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





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.

Eppur si Muove (or, the Gospel According to Galileo)

“Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:1-8)

They were the witnesses, these women who came to the tomb on Easter morning. When the other disciples turned and fled, these were the ones who remained to the very end, to bear witness to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. How long would it be before those images stopped crowding out all the others? How long would it be, until they could think of Jesus and remember him in life, instead of in death?

Only a few days have passed.  These women are still in those first numb, surreal days of grief, when the heart struggles to absorb what the eyes have seen.  And so, as people do at such times, they take comfort in the rituals of mourning.  It makes them feel less alone. It gives them something to do. And so early on Sunday morning, they go together to the tomb. They are going to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They know that, after this, there will be nothing more they can do for him; but this morning, they are going to care for him, one last time.

But there is an obstacle to overcome. Who will roll away the stone for us? they ask. Who will clear away the barrier that seals Jesus in, and keeps us out? For it is very large.

As large as barrier between the dead and the living.

But they come to the tomb and find, to their surprise, that the task has already been accomplished.  Someone, or something, has already rolled away the stone. A mysterious stranger at the tomb tells them Jesus has gone on ahead of them, to Galilee. Not only has the stone rolled away; Jesus himself is on the move.

So, who did roll away the stone? How did it move? We don’t know. We never see it happen, have you noticed that?  It’s not a part of Mark’s gospel – or Matthew’s or John’s. All we know, is that the rock is there on Friday, and gone on Sunday, but no one sees it move. Luke speaks of an earthquake, and of angels, but no one else seems to remember that, so it seems likely that Luke is just guessing.

We just assume that it happened. But no one else was at the tomb when it happened.

Did it suddenly burst open, raising up dust and startling the birds? Or did it move so slowly and imperceptibly, that no one passing by noticed its motion? We don’t know. Did Jesus himself rise, and put his shoulder to the rock? Or was it moved by the hands of angels? Did those angels look just like us?

All we know is we arrive there on Easter morning, and the stone is already gone.  While we are still sleeping, still grieving, still despairing, God is already changing the landscape.

The gospel of Mark ends abruptly at this point. The other gospels tell how Mary saw Jesus in the garden, how Peter ran to the tomb, how Jesus appeared to the other apostles. But Mark tells us just this: that the women ran away and told no one, for they were afraid.

What were they afraid of? These were not easily frightened women. These were the ones who stayed the course, even when the men in Jesus’ company fled.  These were the ones who had faced the cross, and marked the tomb, and returned to honor the body of a man that the Roman authorities viewed as a dangerous subversive. They were not a timid crew. So what were they afraid of?

Were they afraid that no one would believe their witness? After all, they were women. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time a woman’s witness was discredited.

Or maybe they were afraid to believe it themselves. They had witnessed the shattering of their hopes, when the stone sealed the tomb. Maybe it was too much for them to absorb the shattering of their despair, when the stone rolled away.

And there, after all, something reassuring about immobility. The stones in our path are reliable landmarks. They tell us where we are. They define where we can go. They divide what’s on this side, from what’s on that side; what’s possible, from what’s not.  When the very stones start rolling away, when the earth itself begins to move, well, anything is possible. All hell can break loose. Literally, in this case.

Sixteen centuries after that first Easter, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the other way around. He was forced to recant on his knees, but there is a legend that as he rose to his feet afterward he whispered, “eppur si muove” – “nevertheless, it moves!”

Whether we know it or not, it moves. Whether we like it or not, it moves. The very thing that we thought was immobile, impassible, impervious to change — it moves.

It moves, and all those beliefs we thought were set in stone, move with it. All of our assumptions, about life and death, about victory and defeat, about power and weakness – they all begin to crumble.

After all, those who condemned and executed Jesus were confident in their belief that God was on their side of that stone. And those who mourned him believed that he was on the far side of the stone, and lost to them forever. Neither group considered that the stone itself might move.

Neither group suspected that God’s version of the story might end, not in death for some and life for others, not in triumph for some and defeat for others, but in reconciliation. The reunion of the condemning and the condemned.

I think many of us — maybe most of us, lately — live in a pre-resurrection world, a world of impenetrable barriers and insurmountable obstacles. We have all seen enough crucifixion lately to believe in Good Friday, and we know just how large the stones are that separate us from one another.

And so we find ourselves living in that time in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when the world seems permanently divided — between the winners and the losers, between the privileged and the poor, between the insider and the outcast. When find ourselves on the sunny side of the stone, it is still tempting to believe that God is on our side. And when we find ourselves in buried in darkness, we wonder if God has abandoned us forever.

But it was on that long bleak Saturday, on that day between Good Friday and Easter, that the rock began to move, and the world began to turn. And so it is today. Whether we know it or not – whether we believe it or not – even in the darkness, Love can still find the leverage to roll that stone away.

Just how that will happen, we may not be able to see right now. Perhaps God will send angels. Perhaps those angels, will look just like us.

But know this: that even now, God is at work to change the landscape.

Eppur si muove.



Easter Sunday Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

(photo: Wikimedia. One of the sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa. Read more about this wicked cool phenomenon here.)

The Stones Cry Out

I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. (Luke 18:28-48)

This is the day that will seal his fate.

He does not enter the city quietly. He does not try to blend in with the crowds. Instead, he makes an entrance, much as a military general might enter in triumph, riding upon a his steed, surrounded by loyal soldiers, greeted by a cheering crowd.

But his ride is no war horse, and his disciples are no army. Their only power, is the power of their testimony. Luke tells us that as Jesus came into the city from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God with a loud voice, rejoicing for all the deeds of power they had seen.”

That loud voice is their only weapon. But it is threatening enough, to the powers that be.

Those words — blessed is the King who comes in the name of God – are enough to convict Jesus and his disciples as enemies of the state. No wonder the Pharisees in the crowd urge Jesus to silence his disciples. After all, they know how the Romans deal with public dissent. They have seen the crosses before.

And so the Pharisees say, Teacher, order your disciples to stop! But Jesus replies:

Were they to be silenced, the stones would cry out.


I used to imagine that this as a something miraculous and joyful – maybe loud, rocky clapping, or a ringing of bells – the sound of creation itself bearing witness to the presence of God.

I used to imagine it that way, but now, I’m not so sure.

Luke doesn’t say, the stones will shout for joy – although some Bibles translate it that way. Luke says, the stones will cry out. It’s the same Greek verb that Luke uses for the blind man, who cries out to Jesus for healing. It’s the same verb Luke uses for the possessed man, who cries out to Jesus for deliverance. They cry out, save us.

Which, by the way, is the meaning of the word Hosanna.

Jesus speaks of the stones again, in his very next words. Jerusalem, he says, if only you knew the things that make for peace.  But the days will come upon you, when your enemies will surround you, and crush you, and there will not be one stone left upon another.

Is it then, I wonder, that the stones will cry out?


Palm Sunday is one of those holy days that move around from year to year. Like Passover, and Ramadan, and Easter, it falls on different calendar dates in different years.

In the year 2011, Palm Sunday fell on April 17th.  It was on that date, in the year 2011, that a group of peaceful protestors gathered outside their mosque in the city of Homs, in western Syria. They were calling for an end to nearly five decades of martial law. They carried no weapons, except their voices. But their voices were threatening enough, to the powers that be. They were met with a rain of bullets that killed twenty five people.

The next day, more protestors filled the streets. One of them told a news reporter: ‘I am forty-five years old, and this is the first time in my life that I have broken the barrier of my silence.’  

For weeks, the protests continued — but so did the gunfire, until eventually the protesters took arms themselves, and the government responded by laying siege to the city, and bombarding it with artillery.

On Palm Sunday, in the year 2011, Homs was a city of 1.4 million people. Today there are less than half that many living there. Drone footage over the city shows block after block after block of walls ripped off, roofs collapsed, rubble littering the streets. In the oldest part of the city, there’s barely a single intact building. There are just stones.

But the stones still cry out. More forcefully and more eloquently than any words, the stones bear witness to the injustice done there.

The people who took to the streets of Homs on that Palm Sunday took the same leap of faith that Jesus and his disciples took on the very first Palm Sunday, nearly 2000 years ago. Speaking truth to power is never without risk.  The cross, the tear gas, the fire hoses, the bullets, the bombs — the tools of empire may change, but the rationale is the same. Then as now, the oppressor offers a choice: silence, or violence.

But then as now, the words of Christ ring true: Your violence cannot hide the truth, for God is our witness. Silence these voices, and the very stones will cry out.


Today it is Palm Sunday, when Jesus and his disciples take to the streets, shouting Hosanna. By the end of this week the disciples will have been driven into hiding, and Jesus himself will be dead and buried, beneath the rock. Yet even then, the stone will have its say.

But that is a story for next Sunday.

Today it is Palm Sunday, when the streets ring with the voices of those who will be silent no longer.  And we cry out with them, for this is our work this day: to find our voice, to speak our truth, to risk the cross for freedom’s sake. To take the step that may seal our fate.

Let us bravely cry Hosanna today, so that in the fullness of time, we may shout Alleluia when the stones at last roll away.



Sermon by Liza B. Knapp at First Church of Deerfield, MA, on April 9, 2017

Photo: Destruction in Homs (20120, photo by Bo Yaser. Published on Wikimedia Commons.

Love and Anarchy

Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely. All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root.–Emma Goldman

You wouldn’t think that Saint Valentine and Emma Goldman would have a whole lot in common. Saint Valentine, after all, was a 3rd century Christian priest, while Emma Goldman was a 20th century Jewish anarchist. Valentine gave his life in support of Christian marriage, while Goldman was an advocate of free love unfettered by marriage. And yet when it came to love, they agreed about one thing: Love cannot be legislated. We can neither be forbidden, nor forced, to love.

It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;

rivers cannot sweep it away.
Song of Songs 8:6-7)

In Valentine’s day, the emperor Claudius forbid soldiers to marry, just as the state of Alabama would later forbid interracial couples to marry, just as the US Congress would later forbid same-sex couples to marry. But in each case, there was absolutely nothing the state could do to prevent them from falling in love. As songwriter Holly Near puts it, “Kids are gonna love who they damn well please.”

The love we are speaking of here is passionate, sensual love, the love shared by lovers. There are of course, other kinds of love: love among friends, love among family. The ancient Greek language had different words for each: Eros, Philios, Storge. They are not wholly separate things, of course — lovers start families, friends become lovers – but there is a different quality to each. Both state and the church typically endorse and encourage familial love and friendship; but Eros – that one’s a troublemaker.

The Christian church has never really known what to do about Eros. It is never mentioned in the New Testament, although it is rapturously and lyrically celebrated in the Song of Songs. Jesus remained silent on the subject; the apostle Paul was famously celibate and urged others to follow his example. The church has historically been conflicted as to whether sexuality was a blessing or a curse. For this we can perhaps partly blame Saint Augustine, who came up with the idea that Original Sin was somehow passed on to each generation via sexual reproduction.

Yet here in the Bible we find the Song of Songs, these lush verses of scripture, extolling Eros – sensual, passionate Eros – in metaphors so sexually charged that the book would doubtless have been banned by some well-meaning school board, had it not been, you know, sacred.

Jesus did speak constantly of Love, exhorting us to love our neighbors, to love God, to love our enemies, even, but the love he spoke of was not romantic love, but unconditional love – not Eros, but Agape. The love of God, the Love that is God – that’s Agape.

Yet Eros, too, is a form of love, and bears the marks of divinity (as CS Lewis once said).

The love between lovers awakens us to beauty. It gives birth to joy and gratitude. It stirs us to generosity and tenderness. In this, it is like that Love which is God.

Love blesses that which the state condemns. It permits that which the law prohibits. It unites that which society divides. In this, too, it is like that Love which is God.

As Valentine and Goldman both knew, Love does not follow the rules. It does not stay within the lines. Love can blossom between black and white, Jew and Gentile, Arab and Israeli, native and immigrant, Muslim and Christian, Montague and Capulet. There is an element of anarchy in Love. Love is a law unto itself.

Jesus understood this, for he told his disciples that love of God and love of neighbor was the sum total of the law. Saint Paul, that confirmed old bachelor that he was, understood this also. Even Augustine of Hippo – yes, the same Saint Augustine that I just blamed for that whole Original Sin thing –even Augustine knew this to be true. Augustine lived with a woman for many years, had a child with her, but never married her, because his mother forbid what she saw as an “unsuitable” match. One wonders what might have happened, had Augustine met Valentine.

Years later, Augustine preached this sermon:

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will… Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.

And so, beloved, let these words be our benediction and our charge this day:

Love, and do what you will.

Both Emma and Valentine would agree.


by Liza B. Knapp, for February 12, 2017, ‘Love Sunday’ at First Church of Deerfield, MA

image credits:
Emma Goldman photo by Chicago Daily Tribune, September 8, 1901 – Life and Conflict in the New World, Emma Goldman Papers, UC Berkeley, Public Domain.
Saint Valentine window cc.Flickr.TheRevSteve


Not Joseph’s Son

The Common Cuckoo is a migratory bird found throughout much of Europe and Asia. It is less known for its appearance than for its call, made famous in songs, carols and countless cuckoo clocks. The cuckoo is famous also for its distinctive reproductive ecology: it is a notorious “brood parasite’ – meaning that it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

A female cuckoo watches a nest until its rightful occupants are occupied elsewhere, and then flies down and lays her eggs. Most species of birds are too dim-witted to notice that this new egg is not theirs, and so they incubate the cuckoo’s egg along with their own. But cuckoo eggs are fast incubators; the young cuckoo typically hatches before its foster siblings, and its first action is to push their eggs out of the nest. The unsuspecting foster parents feed and raise the cuckoo’s chick as their own, and the biological parents are spared all that effort.

It is from the habits of the cuckoo that we get the Old English word cuckold, meaning a man whose wife has been unfaithful, and who – perhaps unwittingly – raises another man’s offspring as his own. It was, and is, a pejorative term. It was a favorite insult of Shakespeare’s, appearing in new fewer than fifteen of his plays.

Most of us have probably never hurled this particular insult at anyone, but in the past decade the insult has had a resurgence within the alt-right and white supremacist movements. Their blogs and tweets are full of references to cuckolds — or “cucks,” for short. In alt-right parlance, a “cuck” is any man who apologizes, compromises, hor in any way puts another’s interest ahead of his own. While there are numerous alt-right slurs for women and minorities, the most shameful insult they can hurl at a straight, white male, is to call him a “cuck.”

It is in this context, that I invite you to consider the story of Joseph.

Here we have a young man on the threshold of marriage, to a young woman named Mary. He is filled with expectation for the start of their life together. But before their wedding day, he discovers that Mary is pregnant — and not with his child.

A first-century Jewish betrothal was more binding than a modern-day engagement. A betrothed woman who had sex with another man was guilty of adultery, a crime that brought shame, not only upon her but upon her entire community, and especially upon her husband. According to the Torah, an adulterous woman was to be stoned to death, in order to purge the evil – the shame – from her people.  Joseph would have been within his rights to carry out such an honor killing.

And yet, Joseph pardons Mary. Not only that – he marries her, and raises her firstborn as his own.

So we must ask ourselves:

Is Joseph a saint, or just a cuck?

Matthew tells us that an angel came to Joseph in a dream. Not in a blinding flash of light, as Joseph was walking home from his carpenter’s shop. Not as a loud voice, booming from the clouds. In a dream.  This was an intimate, personal communication, seeping in through Joseph’s unconscious as he lay sleeping. This was his inner angel, the voice of God within. Upon awakening, Joseph still had a choice to make.  Would he believe this dream? Would he follow this angel within?

The angel tells Joseph: Do not be afraid, to take Mary as your wife.

Joseph’s dream affirms for him that his reluctance to put Mary to shame is not a sign of weakness, but of courage. It takes courage, to choose compassion. It takes courage, to risk ridicule and accept insult. It takes courage, to listen to the angel within, when you are the only one to hear it.

Do not be afraid. In a culture that shames forgiveness, tenderness demands fearlessness.

A friend of mine, a devoted father of twins, once wondered aloud to me why it is that there are so few nativity scenes in which Joseph is holding the baby. Joseph is so often depicted standing off to the side, reduced to an ineffectual bystander.

Yet, alone in the stable, far from home, who was there to help with the birth, besides Joseph?  Who was there to hold the baby, while Mary slept? Joseph was Mary’s midwife. The first hands to cradle Jesus, would have been Joseph’s.

And holding this newborn stranger, Joseph knows at last the truth of all that the angel told him: that this child is indeed a blessing, that he himself is blessed to be his parent – not by biology, but by love. And in that moment, Joseph becomes a saint indeed: the patron saint of male tenderness.

He is the patron saint of all men who love and care for children – including children who do not share their DNA. He is the patron saint of all men who understand that their honor depends on their own choices, not their ability to control others.He  is the patron saint of all men who choose forgiveness over vengeance, and second chances over judgment.

Joseph is the patron saint of Gentle Men, everywhere.

God rest you merry, gentle men. Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day – into the hands of his father, Joseph, who had the courage to listen to a dream, and love shamelessly.

(sermon by Liza B. Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, December 18, 2016)

(photo: Joseph holding Jesus, from a Georgia church. CNS photo / Michael Alexander)