Palm Sunday Prayer

It is easy to sing praises,
when the palm branches wave and spring is in the air.
It is easy to speak out,
when it costs us nothing and earns us applause.
It is easy to march
when the sun is shining and the police are friendly.
And it is easy to fall away, when the seasons change.

O God of the broken, God of the cross, God of the scattered stones:
Give us courage enough to stand with You until the bitter end;
and hope enough to rise in the morning, when You begin again.




(NB: Did I write this? Possibly.  If you know otherwise, please tell me.)


The Serpent and the Cross

Most people know just two things about Saint Patrick: one, that he was Irish, and two, that he drove the snakes from Ireland.

Wrong, on both counts.

Turns out, Patrick was born in Scotland, not Ireland. As a teenager he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland by Irish pirates, who sold him into slavery there. After several years he escaped aboard a boat to France, and from there he made his way home, to be finally reunited with his parents, six years after his abduction.

You might think that after an experience like that, the last thing Patrick would ever want to see was the coastline of Ireland. But Patrick felt called to return, and after studying for the priesthood he returned to Ireland as a free man, to bring the liberating news of the gospel to place of his captivity. And so it was, that a foreign-born slave became the patron saint of the Irish people.

As for the snakes, well, it turns out, there were no snakes for Patrick to drive out. Snakes did not begin to colonize northern Europe until after the last Ice Age, and by the time they reached Britain, Ireland was already cut off by the Irish Sea. There is now, and ever has been, only one species of reptile in all of Ireland, and it is a lizard, not a snake. Legend may tell us that Saint Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland; but science tells us, there never were any.

But perhaps the legend refers to serpents of another kind. Reptiles are not the only creatures who can be venomous.


The Torah tells the story of a people wandering in the wilderness after their escape from slavery. They have been wandering now for years. They have become weary, and anxious. They have no water. They have no food. Things are so bad, they grow nostalgic for the days of their captivity. They begin to lost trust. They begin to turn on one another. And then, just when they think things can’t possibly get worse, the snakes appear.

Fire serpents, the Hebrew text calls them.

Are these fire serpents real, or metaphorical? Did the Israelites stumble into a literal snake pit, a valley full of vipers? This is entirely plausible; unlike Ireland, Israel is home to several species of poisonous snake. On the other hand, perhaps these serpents are not reptiles at all. Perhaps the venom in the Israelites’ veins came not from another species, but from their own human hearts.

Whichever interpretation you prefer, the scripture makes one thing clear: these serpents were real enough to kill. The people murmured, and the serpents came, and with them, they brought death.

The people cry out for help, and God offers a strange remedy, a sort of symbolic anti-venom. It will not banish the serpents, but it will render their venom powerless. Moses is to craft an image of the serpent, and raise it up high—and the people are to look upon it.

Is this magic? some sort of homeopathic cure? or maybe a desensitization treatment for a snake phobia? I can just magine Moses saying to God, Now, let me get this straight: so a golden calf was sacrilege, but a bronze snake on a stick is somehow okay?

Remember, the people in this story had watched their neighbors die of snake bite. You’d think the last thing they would want to see, would be a snake. But for whatever reason, the cure works – whoever looks upon the bronze snake, survives. The people with venom in their blood look upon the symbol of that venom, and they are cured.

But first, they have to look at the serpent.

It is the serpent we can’t bear to see – the poison we will not acknowledge, the venom we deny – that destroys us. Look at it directly, and it loses its power. As I once told my kids: The bee you are watching is not the bee that will sting you.


This story of the snake on a stick is not often told in mainline churches. It seems too superstitious, idolatrous even. But once every three years it crops up in the Christian lectionary, and this is that week. It crops up now, during the season of Lent, not because of our proximity to Saint Patrick’s day, but because of a passage from the Gospel according to John, where Moses’ serpent is mentioned again — immediately before what is arguably the most famous sentence in the whole New Testament:

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”

Jesus is speaking here of his impending crucifixion. He is speaking of the cross – of the power of the cross, which is, he implies, is somehow, like the power of that crazy snake on a stick.

If this comparison seems odd, ask yourself this: To a first-century Jew, which was more terrifying – the serpent, or the cross?

To Jesus and his followers, the cross was not an abstract symbol, but a concrete reality. Around the time Jesus was born, some 2000 Jews were crucified outside Jerusalem. The cross was not invented for Jesus. There were always crosses in Jerusalem.

Roman crucifixion was part of a deliberate strategy of terror, designed to let the people know who was in charge. It was never inflicted on Roman citizens, but was reserved for the rebellious slave, the rebellious peasant, for those who did not know their place. Crucifixion was intentionally painful, dehumanizing, and public. The cross was the lynching tree of the Roman Empire.

If you had watched your people die of snakebite, you would think the last thing you would want to see, would be a serpent raised high. If you had watched your people crucified, you would think the last thing you would want to see, would be that cross raised high.

Yet somehow, the cross of Jesus gave strength to those who lived in the shadow of the Roman cross – just as, centuries later, it would give strength to those who lived in the shadow of the lynching tree. Not by magically banishing the serpent — but by taking away its sting.

James H. Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, speaks of his childhood in the black church. “There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme,” he says. “The cross was the foundation upon which their faith was built.” In the crucified Christ, they saw the affirmation of God’s solidarity with their own crucified people. The hangman might do his best, to rob them of their humanity. But the cross revealed the truth: that the one hanging from the tree was none other than the God’s beloved.

O death, where is thy sting?


But there is an addendum, to our story.

Moses lifted up the serpent, and the people were cured. And so it came to pass, in time, that a cult grew around the bronze figure, until eventually the people began to worship the serpent, instead of the God who delivered them from it. They began to serve it, to make offerings to it — to bow down before its sting, instead of facing up to it.

Here, too, perhaps, we see a parallel, between the image of the serpent and the image of the cross. The church has been tempted, again and again, to worship the cross, instead of the God who delivers us from it. The cross of the crusader, the cross of the inquisition, the cross of the Klan – the church has bowed down before these crosses, when it should have faced up to them.

Let this be a cautionary tale, then.

There is nothing supernatural about a bronze snake, or a gold cross. They are not magic, and they are certainly not gods. But seen through the eyes of faith, they are signs — of God’s presence, even in the most threatening and godforsaken of places.

The world is full of serpents still, and their sting can be deadly. But do not let them keep you from your journey. Remember that God journeys with you. So do not be afraid, for this death will not kill you.

Once upon a time, a young man named Patrick was sold into slavery, and escaped. You would think that after that experience, that last thing he would want to see was the coastline of Ireland. But God told him, do not be afraid.

These serpents cannot harm you.


Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.




sermon: Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts

image: Stained glass window, Central United Methodist Church, Kansas City, MO



Esther is not her name.

Y’all catch that? Her name is Hadassah. But she is a Jewish woman living among Gentiles, an Israelite living in exile. She needs a Persian name – one her neighbors can pronounce. And so she is known as Esther.

Hadassah, in Hebrew, means Myrtle. Esther, in Persian, means Princess.

The name Esther is a mask that Hadassah wears, a costume she puts on so that she can fit in more easily in this new homeland. As Esther, she can fly beneath the radar. As Esther, she can belong. As Esther, she can be beautiful. As Esther, she can even be queen.

But it is not her name.

 Esther was taken into the king’s palace… but she did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell. (Esther 2:8,10)

I had a good friend in college who was the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She married an Anglo guy from the Midwest. When their daughter was born, they named her Gabriela.

A short while after the birth announcements went out, a mutual friend called me on the phone. “I don’t understand why she would give her daughter a name like that,” she said. “Why would you give your daughter a Spanish name?”

“Um… because she’s Cuban?” I asked.

“But why draw attention to it?” my friend wondered. “It’s just asking for trouble. Why not spare her all that discrimination?”

Why indeed.

The Megillat Esther – the scroll of Esther — is about many things: gender dynamics, racial violence, leadership, pride, faith, risk. But the dramatic heart of the story is hidden right there in its name: Esther.

Esther is a story about passing. About the masks that we wear, to fit in; and the consequences, of leaving them on, or taking them off.

I recently came across an article in the UU World magazine, written by a man whose mother passed as American Indian. She was actually Mexican, but to her white neighbors it was more glamorous, more praiseworthy, more acceptable for her to be Native, than for her to be Mexican. She named her son, Brando Skyhorse.

He defines “passing” as claiming membership in a group of which one is not, in fact, a member, in order to access the privileges of membership. It can refer to a Jew passing as Christian, or a light-skinned African American passing as white, or a sick person passing as healthy, or a gay person passing as straight. I know something about that last one.

Passing confers privilege, but at a cost. The mask may protect us, but it is also suffocating.

Then again – perhaps Esther embraced her new name. She was, after all, a fourth generation Persian. When does an immigrant family stop being immigrants, and just become part of the melting pot? Maybe she never really liked the name Hadassah. Maybe she felt more free, more herself, as Esther.

But then Haman comes along, breathing murder for the Jews, and Esther must decide:

Who is she, really? Who are her people?

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

Here’s an interesting thing about the book of Esther. God is never mentioned. Not once. Among the books of the Bible, it is unique in this respect.

Of course, God is implicit in the tale; why else would Mordecai refuse to bow before Haman, if not for his belief that God alone is worthy of homage? Yet when Haman asks him why he won’t bend the knee, Mordecai says simply, I am a Jew.

It is an answer with consequences.

Who am I? Who is my God? Who are my people? These are not three separate questions, but all one and the same. They must be answered together. And the answer will have consequences.

What is your answer? What might those consequences be, for you?

For who knows – perhaps you, too, have been called here, for just such a time as this.


Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for The First Church of Deerfield, 3.4.2018

Image: Esther, painting by John Cox





Samuel Speaks


Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” (1 Samuel 3: 1-20)

At first, Samuel thinks it is Eli calling—Eli, who has been both priest and adoptive father to Samuel for most of his young life—Eli, who has been the voice of authority, the voice of conscience. In this household of faith, it is Eli who speaks for God, and Samuel listens to Eli. But tonight, Samuel will listen to God directly, without parental supervision.

And tomorrow, Samuel will speak. When he does, he will break the silence surrounding Eli’s grown sons, also priests, who have been abusing their flock, while lining their pockets with offerings intended to God.

It will be Eli’s turn, to listen – and it will be hard listening. For Samuel’s message is the message of Eli’s sin as well. After all, this happened on Eli’s watch. It should have been Eli’s job, not Samuel’s, to call his sons to account. It should have Eli’s job, not Samuel’s, to protect the Temple, and its people.

On Ash Wednesday, a young man entered Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, and killed 17 students and teachers with an assault rifle. It was the second mass school shooting this year; in January, two students were killed and sixteen more wounded at Marshall County High School in Benton, Kentucky.

The day after the Parkland shooting, the young survivors held vigil. And the next morning, they began to speak. They are speaking still, demanding action to keep schools safe, and keep weapons out of the hands of those who would do harm. They are speaking to their parents, to their Representatives, to their Senators, to their President.

They are calling the elders to account for their failure to protect.

The voices of the Stoneman Douglas survivors have been joined by the voices of thousands of other young people from around the country. In state after state, in school after school, in walkouts and protests, students are demanding legislation to keep dangerous firearms out of dangerous hands. They are fighting for their lives.

Like many of us, I have been inspired by their passion, by the courage, by the persistence of these young survivors. But should we be any less passionate than our children? Should we be any less courageous, any less persistent? And by “we” I mean my generation. After all, it should have been our job, not theirs, to keep them safe. It should have been our job, not theirs, to hold our legislators to account.

We are the grown-ups now. We are Eli. This happened on our watch.

Samuel speaks today, as he does in every generation. Samuel speaks today, through the students of Stoneman Douglas. Samuel speaks, through 19 year old Chris Grady, and 18 year old Emma Gonzalez, and 17 year old Delaney Tarr, and 16 year old Kyle Kashuv, and 15 year old Christine Yarad – who wrote to the New York Times, “If you have any heart, or care about anyone, or anything, you need to be an advocate for change… Don’t continue this cycle.”

I can imagine that Samuel might have said exactly these words.

It’s time for some hard listening.




Photo: Gerald Herbert


Happy Purim, Melania

Once there was a rich, powerful man who was married to a beautiful woman. But she ceased to please him, because she would not obey him. So he sent her away, and married another beautiful woman, this one a foreigner. He brought her to live in his gold-covered palace, and gave her many expensive gifts.

The powerful man had a close advisor who despised and resented foreigners, and incited hatred and violence against them. This advisor convinced his patron that such people were dangerous, and the powerful man gave orders to get rid of these unwanted immigrants.

In fear, the immigrants appealed to the powerful man’s wife. You are one of us, they said. Say something. Help us.

She hesitated, knowing how her husband treated those who did not obey him. But they pleaded with her, saying, Who knows? Perhaps you have risen to your high position for just such a time as this.

This story has been told for millennia, but the world is still waiting to see how it ends.

Act like one.

And the devil said to him: If you are the son of God…   (Luke 4:1-14)

It is important to note when the story begins: Jesus is returning from the River Jordan, where he went to be baptized by John. But instead of returning home, he ventures into unfamiliar territory.

Something happened there at the river, something that drove him to the wilderness. As he was baptized, he heard a Voice. “You are my beloved Son,” the Voice said; “In you I am well pleased.” The story really begins with that Voice, the Voice that sends Jesus into the wilderness. He goes there to confront it. For what does it mean, to be the Son of God?

In the wilderness, Jesus hears other another voice. A voice offering answers to that question.  Luke’s gospel tells us it was the voice of devil.

In most English translations of this story, the devil’s temptation begins with the words “If” – “If you are the Son of God.” But in Luke’s original Greek, the devil’s words don’t necessarily imply any doubt about the matter. An equally accurate translation would begin with the word “Since” – “Since you are the Son of God, why not turn this stone to bread?”  The devil is not questioning Jesus’ divinity. He’s defining it. He’s not saying, “If you’re really a god, then prove it”. It’s more subtle than that. Essentially, the devil tells Jesus:  ‘You’re a god…. Act like one.’

For what else does it mean, to be the Son of God?

The devil tells Jesus, “Since you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” For surely a god should be always free from want?

Next, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and offers him dominion over them. For surely a god should command the respect of others?

Finally, the devil dares Jesus to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. For surely a god is exempt from the consequences of his own behavior?

So what does it mean, to be the Son of God? According to the devil, it means privilege. It means power. It means invulnerability.

This picture of divinity that the devil paints for Jesus was a familiar one in the ancient world. The official public gods of the Roman Empire weren’t exactly moral exemplars; they were worshipped more for their power, than for their goodness.  Morality in first century Rome was the realm of philosophers, not priests. The defining characteristics of the gods were privilege, power, and invulnerability.

No wonder that Caesar who was called the “Son of God.” For who on earth could be more god-like than the Emperor?  He was at the top of the social and economic pyramid.

He had everything the devil had to offer.

The devil’s theology is tempting indeed, and history is full of those who have succumbed to it. The Europeans who colonized the Americas succumbed to the devil’s temptation when they justified their invasion with the argument that they were more godly than the native peoples they conquered. The slaveholders in the antebellum South succumbed to the devil’s temptation when they justified slavery with the argument that they were more godly than the African peoples they enslaved. If you equate privilege with godliness, it becomes easy to confuse tyranny with divinity. After all, who seems more god-like, the master, or the slave?

(Ask yourself why, in many paintings, Jesus is white, but the devil is black.)

But Jesus rejects the devil’s temptation, saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”  Jesus has an entirely different picture of divinity in mind, so he turns down the devil’s gifts of privilege and power and invulnerability. Jesus will be everything that Caesar is not. He will identify with the poor and hungry. He will be arrested and convicted by the rulers of this world. He will be beaten, and publicly executed.

What could be less god-like than that? Yet  Jesus’ followers insisted that it was in his very lowliness, that the nature of God was revealed.

Nearly a half-century ago, an African-American Christian theologian named James H. Cone ignited controversy by boldly declaring that “God was Black.” The statement “God is Black” sounded pretty shocking to 20th-century  white American ears  – but perhaps no more shocking than the statement that “Jesus is Lord” must have sounded to 1st-century Roman ears.

In declaring “God is Black,” James Cone did not just mean that God loves all people, or that all people are made in the image of God. Nor was he referring to the fact that Jesus himself was in all likelihood a brown-skinned man. In America, “blackness” was a not just a shade of human pigmentation but a condition of oppression. And so, as radical as it may have seemed to talk about the “the blackness of God,” Cone was in fact expressing an ancient Christian belief – that in Christ, God chose to make the  oppressed condition his own.

It was the same belief that the apostle Paul expressed nineteen centuries before, when he wrote to the Philippians, saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus – who, although he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7).

When we are on top of the pyramid, it is always tempting to believe that we are somehow closer to God up there, that our view of the world is a God’s eye view. The gospels tell us that the devil takes Jesus to “a high place” and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. But if you survey your kingdom only from some high place, it is impossible to see or hear the people below.  To look down on others is not to look at them with God’s eyes.

Jesus chose to look at the world not from the top down, but from the bottom up. Jesus rejected power and privilege, and the invulnerability they can purchase. Jesus turned down the devil’s invitation to rule from the mountaintop. He chose instead, to walk that lonely valley down below.

This week marks the beginning of Lent, a period of time traditionally associated with Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. The season of Lent is an invitation to follow Jesus into that wilderness, and to confront, as Jesus did, the promise of our own blessing.

For what does it mean, to be a son — or daughter — of God?

During Lent, we can emulate Jesus by fasting, by giving up some favorite food or activity; or we can emulate Jesus by giving up our claims to privilege and power, and becoming vulnerable to one another. For the devil tempts us still, to set ourselves above and apart from others, whether by virtue of wealth or education, gender or orientation, age or ability, race or nationality.

But it turns out that power, privilege, and invulnerability are not marks of divinity, but of its very opposite. What would it be like, to empty ourselves of that privilege? What would it be like, to be truly God-like?

Remember that you, too, are a child of God.

Act like one.



Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, February 18, 2018.

Photo: The Temptation of Christ, Ary Scheffer (1854). Source: Wikimedia Commons.



Rescue Dogs and Refugees

Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly  — Matthew 15:22-28 (NRSV).  


If this story strikes you as strange, you are not alone.

Granted, the whole demon-possession thing always sounds foreign to post-modern western ears, and miracles are miraculous in any age. But any semi-regular church goer has heard stories of demons and miracles before.

It’s not the miracle that seems strange here. It’s the miracle worker. It’s Jesus, who seems strange here.

How often does Jesus tell anyone, nope, sorry, no miracles for you? But that’s what he tells the woman in this story. A woman approaches Jesus seeking help, not for herself, but for her daughter, and Jesus says, sorry. No time. Gotta go help my people.

It doesn’t sound very Jesus-like, does it?

To make matters worse, he follows this dismissal with the most insulting of metaphors: It’s not fair, he says, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Yeah, that’s right. A woman comes to him, desperately seeking aid, and he responds with a derogatory one-liner and an “Israel First” slogan. That sounds like someone I can think of, but it ain’t Jesus.

So what’s going on? Is Jesus just joking around? It seems a cruel joke. Is he testing her? Again, it seems a cruel test. Or did Jesus really believe, at that moment, that he was called to serve only his own people? Maybe it was this woman, who opened his eyes to a much wider call.

Because she doesn’t give up. The disciples turn her away, but she persists. Jesus turns her away, but she persists. He calls her a dog, but nevertheless she persists. She tells him, Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.

Surely God must have some leftover grace, for us?


The woman, Matthew tells us, was a Canaanite. The Canaanites, you may or may not recall, were the people who lived in the Holy Land before the Israelites got there. Before it was Israel, it was the land of Canaan. But, as the Bible tells it, these indigenous people, these First Nation folks, were subdued and displaced by the armies of Joshua.

Mark’s gospel also tells this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, except that, according to Mark, she was not Canaanite by Syrian. Apparently the disciples who witnessed the exchange weren’t entirely certain of her ethnicity. Which I suppose is telling, in and of itself. All they knew, all they needed to know, was that she wasn’t one of their own. And so as far as they were concerned, she was someone else’s problem.

There are all sorts of borders, then, separating her from Jesus and his disciples. Borders of gender, of ethnicity, of religion – by all of these measures, she is one of them, not one of us. She is an outsider, an outcaste, an immigrant, a foreigner. But she won’t be shut out. She persists, because she has faith – faith that God’s mercy crosses all boundaries, faith that God has grace enough to spare, faith that even a dog deserves a crumb of compassion.


I’m reminded, here, of a story I heard on the radio last week, about a group of folks in Atlanta that has been importing rescue dogs from Turkey. Apparently, golden retrievers are considered a status symbol in Turkey, so lots of people get golden puppies, only to dump them when they get tired of them. The big, goofy, sweet-tempered golden retrievers don’t do well as street dogs. They aren’t aggressive, so they are terrorized by the other feral dogs. So a group of dog lovers has been gathering up the Goldens into shelters, and shipping them to the US, where a long line of willing owners stands ready to adopt them. The dogs are given patriotic American names – like Liberty, Freedom, and Glory – and issued passports. Over a thousand dogs have been rescued in this way.

Meanwhile, there are 3 million human Syrian refugees in Turkey, all of whom are banned from travel to the United States.

If we can recognize a Golden Retriever, no matter where we may find it, why is it so hard to recognize a human being?

If even the dogs may eat the children’s crumbs, surely we can spare some bread for the children themselves?


Last Sunday was World Communion Sunday, a date chosen by global consensus for all Christian churches to break bread on the same day. The symbolism is obvious: that although we may be separated by great distances, still we are one at the table. This is what the Canaanite woman affirms, when she asks Jesus for help: that God’s table is open to all.

But Jesus says no. My nation comes first.

Too many American Christians act as if the Gospel story ended right there. As if our faith and our nation shared the same borders. We mistake our country for God’s kingdom, and our tribe for God’s people. We confuse church with state and vice versa; we put God on our currency and flags in our sanctuaries. We say “America First” and “God Bless America” in the same breath, as if they meant the same thing.

But when we hear that same creed on Jesus’ lips – “my country first” — it sounds strange, doesn’t it? We know this is not the voice of Christ. And the Canaanite woman knew it too.

And so the story does not end there, because the Canaanite woman persists. She crosses over all the boundaries that kept her in her place, and she demands that Jesus do the same. And he does.

Jesus calls her a woman of great faith.

And so she was. She had faith that there was a greater God, a greater love, a greater abundance of grace, than she had been told.

Indeed, it is always the ones who live outside our own borders, of tribe, of nation, of class, of race, who call us to greater faith. For they persistently remind us, that God is not limited to our own narrow horizons, that God’s table stretches clear around the world, and that there is enough grace there for all.

We are not, and never have been, Americans first, but rather earthlings first: the children of God, made in God’s image.

Come to the Table, and break bread with the World.

(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, October 8, 2017.)

School of Love

Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, but do not put my teaching into practice?
— Luke 6:46


Something has changed, here in Old Deerfield. Since last time we gathered, something has shifted. It’s as if our sleepy little village has, somehow, awakened.

School is back in session.

The renowned writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once described fall in America as that “fine and dangerous season [when] all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalog looks wonderful.”

My datebook tells me that the year begins in January, and my church lectionary tells me that the year begins in Advent, but I always thought the Jewish calendar got it right when it placed the new year in September. September has always seemed me a time for new beginnings, and not just because it’s the month I was born in. For the children among us, September is a time of new shoes, new teachers, new classmates, and new blank notebooks just waiting to be filled. Even for the rest of us who are no longer children, September can be a time of renewed energy. The air turns crisp, and suddenly our days have a bit more structure and purpose to them.

This is as true for churches as it is for schools. September is the time when travelers return to worship, children return to Sunday school, and choir members return to the choir loft (as ours will next Sunday). There’s a palpable shift, in September.

This is true for churches, and particularly true for us here at the Brick Church. Because this is one of the distinctive characteristics of the First Church of Deerfield: we are a church surrounded by students, and filled with teachers. English, French, Latin, Music, Technology, Drama, Medicine, English as a Second Language, Woodworking, Mathematics, Second Grade — we’ve got an entire curriculum represented here in this church. So let me ask you: what are we all doing here? What have we come here, to learn? What new course of study, are we hungry to pursue, here?

Last year, I read a remarkable book called The Great Spiritual Migration, by Brian McLaren, and the most memorable passage for me, the part that really stayed with me, was his answer to the question I just asked. This is how Rev. McLaren describes his vision for the future of the church:

“What I believe can and should happen is that tens of thousands of congregations will become what I call schools or studios of love. That’s the desired future to which I am passionately committed. I’m not concerned about a congregations denomination, musical style, or liturgical taste; I don’t care if they meet weekly in a cathedral, monthly in a bar, annually at a retreat center, or daily online. I don’t care whether they are big or small, formal or casual, hip or unhip, or whether their style of worship is traditional or contemporary or whatever. What I care about is whether they are teaching people to live a life of love, from the heart, for God, for all people no exceptions, and for all creation. These churches would aim to take people at every age and ability level and help them become the most loving version of themselves possible. They would help people face the challenges of life – challenges that could make them better, self absorbed, callous, or hateful – with openness, courage, and generosity. They would help people recognize when they are straying from the way of love and help them get back on the path.”[i]

McLaren goes on to note that, although there’s plenty of research into the best methods of teaching mathematics — or reading or violin — the pedagogy of love remains elusive. How do we learn to love our neighbor? How do we learn to love our God? How do we learn to love creation?

How indeed?

Jesus has many titles in the gospels: Messiah, Savior, Lord, Redeemer, Son of God and Son of Man. But the title by which his own followers addressed him, was Rabbi — Teacher. And these followers themselves were called Disciples, which means students. The Jesus movement was essentially a school without walls, and its curriculum was love.

It was no lecture class. Jesus spoke to his disciples, yes; he preached to large groups, and held small discussion sections afterwards. But then he showed them what those words meant in practice, by healing the sick, feeding the poor, embracing the outcasts, challenging the powerful, and bearing the cross. And having demonstrated love, he told them, Now,  you try.

He didn’t quiz them — “Now, who remembers which kinds of people are blessed?” — he just sent them out to actually bless people. He sent his disciples out in pairs – with a lab partner! — with instructions to heal the sick and raise the dead. And when the crowds were hungry, he told his disciples, You give them something to eat.

There are some subjects that just cannot be mastered by the intellect alone. They require our whole bodies, our whole selves. They require practice.

Take music, for example. Some of you may remember the old Broadway show, The Music Man. The main character, Harold Hill, is a traveling salesman / con artist who sells band instruments together with the promise that he will teach the youngsters how to play. Not actually being a music teacher, he cannot show them how to practice their instruments. instead, he employs what he calls “the think method” — he assures the kids that if they just think about the piece they are going to play, the notes will come out right.

But a musical instrument is not an abstract idea but a physical body, with which we must cultivate a physical relationship. And this takes practice. If we merely listen to music, but do not practice, then we are learning music appreciation, not actual musicianship.

The same is true when we are learning to drive. There’s a reason why you have to take a road test, and not just a written test, before you can get a license.

The same is true of sports, or art, or science.

The same is true of love.

On the last day before his arrest, Jesus told his students, I’m giving you a new assignment: “that you love one another, as I have loved you. “ It was their final exam. Not a written test, but a road test.

Love, you see, cannot be learned by rote. It is not a subject to be memorized or even a concept to be understood. It is a skill to be mastered. It requires practice.

Which is why it’s not enough, for us to gather here in this room, sitting in rows, listening to my sermon, which let’s face it is basically a lecture. If church is to be a school of love, then there needs to be a hands-on component. Which is why there’s a time every week when y’all get up out of your seats and take the hand of a person near you in a gesture of peace. It’s why there’s a time every month when we fill our arms with clothing and food and supplies to bring to the folks at the Greenfield Inn and the Recovery Center and the Food Pantry. It’s why we gather together in small groups, like our “Being Mortal” book group, to share our stories and talk about things that really matter. It’s why when one of us is in the hospital another of us goes to see them. It’s why we break bread together and sing together. It’s why we baptize our babies together and bury our dead together.

Church is the place where we learn to practice love, so that we may get better at it. We come to church, because we have heard love’s music, and we want to play in that orchestra.

So as we begin this new school year, this new church year, let us re-commit ourselves to be diligent students of love. To practice love daily. To seek always to improve and expand our capacity for love. To be open to feedback and criticism, knowing that this is how we improve. To turn this sanctuary into a school of love, a studio where we practice until the notes of love leap off the page, and the music spills out the window, to fill the streets.

That’s our syllabus, for the year ahead. And in case you forgot to write it down, here again is this week’s assignment (from Philippians 4:8-9):

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute,
if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise:
dwell on these things.

The things you have learned and received and heard and seen:
practice these things.

And may the God of peace be with you.





[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration (New York: Convergent, 2016), pp. 53-54.

Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 10, 2017.

Image: from Pinterest; original source unknown. Zoom in and check out the sentences on the blackboard.

When Disaster Gets Biblical

The waters are slowly subsiding from Southeast Texas, which Hurricane Harvey inundated with over 24 billion gallons of water.  Meanwhile, the Caribbean is recovering from Hurricane Irma, and bracing for another storm right on its heels. The news media have described these storms as historic, record-breaking, unparalleled, unprecedented. For some, there was only one word that seemed sufficient to capture the scope of the disaster: Biblical.

So we turn to scripture, to make sense of the storm.

The story of Noah’s ark is probably the best-known story in the Bible. Most of us learn it as children, whether or not our families attend church or synagogue. Songs, books, and toys all tell the familiar story of how Noah collected the animals, two by two, into his wonderful boat. It is a story with undeniable kid appeal.

Perhaps because we learn it as children, it is easy to dismiss Noah’s ark as a mere child’s fable, to see the story of the flood as colorful fiction. Although tabloids periodically announce the supposed discovery of the ark on some remote mountaintop, most of us question the historical reality of a worldwide flood, or the practical feasibility of transporting all the world’s creatures in a single hand-made boat.

I’m hardly a literalist when it comes to scripture, but think that we perhaps make a mistake, when we too readily dismiss Noah’s story as a fable. What if the story was fashioned in response to a real event? How would it change the way we read it?

Consider this: geological evidence shows that thousands of years ago, the entire Black Sea changed abruptly from freshwater to salt. At the same time, the borders of the Sea expanded dramatically. One theory is that melting glaciers gradually raised water levels in the North Sea to the point where they crested the Bosporus and a huge volume of sea water flowed suddenly into the low-lying Black Sea basin. The resulting flood could have raised the surface of the Black Sea by six inches a day, flooding 60,000 square miles within a few years.

I don’t know if this event is the one behind the story of Noah and his ark. But to those living on the shore of the Black Sea at the time, it must certainly have seemed as if the entire world had disappeared under water. Everywhere they had ever known would have been engulfed by the relentlessly rising tides.

My point is not that the Biblical flood is an historical fact, but that it could have been. For things this sudden and tragic have indeed occurred, and do indeed occur to this day. An earthquake devastates Haiti or Chile, a tsunami engulfs Japan, a hurricane ravages the Gulf Coast, and the known world disappears in the blink of an eye.

Noah’s Ark is at once a beloved children’s fable, and a real-life tragedy. As children, we naturally identify with Noah and his family, safe and snug together in the ark, with all that fabulous menagerie of beasts as our personal pets. As children, our world is our home, and we trust that our parents will protect us. But as adults, we begin to see the world beyond our home. We begin to put ourselves in the place of those left behind as the waters rose. We become aware of the tension behind the tale, the fear behind the fable.

The story of Noah and the ark is, ultimately, a tale told in the aftermath of a natural disaster, to the children of those who survived. It addresses the questions all survivors ask: Why did this happen? Why were they lost? Why was I spared? Could it happen again? And finally, fundamentally, where was God?

The story of Noah’s ark offers one set of answers to these questions. Why did this happen to them? Because they were sinners. Why was Noah spared? Because he was righteous. Where was God? In the flood.

These were the answers that the survivors of the flood offered to their children. And they are often the answers that we offer to our children – and ourselves — today. We want to reassure ourselves that tragedy cannot befall us, and so we distance ourselves from the victims of that tragedy. We tell ourselves, we are not like them. We tell ourselves, it could never happen here. And we tell ourselves, God will keep us safe.

The problem is, these are the wrong answers.

They are the wrong answers, for the Texas mother who has just identified the body of her 25-year-old son who went out in the storm to rescue his sister’s cat. They are the wrong answers, for the man who watched the family van plunge beneath the flood waters, carrying three generations of his family with it. They are the wrong answers, for the homeless family, the grieving widow, the orphaned child. They are the wrong answers.

So I offer you instead a different Biblical disaster story, less colorful, less well known. A tower collapses in Siloam, in the south part of the city of Jerusalem. Eighteen people re killed. Jesus asks his followers, “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower fell were worse sinners than all the other people in Jerusalem?” And then he answers his own question: “I tell you, no.”

In that simple sentence, Jesus changes the moral of the story. “I tell you, no, but unless you all repent, you will all likewise perish.” The natural disaster was not an act of judgment. It was not the victims of the tragedy who needed to repent, but rather those who blamed the victims for their fate.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, conservative televangelist Pat Robertson claimed that Haitians must have been cursed by God because of their ancestors’ pact with the devil. After Hurricane Katrina, a number of pastors speculated that God was punishing New Orleans for its gay and lesbian community. Reverend Jerry Falwell famously claimed that abortion was to blame for the 9/11 terror attacks. It would be easy to dismiss such hard-heartedness were it not so widespread. We want to believe that only the guilty suffer; we want to believe that tragedy can be avoided if only we follow the rules. Last week the New York Times interviewed the bewildered sister of a man who had drowned in Houston. “He was a minister,” she said. “He followed all the rules.”

Why do such things happen? The answers that we offer our children in the tale of Noah may seem reassuring to those of us who have so far escaped disaster. But ultimately, there are no easy answers to these questions.

Jesus never did tell his followers why those eighteen people died so suddenly and senselessly when the tower of Siloam fell. But Jesus did tell them, over and over, by word and by example, how to respond to such suffering: not with judgment, but with compassion.

What story, then, shall we tell our children, when the flood is over?

The Reverend Fred Rogers – known to most of us simply as “Mister Rogers” —  once said that, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

And so it was, in Texas. Volunteers and first responders searched the flooded streets, helping people to escape from the rising waters. They carried their neighbors to safety, in boats, in kayaks, in their arms and on their backs. A group of neighbors formed a human chain to help a man to safety from his flooded car.

In the midst of the storm, these are the only stories that make sense.

And maybe this is the story the Bible has been telling us all along, if only we have ears to hear. Because Noah wasn’t alone on that boat; he brought along every type of animal he could find. Noah was more than a survivor.

He was the one who rescued all of creation.



(by Liza B. Knapp, for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, September 3, 2017; published in part by the Greenfield Recorder on September 9, 2017.)

(image: Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark. Phildelphia Museum of Art.

God’s Intent

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people from starvation… So have no fear.”  (Genesis 50: 20-21)

God never speaks to Joseph.

God spoke to Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham; God told Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”

God spoke to Joseph’s father, Jacob, and told him, “Know that I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go.”

But God never speaks to Joseph; at least, not in so many words.

The God of Genesis is a talkative God. Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Hagar – God speaks to each of them by name. But with Joseph, God’s presence is never a voice – always a dream. And not the kind of dream that Jacob had in the wilderness, the dream where God stood beside him and promised to care for him. No, Joseph dreams of sheaves of corn, and stars in the sky.  He interprets those dreams as signs of a great destiny; his brothers interpret them as a sign of a great arrogance. But really, who is to say? Sometimes an ear of corn is just an ear of corn.

The story of Joseph and his brothers takes up the last 14 of the 50 chapters of Genesis, and in all that time God speaks only once, to Jacob. To Joseph, God speaks not a word.

I find that interesting.

I find that interesting, because, at the end of the story, Joseph is confident that his whole life has been under God’s care, his whole journey bent to God’s purpose. This despite the fact that some really terrible things have happened to Joseph.  As a young man, he is sold into slavery, and taken to Egypt, to live among people who do not understand his language or his faith.  The wife of his first master falsely accuses him of attempted rape (an accusation that, in another country, in another century, would surely have resulted in lynching). Joseph is unjustly incarcerated, for at least two years. Worst of all, this whole chain of events is set in motion by an act of betrayal, for it was Joseph’s own brothers who sold him.

Joseph eventually is freed from prison when Pharaoh hears of his skill in interpreting dreams. It turns out Joseph has also has a gift for predicting agricultural futures, a skill that strengthens Pharaoh’s rule and helps Egypt survive a long season of famine.  It is this famine that brings Joseph’s brothers to Egypt, in search of food.

They do not recognize their brother; but Joseph recognizes them.

Finding his brothers on their knees before him, Joseph does not seize the opportunity to punish them, or even to berate them. He embraces them, and pardons them, and tells them, astonishingly, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.”


When I hear someone describing some tragedy or loss — or, worse, some injustice — as “God’s will,” it always seems to me like a cop out, a convenient way of putting difficult emotions back in the canister. It drives me crazy when people shrug off suffering with a pious platitude. After all, the prophets and the psalmists never let God off the hook that easily. They lamented. They complained. They raged against injustice. And rightly so.

And yet: I also know that experiences in my own life that brought me pain have also given me strength, and compassion, and insight. Through them, I have been shaped, and molded, and equipped for my calling. This is a paradox – that God can use suffering to heal suffering. That God can use evil to defeat evil.

And so, at the end of his long and winding road, Joseph can tell his brothers, “Do not be afraid. You intended it for harm, but God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people from starvation.”  The Hebrew word translated as “intended” here can also be translated as planned, purposed, crafted, fashioned, shaped. God never speaks to Joseph; but God’s hand has been upon him all along, shaping him for service, bending his life toward good.

There are two important points we need to recognize about this conclusion, lest we fall into platitudinous piety.

First: it is Joseph’s conclusion to make – not anyone else’s.

It is Joseph’s conclusion to make, because his suffering, his trials, are his to interpret. Imagine if his brothers had said, “hey, look where you ended up, guess it’s a good thing we sold you.” Only Joseph can say when, and how, his life makes sense. On the other hand, the brothers have their own lives to interpret. What do they make of the famine that brought them to bow down before the brother they had harmed, and lost?

Second: it is a conclusion is made only in retrospect.

It would be nice to know our destination in advance. It would be nice to know, as Abraham did, what God has planned for us. It would be nice to get a set of instructions, as Noah did, telling us exactly what to do.  But most of the time, it doesn’t work that way. God never speaks to Joseph; it is only in retrospect, that Joseph sees his destiny plain. It is only when God’s end is in sight, that Joseph sees the meaning of it all.

Let us be clear. A famine is not a good thing. Betrayal, enslavement, and imprisonment are not God’s will for anyone. But even great harm can summon forth great good, for good is always God’s intent.

Of course, it is hard to imagine what sort of tool is being fashioned, when the metal is still in the fire. When we are being painfully bent out of our old shape, when our previous identity is melting away, it is hard to believe that we might be molded into something new.  And for some of you, perhaps, this is such a time. Indeed, I believe that for our nation, this is such a time. Our country’s path has taken a turn for the worse. The flames of racism and bigotry have been stoked and it remains to be seen what sort of people will emerge from the fire.

But imagine the possibility that, like Joseph, we may emerge from this trial with a new sense of calling. The possibility that, like Joseph’s brothers, we may emerge from this trial with a new sense of humility. The possibility that our own family history of enslavement may be at last exposed, and repented, and redeemed.

Joseph’s story challenges us to look honestly upon the lives we have led— not just the comfortable stuff we put on our resumes,  or post on our Facebook pages, or submit to our college alumni bulletins, or write in our history books, but the betrayals and injustices and injuries as well — and to consider how we might yet employ of all of this toward good.

God never speaks to Joseph. But Joseph’s story speaks to me. And it tells me this:  that whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever kind of shape we are in right now, we may yet be shaped for God’s purpose. God intends all of us for good, and not for evil; for compassion, and not for hatred.

So, Joseph told his brothers, have no fear — neither of the past nor of the present, for the future is yet to be revealed.

May our lives be bent toward good, and may God be with us all.