I need is the piece you have, and the piece you need is the piece I have. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas! God bless us every one. Amen.


— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived

Finding our way in the dark, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2012

Finding our way in the dark

December 25, 2012

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Have you ever stumbled in the dark? Better yet, have you ever had to do something without the benefit of adequate light? Not only is it difficult, we have a higher chance of messing up or injuring ourselves. (Remember the last time you stubbed your toe moving going to the bathroom or kitchen in the middle of the night?) Most often we feel comfortable enough making the attempt to move through the darkness in familiar surroundings, because we are accustomed to where things are and we feel safe while in our homes and offices.

Most of us aren’t so adventurous or courageous when we are in a place with which we are unfamiliar; yet doesn’t it seem that life is a lot like that? We are often asked to move into the inky darkness of life, in ways that are not so much different than our stumbling through our houses late at night. But even as we think about how difficult it is to navigate without adequate light, we are rarely, if ever, in complete darkness. Whether we live in urban or rural areas, even without our personal lights on, we are never in complete darkness. Even when we are far away from so-called civilization, away from man-made light, even without the moon, under a cloudy sky, there is still some ambient light that allows us to see something.

In many ways, that is what the Nativity of Christ is all about – finding our way in the twilight to that place where and that time when God’s glory breaks forth and floods our lives, and the world. God’s light, shining through the infant ruler, Jesus, is the light that, even in its brilliance, helps us to see more clearly. The shepherds, Mary and Joseph and maybe even the angels, did not know what to expect. The shepherds were treated to a heavenly concert that they hadn’t even bought tickets for. Mary and Joseph just wanted to do their civic duty – be counted and pay their taxes – and to have their child born safely and healthy. The angels were bringing the message that they were given, but no one really knew what was going to happen or even what the outcome would be. They were all stumbling through the dark, trying their best to do what they needed to do, but with just enough light, just enough information to give them some measure of courage to continue to move forward.

They all continued with the hope that the end of this leg of their journey would make a difference. They trusted that, even without all of the details, they were going to experience something wonderful.

Friends, we have seen the savior in many ways and through many people. Some have even heard the angel’s message and their song:

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

We know the end of the story, we know the baby, where he was born and what he was born to do. We don’t have to fear the times when we have to stumble through the darkness – Christ’s light is so bright that even when we are traveling through deep valleys and languishing in the darkness of a closed building or room, if we can get continue to move toward a place where we can get out and look forward, we will see the light increasing and our way brighter and more sure.

Remember, on this day and throughout the days of this Christmas and Epiphany season, that we need not stumble for long in the darkness, because the Light has come.

Remember the words of Hymn 91:

“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning. Ye shepherds shrink not with afright, but heed the angels warning. This child now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be. The power of Satan, breaking. Our peace eternal, making.”


— The Rev. Lawrence Womack is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.

God comes to us in our gritty reality, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2012

December 24, 2012

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Christmas Eve: Is there a more magical time? In the larger culture, this is often one of the few times when family and home regularly take precedence over other concerns. People light fires in their fireplaces, fill their households with candlelight and the smell of cinnamon; families eat special meals together with the glow of memory surrounding them.

There’s some irony to the coziness of Christmas Eve in our culture, since what we celebrate is the birth of a child to a couple in challenging circumstances far from home. The outbuilding in which Jesus was born did not smell of cinnamon brooms or roasting turkey. It wasn’t decorated in lights and bows. It smelled quite frankly of animals and hay. It’s hard to imagine Mary feeling completely at ease in these circumstances, much less glowing with that supernatural light that appears on Christmas cards. The first Christmas Eve was a struggle for Mary and Joseph; they had been traveling  – and we’re not talking planes, trains or automobiles; Mary was doubtless in pain; Joseph had to be worried and frustrated that there was no place for them to be secure.

The shepherds, who have graced their share of beatific Christmas cards themselves, did not bring tiny white lambs to the crèche. Shepherds were pretty far down the ladder in status and economic standing. They were almost certainly dirty, and perhaps staved off the cold with something to drink.

Our lovely Christmas-card illusions of the first Christmas Eve detract us for the gritty reality of the story, where the extraordinary nature of this story actually lies.

God came to us in Jesus. God came among us, not in the first-century equivalent of a Lear jet or a black limousine, but to a humble couple of travelers far from home and family. Jesus’ first attendants were from the edges of polite society, not from the center. This appears to be a clear signal from the writer of the Gospel of Luke that God’s story in the life of Jesus is going to unfold in unexpected ways, far from the trappings of royalty, distant from the centers of religious authority, among the poorest and the least. And that is by God’s choice.

What are we to understand about God through this story?

The writer of the Gospel of Luke goes on to tell the story of Jesus’ life with a particular emphasis that’s consistent with this birth story; Jesus continues to deal kindly with people on the margins, and tell stories with unexpected heroes, such as the Good Samaritan. The God we see through the portrayal of Jesus in Luke is a God who reaches past the boundaries of race, class, gender and religion to touch people who are on the outside, and it starts with the story of this night.

The earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. This observance came later, when Christians began to talk about Jesus as more than a prophet; they began to see him as divine, and therefore to think about his whole life as a message to humankind from God. They began to talk about a concept called “the Incarnation,” by which they meant that God entered human history in a human life. This made the birth of Jesus a signal event in history, an event that changed the world forever.

In Luke’s account, the conception and birth of Jesus follow the pattern of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God is always acting in unexpected ways to make relationship with God’s people. Just as Sarah conceived when she was old; just as Hannah conceived when she had been barren; just as Moses was called to lead, though he felt inadequate to the task – so Mary, another person who was nobody special, became the mother of Jesus. The place and time were not ideal: they were far from home and Mary went into labor. The historical timing was difficult, too; Mary and Joseph were of the Twelve Tribes, but they lived in an occupied nation and had to answer the call of the Roman governor to be counted.

In the midst of ordinary human history, with one more oppressor occupying one more province; in the midst of ordinary human experience – a pregnant woman and her betrothed, traveling uncomfortably and surprised by a birth far from home – God’s presence is known. God comes to us in the everyday; God is not excluded from a hard day at the office, a challenging commute, a hospital room, a government office. The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when the house is clean and the children are asleep. Those who visit him in Luke’s account suggest further that this good news is for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.

One of the names for Jesus in scripture is Emmanuel, “God with us.” This familiar story of a man, a woman, a baby and the unlikely companionship of angels and shepherds, claims for all time that God is indeed with us, wherever we find ourselves, however difficult the path may be. As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that he is born “unto us,” not merely born. Ultimately, we are called by this story to understand the birth of Jesus as a gift, something precious that blesses us and binds us to the Giver in love.

Like all the best gifts, this one can change our lives, if we let it. We always have the option of merely visiting this story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying the sweet story without really entering its power. But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.

God intends for love to grow us, change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us. This story takes its true power, not from birth, but from resurrection, the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of darkness and death that are seen most visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, and its sweetness can sustain us through the coming year.

Let every heart prepare him room. Amen.


— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment. 

Independence Day (A,B,C) – July 4, 2012

Practice makes perfect

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145 or Psalm 145:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s tough to imagine a more unsettling teaching for Americans to hear on Independence Day than this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Resisting evil doers, turning the other cheek and praying for those who persecute us are not things we seem to do very well. And then there’s the little matter of being perfect.

How many times have you heard these maxims? “Never settle for second best.” “Don’t accept no for an answer.” “Never give up.” “Get it right the first time.”

Americans tend to obey these rules as though they were self-evident commandments. But while it is true that following them can lead to personal success, slavish observance of them can also promote perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the desire to be without defect in everything we do, and it can cause heartbreak for us and those we love. It can cause a person to focus on his job to the detriment of his family life. It can cause a person to procrastinate for fear of not doing a project flawlessly from the start. It can influence a young woman’s view of her body so that she starves herself to have the “perfect” figure.

But the problem with perfectionism is clear: it is unattainable. No person can be perfect at all times and in every area of her life.

The Bible itself records this in one of the overarching themes of scripture: human beings are imperfect. We make mistakes in judgment. We are prone to self-preservation and selfishness. We are capable of committing evil. In short, however much we strive to live God-centered lives, we are sinners and will always battle the temptations that keep us away from perfection.

Given these realities, Jesus’ imperative to be perfect as God is perfect sounds a bit preposterous.

This verse closes the first section of the Sermon on the Mount and follows a set of teachings that should, if we really pay attention to them, cause us deep discomfort. We know that we shouldn’t commit murder, but Jesus says that we shouldn’t even be angry with our sisters and brothers or insult them. We know that we shouldn’t commit adultery, but Jesus says that we must control lascivious thoughts because the thoughts are as sinful as the actions. He tells us that we must give to everyone and anyone who asks for money or material goods, even if we don’t think they will use them wisely. And he claims that loving only those who love us isn’t enough. We must also love our enemies. Not simply avoid harming them or just tolerate them, but love them. Then Jesus closes with that strange, daunting command, be perfect just as God is perfect.

Jesus knew about human sinfulness and the darkness of the human heart. So how could he expect us to do the impossible? Was he making a rhetorical flourish to highlight the seriousness of his ethical teachings? Or was it hyperbole, a verbal exclamation point closing his interpretation of Torah?

When we look at different biblical translations of the term “be perfect,” we see that Jesus was not being dramatic or asking for the impossible. His understanding of perfection was not exactly the same as ours. The New Jerusalem Bible says, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.” The New English Bible says, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” And Eugene Peterson’s popular translation, “The Message,” says, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

Peterson translates teleioi – the Greek word often rendered as “perfect” – as “grow up.” In doing so, he highlights a definition of perfection that means to reach maturity, to become complete. In other words, Jesus wasn’t saying that perfection is a state of eternal flawlessness that can be magically wished into being. It is a process, one in which we make a practice of acting in ways that reflect God’s nature as we grow into the fullness of our baptismal calling.

Being generous as God is generous, being gracious as God is gracious, loving others as God loves us are surely some of the most difficult skills to learn. But as a child learns by imitating others, we too can help ourselves reach maturity by looking at the spiritual grown-ups around us.

In 2005 a Palestinian family demonstrated God’s generosity, graciousness and love with a beauty that surely bordered on perfection. The family’s 12-year old son, Ahmad Khateep, died after being shot in the head and chest by Israeli soldiers. Ahmed’s father made the decision to donate his son’s organs to children in an Israeli hospital and declared, “We want to send a message of peace to Israeli society, to the Defense Ministry and the Parliament.” Mustafa Makhamid, Ahmad’s uncle, told reporters that “Ahmed was a wonderful and smart little kid who just wanted to play. We want to donate his organs to all the children of Israel whom we consider our children. Enough blood spilling. We hope that we will start a new process that will exceed all others and end the spilling of blood.” With that decision three Israeli girls were given the gift of new life because they received the organs of a Palestinian child. With that decision the Khateep family loved their “enemies” and showed the entire world what it means to have God-like generosity and graciousness. In their practice of God’s qualities, they acted like true grown-ups.

It’s not difficult to imagine that some of their ancestors may have sat on a mountainside in Galilee more than 2,000 years ago and decided to take seriously Jesus’ invitation to enter the process of becoming perfect as God is perfect. If so, they had to have made many mistakes while living out his teachings because they were flawed people, just like us. But they kept handing them down, maintaining their practice so that the seeds of God’s loving kindness were planted in their spiritual DNA. And those seeds bore fruit generations later in the lives of people who are supposed to be at terrible odds with one another.

What hope is found in this story! As Americans, we can see that it is possible to act in ways that go against the norm of what our culture tells us. It is possible to be faithful to God’s teachings rather than fall prey to the fear and hatred that seem to dominate our political conversations.

As followers of Jesus, we can see that we are all invited into the process of growing up and into God’s kingdom of loving kindness. Even in the face of our sinful natures, we can choose to act with love, not only toward those who love us, but also toward those we might be inclined to despise. With God’s help and the example of mature sisters and brothers, we are able to act out Jesus’ teachings in our lives for the benefit of all God’s creation.

There is another maxim you may have heard: “Practice makes perfect.” Maybe we should rephrase that to say, practice may not make us flawless, but it can make us loving grown-ups in the Kingdom of God.


— The Rev. Christie M. Dalton is a deacon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. She lives in Winston-Salem where she is also a development officer for Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

St. John the Baptist (B) – June 25, 2012

John as spiritual massage therapist

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

Today we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist was many things. He was a first-century apocalyptic Jew. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the forerunner of Christ. But today, on his feast day, let’s think of John as a spiritual massage therapist.

An Episcopal priest tells a story about the first time he got a message. It was a gift from his wife, who thought it would be a nice thing to help him relax and get ready for the holiday season, which was just about to begin. He was a bit nervous. It was a new experience, and as he says, he grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey where guys don’t get massages.

But he went and was met by a well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman who said she was going to be his “massage therapist.” He turned that phrase over in his mind: massage therapist, massage therapy. It had an interesting, almost clinical ring. It couldn’t be too bad, he told himself.

Then his massage therapist told him to go into the room, to take off all of his clothes, and to lie face down on the table. And he got really nervous. Taking off all your clothes and lying on a table, even when you are modestly covered by a sheet, causes a little anxiety. But he said to himself, I’m a priest, and this is nothing that a little faith can’t handle. We are made in the image and likeness of God! We praise God because we are fearfully and wonderfully made! Our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost! Theology to the rescue! Right?

Wrong! It didn’t work. The fact of the matter was that he was lying face down on a table covered by a sheet. He felt uncomfortable and awkward and vulnerable.

The massage therapist came in and got to work. At first, she seemed to be doing some exploratory work. She seemed to know how to find those places where muscles were knotted and tense, places that he didn’t even know were knotted and tense. Not too bad. Kind of nice. Sort of relaxing. But then, after this initial exploratory phase, this nice, well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman somehow changed, and she began to hurt the priest. She dug her strong fingers into knotted and stressed-out muscles, and pain shot through his body. In a soothing voice she said things like, “It feels like you’re a little tight here,” and then she dug deeper into the knot. The pain was both excruciating and exquisite, and for the better part of an hour she subjected the priest’s stressed-out and tensed body to massage therapy.

He describes the experience this way. First of all, it really did hurt. When she dug her fingers into a knotted muscle, pain seared through his body. But mixed in with this experience of pain, there was the deeper experience of muscles loosening and becoming unknotted. As he was lying there, with his massage therapist boring into his muscles, he found his body relaxing and being released from the grip of tensed and stressed-out muscles. At the same time he was saying ouch from the pain, he was also experiencing sweet relief from tortured and twisted muscle fibers. By the end of the massage, he felt wonderful. It was a painful process to endure, but in the end, seized-up and knotted muscles were relaxed and unknotted, and the priest felt like a new person.

On her way out, the massage therapist told the priest to drink a lot of water during the next twenty-four hours in order to flush the toxins out of his system. “Yuck,” thought the priest. Decades of toxins being released into his system. Not the most pleasant of thoughts. He drank gallons of water that day!

John the Baptist is like that massage therapist.

Consider John’s message to us: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” To prepare the way of the Lord is a serious spiritual undertaking. How can we prepare the way of the Lord in our world and in our hearts today? If God is love, then what are those things that are keeping God’s love at bay? If God’s spirit is the spirit of truth and goodness and beauty, what are those things that get in the way of God’s spirit in the world? If God desires human beings to live in harmony and peace, then what are those things that keep frustrating these desires?

And when we ask these questions, there is John the Baptist waiting to greet us, saying, “Hello, I’m John, and I’ll be your spiritual massage therapist. Take off your clothes, wade into the water, and feel yourself naked before the very eye of God. I’ll be right in, and we’ll get to work. And we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

And there are his rough, prophet’s hands, ready to dig into the twisted and knotted fibers in our spiritual lives. Under the Baptist’s hands, we feel the pain of having the spiritual knots in our communal and individual lives identified and worked on.

Has anger over some past injury got your soul in knots? Has malicious gossip torn the spiritual tissue that connects us one to another? Are you still nursing an old grudge against someone that is causing you to cramp up? Has consumerism got you feeling spiritually stressed out? Have fear and prejudice caused knots of hatred and intolerance to form in the body politic?

The strong hands of the Baptist are ready to perform a deep-tissue massage on all the things that are blocking the coming of the Lord. It is a painful, but necessary process.

Yet, even in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the searing in our souls, there is the sense in which we are being relieved, released from the tensed and twisted fibers of our anger and our fear and our prejudice. As we undergo spiritual massage therapy, the toxins that were polluting our system are being flushed out in the waters of baptism.

There are many things that are still blocking the ways of peace and compassion in our hearts and in our world today. Things like anger and fear and injustice. To prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths, we may all need to undergo a little spiritual massage therapy.

We are invited to lay down on John the Baptist’s spiritual message table, and to undergo his treatment. It is difficult to undergo, but in the midst of it, we may experience this process as sweet relief, and we may feel like we are being transformed into new men and women.


— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.


Our hearts are broken but not destroyed, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2012

April 6, 2012

Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9John 18:1-19:42

[Note to the reader: This sermon is intended as a meditation to be read after the Passion Gospel. It should be read with pauses for reflection where indicated.]

For some this is just another Friday. Fifty years ago in much of the country banks were closed from noon to three o’clock; and many businesses also closed. Now, except for a nod from the Stock Exchange, which is closed, and most public school systems, which begin a long Easter weekend, everything else goes on as usual.

Was it that different the day Christ was crucified? In the city, were there not bargains to be made, tasks to be done before the Jewish Sabbath? Other than a rag-tag group of people following a man with a cross, escorted by a Roman cohort, there was little to call attention to what was happening. No one outside of Jerusalem would have known anything about the day’s events.

So, those of us who have come to ponder the crucifixion and its meaning for us are always a very few. And that is how God seems to work in the world. Oh, there are places where whole villages and towns observe this day with great solemnity, but not in the places where most of us live.

Whether you are in a major city or a rural area, you will see this today – life going on, seemingly without people taking time to notice. As the first chapter of Lamentations asks, “Is it nothing to you who pass by?” [pause]

For those of us who have come to the foot of the cross today, it is something. There is a depth to this day, a profound power in its quiet solemnity. There is strong emotion, a sense of meaning difficult to capture in words. It is a profound power found in the weakness of suffering. It is a contradiction, a scandal, and yet …

When our immortal souls meet the Risen Lord, we will know him because of this day. We will know him because of his suffering the worst of pain and shame we can imagine. We will know him because we too sit with those who suffer, we give a cup of cold water to stranger, or feed someone who is hungry. That is what is “good” about Good Friday.

Today we will stand at the cross for others who cannot be here. We will stand here for those who cannot begin to fathom this day, for those whose own pain keeps them from being here. We will stand at the cross for those who do not know Jesus, and those who openly scorn him. We will stand at the cross for those who have been exploited by others and for their exploiters.

We will stand at the cross for those who think life is an opportunity to get all one can. We stand at the cross for those who are in prison for their crimes, for those who fight on the field of battle, for those who are tormented by memories of war and terror. We will stand at the cross for those who are dying at this moment.

We will stand at the cross for those who cannot pray, for those who no longer believe, and for those who have lost all hope of salvation.

We will kneel at the cross for ourselves and for the sins of the whole world. And as it says in the Book of Common Prayer, we will pray that Jesus will indeed set his passion, cross, and death between his judgment and our souls.

In the silence of this day we will feel the emptiness of God dying, and we will experience something of what it is like to be without God in our lives – the light gone out, and the encroaching darkness coming to replace it. [pause]

The Liturgy of Good Friday takes us to this place. The image of the suffering servant, the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” at the beginning of Psalm 22, and the reading of the Passion according to John – these things strip our minds of any trivialities. They are stark in their portrayal of a suffering God, and sparse yet full of meaning in their depictions.

Every year in the small town of Lindsborg, Kansas, the Bethany College Oratorio Society performs Handel’s “The Messiah” on Palm Sunday and Easter. On Good Friday evening they perform J.S. Bach’s “St Matthew Passion.” Many of the singers in the chorus and musicians in the orchestra are veterans of dozens of performances. Usually performances of “The Messiah” are sold out, but there is a consistently large audience for Good Friday as well. One long-time singer stepped down from the risers to a new string player after the Bach was finished and said, “You’re new this year, so you’re probably like me when I started singing years ago. You love the Handel and puzzle over the Bach. But after thirty-five years I can say it’s the ‘Passion’ that moves me the most.”

Christ’s Passion, his suffering and death, move us as well. Our hearts are broken but not destroyed; our sins are purged by this day, our business set aside, relegated to non-important. There is no need to transact business because hallowing this day is our business. It leaves us profoundly silent. And as the liturgy concludes and we return to our homes, or our work, our lives are deeply transformed. We know now that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son … that all should have eternal life.” [pause]

On this day we take time to meet at the foot of the cross. There are no words that can describe our hearts, there are no sorrows that can embrace Jesus’ sorrows. The shadows, the darkness of that day are what embrace us. On the day God dies for us, we die to self, and there is room in our broken and contrite hearts for the crucified God to enter them and heal them. Now that we have died with Christ, let the healing begin. O Savior of the world, who by thy cross and precious blood hast redeemed us: Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee. Amen.


— Ben Helmer is a priest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He and his wife were orchestra musicians with the Bethany Oratorio Society while they lived in Kansas.

I Give You a New Commandment, That You Love One Another, Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2012

April 5, 2012

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Today is Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday of our annual Lenten observance.

The word “Maundy” does not have any meaning in and of itself. It is one of those exotic Episcopal or Anglican terms we sooner or later all become familiar with in our church. Scholars are not even sure of the word’s origin, though most now believe it to be a Middle English corruption of the Latin word mandatum – “commandment” – which appears in an ancient antiphon assigned for this day: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

This antiphon, taken of course from today’s gospel account, is an apt summary of what this day is about. And Jesus’ commandment to love is as much a new commandment today as it was in his own time. The command to love is, after all, always new – as is love itself. And the lesson of this day, Maundy Thursday, applies equally well to last Thursday and next Thursday and to all the Thursdays and other days yet to come. It is a lesson or mandate we, as followers of Christ, dare not forget.

Many Episcopalians today remember Maundy Thursday as the day when clergy and parishioners wash one another’s feet at church, recalling the ritual recounted in today’s gospel narrative when our Lord washes the feet of his disciples as a powerful example of love and servanthood. While contemporary Christians may be a bit squeamish about the rite, their discomfort is nothing compared to that of Peter and perhaps the other disciples as well. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter protests to Jesus.

Masters after all – as Peter well knows – most emphatically do not wash the feet of their disciples. It simply is not done. Yet Jesus surely does it. And eventually even Peter catches on, proclaiming, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” He has learned, in his own larger-than-life way, the lesson of Maundy Thursday, the new commandment of love.

After washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus returns to table and quietly asks his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He answers his own question. “I have set you an example,” he explains. It is an example of profound respect and caring for the other. And what he does for his disciples, he does for us too. He sets us an example. He shows us how things are to be done among his followers even to this day.

An example is always transformative. It commands our attention and changes us whether we want it to or not. We cannot witness another’s example of compassion and love without ourselves being challenged and changed by it. Our Lord does more than wipe the dust from his disciples’ feet. He alters their perception and awareness of human reality itself. He makes them conscious of others and their needs in a new way, which goes far beyond practical hospitality and kindliness.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

We, along with the disciples, can now no longer be unaware or ignorant of the unmistakable mandate given us to “love one another.” We cannot say we did not understand. We cannot say: If Jesus had only been a little clearer. Our actions – to the extent that they do not conform to Jesus’ example – betray us as surely as Judas’ kiss betrayed our Lord himself. The integrity of our faith is measured not by words alone but by the example of our own deeds.

Jesus gives us another “new” commandment that last night with his disciples before the cross, although it is oddly missing from the Gospel of John. Paul tells us about it in our second reading – a passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians. In what is arguably the earliest extant retelling of the Last Supper story, Paul hands on to us what he himself “received from the Lord.” After offering the disciples the bread and wine transformed to his body and blood, Jesus tells them to “do this in remembrance of me.”

He commands them, in other words, to remember.

The ancient words of the Book of Common Prayer echo our Lord’s words. “Take and eat,” declares priest or Eucharistic minister in our Rite One service, “in remembrance that Christ died for thee.” The Eucharistic bread and wine become for us the food of recollection – the provisions that remind us of Christ’s example and commandment. And Christ’s death on the cross, remembered and experienced in the Eucharist, gives us a share in the life to come – where he has gone but we cannot yet come.

But if, in the meantime, we feed only ourselves, we will never truly be nourished. We will always hunger for more and, ironically, starve to death in the midst of spiritual plenty. This is what the Lord’s example has done to us. The Eucharist itself demands of us not only that we remember, but also that we share and serve.

God does not forget us, his people. As we recall this Maundy Thursday what Christ has done for us, so too the Lord “remembers” forward the kingdom to come – and our heritage in it.

And in that kingdom, the Eucharistic meal we share this day is not the Last Supper but the First.


— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at

Thy will be done, Palm Sunday (B) – 2012

April 1, 2012

By Katerina K. Whitley

(Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47) 

What words can one utter after the reading of this gospel? The most dramatic events in all creation are recounted by Mark in his customary simplicity and minimal use of words, but both the telling and the hearing break the heart. We ask: How can people be so cruel? How could the disciples have been so blind? We cringe at the hypocrisy of the high priests of the time. We are repelled by the fickle crowd. We are shocked, astounded, and then we come to our senses and realize that had we been present we probably would have acted as they did.

Just a moment, you will say. Yes, we are surrounded by hypocrisy and meanness of heart and misery of spirit, but at least we are not dealing with the Son of God. They did not know who he was.

Most of the time, we act as if we don’t know who he is. All the foibles, sins, and vices presented here in such an understated manner persist in our society and plague our lives also.

Friendship and love are gifts of immeasurable value. The pain in Jesus when he speaks the words “one of you will betray me,” cuts us to the core. Betrayal of friendship is bitter and affects both the betrayer and the betrayed. Judas must have had good qualities when Jesus chose him. It was probably the sin of pride that brought him to the horrible act portrayed in this gospel. Even more so, betrayal of love leaves wounds that never quite heal. Poor Peter. How sure he was of his love for his friend and teacher and how bitterly he denied him during the course of this terrible night. After the resurrection, Jesus will spend precious hours teaching Peter about the meaning of love and forgiveness, and Peter will spend the rest of his life proving to himself that indeed his love and loyalty are beyond reproach. Cowardice will no longer be a part of his personality.

In all this heartbreak, the abandonment of the beloved in the hour of his greatest need hurts the most. “Watch and pray with me,” Jesus asks his closest friends. Nothing in the gospels shows as poignantly that Jesus, like each one of us, needs his friends as he walks through the valley of death and agony. We are not meant to go through the dreadful experience of death all alone. A loved one who remains with us to the end, a friend who continues to pray fervently even when all hope is extinguished, a hospice nurse who remains to sustain the family, all these offer a service that Jesus asked of his disciples but did not receive. Again, his full humanity with all its accompanying terror of abandonment is revealed in the loneliness of the Garden of Gethsemane, and before such agony we remain speechless. “Let this cup pass from me,” and the answer is No.

And we who pray for healing, for deliverance, for reprieve from pain, for a miracle even, go back to this painful story and learn from Jesus to say, “Thy will be done.”

Outside the circle of love and friendship, the fickleness of the crowd surprises us. A few days before, they were clamoring for him because he had fed them with both bread and stories, and he had healed their sick. Now they are appalled by his weakness and, together with the mob, cry out for his blood. We like for our leaders to be invincible. Even in the church we have too little patience for any weakness we see in others, especially our clergy. We are too easily swayed and seduced by gossip, innuendo, and all the lies that slip through the airwaves. But we in the church are asked to remain faithful, careful, and not to be judgmental. Let us not be arrogant in thinking that we would have acted with more decorum and loyalty as Palm Sunday ends and the fear slips through.

Palm Sunday, so filled with triumph and hope, is already forgotten. The darkness of the events of Holy Week is beginning to cast its shadow over us all. In remembering the events of this crucial week in the long unfolding of humanity’s history, we are filled with sorrow and then with gratitude. We will not be abandoned to remain in the darkness. The light will break forth again after the fear and the loneliness of that horrible death in Golgotha. We will be pulled out of the abyss. And all because Jesus accepted the will of his Father even unto death and, remembering all of us in the hour of his death, he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

In this forgiveness we trust as we continue moving toward the light.


— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows (Morehouse, 2003) among other books of Biblical monologues. She lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina.