A sermon preached at the Church of the Epiphany, New York City
Third Sunday of Lent
March 19, 2017
John 4:5-42
I am frequently asked what does the Bible really mean to me? My answer is simple: The Bible has shaped my life. I have found and continue to find my story within “The Story.” I think of the Bible as a family photo album for people of faith, with a complete and complicated cast of characters, some whose stories inspire and others that make us cringe, but all of which are instructive. I understand the Bible to be a mirror that helps us to see how God has worked with our ancestors and is working with us today.

I confess there are some bible stories that are particularly moving for me, and this morning’s gospel account of the Woman at the Well is one of them. This story describes a deep yearning and profound thirst to be welcomed, accepted and loved “just as I am” by both God and another person. It is a story about the beginning of relationship, exemplifying those familiar words of St. Paul, “to see in a mirror face to face; to know and to be fully known.” (1 Cor. 13.12) It is also the story of the beginning of evangelism – the invitation to “come and see.”

In John’s Gospel, both a nameless woman and Jesus are confronted and exposed, accepted and affirmed, nourished and quenched, welcomed and received, known and loved. Through our Lord’s brief encounter with an anonymous, lonely woman, God is revealed as an unbounded and indiscriminate lover and seeker of souls.

Imagine the scene. It is noon at a local well. The well is abandoned, because everybody is at home eating their mid-day meal and hiding from the sun. A woman is there alone – no friends, helpers or companions. She is at the well with her buckets in the mid-day heat because she is not welcome in the cool early morning hours when all the other women and children are gathered.

Jesus was also at the well, tired and resting. He asks the woman for water. She looks up from her labor and responds, “Don’t you know better than to be talking to me, a Samaritan woman.” Without hesitation, Jesus replies, “Why not? If only you knew who you was asking.” Initially, not knowing who he is, Jesus sounds a bit like a flirt, a bully, or a big man on campus. “I want to give you something – water that will quench your thirst forever.”

At first, the woman retorts, “So how are you going to give me water? You don’t even have a bucket or a rope.” And then she asks a deeper question: “Where do you get this living water?” Jesus does not really answer her question, but he tells her more about the water. The woman responds in a reasonable manner: “I want what you have to give. Then I wouldn’t have to come back to this lousy well in the hot, noonday sun.”

This woman appears to misunderstand the water that Jesus is speaking of, but she is sincere and down-to-earth in naming her basic wants and needs. Like so many impoverished women around the world, this woman has to daily carry gallons of water from a common tap, well or river back home to feed and wash her family. It is no wonder that the Samaritan woman saw endless, clean, flowing, living water as a real life-giving gift.

Jesus abruptly changes the subject and dismisses the woman with the command, “Go and get your husband.” The woman responds a bit defensively, “I have no husband.” Jesus, acknowledging this fact says, “That’s right; you’ve had five husbands, and you’re not married to the guy with whom you are now living.” Now, she’s been outed (so to speak). “Sir, you must be a prophet.” (Nice diversion tactic, if only it had worked.) They have a brief exchange about religion, and the woman shares her messianic expectation. And then Jesus catches her off-guard: “Lady, I am the one you’ve been waiting for.” The Samaritan woman at the well probably wonders, “Could this man be for real, or is he just coming on to her?”

At that moment, the disciples (another set of characters in the photo album) return from their grocery shopping in town, and they certainly don’t’ understand Jesus’ encounter with this woman. While they don’t say anything, I can only imagine the looks on their faces. The woman departs from the well, leaving behind her bucket, and returns to her village to tell her family, friends and neighbors of the extraordinary man she encountered at the well.

In John’s Gospel, this unnamed, outcast (a woman who had been married five times and was now “living in sin”) became the first person to proclaim the simple evangelical words of invitation – “come and see.” “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

This woman, usually shunned by her neighbors, took the risk and shared with them the gift of her encounter with Jesus. She could have kept her meeting with Jesus to herself, but no – having received divine love incarnate, she was willing to pass it on. In doing so, she became the first witness to testify, the first evangelist to proclaim, the first apostle to share the good news of Jesus Christ in the Fourth Gospel.

The other villagers (both men and women) actually believed because of her testimony, “He told me everything that I have done.” Jesus penetrated one woman’s soul with words of truth spoken in love, and when she shared her experience with the invitation, “Come and see,” her community followed. They went out to the well and met Jesus. They offered him hospitality; he taught; they followed; and the gospel (good news) spread.

This is a remarkable story about being seen, given what you really need, accepted “just as I am,” coming to see with eyes of faith, and then inviting others to do the same. The 19th century Swiss theologian Alexandre Vinet once said, “Faith doesn’t consist in the belief that we are saved; it consists in the belief that we are loved.” Jesus offered the gift of unconditional love and acceptance, and the Samaritan woman reluctantly but gratefully received it.

My theology professor Dorothee Soelle taught that faith is a two-way street we call grace: a gift freely given and the decision to accept the gift. Jesus spoke truth in love to the Samaritan woman, accepted her life with all its hope, promise and brokenness, and she received this gift of grace. And then she, the outcast, the woman who had been married five times and was presently “living in sin”, became a living sacrament – an outward and visible sign of this inward and invisible grace. Through her simple but direct words, “come and see,” this once-rejected but now-affirmed woman led others to faith. That’s what evangelism is all about – sharing your story about God with friend and neighbor.

At a conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes a number of years ago, former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori shared a story about modern-day evangelism at the well. She told us about a priest who went Starbucks regularly, bought a cup of coffee, and put a tent sign on a table saying: “Tell me your story about God. He then waited for people to sit down with him and talk. If after talking with them, he sensed they might be searching for a spiritual home, he invited them to “come and see” the Episcopal Church. As a newly retired priest, I’ve been thinking about do the same. Can you imagine what might happen if we all spent more time talking about God in coffee shops and restaurants, and on golf carts and park benches?

God’s love made known to us in Jesus is a radical, all–inclusive gift of abundance. It is water that will always quench our thirst and food that will always satisfy us. It is a gift that genuinely keeps on giving to all who are willing to receive it. People are hungry and thirsty for God in their lives, and we need to open the pantry door and turn on the tap.

I received a gift like the account we heard this morning at a McDonald’s on 42nd Street one cold January afternoon. Jesus met me as he did the Samaritan woman, a young woman feeling unworthy and thirsty. I had a similar conversation. He told me all that I had ever done, naming those innermost wounds. He told me who he was, and he instructed me to tell my brothers and sisters, that God is there for each and every one of us. God loves all of us – no strings attached.

That conversation changed my life once and forever. And like the Samaritan woman, I was a new woman eager to return to my community and say to all who would listen, “Come and see whom I’ve met.”

If you’re feeling unloved, why don’t you try meeting Jesus, if not for the first time, then as Marcus Borg used to say, “again for the first time.” If you’re feeling lonely and misunderstood, why don’t you try reaching out to Jesus and asking for some conversation and companionship. And if you’ve met Jesus, maybe you could share that story with others, perhaps over a cup of coffee. If nothing else, invite your friends and neighbors to “come and see.” What do you have to lose? What do they have to gain?

A Sermon preach on the First Sunday of Lent
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Paterson, New Jersey
March 5, 2017

It’s been 17 years since I preached from this pulpit. It was the Last Sunday in Epiphany in the year 2000. We stood on a mountain top and recalled our time together. It wasn’t always easy.  Building our congregation was like climbing Mt. Everest; with all of our diversity and energy, sometimes there was not enough oxygen for everyone to breathe. Building St. Paul’s CDC was like climbing a mountain range; every time we thought we had reached the peak, we realized it was just a plateau.

However, with God’s encouragement, we were determined. Together, we built one of the most diverse congregations in the Episcopal Church – Black, White, Hispanic and Asian; native-born and newcomers from many lands; young, old and in-between; urban and suburban; lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual and transgendered; married and single; rich, poor and middle class; seeker, sojourner, and cradle Episcopalians.

Over the course of our time together, we had some extraordinary mountain top experiences like:

  • Opening the doors between our men’s parish hall shelter and the church
  • Inviting our shelter guests to worship with the congregation
  • Constructing a permanent shelter facility in our undercroft
  • Walking the stations of the cross from the perspective of new immigrants in our community.
  • Making a public witness during the Heresy Trial over gay ordination
    Dedicating 180 Carroll Street, the first of our affordable housing efforts
  • The CityServe Ensemble performances of song and dance
    The Night the Bell fell through the baptistry
    The World AIDS Day Vigil led by our Sisters on the Streets
  • Gathering on the Ash Wednesday after Lawrence Meyers was killed
    Watching the Hale-Bopp Comet pass over our parking lot on Maundy Thursday
  • The Easter morning visit by Bacardi and the Good Friday interruption by Yvonne after her shoes were stolen while she was sleeping
  • The Pentecost Service when we baptized 12 babies and welcomed 30 newcomers with a Dixieland jazz band and the gospel proclaimed in 15 languages
  • The Epiphany pageants and Youth Sundays
    The fiestas, dinner dances, Mardi Gras, Holiday Express Christmas parties, and Super Saturdays
  • The Martin Luther King Day Celebrations
    The 175th Anniversary
    And the list could go on and on…
  • On those mountain tops, we saw the glory of God. But like the Bible tells us, you can’t stay on the mountain forever. Seventeen years ago today, we came down from the mountain together and went our separate ways.

Over the past nearly two decades, a lot has transpired in my life, your lives, and the life of this city and this 200-year old parish. There have been many changes in the Episcopal Church, our nation, and our world. As much as we enjoy the golden age of memory, we can’t live in the past, recalling what we thought were better days. Nor can we live in the future – simply hoping and dreaming for a better tomorrow. We have to live in the wilderness of the present with all of its opportunity, challenge and temptation.

Wilderness and temptation are realities of human existence. Thus, the wilderness-temptation story always stands as a toll booth on our Lenten highway to Easter. Each year, we have to stop and pay homage to it so that this parable about the way of the world vs. the way of God can shed light and truth for our journey.

The first temptation – turning stone into bread – is about fast food, the temptation of convenience. Provide a hungry world with a full dinner pail and the masses will follow you anywhere. Jesus rejected it. He believed that our needs (both physical and spiritual) must be met by God’s way, not our own cheap, selfish and often-unethical ways.

Our Lord also realized that he was called to fill a hunger for justice and human dignity. You know as well I do that it’s easier to hand out loaves of bread, bags of groceries, warm meals, and shallow promises than to actually address the systemic issues of hunger, nutrition and poverty.

Jesus teaches us that there simply are no meaningful shortcuts to substantive change. As President Trump admitted in this past week’s address to Congress, health care reform is far more complicated than he had realized. I pray that he and his advisors will quickly realize this to be true about most public policy, including immigration reform.

The second temptation – worshipping Satan in exchange for rule over all the kingdoms of the world – is about unrestrained power and tremendous wealth that has a tendency to corrupt. Jesus knew that he could not win over the world for God through absolute control.

At first glance, we say, “Of course, Jesus rejected this offer to make a pact with the devil.” However, if we consider the deals we’ve cut for influence or money, the trade-offs we’ve made for advancement, the compromises we’ve agreed upon for the sake of keeping the peace – then it’s not so simple.

But Jesus insists there is another way. It is not by serving two masters – God and Caesar; it is by trusting God and loving God’s creation with integrity and compassion in both good and times. This third way relies on God to promote us and make our boundaries broad and wide.

The temptation of power and wealth is at the heart of American politics today, and we who follow Christ need to get clear and determined about walking Jesus’s third way. We can’t hide from the harsh reality that is facing us; rather, we have to engage the powers and principalities that are conspiring to dismantle American democracy.. That is the task before us, and we must overcome the temptation to run away from it.

The third temptation – jumping off the highest pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and be saved – is about magic and instant acclaim – coercion, conversion and fame through pyrotechnics. It’s the gimmicks, entertainment, and promised miracles of some politics, religion and advertising. It’s the essence of reality television. One minute you’re nobody, and the next minute (or at the end of a season), you have instant fame. While reality t.v. is fairly harmless, the temptation for instant fame, popularity and power, also has reared its ugly head in the public square, as politicians and pundits use fear to win voter confidence while keeping people in their place. Fear mongering encourages us to distrust strangers, scapegoat neighbors, and even act against our own best interest.

Many (if not most of all of us) fall prey to this temptation in our daily lives. If we can’t get our way, we force the situation with an action that gives the other no choice. We demean ourselves to get someone else to say something nice about us and build up our weak egos. We play to the fear and insecurity of the other. We threaten to walk away in order to get others to call us back.

Jesus said no to all of that silliness. He insisted that we should not force the hand of God by putting the Holy One to the test. And if we say we see the face of God in our neighbors, then it follows that we should not force the hand of our neighbor by putting him or her to the test. Rather, Jesus calls us to love our neighbors (nearby and far away), which means standing with them and standing for them when they are facing discrimination, scapegoating and oppression.

In the end, all of the temptations Jesus faced and we face involve taking the easy way out, a form of spiritual laziness and political complicity. Jesus didn’t resist temptation by just saying “no.” Jesus resisted the temptations of convenience, absolute power, and manipulation by digging deep into the roots of his faith, his spiritual ancestors, and his sacred story.

The fact that Jesus was baptized and immediately found himself tempted by the devil is an ever-present reminder that following Jesus is not easy work. It’s hard to be faithful. It’s hard to be a part of the “Jesus Movement.” But, as this text reminds us every year, we are called resist the temptation to look for simple solutions to complex problems, to seek easy answers to complicated questions, or to get our way through fear, shame and manipulation. Rather, we – you and I, each and every one of us, individually and collectively – are called, commissioned and empowered to do the hard work of justice and mercy that will guide us through the wilderness of our time.

Shortly after the presidential election, my former church, Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, hosted an interfaith clergy gathering to talk about the role of the faith community and faith leaders in this new political climate. The guest speaker, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, suggested that we might have to become prophetic like Nathan was to King David, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to Hitler and the Third Reich, Martin Luther King was to President Lyndon Johnson, or Desmond Tutu was to the Apartheid government of South Africa. Someone asked what that might look like. Rabbi Rudin responded that it might mean taking courageous action if the line is crossed. One person at the table asked what is the line that can’t be crossed. Rabbi Rudin responded that each of us will have to discern for ourselves what lines that can’t be crossed and what action must be taken. That’s what it means to follow Jesus’ third way.

Friends, I know that this church has experienced some tough time and difficult challenges in recent years. But your mission to proclaim God’s justice, love and mercy for all creation; to live out the good news of God’s kingdom for all people, and to be a healing sign that the things which divide us from each other may be overcome in the oneness of God, is needed now more than ever before.

I’m here today to remind you of your high calling and to encourage you to come together in the name of Christ and begin your third century with renewed dedication and determination to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. May this be your Lenten task.

Hanging out with Martha and Mary on the Eve of the Republican Convention
The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland
Proper 11C: Genesis 18.1-10a; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42

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Welcome one and all to Trinity Cathedral on this fine summer morning!

How appropriate that we hear this morning the story of Martha and Mary.  For the past several months, weeks and days, we’ve have had front row seats to the Martha show, broadcast live from downtown Cleveland.   I’m not talking about Martha Stewart, but rather, her namesake Martha of Bethany. Read the rest of this entry »


Coming Through the Door – Christmas 2015
The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland

Once again I had to go looking for my Christmas sermon. It wasn’t lost, and I hadn’t misplaced it; I just didn’t know where to find it. For nearly thirty years my sermon search has become part of my holiday tradition. In Christmases past, I’ve found it in a men’s shelter, at a Macy’s Department Store, on a street corner, and in a favorite book of poetry. This year my search was made even more complicated because my shelves of Christmas sermon inspiration are in cartons piled deep in a storage facility along with all the rest of our belongings as we await our new home to be finished. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Sermon Preached on National Gun Violence Sabbath
The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, Trinity Cathedral
Sunday, December 13, 2015
Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

What shall we do? That’s the question raised by those whom John the Baptist called a “brood of vipers.” They were ordinary folk – like you and me – seeking God in the wilderness.

What shall we do? It’s a question we ask many times a day. What shall I wear? What shall I eat? What shall I watch, see, touch, or feel? Read the rest of this entry »

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Over 2500 years ago, sitting by a river, looking at the despair of his community, God asked the prophet Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” And the prophet responded: “O Lord God, you know.” Then God said to Ezekiel: “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live…I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.”

Right now, sitting by another river in Cleveland, Ohio, lots of us are asking the same question: “Can these bones live?” The bones of Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice are dead. So many innocent men, women and children are killed everyday by violence and despair. Read the rest of this entry »


Every year, congregations in The Episcopal Church prepare parochial reports, which are then compiled by dioceses and submitted to the national headquarters in New York City.  And sometime later in the year, the church issues its membership statistics.  Like many of my clergy colleagues, I’m concerned that our parochial reporting is not an accurate reflection of growth and vitality in today’s church.  Yes, across the nation, weekly Sunday worship attendance has decreased, but that doesn’t mean that The Episcopal Church is in decline.

Like many other aspects of American life, patterns of worship are shifting.  In a cathedral with vibrant weekday worship, education and programming, as well as weekly podcasting of sermons, choral evensong and The Dean’s Forum, does average Sunday attendance accurately measure our life?  When we look at indicators that are out-dated and incomplete, and we feel bad about ourselves.  Accountability and evaluation are really important tools in organizational growth and vitality, but it’s time for a new dashboard.  My friend and colleague Sam Candler, Dean of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta, once suggested that we should measure “average weekly touch.”

Let’s consider the following:

  • Average weekly worship attendance (let’s count all of our worship services during the week and not just Sundays because lots of people don’t get to church on Sundays but they do show up at other times during the week);
  • Podcast audience and website visitors;
  • Attendance at weekday concerts, lectures, classes, labyrinth walks, prayer meetings, support groups, bible studies, workshops and retreats;
  • People served in our hunger and homeless programs, volunteer hours spent in our community gardens and neighborhood schools, and parishioners who show up for community organizing meetings; and
  • Pastoral connections such as, hospital and nursing home visits, pastoral counseling sessions, newcomer conversations.

I’ll bet we’ll see more vibrancy and growth than we realize.  We talk about shifting paradigms in organized religion.  It’s time that our evaluation tools and measurement indicators catch up.

However, I’m pleased to report that in 2013, Trinity Cathedral had an average Sunday attendance of 376 (average weekly attendance was closer to 450) and nearly 300 pledging households.  And, this coming Sunday, we will present 20 individuals for confirmation and reception in the Episcopal Church.  It feels vibrant to me!



Living Waters on The Way, Tracey Lind, Camino de Santiago, 2009

A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Lent – John 4:5-42

I confess there are some bible stories that are particularly moving for me, and this morning’s gospel account is one of them.   The story describes a deep yearning and profound thirst to be welcomed, accepted and loved.  It is a story about the beginning of a love affair, a relationship that exemplifies St. Paul’s familiar words, “To see in a mirror face to face; to know and to be fully known.” (1 Cor. 13.12)  

In John’s Gospel, both a nameless Samaritan woman and Jesus are confronted and exposed, accepted and affirmed, nourished and quenched, welcomed and received, known and loved.  Through our Lord’s brief encounter with an anonymous, lonely woman, God is revealed as an unbounded and indiscriminate lover and seeker of souls.  Read the rest of this entry »


In a recent sermon, Sam Candler of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta spoke of his desire to rescue and salvage Christian vocabulary.  Sam is not alone in that pursuit.  The language of Christianity is in such a state of crisis, says Marcus Borg, that “it has become a stumbling block in our time.”[i]

From my own pastoral experience, I know this to be true.  So often, people tell me that they simply cannot believe all those things that Christian doctrine teaches.  They don’t believe in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, much less the ascension.  They don’t understand words like atonement, justification, salvation, or even grace.  They’re not convinced that there is a heaven or a hell, and the idea that Jesus died for our sins is a huge obstacle for many seekers and believers.

This past week, a friend called.  She asked me what I was doing?  When I told her that I was writing a sermon about sin, she responded, “I don’t believe in sin.”

I think that “sin,” a familiar and widely used religious word, is one that could benefit from some rescue and salvation. We say that it’s a sin to steal, murder, tell a lie, dishonor one’s parents, or cheat on one’s spouse.  We also say that it’s a sin to let the last piece of apple pie go uneaten, and when something tastes or feels really good, we exclaim that it must be sinful.  The dictionary defines sin as: “An offense against a religious or moral law.”  The Book of Common Prayer defines sin, as “The seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” (p. 848)

St. Augustine said, “Sin is energy in the wrong channel.” In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul asserted that sin was missing the mark or “falling short of the glory of God.” (3.23)  I think Paul Tillich said it best: sin is “the personal act of turning away from that to which one belongs.”[ii]

I’ve always understood sin as a state of estrangement that separates one from God, other people, the rest of creation, and one’s own self.  Perhaps that’s why Leonard Cohen once sang, “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.”[iii]  Estrangement can be a lonely place.

Since the earliest of times, human beings have been fascinated and intrigued with the origin of sin.  Some believe that we are born in a state of original sin, that it’s part of our human DNA.  Others argue that we choose to be sinful.  The truth is that we are not really sure from whence our sinful state originates.  But, there comes a time in the course of life when we ask St. Paul’s probing and perplexing question: Why do I do that which I ought not to do, and why don’t I do that which I know I should do? (Romans 7:19)

My short answer to that question is that we – individuals, institutions, communities, and nations – fall out of step, out of balance, out of sync, out of harmony with God, the world around us, and ourselves.  We are not mindful or attentive to the presence or intentions of God and so we turn away from what Tillich called “the ground of being,” and we become estranged or separated from that to which we belong.

Think about a time during this past week when you said or did something that you regretted, or when you didn’t say or do something that you should have, when in the words of the prayer book, you might “have sinned in thought, word or deed by things done or left undone?” What was going on in your life?  What were you thinking or feeling?  How were your home life, work life, and prayer life?  Had you been eaten well; were you getting enough exercise or sleep?  My hunch is that you were not being mindful or attentive to your relationship with that to which you belong: God, the people around you, and perhaps yourself.  If you had been, you probably would have behaved differently.

As I said on Ash Wednesday, I start off each morning intending to be mindful throughout the day, but by midday, I’ve mis-stepped, mis-spoken, mis-acted, or mis-thought at least once.  The truth is that we all fall into sin because staying mindful; keeping in right relationship is hard work.  That’s why the baptismal covenant doesn’t say, “If you fall into sin…” It says, “Whenever you fall into sin, will you repent and return to the Lord?”  God assumes that because we are not perfect, we will fall out of mindfulness and right relationship and into sinfulness and estrangement; so when it happens, we are encouraged to not deny it, or beat ourselves up for it; but rather, we are invited to acknowledge our human imperfection and loneliness, turn around and once again get mindful, grounded, attentive and intentional about our relationship with God, neighbor and self.

This morning’s lectionary readings explore the relationship of mindfulness and sin.  The book of Genesis tells us Adam and Eve fell into sin by not being mindful of their right relationship with God.  When they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, they forgot what God expected of them, and were expelled by God from the garden.  Some call this punishment for the sin of disobedience.  Others say it was an essential part of God’s plan of creation, insisting that Adam and Eve needed to leave the garden in order to become fully human, like birds being pushed out of the nest by their mothers in order to learn how to fly, or children leaving their parents’ home in order to become adults.  The Hebrew Scriptures are full of human beings growing up, leaving home, and returning – all the while falling in and out of right relationship with God, neighbor and self.

Enter Jesus.  According to the apostle Paul, Jesus is the second Adam who overcame the human temptation to sin.  He gave his unblemished, perfectly mindful life as a ransom for all the rest of us sinners, and thus redeemed and saved humanity from our fallen state of depravity and estrangement.

Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury wrote an 11th century treatise that canonized this doctrine of Jesus’ life and death.  Because Adam and Eve sinned, humanity was eternally condemned.  God, the divine judge, wanted to redeem a fallen and sinful humanity, and therefore, sent Jesus, his perfect and blameless son, to make restitution, accepting punishment on our behalf by dying for our sins. Thus, God could forgive and restore us without diminishing the Divine honor.  Anselm’s theory of substitution atonement, which asserted that God actually sent Jesus into this world to die for our sins, depended on the belief that God’s honor, perfection and integrity would be compromised if divine forgiveness was offered without restitution.

Not all Christians understand the human condition or Jesus’ mission on earth this way.  Certainly, Anselm’s contemporary, the French theologian, Peter Abelard didn’t agree with him.  Abelard rejected the notion of original sin.  He thought sin was created by human choice and could not be inherited.  He argued that each of us have to bear responsibility for our own sins.  Abelard saw Jesus as a victim of human sin and yet understood his willingness to die as the ultimate act of God’s unconditional love.  For Abelard, restitution was not required for forgiveness; remorse was sufficient.

In the end, Anselm won the debate and Abelard was declared a heretic.  And, while Paul’s Letter to the Romans still holds a central place in the Christian canon, the debate about sin continues.

This morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew speaks of Jesus’ time in the wilderness as he wrestled with Satan, the great tempter, about how he would carry out his ministry without falling prey not to Sin (with a capital S), but to the temptations of ministry: convenience, manipulation, magic, and abusive control.

I often try to imagine Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  In fact, I can still recall sitting on a rock in the Judean desert, looking out over that forlorn landscape, visualizing in my mind’s eye what it must have been like to sit there not just for an hour, but for forty days and forty nights.

To sit for more than a month alone, in the wilds, exposed to the elements with only your thoughts, dreams, visions, and nightmares – that’s a lot of time to spend with one’s self, one’s own demons and temptations, and the ground of one’s being.  I bet that Jesus spent a lot of that time in prayer: talking, arguing, pleading, probing and listening to God.   When his vision quest was over, Jesus emerged, weakened by hunger but strengthened by both divine grace and his own mindfulness, able to resist the tests of the Tempter and prepared to demonstrate the unconditional love of God in a world filled with pain, disease, poverty and oppression.  To stay grounded and mindful, throughout his ministry, Jesus returned to the wilderness to spend time alone in prayer with God.

So back to the dilemma of human sin: if sin is a lack of mindfulness, a separation or estrangement from God and the world, then grace is the getting it together again.  The challenge is how to stay mindful in all the complicated moments and messes of our lives.  Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to stay mindful all of the time, but I do think we can work at mindfulness through the practice of prayer.

Recently, a member of this congregation too me that it would be helpful I would share about my daily prayer practice.  It’s really fairly simple.  When I have my morning coffee, I imagine that Jesus is sitting across the table from me.  And then I begin a conversation with him as if I’m talking with a friend.  I tell him what’s on my mind; I remember those who have asked for my prayers; I share with him my plans for the day; I ask for his help in staying mindful, engaged and connected to the source of my being and to those around me; and I finish with the Lord’s Prayer.   As I go though the day, I invite Jesus to accompany me into my meetings, conversations, emails, and visits.  And then, if I don’t fall asleep too quickly, I try to review the day with Jesus, recalling both my grace-filled and less-than-gracious interactions, giving thanks, seeking forgiveness, asking for blessing, and closing with the prayer our Lord taught.  When I do this, life is pretty good…no matter what happens.  When I don’t, life gets out-of-sorts.  I guess you could call it falling into sin.

So friends, there you have it – a little salvaging of the short but very big religious word “sin.”  We can discuss and debate it origins and nature for days on end without coming to absolute conclusions.  In the end, I think Tillich was right: sin is essentially estrangement from “the ground of being.” So, as we begin this season of Lent, this time of renewal, I want to suggest that you be intentional, attentive and disciplined about your daily prayer practice.  For prayer keeps us mindful and connected to “the ground of being,” and that is both preventive medicine and a remedy to sin.

[i] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, p.1

[ii] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Part III, Chapter 1, p. 46

[iii] Leonard Cohen, The Sisters of Mercy


Happy New Year!  That’s right.  I’ll say it again.  Happy New Year!  I’ve finally concluded that Ash Wednesday is my New Year’s Day.

The essence of Ash Wednesday lies in the collect of the day:  “You hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.”  The rest is commentary.

God hates nothing in all of creation.  God loves it all – even those creatures that we don’t like.  However, God doesn’t always like the way we humans behave in and towards the creation.  In fact, God wants us to mend our ways.  The worship of Ash Wednesday, the readings, prayers, and the ashes help us understand what this amendment of life is all about.

The prophet Isaiah said it very directly:  The people cry: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  God responds: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?  Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?’

The fast that God wants and expects is not a shallow apology, insincere remorse or pompous piety.   The fast that God wants and expects is a mending of the tear in our individual lives and in the very tapestry of creation.  That’s what God wants!

God doesn’t really care if we give up sugar for Lent.  God wants those who cut sugar cane and labor in sugar factories to get a living wage and be treated fairly by their employers, even if it means that the price of sugar goes up for the rest of us.

God doesn’t really care if we give up alcohol for Lent.  God wants to us to take care of our bodies, our brains, and our souls; and I don’t think that God wants us driving around drunk and putting the lives of others in jeopardy, or being abusive to those around us because we abuse alcohol. So if we’re drinking too much, then God wants us to deal with that, and maybe Lent is good time to begin with Ash Wednesday marking “the first day of the rest of our lives.”

God doesn’t really care if we give up Facebook or Twitter for Lent.  God wants us to stay connected with one another, but would really appreciate it if we made sure to stay connected with God.  And perhaps, God wants us to have more face-to-face conversations with each other.

God doesn’t really care if our names are displayed on donor plaques, but God wants and needs us to give generously of our time, talent and treasure to God’s work in the world.

God doesn’t really care if we if walk around with ashes on our foreheads, but God does want us to remember our connection with creation: that we are part of the humus, the good earth, the dust of creation.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”  If having a smudge of ashes placed upon our foreheads helps us make this connection, then this act of contrition is pleasing in God’s sight.

What does God expect of us?  Simply put, God wants us to make ourselves available to be reconciled in Christ: to be made whole and put back together.  God wants us to be righteous – that is, in right relationship with God, our neighbors, and ourselves. 

What does God require of us?  God wants us to turn around in order face God anew and remember our rightful vocation as stewards and caregivers of God’s precious creation. We have the awesome responsibility for serving God by caring for God’s earth.  This is our particular calling as human beings.  It is a sacred vocation, and we need to remember it.

Ashes mark our frail humanity, our connection to this planet, and our relationship to Adam and Eve who were symbolically formed out of the dust of the earth, molded out of the clay by God’s hands.  Ashes are mentioned throughout the Bible.  In Genesis, we hear our forefather Abraham say, “I who am but dust and ashes.”  Tamar, after she was raped, put on ashes in mourning.  Job, as his life fell apart, put on the ashes of grief.  Almost all of the prophets speak of ashes and dust.  It is right and good that we mark our foreheads with ashes to remind ourselves that our God is here – ready, willing and able to receive our repentance, our anger, and our grief – and to offer in return divine forgiveness, comfort and love.   

As a people, we need to return to God.   We need to remember and be mindful of the pain and brokenness in our own lives, and that of our families, friends and communities.  We also need to remember and be mindful of the pain and turmoil of our nation, our world, and the rest of God’s creation.

Ash Wednesday is about remembering or being mindful: remembering and being mindful of God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  Ash Wednesday is a reminder that everything we do and say has an impact on somebody else. 

The prophets writing thousands of years ago said it well.   God calls us to a fast – a fast of making justice, loving-kindness and walking humbly with God.  And if we take these steps,  “we shall be like a watered garden, our ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, we shall raise up the foundations of many generations, and we shall be called “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets” (Isaiah 58:12).  If we live the fast of God, then we shall feast. 

On Ash Wednesday, we pray a litany of penitence.  Like on Yom Kippur in Judaism, each petition acknowledges an element of our broken and wounded soul.  In praying this litany, we confess that we have not loved God, our neighbors and ourselves with our whole heart, mind and spirit.  We acknowledge that we have sometimes not heard the call to serve.  We admit that we have been unfaithful, prideful, hypocritical, and impatient.  We disclose that we have been self-indulgent and exploitative.  We declare that we have been angry, envious and dishonest.   And guess what – it’s true.  The truth is that, like the collect for Ash Wednesday, sometime during the past year, we have been sinful and wretched, and that we need to be forgiven and made whole.  In short, on Ash Wednesday, we will plead that God “create and make in us new and contrite hearts.[i]

I for one am grateful for Ash Wednesday – the opportunity to get down on my knees and say, God, please let me start over.  Please give me a second chance.  And once again, mark my forehead with the seal of your cross so that I may remember from whence I came and where I am going.

[i] “Collect for Ash Wednesday,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 264