Hope, Rising

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2: 1-12; NRSV)

The first constellation I learned to recognize in the night sky was Orion – the Hunter. Most of the others made no sense to me (how could anyone think Taurus looked like a bull?), but Orion I could see. The four corner stars marked the outline of the hunter’s body; the three aligned stars in the middle were his belt; and those fuzzy stars just below the belt were the sword at his side.

Only many years later did I learn that, in some parts of the world, the three stars of Orion’s belt are also called the Three Kings – because during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, they march steadily across the sky from East to West, like the Magi on their way to Bethlehem.

Of course, the Magi were not actually kings; as much as medieval Christians liked the image of foreign kings bowing down before their personal savior, there is nothing in the gospel to suggest they were royalty. Matthew, from whom we receive this part of the Christmas story, never makes these visitors out to be kings. They are called, simply, Magi. Persian astrologers. Students of the stars.

Modern-day students of the stars teach us that the star just south of the “Three Kings” — the “sword” that hangs from Orion’s belt – is not a single star at all, but rather a nebula, a great cosmic cloud within which thousands of new stars are forming. It has been described as a stellar nursery, a celestial cocoon. The Orion Nebula is some 1300 light years away from us; meaning, that it takes more than a millennium, for the light of those new stars to reach us.

By the time it reaches earth, that light has been a long time coming.

The stars reveal to us the ancient history of the cosmos. When astronomers look to the most distant edges of the universe, they are seeing the light of stars that burned long ago.  When the Magi looked to the stars, they were studying a text more ancient than the Prophets.

It was against this backdrop of ancient light, that they detected a new light. A newborn star. And seeing it, they pursued it. They asked Herod: “Where is the newborn King? For we have seen his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

I love this translation. Some other versions of the Gospel say simply, we have seen his star in the East. But the Greek word Matthew uses means, literally, rising – as in, sunrise. We have seen his star at its rising.

I used to picture this new star as somehow brighter and bigger than all the others – brightest and best of the sons of the morning, as the old hymn goes – but I have begun to doubt that. If it were that obvious, then surely everyone would have been talking about it. But it took these devoted star-gazers, these students of the night sky, to notice it. So now I imagine it as just one star among many, hardly noticeable in the throng. Only the Magi recognized it for what it was: a new light in the old sky. A sign of hope, rising.

We live in time when there are many things on the rise, most of them troubling. You know what these are; you can name them yourselves. Gun violence is on the rise. Hate crimes are on the rise. Anti-semitism is on the rise. Global temperatures are on the rise. World hunger is on the rise. Extinction rates are on the rise. Wildfires are on the rise. And, as the past week has made evident, international tensions are on the rise as well.

In light of this reality, in the glare of these headlines, it can be hard to see any signs of hope. Any new star on the horizon seems pale and dim, compared to the fires burning here on earth.

The Magi, though, took a long view. They trained their eyes on the night sky; they grew accustomed to the ancient light of the heavens. And they saw there a sign, made visible only by the darkness; a tiny light, on the horizon. But it was enough, to make them leave their homes, travel great distances, offer their treasures, and ultimately risk their lives in disobedience to Herod — all in pursuit of that new star.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

We gather here, today, to honor the Magi. Here, following their example, we take the long view. We look at the present, against the backdrop of an ancient light. And we search, together for new light on the rise.

This is the quest of the Magi – not merely to find the new star, but to follow it.

So on this Epiphany Sunday, I offer you this charge:  Keep watch. Search for hope at its rising — and when you see it, pursue it. Offer your greatest treasure in its service. And do not be afraid to take a new road home.


1. The Orion Nebula, birthplace of stars. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI.
2. Orion on film, by Matthew Spinelli

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, January 5, 2020,
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA.

prophets and scribes

Toni Morrison. JK Rowling. Maurice Sendak. D.H. Lawrence. Aldous Huxley. Adolf Hitler. Anne Frank. Dr. Seuss.

The Prophet Jeremiah.

What do all these people have in common? The works of each of these authors has been banned, at some time or another, in some place or another, for some reason or another. Such is the strength of words, that even the mighty fear their power.

In Jeremiah’s case, his work was not merely banned, but burned. Destroyed. And this in an age when there were no carbon copies, no Xerox machines, no digital backup. The powers that be considered executing Jeremiah, as well, but relented. Others in history have not been so lucky. It is a small step from burning books to burning human beings.

A book, after all, is merely an extension of the human voice. It enables the writer to speak to those far away, in time or in distance. When writing first appeared on the scene of human history, it must have seemed as miraculous as the first phone call, the first radio broadcast, the first television would be to later generations. Remember, that in the early days of human literacy, not everyone could read and write; it was the job of scribes to set words to paper – to codify them, to digitize them, if you will – and then to retranslate them into sound. Until the invention of the written word, the only way to transmit speech was through someone’s living memory. The book replaced the bard, the mail replaced the messenger.

Speaking of messengers: let us return to our story.

Jeremiah runs afoul of the authorities when he forecasts the downfall of his own nation.  A little historical background here: Jeremiah was a prophet of the kingdom of Judah, whose prophetic career spanned the reign of five kings. This is not so much a testimony to Jeremiah’s longevity, as it is a testimony to Judah’s instability during this time.

When Jeremiah first received his call, the neighboring kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrian empire. Over the next decade it became clear to Jeremiah that his own kingdom of Judah would soon suffer the same fate. Yet Judah was in a deep state of denial; both king and people were certain of God’s favor and convinced of their own invincibility. Was not Jerusalem the home of the Temple, the Holy of Holies? Had not God promised David that his house would reign forever?  Other countries might fall, but it couldn’t happen here.

Theirs was the sin of exceptionalism, and Jeremiah called them out on it.

So when the King asked Jeremiah what God had in store for them, Jeremiah could offer no reassurance. He could not speak peace, when there was no peace. He could not speak comfort, when there was not comfort.  And so he was banned from the Temple.

Enter Baruch. Jeremiah enlists his friend to write down his prophetic warnings, on a scroll, and to take that scroll into the Temple, and to read it aloud. Baruch does this – and on a holiday, when the Temple will be crowded with visitors from throughout the kingdom. When the authorities seize the scroll and burn it, he does it all over again.

This guy interests me.

Baruch is not a prophet, he’s a scribe. His skills are intellectual, not inspirational. Jeremiah is the activist; Baruch is more of an academic. And yet he puts his life on the line, to carry Jeremiah’s voice to a place where Jeremiah himself cannot go.

Flash forward several hundred years.

Two weeks ago I was in London, with my family. On our first full day there, we took the kids to the Tower, to see the crown jewels and to explore the castle walls. If you follow those walls all around the castle, you pass through a series of small stone cells that once held prisoners; and on the walls of these rooms, you can see the graffiti that some of these prisoners etched into the stone walls. Some carved their names, others carved pictures: the outline of a hand, with a mark in its center; the outline of a footprint, also marked. These are religious symbols, signs of the crucifixion, left by Catholic prisoners during England’s century of bloody religious conflict.

One of those prisoners, we were told, was arrested for importing a Catholic book.

Which gave me pause. What sort of person risks prison for a book? What sort of book would be worth that risk? What story, what message, what memory is so important, that it must be passed on, at all costs?

Right before leaving for London, I went to see the movie Yesterday – did any of you see this? In the film, some unexplained warp occurs in reality, and the main character, a guy by the name of Jack Malik, awakens from a traffic accident into an altered world in which the Beatles apparently never existed. Jack is somehow the only person who remembers them, who remembers all of that music.

Now, Jack is a part-time musician, but he is no musical genius. He’s not the composer of these songs. He’s just, the guy that remembers them. But his memory imposes upon him a responsibility. And so this becomes his calling: to be the voice of the Beatles. Not to write down their songs, not just to record them and safely preserve them, but to sing them. To help the world remember.

Because it isn’t enough to archive our songs, our stories, our witness. Songs need to be sung, stories need to be told, truth needs to be spoken.

The moral of the film, perhaps, is this: We can’t all be Lennon or McCartney. But we can be Jack Malik.

As the apostle Paul reminds us, we are not all prophets. Not everyone receives that call, that breath of God that fills their lungs and forces them to exhale poetry. Not everyone has that vision, that ability to see clearly what others cannot imagine.

We can’t all be Jeremiah. But we can be Baruch.

We can lift up the words of the wise, we can bravely speak their truth in the presence of power.  This is especially true for those of us who enjoy the privilege of access – whether by virtue of race or religion or class or education. Those of us who still have access to the Temples of this age can use our voices to amplify the voices of those who have been shut out, and to remember the stories of those who can no longer tell their own.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel – another author whose work was banned at one time – once said that “Listening to a witness, makes us a witness.” Baruch knew what that sentence meant. He was a witness. And thanks to him, so are we.

What do you know, that must be remembered? What have you learned, that must be taught? What have you read, that must be spoken? What have you heard, that must be sung?

Photo: public domain


confession 7.4.2019

God of Compassion, have mercy upon us;
We are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves.
We have spent our money on that which is not Food;
We have squandered our time on that which is not Life;
We have offered our hearts to that which is not Love;
We have pledged our allegiance to that which is not God,
and the whole earth suffers for it.
Forgive us, God, and free us from our illusions.
Reveal to us the things that matter,
and lead us into life everlasting.


Apocalypse III: Here be dragons

I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong…. My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death.

So says the dragon, Smaug, in JRR Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Hobbit.

Dragons have been part of the human imagination for almost as long as human have had an imagination. They cross cultural boundaries and endure across the ages, emerging in our dreams, our stories, and our art until this very day. The dragon in the myth may be slain, but the myth itself persists.

Why, then, are surprised to find the dragon lurking in the pages of our Bible?

Perhaps it is because we think of such creatures as suitable only for fairy tales and children’s stories. As the old song says, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” Sooner or later, we grow up and realize that dragons aren’t real, fairy tales aren’t true, and there are no monsters under the bed. So as much as we may enjoy watching Game of Thrones at night, it’s a bit embarrassing to find such creatures appearing here in church on Sunday morning, lurking among the pages of the book of Revelation (Rev 12:1-12).

This is a night vision, this dragon of the Apocalypse. John of Patmos dreamed a dream, told a tale, saw a vision – pick whichever words you wish, but somehow, there came into John’s imagination a great red dragon. Emerging out of the darkness of John’s subconscious, it crouches in wait before a pregnant woman, ready to devour her child at birth.

It is an ancient and powerful image, one that was internationally known in John’s day. The dragon menacing the queen of heaven is a myth that appeared in various forms in Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. To a Christian reader, the mother and her child are Mary and Jesus; to a Jewish reader, they are Israel and the Messiah; more universally, they are every mother and every child; they are the present and the future.

The child is hope, and the dragon threatens to devour it.

But in John’s vision, the mother and child are not alone. The child of hope is swept up in the arms of God, the mother flees to a place of sanctuary, and the hosts of heaven wage war on the red dragon. The serpent is cast down, from heaven to earth, where it continues its battle – not against angels, but against the children of the earth.

This is the stuff of high fantasy. Apocalypse is an ancient literary genre unto itself, with no precise modern equivalent; but if I had to shelve it in a bookstore or library, I think I would put it, not in the religion section, but next to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or The Handmaid’s Tale. In saying this, I do not in any way intend to diminish its importance, or to deny its truth.  At its best, speculative fiction creates a counter-reality that can unmask the status quo. It is inherently and powerfully subversive.

How else to explain the fact that in Thailand, following the military coup, young people began signing their resistance by flashing the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games? Or that, here in the US, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, groups of women took to the streets dressed in the red cloaks and white hoods of The Handmaid’s Tale? In recent years, at anti-Fascist protests around the world, you can see young people carrying signs that say “Dumbledore’s Army.”  Such is the power of myth.

So let us return to our dragon. Defeated in heaven, the red dragon falls to earth, to wage war against its inhabitants. But it does not do so directly; instead, it gives its “authority” – its power – to a great and monstrous beast that arises from the sea. This Great Beast in turn relies on another – a lesser beast from the earth – which acts as its agent and enforcer, demanding loyalty to the Great Beast. (Rev. 13:1-18)

Who, or what, is this Great Beast from the sea, this earthly incarnation of the dragon’s power? John gives us two details: first, that the Beast has seven heads, one of which has a mortal wound, yet lives; and second, that the number of the Beast is 666. These are clues to be deciphered by John’s readers; as he himself says: “this calls for wisdom.”

Here John’s vision becomes less global and more particular; for beasts, in the Hebrew apocalyptic tradition, represent specific earthly empires. In this case the beast with seven crowned heads is Rome and its seven emperors; the seventh head, with the mortal wound, refers to the Emperor Nero, who was at the time variously rumored to have committed suicide or to have survived the attempt.

As for the number of the beast: in Hebrew numerology, each letter has a number, and so each word has a corresponding number that is the sum of all its letters. The sum of the name Nero Caesar, is 666.

At this point, John’s vision becomes less high fantasy, and more political allegory; a bit less like Lord of the Rings, and more like Animal Farm.

Animal Farm, for those unfamiliar with it, is a classic twentieth century fable by George Orwell. It tells the story of a group of farm animals who rise up in revolution against the tyranny of their farmer. In this they are led by the pigs, who encourage them to build a utopian society in which all animals are equal. In time, however, the pigs themselves become as tyrannical as the farmers.

To those familiar contemporary world history, Animal Farm is clearly an allegory of the Russian Revolution, with the pigs corresponding to its leaders: Old Major is Karl Marx, Snowball is Trotsky, and the aptly named Napolean is Stalin. To those who are unfamiliar with this history, the story is still compelling, for its warning against totalitarianism rings true in any age.

And so it is with the book of Revelation. John’s contemporaries would have recognized his symbolism as referring to the particular political realities of their own time. Those of us farther removed from this setting may still find his vision compelling, for the forces of empire are active in every age. But we misinterpret the story if we read it too literally.

Let me be perfectly clear here; to come away from Revelation with a fear of the number 666 is like coming away from Animal Farm with a fear of pigs. In either case, it is to profoundly miss the point.

The purpose of John’s Apocalypse – and arguably, the purpose of Harry Potter or The Handmaid’s Tale as well – is to unveil the true nature of the Empire’s power, and to give courage to those who refuse to bow down before it. Apocalyptic literature is, in John’s own words, “a call for the endurance of the saints.” It is a loud and clear warning to those who drift into tyranny: Here be dragons.

This is no children’s fable. Quite the opposite.

I have been thinking back, this week, on the dragons of my childhood. Pete Seeger introduced me to Puff, the Magic Dragon, who frolicked in the autumn breeze with little Jackie Paper. Disney brought me the Reluctant Dragon, who wrote poetry and shared a cup of tea with the knight who came to slay him. Meanwhile, my books about dinosaurs taught me that giant lizards were a thing of the past.

But real dragons are neither pets or playmates. Real dragons devour and destroy. Take Smaug, for example. Now, that’s a dragon. He sits on a massive pile of plunder, for which he has slaughtered thousands. He craves gold – which is to say, wealth for wealth’s sake, power for power’s sake – and he will stop at nothing to acquire it.

As a child, I was lulled into believing, there were no real dragons. But I am no longer sure of that.

Real dragons cannot be seen by human eyes, or slain by human hands. Dragons exist in our world, the “real world,” only by proxy. They enlist us, to do their damage for them – to despoil and to dominate, to torture and to kill. We cannot lay hands on racism itself, or greed itself, or tyranny itself. But they are real enough. We can choose to serve them; or we can resist.

So, my fellow Hobbits, my fellow Handmaids, my fellow members of Dumbledore’s Army, take heart. You are not alone.

I leave you with this word of encouragement from John’s revelation:

The dragon’s wrath is great, because he knows his time is short.



Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 19, 2019

(photo: Image from the 11th century Bamberg Apocalypse. Wikimedia Commons. )

Apocalypse II: Earth Day

While the sage, Honi, was walking along the road,
he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honie asked him,
“How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

“Seventy years,” replied the man.

“Are you so healthy a man, that you expect to
live that length of time and eat its fruit?

The man answered, “I found a fruitful world
because my ancestors planted it for me.
Likewise I am planting for my children.”

(from the Babylonian Talmud, taanit 23a)

Today is Mother’s Day. I am fortunate to be the mother of two kids who like to cook. So tonight, I can look forward to a delicious supper prepared by my daughters.

But I am not only a mother, but also a daughter. My Mom died some 25 years ago. What gift can I give her? How can I honor her, on Mother’s Day?

The story of Honi and the Carob Tree suggests an answer. It is a simple tale, with a simple moral: We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants. Not a bad message, really, for Mother’s Day: We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

It is a lesson easily understood, but less easily followed.


Last week the United Nations released a report on the state of the planet. It summarizes the results of some 15,000 scientific and government studies, and concludes that of the earth’s 8 million species, some 1 million are in danger of extinction within the next few decades. Some of us in the room right now, will live to see this happen.

As luck, or providence, would have it, that report hit the headlines at the same time that the common church lectionary cycle turned to the Book of Revelation.  It was hard to miss the parallel between the two. The great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth used to tell his seminary students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other, but, honestly, as I went back and forth between the two, between the scripture and the news, it was hard to know which was which.

On the one hand, I read that “land degradation has reduced productivity in 23 percent of the global terrestrial area,” that habitat integrity has declined by 30% globally, that from 1990 to 2015 we cut down over twice as much forest as we planted, with a net loss of some 180 million hectares of trees.

In the other, I read that “a third of the earth was burned, and a third of the trees were burned, and the green grass was burned.”

On the one hand, I read “33 percent of global fisheries are overexploited.”
On the other, “a third of the living creatures in the sea died.”

When the daily news starts sounding like the Apocalypse, something is very wrong.


Around the year 100 – some three generations after Jesus was born – a follower of Jesus named John was exiled to the island of Patmos. It was there, the book of Revelation tells us, that John one day fell into a trance, and dreamed a dream – or a series of dreams – about the End of the World. His dreams are filled with cycles of seven – which in Hebrew numerology, meant cycles of completion. Seven lamps, seven seals, seven bowls, and, in today’s reading, seven trumpets, each bringing a new revelation.

The blast of the first four trumpets reveal massive environmental collapse. A third of the green earth perishes, a third of the sea creatures perish, a third of the waters are poisoned, a third of the stars are dimmed. (Revelation 8:6-13)

For John, this was a dream of unimaginable disaster. For us, it is still unimaginable, but it is no longer a dream, but a looming reality. We fell the forests, we empty the seas, we pollute our waters, even our view of the stars is dimmed by human activity; compared to the sky our ancestors saw, our own night sky is impoverished of stars.

We are living John’s dream, and it is time to wake up.


Now, in saying this, let me be clear: I do not necessarily mean to say, that John’s dream was a prediction of our present day crisis. I know that some see in these events the fulfillment of a prophecy, and come to the conclusion that somehow all of this is part of God’s plan, if not God’s actual doing. But the belief that God has ordained the destruction of our planet is a poor reading of scripture, not to mention a poor basis for environmental stewardship.

The first four blasts of the trumpet are followed by two more, which we skipped over in today’s reading. These bring a vision of suffering and death which will afflict the human species. For how can humans prosper, if earth perishes? But as terrible as they are, none of these events are punishments, or judgments. Judgment comes with the seventh trumpet.

The trumpet sounds, and the hosts of heaven declare:

The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God;
the time has come for judging the dead, for rewarding the saints,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Rev 8:15-18)

This devastation is not God’s doing. It is ours, and we are accountable for it.

The First Earth Day was in 1970; I was six years old. We were supposed to be the green generation. There was – and still is, I think – this belief that if we just teach our children about the environment, then the future of the planet will be secure. But the problem is, the world is not run by children, and children, unfortunately, turn into adults. Look at us. We knew better, but we have failed to do better; if anything, we have burdened the planet in unprecedented ways.  We currently extract around 60 billion tons of resources from the earth each year – that’s twice as much as generation ago.

We have eat the fruit of the carob tree; but instead of planting another, we cut the tree down, and paved over the orchard.

I’d like to be able to point the finger here, to blame our problems on someone else, on Big Oil or Big Government or people who drive Big Cars. But the truth is, we are all complicity, because our entire way of life is built on a wrong attitude toward nature. And – as T.S. Eliot once remarked – a wrong attitude about nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude about God.

Today, both nature and scripture, both science and religion, both speak to the urgency of our condition.

For here is the conclusion, of the UN report on the environment: “Goals for conserving… nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and… may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” [emphasis mine]

To rephrase this, in the traditional language of faith: Repent, for the time is at hand.


About five years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who was part of the church I was serving at the time. At the time he was about seventeen, so I guess he would be around 23 now. We met at a coffee shop, and talked about his life, and toward the end of the conversation I asked him, What does your generation want from the church? And he said: Hope?

The children of today can see what is happening, to the planet, and they fear for their futures. They know our climate is collapsing, they know our environment is degrading, and they are afraid. They are afraid that we can’t do anything about it. But even more than that, they are afraid we won’t do anything about it. As children protest, in the streets of London, in the streets of Greenfield, they are looking to us, for some sign of hope.

We are the grownups now. We have eaten the carob fruit. It is time to plant some seeds of hope.

The story of Honi and the carob tree is a simple one. Its lesson is easily understood, but less easily followed.

We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants.

We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

May it be so.


Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 12, 2019

Desolate Trees in the Sandy Desert of Deadvlei Hiking Trail. These trees perished when the local climate changed some thousand years ago. (Photo by Marcel Novais;  Wikimedia Commons)


Apocalypse I: ending with a comma

Spring in New England is lambing season; they arrive just in time for Easter, all fuzzy, gentle, and innocent as… well, lambs.  And with all these lambs popping up in our fields, it seems seasonally appropriate that they pop up in our Easter celebrations — not only in our children’s Easter baskets, but also in our Eastertide readings. Every year, in May, the liturgical calendar marks Good Shepherd Sunday, with verses from the Gospel of John, about the tender shepherd, who calls his sheep by name.

This, however, is not that Sunday.

Today, Jesus appears as the Lamb of God, but not as the sweet and cuddly lamb of our Easter baskets. No, this is a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb, before whom the people cry out in fear, “Save us from the wrath of the lamb!” It’s like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Or some sort of B grade horror film. I’ve never seen an Easter card with a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb on it, and no one would give a child one to play with.

Happy Easter – welcome to the Apocalypse.


The book of Revelation – or, to call it by its Greek name, the Apocalypse — is arguably the weirdest book of the New Testament, and certainly the most violent. Those of us in the mainline churches, who like to think of our faith as rational and peace loving, tend to find Revelation disturbing, if not downright embarrassing.  It comes up in the common cycle of scripture readings only every third year, and even then the readings are highly selective; we skip over the most outlandish sections. Meanwhile, in other branches of the Christian family tree, the entire Book of Revelation is embraced as, literally, the final word on their faith – a reliable guide to the end times.

This divergence of opinion is not new. The book of Revelation has been controversial from its beginning. It barely squeaked into the canon; when the church begin drawing up lists of the “official” Christian scripture, there was fairly wide consensus about the Gospels and the Letters, but the church leaders of the day were sharply divided over the Revelation.

So what sort of book is this strange, last chapter of the Bible?

Well, for starters, it is emphatically not a Gospel. The four canonical gospels – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are testimonies to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as variously remembered and passed on by his Apostles. The gospels claim their authority from this Apostolic witness.

The author of the book of Revelation, however, makes no such claim of Apostolic authority. He tells us his name is John, but John was a common name, and nowhere does he claim to be the Apostle John. We know only this – that he was a first-century Jewish follower of Jesus, that he was exiled to the island of Patmos, and that while there, he saw visions, which he believed were sent by God. It was these visions that impelled him to write his Apocalypsis – a Greek word which means, revelation.

So how are we to read such a book?

Certainly not in the same way we would read a gospel story, or one of Paul’s letters. Dreams and visions have a language and narrative logic of their own. The shape of our dreams is informed  by our experiences and our traditions – our external and internal landscapes, if you will – but also by wells of meaning and creativity beyond the grasp of our conscious minds.  John had a vision, of a heavenly throne, surrounded by winged creatures, and of a sealed scroll – a secret, waiting to be revealed. He is told that the only one able to open the scroll is the Lion of Judah; but when he appears, he is no lion, but a slaughtered lamb – not the predator, but the prey. Yet somehow, in the way of dreams, he can be both of those things. The one who conquered, is somehow the same one who was slaughtered.

Clearly, this is not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is not, literally, a seven-eyed lamb, any more than he is, literally, a lion. But there are truths best seen in the non-literal world; in the world of dreams, or of poetry, or of imagination; in the world of symbols and signs, of art and archetype.

John’s vision is full of images and phrases from his Jewish faith tradition – the winged creatures around the throne are found in the prophet Ezekiel, the Lion of Judah is a phrase from the book of Genesis, the lamb to the slaughter is an image from the prophet Isaiah. The God of his ancestors has visited John in his dreams, thereby revealing himself to John as God not only of the past, but of the present, and the future – the one who was, and is, and is to come.


It is that God-who-is-to-come that calls to John, that haunts his dreams. For from where John is standing, God has unfinished business.

For where was the promised kingdom of heaven? The Roman Empire was no realm of God. The righteous still perished, while the wicked prospered.

These are the first secrets revealed, when the scroll’s first four seals are broken. The four horsemen of the apocalypse – which is simply to say, the four horsemen ‘revealed’  — embody the injustice and suffering of this world: warfare, civil strife, economic exploitation, an death.  None of these is new. None of these is yet to come. They are the terrible reality of our human past and our human present. They were the reality of John’s world as well as of our own, the reality we hide from, the reality we push away from our conscious minds, as perhaps John did. But they emerged in his dreams, taking on the shape of monsters and mythic creatures.

When the fifth seal is broken, it reveals the company of the martyrs, those who have died in witness to their faith, those who have suffered for speaking the truth, those who have been punished for their righteousness. And they cry out the question of all those who thirst for justice: How long? O Lord, how long?

This is the cry of John’s heart as well.

This dream, this revelation, came to John in the midst of a crisis of faith: For he believed God’s messiah had come in Christ; yet the four horsemen continued to ravage the earth.  Suffering continued, with no end in sight.

No wonder John dreamed of the End Times.

John needed to know, that the horsemen would not ride forever; he needed to know, that dead would be avenged; he needed to know, that justice would prevail.  He needed to know, that the future still belonged to God.

As do we.


There is a deep irony in the fact that this book was the last admitted to the official Canon, before the church sealed it shut. For its very existence points beyond the traditions of the faith, beyond the teachings of the elders, beyond the infallibility of scripture, even. The book itself warns that nothing may be added to its words; but the book itself is an addition, a divine addendum, an acknowledgement of truth yet to break forth. The Bible ends, not with a period, but with a comma.

The very possibility of revelation — of dreams yet to be dreamed, of deeds yet to be accomplished, of surprises yet to come — is deeply hopeful.  For like John, we live in an unfinished world, and so we need an unfinished gospel.

John’s dreams may not be our dreams, but perhaps their presence among these holy writings can give us permission, and courage, to dream our own dreams, and hear the word that God is still speaking, to us.


Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
May 5, 2019
The First Church of Deerfield, MA
Lead photo shows Jacob sheep lambs (from JacobSheepSociety.com),
who grow up to look like this (from WashingtonPost.com)


Easter 2019

Jesus was dead, to begin with.

Okay, so I actually just stole that opening line from Charles Dickens. It’s the first line of a “Christmas Carol” – “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” But it works just as well, for Jesus:

Jesus was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The fact of Jesus’ death is probably the only aspect of his life upon on which there is universal agreement among historians. So we begin there. Jesus was dead, to begin with.

And unlike Marley, he left no great fortune behind him. His net worth was zero. His followers had deserted him. By any reasonable measure of worldly success, Jesus was not a success.

He was dead, to begin with; and then, there was the manner of his death – not a peaceful rest at the end of a long and successful life, not even a heroic death in battle, but a shameful death. He was a criminal, condemned and crucified.  Crucifixion was a sentence designed to strip its victims of their humanity. Such a death was hardly the stuff of legends.

In fact there was a belief among some of the people at the time that those who were crucified were not only dead, but cursed; abandoned by God. Certainly those who performed the crucifixion intended to create that impression. Lynch mobs in every era claim they are hanging the devil on the tree.

In other words, Jesus was not only dead; he was dead wrong. His crucifixion proved it.

This Jesus was no Son of God – that title belonged to Caesar. Jesus was just another failed messiah, another would-be revolutionary, another heretic gone astray. Jesus would be barely a footnote in the history of the Empire; after all, history is written by the victors. Jesus was dead, and as far as the world was concerned, that settled the matter. End of story.

And indeed, that is how the story would have ended, were it not for Easter morning. Instead, it is how the story begins. Jesus was dead – to begin with.


You have already heard what comes next — how his lifeless body was laid in a tomb behind a great stone; how the women came in the morning, to find the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. (Luke 24: 1-12)

The image of that empty tomb is so startling to us, that we sometimes can’t move past it. The idea of a dead body brought to life is so astonishing, so disturbing, really, that we either are transfixed by the miracle or turned off by it. This is not the sort of hope we are accustomed to embracing. It seems too good to be true.

And although we are here on Easter Sunday, I know that most of us probably cannot quite wrap our heads around the reality of this event. That’s okay.  Let us proceed with the story; let us continue, as if, the tomb were empty. As if, Jesus was risen indeed. And let us ask ourselves: what does this resurrection mean?

Well, for those who were close to Jesus, the resurrection meant joy and thanksgiving: the one they lost was restored to them. For Peter, who had denied him, it meant forgiveness, and a second chance. For them, this personal, intimate aspect of resurrection would have been enough to make Easter holy.

But unlike the rest of the apostles, Paul never knew Jesus before his death. When Jesus died, Paul did not grieve. Indeed, he may well have celebrated. Paul – or Saul, as he was known at the time – was a fierce opponent of the Jesus movement, an agent of orthodoxy. In the years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul’s mission was to find those who still followed him, to round them up and bring them, as he supposed, to justice. Jesus’ crucifixion had snuffed the flame of rebellion, but there were still some embers scattered about, and it was Paul’s job to stomp them out.

When Paul finally encounter Jesus himself, it was not in the flesh, but as a vision, a dazzling light that stopped him in his tracks. Paul was travelling on the road to Damascus, when he experienced a sudden moment of absolute, blinding clarity in which he heard a voice ask: Saul, why are you persecuting me? — a question to which Paul suddenly found he had no answer.

Paul’s experience of resurrection came long after Easter morning; it did not involve an empty tomb; but a stone was rolled away nonetheless. The miracle of the resurrection was, for Paul, not so much a miracle of resuscitation, as it was a miracle of revelation. The truth that had been hidden, became suddenly plain, as he saw God in the face of the persecuted.

A remarkable thing happened, after that moment on the road to Damascus. Paul joined the very movement he had tried to destroy. He loved the people whom he had formerly despised; he told the stories which he had formerly suppressed; he bore the punishments he had formerly inflicted, and he bore them without fear or shame. For, as he wrote in his letter to the Romans (8: 31-39) : If God is for us, who is against us?  It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?


There was a time, in human history, when disputes could be legally settled by combat. The plaintiff and defendant would take arms, or choose a champion, and the two would battle it out in order to determine which party was in the right. Justice was determined by strength, and truth was determined by violence. The conqueror was justified by his own conquest.

Jesus lived in such a time. His own people may been people of the law, but the final arbiter of all dispute was the empire. Caesar was the ultimate judge, because Caesar had conquered. In such a time, there can meaningful distinction between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong. The only relevant distinction is between the weak and the powerful, the conqueror and the conquered, the winners and the losers, the dead and the living.

In such a world, winning is everything; and Jesus lost. For he was no conqueror.  Just another voice in the wilderness, silenced by the powers that be.

Jesus was dead, to begin with. But not forever. Because history may be written by the victors; but the truth belongs to God.

We need this story of Easter today, because we need to know that truth is still truth, and that love is still love, and that God is still God, no matter who is on the throne.  We need to know that the oppressed matter, that the persecuted are beloved.  We need to resist the temptation to become conquerors ourselves, just to prove our point. For we are more than conquerors. We are the children of the resurrection.

We are not afraid.

For we are convinced, wrote Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.

Jesus was dead, to begin with.

But we know how the story ends.







Blood on the Altar

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13: 1-3)

The great German theologian Karl Barth is reputed to have told his students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.  This is the pastor’s weekly challenge: to find the connection, the resonance, between biblical events, and the events of our own day; between the concerns of scripture, and our own concerns. Sometimes it can seem a bit of a stretch.

Other times, not so much.

Lately, the events of our own time seem to have more in common with biblical events than I for one would have thought possible. Take today’s gospel reading.

This week’s lectionary reading speaks of a mass killing in a place of worship. The victims were Galilean Jews, who were struck down at the Temple, even as they offered their sacrifices.

Last week, we learned of another mass killing in a place of worship. The victims were New Zealand Muslims, who were struck down at the Al Noor mosque, even as they offered their prayers.

There is a saying, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Sometimes it’s a bit of a forced rhyme. Not this week.

There is blood on the altar this week. And with those earlier disciples, we ask why.

Not much is known about these Galilean pilgrims, killed at the altar of the Temple. Today’s brief passage from the Gospel of Luke does not tell us much about the incident, and there don’t seem to be any other surviving contemporary accounts. Luke does tell us that the violence was incited by the Roman governor, Pilate. Which is historically plausible; it would not have been the first time that Pilate put Jews to death, nor would it be the last.

Bear in mind, that Jesus and his disciples were, themselves, Galilean Jews, and that this conversation among them took place as they too were travelling to the Temple in Jerusalem. No surprise they were thinking about this previous band of Galileans who met their deaths there. Wondering, perhaps, if the same thing could happen to them.

Jesus begins, as he so often does, with a question. Do you suppose that these Galileans were cut down in this way because they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

Let’s pause here and consider his question. What ARE the disciples thinking?

The conventional interpretation is that the disciples are, indeed, thinking this very thing. That the disciples ascribed to an ancient worldview, one that presumed that the just were always rewarded and the wicked were always punished; that victim-blaming was rampant in ancient Israel; and that Jesus was here introducing a radical new teaching, by suggesting that those who suffer are no different from us.

Well, that’s a pretty good message, to be sure. And one we still need to hear today. After all, victim-blaming is still rampant in modern society. It seems to be human nature, to find fault with the suffering; to distance ourselves from the unfortunate. We feel sympathy, sure, of course we feel sympathy for those in pain; but we also want to reassure ourselves, that it couldn’t happen to us, that it couldn’t happen here.

That’s the conventional sermon on this text, and it’s a pretty good one, but I don’t think that’s actually Jesus’ point here.

Because I just can’t imagine that the disciples were actually walking along, thinking, yeah, well, those other Galileans probably got what they deserved.  I’m guessing the disciples were laying the blame where it belonged: at Pilate’s feet.

So when Jesus asks them, do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, to have ended in this way? – I’m guessing this is really a rhetorical question, to which the disciples already knew the answer, and that they all answered: Hell, no. Pilate wouldn’t care if they were sinners or saints.

That blood on the altar? It could have been ours.

(But – could it, really? I’m just speaking for myself here now, white Protestant American that I am. Were the victims of last week’s shooting really just like me? I remember after the Charleston shooting – when a white supremacist entered an historically black church and killed nine people at a bible study – after that shooting, I remember a member of an all-white congregation telling me that she didn’t ‘feel safe’ in church anymore – and I thought, seriously?  It’s not like the Klan will be coming after you. Or me, for that matter…..  Well, let’s hold that thought. I’ll circle back around to it. Meanwhile, let’s get back to Jesus.)

Jesus asks his disciples – perhaps rhetorically, perhaps not – Do you think that these Galileans were somehow to blame for their fate? And then he answers his own question: No. No, of course not.

And I imagine the disciples nod their heads, emphatically, feeling morally superior to anyone who would suggest otherwise.

And then Jesus adds, But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Wait – what?

Jesus’ words here remind me of the kind of fear-mongering I see sometimes on Christian billboards. There used to be one on the Mass Pike that said: WHEN YOU DIE, YOU WILL SEE GOD – accompanied by a graphic of a flat-lining EKG. The message of the billboard was clear: Repent or go to hell. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found — or else.

I ask you, what kind of response is that, to a mass killing? How on earth could repentance have saved these people from death? It’s not as though Pilate cared whether they were penitent. And surely it is the murderer, not the victim, that needs to repent?

So what the hell is Jesus talking about?

Well, first off, he’s not talking about hell. At least, I don’t think so. Because he specifically says, unless you repent, you will perish in the same way as these other Galileans. In the same way . Meaning – what? At the hand of Pilate?

You see the irony here, right?

Because it’s Jesus himself, who will be the next Galilean Jew to die at Pilate’s hand. Do we imagine that Jesus suffered in this way because he was a worse sinner than other Galileans? No, of course not.

So what is he talking about, when he tells his disciples, unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way?

I never could make much sense of this verse, until now. But now there is blood on the altar again, and now maybe I can begin to hear what the disciples heard in these words – not threat, or condemnation, but urgency, and lament.

“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” is very church-y language.  Suppose we try another translation:

“Unless we change course, the Pilates of this world will get us all.”

Reading them in the context of current events, I find that  Jesus’ words now call to my mind the words of Martin Neimöller, a pastor who became part of the German religious resistance to Hitler. Neimöller, a former U-Boat commander, was originally a supporter of the Third Reich — something he would repent for the rest of his life. It was Neimöller who spoke these now-famous words:

“First they came for the socalists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socalist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Today’s scripture lesson is for all the Neimöllers out there — for all of us whose grief over recent events is still mingled with relief that we were not the ones targeted.

Do we imagine that the worshippers killed in Christchurch last week were somehow deserving of their fate? No, of course not. But unless we change course, unless we transform ourselves and our culture, unless we repent — this hatred and division will destroy us all.

First they came for the black churches.
Then they came for the synagogues.
Then they came for the mosques.

So if we are still feeling perfectly safe, if we have not changed course at all, perhaps it is because we are not yet standing in solidarity with those who are in danger. Our neighbors down the road at Temple Israel have been worshipping behind locked doors, ever since the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  How have we changed our own ways, in response to these events?

There is blood on the altar, and we are all called to repent. How do we begin?

Two days ago, on the Friday following the shooting, thousands of Muslims gathered for prayer at the Al Noor mosque. Their non-Muslim neighbors gathered there too — thousands of them. The entire community literally stood behind the worshippers.

Many of the non-Muslim women in the crowd wore hijabs, headscarves. Asked why, one Christchurch woman offered this explanation:[1]

“Why am I wearing a headscarf today? Well, my primary reason was that if anybody else turns up waving a gun, I want to stand between him and anybody he might be pointing it at.

“And I don’t want him to be able to tell the difference, because there is no difference.”




Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts
March 24, 2019

[1] Christchurch resident Bell Sibly, quoted in the NYT

Image: Paper links are draped over the fence at Hagley Park near one of the mosques were more than 40 people were killed in Christchurch March 15. (S. Miller/VOA)

Home by Another Way (Midrash for Three Magi)

“Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.” Matthew 2: 11-12

*Midrash (midˊ-rash) n. from a root meaning “to study,” “to seek out” or “to investigate.” Stories elaborating on incidents in scripture, to derive a principle or provide a moral lesson.


It was a foolish gesture.

But the whole idea was crazy to begin with, so the way things ended made a certain sense.A foolish end, to a fool’s errand.

We began the journey full of anticipation. We were convinced that all of history had been leading up to this moment of time – our moment of time. We were expecting a great tide to wash away all that had come before. God’s second flood.

None of us counted on the waiting. We walked, and we looked; but nothing, anywhere, had changed for the better. I’m not even sure when I stopped expecting anything. Right up until that last day, I tried to silence the thought: What if nothing happens?

Just before our roads divided, my two traveling companions and I came upon a poor family sheltering in a stable. The young woman had just given birth; the baby was sleeping in a feeding trough.

That was where we left our riches, the gifts we had brought to honor the start of the new age. We didn’t really discuss it. It just seemed the obvious thing to do. Our prettily packaged gifts looked a bit ridiculous, sitting there on that bare earth. And, to tell the truth, I felt a bit ridiculous.

Here we were, looking for signs and wonders, when most of the world was just looking for a safe place to sleep.


I am a learned man. I have read the classics. I have studied the scriptures. I have observed the heavens. I have deduced the theorems. I am a philosopher, a teacher, a scientist, a sage.  I have been called “a wise man.”

And I knew.

I read the signs, I calculated the location, I predicted the time. I set out confidently, sure of my route, secure in my analysis. The journey was long, it’s true, but I would have traveled twice as far to prove my theory. To prove that this was, indeed, The Moment.

The Messiah was coming, and I knew. I would be the first to kneel before God’s chosen one. I would be the first to deliver the good news to the child’s parents.

But when I arrived I found the good news had already come, delivered instead by some passing shepherds. Shepherds! How could they have known? How could these uneducated illiterates have preceded us to the manger? They came, not through wisdom, but through foolishness: music, heard on a hillside. While I measured the stars, they listened to the angels sing.

All my wisdom had not taught me to hear the song they heard. I learned that day, there are many paths to God.


Shall I tell you what we found?

At the end of our journey, the star led us to a child. No, not even a child: a baby. We found an infant, in its mother’s arms. We were expecting a King, but we found — a baby.

I had assumed that God’s chosen one would be a born leader, a king from birth. But as I looked at this baby, I didn’t see a king. I didn’t see a mighty warrior-to-be, or a future ruler of the nation. I saw a baby. Tiny, powerless, vulnerable, trusting; just a baby.

And yet — as I looked into the baby’s face, I saw the face of God. Not the face of God’s chosen king, but the face of God. God looked at me through the eyes of that baby.

How could I confess such blasphemy to my two companions? or to Herod?And so I returned home by another way.

But shall I tell you a greater blasphemy still? Since that day, I see the face of God in the face of every baby.


by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, 1.3.2019
permission given for use in worship
all other rights reserved

photo: Three Kings procession in the streets of Northampton, Massachusetts, 2007. Puppets by the youth members of the First Churches of Northampton.

Peace / Light

It was a forbidden, daring thing for a small child to hold a live flame.

Each year, a week or so before Christmas, the church of my childhood held a sunset caroling service. At the end of the service, we would be given candles – real candles, even for the kids – and one by one, as we left the warmth of the building, the ushers would light our wicks. We would carry our little lights into the church courtyard, where we would huddle against the cold and sing carols to the dark night sky.

It felt thrilling, like holding a tiny wild bird in my hands. But it was hard to keep that little creature alive. My sister and I always struggled to keep our candles lit in the cold evening breeze, sheltering it with our hands and bodies; but inevitably, a gust of wind would blow it out. But then some nearby adult would offer us a light from their candle, and ours would be reborn. Sometimes, most amazing of all, an adult’s candle would go out, and they would turn to us, to rekindle their flame.

During the half hour or so we spent caroling outdoors, every single candle would blow out, at least once. But at the end of the evening, the courtyard was still filled with candlelight.

Our world has been buffeted by some strong winds lately. Strong enough, at times, to snuff our hope of peace. But here is the good news: we were never meant to carry that light alone.

In this season of the longest night, we will gather again, in our houses of worship, in our homes, in our communities, to share the flame.  And again, we will know this to be true: The light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not overcome it.


NOTE ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL PEACE LIGHT: Each year, a group of international Scouts travels to the shrine of the nativity in Bethlehem, and lights a lantern from the perpetual flame that burns there. That lantern in turn lights others. The flame is passed from person to person, across oceans and continents, kindling other candles and lamps along the way. And so it becomes a tangible sign, of our common desire for peace.

This year’s flame has now arrived in Deerfield, and will be shared at our Community Service of Lessons and Carols this Sunday, December 9, 2018, at 4pm, at the First Church of Deerfield, MA. Traditionally transported by Scouts, the flame will be presented to our church by a member of local Girl Scout Troop 12926.  If you can help harbor the flame until Christmas Eve (oil lamps, enclosed candles, or pilot lights work well), please contact me at deerfieldpastor@gmail.com. If you would like to carry the flame to your home or another community, bring a wind-proof lantern to Sunday’s service.

Peace out,