Preferential Option for the City: A Prayer for Boston City Council

The Boston City Council has a tradition of inviting in local clergy & spiritual leaders from across the city  to offer a prayer or reflection. I am grateful for my fabulous city councilor Matt O’Malley for inviting me. Here is my prayer for our city.CiMFgj_WUAEbDSD.jpg-large

Marriages are not simply the joining of two people, but the joining of entire families and whole communities into something new. I invite you to join me in giving thanks for the signs of love and devotion at the marriage of Matt O’Malley & Kathryn Niforos. May your days be blessed and your love overflow to heal the city around you.

Giving glory to God and honor to the city councilors and dedicated staff, I want to reflect for a moment on God’s preferential option for cities.

For those of us try to follow the paths of Jesus of Nazareth, our Scriptures are woven through with stories of cities. God seems invested in cities, not just for commercial sake, or cultural sake, but God seems invested in God’s people living in close proximity to people who appear unlike us. The Hebrew Bible tells of “cities of refuge.” The Israelites wander in the desert, longing for the stability of a home. Mary, of the city of Nazareth, sings of God who flips the privilege of divided cities, a God who “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly. God fills the starving with good things, and sends the rich away empty.”  Paul travels between cities, from Rome to Corinth, Philipi to Ephasus. The most popular story about neighborliness, the Good Samaritan, is a story where the violence happens not in the city, but on the desolated road between Jericho and Jerusalem. To restore the stranger to health, the Good Samaritan returns him to a city!

Scripture might start in a garden, but it ends in a city. In popular culture, the vision of heaven is snow white clouds and rolling hills, more Berkshires than Boston. But in Scripture, in the Book of Revelation, the vision of heaven is decidedly urban:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as the betrothed adorned for their beloved. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

God will dwell with them;

they will be God’s peoples,

and God will be with them;

God will wipe every tear from their eyes.


Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

This is the city we long for, the city we build. This city where mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

You do this holy work of guiding us ever closer to that urban vision, a beautiful city where not just some people, not just those who can afford it, but all of God’s people will thrive.

As you attend to the work of ensuring that all Bostonians have the chance to live and flourish, especially those who are still looking for detox and recovery beds, I want to end by praying the full version of the Serenity Prayer, which has been a life-line for many in twelve-step recovery programs.

We’ve come to know a shorter version, but longer version was actually written by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who first wrote the prayer for a sermon at Heath Evangelical Union Church in Heath, Massachusetts as early as 1934.

I will lead us. You are welcome to join me.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.


“Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?”

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 12.34.37 PM

The newspaper equivalent of church buildings turned into condos. 

 “Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?”

The two institutions I love the most are: Church and Newspaper (Museums and Baseball are 3 & 4, respectively). I believe in their similar and quite different holy work to tell stories of Truth and Life, especially stories that are undervalued and unseen. I believe both have a critical role in cultivating a thriving civic ecology for all.

I’ve long noticed a similarity in the challenges and need for innovation of these two institutions whose place and authority were once presumed in our culture.

Boston Globe’s Editor Brian McGrory recently sent a memo to the newsroom. Media commentator Dan Kennedy posted it here.

I read the memo with great interest about the future of the Boston Globe. But, all I could hear were echoes of my own institution. Below is my creative writing exercise. My text is in red. Enjoy.

~ Laura

Hey all,

 It’s time to bring everyone up to date on a series of conversations I’ve initiated among senior editors bishops over the past couple of months, conversations intended to lay the groundwork for a no-sacred-cows analysis of our newsroom Church and what the Globe Church should look like in the future. It’s also time to get the room fully involved in the process.

You know it as I know it: The Globe, Church like every other major legacy news religious organization in Massachusetts, has faced what have proven to be irreversible revenue declines. The revenue funds our journalism ministry. The declines have mandated significant cuts over the past dozen years.

 There’s far too much good that goes on at this organization on a moment-by-moment basis to allow ourselves to be consumed by what’s wrong with the industry religious institutions. But we can’t ignore hard realities, either, or simply wish them away. My own strong preference is to somehow shed the annual reduction exercise that seems increasingly inevitable here and everywhere. So I’ve asked senior editors bishops to think about how we, at the very least, might get ahead of the declines, and in the best case, work to slow or even halt them. To help shape the discussion, consider this question: If a wealthy individual was to give us funding to launch a news organization Christian institution designed to take on The Boston Globe denominationalism, what would it look like?

 There are important issues to raise and explore in what I’ll call a reinvention initiative: Do we have the right technology? Do we train staff clergy & lay leaders in the right way? Should we remain in the current print physical format that we have now, same size buildings, same sections geographic isolation? Do we have the right departments divisions of ordained and lay ministry? Is our beat structure seminary process outdated? How can our work flows improve? Do we have too many of XX and not enough Ys? Should we publish seven days a week worship on Sunday mornings? Do print and digital in-person and online ministry relate in the right ways?

 The questions could go on and on. They could become bolder still.

Easy answers, as you well know, are elusive. The good news is that we’ve got an absurdly smart, dedicated collection of journalists ministers, many of the best in the nation, that has embraced profound and meaningful change over the years, always while maintaining our values. We’ve built two of the most successful websites  partnerships in the industry, first Addiction & Spirituality and now Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. The latter site partnership is not only thriving, but growing rapidly, up more than 15 percent in uniques and page views this year over last, with the first session of “Foundations of Christian Leadership” outside of North Carolina, starting in New England in April and leading the league in digital-only subscribers in FOCL participants—the most important metric. We successfully overhauled key parts of the site last year Massachusetts Council of Churches’ leadership structure. We’re about to launch a major sports membership redesign this spring  summer, all while we confidently spread our wings with a broader array of stories ministries and topics geared first to our web emerging multi-denominational audience.

 At the same time, we haven’t just maintained print worshipping communities, but enhanced it over the past few years, with a great new standalone business section through the week, a Sunday Arts section that showcases some of the best critics in the industry, Address, premium magazines, broadsheet feature sections. I’m missing things, I’m sure. We saw quite clearly in January last winter just how much the physical paper worshipping community means to an enormous swath of our readership constituency.

The journalism ministry, through it all, has been consistently exceptional. We drove the Olympics BostonWarm debate. We launched a national debate on concurrent surgery thriving Christian institutions & the nature of councils of churches. We’ve been one of the smartest, freshest voices on the national political intra-Christian & inter-religious scene. We’ve chronicled poverty in rural Maine and economic segregation in greater Boston in deeply memorable ways ecumenical pilgrimages to Armenian Christmas Eve, the 200th anniversary service for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Feast Day of St. Mark at a Coptic Church, and Holy Tuesday in the Anglican Tradition.  Day in, day out, we are one of the most thoughtful metropolitan news organizations hubs for innovative Christianity in the land.

All of which is to say: We’re very good at change. We’re committed to high standards. We are well-positioned to go even further.

So I’ll frame the discussion one more way: Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?

 It’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether this reinvention initiative is an excuse for more cutting. The glib answer is that we don’t really need an excuse to cut. The revenue declines require it. The more involved answer is that even without declining revenue, we should still be exploring reinvention, given the massive advances in technology and massive changes in reader worship attendance habits. And even without a reinvention initiative, we’d still have to cut. So the honest answer is that a reinvention would naturally take into account the realities of declining revenues.

I’ve sought some outside counsel to help facilitate the process, people who have thought long and hard about these issues and are deeply knowledgeable about what’s been tried at other news Christian organizations and how it’s worked. Tom Rosenstiel and Jeff Sonderman, Dave Odom the executive director and deputy director respectively of the American Press Institute Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, plan to be with the new Massachusetts Council of Churches Working Board this summer, and heads of church meeting in December. in the newsroom on Friday—tomorrow—to meet in small groups with some staff. They’ll be joined by Marty Kaiser, the highly respected former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who has worked with Tom on these exact issues. After Tom, Jeff, and Marty get an initial sense of our newsroom, we’ll discuss a path forward and how they might help. The key is to create a process that involves as many people as possible, at all levels, tapping into the wealth of creativity that is this newsroom’s Massachusetts’ trademark. 

This is a significant and important undertaking. It’s also an exciting one. We’re in a moment in this industry religious era and at this organization that requires us to be bold (have I used that word enough yet?) and imaginative, always in our journalism ministry, but also in determining how we best fulfill our civic responsibilities. There’s not the tiniest bit of doubt that we’re up to the challenge. 

I’ll be reaching out to some of you about meeting with Tom, Jeff, and Marty tomorrow, and then I’ll report back soon in a series of Winship Room gatherings about the road ahead.   We’re committed to a process in which everyone can effectively share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. In the meantime, feel more than free to reach out to me directly.

Brian Jesus










Finished: A Sermon for Good Friday

Finished: A Sermon for Good Friday

Shrewsbury Ecumenical Good Friday Service, March 24, 2016

28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.                    ~ John 19: 28-30


I am the bread of life.

I am the light of the world.

I am the door.

I am the good shepherd.

I am the resurrection and the life.

I am the way, the truth, and the life.

I am the true vine.

I am he.

I am thirsty.

It is finished.

Let us pray: Holy One, draw near to us as your people draw near to your Holy Word. Fix our eyes on your cross and draw all people to You. Amen.

No innocent death is ever good, even on this Friday we call Good.

There is no trivializing Good Friday. Today is a day for truth telling, for the audacious claim of Christianity that God in God’s self dies. Or as the poet John Donne said “What a death were it then to see God dye?”

Good Friday is the fickle rawness of March in New England, not the dependable warmth of June.

Good Friday is all open welts, and hard edges, and splinters of wood, neither the intimacy of a meal and wet skin of Thursday Night nor the bright hope and smooth stone of Sunday morning.

Good Friday is blood, and sour wine, and sweat.

There is nothing polite about Good Friday, a day when the decorum of respectable bodies breaks down into bruises and bleeding and groans and nakedness. You can try to stay on the surface of Good Friday, but it will pull you deep down.

There is little peaceful about Good Friday, a day when the powers of Empire reign supreme, and state-sponsored violence is put on public display. Good Friday is no quiet execution in a back room, but a spectacle, a breaking news scroll, a warning for all others who would challenge the powers and principalities.

IMG_2748There are no Good Friday greeting cards. There are no Good Friday chocolates. There are no Good Friday new bonnets or shined shoes.

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. Jesus 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?”

We were. We are. Good Friday is the day when we stay seated in our suffering. We sit with it. We sit through two chapters of John’s Gospel to get the full, hard truth of the audacious claim of Christianity that God is so invested in our life and suffering to have lived and suffered, too.

Today, our prayers are long. We trace the suffering over every corner of the globe and every crack of our hearts. We drape ourselves, we drape the cross in black; we Gentiles learn to “sit shiva” on Good Friday.

Good Friday is unflinching.

When I was a child, I went to the newspaper where my father worked. Like granite pillars, two tall beige metal filing cabinets stood sentinel, filled with obituaries. These were not yet the stories of the dead, but filled with the stories of the living. All of their life, written out, ready to go, except for that last paragraph and the date of death.

It is hard to look at this much death.  Those full file cabinets seemed like they would topple over on top of me. We are unaccustomed to this discipline of looking death in the eye, and not looking away. Good Friday is a staring contest.

Maybe, maybe some of you have practiced this, this looking at death, abiding with the dying you cannot save. Maybe you have sat for hours at the arm of a spouse, a child, a neighbor as they approach their last breath. Maybe in your grief you’ve contemplated all that was done, and all that was left undone. Maybe you care for the sick and the dying, strangers entrusted to your care. Maybe you’ve been to war, and the memories of death wake you still in the night.  Maybe in your depression you saw your own suffering, a malady so strong as to confine you to your bed and make a cave of your room. Maybe you waited outside the door.

It is hard to look at this much death. We turn the newspaper over in the recycling bin so we do not have to see the grief of travelers in the Brussels airport whose attempts to get home turned into a scrum of death We shield our eyes when photos of American soldiers torturing prisoners at the Abu Graib prison cross our television screen. We scroll past the photos of dead bodies of desperate immigrants on the shores of Greece with the remains of punctured rafts twisting at their feet, like the divided clothes at the foot of the cross. We pause the video of yet another young black man being shot because we’ve seen it all before.

It is both too hard, and too familiar to look unflinchingly upon death. We either rubberneck death or deny it. Good Friday trains us to look at suffering, not alone, but gathered at the foot of the cross.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus knew this death was coming. Everything had already been written. I am the bread of life. I am the true vine. I am the good shepherd. Before the world was, I am.

Everything had been written, except for that last paragraph.

When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said, “I am thirsty.” He spoke this to fulfill the scriptures. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is in control. There is no cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” like in Matthew and Mark.

Instead, Jesus writes the final sentence: “It is finished.”

For all of us who are not in control of our suffering, our shame, our vulnerability, Jesus is. Ego emi. I am.

Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

“It is finished”

What is?

Sin is finished.

Shame is finished.

Death is finished.

This frail and vulnerable body is finished.

Our God did not flee the superlative suffering of the cross. There is no secret escape hatch for the Holy One. God stays until the end, until it is finished. God does not blink in the face of suffering, but stays there, unfailing, unflinching.

Jesus’s last word was just one word, Τετέλεσται (tetelestai) from Teleo- third person, perfect passive indicative.

It is finished.

It is passed.

It is accomplished

It is complete.

It is complete: There is nothing Jesus needs from us to finish this work. In the completeness is also the singularity: Once and for all, and never again. No more of this. No more torture. No more executions. No more Empire. No more public shame. In the completeness of the cross, God says, this is not my way.  In the completeness of the cross, God says, we are not doing this again.

The God who knows even the number of hairs on your head, this God too, has experienced the fullness of our human suffering, so that what ever may come, what ever may be written next, our story doesn’t end alone.

We sing, “Were you there?”

Jesus sing, “I was there. I am there.”

We Live Tight: A Sermon for Cities

Sunday March 6, 2015: St James Episcopal Church, Somerville MA

Lent 4: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

We live tight. We, who live in cities, live jammed up, crammed up, layered on top of one another. We hear the fighting beneath us and the dog scratching above us. We live with arguments we cannot stop and doors we cannot open.

We live tight. We, who live in cities, live side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes unmet and houses stacked so close together that as I cook in my apartment, I can see a pot boiling over on their stove next door, third floor across from third floor.

We live tight in a stew of euphemisms: We live with garden apartments, without enough sunlight to grow much of anything except mold. We live with half-baths, which means a space so small you’ll hit your knee on the sink about half the time you go. We live with the Craigslist Code, where “historic” means the place has never been updated, and “great location” means your apartment is above a bar.

We who live in cities, live tight on money, tight on space, tight on time. We ride tight in the MBTA car, stand tight in the checkout line, and park tight, wedging our way in and out to squeeze in between yet another yellow moving van and a beach chair space saver, though it is March and there is no snow is in the forecast.

We cling tight to the people who remain, since many of the new who move in will probably be gone in three years anyway. We know the churn and the turn-over and the High Holy Day of all our messy humanity that falls on September 1 every year and spills onto the sidewalks.

We, who chose the city or do not have the means to leave the city, live tight with people who may not look like us, act like us, talk like us, behave like us. How does the Christian story of reconciliation sound different in most densely populated municipality in all of New England? With 19,220.5 people per square mile here in Somerville, the question isn’t “who is my neighbor?” but “who isn’t my neighbor?”

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;” St. Paul, a city dweller and city traveler himself, writes to the divided church in Corinth, the very church he founded. Paul, a Jew and a Roman citizen; Paul, a Jew and a Christian; Saul of Tarsus and Paul of Jerusalem, and Corinth, and Rome, and Ephesus.

Paul who defies the easy binaries and Paul who too is a new immigrant and global citizen; Paul, who is in the middle of, yet again, another major disagreement with the Church in Corinth. It is this Paul who writes “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Maybe he’s trying to make amends with these disagreeable Corinthians. Maybe he writes it so he too will follow his own rule.

How hard it is in cities to regard no one from a human point of view! We’ve got all sorts of names for reducing complicated, multi-faceted human beings into one, incomplete, identity:

The gentrifiers,

The homeless,

The old-timers,

The students,

The tech bros,

The yummy mommies,

The Brazilians,

The Dominicans,

The Blacks,

The Irish,

The Italians,

The Catholics,

The Jews,

The gays,

The elderly,

The establishment,

The new immigrant,

The refugees,

The faculty,

The workers,

The commuters,

The makers,

The takers,

The gang bangers,

The investors,

The Section 8-ers,

The yuppies,

The old skool Somervillians,

and the priced-out Cantabrigians.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” Paul sets the high standard for a Christian life: We regard no one from our short-sighted, human point of view. We aim to see as God sees.

IMG_2653We who live in cities know just how hard this is. A hallmark of the city is anonymity, so many people we do not know and will never meet. It is hard to drop those single moniker identities of our human point of view for something more nuanced, more complex. Our challenge is to see the anonymous guy clipping his fingernails on the Orange Line not a weirdo but as a beloved child of God.

When at 3 in the morning, I wake up to the sound of garbage bins being knocked over because my drunk student neighbors fell into them, I confess, I do not see them as unique children of God. When I go out the next morning to find our recycling all over the road and discover a pile of human vomit on my crocuses, I do not think of my neighbor’s preciousness before God. But Paul says, for you who want to live in this Christian way of life, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” No one. Not even the neighbor who vomits on my crocuses.

And for Paul, it’s not just that we are tasked with seeing people differently, but as we see them differently, we have been given an enormous, momentous task: In verse 18, God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

I’m sorry, what? God has given us the ministry of reconciliation? Has God met us? We’re a mess! Our cities are hopelessly segregated. We inherit division on top of division, on top of redlining and bussing and redistricting and urban renewal, on top of the foundational sins of enslaved Africans, layered on top of the seizure of land from the Massachusett tribe. The Boston Globe just this morning released a major study reporting our surge in income isolation, “with hundreds of thousands living in an economic isolation unlike anything in memory.” I can’t even be reconciled to my neighbor who won’t shovel his sidewalk safely enough, and God has given us the ministry of reconciliation? The alternative title for this sermon is “When God makes bad decisions.”

Why on earth would God entrust something so critical to us? Christianity’s foundational claim is that through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our broken and divided humanity is reconciled, made whole, restored to the fullness of life abundant. Our brokenness isn’t our ultimate condition; our death is not the end of the story. God decides to give this ministry of reconciliation to a people who can’t reconcile over snow parking space savers?

We who live in cities have been entrusted with ministry of reconciliation, not in the abstract, but with our particular neighbors.

I think, I think the God who knows the number of hairs on our head is invested in the particulars. This ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us is not some cosmic, global reconciliation, but the reconciliation of particular people in particular places. I am not called to begin by reconciling North and South Korea, but begin by reconciling to my careless neighbor, my sister who didn’t take the recycling out again, my work colleague who seems like he hears only every 5th word I say, and the only high school friend who seems only capable of using Facebook for cruelty. This is reconciliation in the particulars. No reconciliation is possible if we do not first try to see as God sees. Reconciliation in this way is not broad and global, but tiny, local, particular, like the first green shoots of spring in that narrow band where the cement breaks open.

The theologian Miroslav Wolf sees God at work in this particularity of reconciliation. In his book Exclusion & Embrace, Wolf says that God is partial. “In a sense, because God is partial to everyone—including the powerful, whom God resists in order to protect the widow and the stranger. God sees each human being concretely, the powerful no less than the powerless. God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs. When God executes justice, God does not abstract but judges and acts in accordance with the specific character of each person.” (222).

As Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, he gives these cranky Corinthians a new name, a new job description “Ambassadors.” In verse 20 he writes “ So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” It is mighty hard to be reconciled to our odious neighbors if we are not reconciled to God. It is mighty hard to see others as God sees, if we cannot imagine ourselves as God sees us: worthy, lovable, precious, particular.

If you have taken the MBTA Redline into the city, all the way to Downtown Crossing, you’ve probably seen a Business Improvement District Ambassador.


Dressed in bright orange polo shirts & unflattering green windbreakers, these 40 women and men are stationed where the lost and lonely wander. It’s a city program to make the Downtown Crossing area a little friendlier and more manageable.



An out of town tourist wrote about the Ambassadors: “Hello, my wife and I just returned from a wonderful vacation to New England where we spent 5 days in Boston and a couple weeks in NH and ME. We just wanted to say how pleased we were with the assistance from Ambassador Michael. When we approached Michael for directions to the Common, instead of pointing the direction, he actually walked us there himself. We aren’t used to this specialized service. Please let him know again how happy we were with your organization and in particular, Michael.” In Particular. Larry from Pennsylvania was not left alone in the city, but helped, and not by just anyone, but “in particular, Michael.” Michael didn’t just point out the direction, “He actually walked us there himself.” And maybe that’s what it could be like for us to be Ambassadors of reconciliation too- to not just point out the way, but actually walk there ourselves.





Invested in fruitfulness

Preached on Sunday February 28, 2016 at First Parish (Unitarian Universalist) Milton, MA

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ” ~ Luke 13: 6-9


from  US Poet Laureate’s Louise Glück’s 1992 poem: “Vespers [once I believed in you]” from her book, The Wild Iris.

Once I believed in you; I planted a fig tree.

Here, in Vermont, country

of no summer. It was a test: if the tree lived,

it would mean you existed.


By this logic, you do not exist. Or you exist

exclusively in warmer climates,

in fervent Sicily and Mexico and California,

where are grown the unimaginable

apricot and fragile peach. Perhaps

they see your face in Sicily; here we barely see

the hem of your garment. I have to discipline myself

to share with John and Noah the tomato crop.

If there is justice in some other world, those

like myself, whom nature forces

into lives of abstinence, should get

the lion’s share of all things, all

objects of hunger, greed being

praise of you. And no one praises

more intensely than I, with more

painfully checked desire, or more deserves

to sit at your right hand, if it exists, partaking

of the perishable, the immortal fig,

which does not travel.


Let us pray: Holy God, who invites all your people to life abundant again and again, guide the hearing and the preaching of your Scriptures, that we might hear the Word we need for this time, and these people, and in this particular place. I claim you again, my rock and my Redeemer, Amen.

I’ve tried to transport that “perishable, the immortal fig” of which Louise Glück speaks. Coming home from the Holy Land, I swaddled figs in paper towels, put them to bed in a plastic bag, and tucked them in to my carry-on luggage only to arrive back home in Boston with a sticky mess that at least had the decency to stay self-contained in the bag. I threw that sticky bag into the airport bathroom garbage bin, filled with dirty diapers and greasy brown burger bags. When that failed, we tried a different route. My Aunt Barbara had a bounty crop of figs in her Atlanta yard, more than any one home could consume. She lined each one up into two egg carton, two dozen bodies seated obediently like children on a bus, and sent them through the mail on a field trip to Massachusetts. The box arrived with a damp spot on one end, a sign of the crash I’d find inside. The immortal fig does not travel, but produces fruit where it is planted, sweet, tender unimaginably delicious fruit.

Except when it doesn’t. Or it won’t. Or it can’t. Here, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of a barren fig tree. This fig tree has everything going for it: the right climate, enough water and sun, enough health to make it to three years old, even a hired hand, a gardener to care and tend it! But still no fruit.

The threat comes. “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

So often this parable has been read as a divine threat for productivity- get busy making fruit or the ax is at the roots. And that reading makes sense when you think of the context in which this was written, an oppressed people anxious to have judgment come. Apocalyptic literature is often written by those in such dire situations that liberation comes from the judgment against the oppressor. Chants of “Cut it down” rise from those who are tired of seeing the privileged fig tree get all the water, all the sunlight, all the soil and all the attention while others wilt, parched from lack of water and care. That’s one way to read this parable.

We could read this as a wrathful God and a benevolent Christ who stands in to advocate for one more chance for those deserving to be cut down. But that reading presumes we live in a binary world of blessing and judgment, good and evil, productive or barren, reward and punishment.  That is not the world I believe in, nor is it the God of second chances for whom grace is always greater than judgment. Parables are not made to be tidy metaphors; they describe more of what the Kingdom of God is like than they map easily onto us.

We have a messy metaphor here, dripping on our fingers, oozing off the edges of the page, bruised from travel across the generations and the mishandling by many. Jesus refuses to clean it up for us. We have to deal with the messy texts. A mature faith contends with it all.

Maybe, maybe this is as much a parable of the barren fig tree as it is the parable of the Merciful Gardener.

This Merciful Gardener sees that the tree is not producing, but instead of cutting it down right now, advocates some additional care. “Let me loosen the soil,” he says. “Let me thrown down some manure,” he suggests. Let me get my hands dirty and work with this unproductive tree. The Merciful Gardner knows that things need time to grow to full maturity. A year. Just another year, he advocates. Not forever, but just another year. This is indeed a fig tree, not some mere ornamental, but a tree intended to produce fruit.

If God is like this Merciful Gardener, God is tender and attentive to what God has planted. If God is like this Merciful Gardener, God is willing to dig and prune and fertilize. But God, like this Merciful Gardner, is still invested in fruitfulness.

God is invested in fruitfulness. Not success, but fruitfulness. God cares about our fruitfulness.

IMG_2605It’s a dangerous thing to tell a highflying, well-resourced church like First Parish Milton that God cares about our fruitfulness.

We can get seduced into thinking that love is conditional: if we only do more, have more, work more. We can get contorted in our beliefs that abundance is a sign of blessing and so, the inverse must also be true- scarcity is a sign of unworthiness. We can get distorted into thinking our worth is in proportion to our productivity. That is not God’s grace, but a cosmic vending machine, a spiritual transaction where I put in my work and God dispenses blessings. But hear me clear, our fruitfulness cannot earn God’s grace, and God is invested in our flourishing. Fig trees are created to produce figs. If we have been given rain, soil, sun, if we have been planted in fertile soil, we are expected to produce. Jesus has a few choice words for those who store up treasures or protect their inheritances.  Those who sit on their abundance and do not share it do not fare well in the economy of God.

Part of my ministry with the Massachusetts Council of Churches involves visiting congregations of all different denominations across the Commonwealth, listening to what God and God’s people are up to. Regardless of the size of the community or the beliefs of the congregation, this is true everywhere,: the churches that are thriving are deeply invested in the fruitfulness of their wider community.

They are not just tilling their own soil, but lending their tools and putting their hands to the plow with people they don’t know. They are digging up their neighbor’s fields and helping them plant. They are mortgaging their own fields to help others find their own fruitfulness. If I had a dollar for every congregation that told me they were welcoming, I would never have to fundraise again for the MCC.  Welcoming presumes people will walk in our doors and should they make it across the threshold, we promise to be nice to them. Many, many churches are “wasting the soil,” and indeed, in this era when culture will not prop up our walls any longer, the ax is at the root. But fruitfulness gets interested in the flourishing of others beyond our own field.

Where we are planted matters. I’ve tried to grow a great many things in our rocky New England soil and cold winters. I am fully convinced that the smell of a lemon blossom can raise the dead and restore me to life. But I’ve killed three different lemon trees trying to grow them here in New England. Fig trees are hard to grow in Vermont. Fruitful plants best grow where they are suited for the soil.

Where we are planted matters. You sit here in Milton, uniquely positioned and placed for the ministry that God has appointed to you, particularly to you. This soil is yours, rich with nutrients and possibility. What are you going to grow here for the good of others?

It is a rare church in this country whose neighborhood is the same as when that church was planted. We’ve all had to adapt to changing climates, changing winds. The churches that haven’t adapted are mighty uninteresting, and frighteningly insular. The Presbyterian scripture scholar Matt Skinner puts it this way “just because you haven’t been cut down, don’t presume you are bearing fruit.”

We confuse existing for fruitfulness. “We’re still here” is not a compelling mission.  But food enough for the journey and a fruitfulness not just for own sake, but so that all may flourish? That’s soil worth digging in.

There’s an urgency in Jesus’s parable. Just one year. I know churches with that urgency, but it’s mostly because of a fear that the money will run out. Urgency avoids the complacency of wasting the soil. But the urgency in God’s economy comes from a sense that so many are hungry for that life abundant that’s just out of reach. Our fruitfulness is not just for our own sake, but the sake of all who long for the food that truly nourishes, that perishable, immortal fig.

“A man planted a fig tree in his vineyard…” Odd. Why is a fig tree being planted in a vineyard? Vineyards are for grapes; Orchards are for fruit trees. Why is a fig tree being planted in a vineyard?   Maybe you veteran gardeners know this strategy, often called “companion planting.”

In an ancient farming manual, this practice becomes clearer. Fig trees were used to trellis grapes. In fact, Pliny the Elder, writing in his Natural History “recommends that trees be used for growing grape vines since “high class wines can only be produced from vines on trees ” Pliny specifically mentions the fig tree as a preferred tree for use m trellising ” The choicer wines,” he says, “are made from the grapes at the top of the trees.”

Maybe the fig tree’s fruitfulness mattered since the grapes depend on it too.

God’s grace, a grace that gives the fig tree another year to grow is not the same as indifference. God desires a fruitful tree because so many are so hungry for life abundant. And maybe others in this vineyard, in this neighborhood, in this neighboring Boston need your strong branches to trellis their vines.

Who needs the fruitfulness of First Parish Milton?



“An intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain.”

All Saints, Brookline

Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2015

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

Let us pray: May we see. Amen.

Sometimes, truth lurks in the footnotes.

There, beneath the Gospel text, in The Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition 2001, there, where the font gets small and squished, some unnamed, unknown editor wrote this:

“This account recalls an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain.”

Strictly speaking, this statement is not Scripture. It is not part of the text handed down again and again in a Gospel we call Luke. But this footnote voices something that maybe the befuddled could have said, “This is an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain.”

“Intense” is the modifier for all teen-age emotions. I was 14 when I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord & Savior. I remember what I was wearing: A homemade Bible costume made of bedsheets & Birkenstocks. I kneeled at the foot for a gigantic wooden cross that my youth groups had just paraded 3 miles through Suburbia. I think someone was playing Amy Grant & Michael W. Smith on a boom box. There, in the garden of the Community church of Mountain Lakes, I confessed my 14 year old sins and took Jesus into my heart. I’m less surprised that this all happened, at a United Church of Christ congregation no less, and more surprised that it stuck. It’s taken me years to be able to see and make sense of a God who shows up to tormented teenagers dressed in bible costumes. “This is an intense religious experience, the nature of which is uncertain.”

The disciples are utterly confused. Jesus brings Peter, James and John up the mountain to pray, but something far more cosmic occurs.

We don’t know how long has passed, then all of a sudden, Jesus’s appearance changes and then his clothes change too.

For many parts of the Western Church, it wasn’t just Jesus’s clothes that became white, but Jesus himself became white. For centuries, the Church has confused radiance with whiteness.

The appearance of Jesus’s face changed, as it did when Moses encountered the Lord. Jesus’s clothes became dazzling bright, radiant, reflective of the Glory of God: transfigured, or as the Greek reads, “metaphorphoses.”

We are in the midst of this profound moment where people with bodies previously considered ugly, unworthy, and expendable, are claiming their beauty, worth, and dignity. I think of a mantra that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson has tweeted again and again: “I love my blackness. And yours.” The thing that the world despises? Dazzling. Transfigured.

Before this Transfiguration, Jesus told the disciples that his body will be taken by state-sponsored violence, rejected by the religious authorities, beaten, tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed. That which is despised? Dazzling. Transfiguration.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an entire denomination that would not exist were it not for the racism of white Christians who would not see the equal dignity of Black Christians.

The founding cleric of the African Methodist Episcopal church changed his name from “Negro Richard” to “Richard Allen,” when he bought his own freedom. Transfiguration.

A companion and colleague of Bishop Richard Allen’s, Rev. Absalom Jones, the first African-America ordained as an Episcopal priest, cast aside the name of his former Master and changed his name from Absalom Wynkoop to Absalom Jones, a name intentionally chosen for the sound of its American-ness. Transfiguration.

And even in Absalom Jones’s intention to found St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia in 1794 you can here the aim of transfiguration: “to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in.” Transfiguration.

IMG_2249This week we woke up to the city transformed, blanketed in snow. Barren trees dazzled, trash on the sidewalk disappeared, every garbage pile became pure, and for a few hours, the whole world was glowed.

Transfiguration is more than just blanketing over. Transfiguration is an internal radiance that chances how we see Jesus Christ, the One who transfigures the suffering of the cross into glory, and the emptiness of the tomb into the fullness of life.

But true transfigurations are confusing. The mystics said that the Transfiguration both reveals and blinds. In a Transfiguration, we see the world as God sees, but that vision is utterly confusing. That Transfigured vision is so far from the world as it is, full of barren trees, trash piles, human division and brokenness all around.

In to that “an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain,” Peter blurts out. Peter wouldn’t make a very good Quaker or contemplative. You get the sense that Peter is the guy who vestry meetings who couldn’t live with the tension or the silence, and just spoke to break the awkwardness. The radiant light is receding, Moses and Elijah are beginning to leave, and Peter interjects

“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us build three dwellings…” (Luke 9:33).

Let us build 3 tabernacles here! If we just… If we just build three tabernacles!

If we just finish the building. If we just put in a new Sunday school classroom. … If we just had more contemporary music, if we just had more incense, If we just had more people, if we just could stay here. If we could just constrain where God decides to show up in ways that are more dependable and less uncertain. Peter turns to what is familiar, the Jewish festival of the Tabernacles, a harvest festival to commemorate God’s provision of the people while they were in exile. Let’s build something solid to escape our wandering.

The Church struggles mightily with this, to live with uncertainty. We are loath to acknowledge that for a pilgrim people, we’ve gotten mighty comfortable in our established buildings. Our churches become shelters from the storm rather than basecamps for the journey. When I am anxious, I share Peter’s impulse to sequester ourselves in our mystical experiences or our nice church buildings. Peter is our institutional id here, voicing our anxious impulse to fix solid what we cannot control, to settle in, and build a structure with clear boundaries that says here but not there.

But God won’t let Peter. The same Savior who cautions to take no extra pair of shoes, won’t let them stay put either. Jesus brought them up the mountain, and will lead them back down. Up and down, back and forth, toggling between worship of God and work in the World. Not just duty but delight, that they might be transfigured too.

The Massachusetts Council of Churches, on our best days, aims for this Transfiguration too, this back and forth of common worship and common work. To move our churches from our denominational silos, our safe tabernacles, to ministry in the world together. We are convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger that anything that divides us, and there’s plenty that still divides us.   And we are convinced that when Jesus prayed in John 17 that the Church might be one, so that the world might believe in the One who sent Christ- this was not a polite recommendation from Jesus, but a mandate. Our unity is essential to our ministry. How can we show the world a loving God who reconciles all things to God’s self when we cannot be reconciled to one another? This is our work at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, to see with transfigured eyes, to see the Church not in all its divisions but in glorious union of what could be. Maybe you’ve seen the Church on those good, transfigured days, when the dividing walls fall down, when you’re serving together, when you can receive at the same table. Those days when you stand on the side of the mountain with the radiant Christ above, and the broken world below.

We stand here, awkwardly perched in the in-between, in front of a religious experience we may not understand, our feet sliding on the gravel that rolls down the mountain. It good for us to be here. Not necessarily easy, but good. Like the disciples, It is hard to stay woke to the uncertainty. It is Good for us to be here in the uncertain. Christ is here.

Many other Christians today are reading this Transfiguration text on the last Sunday before Lent. In Lent, we wander between these two peaks- The Mount of the Transfiguration and Golgotha. The days in-between these two mountain top experiences are set aside to examine that which is within us and around us that keeps us from being transfigured.

I’m honored that you award me today with All Saints 2016 Spirituality & Justice Award. You know this in your bones, spirituality and justice go together, indivisible. You practice this in your parish, the deep commitment to see every child of God as fully human, as deserving of equal dignity, maybe even as radiant.

I believe this is our work for the Church in this era, when we are no longer propped up by cultural norms, when the protest songs chanted in the streets are not necessarily the hymns of our churches. I believe that our common Christian witness is not just for our own good, but for the sake of the world.

  • The more I pray, the more I long for our earth as it is in heaven.
  • The more I read Scripture, the more I want to shout against false prophets and anemic Christianity.
  • The more I come to the table, the more I notice the people who are missing.
  • The more I come to the table, the louder the rumble in my belly for all to be fed.
  • And the more I do this work for justice, the more I turn to God in awe and uncertainty.

350 years ago in France, an eighteen-year-old man sat in a drafty farmhouse, gazing out onto the desolation of the world in winter. Only barren trees were before him. But slowly, he began to see things on the naked branches. First leaves would appear, followed by flowers and fruit. In the depth of winter, God showed Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection all the abundance, all the power, all the radiance of God’s provision. Brother Lawrence spent the rest of his life in this practice of the presence of God, looking upon the barren branches and seeing God’s provision, looking upon the cross and seeing God’s glory.

“An intense religious experience, the nature of which is uncertain. “

May we see with eyes of the Transfiguration.

May we be transfigured, too.

Why I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church

200th Anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church

New England Annual Conference Bicentennial Service

Sunday February 7, 2016

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Jamaica Plain MA

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

Note: This Response was given at a Bicentennial Service commemorating the 200th anniversary of the AME Church. Throughout this year, you can join celebrations, including the release of the Bishop Richard Allen USPS Stamp & celebrations in Philadelphia.  More info at: 


Giving Glory to God, and honor to:

I bring you blessings and greetings on behalf of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a network of individuals, congregations and denominations, including the New England Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than anything that might divide us. Let me say that again: convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than anything that might divide us.


Rev. Laura Everett, Mass Council of Churches & Presiding Elder Herbert Eddy, New England Annual Conference, First Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church


You know well all those things that might divide us. The necessity of establishing the African Methodist Church is our uniquely American contribution to the history of Church division, one of the rare divisions in the Church when the body of Christ was divided not by doctrine but by racism. 200 years ago, the AME came into being in part because of the racism of white Christians who could not, who would not see the equal dignity of Black Christians. We did not did not divide because of doctrine but because of the sin of racism. I grieve our inherited legacy of division.

In many parts of the Christian church we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration today, a day when we remember Jesus climbing up the mountain to pray, being reunited with the ancestors Moses and Elijah, and basking in the splendor of the Spirit, radiant with the light of God.


For many parts of the Church, it wasn’t just Jesus’s clothes that became white, but Jesus himself became white. For centuries, the Church has confused radiance with whiteness.

When White Christians pulled Richard Allen & Absalom Jones off their knees in prayer, the Church confused radiance with whiteness.

When even after black Christians were relegated to the back pews, the choir loft, the balconies, when even that was too much and a white Boston church would rather remove every pew in the sanctuary than to have accidentally sold a pew to a black family, even here in the progressive, genteel city of Boston, the Church confuses radiance with whiteness.

When we save the hymns of the black church tradition for MLK Sunday and nowhere else in the year, the Church confuses radiance with whiteness.

And when, somewhere along the way, a young man who had been raised in a primarily white Protestant Church, gets it in his head to destroy black bodies, and brings a gun to a bible study, the Church has confused radiance with whiteness. And our nation confuses the second amendment with idolatry.

Even in that oppression, compression, depression and confusion, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has faithfully modeled the transforming love of God, lo these two hundred years.

For two hundred years, through every danger, toil, and snare, you have been faithful to Christ with a faith stronger than slavery, a faith stronger than a civil war, stronger than a national depression, a faith stronger than segregated schools, a faith stronger than the redlines that would divide us. In you, I see the Resurrection.

I want to tell you why I love the AME, and why the rest of the Church needs your particular witness to the way God continues to transfigure us. May I tell you why I love the AME?

I love the dignity of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Every time I enter an AME Church to worship, I see the dignity of entering God’s courts with praise. I see the presumption of Kings and Queens, royalty in the household of God. I see bodies beautiful and adoring of the Lord of Lords.

I love the unabashed African-ness of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I honor your deep history that is more than just the theologians of books, but the unnamed women and men who shaped and sustained and passed on the faith.

I love your Methodist-ness, your Wesleyan fire stored up in your bones.

I love your Episcopacy, your defiant, true conviction that you are heirs of our apostolic faith.

I love your Church, your widest part of the body of Christ- not just an American church, but a global Church.

I love your core conviction that the Gospel of Christ is in fact Good news, and even in snowy New England it might be ok to show some joy.

I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s sense that the Gospel still liberates, still releases from bondage, still heals up the broken-hearted. I love your conviction that the Gospel heals not just in some metaphoric sense but heals and liberates flesh and blood, real bodies, real brokenness.

I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s unwillingness to divided worship from work, Sunday from Monday.

I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s ability to move with the Spirit, maybe even past where you are initially comfortable- the Spirit that moved you to ordain women, and then to consecrate women Bishops. I love that you are willing to let the Spirit move you still.

Finally, I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s conviction that the doors of the church are open, not just so that others might come in, but that we might go out. I love your conviction that if our churches aren’t changing neighborhoods for the good, then we are not fully embodying the transforming Gospel.

I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I am grateful for you. In the same breath, I grieve the racism by white Christians that prompted our division, and give God thanks for your faithfulness over 200 years. You have been signs of the Resurrection. May God continue to use the African Methodist Episcopal Church to transfigure the whole Body of Christ and transform the world.