Why every Religious Leader must see “Spotlight”


Spotlight is a film about the two institutions I hold most dear: newspapers and the Church, set in Boston, the city I have claimed as home.

I left the film full of rage, despondent, and convicted-  if you serve any religious institution, you need to see this film.

Spotlight is the cautionary tale of an institution that is more invested in self-protection than the protection of the vulnerable.

This is non-neogotiable: If you plan to attend to the tender spiritual lives of people, you need to know and see what damage any of us or our institutions can do. Ministry is an awesome responsibility, which is part of what makes it such meaningful work.  The flip-side of this power and intimacy in people’s lives and souls is the potential for enormous damage. I wish our ordination vows included the promise to “do no harm.”

There are plenty of strong reviews of the film: Vulture, Wall Street Journal, NPR, New York Times, The New Yorker, Variety, the Roman Catholic magazine America, and the definitive review by Ty Burr from the Boston Globe. Here, I’m less interested in whether this is a good film ( near unanimous reviews think it is, and I do too), and more interested in what we who lead religious institutions might learn and do.

Maurice Timothy Reidy, the executive editor of the Roman Catholic America magazine wrote he left the film with “the nagging thought that the abuse scandal is something that all Catholics have to reckon with in some fashion.” I would argue that anyone invested in institutions needs to reckon with the institutional power and responsibility made visible in this film.

When institutions get too big to fail, too powerful to be challenged, lives are damaged, as the (supposed) good of the institution is prioritized over the individual. Real, human bodies and souls are inevitably harmed, with aftershocks of trauma spreading through surrounding families, neighborhoods, and entire cities. The victims are actual humans, but their humanity is overwhelmed by shadow cast by large institutions.

Clergy sexual abuse is a most despicable sin: a violation of the autonomy and dignity of a Child of God, a betrayal of the awesome responsibility to nurture someone’s soul, and an abuse of the power and privilege of religious leadership.  When institutions are protect or cover up of such abuse, a second violation occurs- the (supposed) preservation of the institution over the truth and humanity of the victim/survivor. The institution is implicitly considered more important than the dignity and well-being of individual and the community.

A.O. Scott in the New York Times put it this way:

“When institutions convinced of their own greatness work together, what usually happens is that the truth is buried and the innocent suffer. Breaking that pattern of collaboration is not easy. Challenging deeply entrenched, widely respected authority can be very scary.”

Director Tom McCarthy described the battle between the Globe reporters and the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Boston as a case of “Goliath versus Goliath.”

Needless to say, the institution of the Church does not come out looking good in Spotlight. Without spoiling a plot point,  he Boston Globe is not a spotless institution in the film either. But the dogged investigative reporting that broke the story is also testimony to how an institution can use their resources, power, and platform for good. The Spotlight team and the Boston Globe, as an institution, made visible what others would have prefered stayed in the shadows.

Standing before the leaders of the religious institutions of his day, Jesus said:

2Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 3Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. ~ Luke 12: 2-3

For those of use who take the New Testament seriously, we are called to shine a spotlight on what remains in the shadows.

Sometimes our institutions become so insular, so self-referential, so ingrown, we need eyes from outside to see just how dysfunctional they’ve become. We needed outsiders from Amnesty International and the Associated Press to reveal the institutional support of the CIA & US Army in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. We need the outsiders of #BlackLivesMatter to expose the institutional racism in policing. It is no accident that the trailer before Spotlight was for The Big Short, a story of outsiders who exposed the deception of the institutions of big banks and high finance in the recent housing market collapse.

A leitmotif through the film is the roles of outsiders in the accountability of institutions. Victim’s lawyer Mitchell Garabedian is from Boston but he’s Armenian, and thus outside the established Irish-Catholic power structures of Boston. The Boston Globe editor Marty Baron is not from Boston and he’s Jewish. Baron, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker writes, “is mocked for being, as one insider labels him, “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball,” but it is precisely his status as an outsider that allows him to initiate the quest.”

Any individual, insider or outsider,  who has ever tried to call out the bad behavior of Goliath institutions knows how scary it can be to stand before the giant, especially a giant cloaked in holiness. We who have the awesome responsibility of spiritual leadership of religious institutions also bear the responsibility to make it easier for individuals to come forward- that means being explicit and public in talking about abuse in our communities, looking into the shadows, and shining a spotlight.

Spotlight‘s tagline is “Break the story. Break the silence.” If you sit through until the very end of the credits, a hotline number comes up, saying something like “If you have been affected by the events of this film, reach out.”  I was too wrecked at the end of the film to catch the suggested contact information, but these are resources I know to break the silence:

For Religious Leadership: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org 

For Clergy Abuse Survivors: http://www.snapnetwork.org 

Visibility can offer healing for those who have been hidden in the shadows. Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen interviewed clergy sexual abuse survivor Joe Crowley. “Watching (Fr. Paul) Shanley answer to criminal charges was the real beginning of my recovery,” Crowley said.  Institutional accountability matters, and visibility can heal. Cullen opines, “Joe Crowley knows movies and he thinks this one is well-made, well-acted, well done in every way. But more importantly, it is a cinematic vindication of those like him, who suffered in silence for years, who still suffer, who live with memories that don’t fade when the screen goes dark and the lights come on.”

The lights are on. May we have eyes to see.


Three Disclaimers, because I will get emails about this:

  1. If you want to complain about how “the media” never tell the story of the good religious institutions do, this is the wrong time to do so. That’s called deflection. Now is the time to look unflinchingly at our own institutions and complicity in institutional systems of oppression. (And frankly, I’m not sure “we” are owed anything, but that’s a matter for a different blog post.)
  2. If you want to argue that this is a work of art, and thus dramatized for the film, you are welcome to read the 2002 non-fiction accounts here, equally as damning: http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/special-reports/2002/01/06/church-allowed-abuse-priest-for-years/cSHfGkTIrAT25qKGvBuDNM/story.html 
  3. If you try to make the claim that your Mainline Protestant/Evangelical Christian /Orthodox Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist/Atheist institution is somehow immune from abuse, I refer you to the links above. And yes, I know that there are camps, sports teams, after school programs, coaches, schools and others who have perpetrated abuse and cover-up. The particulars of the Roman Catholic Church clergy abuse and cover-up detailed in Spotlight does not insulate you or your beloved institution from the history of past abuse and the possibility of future harm. This falls on all.

Holy Inheritance: A Sermon on Mark 10: 17-33

Holy Inheritance:Sermon on Mark 10:17-33

Sunday October 11, 2015 Bethlehem Covenant Church, Worcester MA

(Preacher’s note: This sermon was also an experiment in crowd-sourcing stories from friends and strangers on social media)

Every family has stories of inheritance.IMG_7648

Every family has stories of inheritance: some are beautiful tales of priceless gifts, some are tormented by inheritances that we wish we didn’t receive, inheritances that came because someone died too soon, inheritances that burden us. And some of us had families that couldn’t love us like they should. Instead of inheriting a watch or a chair, we inherited a a legacy of pain.

William inherited his grandmother Faye’s 1917 typewriter and a folio of unseen manuscripts, betraying a secret vocation as a writer that never saw the light of day.

Pete inherited his grandmother Mary’s cufflinks that she received the day she graduated from nursing school, a sign of her greatest accomplishment. To the young 16 year old inheriting these cufflinks, she gave Pete an expectation that he would accomplish great things, too.

Hannah inherited her grandfather Hans’ name, a man who died just before she was born. What would she have learned of her namesake if she had met him?

Marty inherited his grandfather’s wallet. In that slim wallet were his driver’s license, his Hertz, TWA and a hotel charge card, tokens of an ordinary life spent on the road before he died of a heart attack at 52.

Liddy inherited both her parents’ pension accounts, with a fair amount of money but a heap of grief- accounts full since both parents died way too young, before the could spend down their retirement savings, before they could meet their grandchildren, before they could even rest from their labors.

The only thing Fred ever inherited was a TV/VHS player, but he only inherited it because his friend Willis died of AIDS.

Sarah and Diane both inherited jewelry, nothing particularly special, no resale value, really. But passed down, again and again, with layers of stories coating the ceramic beads and glass crystals where one might hope that diamonds would be.

Marian and her siblings where disinherited as a predator got a hold of her father’s finances in his ailing final two years.

We all have these stories- ask one another at coffee hour. Wendy inherited her father’s unflinching honesty. Kevin wraps himself in his grandfather’s red wool flannel shirt. James inherited his Grandma Lucy’s gravy recipe on a single folded piece of yellow paper. Bruce puts on his mother’s jade cross. Liza inherited singing show-tunes at full volume. Karl inherited his great-uncle’s love of baseball. Abbi inherited iris bulbs from a neighbor, as his body struggled and he could no longer tend his garden.

And as for me? I’m waiting to inherit my grandmother’s recipe file. She is adamant, adamant that she will not share her recipes until she is dead.

We’ve heard the stories, maybe even lived the stories of greedy cousins, manipulating siblings, warring relatives, unscrupulous caregivers who trick the dying in order to inherit wealth. We’ve heard the stories, maybe even lived the stories of uneven inheritances, leading to generations of anger and resentment.

A friend recounted that when the grandmother died, she arranged for her resources to be divided between five adult children- some receiving 40%, others receiving 0%. As my pastor friend presided at the funeral, anger and jealously leaked over the pews and puddled onto the floor. Five years later, the adult children still aren’t talking to one another.

A young man kneels before Jesus and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Inheritance is a tricky thing. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

What is behind that question? This young man, is he asking “How do I get eternal life without having to work for it? How do I get the good stuff for nothing? How do I get a free lunch?” Or is he asking as an outsider, as a stranger, how do I become part of this family, of this people, this?

In order to inherit, something must die.

In order to inherit, something must die.

And this is a man yet unwilling to let some things die.

Jesus presses him, pushes him- go and sell what you own, give the money to the poor, come and follow me.

This is a complicated passage of Scripture, a story that shows up in three of the Gospels. The church has argued about this for generations: Should we read this literally? Is Jesus actually saying that the wealthy cannot enter heaven? Or is it a metaphor?

However you read this passage, I am convinced our inheritance as children of God works like this: None of us are native born; all are adopted children into the family of Christ. None of us inherits more; all are equals as children of God. And there is enough for all.

And the first born of all Creation, Jesus, the Good Teacher, is doing some serious teaching here. Jesus sounds stern, harsh even. It’s tough love. Jesus is on the path, on the Way and inviting others to follow him. The rich young man wants to follow but is unwilling to leave behind what drags him down. He wants to be made well, but is unwilling to change. We want to be made well, just as long as we don’t have to change. We want a more just society in America, just as long as we personally have to give anything up. We want a more inclusive church, just as long as the new people act like us.

The key for me is in verse 21. Jesus looked on him, loved him, and invited him he had to change. Not pity, not anger, not resentment, but love. Jesus loved him. Jesus loved the rich young man so much that he invited him to change. Because it’s mighty hard to follow the way of Jesus when your feet are shackled with what holds you back.

Now maybe its not many possessions or overwhelming wealth that’s holding you back like the young man, holding you down. Maybe there’s something else in your life that needs to die. Is it concern about what other people think? Is it an inheritance of addiction? Is it a mythology of stories upon stories of how you’d never amount to anything that keeps you tied to the floor? Is it anxiety that you will fail? What is the thing you need to divest from that holds you back from life abundant, that thing you are so afraid to change?

This place, this church is an inherence. You have a great legacy of faithfulness in this place. But you didn’t build this church, the people before you did. You didn’t create this community, the saints before you did! You inherit this faith for a season. But even in this inheritance, there are some things that need to die in order to follow Christ. There are no more Swedish millworkers moving to Quinsigamond Village. How will you ensure that there is a faith, not a building, but a faith for the next generation to inherit? I don’t know what needs to be buried for you follow Jesus along the way, but maybe you do. Maybe you’ve inherited some things that no longer serve you.

As Americans, we inherit things that prevent us from the full freedom for all to live life abundant as equally dignified children of God. We inherit a history of systemic racism, discrimination against women, and just about every new immigrant group. We inherit a history and a legacy built on the taking of tribal lands and the uncompensated enslaved labor on which this new country grew up. This inheritance sticks to us, clings to us, not like an old chair you inherited from your great Aunt that you can just leave at Goodwill and be done with, but this inheritance has seeped into our soil. Our American inheritance sits in every living room, hangs in every closet, burrows into every heart, where some of us started this life having inherited 40%, and some of us began with nothing. This church sits here in Worcester on land owned and entrusted to the Nimpuc people nearly 350 years ago. And even as we looking into Columbus Day tomorrow, we remember that after the King Philip’s war of 1676 the same Nimpuc people, fellow humans, equally dignified children of God, were captured, rounded up, removed from their land right here in Worcester, and forced onto Deer Island in Boston Harbor, without sufficient provisions, food or clothes. All but 1,000 people died.

If we stand on this land, we inherit this legacy. We inherit this too. No ones hands are clean. And there are some things we must leave behind to follow Christ.

To follow Jesus, we are asked to give away the things that lead us to death in order to be healed- this is our holy inheritance.

The young rich man who comes before Jesus, drops to his knees along the side of the road before he asks his question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Each time someone falls to their knees before Jesus and asks to be made well in the Gospel of Mark, a healing occurs. What is if this is a story of healing?

This is the promise at the end of the passage beginning in verse 29: Jesus invites us to leave behind that which drags us towards fear and scarcity, and be liberated to join him on the Way. We are invited to be healed not just for some far off promise of eternal life, but right here, right now. This age AND the age to come.

Sometimes, the things we inherit heal us.

Jin Min inherited her mother’s strong will. Sarah’s hands now look like her mother’s and her grandmother’s. Bert took what little was left of his grandmother’s finances and bought Stanley Waterford cook stove made in Ireland, that each of his children remembers warming their home. Meredyth inherited her father’s bread-baking skills. Alan inherited his grandmother’s painting and the stories she told about each figure in the scene. Ellery inherited her grandmother’s silk scarves that didn’t seem to go with anything until she was much older. Michael inherited his mother’s Bible and the note on the inside said, “these are some things that money can’t buy…”

Some of us will never inherit any material thing. But there is an inheritance, a holy inheritance in Christ that money cannot buy, not amount of wealth or possessions can possess. We are offered, again and again by Jesus, the holy inheritance of being adopted as children of God. Amen.

“Spirit enough for the wilderness”: a sermon on memory and nostalgia

“SPIRIT ENOUGH FOR THE WILDERNESS” Sermon for the 100th anniversary of



Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Every time we tell the story, the peaches get sweeter. Once upon a time, my Great-Aunt Josephine was flying back to the United States from her childhood home in Italy. And like any good auntie, she had stuffed her pockets full of good things to eat, enough to get her home and enough to share. But the security guards at the airport stopped her. “Can’t take those agricultural items out of the country, m’am.” No amount of arguing changed their minds. No offers to share her peaches would persuade the guards. Here she was, being sent away from her home on a ten-hour flight where all she’d have to sustain her were plastic airline Dixie cups of pale cut fruit drowning in a sickening sea of sugar water. My aunt shouted in Italian back to my cousins in the security line:

Manga! Eat! Eat quickly!FullSizeRender

And so they did. Faster and faster as the line moved forward, eating those perfect peaches before they were taken away!

We ask one another, do you remember? Do you remember how sweet those peaches were? Like ice cream, right? No, no, like honey! The flesh so ripe that it pulled away from the pit as soon as you bit in, juice running onto your hands and down your chin. And the color! Like a sunset, yellow fading to orange to deep red at the core. The sweetest peaches you’ve ever seen, as big as your head and perfectly formed. They’ll have those peaches in heaven. Or was it nectarines? Or apricots? It coulda been apricots…

“The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

“If only we had basturma! We remember the lamb we used to eat in Cilicia for nothing, the apricots, the pomegranates, the labneh, the khanum budu, the choereg, but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

Memory will sustain us, but nostalgia will choke us.

We are in the wilderness, right now. The nature of the Church in North America is rapidly changing. Massachusetts is the fourth least religious state in the country. Less than 25 % of Massachusetts residents attend a religious service at least once a week. Denominations and traditions do not signify what they used to. 44% of Americans will change their religious identity at least once in their lifetime, and that number is on the rise. Increasingly, if people attend a church, they attend it 2, maybe 3 times a month, and they are slower to commit to membership, if at all. People are joining less churches, less social clubs, less civic organization, less cultural institutions, less bowling leagues, less Kiwanas, less Nights of Vartan chapters, less Ladies Aid Societies.

And maybe even more profound for the Church, more and more people in our broader culture feel like they have deep spiritual connections and commitments, but do not choose to affiliate with religious institutions. We look out, and all we see is scrub brush and desert.

We are in the wilderness. Moses hears the people weeping, longing for their homeland. They remember a time when the food was abundant, when the pews were filled, when there were so many children that we needed to build a new Sunday school wing. A few months ago, I visited a church in Pittsfield. Back when the church was full, they built on a big new 1960s Sunday School wing and it was filled! When I visited in 2015, they were raising money to tear down that 60’s addition because it no longer serves them. The addition took up too much money in the budget to heat, with a long staircase it wasn’t physically accessible to everyone, and without the classrooms full, they just didn’t need the space. The faithful thing for them to do was to tear it down. A parishioner at the church asked me “Why are we the only ones who have to change?” Where are the days of milk and honey and peaches the size of your head? So many churches are struggling to adapt to a changing culture. Our broader culture does not prop up church membership any more. The wilderness is wide and we’re all in it.

Wilderness is a place of testing. The Hebrew Bible scholar Frank Yamada writes “The wilderness, which becomes a metaphorical place of God’s testing in the Bible, is the locus for both human and divine difficulty. This harsh setting challenges both the Israelites and their God.” As Yamada says, the wilderness is a place that challenges both God and God’s people.

We are in the wilderness and in this time of testing. And in the wilderness, in the desert, we sometimes see mirages. Our vision gets distorted. You hear it with the Israelites. In the wilderness, they are remembering their former meals, big banquets and abundant feasts. Except that never happened. In the wilderness, they forget their former suffering and distort their memory for a sort of nostalgia of a time that didn’t exist. Memory will sustain us, but nostalgia will choke us.

Memory reminds us of hour God delivered us in the past. Nostalgia takes that memory and simplifies it, runs it through an Instagram filter to a hazy sepia picture where we miss the complexity, obscure the failures, forget the worm in the center of the peach. Nostalgia chokes us because it is not real and can never be attained again.

The Israelites are nostalgic for a banquet that never quite happened. The pit of that peach gets caught in our throats, and we can never quite taste such goodness again.

But memory, memory sustains us in the confusion of the present time, remembering how God delivered us out of Egypt. Memory sustains us when death lurks all around, remembering how Jesus Christ was raised from the tomb. Memory invites us to draw on the resources of the past, but not to be bound by them. You have done this. Your parish has done this. When it did not serve you anymore to lead services in Turkish, you changed. When your name did not reflect you anymore, you changed it. When you wanted to make sure you connected to your heritage, you added a little classical Armenian into your liturgy in the Lord’s Prayer. You have shown yourselves to be a faithful people who can change and adapt, trusting God to remain constant.

In the wilderness, we get small and anxious that we will not have enough. We remember, maybe mis-remember, former times of abundance and fear we will never see them again. The people are weeping, and Moses is stuck. Moses says to God “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” Maybe you’ve felt this burden too. Maybe you who have pastored, served on parish council, taught Sunday school, led the Ladies Aid Society, maybe you’ve felt the wilderness. Maybe you who have shown up to week after week to sing in the choir, to lead music ministry, to make sure there is coffee and something sweet, maybe you too have felt the scarcity of the wilderness. In the wilderness, we get anxious that there are not enough material resources and then we get anxious that there are not enough spiritual resources.

Moses, who has led the people into the desert, worries he cannot lead the people out. The weight is too heavy, as if the well being of each of the pilgrims rests on his shoulders alone. But it is not weight alone to bear. We are reminded that it is God, not Moses, who created each of these people. We are reminded that it is God, not Moses, who directs their path through the wilderness. In a place of scarcity, Moses pleads with the God of Abundance.

And what does God do? God redistributes the spiritual wealth. God tells Moses, “Go, gather the elders and the leaders of the people and bring them to the tent of meetings.”

Now, maybe I’m just reading this like a Protestant, but it sounds to me like God is calling a congregational meeting. Go and gather the people.

And when they gather, what happened? The Spirit is poured out on all of them. Verse 25: Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on Moses and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied .

In the anxiety of the wilderness, God takes the resources present, the elders and leaders already with them, and blesses them for shared service. You longtime members of this church, this is your legacy which only will live on if you share it. You new members, you who join event today, this is your adopted heritage, remembering that in the Body of Christ, none of us is native born, all are adopted. Members and guests and friends of Armenian Memorial Church and the whole body of Christ, we are the all the people blessed by the Spirit in the wilderness .

There is so much Spirit, that it falls onto the people outside the gathered. There is so much Spirit, that it blesses and empowers not just those who are authorized, but on people back at the camp, who no one expected.

There is Spirit enough for the wilderness. Not just for one person, but for all the gathered. When we serve the God of Abundance, there is enough.

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to pray for you. I am no Moses, but as your sister in Christ, I want to bless these gathered people on behalf of the Church:

Gracious and loving God, you have shown your faithfulness in the generations of Armenian Memorial Church. A people who could have been dead, have risen. A church that might not existed, has stood firm. We praise you for the names known to us and the names known to You alone. Number each name and write them in the book of life.

This day, we ask for your blessing upon this congregation. As you did with Moses and the Israelites, take Your Spirit and spread it wide. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His spirit on them!”

We claim you again this day, a God of Abundance. When we see scarcity, remind us of your generosity. When we get stuck in the desert, remind us of your provision. When we get small and fearful, assure us of your generosity. When nostalgia of ‘what used to be,’ clouds our vision, clear our eyes for the path you have ahead of us. When we are stuck in the tomb of Holy Saturday, take our hands and guide us to Sunday.

You guided our ancestors out of Egypt, you led our foremothers and forefathers to this place, you endured the suffering of the cross to rise on the third day, Holy One , send the Spirit of the living God to dwell among us. Bless us. Anoint us. Pour your spirit out upon us that we might all be prophets. In the name of Christ, I bless you. Amen. 


Pope Francis Bingo Cards

You are invited to join us for a Pope Francis Address to Congress Viewing Party!  Thursday, September 24, from 9:30-11am at Doyle’s Cafe in Boston.

Facebook Invite here! Please share widely. Sinners and Saints, welcome.

If you can’t join us in person, tweet us at #PopeInBoston and download our Pope Francis Bingo Cards.

Pope Francis  holds his weekly general audience on March 5, 2014 at St.Peter's square in Vatican city. The pontiff today has defended the Catholic Church's record on tackling the sexual abuse of children by priests, saying "no-one else has done more" to root out paedophilia.     AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO        (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)


Childish: A sermon on Mark 9

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Amherst

Sunday September 20, 2015

“Childish” A sermon on Mark 9:30-37

Please pray with me:photo-12

This is the conversation we have after the kids have left the room. The hard stuff, the
awkward stuff, the unresolved stuff where there are no good options left on the table. This is what we say when they’ve gone up stairs and gone to bed. This is what we say in hushed tones, whispered as the light fades. These are the things you don’t want to say in the searching light of day.

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Three clauses in that one brief sentence and two of them are awful- betrayed, killed- rising almost seems like an afterthought.

If Mark 9:30-37 were a film, with adult themes, violence, torture, strong language and death, it might receive a rating of PG-13.

First there is prophesy of Jesus’ death while in Galilee, then a disagreement in Capernum about who is the greater, and finally the object lesson with the child. How on earth is all this smashed into one 7-verse passage of Scripture? Mark is always the shortest and most brusque, but here we seem to get snippets of longer stories and something is missing in the transitions.

I love Scripture for the infinite discoveries and possibilities in reading it together. The geography of scripture often gives us clues. Jesus prophesies of his death while walking on the road in Galilee. Is there something to pay attention to that he tells them while traveling? Like those hard conversation we have in the car because it avoids the intimacy of looking face to face? And Scripture sometimes hides clues in the ordering of things- what is next to one another? Biblical Scholar Micah Kiel notes, “Mark also places stories side by side as way of making a point that could not have been achieved without such juxtaposition.”

Something about God comes through in the rub. And right next to Jesus’ prophesy of his suffering and death is this curious image of Jesus picking up someone’s child. I think this is the paradox of the Christian life, where our deepest suffering is placed right next to God’s gracious embrace.

After such hard news, Jesus starts a fireside chat. Actually, it seems to me more like a sermon. Any good preacher worth her salt ought to be able to turn an object into a children’s sermon. (pull something from behind the pulpit) And here, Jesus our high priest takes an unknown child and says, “This. Be like this.”

Here we have a child who has snunk down the stairs and entered an adult conversation. In our time, it loses the surprise and is as boring and mundane as my effort at twelve-years old lie silently in the hallway as my parents watched the R rated “Pretty Woman.” But in Jesus’ time, children were not only not seen and not heard, they were not relevant. The world in which Jesus and the disciples moved includes a social setting where the few rich are the social elite and the majority poor are subjects of domination. Children are a non-issue.

Do not let our domesticated, cult of childhood preciousness blur your vision- Jesus is not a shopping mall Santa Claus pulling some big eyed child upon his knee for a photo op. No, when Jesus says “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and puts the child among them, Jesus is upending the entire social order. He’s giving the childish disciples the children’s sermon and saying this, be like this.

In contrast to the petty argument among the disciples about who is first in the lunch line, Jesus is not telling us to be childish, but child-like. This is not theological permission to stick crayons up your nose just to see if you can actually reach your brain, or to fling yourself on the dining room floor when carrots and peas accidentally intermingle on your plate, or to stomp around the room when you don’t get your way at the deacon’s meeting, or to draw superheroes in your hymnals when you get bored with the sermon. That is childish. This is childlike: to wonder without boundaries of things like feasibility studies or budget constraints, to dream big without saying “we’ve never done that before!”, to ask why again and again and again; to try new things without the assurance that you’ll be any good at it, to see the world not from a high up perch but from the low-down, to be entranced with rocks and sticks and mud and clay; to sing out loud because you can! (not because you’re good); to dance when the mood hits you in the glorious body God fave you without care for who watches your weird movements; to splash around the waters of baptism like a baby bird; to take big chunks of communion bread because you’re hungry right now.

We adults get afraid and self-conscious. We see the disciples do it. Jesus tells them all this harsh stuff, and in verse 32 Mark says “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” The disciples, who have been jockeying for attention and status, are each afraid to be the one who says, “I don’t understand.” It’s like a whole classroom that didn’t get the lesson, but no one will admit to it first. The fear of how they would look in front of one another was stronger than their desire to understand. The disciples’ argument about the greatest is childish in the worst sense: self-involved, petty, inconsequential.

Jesus in Mark’s Gospel can come off sounding a little brusque, like maybe it would be hard to say to him, “I don’t understand.” But throughout scripture, we hear the story of the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The God who promises in Isaiah, “before you call, I will answer, and while they are still speaking, I will hear.”(Isaiah 65:24) I think we have a God who is infinitely more interested in our questions than judgment.

Against the backdrop of the prophesy of torture and death, things that are decidedly not kid-appropriate, Jesus introduces an unnamed child, as the infant Christ was introduced into a world of forced migration, occupation and fear. Maybe the promise of Christ’s ultimate betrayal, torture, death and rising is this: the promise of a kingdom come that is tender, gentle, and just.

A world where kids don’t need to be protected; A world where aunties don’t have to step in to nurse because a child’s mother is lost off a rubber boat to the churning sea between refugee camps in Turkey and the promise of new life in Greece; a world where dads don’t have to explain to their black sons what to do when they are pulled over; a world where a young Muslim boy isn’t first presumed to be a bomber rather than a tinkering scientist; a world where moms don’t have to explain to their daughters that sometimes when you say “No” about your own body, people won’t hear you, they’ll keep going, they’ll think you’re playing hard to get: a world without violence ratings. Jesus points to a world where we don’t have to protect children from violent news because there is no violent news.

A pastor colleague recently posted to Facebook asking if she could borrow someone’s child. Well, borrow just for the afternoon. See it turns out that the new Legoland Discovery Center in Somerville only allows adults to enter if you are accompanied by a child.

What if we all are invited to enter the kingdom of God with the hand of sticky, tiny child tucked in our own? Not because childhood is some sort of paragon of Christian maturity, or the suburban idealization of children as some sort of Freudian projections of all our highest aspirations, but because the reign of God will be tender enough, gentle enough for the most vulnerable among us.

A deep, mature, adult faith might mean being child-like, to know our vulnerability and our dependence on our heavenly Parent. To resist the adult-like tendency to think we are in charge, or we are self-sufficient or to push to be first in line.

A deep, mature, adult faith in Jesus Christ might mean being a little less childish, and a little more child-like.

“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

(sung) “Little ones to Him belong. We are weak, but he is strong.”

The Idolatry of Independence: A homily on Ephesians 4

Charge of Interdependence Among the World to the Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ

First Congregational Church, Chesire CT Sunday May 31, 2015

 Ephesians 4: 11-16 

My geographically separated brethren, I greet you in the name of the One who calls us to be one. If a flock of Connecticut church leaders is willing to hear a word from a Massachusetts pastor, even if only for 7-9 minutes, I think we are at least halfway to the unity that the Ephesian church longed for! I’ll take the liberty to presume I speak among friends, kindred Congressionalists- we know that New Hampshire isn’t the only place that subscribes to the mantra “live free or die.” We know that a presumed self-sufficiency, a functional congregationalism no matter the denomination is endemic in this land. The Disciples of Christ pastor Michael Kinnamon said “Denominations make powerful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns.” We know that tucked in the back of our locked cabinet, behind the good silver and the musty church records, is a porcelain idol of independence- and maybe, secretly, we like it there. Maybe, secretly, we don’t want move it out on the front lawn for the parish rummage sale to be sold for $0.50 along with some mismatched wise men and shepherds from an incomplete crèche.

Now, “maybe there are no more cowboys in this Connecticut town,” And maybe this isn’t true in your churches, but certainly in Massachusetts, our churches act as if accepting help of another is a sign of weakness. We drag our feet. We go at it alone before trying together. Collaboration is for the weak, not the strong. In a town that shall remain nameless, I visited a UCC church next door to an Episcopal parish. The UCC deacon showed me the exact spot where you can inconspicuously spy on the Episcopalians to see whose parking lot is fuller, because if someone else is winning, we must be losing… With this mythology of competition, collaboration becomes a second option, rarely the first. Yet, deep down, beneath the rock and the clay and the silt and the sand, 6 feet below where the earth is still cool from winter, we know that our splendid isolation will leave us entombed in clapboard white coffins.

Therefore, I charge you, sisters and brothers, be worthy of the holy calling to which you are called, only connect. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own parish. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own denomination. Build up the body of Christ, for the sake of the world. We in the ecumenical movement have done a lousy job of remembering the second half of John 17. We remember that our Lord and Savior, just before his death, prayed that his followers might be one. We forget that he prayed that his followers might be one, so that the world might believe in the one who sent him. Our unity is not simply for our own good, to tamp down the tempest in the teapot that is the divided Church, but for the sake of our reconciling witness to the world! Reclaim the wide, thick commitment to the oikoumene, not just the Church, but the whole inhabited world. Reclaim the oikoumene, and maybe start in your neighborhood. I wonder if the end of an official ecumenical structure in Connecticut doesn’t actually free you for more vitality and life at the local level. To butcher Tip O’Neill, maybe all ecumenism is local.

About a year ago, I developed an unexplained pain in my right hip. I had been in a cycling accident, but the injury was to my back, not my hip. The doctors tried to treat the site of my pain, but no relief. Finally, a doctor diagnosed my suffering as “referred pain.” The site of the suffering is not the same as the source. While riding my bicycle again, my legs had gotten strong, but my back and core were still weak- so my hamstrings were pulling my tendons tight across my hips without the rest of my body compensating. The Church in Ephesus was told to attend to each part, because when “each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Therefore, I charge you, the body of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut, join and knit together. Bind up the broken, so that every ligament, each part is working properly together. We’ve learned to compensate for our brokenness, hobbled by our fractures yet unable to remember what it was like to be working properly. We’ve grown familiar with our “referred pain,” unaware that the site of our suffering is not the same as the source. We’ve grown so used to our divisions that they seem natural, pre-ordained even. We can barely imagine the possibility of working with the Roman Catholic parish next door. And yet, to the wider world, to that whole oikuemene, the difference between a Congregationalist and a Lutheran and an Episcopalian and an Evangelical means less and less and less. Massachusetts is the fourth least religious state in the nation at 28%, and you, always just a bit better than us, are the eighth, with only 32% identifying as ‘very religious.’ All our denominations are religious minorities now. Our differences are small compared to an entire oikoumene that does not know, does not care about our precious denominational divisions.

A few year’s ago, a colleague from Duke Divinity School came for a few days to visit and observe the church in Massachusetts. I showed him our fine buildings, our town squares, our attempts at adaptation. At the end of the visit, he said, “You still have all of the burden of being establishment and have not yet claimed all of the creativity of being marginal.” Church, I charge you, for the sake of Gospel for the whole inhabited world, claim the creativity of being marginal.

Finally, I charge you, beloved servants of God:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,

And human love will be seen at its height.

Live in fragments no longer.

Only connect…”


“We All Mix:” A Gullah Sermon on Pentecost

“We All Mix:” A Gullah Sermon on Pentecost

Christ Church United & Lao United Church of Christ, Lowell MA (Special thanks to Host pastors Ted Rasakham and Peter Lovett. During the multi-cultural, multi-generational service, we sang two Gullah songs “Kum Ba Yah” and the amazing “Open the Window” arranged by Elise Witt.)

Sunday May 31, 2015

Let us pray…

Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.

This is not an easy story of our faith. I fear we have domesticated the story of Pentecost. We’ve made this story understandable, easily-consumed. We call it the birthday of the Church, with sweet pink birthday candles flickering atop the heads of the disciples. We’ve removed the chaos, the fear, the confusion, the unmistakable scent of singed hair. But make no mistake, Church, the day of Pentecost was chaos.

The disciples, left alone after the ascension of Jesus, have gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The town is full of visitors, tourists for the holiday. There’s no room at any inn. And as the disciples huddle together, the Spirit swoops in. No knocking, no polite entry. Forcefully, violently, without invitation or warning, the same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness, enters without asking. It must have been chaos. Were there chairs knocked over? Did glasses shatter as they hit the stone floor?

We tend to envision the Holy Spirit like a gentle dove, but this scene seems more to me like a wild turkey let lose in your living room.

And then, as if a wind that breaks into your home, envelops the room, hits you in the middle of the chest and knocks you down isn’t confusing enough, then fire appears? Fire appears. Fire appears, splitting, cleaving into tongues of fire, alighting atop of each head? We sing “Breathe on me, breath of God…” without being prepared for the Spirit we are inviting.

Perhaps we’ve made Pentecost become so familiar, so safe, so far from that pent-up wild bird Spirit because we think it is too darn hard to follow the Spirit and learn a new language.

“Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.”  Or , in the New Revised Standard Version, “4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

It took 26 years, but the Spirit gave them the ability. Vernetta Canteed was on the bible translation team for 26 whole years before the American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament, printed in the Gullah language. It took 26 years and generation upon generation- because Gullah was discredited for a very long time. People said it wasn’t a real language. People said, it was just broken English. People didn’t recognize the rich mix of West African and indigenous languages coming together through the enslaved Africans sent to work the rice farms of the South Carolina lowcountry and Georgia Sea Islands. It took generations and generations and 26 years to publish the New Testament in Gullah. And when that Bible was finally published in 2005, Vernetta Canteed said, “That’s the first time I heard God talk the way I talk.”

On that day of Pentecost, God talked the way Vernetta talked.

How many of you are bilingual, or multi-lingual? You are our tutors. You are our guides. We will need you to teach the rest of us. You know how to translate. You know how to stand, maybe uneasily, with your feet in two different worlds.

You know the thrill of hearing you own first language in an unexpected place, in line at the grocery store. You know the struggle of having the exact right word in your mother tongue, but not knowing how to say it in English. You know the attentive skill you develop to listen carefully, to pick up cues and hints beyond the words themselves. You know the comfort of being lost in a strange place and hearing a stranger ask, “Necesitas ayuda?” Do you need help?

You who speak Lao, and French, and Cambodian, and Spanish. You who speak Arabic, and Swahili, and American Sign Language, and Gullah. We need you. The Spirit needs you. The Church needs you, because we are all going to have to learn new languages if the Church is to be embodied in this emerging culture. You all have a major university just down the street, with students from around the world. There are now whole generations of youth and young adults who do not know the Church’s language. They do not know the language of our denominations- and do not care about the difference between a Congregationalist and an Episcopalian. They do not know what the chancel is or where the narthex is or even what the doxology is. They have not been formed by the language of the Church.

I think, our job isn’t primarily to teach them our language, but to learn theirs, so that we can help them hear God speaking in their own language. How will this community learn the language of your neighbors?

When the parish of St John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton listened carefully to their neighbors at Smith College, they heard the students say that they were hungry and they were anxious, especially during finals. So now, twice a year at the end of the fall and spring semesters, St John’s Church cooks up thousands of pancakes, hundreds of pounds of bacon, serves gallons of coffee to weary, nervous students at their Midnight Breakfast during Finals Week. My message isn’t that you should put on a midnight breakfast too, or set up a “Rent-a-grandparent” but that these churches went and listened carefully to how the students in their neighborhood named their deepest needs and sense of the holy- they went an learned another language.

In the Gullah translation of Acts 2, we get the long list of places where people came from before arriving in Jerusalem: Galilee, Mede, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete and Arabia.

And then, the Gullah translation has this glorious, short sentence. “We All Mix.” We all Mix, say it with me, Church. We all mix. Acts 2:12-13 “De people all been stonish an all mix op, so dey beena aks one noda say, ‘Wa dis mean?’ Bot some oda people been mek fun ob dem dat bleebe pon Jedus, say ‘Dem people don drink tommuch wine!”

That mix makes people nervous, confused. You know it. When this great glorious, unimaginable diverse unity happens, the crowds think that the believers in Jesus are drunk.

The day of Pentecost was chaos for the participants and confusion for the crowds. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good at living with chaos and confusion. I want to pin it down, smooth it out, make order, make sense. The Pentecost story resists our efforts to make it plain- There is fire burning and wind blowing, but the wind doesn’t blow the fire out. There are people speaking in languages from tribes of people that have extinct for 500 years! There are all sorts of people learning how to live together, listen to God together.

Maybe God is bilingual. As Christians, we pattern our lives on the life of Jesus Christ, the one who was both fully human.

Maybe God is multi-lingual, speaking throughout time and Creation as the Creator, the Child, the Spirit.

Maybe God is beyond our language, and the best we can do is make like the writer of Acts and humbly say God is like the wind, God is like the fire.

For this is the truth of Pentecost, it is scary and chaotic to follow the Spirit. It’s dangerous and unpredictable. Following the Spirit asks of us than we can ask or understand.

I do not know how to make sense of what happened on the Pentecost day, but I do know this: God is at work in the chaos. God is invested in a diversity of people and languages, not privileging one over the other, but listening to each. God so loved the world, and so desired unity for the Church that when the day of Pentecost arrived “We all mix.” Amen.