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.























































Trinity Sunday:

The Trinity as

The Trinity as “The Dance Around” as movement, flow, divine relationship.. la dansa, by Matisse

New Jersey is known as the garden state. At one time its farms supplied among other products, millions of tomatoes to Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden. Still in South Jersey acres of blueberries and other vegetables grow in the sandy soil. Large parts of the state are beautiful. The long sand beaches of the Jersey shore, the Pine Barrens in the east and South under which lies hidden one of the most pristine aquafers in the US. Along stretches of the Delaware River Northeast to the Delaware Water gap, Red Hawks soar from the cliffs that overhang the river.

Because of its farming legacy, sited around the state are old grist mills. A grist mill relied on water to propel a massive water-wheel to power the mill stones that ground wheat, corn and other grains to flour.

Allentown, NJ has such a mill wheel. It has not been used for probably a century, but the old structure had survived up until 2000. Twenty –five or more feet in diameter, the machinery of wood and iron took water from a sluice which spilled it into wooden iron-bound buckets that moved the gigantic wheel into motion.

Some have seen the Trinity like a mill wheel. The flow of the waterfall, spilling into one another: The love and laughter of the Father, spilling with roaring joy into the Son, and the complete self-emptying of the Son spilling into the Holy Spirit. Finally returning over and over into a delight in the ongoing process of birth, dying in to self and re-invention. In its movement and joy the Spirit, the inner genius and generosity of the heart, spills over into creation and thus, into us: Love spilling over into love, grace into grace, peace into peace, hope into hope, joy into joy, and wonder into wonder.

Cynthia Bourgeautlt, in The Wisdom Jesus writes:

“The Trinity, understood in a wisdom sense, is really an icon of self-emptying love. The three persons go round and round like buckets on a watermill, constantly over spilling into one another. As they do so, the mill turns and the energy of love becomes manifest and accessible.” From early times in the life of the Christian community, the Trinity was called the “dance around” or perichoresis. This “wonderful and profound insight is that God reveals God’s innermost nature through a continuous round dance of self-emptying. On the great watermill of the Trinity, the statement, “God is love” brings itself into reality.” *

That’s why I value the Trinity is a song to be sung rather than a doctrine by which we become dangerously rigid and closed. We still sometimes sing the creed, placing chords under the single note that we start with.

“Do you want to know what the Trinity

is? Asks Meister Eckhart:


 ”The Father laughs and begets the Son, The Son laughs and begets the Spirit, the Spirit laughs and begets us.” And in our creative and loving action we laugh and continue the great mill wheel of God’s self-emptying love.

God so loved the world that he gave his Son that all humans and all creation would know the gracious outpouring of God’s love, the son came to save us from our predisposition to cynicism and despair. The son came to show us how we can become adopted children of the One who created the Son. The son came to show us this very unique way to become One with the Holy Spirit, by a constant giving away of compassion, presence, love and commitment to the well-being of all.

And so the Prophet is set on fire with the Word of God. Paul finds these absolutely brilliant sentences in his letter to Rome, that we hope for what is not immediately seen. To us the hidden sanctity of the creation is revealed, and out of that knowing of the love of the divine for the world, we give it back, return what has been given so lavishly to us, to the water-wheel of God’s love and it keeps going.

Each act of kindness contributing to the flow of love and energy, just like Jesus. And the river runs and the wheel turns and we, well we, either stand by and watch the river of life go by or we step or jump into the flow.

*The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, Shambhala 2008.

PENTECOSTS Are Happening All the Time

Pentecost, Year B.

We named our organization Project ACTS: We were an Ecumenical Organization of about fifteen Churches in Roslindale and Hyde Park, two Boston neighborhoods. It was 1981 and we’d been working to draw together the congregations in an inaugural convention. There was a Greek Orthodox Church, Two Large Roman Catholic congregations and a salad bowl of our Protestant denominations. At the Founding Convention came various bishops and heads of judicatories. Each congregation and religious organization put aside their differences in a common effort to make the communities more responsive to the needs of our youth, to affordable housing and to quality of life issues. Each church arrived with delegations of various sizes to St Nectarios Church, a young community of many Greek speakers. Almost as if we were returning to that initial Pentecost when all the boundaries and the confusions of languages and customs were removed, we stood together in the power of the love of God and the Spirit and a common purpose.

Our small Episcopal congregation rented space in the Lutheran Church, yet our “little old ladies” were a force with which to contend. Jean Dubois, our organizer, worked with issues of conflict between members that had been in the making for generations. She held us accountable to talk with the congregation and the neighbors. Out of the meetings grew a summer camp program for the children and a meeting with the neighbors about the drunken and noisy parties on weekend nights in the Lutheran Church parking lot. When the police conducted a “raid” on the parking lot, one of our own youth had been picked up by the police. That night I had to go to the police lock-up to get him out.

We had to think more broadly: What do our youth want, what are their needs, where are the programs and facilities in our communities to offer alternatives? Facilities and programs had fled to the wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs. The Municipal building that occupied a large corner of the neighborhood center had closed its gym, operated by the Boys Club and the Registry of Motor Vehicles was threatened for closure and to be moved to the nearby suburbs. Also a swimming pool had been closed after a youth drove a VW through the fence and into the swimming pool. The local city councilor, biased to the core, said that pool would never be restored. He insinuated that the poor people in that area of the town didn’t deserve it. Our little parish was doing Bible Study with the residents of low-income housing development in that neighborhood. We knew better.

The Pentecost moments were many. One of them was the day Governor Dukakis came to cut the ribbon for the re-opening of the Municipal Building. Our “little old ladies” were all arranged in the front row. Their hair all permed that morning, they smiled at the Governor who was flanked by two enormous and armed State Troopers. The State had invested considerable resources to renovate the old Registry of Motor Vehicles. The Boys Club had received grants to refurbish the old gym and track in the building with a new floor and locker rooms. And the Boys club agreed to add “and Girls” to the name. Also the Health Center had succeeded in getting a grant to refurbish the other third of the building. There was such joy in that room that day and a sense of accomplishment. All of our churches crowded the room and our small vagabond church helped to lead the way.

When I visited the registry the next day, I found I had become a local celebrity. They called me over to the window and gave me an honorary registration card. Not bad for a kid who was arrested for driving unregistered and uninsured ten years before.

The organization also had success in re-opening the community pool. The city gave 5.7 million dollars for its reconstruction. Oversight of the operation fell to an inter-racial community board which included many people from that lower income part of the neighborhood.

That initial work helped transform those neighborhoods and it became the model of a way of thinking about neighborhoods in the city that helped elect the next mayor, Tom Menino. Tom died in 2014, after serving well and kindly for twenty years.