Sunday, March 19, 2023


The blind man in today’s Gospel is one of my favorite Bible characters. I’d give him the Oscar for best supporting actor in a New Testament role. He gave us the hymn verse, “I once was . . . blind but now I see.”That isn’t quite what he said though. Not wrong -- but the feeling’s not right.We translate his words as “I see.” But in the original Greek, it’s just one word – Vlepo. “I once was blind. Now: vlepo.”


It’s emphatic like the French Voila, the Spanish Claro, or the Italian Presto. Once I couldn’t find it. Now voila. Once I didn’t have a clue. Now claro. Once I was stuck. Now presto.Once I was blind. Now vlepo. It’s a crisp, emphatic rejoinder.


The Pharisees didn’t like it one bit that Jesus restored this man’s sight. They knew such healing was just hocus pocus to fool rural hicks in Galilee. Now Jesus had healed someone in the city. To add insult to injury, he did it on the Sabbath.  Well that wasn’t right. So they confronted the man with an undeniable religious truth. We know this Jesus is a sinner, so how can he have restored your sight? Just answer us that.”He replied. “You say he is a sinner. I don’t know whether he’s a sinner or not. All I know is I was blind. Now vlepo.”

You see what I like about this guy? It’s such a Zen thing to say, He physically sees while the Pharisees remain spiritually blind. So, how is it that this man could see but they couldn’t? There’s a clue in the singular and plural subjects of the sentences in our Gospel. The Pharisees (plural) speak 10 times – always, every time -- in one voice. I hear their voices in unison like the chorus in a Greek drama. Whether or not they literally spoke in unison, they all said the same thing always in lockstep because they thought in lockstep.  They say, “We know . . ..” They’re stuck in group think mentality.


As John Heywood said in 1546 and Ray Stevens sang in 1970, “There is none so blind as he who will not see.” Like the churchmen who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope for fear they might see something different from Church teachings, our Pharisees are afraid to look outside the box of what “we know” – “how we do things.” The only people in this story who speak for themselves (first person singular) are Jesus and the man he healed. 


Group think is a cataract obscuring insight into ourselves, each other, and the world. We all live in groups and every group --  political parties, churches, families, poker clubs – all of them have their dogmas and their heresies.They all try to think alike.


We need community. We become ourselves through relationships. We need to sing together, pray together, serve the world together.Community is good. But it can easily slip into group think conformity. Unless we keep enough self to think our own thoughts, feel our own feelings, pray our own prayers, we have nothing to bring to the community table--  be it church, family, friends, whatever. Without individual identity, we melt into a human glob.


The difference between community and group think conformity is just this: Community is built on love; group think is built on anxiety. Anxiety wants to control life, pin it down with certainties and rules. Then we want a group to assure us we’re right.The group think veil hangs from a rod of anxiety.


Our secular critics accuse Christianity of religious group think.There’s some truth in that.  Christians are fallible human beings. The Church is a fallible community. Anxiety distorts religion into everyone sticking to the same opinions, rituals, and customs. That’s religious group think. No argument.


But group think isn’t faith. In fact it’s the opposite of faith. It’s fear. It’s anxiously trying to tie life down with rigid rules. Faith on the other hand rachets down our anxiety by trusting Reality with an open heart.


When the disciples were afraid during a storm at sea,Jesus said, “Why are you afraid? O ye of little faith?” His most repeated commandment was “Do not be afraid.” The Bible says, “Do not be afraid” 365 times – once for each day of the year. John writes, “God is love,” and, “There is no room for fear in love.”


Faith isn’t afraid because it knows that so much is just gift. Jesus said,  “Have no fear little flock.It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom -- not reward you with the Kingdom – “give you the Kingdom.”  We don’t make the sun rise, the flowers bloom, or the rivers flow. We don’t paint the shadows of bare branches on the winter snow.  We don’t have to control things by what we think and what we do. Mary Oliver wrote:

I don’t know . . .  what . . . prayer is.
I do know . . . how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed . . ..


Faith relaxes our minds and opens our hearts to receive these gifts.  


We don’t get free from group think by some heroic act of defiance. We don’t rebel against our communities. We need them. It’s faith that sets us free from group think. We get free by exercising faith.


One faith exercise is to notice situations we are trying to control --  then just step back and make space for the gift.We might give up fretting for Lent. We might “kneel down in the grass to be idle and blessed.” Then look around and see.

Post-Script. Quite a few people told me how much they apperciated this sermon.

They cited specific points that struck them. They asked me how to spell words I had used. But I got more people saying they could not hear it. We had tried multiple sound amplification technique and I used the best. Sound checks proved that it was working perfectly. Nonetheless, I asked people siting in different parts of the building if they could hear. They said they heard the sound check perfectly clearly. But many people could not hear the sermon. I was completely perplexed. I then reread the text and came to a suspicion the problem might not be acoustic but spiritual. 

Friday, March 3, 2023


 On Ash Wednesday we talk about sin and death together. So what’s the connection? It isn’t that sin causes death. Death is the price tag for having a life to begin with.The connection is that we don’t want to think about either one. Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning book,  The Denial of Death, says, to a greater or lesser extent  we all pretend we aren’t mortal – like the Paul Simon lyric: “and so I’ll continue to continue to pretend my life will never end. . ..”No surprise there. 

But Becker goes on to show convincingly that denial of death is the psychological root  of all sorts of regrettable behaviors and our refusal to own up to them. In Christian parlance, to the extent we deny our death, we deny our sin.I once heard several people furiously denying they were racist though no one had said they were.In Georgia we used to say, “It’s the hit dog hollers.”

People accuse religion of shoring up our denial.They say it’s a pie in the sky fantasy for hiding from hard truths.Often, they’re right. Many Ash Wednesday sermons will caution people not to think about anything unpleasant. Some priests use cute variations on the imposition ashes. More than once I’ve heard: “Remember that ‘You are stardust. You are golden.’” 

There’s plenty of escapist religion.But St. Augustine, defined “sin” as precisely this kind of escapism. Sin is disengagement. Sin is denial. Religion can be sin.In Isaiah’s day, people were jumping through religious hoops so they could bypass the hard stuff.But God wasn’t impressed. He said, “On the day of your fasting . .  . you exploit yourworkers.Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife. . .”

He had no use for petty pieties like giving up coffee, candy, or Face Book for 40 days – as if that makes us ok. He thought we had real issues to deal with – especially each other. 

Feel good religion, self-help books, and video games are all escape routes for fleeing  from the common life of family, church, and civic engagement.  Smoke and mirrors religion won’t cut it.  

God says, “Let’s get real.” This is real. We’re awash in unspoken grief that life doesn’t meet our expectations. We’re lonely. Sometimes we’re angry. Often, we’re afraid. We aren’t who we want to be, so we’re ashamed. Sooner or later, we’re going to die. It adds up to a load of unacknowledged grief we act out in unfortunate ways. That leave us with a rucksack of unacknowledged guilt. 

Theologian Luke Bretherton says we avoid guilt andgriefin two ways: denial and projection. Denial pushes our guilt, grief, and shame down below our awareness, but they don’t go away. They fester.So we project our negative feelings on scapegoats -- human screens for  the parts of ourselves we refuse to own.I’m not selfish – not manipulative – not judgmental. I’m not angry and I’ll fight the man who says I am. I don’t have the psychological baggage that afflicts everyone else. Not me. It’s the immigrants, the gays, the homeless.

Jesus said a Pharisee and a Tax Collector went up topray:“The Pharisee stood apart and prayed,‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week (and tithe).’” 

But the Tax Collector prayed, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”He didn’t escape. He didn’t project. He owned his moral failures. It was the Tax Collector who went home justified.

If we want a Lenten discipline, let’s try this one: Withdraw our projections. The road to personal wholeness begins when we withdraw our projections. Jesus’ word for personal wholeness was “salvation.”Whoever we’re demonizing, give it up – at least for 40 days. Instead of giving up chocolate, give up a grudge. Maybe it’s someone in our family, church, or neighborhood. Maybe it’s someone we disagree with over politics. A rational disagreement is good. A principled stance is good. But passionate animosity is ineffective and fueled by projection. 

This Lent let’s withdraw our projections and look inside. When we stop blaming others and acknowledge our own sin and mortality, two things become possible:

First, we can see someone else as, in Robert Burns’ words,“my poor earthbound companion and fellow mortal. “ 

Second, we can do some serious soul-searching, cultivating a healthy self-awareness.We may find some stuff that isn’t pretty. But we may also discover the capacity to forgive ourselves for being human. We don’t have to beat ourselves up. Beating ourselves up misses the point.The point is to acknowledge our faults with Christ-like compassion. Maybe start with just one. Acknowledge one fault and forgive yourself.  Then forgive someone else.

If we practice the gentle art of self-forgiveness, we can forgive our “poor earthbound companion(s) and fellow mortal(s).” We may even forgive life for disappointing us long enough to actually live it.  Wouldn’t that be an Easter! Wouldn’t that be a Resurrection!

Monday, February 13, 2023


“Where is the wisdom of the wise?” Paul asks,

“Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

Philosopher Auguste Compte was the child of the Enlightenment 

     and the father of much philosophy that would follow.

A large stone monument to Compte stands in front of the Sorbonne, 

     one of the world’s greatest universities.

     It portrays the triumph of modern philosophy

          over the both of the old wisdom ways 

  – Greco-Roman Classical philosophy : 

     Aristotle, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius. 

     and the Medieval Christianity of St. Francis, St. Benedict, etc.


     The statue of a proud Compte is big, very big.

     There are two small figures at his feet.

     To his left is a forlorn Classical Greek boy with his lyre 

          resting idly in his lap --  superseded and un-played.

      To his right is Mary, the Christ Child in her arms;

      but she does not look at Baby Jesus.

      She gazes upward in rapt adoration of Auguste Compte.

     But on the day I saw this monument,

      a real life pigeon was perched on Compte’s head,

        there to do what pigeons do.

     The pigeon’s name was Paul.


     Actually, the Bible isn’t anti-intellectual.

     The so-called “wisdom” Paul rejected

      wasn’t about reason in search of truth. 

     It was a prescriptive philosophy 

            – a how to succeed at business formula

          --  only it’s broader than business. It’s how to succeed at life .

     Take the adage, “Early to bed, early to rise,

      makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

     Ben Franklin was paraphrasing a Greek adage from 

     the how-to-be successful guidelines of Paul’s day,

     what he called “the wisdom of the world.”


     Prescriptions for a happy life still abound.

     Some are religious like Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel.

     Others are secular or New Age. 

     Amazon offers The 7 Habits of Effective People, 

        The 48 Laws of Power,

      Think And Grow Rich, and multiple guides for how 

         to make our spouse affectionate, our children obedient,

      our subordinates at work docile, and our boss distracted.

     Much of this is rubbish, but there’s some sound advice in the mix.

     It would be rank hypocrisy of me to condemn it all

      -- not while I eat a brain health diet, do family systems therapy,

      and keep a warehouse of nutritional supplements.

     So eat kale. Wear sunscreen. Fine.


     But here’s Paul’s point: 

    There are limits to what life prescriptions can do.

     Too many things are beyond our control;

      most are even beyond our influence:

         genetics, family history, social and economic constraints,

         the weight of history and random luck.


     When we drive down life’s highway, we should drive carefully, 

          but we aren’t the only driver on the road. 

     Other people run red lights.

     Driving carefully down life’s highway 

         improves our odds but it doesn’t guarantee happiness.


     Kentucky poet Robert Penn Warren says,

      “the earth grind(s) on its axis . . . 

     history drip(s) in darkness like a leaking pipe .  . ..”  

     Call it entropy, Murphy’s law, fate, or bad luck. 

Sometimes life is tough.

     Christians say it this way: life has a cross in it.

     “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free?

      No there’s a cross for everyone and there’s a cross for me.” 


     Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we suffer. Eventually we die.

     That’s the cross. But you know who we meet at the cross? 

     Jesus. We meet Jesus at the cross.

     At Calvary he made our cross his cross.

     The cross isn’t the only place of communion with Jesus,

      but it’s the place that we need him most. 

     We meet him in times of trouble, at the point of our vulnerability.

     I’ve had times of trouble. You have too. 

    Maybe you’ve got troubles today.


     Those troubles lead us to the Beatitudes.

     Matthew’s and Luke’s versions are a little different, 

        but their point is the same.

     Instead of “Blessed are the indigent,” 

        it’s “blessed are the depressed.”

     Instead of “Blessed are the malnourished;’ 

        it’s “blessed are the downtrodden.”

     Jesus never said, “Blessed are the rich, the good-looking 

    and charming, the self-assured and serene, 

        the prosperous and the healthy.” 

     It’s “blessed are the afflicted, the anxious, 

        the stumblers on life’s road.”


     Jesus isn’t prescribing masochistic self-mortification 

        like Medieval monks.

     We don’t have to fast, flagellate ourselves, 

        or climb stone steps on our knees.

     Life deals us our share of sorrow.

     But when hardship inevitably happens, Jesus meets us there.

     When we bleed, he bleeds – we bleed together. 

     Jesus doesn’t just comfort us.

     He redeems our suffering by investing it with spiritual meaning.

     He doesn’t cause our suffering. The world does that. 

    He redeems it.  

     Jesus turns our tragedy into the gateway to joy.


     We are blessed when we falter, 

          because we meet Jesus at the cross

          and that’s Communion with the power of love in it.  

     For Holy Communion to happen, the bread of life must be broken.

     Hemingway said,

      “The world breaks everyone and afterward 

          many are strong in the broken places.”


          In R. S. Thomas’s poem about the sinking 

            of a Welsh fishing trawler, he says to Jesus,

          “You are there also 

            at the foot of the precipice

                 of water that was too steep for the drowned . . ..

          You have made an altar of the deck of the lost

          trawler whose spars are your cross. .  . . 

        There is a sacrament there . . ..”


Our cross. Jesus’ cross. It’s the same cross. 

That’s the sacrament. That’s Communion.

          We may or may not feel his presence. 

          But he’s there. We know it by faith.  


     Rough patches are where we find the love of Jesus,

             and to know the love of Jesus is better – it is better –

      than being “healthy, wealthy and wise.”

 A high school music teacher, Rhea Miller, said it best:

             “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold.

      I’d rather be his than have riches untold.

      I’d rather have Jesus than houses or land.

      I’d rather be led by his nail pierced hand.”