Driving The Message Home

This featured cartoon clipping reminds me that in  Mark’s Gospel he paints a picture of the disciples as thick and slow on the uptake.


Family is one of the models that describes a church community. But there are differing interpretations of family – family, where the emphasis is on exclusion and exclusivity might not be the most helpful way of thinking about faith community. The best model of family for faith community life is that of family as an extended, multigenerational community.

Sunday is another baptism Sunday at St Martin’s. We have had two wonderful extended family baptisms over the summer in which we celebrated brothers, sisters, and cousins, all part of multigenerational extended families being baptized together. For us, this was a multigenerational celebration involving children raised in the St. Martin’s community bringing their own children back to the church community they continue to identify with their earlier family life.

The children of the boomer generation of parents at St. Martin’s – millennials and after – although having been raised in the church do not by-and-large continue the church going practices of their parents, that is, until they begin having children of their own. It’s not true in all cases but it seems still common enough to be able to say that having children focuses the mind on the need to participate in a broader experience of community. The key question for many of us is: what kind of community do we desire to participate in?

On Sunday we will baptize two children who are part of a different version of extended family. Extended family has tended to refer to multigenerational family – usually three if not four generations of family members. On Sunday we will welcome another form of extended family, not one ranging across the generations, but one that brings together in the bonds of love and friendship members of what is sometimes referred to as a blended or modern family – a term made popular by the TV program Modern Family.


So to continue the TV tone – previously in chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, while making a point about the vanity of masculine ideas of greatness and competitiveness raised up a toddler in his arms and said:

see this child, see her vulnerability, innocence and delight in all she sees around her; this is what it means to welcome me and the kingdom of God.

In todays episode John, speaking for the other disciples says:

Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Once again, the disciples are consumed with anxiety about power – who has it and can exercise it and who should not have it and must be prohibited from exercising it. In the OT reading we heard of a similar situation concerning Moses and the ancient Israelites. Moses exclaimed: would that all the Lord’s people were prophets. In similar vein Jesus simply says: who is not against us is for us. Our tribal politicians like to upend Jesus’ words quoting them as: who is not for us is against us, which is the very opposite of Jesus meaning.

Returning to the child in his arms Jesus tells them:

if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

jesus quipMark paints a picture of the disciples as thick and slow on the uptake. So Jesus takes to driving his point home through the thick skulls by means of hyperbole or exaggeration.

If you hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; if you eye causes you to stumble, tear it out!  My, this is pretty graphic imagery, yet what is the point Jesus is trying to impress on his disciples?

His meaning is rather graphic, but clear. Pay attention to the child in your midst. The image of what it looks like to enter the kingdom, or put another way, to become an agent of making the kingdom a reality in real time is represented by the innocence of the child.


In 1st-century society the value of women lay in the control of what today we refer to as women’s reproductive rights by powerful fathers and husbands. The value of children lay in their potential as heirs. But as human individuals a woman or a child was consigned to the bottom of the patriarchal pecking order.

Immersing ourselves in Mark’s narrative flow in chapter 9 reminds us that despite huge gains made in the emancipation of women, and new legal privileging of children rights, we continue to struggle against male privilege that perpetuates the culture of abuse for many women and children.

Today we are awakening to a tidal wave of repentance for the way our society has been deaf to the voice of the child. More shockingly, it has been in the church where the voice of the child has been most silenced by a culture of male privilege and power. In the male dominated values of our institutional life – the protection of the institution always comes before the defense and protection of those most vulnerable to abuse in and by those institutions.

Among the vulnerable, it’s children who fare the worst. The Catholic Church is struggling to grapple with the costs of a system that holds up men with arrested psychosexual development as the model of the priestly ideal.  By costs, I am not referring to the staggering financial settlements but to the lifelong cost paid by children’s pain and suffering.


The goal of the Christian life is not to make sure we go to heaven when we die. The goal of the Christian life is to make heaven a reality on earth, in real time, here and now, before we die. Christians have always worked towards that end by participating in a community life where together we can achieve so much more than we ever can as isolated individuals.

Baptism is a second birth or spiritual birth through which we come to belong. For from belonging, comes believing.

But baptism is not an act of magical transformation. As a stand-alone event, it functions as an initial entry point only. But what really matters is what happens after baptism, i.e. how the baptismal promises are fulfilled by the baptized person, over time.

Paraphrasing our promises in the Baptismal Covenant, we promise:

  • to be faithful in prayer and be present when the community gathers to worship at the celebration of the Lord’s table.
  • to persevere and not let our failures shame us erecting a barrier between us and God.
  • to live the Good News of God in Christ, so that others will look at us and say: I want to live with that kind of joy and energy!
  • to fight against the systems that perpetuate injustices of all kinds and let respect for each human being be our guide to holy living.

If it takes a village to raise a child, the nurturing and flourishing of a soul requires a whole community of soul friends to support it so that nurtured by love, and shaped by example, the young soul will grow into the fullest person God is already dreaming into becoming.

Listen! Wisdom’s Still Speaking


I wrote in the E-News this week that when viewed through a progressive lens the Bible becomes a rich compendium of collective human spiritual experience with much to say about how to navigate the times in which we live.

Nevertheless, it’s an understatement to say that the Bible can also be deeply problematic for us as we navigate our way through the challenges of the present time.

Texts never have only one meaning. There are, broadly speaking, three questions to ask when encountering any Biblical text -each question opening up a particular lens through which the text is read and heard.

  1. What was the original author’s intention and what do we know about the historical-socioreligious context in which they were writing?
  2. How has the Judaeo-Christian tradition – evolving over numerous and differing historical-socioreligious contexts, read and understood the text over time?
  3. Finally, how do we hear and understand the text within our 21st-century historical-socioreligious context?

Original lens

The book of Proverbs belongs to a genre of Biblical writing known as Wisdom. Proverbs belongs within a family of books that include Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), Job, and Sirach or sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus.  Although adapted to Jewish issues and concerns Wisdom literature is not Hebrew in origin and similar material is also found in Egyptian and Babylonian sources.

Wisdom focuses on the challenges of skillful living. In the face of suffering it is unsatisfied by the conventional answer: because God wills it. Wisdom challenges suffering and the apparent futile and fleeting nature of life and says: yes, but why?

Wisdom presents a complex and multilayered worldview – its voice sitting in tension with more conventional voices. We see this back and forth playing out again and again throughout Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. Wisdom is also personified as the feminine principle of the Holy Spirit named in Greek as Sophia. Sophia, displaying profound feminine qualities has often been referred to in English as Lady Wisdom, or Woman’s Wisdom.

Proverbs 31 appears to have been written as the inspired utterances of the Queen-Mother for her son, one King Lemuel (identity unknown) in the qualities he must look for in a royal spouse. Thus, the depiction of the capable wife found in verse 10 and onwards is in its original context is a description of the ideal virtues to be found in a great queen. This was not intended to be a description of the virtues of ordinary wifeliness.

Playing the part of rabbi for a moment, I want to draw attention to two Hebrew words isshah and chayil.

All wives are women but not all women are wives and the ancient Hebrew word isshah does not distinguish between wife and woman. In English, isshah could be rendered woman as much as wife, which is important in breaking the close identification of the text with wifeliness.

English translators have for 500 years struggled with the Hebrew word chayil; variously translating it as good, virtuous, valiant, or as the NRSV does – capable. Yet, all these translations miss chayil’s clearest meaning of warrior-like. There is quite a difference when verse 10 is rendered: a warrior-like – strong woman who can find?

Tradition’s lens

Mainstream Judaeo-Christian interpretation of Proverbs 31:10-31 has read it as a hymn to the virtues of the good wife -a phrase that automatically conjures up images of subservient dutifulness. I understand that even today some rabbis continue to read this text as a love poem to their wives on the eve of Shabbat.

The Tradition’s patriarchal view of the relationship between men and women has led to a repeated misreading of the text as an endorsement of the view of a good wife as an obedient and domestically industrious adornment to her husband. Yet, when we cast off our patriarchal blinkers and actually read the text, we are startled by what it does not say. If we are looking for the actual words of Proverbs 31 to extol the virtues of the good wife as the embodiment of the German slogan: Kinder, Küche, & Kirche – Children, Kitchen, & Church, we will not find them here.

Wisdom 31 nowhere presents a picture of dutiful and obedient wifeliness. Neither does it in any place extol the virtues of motherhood. This woman is not chained to her stove or her children, she is not domestic at all but seems to be something of a combination of a wise and frugal merchant, creative artisan and farmer, and social philanthropist. The text denotes that her husband is well known at the city gates. Who with a wife like this will not be envied?

When chayil is rendered warrior-like, strong, invincible, Amazon-like, as opposed to merely virtuous or capable, the exhausting list of this woman’s social and domestic productivity is only capped by her crowning glory, which resides not in her industriousness, neither in her physical beauty, or her cocktail social charm and whit. According to Wisdom, her crowning glory lies in her fear of the Lord. Never mind her husband’s honor among his peers, Wisdom 31 concludes with:

Give her a share in the fruit of her hand, and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Contemporary lens

Today, this is a difficult text for the unwary preacher. It is a text that speaks to both the hopeful expectations as well as the enduring pain and struggle lying at the heart of contemporary issues of gender and power.

It’s extraordinary when considering that such a text, read for centuries as en hommage to a patriarchal view of wifely virtue is, in reality, one of the clearest Biblical endorsements for what we have come to refer to as the emancipation of women. Such a reinterpretation rests on the strength of what the text actually says. Strip away Tradition’s male-dominated wifely fantasies and we are compelled to engage this text from within our own sadly, contentious context.

The emancipation of women and the emergence of the woman’s voice in our political and theological context constitutes a huge social awakening. It is a veritable tsunami that continues to sweep before it centuries of women’s experience of injustice and oppression at the hands of both the female as well as the male supporters of patriarchy.

In its original context, Proverbs 31 constituted an idealized image of royal womanhood. Nevertheless, allowing for such idealization, the text expresses Wisdom’s image of womanhood as strong, vital, and socially engaged in all aspects of civic life.

Wisdom’s worldview deeply informs the shape of Jesus ministry and teaching. Wisdom’s challenge to worldly values of dominance and power echoes loudly in Jesus’ deeply countercultural honoring of women.

In Mark 9:30-37, the gospel appointed to be read on the same Sunday as Proverbs 31, Jesus begins to teach his disciples about where his road leads – to death and resurrection. As he opens his heart to them Jesus notices that they are not listening. So, he asks them: what, instead of listening to me, were you talking about? They sheepishly reveal that they had been wrangling over who is to be top dog among them.

Jesus’ response comes straight from the heart of Wisdom’s playbook. It’s service, he tells them, not worldly honor that is the mark of true greatness. Children were even more oppressed than women in the hierarchy of patriarchy. Jesus driving home his point takes a little child and in Wisdom’s voice proclaims:

whoever welcomes one such a child in my name, welcomes me; and not only me, but the one who has sent me!

In the wake of the tsunami of women’s emancipation, our society is also awakening to a tidal wave of repentance for the way we have been deaf to the cry of the child. Open your ears – can you hear? Wisdom is still speaking.

The Claim of the Cross

A sermon for 17 Pentecost Year B Proper 19  from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs                              

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, Amen.

Oh, Peter. He was so close. The Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and he all but raised his hand like Hermione Granger on a double espresso and blurted out The Right Answer: “You are the Messiah.” Dingdingding! Gold star, A-plus, yessssss.

And then, he blew it. When Jesus began to speak of rejection, suffering and death at the hands of the authorities, Peter just couldn’t help himself. “No, no, Jesus, that’s not what Messiahs do.” Jesus’ hissed response, “Get behind me, Satan!” has become a catchphrase for anyone rejecting evil or temptation. What a way to be remembered.

Peter has gained quite a reputation for cringeworthy moments in his spiritual journey. But perhaps we should give him a pass here, because isn’t he actually articulating our own discomfort at Jesus’ words? Like Peter, wouldn’t we sometimes rather focus on the good stuff about Jesus– the life and ministry, the healings and miracles, the Christ at the right hand of God, without having to deal with the pain and messiness of a suffering Savior, and what that means for us as Christians? There are those who find a focus on the Cross—particularly the image of Jesus upon it—to be distasteful; to be too much of an emphasis on guilt and suffering rather than on joy and love.

The other day, wandering around the Nave, I was a little surprised to see this conflict reflected in our own beautiful windows. At both East and West, the central figure in the window is Christus Victor and Christ the King, respectively. These are the largest, most commanding and attractive images, showing strength and glory.

Yet, as Jesus pointedly stated to Peter and the disciples, we can’t have glory without suffering. And sure enough, a closer look yields, on the west, the Crucifixion at bottom center. On the east, we need to hunt a little more. See it? Way at the top. I almost missed it. But notice that Christ’s hand in the center, raised in blessing, points straight at the image of the Crucifixion—an unmistakable connection. (I don’t know if that’s part of the iconography, but there it is.) Peter couldn’t avoid it, and we can’t either: We must let Jesus bear the Cross. And we must try to understand what it means to bear it ourselves.

This past Friday the Church observed Holy Cross Day, the commemoration of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 335. While the Christian household observes times of veneration of the Cross at different points during the year, especially on Good Friday, the Lutherans and the Anglicans observe Holy Cross Day in September. It’s a little jarring, isn’t it, to find oneself pondering the Cross, not in Holy Week when winter still hovers over the bare trees, but in the golden mists of autumn when thoughts of homecoming and new activities seem much more appropriate than meditation on the Cross and the Crucified One.

This disconnect–this tension–is perfectly appropriate when you consider the circumstances under which the Cross became a symbol, not just of the Church, but also of the Empire that tried for years to eradicate it.

After the conversion of Constantine in 312, when he had a vision of the Cross that he believed gave him victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which resulted in his becoming Roman Emperor, Christianity became safe from persecution; its followers free to come out of hiding and to worship publically.

No longer a vulnerable, marginalized, countercultural movement, the Way of Jesus became the religion of Empire, from which some say the faith has yet to recover. Verna Dozier, in her book, The Dream of God, refers to this moment in history as the Third Fall—the first being Adam and Eve in the Garden and the second when the people of Israel insisted upon a king—choosing the kingdom of this world over the kingdom of God. Dozier writes that while many say that 312 was when the church subdued the state, that it was actually the opposite; the state domesticated the church.

The story of the finding of the True Cross bears this out. Constantine’s mother, Helena, oversaw the excavation of Jesus’ tomb, over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now sits. This is where the True Cross was reportedly found and identified as authentic when it was brought near enough to a sick woman to heal her. This simple wooden cross was divided into three parts and distributed to three centers of the faith: One part stayed in Jerusalem, one went to Rome, and the third to Constantinople, it was said, to render the city impregnable through its miraculous powers. The nails were also found, and Helena had them incorporated into the Emperor’s helmet and his horse’s bridle.

Think about it.

A simple wooden cross. An instrument of imperial torture made the protective symbol of that same Empire.  Housed in silver and gold reliquaries. Carried into battle ahead of armies. It’s like incorporating an image of an electric chair into the Great Seal of the United States. The irony is outrageous.

Christianity was now safe from Empire, but at what cost?

How does the irony of Empire and the Cross play out today? What does the Cross say about our Christian identity and how we act in the world? What do people see when they see someone wearing a cross? Do they see a follower of Jesus, or do they see only the irony of a complicit church? Do they see the gold and silver-encased Cross in the halls of power, where faith is measured by prosperity, or do they see the simple wooden Cross standing outside of those halls, calling those inside to see that Gospel faith is measured by surrendering to compassion, forgiveness, and justice?

Or to put it more starkly, how does the Cross save us? In close proximity to power, or in opposition to it?

Isn’t that what the conflict between Peter and Jesus was all about in the first place?

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Peter was able to identify the Messiah, but he had yet to understand how Jesus would turn the concept of the Messiah, and the world itself, upside-down. Peter didn’t understand that an abundant life is one that is given away. He didn’t understand that the way of the Cross is the way of love, not the way of might.

This is what Peter had yet to learn, and frankly what a lot of us need to embrace as well: that Love is the foundational principle of the Cross; God’s transformative love for Creation, for the vulnerable, and for the suffering. A deep engagement with the meaning of the Cross needs to begin here—with Love–not with guilt, but with compassion; because that is the true nature of Jesus’ free and costly gift of himself—to show us that death and evil and injustice do not have the last word—love and life do. We see on the Cross the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of all of the marginalized, the forgotten, the Crucified. The Cross calls us to really see them as Jesus does and to love them and to become conduits of healing for each other and the world.

That, friends, is how the Cross claims us and bids us bear it.

The Cross isn’t a magic wand to grant our every wish, nor is it a rod to punish us for our mistakes. The Cross–no matter how it is portrayed in art on walls or in stained glass, or in the jewelry we wear–the Cross, first of all, is what marks each Christian at Baptism, calling  us to bear it with humility, vulnerability, forgiveness and, above everything else, with the Love that is woven into all of Creation.

That is where we begin.



Thy Kingdom Come; Mark 7

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 

Conspiring with him how to load and bless 

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 

These lines from Keats’ Ode to Autumn capture the sense of burgeoning promise in the season that follows close on the heels of the Labor Day Weekend. In my garden, I have a lot of trees which provide wonderful shade but make growing fruits and vegetables a non-starter. However, our daughter returned from a few days away this last week to a continued harvest of heirloom tomatoes, antique (yellow and round) cucumbers and her first crop of apples, admittedly, only a few apples on her two-year-old trees, but the occasion for celebration and a sense of major achievement, nonetheless. Fruitfulness is the catchword of the season ahead of us. This is not a season that lasts only until the chilly winds of November come creeping[1]. And as we peer into the mists of maturing autumn, what might we catch a glimpse of?

The first Sunday after Labor Day is by tradition Homecoming Sunday at St Martin’s. Homecoming offers a first glimpse of the number and variety of our ministries. Ministries are the lifeblood of parish community and the channels through which our time, talent, and energy flows to advances the coming of the kingdom in real-time. This is a work of nurturing and sustaining hope that echoes in our daily cry – thy kingdom come,  thy will be done, so that heaven becomes in real time, earth.

As the Biblical record witnesses, when viewed solely from a human perspective the making real of the kingdom has always appeared unrealistic. Yet, despite seemingly hopeless odds, it progresses anew in each generation because as followers of Jesus we are continually confronted by a reality which challenges us to throw off the limits of our too small imaginations.

The truth is, where we go, Jesus has gone before. In chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus, so used to being the one who does the confronting being confronted – with startling results.


In the second part of chapter 7, Mark reports Jesus, fatigued by his recent confrontation with the Pharisees over the petty ritual issue of his disciples not washing before eating,  slipping away for a few days of R&R in the non-Jewish region of Tyre and Sidon, today part of Lebanon. Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus has left Jewish territory other than to hint at his wanting to go somewhere where he won’t be recognized.  So, Jesus seems more than irritated when his cover is blown by a woman of the town who seems to recognize him. Worried about a sick daughter at home, she can’t believe her luck that this healer, renowned south of the border, should show up in the house next door. So, she makes her request: Sir, will you heal my daughter?

Jesus perhaps wearied by finding that even here he can’t escape the constant demands of people tells her it’s not permitted to feed the dogs with the children’s food. We know that dog and children are 1st-century Jewish code words for Gentile and Jew, and it’s more than a little shocking to hear this kind of xenophobic insult coming from Jesus’ mouth. The woman is however not to be put off by insults. In a rare example of someone turning the tables on Jesus, she replies: Yes Sir, but don’t even the dogs get to lick the crumbs that fall from the children’s table?

Gosh, who is this woman we might be tempted to ask? She’s effectively countered the Master so that it’s reasonable to speculate a pause in the conversation at this point as Jesus takes in her comment. Evidenced by his response, the woman’s words seem to have confronted Jesus to consider new possibilities. His irritation evaporates. For saying that, he tells her, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.

One of the most important qualities we human beings possess is the capacity to learn from experience and open our minds to new possibilities. For some, it would be blasphemous to suggest, as I  do here, that Jesus ever needed to learn from experience and open his mind to new possibilities. But to view Jesus as omniscient is to seriously contradict his being fully human. Confronted by this encounter, Jesus appears to learn in real time in a manner typical of the way human beings learn. The result is that the boundaries of his mission open in the direction of greater inclusion; no longer limited by the assumption of children first and dogs second.

To emphasize the point, Mark tells us that Jesus leaves Tyre, and traveling via Sidon returns southwards, not back into Jewish Galilee, but through the region a little to east known as the Decapolis or ten cities; a regional center of Greek and Roman culture250px-Palestine_after_Herod where dogs and children, Gentiles and Jews, lived side by side. It is in this ethnically mixed region that Jesus performs the healing of a man ( Mark does not mention his ethnicity) whose deafness is compounded by an impediment of speech.

Chapter 7 opens with Jesus in the Jewish heartland, embroiled in petty Jewish arguments. Seemingly fed up, he slips away into foreign parts, seeking an all too brief experience of anonymity. Instead, he runs into a different kind of confrontation – one that challenges him into a more inclusive vision. Having Jesus return via the Decapolis region, Mark shows Jesus throwing off the hitherto accepted limits around his mission. After Tyre, those who were before excluded are now included as Jesus continues the work of reconciliation entrusted to him by God.

The truth is, where we go, Jesus has gone before.


Homecoming Sunday in 2018 finds us in remarkably good shape as a community. Compared with four years ago, more and more activity in the parish thrives without direct input from me. When the clergy are no longer at the center of all activity, lay initiatives blossom, driving the community’s development through mission enthused ministry.

I want to strongly affirm this shift as a sign of our growing health. The challenge we face is to move not only into a new way of thinking but to attract the critical numbers to secure and sustain the shift from priest centered to ministry centered practice. Without a growth in numbers, there is an ever-present danger of burnout resulting from operating at maximum capacity, one hundred percent of the time, as increased burden falls on fewer shoulders.

Peering into autumn’s mists what is the mellow fruitfulness we a glimpse? It is not greater enthusiasm. It’s not even more money, though with the pledge drive coming up, I say this advisedly. The mellow fruitfulness we seek is a growing discipleship base.


The need to grow directly challenges the comfortable limits we impose on the practice of our Christian faith. Our privatized, middle-class – let’s not upset the applecart – approach to living our faith renders us next to useless in God’s work of advancing the kingdom. The growth we seek fruits when we are less cautious and less respectable and more gospel-inspired in living our faith. That’s not likely to happen unless we allow ourselves to be confronted. Mark shows us how Jesus when so confronted opens his mind to new possibilities. So it must be for our relationship with God.

It is primarily the community of faith that sustains our individual spiritual lives. There is a loose hierarchy of other worthy nonprofit initiatives that constantly claim our attention. Yet, as disciples – it’s the living faith clearly outlined in the promises of the baptismal covenant, promises we all reconfirmed as recently as last Sunday, that claims our highest priority.

This is a hard message for comfortable, secular-humanist-minded Episcopalian ears. For most of us, our religion dovetails so neatly into our middle-class worldview that it is next to useless in preparing us for God’s work of advancing the kingdom. There are too many self and culture imposed limits on the practice of our faith, i.e. lukewarm faith practiced privately.

For instance, we live in a time of rising tensions caused by the vacuum left by the collapse of shared communitarian values loosely based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This past week, a 15-year-old boy lost his life to gun violence on our Providence streets. Americans view gun violence through either a conservative or liberal political lens and not a gospel-inspired one. Gospel-inspired values show us that the death of the innocent from gun violence is just plain wrong, and any attempt at justification flies in the face of the kingdom’s rebuttal of fear with love, selfishness with concern for one another.

To grow our numbers we must become more magnetic because people are attracted to magnetic communities. But magnetism is not a gimmick, a clever promotional strategy. It results when we become more convincing about our faith. Others are convinced by our conviction – expressed in a faith lived joyfully and – here’s the rub – publicly.

The signs of the times require us to be bolder in the way we share with friends and neighbors the value-added quality of a faith lived together in community. Belonging in Christian community should not be our best-kept secret.

So many of us came to St Martin’s by the word of mouth of neighbors and friends who invited us here – a form of show and tell. We practice a form of Christianity that emphasizes that belonging comes before believing, worshiping together takes precedence over agreeing with each other.

So go spread the word without shame or embarrassment. Let’s boldly practice the kind of show and tell that brought some of us here in the first place for the work entrusted to us it the nurturing and sustaining of hope: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, so that heaven is recreated in real time on earth.

[1] A line from Gordon Lightfoot’s the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

To Make a Second Birth


There are several fundamental human needs. One is to have enough food and the other essentials to sustain our bodies. Another is someone to love and be loved by. A third is to have a place to belong and a community in which to be recognized and accepted within. In recognition of the Labor Day celebrations this weekend, another fundamental human need is to have dignified work from which the fruits of meaning and purpose flow. Fundamental needs have significant implications for our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives, for we are integrated body-mind souls.

A sacrament is simply an action through which God’s promise to act and to be present is a watertight commitment or covenant. The two primary sacraments [1], the ones that all Christians agree on, are baptism and eucharist. The two primary sacraments of baptism and eucharist speak to our human needs as body-mind souls.

In last week’s A Living Eucharist sermon and blog, I expound on Jesus’ teaching in John 6 from which the sacrament of eucharist developed. This week, at St Martin’s we are privileged to witness the baptism of four delightful young souls. The baptism of siblings and cousins from the one extended family with a long multi-generational association with our community promises us a baptism experience, with a particular N.T. resonance.

The relationship of baptism and eucharist is the relationship of doorway to table. Through baptism, we enter into the household of faith where in eucharist we find sustenance in the physical actions of eating and drinking at the Lord’s table.


In the Epistle – the N.T. reading for Pentecost 15, God addresses us through the Letter of James. Authorship of this letter is traditionally ascribed to the Lord’s brother, James, first bishop of Jerusalem, though this is hotly disputed among scholars. I will refer to the writer as the author known as James, who opens his letter to the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem with the words:

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by word of truth, so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

This is an interesting passage from which to expound on the meaning of baptism.

Any exploration of baptism immediately encounters two questions:

  1. Why – as in why do it?
  2. What – as in what happens as a result of doing it?

Why do it?

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. 

James’ opening words affirm that the entry of every human being into life constitutes an act of divine generosity. Can there be no more perfect gift than that of a new life; life as the biological sign of God’s sharing of divine love made real in an act of creation.

It’s unfortunate that the tenor of much of the ancient language, mostly medieval in origin, that we still use in the baptism service is easily misunderstood in churches where the goal is to save individuals from going to hell. In this worldview, baptism into Christ is understood as the antidote to the toxin, transmitted across the generations, of Adam and Eve’s original sin of disobedience.

James’ words can be read as categorically refuting this idea that human beings are born into a morally and spiritually defective state, for which baptism is the necessary correction. The old English verb for baptism is to christen, i.e. to make a Christian. Baptism opens a doorway through which an already perfect new life becomes a member of the Christian community. The early Church Father Tertullian was fond of saying: one Christian is no Christian, by which he meant you can only become a Christian by participating in the life of the community called Christian. It is as members of the Christian community, that we are saved by God’s love.

Why do we baptize? We baptize to make a new Christian. Becoming a Christian means participating in the life of the Christian community. Becoming Christian is to recognize that to be human is to made in the image of God; an awareness that compels us to collaborate with God in the task of making a world that has grown old, new.

What is the result of being baptized?

Returning to the second part of James’ opening lines in his letter:

In fulfilment of his own purpose, he gave us birth by word of truth, so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. 

Baptism is a second birth, a birth by word of truth. Through baptism, we come to belong. From belonging comes believing.

But baptism is not an act of magical transformation. As a stand-alone event, it functions as an initial entry point only. But what really matters is what happens after baptism, i.e. how the baptismal promises are fulfilled by the baptized person, over time.

James says that the gift from above needs to bear fruit. He tells his readers to:

  • be quick to listen.
  • be slow to anger.
  • behave with dignity, self-respect and above all respect for others.
  • walk the walk not just talk the talk (be doers of the Word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves).
  • control your tongues, an uncontrolled tongue is the enemy of true religion and elsewhere he likens the uncontrolled tongue to a forest fire.
  • care for the orphans and widows in their distress.
  • do not allow yourself to be corrupted by the easy utilitarian values of a world held in bondage to the perpetual inequalities of the status quo.

In our baptismal covenant, James’ words reverberate. Paraphrasing:

  • be faithful in prayer and be present at the celebration of the Lord’s table.
  • persevere against evil and when we fail don’t let our sense of failure become a barrier between us and God.
  • live the Good News of God in Christ, so that others will look at us and say: I want some of what they have!
  • fight against the systems that perpetuate injustices of all kinds and let respect for each human being be your guide to holy living.

To sum up

Baptism emphasizes belonging over believing. This Sunday, four new young lives will be initiated into belonging within the community we call Christian. It takes a village to raise a child; parents, grandparents, sponsors and the whole community will need to support these children so that nurtured by love, they will have the opportunity to grow into the persons God is already dreaming them into becoming.

[1] As Anglicans, Episcopalians accept either six, or seven sacraments, depending on whether you think marriage is a sacrament. The reason for not accepting marriage as a sacrament is because God is not the primary actor – only the witness to the primary action taking place between the couple to the marriage. But back to the point.

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