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Lent 2

 March 5, 2023
Good morning, St. John’s!

This morning, I’d like to step out of my role as your Deacon and into the role of your movie critic for a few minutes. If you have not seen it, please add a film called ‘Living’ which came out last year, to your list. How many of you have seen it? I saw ‘Living’ last week at the Dedham Community Theatre with Lucy and was deeply moved by it. 
The script for ‘Living’ is by author Kazuo Ishiguro, whose work you have probably read or seen in ‘The Remains of the Day’ or ‘Never Let Me Go. ‘. The movie stars Bill Nighy, who you probably remember as the washed-out pop singer who has an accidental hit with his song’ Christmas is all around’ in the movie ‘Love Actually’
In ‘Living’ Bill Nighy gives an elegant and understated performance as Rodney Williams, a London bureaucrat who has a spiritual rebirth shortly after he receives a terminal diagnosis. In the words of our reading from John today, you could say Mr. Williams is ‘born again’ or ‘born from above.’ 

Rodney Williams has the most boring job in the world in his London office where he literally pushes around papers from one pile to another, or on a good day shunting off documents to another department. The job has left his soul bone-dry. The dreary routine in the office is only interrupted by visits from a vivacious group of mothers who bring a petition to build a playground in a poor neighborhood . His humdrum life is suddenly interrupted when his doctor shares with him a terminal diagnosis. Rodney  stops going to his dull job and goes off to a seedy seaside resort to end his own life. Not able to do so, he returns to London but not to work, trying to find some meaning and vitality in the final months of his life.

He succeeds in this partially by trying to win the affections of his young co-worker Miss Harris, whose vivaciousness he admires. It’s only with her he is able to share his bad news. Only after his funeral we see what gave Mr. Williams’ existence meaning and purpose in the last months of his life. We see how Mr. Williams decided for once not to shove the petition for a new playground in some drawer but pursue it with energy and gusto until the playground had become a reality. In the final scene, a policeman observes Mr. Williams sitting on a swing in the now completed playground, humming a folk song from his childhood , completely happy and fulfilled. “Living’ is a hymn to life, bringing the message how life can be meaningful and precious through the service to others even to the very end. 
In our Gospel today, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin named Nicodemus seeks out Jesus by night for a conversation. By night, because presumably he could not afford to be seen in public with a figure as controversial and divisive as Jesus. By night,  because Nikodemus seems to stand  for the darkness that we find  ourselves in in the human predicament. This story, that John tells falls in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, right after Jesus’ cleansing of the temple.  And in that nighttime conversation, they speak of spiritual rebirth. A rebirth like Abraham had when, at an advanced age, he was called from the land of Ur to seek a new and promised land. A spiritual rebirth like Mr. Williams had when he realized that there is meaning and life in truly serving others.

I don’t think Nicodemus was as naïve as the Gospel of John, the only Gospel incidentally that has this story, makes him out to be. In true rabbinical fashion, Nicodemus seeks to force Jesus to define his terms, until Jesus makes that famous statement that is so core to so many of our Christian brothers and sisters ‘you must be born again.
Or, is that what Jesus actually said? The Greek is really ambivalent here. ‘Born from above’, as our NRSV translation has it, is probably more accurate, or ‘born from God’ . I imagine what Jesus meant was ‘from the top’ in the same way Jack would encourage the choir to start the piece from the beginning. At any rate, is it not interesting that one of the phrases most commonly identified with Christians  ‘born again’ could actually be a mistranslation? 
And from there on, Jesus continues with an even more famous saying. People in sports stadiums hold up signs with the Biblical reference. If you stay in a hotel, the Gideon Bible you will find in the top drawer of your night table will have that verse in some twenty-five languages. ‘For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.’ John 3:16

So pivotal. So vital. So fundamental to so many Christians around this world. 
I have deep admiration for fellow Christians who can point at a year, month, date and time when they had their spiritual rebirth. It’s a powerful witness. 

At last month’s Discernment Conference, which is where seekers who are interested in discerning for either Diaconate or Priesthood in our Diocese, come together on the very first step of their journey, I heard our Diocesan Alan Gates speak powerfully and movingly about the two different paths of discernment, the road to Emmaus and the road to Damascus. On the road to Damascus, discernment for ministry comes suddenly, like a flash of lighting, and leaves one unable to speak or respond, like the experience St. Paul had . The discernment road to Emmaus is a very different one, one characterized as slow and uncertain growth, lots of questions and insecurities and self-doubt, like those expressed by the disciples on the road to Emmaus. 

19th century philosopher Williams James , in his book’ The Varieties of Religious Experience’ has a different take on this.  James speaks of the ‘once-borns’ and the ‘twice’borns’ The ‘once borns’ are quite content with the worldview that their birth has placed them in. The feeling they most often express is contentment and satisfaction. They don’t rock the boat. In our tradition, they would be ‘cradle Episcopalians. The twice-borns are the revolutionary types. Their expressed feeling is discontent. They long and clamor for change, and when the moment of spiritual rebirth comes there is great satisfaction. 

Reflecting on James’ distinction, and that of my Bishop, I think overall I am more of an Emmaus -road kind of guy, but I did have one Damascus experience I’d like to share.

My dream, from Senior Year in High School on, was to become a hospital chaplain , and I pursued a seminary education and an ordeal called Clinical Pastoral Education with that goal in mind. Ordination was the furthest thing from my mind. Because God is good – all the time!!- I was able to happily live the life of a lay hospital chaplain for about ten years. In fact, I enjoyed my non-ordained status b because it enabled me to stay in conversation with those who were disappointed or hurt by the church, especially on the Inpatient Psychiatry Unit that was my favourite place to minister. 
There was one question, however that patients asked that I could never properly answer. They’d say ‘Well, chaplain, thank you for this wonderful visit, thank you for praying with me and reading Scripture with me but, pardon me for asking ‘Who sent you?’.  Who sent me, indeed? Was I there just on my own terms, or did I represent the hospital administration? Who sent me?

At that time, I had a spiritual director has asked me to pray over the words of the ordination service for Deacons in the Prayer Book on page  543 to be exact,  where it says :

‘As a Deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy
Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model
your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his
redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those
among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to
interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the
world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public
worship and in the ministration of God's Word and
Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to
you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are
to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are
serving Christ himself.’

Well, that was my Damascus moment. It struck me like a both of lighting that the answer to the patients’ question ‘Who sent you?’ was ‘God send me. And the rest, as they say, is history. 
And what about you, participants and followers of this  Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, where has your path of conversion and sanctification taken you? Has it been like the flash of lighting St. Paul experienced, or the slow and searching journey of the disciples’ road to Emmaus? 

Taking the pulse of the people of St. John’s I would venture to say that we tend to be more on the side of the ‘once-born’ than the ‘twice’ born. The spirit, after all, blows where it chooses. 
We are free to follow our own path to conversion and sanctification, be that the Emmaus Road or the Damascus road. Today, I give glory to God for giving us that freedom!! Amen!!







Epiphany 5,

Deacon Chris Beukman


Good Morning St. John’s! Welcome, and please be seated!

The year was 1630. The ship Arbella was carrying a number of Puritans across the Atlantic away from England towards to the New World, away from the persecution  of  pro-Catholic King Charles the First.  

During their voyage, their leader, an English lawyer by the name of  John Winthrop gave a speech which has now  become  famous. Politicians such as JFK, Michael Dukakis, Ronald Reagan and even Sarah Palin have referred to these words of John Winthrop. Winthrop’s goal was to point out that life in Massachusetts was going to be qualitatively different from life everywhere else. Winthrop preached:

‘ We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.

The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world’
Those Puritans certainly knew their Scriptures, and  John Winthrop’s  use of  the words of today’s Gospel was  certainly appropriate at the times. The eyes of the world were indeed upon the Puritans and on John Winthrop . 

But what these eyes saw after Winthrop landed in Salem was perhaps less than shiny. These inspiring and glowing words notwithstanding, Winthrop thought nothing of keeping three  indigenous people, a Pequot man and two women, as his personal slaves. It was Winthrop who gave the command to attack the Pequot tribe on Block Island in 1637. Before long, the entire Bay Colony was embarked on a path of genocide against the native peoples, culminating in 1675 in King Philip’s War. Apart from their attitude towards native people, the Puritans were not exactly  shining lights in terms of religious tolerance- those who did not agree with them theologically, for example Anne Hutchinson  were often exiled, or worse, hanged on a large tree on the Common.

In the Gospel today, Jesus asks us who are listening to his Sermon on the Mount to see themselves as a City on a Hill, a light shining bright on a tall stand ,and  as the salt of the earth. In other words, what Jesus asks of us today is very much in line with what Michael preached about last week, the Beatitudes. We are still very much the audience that was quietly listening to Jesus on that hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

So, we as followers of Christ are asked to see ourselves as a bright light on a stand, as a city on a hill. These metaphors speak to us readily, as they did to JFK and Reagan. In the Middle East, all cities were located on hilltops- they were easiest to defend that way. When Lucy and I traveled the West Bank in 2018, it was painful for us to see that almost all the ancient Arab hilltop towns had been  replaced with the bright red roofs of Israeli  settlers.

Italians in the Middle Ages only knew cities high up in the hills with castles for defense, like St. Francis’ hometown of Assisi in Umbria  for instance, as you can clearly see from the wonderful image by Giotto, painted in 1299  by that painter  in his "Life of St. Francis."

City on a Hill. Light on a stand. So far, so good. But what to make of Jesus’ image of the ‘salt of the earth’?  It’s a little bit more ambivalent, especially because in the Middle East, if your enemy wanted to render your land useless for agriculture, he would sprinkle salt all over it. 

Sure enough, when we find people direct and down to earth, we might say that they are ‘the salt of the earth. ‘

So what does it mean if Jesus asks us to see ourselves as the ‘salt of the earth’?. Salt in the Middle East, easily obtainable by evaporation in saltpans on the Mediterranean beaches, was used in five ways in those days:  for flavoring, sacrificing, destroying, preserving and fertilizing.

Apparently, a little salt was a great fertilizer, but too much salt would destroy the crops. As disciples, we are asked  to add flavor to the society we live in- if we assimilate completely, our voices are not heard .As disciples, we are asked to make sacrifices. Moses commanded the children of Israel in Leviticus 2 ‘to offer salt with each sacrifice’ As disciples of Christ, we are ask to act as a preservative  in the world we live in, to keep if from spoiling and corruption.

All right, Jesus, here we are, listening to your words on the lovely hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and you are asking us to radically revise our image of ourselves, seeing ourselves  as the salt of earth, a city on a hill and a light on a bright candlestick. 

But how exactly are we to achieve that, living in the beginning of the 21st century in a very comfortable and prosperous suburb of Boston? Here the prophet Isaiah comes to our aid immediately, and no sooner have we asked the question or the prophet Isaiah hands us the recipe :

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;

And we find, by God’s grace and with Emily’s nonfailing energy and support, we are already doing that. When our young people show up at the Norwood Food Pantry, we are the salt of the earth. When we invite the unhoused of Ecclesia  for an afternoon of  bowling with ice-cream afterwards, we are that light on the candlestick. When we deliver turkeys at the Center for Life in Mattapan for Thanksgiving, we are a city on a hill. When we show up for Oasis, we are the salt of earth. When we prepare meals for children in the kitchen at the Epiphany School in Dorchester, we already are the city on a hill.  Thank God for that!!

In closing, once again a return to history. Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran Bishop who bravely led a small group of Christians known as the  Confessing Church in their opposition again Hitler and National Socialism. Shortly before he himself was arrested, he read to his congregation a list of members of the Church that had been killed or arrested  by the Hitler regime. Niemoller preached :

And the other picture which the Lord Jesus Christ holds up to us: "Ye are the light of the world": we hear these words and are reminded by them that we worry about something that ceases to exist in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. What are we worrying about? When I read out the names of those arrested or killed  a little while ago*, did we not think: "Alas and alack, will this wind, this storm, that is going through the world just now, not blow out the Gospel candle? We must therefore take the message in out of the storm and put it in a safe nook."

It is only during these days that I have realized - that I have understood - what the Lord Jesus Christ means when He says: "Do not take up the bushel! I have not lit the candle for you to put it under the bushel, in order to protect it from the wind. Away with the bushel! The light should be placed upon a candlestick! It is not your business to worry about whether the light is extinguished or not by the draught." We are not to worry whether the light is extinguished or not; that is His concern: we are only to see that the light is not hidden away - hidden away perhaps with a noble intent, so that we may bring it out again in calmer times - no: "Let your light shine before men!"

Let us be the salt of the earth. Let our light shine before people. Let us be like a city upon a hill!



Advent I, Deacon Chris Beukman


Good morning St. John’s!. Happy beginning of Advent, and Happy New Church year! 
Please be seated. 

The lighting of the first Advent candle today marks the beginning of Advent, the four Sundays of preparation and waiting for the Incarnation, and the beginning of a whole new Church year, Year A , where we will be focusing on the Gospel of Matthew. Advent, as you know, means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’ – it’s the four Sundays that we use to prepare for the arrival of the Incarnation.  So Happy New Year, St. John’s !! 
There has been a movement afoot in the Church  to celebrate what is called ‘Long Advent’ which would  celebrate Advent seven Sundays before Christmas, beginning with Michaelmas on November 11. At our cathedral in Boston for instance, this Long Advent is observed. I am not sure about how I feel about ‘Long Advent’ because this long Thanksgiving weekend always feels like such a special time juncture before we fully swing into the holiday season. 
My practice is to observe Advent by listening to the entire Bach Christmas oratorio. I suggest you do the same.  It is a time for me to wallow in the immense beauty of Bach’s music. Away from all the business of Black Friday and Cyber  Monday or what have you.  
Paradoxically, our Lectionary uses the first Sundays of the church year to teach us about the last things, about the end of times, and about the Second Coming of Jesus.  
Our Gospel text today talks about the unexpected Second Coming and our preparation for it. Jesus compares this time with the time of the people of Noah, who unsuspectingly were eating and drinking, marrying and given in marriage, unaware of the flood that was to envelop them soon.  

The Gospel of Matthew is the most Jewish Gospel. It was written for an audience of folk who were Jewish followers of the newborn Jesus Movement who probably lived close to the Holy Land, perhaps even in Jerusalem. Those who first listened to the Gospel of Matthew lived in immediate expectation of the Parousia, of the Second Coming of Christ. These early receivers of the Gospel of Matthew lived as an oppressed minority in a distant corner of the mighty Roman Empire, and the Romans would do everything to remind their subjects of the supremacy of Roman authority in their land. Thus those who first received the Gospel of Matthew lived in joyful expectation that the time in which Roman authority would be replaced by Christ’s authority was close at hand.  
Now I think we have gotten very good at preparation when we know the appointed time.  

We have it down to a science, don’t we? Immediately  after Halloween the shelves are cleared of ghouls and ghosties and replaced with Christmas tinsel (I can’t stand it)!! You can’t watch television anymore without endless treacly Christmas commercials. Then comes Thanksgiving, which thankfully does not have an emphasis on buying and acquiring, then Black Friday and Cyber Monday !!  
After that, the commercials begin to remind us that we have to do our ‘last-minute Christmas shopping’ until all the presents are wrapped on Christmas Eve, put under the tree and we are good to go.  
So much for preparing for an appointed hour. We have gotten good at it.  But how do you prepare for an event that is unannounced, like the Second Coming? 
When I lived in Holland I lived with four friends in a loosely formed Christian commune. We used our fifth bedroom for outreach to homeless youth, often with disastrous results.  And as part of the culture in that time, people would drop by unannounced. Not only did they drop by, they dropped by to see any of the four of us, and if they were not home, that meant you had to entertain them. 

Coming to America, I had to learn that people do not like unannounced visits. Nobody wants to open their doors with their hair messed up, especially if the visitors turn out to be salespeople or religious peddlers. I usually like to respond to the latter that we already have two faiths living in our household, and there is no room for more.  
Christ’s Parousia, which means ‘presence’ in Greek, what we usually call the Second Coming, is as of yet unannounced, and will come unexpectedly. The Rabbis taught that there are three things that come unexpectedly: the discovery of a treasure, a scorpion and the Messiah. What does it mean to prepare for an event that will come unexpectedly?  
What this means for me as a Deacon is that the time to do the difficult work of peace and justice, is not tomorrow, or at the time of a future set appointment, but now.  
The work of repentance and reparation for our past sins of racism and discrimination is now. 
The time to reach out to our indigenous brothers and sisters, in our case the wonderful people of the Tribe of the People of First Light, the Wampanoag, to repent for the genocide of indigenous people in the 19th century is now!! Our indigenous friends teach us to make decisions with the seventh generation of children and grandchildren in mind. But the time for those decisions is now!!  
The work to do our outreach together with our friends from Holy Spirit is now. The time to deliver turkeys to the Life Center in Mattapan is not at some future day, but now.(well, actually, last Tuesday) 
The time as a nation to repent from our addiction to guns and violence, and to once again create safe Walmarts,  schools, churches, synagogues and gay bars where people can gather without fear of being gunned down by semiautomatic weapons is now.  
The time to create a global community where small nations like Ukraine and Taiwan can cease to live in fear of superpowers is not in some future time, but now. 
The time to take care of our beloved planet is not in some future generation when the temperature has risen close to levels where life becomes impossible but it is now!! 
Obviously, I don’t know when the Parousia, the Second coming of Christ will take place. But it does not matter. We have to act like the time is now. 



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