Saturday, May 31, 2014

If I Had A Hammer

A Reading from Acts, the First Chapter
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

One of the things I did as a kid that would make my dad a little crazy was not use the right tool for the job.  It’s not that we didn’t have the right tool, but that the right tool was WAY OVER THERE in the garage and I was WAY OVER HERE in the driveway trying to fix my bike.  My dad knew what I apparently had to learn the hard way, that if I would have just taken the time and made the effort to go find the right tool, the project I was doing would be done much more quickly and much more efficiently and I would have already been off riding my bike.  Instead, because I wasn’t willing to go WAY OVER THERE to the garage and get the right tool, I continued to sit in the driveway with a broken bike!

The story today from the book of Acts about the Ascension is one of the times when we hear pretty clearly the mission that Jesus calls us do in the world.  Jesus told the disciples to start telling people about him and start changing the world the way he had when he was walking around Galilee.  He told them they should start in Jerusalem.  In other words, he told them to start right where they were.  Then, Jesus said, go out into Judea.  Go to the folks who were a lot like them, but not right next door.  Then, they were to go to Samaria.  Those people were pretty different but not totally foreign.  Then they were to go to the ends of the earth and who knows what those people would be like!  

Understanding the need in the community is one thing... it’s like understanding that your job is to drive a nail into a board.  But having the right tool to do the job... having the right hammer... THAT is something else completely!  That makes it a real calling!  At the Ascension the disciples got the job, but it wasn’t until Pentecost (which we celebrate next Sunday) that God gave them tools they needed to do that job.  

It turns out that is the way God always does it.  God never gives us a mission or a calling without the tools needed to do the job.  Take Joshua for example.  When it was time for Joshua to take over from Moses and lead the people into the Promised Land, Moses and God called Joshua to do the job, Moses and God gave him a nail.  BUT, God also gave Joshua the equivalent of the right hammer to drive THAT nail; Moses transferred to Joshua the Spirit of wisdom so he had the mission AND the right tools for the job.  

The prophet Elijah is another great example.  Elijah also made sure that his successor, Elisha had both the mission AND the tools to get the job done.  So, when Elijah was taken up in the chariot of fire, Elisha got exactly what he needed to do the job; a double share of Elijah’s spirit and with the right tools he picked up Elijah’s mantle (which was basically the prophet’s uniform) and got on with business.  He had both the nail AND the hammer.

At his Ascension, Jesus gave the disciples their nail.  For the disciples (which include you and me) the mission, our nail, is to live as Jesus lived and work like he did to transform the world.  That’s the “nail” Jesus gave to the disciples and that is the “nail” you and I have been given as well.  Our “nail” is to change the world!  Which, frankly, sounds really overwhelming, BUT hold on, it’s not as overwhelming as it might sound.    

The first thing to keep in mind is that you are not the only ones to whom Jesus gave a nail!  Every Christian throughout the world has been given this same mission... we’ve all been asked to drive a nail!  The other thing to keep in mind as we panic about having to change the whole world is that we’re not supposed to start with the whole world first!  Jesus didn’t say go to the whole world and then narrow it down to Samaria and then to Judea and then to Jerusalem!  He said start where you are, in your own neighborhood and go out from there.  

So you and me and Christians all over the world have the same mission,  we’ve been called to change the world... to make the world work with love, compassion and generosity, caring for the least, last and lost in the world.  We’ve all been called to pound a nail.  But, before you start whacking away, take a minute and look at the specific nail YOU have been given.  Is it a common wire nail, a smooth box nail, a cut nail, casing, concrete, slating or roofing nail... is it a blued lathe, plaster board or shingle nail or is it a brad?  Even though we all have been given the same mission... to make the world work in the Jesus way... even though we’ve all been asked to drive a nail... the nails each of us and each of our congregations have been given are different and each of us has been called to change the world in a slightly different way.  AND, just as each different type of nail has a hammer that is best to drive that particular nail, each Christian and each Christian community has been given particular resources to take on a particular piece of the mission of changing the world.  

I’ll give you an example of what I’m trying to say.  Let’s say there was a congregation that realized that there were people in their neighborhood who were hungry.  Let’s say hypothetically, food had been disappearing from the church refrigerator and while it was annoying, they found it was more annoying that it was clear that their neighbors were hungry.  Then that same church learned that well over half the kids in their community relied on free and reduced lunches at school and that when school got out for the summer, they would likely be hungry.  The part of Jesus’s mission of changing the world this congregation had been handed was feeding hungry neighbors.  That was the “nail” that they had been given.

Now it turns out that this particular congregation was gifted with a wonderful kitchen, a bright fellowship hall and some amazingly wonderful cooks and they even had experience with a free lunch program they ran in the winter months.  That was their very specialized hammer, custom forged especially for them by the fire of the Holy Spirit.  It was made to pound THAT particular nail that they had been given... the nail that was hungry neighbors and kids.

You see, where the needs of a particular corner of the world intersect with the gifts of a particular faith community THERE you have a people called by God.  THERE, hammer meets nail.  THERE the world is changed!  THERE you are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Service for the Blessing of the Fleet

Opening Prayer
Loving and gracious God, we ask your presence upon our blessing of the fleet. We thank you for the beauty of this community and the mighty waters that surround this island.  May we always use and care for your gifts of the land and the sea in a way that is pleasing to you.  In your holy name we pray. Amen
A Reading From Psalm 107

Some of you set sail in big ships;
    you put to sea to do business on the mighty waters.
Out at sea you saw God in action,
    saw his breathtaking ways with the ocean:
With a word he called up the wind—
    an ocean storm, towering waves!
You shot high in the sky, then the bottom dropped out;
    your hearts were stuck in your throats.
You were spun like a top, you reeled like a drunkard,
    you didn’t know which end was up.
Then you called out to God in your desperate condition;
    he got you out in the nick of time.
He quieted the wind down to a whisper,
    put a muzzle on all the big waves.
You were so glad when the storm died down,
    and he led you safely back to harbor.
So thank God for his marvelous love,
    for his miracle mercy to the children he loves.
Lift high your praises when the people assemble,
    shout Hallelujah when the elders meet!

Let us Pray for Those Who Fish

Almighty God we give thanks for all those who work at sea. We acknowledge our need for the resources they gather and their dedication to feeding our world. We recognize that they are sometimes in danger and their work often involves sacrifices in their family life. Help us to show our gratitude not only in our words, but also in our actions. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Let Us Pray for Those Who Support the Fleet
Almighty God, we pray for those who support those who go to sea.  We give thanks for those who build, repair and maintain ships and boats and equipment, for those who sort and process the catch, for those who provide their supplies, feed them, care for their daily needs and welcome them home.  Give them joyful hearts as they care for those who go to sea.  Grant to all whose work connects them with the sea the blessings of safety, enough to eat and a just reward for all their work. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Let us Pray for Others Whose Calling is the Sea
We pray, O God for all others who go to sea as they fulfill their duties and face the dangers of their calling: the officers, men and women of the United States Coast Guard, the Maine Ferry Service, pilots and all others whose calling is on the sea. Grant them your strength and protection and give them wisdom and courage in their hours of special need.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer of Blessing
Today we gather to bless this fleet, those who work on the sea, those who support them in their calling and all those who sail from this island.  

God of boundless love, at the beginning of creation your Spirit swept over the waters.  You called forth every creature and made the seas team with life.  Your son Jesus calmed the Sea of Galilee, brought his disciples to safety, and filled the nets of his disciples to overflowing.  Bless this fleet, their equipment, gear and all who serve.  Protect them from wind and rain and the dangers of the deep.  Provide for them an abundant harvest and return them always to this harbor in your light and peace.  May the saving power of our Lord, guide and protect you all, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

 The photograph is entitled "Two Crows" and is by Peter Ralston.  Peter is a friend and a wonderful supporter and ally of our Maine Island communities.  Please visit his gallery in Rockport and his website at

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Memorial Day Reflection

Opening Reflection

Each Memorial Day I think about my first visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the names.  Of course it is the names.  For me, the most powerful thing about all those names, was not the ones that were there, but one particular name that was NOT.  My dad flew 123 combat missions over North Vietnam.  Standing there I felt overwhelming thankfulness that his name was not on that wall, that he had come home, taught me to throw a ball, cast a fly rod, grill steaks, change the oil, rip a board on a table saw, make bread and a million other things including identifying wild flowers in the woods.  Then immediately I felt an overwhelming grief and horrible guilt because so many names WERE on that wall and their deaths had left gaping holes in the lives of so many families and friends.  

So it is on Memorial Day.  We remember those in the other airplane, the ones who stepped on the other piece of ground, rode in the other seat, were sleeping in the other compartment, served on the other ship, drove down the other side of the road, those who did not come home.  We give thanks for their service and their sacrifice.  We wrestle with the survivor’s guilt we know deep in our hearts that they, of all people, would tell us to let go of and we do our best to live each day to the fullest knowing that caring deeply for each other here, is the best way to honor the gift they gave there.  May we remember their sacrifice not only on Memorial Day, but every day and may that memory inspire us to work for the day no new names need to be added to our Memorial Day remembrances.   

A Reading from the Gospel of John

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.  You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.  I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

The Prayers

Let us pray:  Eternal God, we give thanks for all those who have shown the greatest love by laying down their lives for others. We especially thank you for those in our military throughout history who have sacrificed their lives for their fellow citizens and for those who came after. As we remember their service, keep us mindful of all those for whom this day is filled with grief. Send your spirit of comfort to them. Be present with all the women and men who are serving in the military today.  Though they are at war, let them live for the peace which passes all understanding. Help us to be worthy of their legacy, and keep us mindful of their service, that in all things we may live our lives in praise and thanksgiving to you; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Let us pray together, the Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven,
     hallowed be thy name,
     thy kingdom come,
     thy will be done,
          on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
     as we forgive those
          who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
     but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
     and the power, and the glory,

     forever and ever. Amen.

Friday, May 23, 2014

It's Madness to Hold Onto the Method

The Holy Gospel According to St. John the 14th Chapter
”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him,
because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was trying to tell the Disciples, among other things, that First:  Things were going to dramatically change (this talk was at the Last Supper) and Second:  That things were not going to be any different than they’ve always been.  For some reason, this left the disciples a  bit confused!   

Perhaps thinking about it like this may help... About 15 years ago my kids created messes faster than I could clean them, they fought going to sleep and a huge part of my world revolved around the triumphs and tragedies of “the potty.”  Now, they clean the house when I send a text message (and a minor threat), they put themselves to bed and I haven’t thought about "the potty" in years.  So, EVERYTHING has changed!!!  And at the same time, nothing’s changed.  They always have been, and always will be, my kids!  My unconditional love for them is the unchangeable frame which surrounds the millions of changes that have and will happen in our lives together.  

This is what Jesus was trying to get the Disciples to understand.  God’s unconditional, unlimited love for all of creation was not changing.  However, inside that unchangeable frame, the METHOD God was using to call us to live into that love WAS changing... Jesus had been that METHOD for the disciples for three years, but now he was leaving them and something new called the “Advocate” was coming.  That was going to be a big change, but God’s love... that would, as always, remain constant... the disciples would not be left orphaned!    

It was a huge change for the disciples, but not the first time God had changed the METHOD.  The METHOD God first used to share God’s love for creation was simply loving creation into being.  As the world changed, God changed the METHOD, making covenants, giving the Torah and telling them He would be their God and they would be His people.  When the world changed again, God changed the METHOD again using prophets and kings and eventually sending Jesus.  Now, in the story from today, the world was changing yet again and so God would yet again show creation God's unlimited, radical love in a brand new way... through the Holy Spirit.  God's love is constant, but how it gets to us... through creation, covenant, prophets, kings, Savior and Spirit... that does indeed change.  What makes this even more challenging is that inside those big changes, smaller changes happen too.

All of that change is hard for disciples in any time to process and I think sometimes disciples today, like the disciples back then, try to manage all that change by tying ourselves to a METHOD with which we've grown comfortable.  The disciples back then tied themselves to the person Jesus and didn't understand that the way Jesus would be present in their lives could or should change.  The METHOD, after all, is often easier to see and understand and so we convince ourselves that the METHOD shouldn't change.  So, when it does, it's jarring

When I was in Colorado, a pastor friend and I started a Bible study called “Bibles and Brews.”  We met in a small craft brewery and did Bible studies and book studies with about a dozen people.  We shared a meal, spent time checking in on each other, prayed for each other, read and talked about scripture.  Almost all the people who came to that had been hurt by the church in some way or another and many of them, in spite of really growing in their faith at Bibles and Brews, told me they would still NEVER set foot in a church again.  While part of me understood that, since my family and I had also been horribly hurt by church, I also felt that as a failure... my failure... that I couldn’t get them “back to church”.  

Do you see the mistake I made there in Colorado?  I was so focused on getting these people back into “church” as in the building with a steeple, hymns, an organ, vestments and pews that I missed completely that right under my nose, God had changed the METHOD!  God knew those folks simply couldn’t receive God’s love through the old METHOD of a “church” because of how they had been hurt, so God sent that love through a new METHOD... a brewery!  In hindsight it seems obvious now but it took me about a year after I left Colorado to figure out what God had been doing there. 

In today’s lesson, the world changed.  God did something new and the disciples missed it, even with Jesus sitting at the table telling them exactly what it was God was doing!  They missed it!  They missed it because they were tied more to the METHOD, more tied to Jesus as a person, than they were to God’s unchanging love.  In Colorado the world changed.  God did something new and THIS disciple missed it!  Right there in a brewery in Colorado God did something new and I missed it!  I missed it because I was more tied to the METHOD, called “church”, than I was to God’s infinite and ever present love.  

The world’s still changing you know.  Right here in Augusta, Maine... the world is changing.  A look at our history and a look around our city and it’s easy to see that the world is changing.  And since the world is changing it seems very likely, given God's track record, that God is doing something new right here, all around us, right now, right under our noses.  The question for us then becomes what are we going to do about it?

The disciples, when they were faced with their changing world, locked themselves in a room and hid from the world.  That’s certainly an option but to live faithfully we need to honestly ask ourselves what it is that we are most tied to.  Is it God’s infinite, unchanging love OR are we more tied to a familiar METHOD?  If we are tied to a METHOD like the disciples were at the Last Supper or like I was in Colorado, then there's a really good chance we too might be missing something important God is doing right under our noses!  

God’s love is what is changeless.  Jesus told the disciples that since they loved him, they should follow his commandments.  His commandments were (and are) to love God and love our neighbors... to tie ourselves in all we do to God’s unchanging love.  But tying ourselves to God’s love also means being ready and willing to let go of even the METHODS we’ve grown most comfortable with over the years, so that God’s unchanging love can be free to reach into places and hearts where it hasn’t been able to reach before.  

May we have the courage to let go of even our most familiar METHODS when God has moved on to something new.  May we accompany God's unchanging love to the people and places God intends for it to go and may we find that courage by living each day more deeply ourselves into God’s unchanging love for all of creation.  Amen.  

Friday, May 16, 2014

Imagine You are a Fish!

The Holy Gospel According to St. John the 14th Chapter

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 
And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know
where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

(Uh oh, he’s coming out of the pulpit)  John’s Gospel is a little odd so, sometimes, it takes being a little odd to understand what’s going on.  Fortunately for you, I’m pretty odd!  SO, to attempt to unravel the odd, I’m going to need you to use your imaginations today.  I want you to imagine that you... are a fish.  Fresh water, salt water... you pick.  You can have sharp teeth, pretty fins, a long nose or even a dangly thing on your head... whatever you like, but imagine you are a fish.  

Now that you’re a fish, I have some bad news.  I just pulled you out of the water onto the deck of my boat.  So how do you feel.  Not good, huh?  What do you think you need to feel better?  Water?  Water has the power to save you... to give you life?  OK then, since water has the power to save you, I want you now to BELIEVE in water.  With all of your mind, believe it exists, believe in it’s power to save, believe in the doctrine of water, the two hydrogen, one oxygen nature of water.... believe in water and mentally check off all those critically important doctrines and faith statements about water.  Got it?  Do you believe in water now?  Good!  So how do you feel?  Not good yet?  Huh.  Maybe believing with your mind isn’t the answer.  I know!  Try your heart!  OK, believe now with all your heart... all your emotions, all those deep down feelings.  Believe in water!  FEEL in your heart how it can save you!  Got it?  How about now?  Feeling new life yet?  No?  Huh.  

So believing in water with your mind didn’t work.  Believing in water with your heart didn’t work.  So there’s one last thing we can try.  Instead of believing in water with all your mind or all your heart.  How about if I slip you over the side of the boat where you can simply BE in the water?  Now, the water is all around you supporting your whole body.  The water brings you food, takes you to shelter and provides everything else you need.  The water is even flowing THROUGH you, over your gills and bringing you oxygen.  How do you feel now, my fishy friends?  Better?  YES!  Ok, you can stop imagining you're a fish now.  

When Jesus told the disciples “Believe in God, believe also in me” he wasn’t telling them to agree to a list of doctrines, creeds, cultural standards, political stances or faith statements about God, or even to FEEL a certain way about God.  In Jesus’ time, belief wasn’t something that happened in a person’s mind and it wasn’t even something that happened in a person’s heart... it wasn’t a head thing and it wasn’t a heart thing... it was an EVERY-THING.  

The meaning of the word “belief” changed about 400 years ago, so most of us today think of belief as a head thing or maybe a heart thing.  But belief in Jesus’ day had a significantly different meaning... it meant making a radical, intimate and complete connection with another person.  What Jesus was telling his disciples to do then was to radically be connected to God in a similar way to how a fish is radically connected to water!  It is in THAT connection where Jesus said we would begin to fully live into the LIFE God has already given us all as a gift.  THAT, Jesus told them was the TRUTH!  God, as Luke writes in Acts, is the One in whom we live and move and have our being!

Of course that begs the next question... HOW the HECK do you do THAT!?  HOW do you radically, intimately and completely connect with God?  Fortunately for us, Thomas didn’t know either, but Jesus gave him the answer.  Jesus told Thomas, I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  

So here we need to take a minute to really understand this verse because it has been used abusively all too often by Christians to “clobber” people who are not Christians.  This does NOT, NOT, NOT mean that if you aren’t a Christian you’re going to hell.  To figure out what it DOES mean, first remember the context.  Jesus is talking to his disciples... people who were already his followers.  He’s also answering a question personally for Thomas.  Thomas was worried that he would not be able to figure out HOW to connect with God the way Jesus was asking him to, so with this answer Jesus was attempting to COMFORT Thomas, to tell him it wasn’t as complicated as he thought it was.  To use a verse to clobber someone that Jesus originally used to COMFORT a disciple is a tragic misuse of the text.

So, Thomas wanted to live into the gift that is a radical, intimate and complete connection with God.  He wanted to, but he didn't get how he, simple human Thomas, was going to connect with the Infinite, the Divine, the Holy.  Basically, what Jesus told Thomas was, “RELAX!  When you are connected to me (and Thomas had been connected to Jesus for three years) you’re connected to God... when you live the Jesus life, walk the Jesus walk, go the Jesus WAY in other words, live a life of selfless love, grace, forgiveness, justice and generosity you ARE connecting more and more to God.”  The more often you are able to live the Jesus WAY in your day to day life... the more often you live with unconditional love, generosity and peace... the more you will recognize the TRUTH about the path you are on... and that TRUTH is that the Jesus WAY really does bring us more intimately into the abundant LIFE God created us to live.  

In our modern understanding of the word “believe” we’ve turned things completely around from how Jesus understood and used that word in his day.  Modern Christians often mistakenly make right doctrine, faith statements and correct ideas about God the first and most important thing about being a Christian, thinking THAT is what BELIEF is all about.  But what Jesus told Thomas, was that living the Jesus WAY attempting to live a life of selfless love, compassion, generosity and inclusion (and attempt is all we can do) is the only way to get to the TRUTH.  No amount of right doctrine, faith statements signed or correct thinking is going to bring you life.  It is only when we start DOING it living the Jesus WAY that we will see the TRUTH and begin to experience more fully the LIFE God created us to live.   

Now, before you charge me with heresy and burn me at the stake or worse.... I’m NOT saying creeds, doctrines, faith statements and ideas about God are bad.  And I’m NOT saying we shouldn’t use our minds or our hearts or our emotions to think about and talk about God.  What I’m saying is that creeds, doctrine, faith statements, ideas, our minds and our hearts are not the WAY.  Jesus is the WAY.  Those other things can (and ideally do) SUPPORT us as we try to live our lives the Jesus WAY, but they themselves are not the way.  For us Christians, Jesus is the clearest revelation of God... for us it is not a creed or an idea or even the Bible that we believe in or follow... it is a person named Jesus.  It is not when we think "correctly" or "confess perfectly" that we connect intimately and completely with God as Jesus desired us to do.  It is when we DO what Jesus did, and LIVE our lives the Jesus WAY that we truly and intimately connect more deeply with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  To try to connect with God without doing our best to live each day in the Jesus WAY, would be, well, like a fish trying to live out of the water.  Amen.

The photo, entitled "Dream" is by Peter Ralston.  Peter is a good friend and a deep soul.  If you are in Maine, check out his gallery in Rockport or visit his website at

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Good Shepherd, His Sheep and His Dog

The Holy Gospel According to St. John, the 10th Chapter

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He
calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

In this story, Jesus says he’s a shepherd and a gate.  Now, I try not to be stupid except when I’m trying to embarrass my kids, but this shepherd, gate, bandit, thief, sheep story isn’t exactly straight forward even after Jesus tries to clear it up!  It helps a little to know that when he told this story, Jesus had just healed the man born blind on the Sabbath.  That broke a rule and THAT made the Pharisees mad, because rules were more important to them than people.  So when Jesus talks about thieves and bandits in THIS story, he’s taking a stab at the Pharisees for what they just did in THAT story.

Jesus then says he’s both a gate and a shepherd.  To make sense of that, it helps to understand that in Jesus’ day the sheep were kept at night inside a stone walled enclosure with a gap in the wall for the sheep to go in and out.  The shepherd would sleep lying across that opening so if anyone or anything tried to get in or out they would step on the shepherd.  That was their high tech security system!   So Jesus can actually be both the shepherd AND the gate, because back then, the shepherd WAS the gate.  

Of course, we’re the sheep.  Now, I’ve been told in my career that I’m not a sheep... that I’m a shepherd because I’m a pastor, but I’m no shepherd... MAYBE I’m a sheepdog, but there’s only one real shepherd and that’s Jesus.  So Jesus is the shepherd and the gate and you’re the sheep and I’m a drooling, shaggy, interim sheepdog.  

And since this is your new sheepdog’s first official Sunday, what I bet you would really like to know is, what’s this sheepdog really like?  How long will he be here?  Who’s the next, settled/permanent sheep dog going to be?  How long will it take to find that settled sheep dog?  Can this sheepdog or the next one get other sheep to come here to our pen?  How about some young sheep or even some lambs?  Will we be able to find some green grass somewhere?  That green stuff always seems to be hard to find!    

If I’m not too far off, you’re wondering what our time together is going to look like and feel like and what’s going to happen down the road and to be honest, your new sheepdog wonders the same sorts of things!  We’re all wondering things like that because this is a time of pretty big change. The way things WERE have stopped being that way, but the way things are GOING TO BE hasn’t quite fallen into place yet.  In-between times like this in any part of life can be pretty nerve wracking whether you’re a sheep or a dog!  That’s why in these in-between times we all want to know what the Good Shepherd has in mind for us?  

But if we’re honest, at least part of why we want to know is because deep down, we’d all like to be in control of it.  I know when life gets unsettled, I try to grab hold and fix it... but you know, just when I start to worry and stress and think I really, really NEED to be the one to fix it, the Good Shepherd works in my life in a way that sort of pats me on the head and reminds me that I can worry all I want, but it STILL won’t make me the shepherd.  I might be good at barking at dangerous things and wagging my tail at nice things and comforting sheep in scary times, but I’m NOT the Good Shepherd and it turns out that things go best in life when both the sheepdog and the sheep take a deep breath and simply let the Good Shepherd be the shepherd.

And you know, we really do have lots of good reasons to trust the Good Shepherd.  He leads us to green pastures and still water down safe paths.  He protects us with that rod and staff and never, ever leaves us alone.  The Good Shepherd loves us so much he’ll do anything to keep us safe, including lay down his life for us!  It turns out he’s called the GOOD Shepherd for a really good reason!

That Good Shepherd is also Good because he’s also willing to use some tough love to get us moving too when that’s what’s best for us.  He knows staying stuck in the sheep pen isn’t what the world needs from us and it isn’t where we will find the green pastures and cool water he knows we really need.  When it’s time, (and sometimes waiting for the right time is really hard for sheep and dogs) the Good Shepherd will call us gently out of the pen and into the world and into whatever is next for us.  The Good Shepherd also knows that new things (even when they are what’s best for us) are often scary to sheep and sheepdogs so it probably shouldn’t surprise us if, when the Good Shepherd says it’s time to get going and we refuse to get going, that the Good Shepherd will give us a poke with that stick to get our attention!

The easier way, of course, is to simply do our best to follow the Good Shepherd’s voice.  To live our lives the Good Shepherd way... the Jesus way... to live lives that are loving; do what’s in our neighbor’s best interest... be compassionate and generous and care for the least and the lost and the last in our world.  But even when we don’t live perfectly, and we won’t... even if we mess it up really badly, and we will, part of what makes the Good Shepherd so GOOD is that he will always care for us along the road... no matter how far off the path we go.  Even if we wonder into the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd will make sure death stays just a shadow.    When we follow the Good Shepherd’s voice, when we live our lives the Jesus way, we’ll find ourselves living a much better life.  Not just after we die either, but a better life starting now and lasting forever.  

The other option, of course, is to follow the other voices that are out there.  The ones that call in over the walls and ask us to go out of the pen, not the Jesus way, but some other way.  Those are the voices that say things like, my way or the highway, that things shouldn’t change, that might makes right, that compassion is weakness and generosity is for suckers.  Those voices are often the loudest out there.  They’re often the most insistent, promising a quick fix and someone convenient to blame when things go wrong, but the Good Shepherd reminds us those voices won’t bring us to the life God created to live. 

My deepest hope for my time here as your interim sheepdog, is that I can help us all take a deep breath in this in-between time and together listen closely for the voice of the Good Shepherd.  My most earnest prayer is that together we will follow that voice, no matter how long it feels like it’s taking or what path we end up having to follow.  So, for as long as the Good Shepherd says it’s right for me to be here, your interim, drooling, shaggy sheepdog will keep reminding all of us to listen for the Good Shepherd’s voice because THAT voice will always, always, always lead us all to green grass, cool water and abundant life.  Amen. 

This image is by Peter Ralston of sheep being taken out to an island off the coast of Maine.  To see more of Peter's work and to purchase prints visit

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Cleopas and a Disciple to be Named Later

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke the 24th Chapter
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking
and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

These two disciples... one named Cleopas and the other whose name we don’t know... these two disciples were leaving Jerusalem and headed out of town.  They were leaving for good because the hopes they had for their faith community had been crushed.  In other words, they were leaving the Church… their church... for good.  

They might have been the first to leave a church in disappointment but they certainly weren’t the last.  Lots and lots of us, me included, have had our hopes crushed in the church.  Sometimes things happen to the point where we feel like we have no choice but to leave and sometimes it feels like the church has left us.  For Cleopas and the other disciple it was because the one they were following, Jesus, had been killed and with that change they couldn’t see any future.  For us there are probably 60 different reasons:  theology, Biblical interpretation, clergy misconduct, mean people, financial differences, abuse, burn out and at least 54 other reasons.  The wounds may be old or recent, they may be healed or they may still be open and throbbing.  

Church is SUPPOSED to be a place to live into the hope of abundant life, a place where we take out our hearts and souls and open them up, hoping to have them fed and nourished, so when things with church mess up so badly that we need to leave or worse yet when our church leaves us, it hurts down to our very being.  It is a profound, lasting, life altering pain.  That was the kind of profound, lasting and life altering pain that Cleopas and that other disciple walked down the road to Emmaus with that day.  It was also on THAT road (the one that led away from the Church) and into THAT profound, lasting and life altering disappointment and pain that Jesus came.  Jesus met them on THAT road.

You see, Jesus doesn’t meet us in our lives only once we’ve got it all figured out, once we’ve perfected life and once we’ve gotten all of our stuff together... Jesus doesn’t meet us only at the destination... Jesus meets us on the road, in the most broken and pain filled moments of life.  So Jesus caught up with Cleopas and that other disciple because no matter where they were on the road... no matter how or what had wrenched the hope out of their lives, everyone is important to Jesus... whether they are able to recognize it at the time or not!

So as they walked along, Jesus asked them to tell him their story.  We all have a story.  When we get hurt, we have a very important and painful story to a way, when we’re hurt like that, our story is about death and a tomb just like the story Cleopas and that other disciple had to tell.  Then, Jesus just listened... he didn’t try to fix it... he just listened.  It turns out Jesus is pretty smart.  He knew they had to tell the story... they had to bring it all back to the surface if they were ever going to deal with it... if they were ever going to heal.  How many times do you have to tell that story?  Well, as many times as that story needs to be told.  

When Cleopas and the other disciple were done with their story, Jesus told THEM a story.  He told them THE story.  Beginning at the beginning, Jesus told them how God has always cared for God’s people and all of creation.  He reminded them of all the times God had protected, rescued and saved the people of Israel.  He reminded them that God loved us all into being, breathing life into us.  A flood couldn’t get in the way of God’s love and neither could enemies, slavery or exile, heights or depths or anything else in all of creation.  Not even things that seemed insurmountable like an impassable sea, long dead, dry bones, a fiery furnace... not even death could stop God from caring for God’s people!
Jesus told them THE story and then... well, then he just let that story sit with them.  Telling the story we have to tell and hearing THE story... God’s story it does work.  Sometimes it works before dinner like it did for Cleopas and the other disciple but often it takes much longer before it finally works it’s way into broken hearts where the healing can begin.  Jesus didn’t expect or demand them to heal in a certain amount of time.  In fact, after telling THE story, Jesus was headed on down the road.  If anything, it seems he expected it WOULDN’T happen before dinner that night.   But when they were ready, when their story had been told, when they had opened themselves up to the possibility of healing and when THE story had worked that healing... when they were ready to move on again... so was Jesus.  

That story of hurt and healing and meeting Jesus on the road isn’t just a 2000 year old story.  It’s our story.  That other disciple in this story who isn’t named... it’s not that they don’t have a name because someone forgot to write it down... that other disciple isn’t named because each of us is meant to understand that other disciple is us.  Each of you are the unnamed disciple!  You are the one who has had your hopes dashed by hurts and betrayals and abandonment and disappointment and death BUT... you are also the disciple whom Jesus is walking with RIGHT NOW as you walk THIS road at THIS moment in time.  

It may be that you will only recognize Jesus at the end of the road in the breaking of the bread, but it is where you are right now, just as you are in THIS moment, in the midst of THIS hurt and fear and change and brokenness... along THIS road where Jesus meets you, where your story needs to be told and where the healing has a chance to begin.

May you have the courage to open your heart and your soul and tell your story... not to blame or accuse but to honestly acknowledge and air your hurts and the pain.  May you have the compassion to make the time to hear others tell their story as many times as they need to tell it.  May you have the confidence to tell THE story, God’s story, knowing that the inexpert, imperfect way you tell it will turn out to be EXACTLY how it needs to be heard in that moment for that person.  And may we all have the patience to wait for it all to work, confident that when we are ready, Jesus will still be with us, ready to break bread and send us back... back to be the church again a church which will be very, very different than the one we knew before, but a church which will have been transformed by the power of the resurrection, equipped anew and ready now to do nothing less than change the world!  Amen.