(Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 15:3-10)

When I was a teenager, a dear friend gave me a copy of The Once and Future King, by TH White. The book is an imaginative and introspective re-telling of the story of King Arthur and his knights. I had never read anything quite like it before, and it became an important book to me.

I remember one tale that made a particularly lasting impression on me. A man comes to Arthur’s court because he is suffering from a terrible wound, that will not heal – the result of a curse. He has been told that only the greatest knight in the world can heal his wound; so he has come to Camelot.

Arthur assembles all the knights to have a try, but of course everyone knows that it will be Sir Lancelot who will succeed. Lancelot is known far and wide not only as the mightiest of warriors, but also as the noblest and purest of heart.

But Lancelot knows otherwise. He knows he has betrayed his King through his love affair with the Queen. And he knows, that when he places his hands on the poor wounded man, he will fail; everyone present will know the truth, and Lancelot will be exposed for the fraud he truly is.

Most of us will probably never find ourselves in so fantastical a circumstance.

But perhaps many of us can relate to that persistent doubt, that we are not the person that others have taken us to be, that we are not worthy in fact of their friendship, or their trust. Many of us are familiar with that persistent doubt, that we are not the person God wants us to be, that we are not worthy in fact of God’s trust. That we are, in a word, unfit.

We are in good company.

The lectionary for today sets before us three accounts, from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, of individuals who declared themselves unfit for duty.  First, we have the prophet Isaiah, in the presence of God and the seraphim, crying out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Then, we have the apostle Simon Peter, telling Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And finally, the Apostle Paul, writing to the church he planted in Corinth, telling them that he is in fact “unfit to be an apostle.”

The lectionary could have included other examples. Moses, at the burning bush, tells God to send someone else, for “I am not eloquent, I am slow of speech and tongue.” Jeremiah, called by God to prophesy, tells God that he is too young for the task.

Moses and Jeremiah were concerned about their skill level, their job qualifications, their ability to get the job done; but today’s trio of express a deeper doubt. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul insist that they are unfit for God’s service, not because they are insufficiently skilled, but because they are fundamentally unworthy.

Are all these Biblical figures just being excessively modest?

There is a psychological pattern known as Imposter Syndrome, in which a person persistently fears that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be. It’s fairly widespread; maybe some of you are prone to it. A person suffering from imposter syndrome carries a hidden anxiety, that eventually someone will realize that they are in over their head, that they are faking it, and they will be exposed as a fraud.

A key feature of imposter syndrome, however, is that this anxiety is unsupported by the evidence; the person in question may be performing quite well at their job, and still they fear they don’t belong in their position. A diagnosis of imposter syndrome implies the person is, in fact, quite capable. Hence a cartoon I saw recently, in which a woman is pondering, “I wonder if I’m good enough to have imposter syndrome?”

But what if our assessment is accurate? What if we really are unfit?

We don’t know much about Isaiah’s early life, prior to his prophetic call. We don’t know much about Peter’s life, either, other than his profession. But the Peter of the gospels is overeager, overconfident, and unreliable. The story of Peter in the gospels would almost be a comedy of errors, were the stakes not so high.

As for the author of the Letter to the Corinthians – he was not always named Paul. He was originally named Saul, and he was an aggressively, intolerantly devout Pharisee. In the earliest days of the church, Saul was part of an effort to quash the Jesus movement; in the Book of Acts we learn that he stood by approvingly as one of Jesus’ followers was stoned to death by an angry mob.

Then, one day, Saul was on the road to Damascus when he saw a blinding light, and heard a voice which asked him: Saul, why are you persecuting me? It was the beginning of his conversion, from Saul the persecutor, to Paul the evangelist.

So when Paul tells the Corinthians that he is “unfit to be an apostle,” he is not exhibiting imposter syndrome. He knows what he was, and what he is. “By the grace of God,” he writes, “I am what I am.”

For Paul, as for Peter and Isaiah before him, the experience of call was an experience of grace. His very calling meant forgiveness; and so the proclamation of forgiveness became, in turn, his call.

You might be wondering, what happened to Lancelot, in TH White’s story. White tells us, that after all the other knights had tried and failed, Lancelot came forward to lay his hands on the afflicted man’s head – whereupon his wounds “shut like a box” and his bleeding ceased. The people break into cheering; but Lancelot kneels on the ground, weeping. White writes, “This lonely and motionless figure knew a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was the he had been allowed to do a miracle.”

Before God, there can be no imposters. God knows who we are; what we have done, and what we have left undone. We can stop keeping up appearances or worrying that we have been called by mistake. God’s invitation is unconditional; you didn’t receive it in error, it was addressed to you. Go ahead, and open it, and read the good news.

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp for The First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts, January 30, 2022.
Sir Lancelot at the Chapel of the Grail, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898)

A short prayer for “Columbus Day”

You send us messengers of love,
but we prefer other prophets.

For those times when we have
praised the wrong heroes,
followed the wrong leaders,
and chosen the wrong path,
forgive us.

Teach us a better way.

Repenting of the harm we have done,
we ask for another chance
to become your people
by loving your people. AMEN.

Apocalypse III: Here be dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Easter Fools.

Happy—- April Fool’s Day.

It’s not every year that Easter falls on April Fool’s day, but there is always something a bit foolish about it.

For fool’s we must be, to believe this outlandish tale. Empty tombs? Resurrected bodies? Nonsense.

It sounds like an elaborate hoax. You can just imagine the hidden camera waiting near the tomb for the moment when Jesus whips off his gardener costume and reveals the prank at Mary Magdalene’s expense. You can imagine the other disciples emerging from their hiding places, saying “OMG Mary, you should have seen your face!”

Truth be told, as a kid I was never a big fan of April Fool’s Day. I didn’t like the idea of being set up. I didn’t like being tricked. I didn’t like people laughing at me.

Neither, apparently, did the men who followed Jesus. When the women returned from the tomb with tales of resurrection, they dismissed their witness as mere silliness. They weren’t going to fall for it. It was clearly too good to be true. Like those phone messages I get all the time telling me I’ve won a free vacation cruise. Who falls for that?

Fools, that’s who.

But which part, I wonder, did they find more unbelievable? That Jesus was now alive? Or that he had died in the first place? Was believing in a resurrected messiah any more ridiculous than believing in a crucified one? Fool me once…

In the catacombs of Rome, there is an ancient piece of graffiti that shows a young man worshipping a crucified, donkey headed figure. The Greek inscription says, “Alexamenos worships his God.” Whoever this Alexamenos was, his buddies clearly found his religion hysterical.

Well, they were right. If we think this story is anything other than ridiculous, we are probably missing the point. The apostle Paul admits as much:

We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others, but to those whom God has called, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

But notice that the foolishness Paul refers to here is not the resurrection, but the crucifixion. The stumbling block to faith in Christ was not the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, but rather the way that he died in the first place. What sort of messiah gets nailed to a cross?

The job of the messiah was to restore the nation, to vanquish its enemies, to free it from occupation. To make Israel great again. Getting executed was a pretty poor start to that project. Who follows a messiah like that?

Fools, that’s who.

To make things even more ridiculous, some of his followers had now begun to preach that Jesus himself was somehow God, in human form. The supreme creator of the universe, nailed to a cross. Who wants a God like that?

Fools, that’s who.

But really, the foolishness began even before the crucifixion. Jesus had been spouting foolishness from the moment he began to preach. “Blessed are the poor,” for example. That’s just silly. You start off saying blessed are the poor, and right away people expect a punchline – “How blessed are they Johnny?”

Then there was that nonsense about forgiving people not just seven times, but seventy times seven. Who does that? Or that nutty thing Jesus said about turning the other cheek. Only a fool would let down their guard, after they’ve been punched.

Yet, in every generation, in every nation, in every faith, there have been folks who believed this sort of foolishness. Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai. Saint Francis of Assisi took the blessedness of poverty so seriously that he once stripped naked in public and walked away without his clothing. Talk about embarrassing. That is the stuff of nightmares. But it is also the stuff of sainthood.

Every saint is a fool, one way or another.

Before I continue, I need to pause here a moment for lesson in basic logic. The proposition that “every saint is a fool” does not imply that the converse is true as well.

Not every fool is a saint.

The mere fact that you have appeared on America’s Funniest Home Videos does not qualify you for sainthood. There are as many varieties of foolishness there are human beings, and many of them have nothing to do with saintliness.

Jesus tells this story, of a foolish man who found himself with a surplus of grain. Rather than share it, he built himself a huge barn, so that he might story up a supply to last him all his days. No sooner was the project finished, than the man died in his sleep.

Lord, what fools these mortal be, Shakespeare wrote. Foolishness is our lot in life. It runs in the family. So maybe the only real question, then, is: What kind of fool do you want to be?

Many, many years ago, when I was going through a pretty severe crisis of faith, I sought guidance from my childhood pastor, John MacNab. John had baptized me as an infant and confirmed me as a teenager, and now as a young adult I was hoping that perhaps he could tell me something that could dispel the panic of uncertainty I was feeling.

I asked him bluntly, “What if it’s just not true?”

“What if what isn’t true?” he asked.

“God, Jesus, any of it,” I answered.

“Well,” he replied, “then it sure was a great story.”

I remember finding this a distinctly un-reassuring answer at the time. At the time, I suppose I was hoping for some sort of logical proof or conclusive evidence to secure my faith. But John was expressing what Martin Luther also taught: that faith is ultimately not about certainty, but about love. Perhaps John was a fool. But he was a holy fool.

If you look up the phrase gospel truth, you will find one of its definitions to be “unquestionable fact.” But I don’t buy that. Everything about the gospel is in fact highly questionable. Its claims are outrageous and ridiculous, and nothing can prove them otherwise. So what is the gospel truth?  The gospel truth is the truth that makes us free.

Free to be foolish, in the eyes of the world. Free to love your enemies. Free to respond to violence with peace. Free to walk the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, free to lay down your life, free to speak truth to power, free to embrace the outcast, free to befriend the sinner. Free to love, and do as you will.

Mary Magdalene could offer no proof, of her encounter with Jesus in the garden, and the rest of the disciples were unpersuaded. But she testified to what she knew: that Jesus had called her by name.  For Mary, that was the gospel truth.

This my friends is the gospel truth I share with you today: that God loves you, however foolish that may seem. And nothing can put an end to that.

Christ is risen.

Happy April Fool’s Day.

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


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.








Matthew 5:45

The man stood on the mountainside
and turned to face the crowd.

Son of Man —
Child of Earth —
speak to us of God.

Whom shall God bless with warmth and sun?
On whom shall sweet rain fall?

On every one, both good and bad,
for God so loves us all.

Whom shall God curse with plague and storm,
with fire, and with flood?

I came to save, the stranger said —
It’s you that call for blood.



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


MLK Day Prayer

Still-speaking God:
We give thanks to you
for the prophets of the past,
but we confess:
your modern-day messengers
make us uncomfortable.
Forgive us, God, and disturb us.
Send your Spirit among us,
that we may hear your Word for us,
in the words of our scripture,
in the whispers of our hearts
in the warnings of your prophets,
and in the weeping of the world.

Were you expecting someone else?

There is no due process here, no habeas corpus. No official charges will ever be made, and no public defender will ever be assigned. There is nothing for John to do but wait.

And as he waits, he wonders. He wonders what will become of his movement. He wonders what will become of him. He wonders, perhaps, if the kingdom of heaven is really as near as he told them.

But then he remembers his cousin Jesus, who came to be baptized in the Jordan. And he wonders, if this Jesus might be the One to come after him, the One who will fulfill the promises John merely proclaimed. And so John sends his disciples to ask The Question:

Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

It’s a funny question for John to ask.You’d think John, of all people, would recognize the messiah. After all, he was the one who told everyone that he was coming, the one of whom is was prophesied, Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead, to prepare the way before me. If John was the one who sent out the invitations, how is that he can’t recognize the guest of honor when he arrives?


Some of you may have heard the story of Tamika Cross, a young, African-American medical doctor who was on a flight from Detroit to Houston when one of her fellow passengers lost consciousness. When the flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board, Dr. Cross immediately raised a hand, but as she began to rise the attendant told her: “Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down, we are looking for an actual physician.”

At that moment another passenger came forward – someone older, whiter, and male – and the attendant told Dr. Cross, “thank you for your help, but he can help us.”

My point is, that sometimes our preconceptions make it hard to recognize that the person right in front of us is the person we have been waiting for.


So anyway: John’s disciples come to Jesus, and ask: are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

And Jesus replies: Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

That answer is classic Jesus.

John asks Jesus a straightforward, either/or, yes-or-no question, but Jesus, as usual, throws it right back at him. Judge for yourself, Jesus says. You’ve heard the stories about me. Is this what you’ve been waiting for, or not?

The answer, of course, depends as much on John as it does on Jesus.

Just what sort of Messiah, is John waiting for? What sort of savior was he envisioning? Was he expecting a charismatic prophet like Elijah, who would bring back that old time religion, with all of its rules and regulations? Was he expecting an avenging liberator like Moses, who would call plagues down upon those who had enslaved his people? Was he expecting a military leader like David, who would drive out the foreigners and make Israel great again?

John may have prepared the way for Jesus; but was he really prepared for this unlikely physician, this itinerant healer who shunned all power but love, and all arms but truth?

John asks Jesus, Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies, You tell me. Am I?


So what about us? Who are we waiting for this Advent season?

It is easy to be a Christian in the weeks before Christmas. It is easy to share in the anticipation of Advent, as we await the arrival of the baby in the manger. But what happens when the baby arrives? There is an element of surprise in every birth. You never really know, just who it is you are waiting for. Just what sort of baby, what sort of child, what sort of adult will this particular human being, this long-awaited human Son of Man, turn out to be?

It’s easy to be hopeful on Christmas Eve, when the packages are still unopened and full of promise, when Santa may yet arrive with the very thing we wished for. But what happens when we open the package? Are we ready for what we will find inside?

Are we ready for this unlikely physician, this Jesus who makes the blind to see and the deaf to hear, who preaches good news to the poor but sends the rich away empty, who embraces the outcasts and welcomes the stranger, who chastises the pious and forgives the sinner? Are we ready for this Jesus, this imprisoned, crucified and risen messiah?

Or are we expecting someone else?

My friends, this is Advent, the season of expectation. And so like John, we ask: Are you the One we are waiting for? And Jesus replies:

You tell me. Am I?