Naming Truth: A Sermon on Being Set Free & The Armenian Genocide

Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director, Massachusetts Council of Churches

Ecumenical Armenian Vespers at Trinity Church in Boston

Thursday April 23, 2014, 7:30pm

Mark 5: 1-20

She spoke truth. With the clipped diction of a Boston Protestant from a certain social strata, the 75-year-old suffragette and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe climbs the stairs to the podium at Faneuil Hall. Just over a mile from here, on November 26, 1894, the Boston Armenian Relief Committee gathered. Julia, the same woman who finds the words to write the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and writes provocative essays asking “Is Polite Society Polite?”- that very same Julia- struggles to find words to name the emerging horror.

“I could not stay away from this meeting. My heart was here, and I came, not so much to speak, as to hear what is to be done about this dreadful trouble. For something must be done. I have to pray God night and morning that He would find some way to stay this terrible tide of slaughter….”

Let us pray… Holy God, give us the word that we need to hear this night. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, Oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

To be set free from that which binds us, we must speak truth. To heal, we must name things for what they are. Tonight, in this church, we cannot but speak truth.

Everett in pulpit Trinity CopleyJesus knows that to be released from our torment, we must call a thing what it is. As his ministry of healing expands in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples travel across the River Jordan to country of the Gerasenes. There, among the tombs in the graveyard, removed from the land of the living, is a man tormented, possessed. Mark takes pains to describe a tortured man, pitiful to look upon: his wrists bruised and raw where the chains have held him; his shoulder bones pointed under the taunt tent of his skin; his eyes wide to look upon someone, anyone who might be able to heal him, to free him.

In polite society, it is awkward to speak seriously about one overtaken by an evil spirit, the stuff more often of horror films and novels. Our ancient forbearers in Jesus’s time lived with a strong belief in unclean spirits, evil powers that can overwhelm and overtake a person. We know how evil can burrow in and take hold of a person, a people, a nation. We know of evil so entrenched that we cannot free ourselves.

The possessed man shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”(Mark 5: 7). Jesus, looking upon this tormented man, demands, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit.” Nothing. Silence. There is a pause, a break in the action.  The man is not released, the torment remains.

How is it that Jesus, Son of the Most High God cannot remove this unclean spirit? Then Jesus asks, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’

To be free from that which binds us, we must name a thing for what it is. The Geresene man cannot be free until the unclean spirit is identified, named, known for what it is.

To be freed from torment, to be released from evil and received back into the community of the living, we must call a thing by its name, An illness cannot be treated until it is known; a sin cannot be forgiven unless it is confessed; an evil spirit will not be released until it is named. So we name the evil that has possessed us, and we demand that all others do the same. We will not mince words. We will not keep polite society by whispering instead “Meds Yeghern.” We will not use euphemisms to speak of “the Armenian Question” as if there’s something left unanswered. We will name the evil that has overtaken this body, the body of Christ. We will name this evil for what it is: genocide.

Because, nothing, nothing short of this naming will suffice. Nothing short of this truth can free us.

Speaking the truth is not simply a political necessity, though our government needs to speak the truth of the Armenian Genocide. Speaking the truth is an historical necessity, a moral necessity, a spiritual necessity. His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians writes, “our souls resound with a powerful call for justice and truth that will not be silenced.” The Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar wrote, “The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land. Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it.” Like the Geresene man tormented by the unclean spirit, our world will be haunted as long as we fail to name and reckon with this great evil. What we do not name, we risk repeating.

We gather tonight to speak truth, to name things for what they are, perhaps even to be freed from that which has tormented us.

My dear Armenian sisters and brothers: You have been carrying this truth alone for too long. The burden is been heavy. Your backs are bent and weary. Your soul’s weighed down.

Tonight, the wider Church embraces you. Tonight we draw near, side by side with you and help to shoulder the load. For this is our burden to bear as well yours. The Armenian Genocide was not simply a crime against Armenians. It was, it remains a crime against humanity.

Do you remember the protests, a hundred thousands in Istanbul’s streets after the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated? The people carried signs saying, “We are all Armenians.” “We are all Armenians.” Image via The New Yorker

Tonight, we are all Armenians. This night and from now on, we all assume the burden to carry with you this history, this memory, this genocide, this story of resurrection, this truth.

Like Julia Ward Howe we come “not so much to speak, as to hear.” As the wider Church embraces you and your newly sainted martyrs, we vow to listen as you speak the truth. You need not remember these martyrs alone. We will stumble in our speech, wrapping our clumsy tongues around unfamiliar names, but you will teach us. And our God, who desires unity among us, desires truth between us, will be pleased.

Over the last century, too many names have been lost. Too many names changed in desperate hope that a less Armenian sounding name might protect against unspeakable crimes. Too many names of murdered men never carved into a gravestone. Too many names lost somewhere in the parched desert sand as desperate mothers try in vain to call out the names of dying daughters.

Too many names known to God alone.

But tonight, this night, the ancestors you prayed for are now the saints we pray to. We name them truth. We name them not just your grandmother or your great uncle, but now we name them martyrs and saints. And we speak their names together.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 2.29.12 PMEye-sohrr, tzer nahadagneruh guhlan soorpper, mer poloreen hamarr.

(Today, your martyrs become saints, for all of us)


Terror and Amazement: An Easter Vigil Sermon

Terror and Amazement: An Easter Vigil Sermon

Saturday April 4, 2015, St. Andrew’s Longmeadow

Ecumenical Easter Vigil

Mark 16:1-8

“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”

So began an anonymous ancient Easter Vigil homily– words preached every year on this night for generations and generations, and to you, ye watchers and ye holy ones. That ancient preacher continues, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Let us pray…

West Bank tomb

In my house, death and duty taste like cheese quiche. Maybe in your house, death and duty tastes like lasagna or deviled eggs, collard greens or Jello mold, but in my family, death and duty has the distinctive taste of eggs and Swiss cheese, with the smell of just a little bit of spice: mustard powder and dill. At the news of a death, my mother would bake a quiche, since there were always eggs and a pre-made Pillsbury piecrust in the fridge. There was always a yellow tin can of Colman’s mustard and always a plastic jar with a red lid of dried dill that was probably purchased in 1986. I need no recipe. We knew what to do when someone died.

Maybe this routine for death was familiar with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome too. Go to the store, and go get your supplies that now have the distinctive association of smelling like death, meet up on the corner in-between all your homes, and walk to the graveyard together. The Greek word used for “spices” in Mark’s gospel is αρωματα, (aromata) and since the Jewish people didn’t embalm their bodies, the spices or aromatics, were simply an act of love to cover the smell of a body starting to decompose. After all those quiches, mustard powder and dill will always smell like death to me. Duty and routine provide some stability when our worlds are turned upside-down by death.

But this death, the death we look for this night, despite all the warnings that it was coming, was not routine.

Whether you came tonight out of a sense of duty or seeking something more, we all gather this night to look into the tomb together. Not alone, but like the women, together. The Easter Vigil harkens back to our Jewish roots, as the next day starts at sunset the night before. Like generations who gathered before us, our Easter Vigil happens at night, because at the earliest possible moment, we gather not in isolation but to look into the tomb, together.

The soldiers are gone. The stone is gone. The women look into the tomb, and the body is gone. Nothing is where it should be.

Mark is the Gospel for our doubts, the story for those of us who look at the empty tomb not with joys and halleluiahs but with terror and amazement. We are not assured of Jesus’s resurrection with the smiling Messiah waving outside the tomb. We are not treated to a Hollywood ending, reuniting the scared and scattered disciples with the Good Shepherd. No, (in the words of Matthew Skinner) “Mark’s not interested in proving that Jesus rose. Mark puts readers smack in the middle of an existential crisis: a faith crisis.” Can you believe in what is not there?

Instead of finding a body in the tomb, an unknown man stands aside. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

The women run, their dresses getting caught between their legs. Their myrrh and nard, mustard powder and dill, are tossed, forgotten and scattered along side of the road.

“Terror and amazement had seized them.” It’s the combination of these two emotions- terror and amazement, or in Greek “τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις”/ tromos kai ekstasis. Trembling and ecstasy, terror and amazement. Sometimes it causes us to tremble, tremble. In the Gospel of Matthew, Easter morning is marked with an earthquake. In Mark, the tremors are internal to the women.

But of course they are seized with terror and amazement! Every death interrupts our routines, but this, this was even bigger. Anna Carter Florence says, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” The dependable duty of death is disrupted at Christ’s tomb. Death does not end the story. The dead don’t stay dead. The consequences of an empty tomb are too much to imagine and so the women flee in terror and amazement.

"I'm going, going,  back back to Galilee, Galilee"

“I’m going, going, back back to Galilee, Galilee”

But even as they flee back home, the risen Christ has gone on ahead of us. On this first day, this new day of Creation, the young man tells them, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” To Galilee- not to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, not back to his hometown of Nazareth, not to the desert to be alone, but back to Galilee- the site of the every day, the healing, the feeding, the teaching.

At his birth, John the Baptist was the fore-runner to Jesus. Today, at his Resurrection, Jesus Christ is the fore-runner to our lives. The Good News of Easter isn’t just the resurrected Christ, but Christ going ahead. We who sang “Prepare the way of the Lord” in Advent, are now having the way prepared for us, a path to freedom and life abundant.

He goes ahead of us. The Risen Christ goes ahead of us into Monday. Into our everyday. Into the classroom, into the office, into the courtroom, into the hospital, into the nursing home. Into the traffic jam, into the hard conversation, into the waiting room, into your home. We look into the tomb to find “he is not here.” He is already going ahead of us to Galilee, to Longmeadow, to Chicopee, to Springfield, to Agawam. He is already going ahead of us to Tehran, to Nairobi, to Cairo, to Aleppo. He has endured rejection and suffering, death and the grave, and so knows the path we are to travel. We do not go alone.

Our security isn’t in one who stays nicely and dependably put in the tomb, but in the One who goes ahead of us, who clears a way where there is no way. This is the test of faith tonight: Can you look into the empty tomb and trust that Jesus has gone ahead of you into your life? Can you believe, even for a moment, that all the stories of God’s provision include even you? Can you trust that the God who delivers the Israelites from slavery also delivers you from whatever keeps you bound? Can you try on the idea that our God goes ahead of us to Galilee? If that small, orange ember still glows among the coals, can you let the Spirit blow through you this night to kindle a new fire? If the smell of death has clung to your nostrils, can you leave your spices by the side of the road and follow the one who himself knew our suffering and death?

The promise of Easter is this- Christ is going ahead of you. We do not walk this way alone.

And it does not even matter when you get on the road. There’s another ancient Easter Vigil sermon from the 4th century, written in the voice of St. Chrysostom:

If any have toiled from the first hour,

let them receive their reward.


If any have come after the third hour,

let them with gratitude join in the feast!


Those who arrived after the sixth hour,

let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed.


Those who have tarried until the ninth hour,

let them not hesitate; but let them come too.


And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,

let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.


For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,

even as to those who toiled from the beginning…


Let no one lament persistent failings,

for forgiveness has risen from the grave. 


Let no one fear death,

for the death of our Saviour has set us free…


Christ is risen, and life is set free!

Fight and Flight: A Sermon for Good Friday

Ecumenical Good Friday Service, April 3, 2015. Hosted by the Northbridge Clergy Association, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Whitinsville MA.

The Betrayal, Arrest & Crucifixion of Jesus: John 18:1- 19:42

Sung: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (Were you there?)

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

~ Old Plantation Hymns’ 1899

Let us pray…

Tremble. It causes us to tremble, to look on that much suffering. It causes us to tremble, to watch an innocent person be tortured and die. We cover our faces. We cast down our eyes. Today, this Good Friday, we take the slow, long look at the suffering of Jesus.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Peter was there, for a bit. But then he wasn’t. He wasn’t there when they crucified Jesus, wasn’t there when they nailed him to the cross, wasn’t there when they pierced him in the side, and wasn’t there when they laid him in the tomb. Gone.

You know this Simon Peter. We’ve seen him all through the Gospel of John. He was there at the very beginning, joining the disciples with his brother Andrew (1:41-42). When the teachings of Jesus got hard, and others turned away, Simon Peter stayed and confessed Jesus as “the Holy One of God”(6:68). Peter, who at the Last Supper asks not just for his feet to be washed, but his whole body (13: 9). Peter has been with Jesus all along. Through the wandering, the healing, the teaching, Peter was with him the entire time.

But here, in the garden, it all becomes too much. The pleasant road for the disciples of healing the sick and feeding the hungry dead ends into a standoff with the authorities. Good Friday is not for the faith of heart. It asks of us more than a fondness for a moral exemplar, healing servant, wise man. It asks, will you go with me to the court, the cross, the tomb? Good Friday asks more questions than it answers. Good Friday asks “Were you there?”

Here, in the Garden, Peter fights. The Roman soldiers, and the chief priests come to

"Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?"

“Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?”

arrest Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus freely admits, “I am he” and asks to let the other men go. But Peter takes out his sword to fight the arrest and cuts off the ear of chief priest’s slave. But Jesus wants no fight; “Put your sword back in its sheath.”

Then, in the courtyard, Peter flees. Around a charcoal fire in the courtyard, they warm themselves, while the high priests interrogate Jesus inside. Three times, he is asked, “you are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Three times, Peter denies, “I am not.” And then he is gone. Not at the trial, not at the cross. Peter flees as his teacher and savior is tortured and crucified.

Peter’s not the explicit betrayer, the easy villain like Judas. Peter’s not the patsy politico who has power to end this torture but refuses to use it like Pilate. Peter’s not even the religious hypocrites like the chief priests getting in bed with the Roman police to protect themselves. No, Peter is utterly, simply human.

And in Simon Peter, we see two utterly human responses- fight and flight. In 1915 not far from here in Cambridge MA, Walter Bradford Cannon, the chair of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, coined the term “fight or flight.” In Dr. Cannon theory of “Fight or flight,” animals have a physiological reaction to an attack or a threat of survival, and because of secretion of certain chemicals, the body is then ready to either fight back the attack or flee. An “acute stress response” Fight or flight.

You know this fight and flight. You know this tendency in your own life. When someone insults you, you know the impulse to insult them back. When someone betrays you, you’ve felt the temptation to hurt them back. Or maybe you’ve felt that urge to flee, to flee the conference room when the divorce proceedings are too much, to flee to the other side of the street rather than look in the eyes the fellow human asking for loose change, to flee the hospital room when the suffering is to great, to flee the people who love you for the solitary company of a bottle when you cannot tell the horrors you have seen.

Maybe this is what makes Good Friday, “good.” Good in the sense that here we have a place to lay down our brokenness in the arms of our God. Today is our day designated for our deepest grief, our most entrenched hopelessness, our most intractable sorrow. Good Friday is where we place all of the broken relationships, broken bodies, broken world at the foot of the cross and weep. And maybe, just a little bit at first, we entrust this brokenness to our crucified God, who knew brokenness and rejection too.

The Gospel gives us an alternate example of what can be done in the face of fear and suffering. Not fight. Not flight. But abide. Abide with me. Stay with me. Remain with me. In Jesus of Nazareth, pinned to a cross, we see Our God so committed to be in solidarity with all who suffer as to endure the shame and humiliation of the cross. If our God would endure all that, surely our God will stay with us through the night of our darkest fear so that when we cry out “Were you there, Lord?” Jesus responds, “I am.”

The names of the author and composer of the hymn “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” are lost to history. The hymn was likely composed by enslaved Africans in the American South, a people who regularly saw their sons, their mothers, their grandfathers, scourged, tortured, and killed. Fighting back meant death. Fleeing near certainly meant death. And yet, for so many enslaved Africans in the Americas, there remained a bedrock conviction that the Son of God who was nailed to a tree, abided with them through their enslavement, their torture, and even their lynching. “Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?” And yet a faith so deep as to still believe that God abides.

Today in our prayer, we pray “that all who believe in him
might be delivered from the power of sin and death, and
become heirs with him of everlasting life.” So if there’s a small orange ember left in that charcoal fire in your heart that wants to believe, but isn’t quite sure- let the spirit blow through you this night and kindle it anew. Look upon the cross and try on the conviction that death does not have the final say. Look upon the cross this day and know the depths of God’s commitment to never leave you or forsake you, no matter how great the suffering. Look up the cross and believe, maybe just for a moment, the promise of our Christ- not that we will never suffer in this weary, broken world, but that we will never suffer alone. Amen.

Memorial For Marcia Deihl & Dedication of a Ghost Bike

Memorial for Marcia Deihl & Dedication of a Ghost Bike

Sunday March 22, 2015 4pm, corner of Putnam Ave & Allston Street, Cambridge MA

Rev. Laura E. Everett

A note: I’ve officiated funerals, but I’ve never presided at a memorial and dedication of a Ghost Bike before. I am grateful to be entrusted with such holy work, as a pastor & as a cyclist. Many of Marcia’s long time friends gathered around. Many cyclists, many who never met Marcia, gathered around too- maybe for the same reason I did: the sharp awareness that we ride these streets just like Marcia did. 

In urban cycling, there is a term called “taking the lane,” which means moving from the edge of the road and into the center lane. Taking the lane means taking your rightful space, maybe even moving to a space that’s safer. In the testimonials from Marcia’s friends today, we heard about a woman who took the lane for herself, and made space for others.  I wish I had met Marcia in person. I grieve her death.

(Grief resources available here and here. Reach out, you do not grieve alone.) 

Gathering & Welcome

History of Ghost Bikes: Cyclist & Advocate Jessica Mink shared a brief history of Ghost Bikes, the white bicycle memorials created for fallen cyclists placed at the location of their death. Jessica also invited Marcia’s friends to advocate for safer roads and such actions as guards on trucks, through organizations like Boston Cyclists Union, Livable Streets, Mass Bike, and Cambridge Bikes.

Invitation to Marcia’s Funeral: Rev. Betsy Sowers of Old Cambridge Baptist Church invited everyone to attend Marcia’s funeral on Saturday April 25, 2pm, 1151 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge.

Song: “Meditation on Breathing” by Sarah Dan Jones  Breathe in, breathe out. // When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.

Song: Union Maid by Woody Guthrie Marcia was a founding member of the Harmony Sisterhood Band. Some of Marcia’s friends led us in the singing of “Union Maid” 

Memories of Marcia: Many from Marcia’s web of relationships spoke: friends, fellow singers, neighbors, fellow letter writers, women with Marcia who founded the bisexual community in Boston, co-workers from Harvard libraries, and members of Old Cambridge Baptist Church where Marcia sang in the choir.

Dedication of the Ghost Bike:

Let us pray:

Holy One, we call you by many names: Creator, God of our Ancestors, Allah, Adonai, The Human One who came from Nazareth, Higher Power, the Love that never ends, the Wind that is always at our back:

Many roads brought us safely here, to this small square of earth. We stand and ride on holy ground. We gather in grief to remember a life well lived, and a song beautifully sung. We praise you for the life of Marcia and for the time she spent among us. We give thanks for the fierce beauty of her life and the depths of her commitment to make this world a little kinder, a little more just.

When we chose to take a bike instead of a car,

When we chose to speak up instead of staying silent,

When we chose advocacy instead of complacency,

When we chose to plant flowers instead of cursing the pavement,

When we chose singing instead of yelling,

remind us, Holy One, of Marcia.

Let us hold moment of silence for all who have died in Greater Boston while riding, remembering:

Eoin McGrory

Christopher Weigl

Doan Bui

Tanya Connolly

Alex Monetsignos

Eric Hunt

Moe Zeidan

and Marcia

Comfort all who mourn this day.

We who continue to ride these roads confess that some days we ride scared, some days we ride angry. Here, on this holy ground, we pray and recommit ourselves to work for a day when all people will be safe on these streets.

Friends, reach out your hands to bless. Today, on this holy ground, we dedicate and bless this ghost bike. May all who look upon it be reminded of the awesome responsibility of driving cars and trucks. May this ghost bike be a sign and a signal. Bless this memorial to Marcia. And bless us too.

God, bless our bikes. Pour out your protection on our helmets. Take our handlebars and steer us ever true. Bless our wheels that move upon your good Creation. Anoint our brakes that we may know our limits. Fix our seat that whenever we roam, we might always return safely. Send down your Spirit with a blessing upon these bikes, that fortified by the might of your heavenly protection, these bikes may be help and aid unto all who make use of them. May our wheels rise. We send up glory, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages.

Many roads brought us safely here, to this small square of earth. Now we ask you to guide us safely home. Holy One, guide our wheels and guard our coming and going.

We give thanks for the life of Marcia, a woman of deep conviction and public witness. Today, in her honor, we ring out our bells of freedom, we sing out our song about love between our brothers and our sisters, all over this land.

Cyclists and friends, will you ring your bell and say Amen?

Song: This Little Light of Mine  Since the wind was too strong, instead of lighting candles, we sang. People took their candles home to light them in honor of Marcia. Many are posting photos of their lit candles in the Facebook event for this memorial here:


Go forth into the world in peace;
be of good courage;
hold fast that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honor everyone.

Let your light shine.

Amen. (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:13-22)

You Do You: A Sermon on Christian Jealousy

Preached Sunday March 8, 2015 at the First Congregational Church of Dudley, MA on behalf of an Ecumenical Lenten Service for the Dudley, Webster & Oxford clergy association.

Mark 9: 38-41

Space Saver

Space Saver

Sometimes jealousy creeps up on you. Yesterday, I went into our local coffee shop in Boston- the kind of place full of young families and urban empty-nesters that any local church pastor would give her right arm to have in the pews on a Sunday. There, near the soy milk and the raw sugar, a post-card caught my eye. Beautifully designed with an image of the very building I was standing in, the postcard said “A New Church in the Neighborhood You Love.” And now the confession: I did not think to myself, “Oh good, a new church in the neighborhood! This is wonderful, since so many people here don’t go to church!” No, I thought, “Shoot, this postcard looks good and is well placed. My church needs to put our postcards here too.” But Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Let us pray…

Oh John. St John here says what we all sometimes think, and for this, I am deeply grateful to the Gospel writer Mark. If you want to make like Baptists and actually open your pew bibles to read along with me, look back in Mark 9 on page_____. From Mark 9:14-31, we get an complicated story about the disciples trying, and then failing to heal a child tormented by an unclean spirit. Shortly after this, we get our passage beginning at verse 38.

Somewhere in Capernaum, the disciples and Jesus sit down for a chat. And, John, dear John says to Jesus in verse 38, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It’s appropriate that John calls Jesus “Teacher,” because this sounds most like one student ratting out another one for doing unauthorized good!

Lent is a time to get honest about our lives. Lent is set time to examine what in our lives has become unmanageable and overgrown, and prune it back. Lent is when we take the time to examine whether our assumptions about ourselves hold up in the light of the Gospel. And so here, together in Lent, it is appropriate to talk about Christian jealousy. Here, in Lent, it is safe to name that nasty, sneaky, niggling little tendency we have to compare ourselves to one another and plaintively cry, “Jesus, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

There in verse 38, John gives voice to all our Christian anxiety and jealousy. John says what we were all thinking. John says aloud, hey! Someone else is taking all the credit! Someone unauthorized! Someone from another denomination! Someone we don’t know!

In Boston, our anxiety and jealousy has shown up in the form of old lawn chairs and garbage bins. Maybe this is not as much a problem outside the cities where you have more space, but in Boston, this winter has brought out our worst anxiety and jealousy. We simply have too few shoveled parking spaces for the number of cars. It’s an adult game of musical chairs, but nobody is having any fun, and the last driver is left trolling the block to find a spot to park their car for the night. Last week as I was walking home from the T stop through my neighborhood where the snowbanks still rise above the roofs of cars, I saw a note on a car with out-of-state places. The note read, “You didn’t shovel this.” In our very real anxiety about the lack of parking, we’ve taken to using “space-savers,” old chairs and garbage pails to mark our turf. Mine. Mine, Mine, Mine. Except it’s all a public street. And there’s plenty of space if we all shovel out not just our own spot but our neighbor’s too. Can’t you hear John saying, “Teacher, I shoveled it out, but someone else is parked in my spot!”photo-4

It’s no coincidence that shortly before St. John speaks to Jesus about who is in and who is out, the disciples are struggling. Look back to Mark 9:14- the disciples tried to heal a child with a demon and couldn’t do so. And what’s John worried about? Other people casting out demons! When we get anxious, we get small. When we feel like there isn’t enough to go around, we get concerned that someone else might have gotten more. If you grew up in a family where there wasn’t enough food, you know this anxiety. If you live with the sense that there’s not enough money, you know this anxiety. We get anxious and then we get small.

Our churches get anxious and then they get jealous. We don’t talk about it much, but I hear it. It creeps in. We get anxious because we see our numbers decline and think we are the only ones. We get anxious when another church is in the news and we aren’t. We get anxious because what used to work ten years ago doesn’t work any longer. We get anxious as the cultural privilege once afforded to the Church is crowded out in an increasingly secular world, as hockey practices competes with Confirmation Class. Upon hearing that the church next door has hired a really good preacher who might just draw new parishioners, no pastor has thought to himself “Oh that’s great news!” With a mindset of scarcity, we get anxious, and then we get jealous. We look longingly at the new furnace in someone else’s basement. We secretly count the number of cars in the parking lot at that other parish as we drive by. We see that other church’s growing youth group, and feel badly about our own. We look at the slick new postcards advertising another church in our local coffee shop and think, “Shoot. I should be putting my church’s advertisements here too.”

The strange reality of the Church in Massachusetts is this: we are all marginal now. Massachusetts is the 5th least religious state in the nation. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, only 28% of MA residents attend any religious service at least once a week. That leaves 72% of our neighbors not attending any of our churches. The competition isn’t the church down the street! It is not a zero-sum game, where if the Episcopalians increase then the Congregationalists must decrease. You can almost hear John complaining, “Someone else is liberating the people! Someone we don’t know is relieving their suffering! Someone unfamiliar is participating in the reign of God and they are not from our denomination!”

In the disciples’ quest for exclusivity, they betray their real concern: not did whether or not someone was healed, but who got credit. Notice that the disciples want to curtail someone outside their tradition doing good!

The disciples are looking to bring judgment on this outsider not for what he or she has done, but with whom they are affiliated. Jesus says, “Do not stop him,” or in a more modern interpretation, Jesus says “you do you.” Worry about your self. Focus on your own behavior & heart. Don’t worry about them, because anyone doing good in my name is with us: an alternative version of Christian unity.

John is concerned about who gets credit; Jesus is concerned about who gets healed. To John’s question about unauthorized ministry not from “our” people, Jesus responds in verse 40, “whoever is not against us is for us.” It’s wildly inclusive- as long as you’re not against us, you’re with us. Everyone on the same team! Jesus takes the maximally inclusive stance. But we are more familiar with the opposite. We think, “whoever is not for us is against us.” Just two days after 9/11, then Senator Hilary Clinton said, “Every nation has to either be with us, or against us. Those who harbor terrorists, or who finance them, are going to pay a price.” And lest you think I’m just picking on Democrats, seven days after Senator Clinton said so, then President George W. Bush declared to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Our inclination is to divide the world into us and them, black and white, those who are with us and those who are outside our tradition. But Jesus, sweet Jesus who upsets all our divisions and draws the circle even wider, proclaims, “whoever is not against us is for us.”

On the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Birmingham, President Obama said, “Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” Maybe part of our Lenten discipline is to reclaim a sense of unity, a sense that we are in this together- to resist dividing the world into those who are with us and those who are against us, Democrats and Republicans, Protestant and Catholic, male and female, gay and straight, slave and free. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much as to who gets credit but that all get made whole.

We serve a God of abundance. It can be so hard to remember this especially when the snow rises higher and the resources seem fewer, but we serve a God who is bigger and wider than anything we can imagine. We serve a God who promises not just life, but life abundant. St Paul says to the church in Rome, he says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Church, I say to you, do not be conformed to this world that would divide us into winners and losers. Take this Lent to renew your mind, to recall the promises of God. Recall again the promises of God in 1Peter “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” May we proclaim so together today. Amen.

The other Good Samaritan

The other Good Samaritan: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2015

Friday January 24, 2015 Assumption College, Worcester

Sunday January 25, 2015 Union Baptist Church, New Bedford

 John 4: 1-42

Icon of St Photini

Icon of St Photini

It happens now every time I see him. I have a wonderful, kind, and wise colleague. We don’t see one another often, but every time I see him, he seems happy to see me. He opens his arms, and says “Laur….en, how good to be with you again!” Which is lovely, and kind and welcoming. But my name is not Lauren. It’s Laura, not Lauren. Every time. Every time he sees me, he calls me “Lauren.” It’s been going on for a few years now, and I confess I haven’t had the heart to correct him. And the longer it’s gone on, the harder it is for me to say, “that’s not my name.”

Sung:  Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

(Verse 1: the Summons by John Bell)

Let us pray… Holy one who calls each of us by name, stir our hearts again this day. My Lord, I am bold to stand before your people and proclaim a holy word, so send your Spirit among us to give us the Word we need for the road ahead. I claim you as my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, reverend clergy, I bring you blessings and greetings from the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a network of seventeen Orthodox and Protestant denominations, congregations and individual Christians from across Massachusetts convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than anything that might divide us. I also come to you to prove that someone from Boston can find her way to Worcester/ New Bedford ! Our divisions in the church are not just denominational, but sometimes geographic! Our divisions are not just geographic or denominational, but racial too. There are whole denominations that exist because white Christians refused to worship with black Christians. In Boston, at the old African Meeting House, the freed black parishioners were only allowed to worship in the balcony. A black family tried to do what every other white parishioner had done and purchase a pew for their family. They found a pew in the balcony. Paid for their pew in the balcony. They came back the next Sunday and all the pews were gone from the balcony. For as many times as the Church has gathered as one, we have found ways to separate ourselves- separate men from women, separate white Christians from black Christians, separate Protestants from Roman Catholics, separate ourselves from God. It is good to be together in worship, a foretaste of the unity Christ promises his Church.

As good as it is to be here tonight, I confess that I wasn’t thrilled about the scripture passage this year for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (or the welcome letter from the WPCU team- written by four men). We finally get a Gospel story that focuses on the life and struggles of a woman as a follower of Christ and she goes totally unnamed, so unconcerned were our ancient forbearers in remembering her identity! The Gospel of John gives us this major, countercultural exchange that shouldn’t really happen between a Jew and a Samaritan, a man and a woman, a healing, wandering rabbi and a woman who must trudge up hill to just gather water for her home– and no one could bother to remember a sister’s name? And I confess, that this story from St John troubles me because of the way the Christian tradition has most often characterized this woman as a prostitute. If you want to be very Baptist, I’ll invite you to open up your Bibles with me for a close read of the text- so you can see that in verses 17-18 when Jesus asks her about her former husbands, we could see that there’s nothing in the text of the passage that points to her as a prostitute. We could see that Jesus does not say a word about repenting or speaking of sexual sin. As New Testament scholar and President of Lutheran Theological Seminar in Philadelphia, Rev. Dr. David Lose writes, “She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.” We know that heartbreak can be that big, that often, that heartbreakingly sad. Or she could have been in a Leverite marriage, an ancient practice where “where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir, yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife.” Dr. Lose again writes, “There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.” But for centuries the Western Church has left her unnamed and besmirched as a prostitute.

And yet, look at the end of the passage, vs 39-42. Because of this woman’s powerful testimony, many people came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. She is most like John the Baptist, pointing towards the one who would break every barrier and re-connect a splintered people back to God. And no one could remember her name? For a very long time, the Church has thought of this unnamed, widowed woman who proclaims Jesus as the Messiah as scandalous and forgettable rather than tragic, prophetic, and bold.

And yet, as a Christian from the Reformed side of the family, I carry that strong sense that even when we struggle, or perhaps especially when we struggle with Scripture, God has something new to teach us.

When we think of Samaritans, most of us think of the Good Samaritan, the story along the Jericho road in the Gospel of Luke. That Samaritan goes unnamed, but he was deemed “Good.” And even in pop culture, the Good Samaritan is a story most people know and hold up as a model for ethical relationships and the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” In Luke10, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stops along a dangerous road to care for a wounded stranger. The Good Samaritan brings him to an inn and leaves some money for the innkeeper to care for him. Christian tradition often makes a helpful distinction between acts of charity and acts of justice- charity is bandaging the wounds of the stranger, justice is challenging and working to change a broken system where so many people are getting hurt on the Jericho Road. When preaching on the Good Samaritan and the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York in 1967 Martin Luther King said,

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

The temptation of the Good Samaritan parable is to just give our money and let someone else do the messy work of being in relationship with the stranger, or those other people from whom we’ve been separated.

But this story, our story, in the Gospel of John today of the Samaritan woman asks more of us than just outsourcing our compassion and flinging a coin to a stranger. The scandalous, challenging good news of the Samaritan Woman at the well is this: God doesn’t just ask for our charity towards the stranger, God wants our intimacy as well. Jesus doesn’t just asked to be relieved of his thirst, but wants to know this woman’s life and struggles, to see and be seen, to know and be known. This woman at the well, this woman engaged in a back and forth with Jesus, and her preaching and witness to her village, she is our other Good Samaritan!

I take great comfort in the fact that we are already one in Christ. Despite centuries of division, denominational malaise and sometimes, active hostility towards one another, we who bear the name of Christ are all baptized into the same body. Like it or not, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. There is nothing you or I can do to change this. This is good news. The Church of Jesus Christ is one, already.

Now, we can fail to receive one another’s gifts. We can pretend like the other doesn’t exist, like the priest and the Levite who pass the wounded stranger on the Jericho road. We can treat our particularities as idols, and think our differences are more important than our commonalities. We can forget one another’s names. We can fail to live up to the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. We can refuse one another’s gifts. But for all who bear the name of Christ, we are already one. In my frustration over the western Church’s tradition of shaming and then forgetting our other Good Samaritan, I discovered a gift of our Orthodox sisters and brothers- they remembered and named our Good Samaritan woman, Photini.

The Antiochian tradition remembers St. Photini like this “She went and told her townspeople that she had met the Christ. For this, she is sometimes recognized as the first to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. She converted her five sisters (Sts. Anatole, Photo, Photis, Paraskeve, and Kyriake) and her two sons (Victor and Joses). They all became tireless evangelists for Christ. The apostles of Christ baptized her and gave her the name of Photini which means “the enlightened one.” She is remembered by the Church as a Holy Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.”

And for our Greek Orthodox brethren on St. Photine’s feast day on February 26 & following Pascha, they sing “The Samaritan Woman, having come to the well in faith, beheld You, the Water of Wisdom from which she drank plentifully and inherited the Heavenly Kingdom as one who is blessed forever.”

Church, I am so grateful for these Christians who remember and call out the name of Photine, because, to be intimately known requires that we know one another’s names. To be known to one another as Christ knows us requires that we actually know one another, on a first-name basis.

Maybe your name has been forgotten. Maybe someone forgot your family’s name at Ellis Island. Maybe your family name slipped into the sea somewhere in the Middle Passage or your name was changed without your consent on these shores. Maybe people perceive your name as hard to pronounce, like the Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and so people give you a nickname like H-man, since while we can learn a Russian name like Tchaikovsky but not a Polynesian name like Hoomanawanui? Maybe someone forgot your name as you walked down the street, as they shouted “Girl, why don’t you bring all that over here?” Maybe someone forgot your God-given name as someone shouts “Hey, Hey, Hey you?” Maybe you’ve been called so many other things than a beloved child of God that you have forgotten your own name too?

We need one another to remind us when we have forgotten our names.

Recently, I confessed to an older pastor that I had this colleague who gets my name wrong. She suggested that the next time I see him, after he calls me “Lauren,” that I gently put a hand on his arm and say, “Tom, my closest friends call me Laura.” I promise you that the next time I see Tom, I will tell him my name, so that he can truly know me and we can truly start to repair the divisions in the body of Christ between us. And Church, when you pass the peace, consider this: Tell that other person your name. Say “My name is Laura. The peace of Christ be with you.”

Sung: Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

May you hear your name called, and follow the Messiah we call by the same name this night, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

The Bicyclist and the Bishop, from the Door Zone

by Rev. Laura Everett

Just the other day, I drove past the "Ghost Bike" for Kent Winberry, a cyclist and human being killed in Durhman NC. Click photo for his story.

Yesterday, I drove past the “Ghost Bike” for Kent Winberry, a cyclist and human being killed in Durhman NC. Click photo for his story.

In urban cycling, there is a section of the road called “the door zone.” If you ride your bike close to parked cars (but out of moving traffic), you are liable to get hit by a motorist opening a car door into you. Conversely, if you ride close to the moving traffic (but out of the way of parked car doors), you are likely to annoy the motorists in the flow of traffic, again risking your own safety.

I want you to hear what I think our conversations about the tragedy of Bishop Heather Cook killing cyclist Thomas Palermo look like from my vantage point in the door zone. I write to you as an urban cyclist, and a loving and invested observer of the Episcopal Church. Our conversations look self-involved.

A man has died. And we have spent the preponderance of our social media conversation talking not about Tom Palermo, but talking about protocols for episcopal elections, proper disclosure of information, and “what this means for the Church.” We say “it is a utter tragedy for all involved,” and then spend 97% of the conversation about the tragedy this is for the Church. Perhaps all this focus on Bishop Cook and the Church is a symptom of the family disease of alcoholism in our family system of the Church. It is good and right and far overdue that we have serious conversation about addiction and recovery in the Church, alcohol in the Church, and how we talk to one another in the Church. But if these are the only conversation we are having, we look and probably are, self-involved.

Each blog post I have read reacting to Bishop Cook’s accident and the arrest that followed has included at least one sentence calling for prayer for the Palermo family. Many blog posts have pointed to a fund for the Palermo children. These actions are right and good, but not enough. If these brief sentences are simply footnotes to “the real conversation,” the Church again looks self-involved, like the biggest tragedy here is a besmirching of an ecclesial reputation. This should be an introspective time, but not exclusively so. Church, if we spent even half as much time talking about Tom Palermo and his family and the cycling community, we would have a wider sense not only of “what this means for the Church” but what this means for the world beyond the Church, the world about which God is as much concerned as ours.

Get as curious about Tom Palermo’s life as we’ve been about Bishop Cook’s. Hear the anger of the cycling community and do not correct it. Simply hear the grief the cycling community at the death of a kind man who learned how to build bike frames and commuted to work daily by bike. Feel the daily anxiety of bike commuters. Palermo was killed on a stretch of wide road with bike lanes, a road considered very safe in North Baltimore; Use your pastoral imagination to wonder how unsafe other cyclists are feeling after his death. Hear the anger of cyclists who learned of Palermo being left to die at the scene of the crime. Imagine what perception of the institutional Church the cycling community has after this tragedy. Hear the disappointment of cyclists that, in the words of Bicycling magazine, “a supposedly moral pillar of the community” flees the scene of a dying man. Listen to the cyclists wondering if class, ecclesial, and white privilege factored into the time delay between the accident and the arrest.

Learn about the ritual tradition among cyclists of memorial “Ghost Bikes,” roadside shrines of white bikes placed at the site of a cyclist’s death. Visit a Ghost Bike memorial, stand with fear and trembling with your car keys and cell phone in your hand and vow before that memorial to the dead you will never drive distracted. Include prayers for the safety of vulnerable road users in your prayers of the people and prayer of confession for distracted drivers. Ask the cyclists in your parish how safe they feel on the road. Send a note of condolences to your local cycling advocacy group or bike shop. Advocate for safer road policies for cyclists.

Bishop Cook's windshield, photo from WBALTV

Bishop Cook’s windshield, photo from WBALTV

On the way out of my apartment, as I take out my bicycle each day, I pass a small icon of Madonna Del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cyclists. It’s dangerous out there on the road in the door zone, and not all vehicles are of the same weight. If I’m hit by a car while on my bicycle (as I was in 2007), odds are the bicycle and the cyclist will sustain far more damage than the car and driver. The larger vehicle bears more responsibility than the smaller, because they are more dangerous. As the Baltimore cycling advocacy group noted, a car is “a deadly weapon when wielded incorrectly.” For as much weight as we’ve given our thoughts on Bishop Cook, I ask you please, give as much consideration and conversation to what this all means for the Palermo family, the grieving cycling community, and your own responsibility as a motorist.