Blessing of the Firetrucks and 9/11 Remembrance Service


Many years ago, Doan and I visited the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center.  We walked the grounds where those towers stood, towers that I had used to orient myself when downtown, towers that so many of us were in and out of for work, for transportation.  I figured out with some certainty where my favorite lunch cart used to sit, chicken and rice and beans for six bucks, served by the always smiling woman from somewhere in Central America, I can’t remember where.  We read the names of the dead on the monuments, traced them with our fingers, cried a bit while listening to the flowing water.  As we walked the footprints of the towers, where steel and glass once reflected not just the sun, but the optimism, the hope, the progress of the American experiment, I couldn’t help but think of Billy Graham speaking at the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral a week after the attacks.  Graham spoke about how tragedy of the lives lost, the horrific destruction, and of how underneath the debris, a foundation that was not destroyed. 

How firm a foundation, the old hymn goes.  How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord…Fear not, I am with thee; oh be not dismayed; For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.

How firm a foundation.  It’s been twenty years, twenty years since nineteen terrorists hijacked four planes, planes filled with innocent people, and turned them into weapons.  2,977 people were killed that day, the single largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil.  The attacks caused the deaths of 441 first responders, 343 of them firefighters, the greatest loss of emergency responders on a single day in American history.  Mychal Judge, Catholic priest and FDNY chaplain, was the first confirmed fatality, victim 0001.

From bumper stickers to flags to Facebook posts, we are constantly reminded to “Never Forget” that day, as if there’s a chance that such a day would go forgotten.  That day “irrevocably changed the lives of victims’ families and friends, survivors, first responders, rescue and recovery workers, volunteers, and millions of Americans and people around the world.  The legacies of the attacks continue to affect foreign policy, national security, civic discourse, airline security, building safety, the law, and countless individual lives.”  None of us will ever forget.  No one who has ever seen what first responders see daily will ever lose dread that comes upon them when those images are seen, when those memories are stoked.[1]

But we can choose how we remember that day.  We can and will always memorialize the dead, honor those who risked everything, and care for those left behind.  We can get angry, angry again, and that’s fine.  But we can also allow our hearts to heal, to fill up, to rest on the firm foundation of our Lord.

For out of the very worst man was capable of, the very best was brought forth. 

Who can forget the innumerable acts of selfless bravery made on that day?  The first responders, military personnel, and civilians who ran toward the fire, who said “Let’s Roll,” knowing full well that the darkness ahead of them was the shadow of death.  Or those who spent hours, days, weeks and months on the rescue and recovery effort, those who lost their lives due to the events of that day, just slower.  Or the innumerable people who did what they could, under the most difficult of circumstances, to be of help?  I’ll never forget the restaurants in Sea Bright bringing refreshments down to Highlands for the mariners and survivors being evacuated from lower Manhattan in the Great Boatlift, the largest water evacuation in history.  Those who gave money, time, their own blood, gave anything they could to help.  Those who faced the worst, armed with faith, stepping into the darkness with the hope of finding a firm foundation.

This spirit is exemplified by the men and women we honor here today, Bordentown’s bravest, best and finest.  I’ve seen it myself, of course; the countless hours spent in training and on scenes, caring for our neighbors, so often on the worst day of their lives.  Our first responders have proven themselves worthy over and over, and one of our own, Lori Engler, was just named by the Burlington County Women’s Advisory Council to be Outstanding Woman of the Year in the Category of First Responder.  Lori’s getting married tomorrow, and I’ve been wanting to tell John that he can now join me off in the corner in our wives’ shadows.

We have here a firm foundation, and this is how I am choosing to remember and bear witness to the events of 9/11.  With sadness, with some fear, with anger, yes, but with every attempt to rest my heart on the firm foundation of our Lord; remembering that the empty tomb came only after the Cross, remembering that out of the very worst man was capable of, the very best was brought forth.



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Pentecost 15

If you were an Episcopalian looking for a church in Upper Manhattan in the first half of the 20th Century, you likely had stumbled across St. Ann’s, a beautiful Romanesque-style structure on the corner of 148th and Amsterdam.  It had an exterior of cream-colored brick and was 80 feet deep and 60 feet high.  The nave accommodated 300 and had an inclined floor, as in a theatre, so that the congregation would have an unobstructed view of the altar and officiating clergyman as he prayed and preached.  Many windows, most of them clear glass, flooded the room with light. There was no organ or choir loft.  In the basement were several rooms for social work and meetings of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, and of the Guild of Silent Workers.  You would have stumbled across St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf-Mutes, the first church building in the country erected solely for the use of the hearing impaired.[1]   

“Be opened.”  Eph’phatha.  A simple and elegant phrase that doesn’t see to go along at all with sticking your fingers in a guy’s ears and wiping your spit on his tongue.  As the write Eleanor Stump asked, “What happened to the elegant kind of miracle where Jesus just says a word and a person is healed?” 

“The answer lies in the question.  What Jesus does is literally a silent show.  It has to be.  Jesus is trying to communicate with someone who can’t hear.  In other cases, before Jesus does a miracle, Jesus talks to the person for whom the miracle will be done.  In this case, he does charades. 

“His charade begins by letting the deaf man know that Jesus is putting a part of himself into the deaf man—his fingers into the deaf man’s ears, his spit into the deaf man’s mouth.  By this means, Jesus invites the deaf man to accept Jesus into himself—literally.  And then Jesus looks up to heaven to show the deaf man the source of Jesus’ power.  It doesn’t come from some magic in Jesus’ fingers or spittle.  It comes from God, whose power is in Jesus, who is in the deaf man, by means of this charade. 

“Even the groaning and the speech of Jesus to the deaf man make sense if we think of them in this way.  First, the deaf man sees Jesus open his mouth to make the inarticulate sound of groaning. This deaf man doesn’t speak, but even those made mute by deafness can groan. In groaning, Jesus joins the deaf man, who can see Jesus groaning even if he can’t hear him. 

And then the deaf man sees Jesus speaking an articulate word to him, to the man who cannot hear. In doing this, Jesus is inviting the deaf man to trust in Jesus, to choose to accept the miracle—to choose to hear the word that Jesus speaks to him.”[2] 

Back in the 1840’s, a young man named Thomas Gallaudet was discerning a call to the priesthood, attempting to hear the word Jesus was speaking to him.  His father, though, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Thomas was the founder of the West Hartford School for the Deaf, and he persuaded his son to work for a while as a teacher of the deaf.  He did, and then met and married Miss Elizabeth Budd, who was deaf.  He was then ordained in 1851, and the next year established St. Ann’s Church in New York, especially for deaf persons, with services primarily in sign language.   

One of Gallaudet’s students and parishioners was Henry Winter Syle, deaf from an early age, who had attended Trinity College, Hartford, St John’s, Cambridge, England, and then Yale. Gallaudet encouraged him to become a priest, and in 1876 Henry Winter Syle became the first deaf person to be ordained by the Episcopal Church in the United States.[3] 

“Be opened.”  Jesus opened the hearts of Gallaudet and Syle just as He had opened the ears and loosed the tongue of the man that was brought to Him.  Each was healed in their own way, teaching us that even with differing abilities, Jesus can and will heal us, make us whole, and use us for great things in His Kingdom.  “Be opened,” Jesus says to us today; it’s now our time to choose to hear the word that Jesus speaks to us.  




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Pentecost 11

One of the things that the pandemic has taught us is how vulnerable our supply chain is for any number of goods.  I watched with a mix of horror and fascination (and a little bit of glee) when the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal – the memes were fabulous.  Some foods, even domestic products, were disrupted; the top five were beef, eggs, milk, potatoes, and leafy greens, which meant that four of my major food groups were disrupted.  My fifth, chicken wings, now costs twice as much as they used to.  Oh, the humanity.  

But the simple truth is that food was not always so available, and in most places in the world, it still isn’t.  And people in Jesus’ day didn’t have access to all the stuff we do.  “Wheat and barley were… eaten cooked or parched on a hot plate, or ground into flour by crushing the grain between two pieces of stone.  The common vegetables were lentils, beans, and cucumbers; squash and pumpkin, tomato and potato were as yet unknown (in Israel).  Flavoring was supplied by onions, leeks, and garlic.  The basic fruits were figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and sycamore figs.  Olives were used especially for their oil. Figs, raisins, and dates were dried for future use.  Oranges and bananas were introduced only after the Arab conquest (7th century A.D.). 

“Bread in Bible lands was the basic nourishment.  It was made of wheat or more frequently barley which may be called the bread of the poor.  Bread in Palestine is still usually cooked on a simple metal plate and takes the form of a large round flat pancake…hence the custom of breaking bread rather than cutting it.  Palestinian bread loaves were also baked in the shape of stones in the wilderness.  Three such loaves, about 3,500 years old, were found at Thebes and are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”[1]  

The last few weeks of Gospel lessons have involved food, especially bread.  This week, Jesus flips the script a bit, from actual food to spiritual food, to the eucharistic sign of Jesus.  “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, for you to eat and never die.  I myself am the living bread. … If you eat this bread, you shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

If we’re really listening to Jesus here, that’s a lot to take in.  We can here begin to see or see again that Jesus didn’t come to give us bread, but to be our bread, bread that gives true life.  “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” 

When Jesus was done saying things like “the bread I will give is my flesh” and later, “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him,” many of those who heard Him said “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 

Can we?  Can we listen to it?  Perhaps we have issues with the queasiness of thinking about eating flesh and drinking blood.  Perhaps our desire is for the things that we think Jesus can give to us rather than a desire for Jesus Himself.  Or maybe “our problem is not just believing that God could inhabit bread.  It is believing that God could inhabit us.”[2] 

Perhaps that’s the most stunning thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ: how available He is to us, despite our sins and flaws and shortcomings, despite all the things that would keep God from even looking our way, God makes Himself available to us not just spiritually but physically in Christ, the Bread of Life, the nourishment of all who come to Him.  

[1] Ernest Lussier, S.S.S. 

[2] Ibid. 

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Pentecost 10

One of my favorite TV shows is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Friday Night Lights, which ran for several seasons in the mid to late aughts.  Friday Night Lights was a football show that wasn’t really about football; it followed the ups and downs of Coach Eric Taylor and his Dillon High School Panthers as they navigated life.  Hollywood anointed Taylor Kitsch, who played fullback Tim Riggins, as the breakout star, but somehow most people missed a young Michael B. Jordan, who is now the crown prince of entertainment.  Coach Taylor had a catchphrase that outlived the show – you may have heard it even if you never watched Friday Night Lights: “Clear eyes.  Full hearts.  Can’t lose.” 

The crowds of people who followed Jesus all the way to Capernaum could have used a Coach Taylor pep talk.  The had clouded eyes, full stomachs, and were totally lost. 

So, who were these people?  These were at least some of the people who were fed by Jesus with the five loaves and two fish, the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand.  And when I say all the way to Capernaum, I should clarify that it wasn’t that far, about a 30 minute walk – or about a 20, 25 minute boat ride – from Tabgha, where that miracle took place. 

Tabgha is the Arab word for the location, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, which was originally called Heptapegon, a Greek word translated as seven springs.  These springs fed into the Sea and created a prime fishing location – a ruined ancient harbor can be seen there when the water gets low. 

If you go looking for the hill where Jesus sat and fed five thousand people, you’ll find a church, of course, built over the spot.  The Church of the Multiplication was built in the 1970’s over the location of a few churches that stood there through the years, the most ancient of which was filled with beautiful ancient mosaics of, you guessed it, loaves and fishes.  At the end of the fourth century, a Spanish nun named Egeria traveled to the Holy Land and kept a diary of her travels.  Her report mentions a small church built over a rock, still visible, where “the Lord fed the multitude with five loaves and two fish.”[1]

So the crowds, their stomachs full from the miracle meal, go chasing after Jesus, looking for another free lunch.  Why not chase the wonder worker around, right?  Especially if we can get Him in the habit of giving away food. 

But Jesus was not so easily manipulated.  “…you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  You’re here because you’re hoping for roast beef hoagies this time, aren’t you? 

Now, it would be easy to concentrate on the desires and expectations of the crowd.  It would be easy for me to attempt to instruct us all on the “correct” way to seek out Jesus, to approach the Lord of heaven and earth.  But human motives are rarely pure, unmixed, without guile or pretense.  Is it best to approach Jesus first with gratitude, with others on your heart, being truly sorry and humbly repenting of our sins, and then with our own needs?  Of course it is.  Clear eyes and full hearts and all of that.  That’s why the Mass (as well as most services) are structured in the way they are. 

But are you sometimes hungry?  Do we, at times, have immediate needs?  Again, of course.  Jesus knows this, and He knew it then.  Does He disperse the crowd?  No.  Does He chide them a little?  Absolutely.  But then He offers them what they don’t even know they need; He offers them Himself.

“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.  I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”  Jesus offered them and He offers us Himself; His spirit to inhabit our hearts, His Body and Blood to satisfy our deepest need.

So prepare your hearts and your souls now, in this time together, but remember that you can approach the Lord in all sorts and conditions.  Jesus’ offer always stands. 


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Pentecost 9

Every once in a while, I’ll get up here and admit that I don’t like something – a type of food, a show, whatever – that everyone else seems to think is an unimpeachable classic.  Today’s popular item that I can’t stand is The Phantom of the Opera.  I know it’s won tons of awards and Andrew Lloyd Webber is Andrew Lloyd Webber, but it’s terrible.  I know it’s terrible because I’ve seen it twice.  The first time, I joined a friend of mine when he took a midwestern girl into the city to impress her with a Broadway show.  Despite having grown up with New York TV and having seen Phantom commercials twice every half hour for my first 25 years on earth, I didn’t expect to hate the show as much as I did.  The second time, I joined some friends who were gifted tickets at work.  Thankfully, I arrived in New York for that showing right off a red-eye from Seattle, and I fell asleep about midway through the first act, saving me the torture. 

“…but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a phantasma, a phantom, a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were terrified.  I would have been too.

Now, it might be helpful to define a couple terms.  Our Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates phantasma as ghost, while the King James uses the word spirit.  As everyone knows that while all ghosts are spirits, not all spirits are ghosts, and as the disciples knew (but somehow ignored), ghosts can’t walk on water; water is used to deter ghosts.

Nonetheless, ghosts were (and are) not something to be messed with.  Deuteronomy 18 tells us that “there shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.”

There are a few reasons for these prohibitions.  One is that when we reference the dead, what do we pray for?  That they rest in peace.  Constantly calling upon the dead does not help them accomplish that.  The story of King Saul illustrates this: King Saul goes to the Witch of Endor and asks her to conjure the ghost of Samuel, his former advisor and a prophet of God.  Samuel shows up, and the first thing he says is “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”  The second thing he says is, in essence, the Lord has turned away from you and you will lose everything. 

The second reason is that when you attempt to contact the spirit world, you never know what spirit is going to return the call.  So when you go to a medium and attempt to talk to grandma, the best outcome is that you lose your 50 bucks to a huckster.  The worst is the possibility of an unclean spirit hitching a ride home with you.  Worse yet, that demon might be a fan of the Phantom of the Opera and insist on hearing the soundtrack.

Back to the story.  The disciples think they are seeing a ghost, coming to finish what the wind and waves had yet to accomplish.  As the scholar Jason Robert Combs has noted, the disciples here believe the impossible rather than the obvious.  Having just seen Jesus feed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, their hearts were still hardened; they still can’t fathom that Jesus can walk wherever He wants to.[1]

But, of course, He could and can.  St. Mark tells us that the disciples were utterly astounded, and they should have been, and so should we.  It would have taken me a bit to wrap my head around the fact that the teacher I had been following around was not just some guy from the suburbs but also the great I AM.  “Take heart,” Jesus tells them, “it is I.”  Or in the direct translation of the Greek, ego eimi, I AMYou’ve likely heard this before, maybe even from me, but that is the name God gives Himself from the burning bush, the name of God that Moses reports to his people.  “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

It was no phantom walking on the water that night but rather the same God who set the boundaries of the waters; that same God who in His very being is life and love, who by His love gives us life, is the one who comes to us in the wind and the waves; who grants us His peace in the midst of chaos; who saves us from our sin-hardened hearts that distract us from hearing Him tell us “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”


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Pentecost 7

This coming week we will celebrate the feast of St. Bonaventure, one of the great Doctors of the Church (doctor meaning teacher in this case – the Western Church only counts 35 others as doctors).  Bonaventure is all but forgotten, at least in comparison to Thomas Aquinas, with whom he graduated from the University of Paris back in the mid 1200’s, but he is well remembered for his humility, for his simplicity of life, which makes sense as he was a leader of the Franciscans.  One story about Bonaventure stands out: “Late in life, Bonaventure was appointed to be a cardinal by (Pope Gregory the Tenth).  In those days, the message didn’t come in a phone call.  Rather the pope would send out a delegation of Vatican officials to bring the red hat to the appointee.  (The red hat, the galero, which back then looked more like a sombrero, was the most important symbol of the cardinal’s office.  Since 1965, the galero is no longer in use.)

“Anyway, when the delegation showed up at St. Bonaventure’s friary, they found him washing the dishes.  He actually sent them outside to wait for him to finish the dishes.  Legend has it, he asked them to leave the red hat on a tree outside.”[1]

Jesus “began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.  He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.”  The disciple’s first mission trip was marked by a simplicity even St. Bonaventure might look twice at.

So it’s going to be 85 degrees today, not so bad considering the last week.  But imagine if I chose twelve of you after Mass and told you that I was sending you out to proclaim the Gospel in the surrounding towns.  You two will walk to Chesterfield, you two to Burlington, you two I want to get up to Princeton Junction if you can.  This is not an extended trip, just for a few days, but you need to wear your Teva sandals and just some shorts and t-shirt.  Don’t bring any snacks, and don’t bring any money, don’t even bring a bag with you.  You’ll be fine. 

Now, no one would blame you if you didn’t go.  It would be amazing if anyone actually considered it.  I am very clearly not Jesus, after all.  But I imagine there might have been some grumbling, bargaining even, before the disciples left on their separate ways.  But as St. Mark tells us, “So they went out and preached that men should repent.”

They actually did it.  Perhaps they knew, and certainly they learned, that the order to not pack up, but just to go, had less to do with the stuff than it had to do with the action of relying on God alone, with trusting that when God calls you to do something, He will provide the means to do it.

Just look at what Jesus did give them for their journey.  First, He gives them one another.  He sends them out in twos.  Mission is done in community.  Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.”  Together we take Jesus to the world.  We need one another.

Second, Jesus gives the disciples authority.  He gives them power over unclean spirits and the power to heal the sick.  He gives them authority to preach that people should repent of their sins, turn from the ways and deeds that bring nothing but trouble, nothing but division.  He gives them the authority to be His presence among the people, to let them know that God loves them enough to actually be present with them.[2] 

Sometimes, maybe most of the time, that looks like washing the dishes.  Our saintly hero this week, St. Bonaventure, wrote that “the best perfection of a religious man is to do common things in a perfect manner.  A constant fidelity in small things is a great and heroic virtue.”

We might not like the travel arrangements and most of us, myself included, should work on total reliance, but if we listen for the Lord and we are willing to go, God will send us out into the world to do things that are big and complex and small and simple, all great in His sight. 

[1] Mark Giszczak

[2] Adapted from a sermon by Fr. Lane Davenport, 2006

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Pentecost 6

Though they don’t exactly represent the pinnacle of rock and roll music, I’m a big fan of the Offspring.  My fandom began when I heard a line in their 1994 song Come Out and Play that goes “By the time you hear the siren it’s already too late…” 

I thought that was brilliant.  It stuck in my head and I started using versions of it in other contexts.  I’ve told more than one CEO and more than one bishop that “if you have to call a consultant, it’s already too late.” 

We all know that the definition of a consultant is the same as the definition of an expert, as someone who comes from more than fifty miles away to tell you what you already know.  For some reason, no one seems to trust that expertise, wisdom even, can spring forth from the familiar.  Humans seem to distrust the notion that that person they grew up with, who they saw absent-mindedly picking their nose in Social Studies in the fifth grade, has anything much to offer.

As John Kavanaugh wrote, “Expertise is most respected when it comes from a distance. Prophetic gifts as well.  Prophets are best when they are far away and long ago.  Here and now is a different story.”[1]  No one is a hero to his own valet. 

As it is now, it has ever been.  “And on the sabbath Jesus began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this?  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?””  Didn’t I see him fall off a donkey that one time?

Jesus responded with words of wisdom fashioned into a subtle insult.  “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”  He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.”

That throw away line from Mark has caused some confusion over the years.  “He could do no mighty work there” might sound like somehow Jesus was a superhero whose powers had left Him, like Superman in the presence of kryptonite.  That’s not what Mark means.  We have to remember that Jesus didn’t wander around looking for the chance to do mighty works; He wasn’t like Batman crouching on the pinnacle of a skyscraper waiting for the cries of an innocent in distress.  Those that needed mighty works of God’s mercy usually came to Jesus: “They have no wine” or “My daughter is dead” or even the demons, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”  Just last week we heard Jesus tell the woman who had touched His cloak that her faith had healed her.  Wasn’t it the power that had come forth from Jesus that healed her?  Yes, of course, but that power had been sought out, sought out in the belief that Jesus had that power.

And so Jesus marveled at the unbelief of the people of His hometown not just because of what they said, but because of what they didn’t do: they didn’t ask Him for anything; they expected no mighty work so no one asked for a mighty work.

So, when’s the last time you asked for a mighty work?  Do we live knowing that Jesus hears us, is present with us, that He can and will do miracles in our lives?  Do we dare ask Him for miracles in our time?  Or do we saddle Jesus with the soft rejection of low expectations?  Pray that among us Jesus finds a home in which His mighty works can be done. 


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Pentecost 4

Tonight at 11:31pm, it will officially be summer.  That doesn’t mean that summer hasn’t already been officially declared by other means, of course.  My friend Scott, a firefighter buddy of mine from Monmouth Beach, always said that summer officially begins when the first New York or North Jersey person – Bennies, as we called them – when they first park illegally on a side street to walk to the beach.  The Preston and Steve Show on MMR always “officially” kicks off summer on the Friday before Memorial Day with an early morning party called Eggs with Peg at Keenan’s in North Wildwood; that’s where the Shoobies certainly congregated.  In Bordentown, at least amongst the first responders, we say that summer doesn’t officially begin until there’s a water rescue down at the beach, and since we had our first one on Tuesday night, it’s officially summer in Bordentown! (everyone was okay)

As you surely know, the confluence of the Delaware River and Crosswicks and Blacks Creeks makes for fast times at the Bordentown Beach.  Boaters utilizing smaller engines can find themselves revving out and somehow going backwards, and God help, for real, anyone out there in a bad storm or anyone who falls into the water.

It all reminds me of today’s Gospel reading, of course.  “On that day, when evening had come, (Jesus) said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.””  That day was the same day that Jesus had taught the multitudes on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when He taught them in parables like the parable of the Mustard Seed that we heard last week.  The “other side” that Jesus was referring to was in an area called the region of the Gerasenes, and that’s where Jesus cast out the demons in the pigs, and then the pigs all ran off the cliff into the sea.

So it takes about two hours to cross the Sea of Galilee from where Jesus and the disciples were to the region of the Garasenes, but Jesus was understandably tired from teaching all day.  While He was asleep, a brutal squall kicked up, as they so often did, and everyone on the boat was terrified, except for the napping Lord.

Now, first-century Israelites, on a whole, did not much like the sea.  And if you have ever been on the water when it starts to get dark and the wind kicks up and you’re in a boat like the disciples had, you would learn not to like the sea much either.  Because at least some of the disciples were fisherman, most famously Peter, James, and John, we can expect the boat they were in that night to be typical of the fishing boats used at the time: 27-ish feet long, 7 to 8 feet wide, 4ish feet tall.  Some of these boats had up to 4 rowing stations and a single sail, and while perfectly it’s a perfectly seaworthy size and design, it’s not a particularly large boat. 

And still, some of the disciples were practiced sailors, and so this storm must have been something if it got them worried.  They woke up Jesus when they started to take on water, and what does Jesus say to them?  Nothing.  He speaks to the wind and to the sea: “he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!””

Holy moly.  “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”  Well, He through whom all things were made; He who has just a different relationship with the created world than we do.  He who walks on the stormy sea as if on a freshly mown field; He who naps in a hurricane.

The disciples were beginning to understand that they were in a boat with the Son of the Living God, and so it’s not wrong to wonder if, at that point, they were more afraid of Him than they were of the boat sinking in a storm. 

“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked them.  “Have you no faith?”  I’m guessing that the rest of the trip was a bit awkward.  But still, those questions hung in the air both for the disciples and now for us: Why are we afraid?  Have we no faith?

The changes and chances of this life can seem arbitrary and most of them are.  Like the disciples, there are storms both actual and metaphorical that change the course of our lives.  We have been, like the old curse say, living in interesting times.  Like the disciples wondering just how Jesus could be sleeping through a catastrophic storm, we can wonder what Jesus is up to while we weather a pandemic, societal upheaval, times in which our lives have profoundly changed. 

The good news is that just as Jesus was literally in the same boat as those disciples, the Lord is literally with us now.  He is with us in Word and Sacrament, with us by His Holy Spirit, with us in every neighbor who will receive the meal being prepared upstairs.  And though there will be times in which we are afraid, we can trust that our God is the God who calms the storm, who turns to us and says “Peace!  Be still!”  May that peace of the Lord, that calm, that stillness that only He can give, be always with you. 

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Pentecost 3

This past Tuesday I was having a lovely day until Doan found a spider the size of a tennis ball in the herb garden right outside.  Oh!  There it is!  Just kidding.  It could be anywhere.  Our friend Shan identified it as either a wolf spider – which I’m hoping for – or a type of wandering spider, which are, as the interweb told me, “highly defensive and venomous.”  My whole world has been disturbed, taken over, since Doan discovered this terrifying creature, even though it’s (technically) tiny.

Jesus told us this morning that the Kingdom of God is “like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

So the Kingdom of God is like something tiny that can all of sudden become something that takes over, looms large.  Could, perhaps, disturb the status quo.  Because there’s lots of ways to interpret a parable, there have been many ways that the Parable of the Mustard Seed has been interpreted.  The most common is having the mustard seed stand in for the Church, the Church Universal; she started small and in one particular place and then grew huge, huge enough for the birds – the peoples of the earth – to find rest in her.  That’s a fine interpretation, of course, but the Church and the Kingdom of God are not exactly the same thing, and so it’s beneficial to ask further questions of this parable.

And so as the great commentator Eleonore Stump asked, “why wouldn’t the kingdom of God always be the same size?  To see the answer, (we) have to recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t a peculiar kind of country.  God’s kingdom isn’t a place at all.  (Heaven is a place, certainly, but God’s kingdom is bigger than just heaven.  And so the kingdom of God is more like) a condition, the condition of God’s ruling as king.

“But, we might think, even so, God’s kingdom can’t shift sizes.  God’s rule is always the same size: it’s everywhere.  What is ruled by a king is governed by the will of the king.  BUT how much of God’s will does any Christian fulfill?  Everything is subject to the will of God the King, for sure, but not every Christian who counts as being in the kingdom of God fulfills God’s will completely now. 

“So this is the way in which God’s kingdom can change size.  When a Christian does what is against God’s will, to that extent the will of God is not fulfilled in her.  And so, to that same extent, the kingdom of God is small in her too.  On the other hand, the more a Christian fulfills God’s will in her life, the greater the kingdom of God in her is.

“This is one way we can understand Christ’s parable of the mustard seed, then.  When a Christian first opens himself up to receive God as Lord, the Lord rules very little of him.  And so the kingdom of God is like the littlest seed in the ground of his heart.  But if only he lets that seed grow in him, if only he doesn’t give up on himself as fruitless and despair of himself, then that littlest seed of God’s kingdom will grow and grow in him till it becomes like a great tree in him.  (Though we need to remember,) if you have even just a mustard seed’s worth of faith and obedience, you still have the kingdom of God within you.”[1]

What a wonderful gift it is to be a carrier and messenger of the Kingdom of God!  And yet what a responsibility.  We can tell that we are being good ambassadors of the Kingdom if by word and deed we provide “branches where the birds can make nests in the shade;” if by our actions and influence, people can find that in the Kingdom of God, there is rest for their souls and strength for their journeys.   

It can be easy to feel as we, the whole lot of us, are too tiny to make a difference in a Kingdom so large, but Jesus is telling us that in the economy of His Kingdom, what looks to us to be small and insignificant, can grow more than we could possibly imagine.  What will we allow to grow in and through us?


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Pentecost 2

This past week, Doan and I went for lunch at Efes, a favorite little Turkish restaurant in Princeton.  Efes, by the way, is the Turkish way of saying Ephesus, as in Paul’s letters to the Ephesians; the Blessed Virgin Mary is thought to have spent her last days with St. John at his house in Ephesus, which you can visit if you’re ever there.  In 262, the Goths destroyed Ephesus because that’s what Goths did, but parts of the city were rebuilt.  In 431, the Church held the third ecumenical council in Ephesus, and there they confirmed that Blessed Mary could rightly be referred to as the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the Mother of God.  They made that decision in a church called the Church of Mary, so it was meet and right so to do.

So, back to Efes the restaurant.  We ended up sitting next to a rather joyless couple, and it was difficult not to overhear their conversation.  Between complaints, the woman ordered a hamburger, and I thought, “Blasphemy!  One orders lamb and falafel in a Turkish restaurant!”  A little while later, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” came on the radio, and the man remarked, upon hearing the song and seeing me bopping away in my seat, that he never liked Madonna.  Blasphemy!  Cyndi Lauper fans will not hear such blasphemy!  (And Madonna’s pretty great too)

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

That one line of Jesus’ from the Gospel according to Mark has caused a lot of heartburn over the years.  What is the unforgivable sin? has to be in the top ten most-asked questions of my priesthood, and this type of question isn’t even in the Episcopal wheelhouse.

I remember back in the late 70’s and 80’s the issue of the unpardonable sin was big amongst the Jesus Movement people, not just because they hadn’t checked what the Church Father’s had said about it, but because of their emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  Had they, or someone they knew, committed the unpardonable sin, blaspheming the Holy Spirit?

First, it’s helpful to know what blasphemy is.  Blasphemy is the act of cursing God, or of assuming to yourself the rights or attributes of God.  Claiming to be God, or the more usual claim of being the second coming of Jesus, is blasphemy.  The Ku Klux Klan burning a cross is blasphemy, as it takes Christ’s means of granting us eternal life and turns it into an instrument of intimidation and terror, a symbol of death itself.

Jesus was accused of blasphemy because He said He was God; we would come to find out that He was not a blasphemer but rather God Himself.  For us, blaspheming the Holy Spirit would amount to a rejection of our baptism, but not just a rejection, but a constant, continual, purposeful, and mindful rejection of our baptism.  It would mean shutting off our conscience, not listening for or to God in any way, and rejecting Christ in all things, and willfully teaching and leading others to do the same.  It’s actually kind of hard to do that, if not almost impossible, for the baptized.  

So it seems that we need not be concerned much about committing the unforgivable sin, but rather with the little ways we blaspheme daily.  The times we call light darkness and darkness light; the times our consciences are telling us one thing and yet we do another; the times we take what rightfully belongs to God and use them for our own purposes; the times we make ourselves God. 

The best way to do that is not so much to worry constantly about falling into sin, but to consistently strive to be involved with the good, always remembering that it is not for us to work our way up to heaven, but rather simply to live into our baptism, accepting the Holy Spirit when He calls.

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