When Obligations Become Gifts

A Reflection on the Gospel for

May 10, 2015, The Sixth Sunday of Easter


David Somerville+

African American writer, Octavia Butler, knew both the blessings  and challenges that come from  friendship.  In a moment of personal isolation, she wrote  “[I was] comfortably asocial—a hermit…. a pessimist, …an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” I believe that Butler would have enjoyed a friendship with Vicki J. Kuyper, author of Be Patient, God Isn’t finished with Me Yet. Is God, dear reader, finished with You?

In the love that transpires between two persons, the well being of both grows until the expression, “When you’re  happy, I’m happy” becomes more than just an old slogan.  It becomes a reality that occupies space, and makes good things happen in time. Love between persons, then,  can be viewed both as an entity and a process.  It functions something like the person and work of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ.  He, for a thirty-three year moment, was with the people of God in our space and time of creation. He is still with us now, released from the strictures of a place and a time, because the father’s intention continues: to restore his children, who had “erred and strayed” from their image-hood in God.  We, the faithful, know that one of the earliest events in the history of our salvation began with God’s friendship with a man of obedience, Abraham. The story of his willingness to sacrifice his only son upon the command of his friend, God, suggests what this image-hood can mean.

Friendship can lead to frightening situations; it is also sacred.  How so? Certain kinds of friendships become more than sources of happiness for the people involved; consequences flow from the presence of the  happiness in any “two or three” that are “gathered together”.  The consequences begin to pass from the lovers of each other to the wider neighborhood, and continues toward the transformation of a local culture with a new consciousness of something long familiar to committed Christians — abundant life.  This to me is what the upcoming Gospel for Sunday, May 10th, is really about.

John 15:9-17 can mean different things to different people.  One of them is this: Jesus tells me that the love of mutual friendship that seeks only to value each other unconditionally is like a craftsman’s tool, a hammer, chisel, or, perhaps, a potter’ wheel. They are what the craftsman needs to bring beauty out of the natural stuff of creation – like a chunk of marble or lump of clay.  The friendship and love that grows from the raw but fertilized material of people encountering other people is what God uses in his work to make the world anew out of the old stuff of natural differences— stuff like racism, and the xenophobia that stems from a whole host of things, ranging from how the stranger eats to the way he expresses his sexuality.

Last Sunday in Garland, Texas,  a blogger/provocateur, one Pamela Geller, put on an event to exhibit cartoons of Muhammed which had been submitted by her participants.   The ostensible purpose of the event was to celebrate the United States constitutional right of free speech.

Then it happened.  Two men with assault rifles appeared and began shooting.  They were killed on the spot by a police officer who sustained a non-life threatening injury. Were it not for the quick reaction by the cop, there could have been multiple casualties.

The Texas incident suggests something important.  Every local culture, whose power-brokers believe that theirs is the only style of life acceptable to God, is in need of something like a vaccine for a deadly virus.  The virus is the fear and hatred that spawns the cancer of intolerance.  Tolerance (which, of course, is not the same as tacit approval) is one of the fruits of Christ’s commandments to his disciples, whose imperfect souls in togetherness, are the historical seedbed of what would become the church.

Jesus speaks this coming Sunday of his uncompromising command, “Love one another”.  Now in the normal parlance of the world, following a command is something that one does for another.  The motive is from a force greater than the power of the soul commanded.  It does not come from within; it is imposed to the follower from the outside. Following commands like that are tiring, hard work, and often are experienced as drudgery. They usually cause the development of repressed anger, the top soil for the weeds of sin.

We generally associate obedience to commands by a tyrant to be spiritually empty. After all, if you had not heard of the commandments of Jesus, would you list “following commands” as your favorite activity?  Probably not.  The kind of “selves” that we were, before our baptisms, associates obedience to drudgery,  not the Christian experience of joy through service to others.  Occasionally we relapse to our old selves, and become like the way Octavia Butler described herself.  We too in our lesser moments are a conflicted “oil-and-water” slurry of “ambition, laziness, insecurity, uninformed certainty, and drive.”

When I first heard of Pamela Geller’s exhibition in Texas, I carelessly assumed that she lived in some woodsy fortress in the mountains of Arizona, Idaho, or Montana. Not so.  Her base-ops is a luxury apartment in New York’s Upper  East Side”, and the website she operates through is called Atlas Shrugs!

Jesus’ commandment to love one another is a source of strengthening because the mutual transpiring of one’s goodness with the goodness of another is something we all need, because it is by its nature strengthening. It is the Holy Spirit at work, and here we discover that one of the tongues of the Holy Spirit is silence.  It is the language that enables a deeper communication with one another free from the temptation to judge the other who is different.  That is something we also need as a part of our strengthening because we are sorely tempted to judge others, rather than to offer listening, and undemanding presence, as a form of prayer. Obviously friendship, as a form of silent prayer  might do more to influence the other than getting into an argument.  Earlier in the day, as I was writing this article, I heard a CNN correspondent doing just that:  arguing with Pamela Geller. I had to turn the television off.

Before her death in 2006, Octavia Butler spoke of her experiences in transformation through her relationships with others.  She observed that “Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny.” A wise friend of Pamela Geller’s would not be one that seeks to win by debating  with her, but one who would be her companion,  the kind of friend that would stay with her for a while as she takes the road badly traveled.  The friend would then know to stop short of the cave entrance at the end of this road into which Geller chooses to rush, the place where angels fear to tread.

There is more that Octavia Butler says after her wisdom-style remark (Ecclesiastes?) about “a time for silence, and a time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny”.  She adds also that there is “a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.” Take a second look at that.    Isn’t Butler’s remark a really a good way to describe our life in baptized ministry?


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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Do We, the Easter People of God, Accept the Pruner’s Knife?

A Reflection on the Gospel for

May 3, 2015, The Fifth Sunday of Easter


David Somerville+

Distinguished preacher, Dr. Fred Craddock, author of Preaching Through the Christian Year,  makes a telling observation about the Church.  Is his observation compatible with our Anglican ethos? I think so.  Our ethos involves the assumption that the church is a living unity, more like an organism than an organization. So we are generally inclined to feel O.K with Dr. Craddock’s commentary on the vine image: “The Father’s loving care means being subject to the vine grower’s pruning knife….” This all feels O.K. — on first thought. But if we go just a little further, we find a chilling implication. We must have the spiritual readiness to accept the possible loss of anything we take for granted. In my experience with life, losses can take a variety of forms from things familiar that I thought I could never live without to those blind-siding betrayals in life caused by the untimely death of either a loved one or a relationship. I have experienced the grief and pain of other kinds of losses- either the consequences of an act on impulse, or a life-altering diagnosis coming from a routine physical exam. Even when bad things don’t happen to me, but to other people in the living Body of Christ, we all become “dis-eased”.  Therefore Dr, Craddock concludes,  “Life is often painful”, tempting us to wonder  “if God cares.” Where will the knife need to go?  What part of us will it cut out next?

On February 12, 2014, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Television journalist and former CNN anchor, Miles O’Brien, was on location in the Philippines doing a report on 3 D Image technology.  He was in the process of packing one of those large professional video cameras into its heavy duty Pelican brand travel case. The case inadvertently fell off a shelf and hit Mr. O’Brien’s left arm.  There was some pain. But it did not seem terribly serious.  But two days later the arm pain got worse, and O’Brien had to go under general anesthesia.  He woke up in the recovery room, and looked down his left shoulder. He was confronted by the unbelievable.  All that was left of his arm was a bandaged stump. O’Brien had become an amputee.

The surgeon explained that he had no choice. “Acute Compartment Syndrome,” a blood restriction condition, had set in destroying nerve and muscle tissue that could not be repaired. Immediate removal of the arm had to be done to save Miles’ life.  When O’Brien’ consciousness returned, he discovered that he was now different forever! He was not prepared for this life-altering change that came from the inadvertent drop of a piece of luggage.

Miles O’Brien is a rugged individual. He was busy and on assignment; he had not budgeted the time to grieve over the loss of his arm. He had a deadline.   Miles’ friend and colleague from his CNN days, the well known medical correspondent, Dr, Sanjay Gupta, interviewed O’Brien and did a special CNN presentation about the experience a little over a month ago.  It was touching when Dr. Gupta had to stop the interview and let O’Brien cry.  The sobs were deep and poignant, but there was nothing about the emotion that compromised O’Brien’s masculine dignity (No, let me correct my word choice. Gender stereotypes are irrelevant. Let’s just call it “functional” dignity).  It was grief work getting done, and done effectively in the arms of a trusted friend.  The glare of the television studio did not appear to interfere with this healthy process.  When the interview continued, Miles was indeed a different man.  He told Dr. Gupta of the many options that prosthetic technology has made available to vigorous, athletic amputees. He spoke of re-learning a variety of skills from cycling to buttoning a shirt. Those were the achievements of his “up” days.

When Dr. Gupta heard O’Brien talk of all that he was learning to do, Gupta felt some concern.  An “emotional crash” he thought, was going to happen.  It was just a question of when such “down” days would dawn.

Miles, a consummate fitness buff,  started running again, but losing an arm affected his balance. He fell, and broke his nose.  He had reached to break his fall with an arm that was no longer there. With occasional experiences like that, times of severe discouragement and even thoughts of suicide were bound to happen, and they did. Dr. Gupta and Mr. O’Brien were teachers to teach other in a special relationship of trust. Gupta learned from O’Brien that the virtue of personal discipline that renounces self-pity can go a long way.  But grief work denied and ignored will only get worse—like O’Brien’s untended injury.

The five stages of grief work first identified by Dr.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross more than forty years ago were useful for Dr. Gupta to remember. But the five stages do not follow any kind of predictable, sequential series of steps.  When and how they appear in a particular individual is anybody’s guess.  So to go ahead and know the content of the Kugler-Ross book on the five stages was Gupta’s first lesson, but the next lesson was to lay the book down because the more important text is what Anton C. Boysen, founder of the Clinical Pastoral Education movement, called the “living human document”.  That is the primary source that has the final, but ever-changing, word.

There are parallels, I believe, between some of the ordeal Miles O’Brien passed through, and the teachings of Jesus.   Our Lord this upcoming Sunday will give us his truth,  “I am the true vine”.  The Gospel reading continues: “My Father is the vine-grower.” It is a little scary to say this, but if you will pardon the odd grammar, I is us!  But we already know that.  We are indeed the Body of Christ in the development and exercise of its mission.  We, who are the Church, its baptized ministers, with their servants in ordained ministry, are an organic unity. When in good health, we should, much like mature, gray haired athletes,  be steady performers.  Our maturity should lead us to set endurance through self-care as our first priority over competitive speed. We, the Church should be something like Miles O’Brien’s body.  We, much like the recovering journalist, are on a journey which O’Brien describes as “still not completed, … but a continuing [process of] self-discovery”.  O’Brien elaborates by saying more:  “ I learned that there’s no weakness in asking for help”.  (Wow! The italics need to be there, so I put them in.)

As a presbyter in the church, I hate to count and admit the number of times I have failed to remember that, indeed, asking for help when help is needed, is a virtuous act.   I have made mistakes out of my proud failure to admit that I was in over my head.  So I did things that caused both myself and others unnecessary pain.  The tempter remains in my midst, so the best I can pray for will be that all my errors in the future will cause minimal pain to others and maximal opportunities for me to learn and grow in our Lord’s stature —- which is what every person’s pilgrimage to life eternal is all about anyway. We are familiar with the image of running for the crown that does not fade away.  It sounds glamorous, but in real life, I, with everybody else on occasion, will bloody my nose because I tried to brace myself without help. I have done things like trying to break falls with something like an arm that I did not believe had been amputated. To drop the metaphor for a moment, I am still inclined to set up for myself the goals and objectives for a day’s work that assumes that I am still in my late thirties, and do not have Parkinson’s disease. That is my phantom.

Today the shock and pain of the pruner’s knife is in the midst of our church body. If we deny that,  we deny the amputation of the moribund parts of ourselves that the pruner has removed. I pray that we will continue to have, as we have in times past, the grace to accept loss, betrayal, and grieve constructively over those things and people once familiar to us and valued, who are now gone, doing what is the point of the vinegower’s image in the Gospel of John, and what Dr. Craddock’s commentary pointed out about it:  namely “that our pain today [is] a sign that God is still working to mold us––to shape our lives––to help us to become the best that we can be — even though, as Miles O’Brien wrote recently in his blog, “the hand dealt us in this time of our life was not ours to choose”. All this, we, as the company of the Faithful might add, is something from the damaged, but compassionate, hand of God.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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Our Theology of the Good Shepherd: Schmaltz or Substance?

A Reflection on the Gospel for

April 26, 2015,

The Fourth Sunday of Easter


David Somerville

Best known for his authorship of The Varieties of Religious Experience, early 20th century psychologist and philosopher, William James,  held the conviction that “The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”

No Sunday is not a good day to reflect on the the theme of the Good Shepherd.  It is a favorite of Sunday School teachers for all ages. Its invaluable use during times of disaster is beyond dispute, and its use as a comforter to the bereft is known to us all.

In this article I would like to describe the reality behind the theme of the Good Shepherd, the source of a lot of mediocre, sentimental art, and then suggest how that reality should challenge what God may be expecting us to do with ourselves as we discern what forms our vocations should take.

As I noted above, we have all have seen many depictions of the Good Shepherd that is really bad art. No Jesus should look like someone whose wrist is too limp to carry a crozier, or who might faint at the sight of blood!

A few weeks ago on a mid-week afternoon at about 5’ o’clock, the two-lane roads of Saint Simons Island were loaded with commuters. They always are at that time of the day. So I felt the pressure of several vehicles behind me as I paused momentarily at the yield sign before the entrance to a traffic circle.  I was anxious to squeeze myself in before the driver behind me would start to honk — which  I did.  Immediately as  I got into the circle, the vehicle in front of me slowed unexpectedly while I still had my eye on the the car behind me. I hit my break pedal. The driver of the car behind me was startled.  It was a Glynn county police officer. His light bar lit up.  Uh Oh! So, leaving the circle, I pulled off the road to absorb the consequences, hoping that I knew exactly where my registration and proof of insurance were.   I was feeling very sheepish. But the blue strobes of a light bar does not offer the same associations that I have with the rod and the staff that comfort me.

I rolled down the window and saw the uniform coming; I was about to be “shepherded”.  The police officer was African American, a fact that should have been irrelevant, and still probably is irrelevant. But my conscience was affected, like any conscience that is aware of the news since the tragic Ferguson, Missouri incident eight months ago.  I wondered for a moment what it must be like to be a black law enforcement officer.  I was already learning on the spot what it feels like to be an errant “sheep”.  I was entertaining some mixed emotions.  Was I, before I noticed the officer’s skin color, feeling some thankfulness at being white?  I would like to think I was capable of higher processes than that.  But am I really?

The policeman explained that after I entered the round-about, my driving appeared erratic. I understood that. I hit my break pedal, which caused him to hit his break pedal, which caused the mother in the SUV behind his car to hit her break pedal.  Fortunately her toddler was safely strapped in, who was crying anyway because he had lost control of his vehicle, a Tonka toy truck that now lay upside down at his feet and out of his reach.  All this the policeman saw in his rear view mirror.  I told the officer what it was that caused me to slow down so suddenly.  The policeman explained that he just needed to know a little more about me, and whether I was under any influence of alcohol, or if I had been texting.   He was polite, but dead serious at the same time. I was pleasantly surprised that he did not demand to see the documents I had already pulled out of the glove box. I was grateful.  As the day wore on, I thought of how my experience of being a “shepherded sheep,” gently admonished by an officer in the vocation of attending to my safety, and that of others were as news-worthy as the events of the past several months following the Ferguson incident. Since then, a number of black men had been stopped by white law enforcement officers.  The encounters led to fight/flight reactions by the black civilians involved (the sheep, as it were).   The officer/shepherds involved went into pursuit. The actions led to movements into the attack mode ostensibly to maintain law and order.   Media impressions have left much of the public with a sense that some of the shepherds had turned into “wolves”, causing violent actions (or overreactions) that led to their tragic,  irreversible consequences.

How does the Gospel of Easter fit into a world where such things happen? Do I dare to take a stab at answering this one? I am fool enough for Christ to try.  God, the Son, the Good Shepherd, is the physical expression of the unseen person of the “Comforter”, or “strengthener”, perhaps, namely the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, human shepherds in momentary fear and panic do not find the strength of God.  In other words then, their natural anxiousness to survive a lethal threat has left them in need of the strengthening of God.

Well, just look at what I have written! The rational, self-evident stuff of a boring sermon –  utterly useless to those who grieve in the wake of one child of God’s killing of another!      

The strengthening comforter is “the Lord and Giver of Life” according to the Nicene Creed.  He (or she?) is the strengthener that was not always present to the spiritually disoriented flock of disciples we read about in our Easter scriptures.  We see in the readings that they were adjusting to the strangeness of that time in their life we call the “Great Fifty Days” of the resurrection.  The disciples were in a self-protection mode, the same kind of mode that led to the tragedies between the mostly white law enforcement personnel and the mostly black civilians who had carried with them generations of cultural, experienced-based fear of the police.

The Fifty Days were a strange and unfamiliar time for the surviving disciples. They were the days they experienced  those unexpected moments of fellowship with Jesus who would appear suddenly, and unannounced, on the inside of a locked room,  or prepare an early morning barbecue for his former followers after a night of hopeless work, looking for fish.

Several of the Great Fifty Days had in them times of spiritual darkness.  Thomas spent a week off by himself, inconsolable, and it was Peter who said to his fisherman colleagues, “‘I am going fishing.’ … They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing,” leaving the reader of John 21:3 to wonder if what went left unrecorded by the evangelist, were words like these: “Yes, I’m going to fish for fish!  That I can understand.  That is what I know how to do.  Fish for People?  I still don’t know what Jesus was talking about.  I never did. So when push came to shove, I chickened out on this man whom I loved, and now he is  dead! I should never have become involved.

So here we are with two worlds in our midst.  One is in the first millennium; it is the Church’s memory-story of God making meaningful history with humankind, whether they, the sheep of the Good Shepherd, knew it or not.  The second world is ours at the start of the third millennium.  Both worlds involve sheep that failed to be led due to their fear.  And the shepherds, for their part, also erred in their leadership, out of their own loss of spiritual perspective in those fractions of a second that required right action without time for discernment.

The recent televised apology by the reservist law enforcement officer, Robert Bates, who grabbed his pistol instead of his taser in Tulsa, Oklahoma, appeared to be sincere, and the family of the victim, Eric Harris, seemed to respect Mr. Bates’s remorse, but in a guarded sort of way.  They would not let be trivialized a bare fact:  A man, who did not deserve to be killed, was killed, and that cannot be reversed.  A belief persists:  That had Mr. Harris not been a black man, the outcome might well have been different.  And so another difficult question is born:  How do we, members of the flock of the Good Shepherd, respond to tragedies like this?  One answer that is both true, and yet far from being enough of an answer, is to assure the Harris family that their loved one is in heaven; so all is well. People who say things like that may think their words are healing balm, but answers of that sort are more likely to be salt in the wound!  They are received by the grieving as a trivialization of their tragedy! We, in our faith commitment to the Shepherd and bishop of our souls, are called to do better than that — unless, of course we believe our good shepherd to be the limp-wristed incompetent who faints at the sight of blood.  Are we, the baptized, prepared to search actively for the light of Christ to give us an answer from the strengthener, the Lord and Giver of Life, and pay the price?

Our days after Easter continue to have variations of a theme that were first played out in the canonical Fifty Days.  We have received the assurance that our Lord Jesus Christ is alive and has offered forgiveness even before we have sinned.  And yet the process of experiencing the love of God most palpably depends on his appearing unexpectedly at odd times in the unexpected places when we are not in our best forms — like hiding defensively behind the closed doors of our frightened souls where risk-aversive behavior is the norm, and pat-answers to difficult questions are used to re-enforce the locks on the doors.  This is the stuffy closet of the soul where mottos like “Trust No one” and “Don’t Get Involved” hang from walls too narrow for an open window or a fire place with its welcoming hearth.

In spite of their faithless selves,  some of the disciples did a few things right. They did not mistake their returning master through the closed doors, for a gardener as Mary Magdalene did. Thomas decided to come back and rejoin his friends.  He may have had some idea that grief is something that one has to work through, and that one could not do that alone.  And what about Peter and the Zebedees?  They must have somehow known that even a night with nothing in their nets would still end with a sunrise.

These events, and more, suggest that we are called to discern with one another in the continuing sacrifice of repentance, prayer, fasting, bible study, and the sacraments to be the community priesthood that brings lordship and life to the Church,  That makes our individual selves available to receive the insight of the “aha”! that makes us know that we are indeed called to the life that is led by the Value of values, and that it really is  true — “The great use of one’s life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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Can it be True that Perfection is the Child of Mistakes?

A Reflection on

John 20:19-31

The Gospel for  April 12, 2015

The Second Sunday of Easter

by David Somerville

Early twentieth century president of Union Theological seminary in New York, Henry Sloane Coffin, once observed that “The indisputable Easter fact is that…Jesus was … more potent in Jerusalem… after His death on Calvary than when He rode into the city amid the crowds .…

I don’t believe any Christian worth the salt of baptism could disagree with Coffin’s remark.  But what is a little weird for me about Jesus after Calvary, or even before it during Holy Week, is how the Redeemer’s work  depends so much on the mistakes people made, and, as if that were not strange enough, so many of the mistakes seem to have been unanticipated  (though not all of them).  But of course, I could be quite wrong.  I often am. I make mistakes  Although I don’t like making them, they are a large source of what I have learned about life, and the One who is the source of its abundance.

Easter to me is the climax of the life of God  in “humanity-hood”, a world of mistakes.   It was thought by Jesus’s followers as he approached the city gates that his entry was a sign of an impending triumph. But what sort of triumph were they imagining?  The street thinking on Palm Sunday was mistaken, and yet somehow, because it was mistaken, the greater truth,  namely that Jesus is truly the son of God and king of kings was revealed. I cannot imagine a more effective way to learn the truth of this article of faith than to have it come to us through the mistakes of the momentous seven days in Jerusalem.

Jesus rode into the city, as we well know, on a donkey. How could one borne on the back of such a modest burden-bearer be perceived as a conqueror? Don’t conquerors ride on garlanded war horses?  The incongruity seemed obvious, and yet the palm wavers, cried “hosannah!”  They believed that this donkey ride into Jerusalem was the moment in their history they had been waiting for! They believed that Jesus would somehow overthrow the tyranny of Rome!

The band of Galileans who both followed and led Jesus through the city entrance gates were in denial that any ordinary insurrection against Rome was a pathetic impossibility.  But clearly that was the subject of their dream! Could it be then that these people, thinking magically like children,  crying “hosanna” were in some form of denial – like the addict who says to himself, “I have been the victim of all the follies and failures that have made my life worthless. But none of it was my responsibility. It was all the fault of my parents, my neighborhood, my schooling, and prejudice against my ethnic identity, and/or my sexual orientation.

“But tomorrow will be different,” the addict continues.  “Just you wait! I am going to change things. I will make a  better tomorrow happen! But, of course, there is all that necessary preparatory work that must be done first — my drinking, my gambling, and the other things I just have to do to forget all my troubles!

“Oh dear… Well right now, on second thought, is not a good time — too many troubles just now, too much going on.

“But just you wait! I’ll hit my problems head-on in the next couple/few days!

I have talked like that.  And when I have,  I was using a defense mechanism.  It is a form of denial, an opiate-like thing to ease the pains of fear and despair over the possibility that some of the mistakes I made are my responsibility to both take ownership of,  and to seek help with.  But does that masking of reality’s pain do any good? No. What will truly raise people from the death of self-hatred, is not to drug oneself with denial, but to confront the experience of helplessness. The only way to finally renounce the fortresses of self-delusion, built upon the clouds of fantasy, is to experience their collapse first hand.  When that happens to any of us, living with the predicament of being human, whether that be a first century disciple from Galilee or a twenty-first century anti-hero, the mechanisms of denial  are still the same. They enslave us to the delusions of flawed imposed by forces other than God.

Our bad habits and the mistakes we make, however,  can serve a better purpose by doing something other than denying that we have them.  Instead, a supportive community can familiarize the troubled soul with how the impotence of delusional fantasies are so effective at keeping him or her trapped. Being familiarized with the uselessness of such fantasies, the soul is made ready for openness for the real change God truly intends toward the divine plan of perfection.  When that change has taken place, the disciple is ready to lay down the palm branch and let them become what they inevitably will be anyway — the ashes of renounced vanity. To use the language of personal experience, I am challenged to make the first step in movement toward the better direction of repentance. It is analogous to turning around,  to go back toward citizenship in our true home, what Jesuit paleontologist and geologist,  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called our Omega Point destiny. To use another Gospel image, our salvation in the risen Christ is signified by the moment when Jesus passes through the locked doors of their safe house.  That reminds me of the private place of our broken selves where our shame and the secrets about the mistakes we have made are kept.  That is the part of us that betrayed Jesus, who, because he was crucified, or in the other words of the Fourth Gospel, “lifted up”,  continues to lead us in  the spiritual exodus that will indeed have the last laugh over all tyrannies— not just Rome.  Was this kind of imagination conceivable in the minds of those, who the week before waved their palms and cried “Hosannah?” I hardly think so, and yet were it not for such mistaken, delusional thinking, could such a revelation about the Man from Nazareth ever been made?  I don’t have the imagination to come up with a proposal of how he could have done it any other way.

On several occasions the disciples, and people like Mary Magdalene,  were not able to recognize Jesus with their carnal eyes — even though they were confronted with palpable evidence that their once-crucified Lord was indeed in their presence. They were still making mistakes.

Jesus breathed his spiritual vision and the authority to make decisions that move beyond mistakesinto the fellowship behind the locked doors for their strengthening. Jesus began the process that caused the surviving but still incompetent group, to evolve into the Church.  The group’s destiny was to become the sacrament of God’ presence in the human categories of time and space. They were evolving into something that may still seem to some of us to be too radical to be true: a community animated by the Word through whom all things were made in the past.

The fellowship of original disciples continued to evolve.  It is now, in a Marian sort of way,  the mother of creation’s hope.

The gospel lesson for the eighth of the fifty days affirms that Easter is not merely a day, but a continuing life for us who would become the Church,  the only body that would dare to undertake such a mothering role. It is understandable that the  resurrection epiphany for the first witnesses was not one great moment when full power and maturity happily came to the group in completion, but a day with as much confusion in it as there was joy. This means that mistakes were still being made.  This is not a bad thing, but God’s way of engaging the sinners he was redeeming.    This, I believe accounts for their disoriented blindness — like Magdalene’s eyes. clouded by the tears of hopeless grief, and Thomas, whose spiritual blindness caused him to be absent  (without leave, perhaps) for a week. The embryonic group that would become the Church were like the very junior apprentices of their master who was challenged to lead them to cope with a new way of living in a creation that would in the common era depend on them to actualize its potential to be the new home of abundant life.

We the living church, the spiritual posterity of the first witnesses have received the canonical record of the resurrection with all its enigmatic inconsistencies and ambiguities. The record was remembered by the first apostles in in their diverse places, and then recorded by their scribes. The record was then handed down to us in time as a the reminder that we too, like the first witnesses, are a long way from certified completion or graduation from our life of apprenticeship. That realization about ourselves gives us assurance as a church that our imperfection and mistake-making is not cause for discouragement but a reminder to be patient with both ourselves and our neighbors.  God is not finished with us yet! We are called, then, to go forward and continue to live abundantly, both doing and being the Good News of God who still is in Christ through us, reconciling the world to the divine perfection that is not ours to be sure, but toward which we are being led.

That Henry Sloane Coffin’s observation that Jesus was more effective after Calvary is self-evidently true today.  But it is the adult child of  what really on the first Palm Sunday appeared to be childishly magical thinking,  the kind of thinking common sense would have called a big mistake:  “Hosannah! We’re gonna overthrow Rome! But that which the sophisticates of Western civilization would have called foolish indeed has evolved into our rejection of tyranny in all its forms, to say nothing of the other articles that are  the content of our baptismal vows.

Are mistakes still being made?  Of course! God finds them useful.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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The Resurrection — It Takes More than A Fundamentalist to Fathom What happened

A Reflection on the

 Resurrection Accounts of Mark and John

April 5, 2015

Easter Day

by David Somerville

It may not be a good idea to write much about fundamentalism when making a reflection on the mystery of Easter.  Are there not better ways to reflect on the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Yes, probably… If we are looking for an easy beginning. But we have something to learn from folks who are victimized by fundamentalism. God may be calling us to be missionaries in some form to them also.  But bear in mind that what we learn from this spiritual blindness is not what fundamentalists intend to teach.

Literal inerrancy types of believers are among the first to affirm with vigor that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is exactly what happened, and that the accounts of it are not metaphorical. Metaphors and symbols, fundamentalists assume, are inferior to the reporting of events of the supernatural that must be held literally to have really happened.  For them the bodily resurrection was a real event just as the dead Lazarus was brought out of his foul smelling tomb— alive and ready to enjoy a reunion with his family members and to continue being his beloved self, but in a new and different sort of way— released from his death shrouds. Do the fundamentalists get this? Do we?  What could such a release be?  Does it suggest that Lazarus’ life with his family members after the reunion was somehow very different?  I would think that there was a great difference, and that the difference is the real point of the event. The reason why the calling of Lazarus from his tomb was remembered by the community that wrote the story, was that Jesus wanted him to be truly unbound and free of hopelessness. Do fundamentalists really get the significance of the command, “Lazarus, come out!”  or do they merely value the establishment of “just the facts” assuming that the dirty rags in the tomb are a minor detail, and not symbols of a serious problem with what otherwise would have been a wholesome passage for Lazarus into the mystery of eternal life?

In addition to fundamentalism among Christians, we in this millennium have been made aware of how this compulsive literalism can thoroughly obscure the rich spiritualities of the other two Abramic traditions, Judaism and Islam. Fundamentalism insists that righteousness must be defended by the violence of war, that murder is an effective means to the achievement of good, and that justice and revenge are the same thing.  They are among the believers in the right of every man to bear arms. They are inclined to regard negotiation and discussion as temptations to question and betray their principles, and that tolerance and compromise are signs of moral weakness.  Furthermore, fundamentalists suspect that all things new or unusual are evil.  They are inclined to support legislation that they hold to be in the name of the free exercise of religion, but in actuality is intended to control, persecute, and limit the pursuit of happiness by people whom they do not understand, and, therefore, do not like. Christian fundamentalists are a little strange, because after all that, they appear to support the traditions of American democracy.

Is fundamentalism always religious?  Apparently not. I found one man who does not believe in God.  And yet he exhibits at least some of the behaviors of a fundamentalist.  Evolutionary biologist, and emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford,[3] Richard Dawkins was Oxford’s Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008.[4] He is well known for his hostility toward creationism and intelligent design, ideas preferred by many conscientious Christians to be in their children’s science curricula. He wrote recently, “Presumably what happened to Jesus was what happens to all of us when we die. We decompose. Accounts of Jesus’s resurrection and ascension are about as well-documented as Jack and the Beanstalk”.

Does the quote anger you, fellow reader and friend?  I hope not because we, as Christians of the Resurrection, have better things to do than to get in a stew over Professor Dawkins’ rather adolescent contempt for the convictions of his neighbors with whom he disagrees. I suspect that Dawkins’ hostility to those who confuse science with those wonderful bible stories that convey important truths, albeit ones of a non-scientific nature, is the product of the violence he has seen fundamentalist religion do to others including himself.  But what Dawkins has done in his remark is argue for a new doctrine, a gospel of “scientism”. It offers a “Dawkinian” style of salvation, an exodus story from all superstitious, religious myths with a teaching that all truth that is real truth is scientific truth, and by following this yellow brick road of natural science alone, all questions will have their answers, and one will truly find the way to the good life of health, wholeness, peace, and contentment.

So what good is my continuing to ridicule fundamentalism in any form going to do? Dawkins talked of the beanstalk, so I threw in the bit about the yellow brick road. Tit for tat!   What a waste!   I am being as judgmental and mean-spirited as the scientistic fundamentalist is— which makes me into another kind of fundamentalist, an anti-fundamentalist! Anti-fundamentalists run the risk of getting too busy ranting and raving about what they are against, rather than submitting their concerns to the thoughtful discernment of group discussion to see what our differences might suggest as we explore the unturned pages of life with its continuing revelations, which can be an exhausting process. Such discussions aggravate us with perplexity as we confront life in a creation larger than our minds – causing us to make mistakes like Mary Magdalene’s confusion of  her risen savior for a gardener.

Easter is a day of profound transformation of every level of our thinking and attitudes. It is about how God, the Son of God, the Word who is of the same essence as the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, may, at a careless glance by grief-stricken eyes, be mistaken for a gardener.   It is the story of the end of one paradigm with a new principle of how we and God relate to each other,  It has torn the curtain that separates us from our fellow human beings that creates the delusion that the differences of others are signs that the others are less valued by God, and that God calls us to make them somehow more like us.

We, the Easter People of God, are pioneers in a new territory.  We are learning that our repugnance at the behavior of others (who can in all fairness be very repugnant) can make us as repugnant and sinful as the others are if we loose perspective through our outrage at what they have done.  How shall we repent of all this now that the Great Fifty Days have arrived?

Ironically the answer may begin with our recapturing of some fundamentals — which of course, is certainly not to go back to the Egypt of fundamentalism. New Testament scholar, and retired Bishop of Durham, England,  N. T. Wright  has something to say about all this which is, as they say in his neighborhood of the Durham Cathedral,  “spot on”.  I close with this quote from Wright with just one caveat afterwards.

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.” [Italics mine]

Let’s just be real careful with the word, “colonize”.  Can you think of some of the unfortunate associations with this word?

Fundamentalists of many kinds have done a lot of aggressive “colonizing” in the history of civilization.  It would be helpful to stay in touch with an idea that in this world, to quote the beloved hymn of Bland Tucker, The Great Creator of the Worlds, based on the Epistle of Diognetus, “Force is not of God”.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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The Holy Week Drama: Will We be in the Cast This Year?

A Reflection on Holy Week

by David Somerville

            Pennsylvania rector, Samuel Shoemaker  (1893-1963) is best remembered for his leadership of the Oxford Group, originally founded by the Christian missionary Dr. Frank Buchman.   (This community of believers in personal transformation through fellowship and action is not to be confused with the theological, anglo-catholic Oxford Movement).  The Group was a movement of Christianity that valued the sharing experiences of friends in conversation toward “group consensus”  rather than any kind of “official” organization to support its values.  Later called “Moral Rearmament”, the movement significantly effected the social ethics of the Lutheran churches of Denmark and Norway, which contributed significantly to the Scandinavian resistance to the German Nazi ideology that spawned World War II.  The group also provided the foundational guidance on which two of its early members, Dr. Bob Smith, and Bill Wilson were able to create  a spiritual program that made sobriety possible for the millions who struggled with alcoholism. Capturing the intent of Holy Week worship, Dr. Shoemaker wrote

“Not to the gates of Jerusalem alone does Jesus ride today, but to the gates of our hearts. There he waits knocking, knocking. His knuckles must be raw by now….”

The question begged by Dr. Shoemaker’s homily is this:  What is my responsibility, and yours, Dear Reader, for the rawness in the knuckles of Jesus, the Incarnation of God?

Holy week has all the elements — and more — of what constitutes classic drama:  It permanently affects the soul of the audience, and then brings the audience onto the stage to discover that they are integral participants in the cast.  As we anticipate next week’s coming seven-day sacrament of God’s passage in love for humanity’s exodus from sin, we would do well to ask if we recognize ourselves in this drama because, like it or not, we are there.  We are in it.

We might surely recognize  Jim Caviazel playing Jesus or Mala Morgenstern as Mary in the Mel Gibson production, The Passion of the Christ.  But do we recognize ourselves in our canonical passion narratives as we, as we experience Holy Week worship, roil in the stew of our emotions,  ranging from intimate conviviality, dull witted confusion, stark terror, deep shame, and hopeless despair over betrayal?   I believe that if we catch glimpses of ourselves in the scenes of the events we are about to live through, then we will have succeeded in taking on Holy Week.  And that is the right thing to do. It is a chalice to behold not on a museum shelf, but with its rim at our lips, having been passed to us by the bloodied hand of our neighbor, whoever that might be.

Where,  then, shall we find ourselves in these passages?  There are a lot of places to look.  Here are just a few:  Are we among the cheering fans with the palm leaves? Do we see ourselves in the background thinking, “Hey Jesus, I certainly sympathize with you.  All that commercializing out there in the Temple precincts is tacky, and yes, Maybe it is blasphemous. But is it worth getting so worked up about?  After all, this money-changing is a necessary function, and it’s only going on in the court of the Gentiles, so that doesn’t really count, does it?  And besides, all this attention you’re bringing on yourself could lead to some really bad press!”

Or do you see yourself in the  quieter place, Simon’s house in Bethany, watching the anointing, saying to yourself as your eyes roll,  “This woman’s extravagance is so dramatic, and such a wasteful exaggeration of what’s really going on! Our beloved is not going to really be killed.  Judas, our business manager, is a prudent advisor and observer.  He knows the influential people of the Sanhedrin. In addition to managing our funds, he’ll give us practical advice to get our movement funded and launched before the Romans really get wind of our plan to bring in the new order of God.”

I, myself, tend to be the introvert among those of Jesus’ friends who say, “We’re just going to have a quiet Passover gathering over at Mark’s place in that upstairs room we like so much — for old time’s sake; then  go home with our dreams that one day we’ll see the Kingdom come, but none of us, and none of our loved ones will get hurt in the process.”

Here is another possibility where some of us might see ourselves — feeling uncomfortable with Jesus’ extravagant predictions about Peter.  I could easily see myself saying, “Oh yes, I know Peter tends to be a little impulsive, but after all this, he will stand by you, Jesus.  He has the convictions of a rock.  Yes, he may have his foolish moments, but Peter isn’t a liar, and he is certainly no chicken!”

Another place we might see ourselves are the times when we have to struggle through the night over a tough decision which will affect our loved ones profoundly.  I just want to doze off and sleep until the crisis in my midst — just goes away.

There are few places where the Gospel is not about us, and as far as the first day of Holy Week is concerned, we may find ourselves playing multiple parts at once in this special drama.  We have a responsibility.  If it were a play there would be lines to memorize. But on this stage they need to be more than memorized.  they need to be  “marked, and inwardly digested” once we discern which lines are ours.

How then do we prepare for Holy Week without being overwhelmed, or shall we just show up at Church for the services scheduled, sit, and listen?  Is it inevitable that we will be  overwhelmed? Perhaps.  A good way to engage Holy Week, though, is to accept being overwhelmed as a very real possibility.  Engage with it anyway.  We are not God, but the beloved of God.

One way to engage with Holy Week is  to look at something in the narrative that does not actually appear in the Sunday lectionary.  It is one part of the Gospel that is really, I believe, not about us at all.  But it may be forgotten this year.  It is something we read about only once every other year in the Daily Office for Monday in Holy Week:  Jesus’ cursing the fig tree.  Check it out in Mark 11:12-25.

A secular humanist friend of mine, once said to me, “David, I do not believe Jesus is the ‘eternal word of the Father, begotten, not made’. He was a great human being like several others in our humanist pantheon like the Buddha, Socrates, Francis of Assisi, or Henry David Thoreau.” He went on, sounding a little like Startrek’s Mr. Spock.  “Look at this fig tree incident.  The Nazarene was obviously under a lot of stress. He cursed the fig tree like the way I was tempted to curse my car last month because its battery was dead (suddenly my friend looked a little less like Mr. Spock); it caused me to be late for the opening scenes to my favorite opera, The Barber of Seville”.

I do not know to what extent the fig tree incident is historical in some literal sense.  The point of the fig tree incident is that when something symbolized by the fig tree, namely the temple priesthood, becomes a fruitless burden to the people who support it, then the tree carries a new message:  the wrath of God is real.  As I noted, the cursing of the fig tree is not about us — unless, of course, our Easter is nothing but a Fifth Avenue fashion show while our responsibilities to the Body that loves us and our neighbor continues to be neglected.

We are an “Easter People” as Augustine of Hippo taught us — with or without the bonnets and other customs of local culture, all of which we may enjoy — so long as we keep them in their proper perspective.  But a brief pause to note the cursing of the fig tree reminds us again of Sam Shoemaker’s poignant thought that bears repeating as a conclusion to this reflection:  Not to the gates of Jerusalem alone does Jesus ride today, but to the gates of our hearts. There he waits knocking, knocking. His knuckles must be raw by now.

Shoemaker adds something that rings true  to us today

 “The gentle rap has been so long smothered by contemporary rivals that some of us can barely hear it”  (like all the social media technology Dr. Shoemaker never got to see.)  “And yet, nevertheless Jesus goes on standing there”.

I like to think our real presence to the sacrament of Holy Week will make us sibling ministers to the woman who appeared at Simon’s house in Bethany. Maybe we ourselves can be some of the oil she uses to ease the knuckle pain of our dying God.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/

2  Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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Is it Decline, or a Different Kind of Progress?

A Reflection on the Gospel for March 22, 2015

John 12:20-33

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

by David Somerville+

                 Henry Sloane Coffin was president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church until his retirement in 1945. He died nine years later, having seen the swelling prosperity of mainline Christianity begin after World War II. Coffin beheld something inauthentic in all this expansion. It was reflected by a kind of theme park artificiality in some of its physical structures. Many of the buildings of that era looked classical or gothic from a distance, but were actually made of cinder block, asbestos, poured concrete, and topped with fiberglass kit belfries, knock-offs from such familiar icons as the Old North Church. About these slick, new structures, both material and spiritual, Coffin remarked

There can be no question but that Church membership has been made too cheap.  It has become largely a convention. At present our churches draw and hold the settled and … repel the venturesome, which is precisely the reverse of the New Testament Church.

              Coffin’s assessment must have provoked heated discussion in those days, and now, more than sixty years later, there can be more discussion along parallel lines as we look at Jesus in the Gospel for next Sunday in which he says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”

              In the years of Coffin’s comments, The Holy Spirit was speaking to me. I was a struggling little piece of adolescent grain. It was late in the summer of 1960 at the end of a decade while America was still enjoying its love affair with its national self. It was a confident assumption then that of the two super powers, ours was the one favored by God, a fact I assumed was obvious, and beyond dispute as evidenced by our nation’s size, and prosperity. I did not have the maturity to question those assumptions. I had no idea that to be a good Christian, and to be a patriotic American were not the same thing.

              I did not know it in 1960. But here is what I believe was going on. God was in charge of my life and was causing me to find the Episcopal Church. Then I assumed that I was the one who undertook conversations first with my brother’s girl friend, and then with a newcomer to our rural New Jersey neighborhood about this intriguing catholic and protestant church. How could that be? The newcomer was a retired burlesque dancer from New York, a childless woman full of love and laughter. Harriet and her husband, John, had just finished building a house across the street from where I was growing up. I had assumed that I was the agent who confirmed the truth of these conversations with my brother’s girlfriend and the dancer by finding an article by W. Norman Pittenger about what Episcopalians believe. I assumed one Sunday morning that it was my New Yorker friend, Harriet, that invited me into her funny little car, a Nash Metropolitan, and she drove to the 11 o’clock service. (I had no idea that the Holy Spirit was involved with this). After the service, the rector explained to me what the word “Eucharist” meant. He was a colorful character, always ready with a joke to illustrate his points. Father Holmes was not the kind of minister I had ever seen before. He wore an unbuttoned sport jacket, and smoked an occasional cigarette – quite a contrast to the pietistic clergy I had known that generally wore prissy, twice buttoned business suits with a white shirt and dark necktie, and who were always cautious about “worldliness” in their conduct.

              My parents were delighted to follow me into Harriet’s parish church in the town of Flemington. It’s people were friendly, casual, and conversant about lots of interesting subjects that were beyond the pious talk of how the Bible is the Word of God, and how important it is to be “saved” and to know for certain that we are “Justified by Faith”, and to “think only on these things”.   All of us felt accepted without being judged. We were never bored with the somber, repetitive. Sunday God talk that I assumed was always a part of church.

              Calvary parish provided a therapeutic milieu. There had always been something quirky about my parents, and I, too, spent my adolescence feeling strangely awkward and odd in addition to being skinny, and neither as tall nor athletic as I wished I were. I did not always feel accepted at either the school I attended or the neighborhood of my childhood (except for Harriet).

              Eight months later, I met the diocesan bishop from the See of Trenton, the Right Reverend Alfred Lothian Banyard, who had come for his annual visitation and confirmation of some twenty kids in the parish. (I was confirmed a year later). The Average Sunday attendance was about 125. On Confirmation Day, the whole parish, both vested and otherwise, waited like wise virgins for the bridegroom in the church yard a full hour before the Bishop’s arrival in his black Sedan DeVille from the Cathedral office in Trenton. We all wanted to be the first to see the large Cadillac, bearing its triumphal license plate “ALB 1”

              The Bishop was about 6 foot five – before he put on his mitre. His presence was regal! His voice was deep and sonorous. His sermons were unequivocally authoritative. He had a deeply loving, thoroughly paternalistic heart. There was a joke associated with Bishop Banyard’s management style among the streetwise clergy and lay leaders in the diocese. It was a paraphrase of Saint Augustine of Hippo who wrote in the fifth century after it had been determined that the doctrine of Pelagius was heretical. “Trenton has spoken. The matter is finished.” The clergy at diocesan gatherings would make this cryptic remark with knowing eyes. I had no idea then what they were talking about.

              The sixties was the decade of my evolvement from being a small, skinny teenager to being a college and seminary graduate of barely average size, and ordained with the same giant hands on my head that confirmed me.

              Bishop Banyard, I had learned along the way, had his favorites. They were his honorary canons, rectors of his larger parishes. These priests served on his prestigious committees, and were always quick to remind the bishop of their loyalty to his authority. I was given the assignment as vicar to the Church of the Good Shepherd, a mission congregation of working class folk in the southern part of the state near the Pine Barrens.

              I tried to be obedient in this world in which big things and people were preferred, and the best things in life were the big things growing from big to bigger! The archdeacon, a genial man in a purple cassock, told me the week before my first Sunday there at the Good Shepherd that it had been a mission since 1918. “It was high time for that to change”, the cleric explained. “Now with some hard work by a man of prayer, like yourself, Father Somerville, Good Shepherd can grow to become self-supporting!”

              Sometime during the first month in my assignment, I was the at-fault driver in a minor accident. I had no collision coverage. Nobody was hurt, but my young wife (Pam, not Sherry) and I were living from paycheck to paycheck, and I did not have the $1600 necessary to repair the front end of my car. I told Bishop Banyard about my situation in a letter to him that was not intended to ask for assistance. Nevertheless five days later, a kind note of encouragement came from him with a check for the full amount from his discretionary fund.

              About a year later, Bishop Banyard scolded me for wasting money on a secular psychiatrist, and that attendance at the little Church of the Good Shepherd was waning only because I was neglecting my prayer life! He was not finished. The bishop then started a non-sequiter tirade about my haircut! “David, I will not tolerate disobedient, humanist hippie priests in my diocese!”

              Bishop Banyard’s own doctor had at some point urged him not to attend the House of Bishop’s meetings during the 1960’s. These gatherings, the doctor had concluded, were not good for the bishop’s health. I, at the time had no way of knowing that this was particularly unusual.

              In 1973, I was called to a larger parish as an associate rector, and had begun to broaden my professional interests by taking a chaplain’s commission with the New Jersey Army National Guard. I felt a need to engage the ethical challenges of service to a secular institution as an alternative to parish work. And since my seminary days, I had a vocational interest in ministry to the sick through hospital chaplaincy. At the time, the armed services offered programs in Clinical Pastoral Education that were fully funded. Once again I thought that I was the agent of this move, not being particularly attuned to the real source of the “still, small voice.” I was just aware that I had little prospect of ascending the ecclesiastical ranks to receive that much coveted diocesan sign that I was truly “gifted and devoted” in the bishop’s eyes, namely the purple cassock with title “Canon” (which in reality I never found to be that much of a turn—on). There was a part of my soul that kept asking, what is the point of a purple cassock? And yet at the same time I was craving some tangible sign that I was “successful” Maybe a purple cassock would alleviate some of my self-doubt.

              I wonder how many times over the years of studying from time to time commentaries on the Gospel lesson about the grain of wheat, discerning what it really means by being required to die to be fruitful. When would it occur to me that this lesson is about little me, a grain of wheat? A life of striving for a purple cassock seemed petty. But I did not want to vanish into the ground either. It was in this that I had to wonder: Do I really want to live into my vocation? I did not have the personal permission to say “No”. But I had no enthusiasm about giving up my ego to be planted in the ground, which would then snuff out my will. After all, I was still attached to some cherished misassumptions. I was not sure I really wanted to rise from the death of my old nature.   Did I truly want the new spiritual detachment from those purple cassock fantasies of prestige and popularity?

              So here, Dear Reader and good friend, this was my crisis in living into my vocation. I was feeling estranged from God and myself. I had been a part of a traditional, old profession – one of the oldest in that brotherhood of the three prestigious professions of Christendom with its two siblings, law and medicine. But somehow, the goal posts were moving as the post-modern milieu took root. Thoughtful people were changing, and I was discovering ambiguity in lots of places both within myself, and in the world around me. I could no longer take seriously the idea that God ever favored the profession of ministry as something in any way better than serving as a volunteer. I wanted a meaningful vocation. But I also wanted the recognition and benefits that come from being a proven professional. Is that the same as coveting a purple cassock? I was not sure.

              During the seventies before going into the army chaplain corps, I found myself wishing that I could have followed a less complicated career track, one with fewer side roads and cul-de-sacs: Maybe if I were a better priest I would have begun as a curate. Then after working there for three to five years go to a small parish that had budget enough for a full time rector at the diocesan minimum with a part time organist/choir master, a secretary, and a custodian. Then at about that time, have the first two of three attractive, heterosexual children with a pretty wife who faithfully plays the Sunday school piano. Then after ten years at that, being awarded a purple cassock along the way, be called to a larger parish where I would participate in the breaking in of a new curate by showing him or her that “if you play the cards right, you will get a purple cassock just like mine! Then finally before retirement, send the children off (tuition free as rector’s kids) to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, which would be the beginnings of the three of them in any combination of the traditional professions.

              All of the above might sound nice to anyone with the spiritual depth of a birdbath! But how often does that happen anyway? It did not happen to me. How often the traditional career track still functions, I do not know.

              What is more important is that times are getting better for authentic Christian spirituality — possibly because it is getting worse for the presumptuousness of the plastic Christendom that was the successful product of its time when automobiles had tail fins and necker nobs. There can be no question that Henry Sloan Coffin was right. Church membership had been made too cheap once, but now all that is in a process of change.  Professing faith in Christ and his church is no longer the conventional thing to do because of the social advantages involved with that.

              At present our churches with their declining numbers, may be laboring under what could be mistaken for “reduced circumstances”, But they are becoming less repellent to Dr. Coffin’s identified population of “the venturesome”, the kind of member who also is an active minister, animated by the spirit of the of the New Testament Church.

              Christ calls us to be vital parts of something more than an organization. The church is organic, a mortal body that lives daily with its vocation to loose its life for its head’s sake (Jesus Christ), and to realize that as it appears to be dying, it is actually modeling for us, even as we are actively dying with it, its resurrection reality. We are being stretched to relinquish the idolatries of worldly success –so that Christ’s mission to transform the world with his values of eternal life over material success may be rediscovered as the body becomes willing to bleed and die in transition to its new, but eternal self.

                        Even if it were possible, the superficially optimistic church of the fifties is a place to which I do not wish to return. For if I did, what would I get? The delusion that mainline American Christendom promotes the Kingdom of God, a society of justice, a place of diversity where dynamic conversations are held to perfect the ideals of gender, ethnic, and racial equality, as if the institution wanted to be a quilted patchwork. Well, it did not ant to be a patchwork. It never did. It valued decorum, conformity, and pretty, well-behaved children who were “to be seen and not heard” — unless they were singing patriotic songs on cue.

              The evolving church, the one outside the margins that define propriety, is not so simple. It is both a participant in human social life, but also its critic. It is a member of the cast in the world stage, but it also sits in the audience assembling notes for critical review. In a Church like that, its ministers have more important things to be concerned about than who gets to wear a purple cassock– which is just fine! Wheat grains going to the ground don’t need cassocks anyway.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

2 Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/


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