Storms: Pentecost 4b

Rembrandt’s, Storm on the Sea of Galilee: Peace, Be still.  Mk 4:31-41

Rembrandt’s Painting of the Storm on the Sea of Galilee pictures the artist as one of the crew in the tossed and imperiled ship. The red-headed Rembrandt looks in fear and bewilderment at the viewer who peers at the ship from above, Jesus peacefully asleep in the bow.

The painting was stolen some twenty-five or more years ago from the Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum. In the days I went there on at least a monthly time table, the entrance was free. In the remarkable space, there’s a central garden. Its walls are faced with pink marble and the galleries are on the first three floors. Isabel and her family lived on the top floor. The garden is covered with glass and it allows for a controlled environment during Boston’s bitter winters. Thus there are always flowers growing and trees and bushes in leaf and bud. A fountain with two carved dolphins’ spills water into a pool at one end of the courtyard and benches are placed for guests to sit and be still in the usually quiet presence of running water and beauty all around any time of year.

When I go to Boston, these days, I don’t usually visit the museum. Yet when I do it is with a sense of loss and a prompt to be still, be peace. Over the years since I’ve been away my visits to the city and the nearby town of Dedham have been storm tossed. First it was the death of mystep-dad, then the struggle of my mother with early signs of dementia and efforts to keep the house so it was habitable and to pay the bills. There followed the sadness and guilt as we had to sell the house to pay the many outstanding bills and to move her to a nursing home. The loss of the family home was particularly hard on my sister who had been living there and taking care of my mother. Her death two years later from a stroke led to rifts in the family. There were also visits to my Godmother who never had children of her own and so my visits to her were a reminder that showing up is half or more of life. She took good physical, mental and spiritual care of herself. She not only attended the services in her Congregational Church, but she attended Rosary and Jewish services that visitors would bring to her nursing home.

I may not have had to return to Boston to see how the storms of life had seemed to batter so many. It made me more acutely aware at how privileged I am. I was able to go to college and find work that I loved to do. I have loving relationships and three children and two-step-children all healthy and giving back to the world. Sure the price paid for my education was dear. The benefit that would have gone to my father if he had survived WW II came to me after his death. Yet it was still privilege and white privilege at that. The women in my family had little of that.

I often tend to talk about the good memories, where there is a sense of the presence of the holy. Yet when I’m caught in these storms, I identify with Rembrandt looking at me from the painting with bewilderment and pain and fear. And a sense that I’m soon going to be over my head in a sea of troubles.

It’s those trips to Boston to visit mother, dying step-dad, god-mother and family that may actually be the real living into the nature of the divine life. I usually don’t know it at the time, but in those times of death and struggle and storm the words of Jesus to the disciples, “peace, be still” carry most meaning.

That movement into the storm, letting go of any easy peace of self- satisfaction, that I’m not going to solve anyone’s problem, and my purpose is to simply be here with these loved ones in the storm and in the stillness, that is the path and the flow of Jesus.

And to  keep reminding myself that in the midst of the storm, the holy lamb of God, says to the storm, “Peace, be still”, and know the waves will subside and the sea becalmed and the stars of night will appear. And in their time the storms will reveal their meaning.

Thoreau, Jesus and Civil Disobedience

Pentecost 3b  “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” Mark 7: 23-28

Henry David Thoreau may have taken a page from scripture as inspiration for his Civil Disobedience?  As much as he had stepped out from under his strict New England Puritanism, by its very nature the culture had been steeped in these old scriptures. By extension, Jesus and much later Thoreau, is saying that the law must serve humankind, not the other way around. That sometimes disobedience to a rule or a law that is unjust is required of the disciple. A law that meets the needs of the hungry, that raises up the powerless and poor, that heals on any day that healing is needed, Sabbath or not, contains the qualities of compassion and mercy that meet real human need.

The injunction to “Keep Holy the Sabbath” came to Moses in the wilderness because the enslaved Hebrews never had a day to themselves. Every day was a day of work and struggle and day proceeded into monotonous day. The Sabbath became the one day out of the week that there’d be no work. A day of rest. A day sit by the fire and to eat left-overs, and to read the Sunday Times. Oh, and also to worship God. In a time when we struggle to find such a clearing in our crowded lives, Jesus and Thoreau would probably advocate a return to times of rest and reflection. Certainly Thoreau’s two years two months and two days at Walden Pond may be instructive for many of us.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

— Henry David Thoreau[4]


It may be an unwritten but eternal truth as the Dalai Lama said: “You need to know the rules very well, before you can break them.”

And sometimes the rules are made to keep us too safe, to complacent, too stuck in our own little worlds. There is a universe out there that may not be about you and me. It is the world of crying desperate need of painful suffering and wonder. Too often the laws are written to protect our property, our boundaries and our vaunted sense of superiority. Jesus knew that we have to draw the circle to include the poor, the hungry, mourners, the meek, the pure of heart and the peacemakers. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns the law inside out. To Jesus, the law followed to is ultimate meaning is to place no barrier in the way of God’s love and mercy and abounding generosity of heart.

If memory serves, Thoreau wrote his pamphlet “Civil Disobedience” as a protest to the war with Mexico. Since he was an active Abolitionist, his active opposition to slavery was also influential. Thoreau was imprisoned when he refused to pay taxes to support what he believed was the illegal war against Mexico. In a play written about Thoreau’s sojourn in the Concord jail, he is visited by Emerson:

“Emerson asks, “Henry what are you doing in there?”

Thoreau replies, “Ralph, what a YOU doing Out there?”

Faithfulness to justice and compassion require living by the consequences of the unjust law.

Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi and Dr. King   were arrested because they wouldn’t bow to what they believed was an unjust law.

Thoreau supported John Brown in his bloody raid on Harper’s Ferry. Such actions were out of sync with Jesus, Gandhi, and Dr King. Instead the other three said to “love your enemy”. We discover in the enemy some of our own brokenness, that they often have the same exclusive loves and jealousies, that they want only a peaceful life undisturbed by outsiders. And they will fight to defend their little piece of turf and their families.

Jesus goes deeper. The law is not only for those who have power, property and wealth. The Higher law needs to include those on the margins.

Then, as we have seen in the last generations, human need itself has to bow to an even higher law which is to protect the rights of the creation to exist and to not be exploited by human greed. Human beings must learn to live in peace and in creative dialogue with each other and with all creatures and elements. We must all perish eventually, but while we have life humankind might call a time of Sabbath rest that brings life and does not destroy it.












































Pentecost + 2 b:

Pentecost + 2 Proper 5: Year B. Mark 3:20-35

My Dad would say grace at various family occasions: “Bless this food to our use and us to thy service and make us ever mindful of the needs of others.” My step-dad’s parents were Lithuanian immigrants. Boston’s West End at the turn of the last century was the crowded tenements for an established African American Community and immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe and Russian Jews. Both Dad’s parents died from TB by the time he was 13 and he entered the Angel Guardian Orphanage that would lead him to the neighborhood where after 20 years and a war, he met my mother. He knew poverty and had seen its pain and suffering. He didn’t just say the words, “Make us mindful of the needs of others,” he had lived them and experienced the world’s blindness to the plight of the poor. I’d sit by him and ask him to tell me stories of growing up in the West End. To the young boy who listened it was a grand adventure: Eking out a living from scraps of coal in the train yards, singing for change in the North Station. Lighting the Sabbath candles for his Jewish neighbors. He didn’t talk too much of watching his mother return exhausted and sick from cleaning the latrines in hotels and train stations and watching her struggle and die from consumption.  But I always knew it was there, a grief so deep he had almost closed the door to its pain. I suspect it was from his experience and example, I found my way into the neighborhoods of Boston and spent twenty years there as a community organizer and parish priest. And another ten years working with urban congregations in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

I was also a wise ass as a teen. I thought it funny when I suggested during an argument with him, that he should change the words of the grace to: “make us needful of the minds of others.” That remark didn’t sit well. And even though I see it now as mean and adolescent, there was some truth in it: To be mindful of the needs of others, to see through the eyes of the poor and oppressed and to act on their behalf is primary. To seek and act for the well- being of all is the first step. The second is to put on the mind of Christ.

I’m not sure about what the sin against the Holy Spirit for me is. God is love and God is mercy has reached so deep into the depths of my life that like an old Spanish love poem says: “I can find not way so worn and bare that love will not keep coming there to have speech with me and I with love.”  And yet I also know that the only one who can shut the door to love is myself. I suspect that the great sin against the Holy Spirit is such a closure. It is a refusal of the mind and heart to those on the margins; the poor, children, women, what we called the powerless poor in my organizing days and the oppressed.

Bonhoeffer said in his Ethics: “

“Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Still, I really don’t know if any sin is unforgivable.  Even the most resistant parts of us, may be transformed in an instant by a word or an idea or an act of grace or courage. It seems that they only ones who are placing us in ultimate danger is ourselves. Our refusal to live courageously out of love and with open hearts and minds toward our neighbor is the primary way the divine appears to us. If we turn our backs to them, isn’t that a brokenness we can’t repair?

We do it to ourselves mostly, don’t we? When we are at death’s door it is said our organs “shut down” one by one. It is the same with the life of the spirit. Our spiritual heart and mind locks and barricades the door into the heart of God. Could it be that rigidity to the inclusion of those who seek the blessings and legal protections of marriage equality is a recent example of our shutting down to a whole community of God’s beloved. Pogo said to us long ago from his cartoon strip in the sixties and seventies, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That was during the Vietnam War, which to some of us at that time was a profound truth.

It’s when we lock the doors to our neighbor we close off another possibility for sanctity, for a life with meaning, and from the loving arms of the divine.

So my flippant remark to my Dad so long ago now was really a reminder to not only get out there and do something about inequity and oppression. It was my feeble attempt to alert myself to keep mindful of the heart of God and the image of the Christ as I look into the face of all beings.