Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Miracle This Time: a sermon for Year A, Proper 14

Preached on Sunday, August 13, 2017 at All Saints' Episcopal Church, Glen Rock, NJ. The scripture readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here.

Jealousy, envy and the resentment they engender rear their ugly heads in our Old Testament reading today. Jacob (also known as Israel) has a youngest son Joseph. It seems as if Joseph is quite a bit younger than his brothers, he is the child of his father’s old age, Genesis tells us. And as such, he’s his father’s favorite, and maybe a bit spoiled. 

And his brothers are jealous of him, jealous of the favor his father shows him.
But we might well ask why? What is it that Joseph has that his brothers do not? A fancy coat, but they have coats too, no doubt. Each of them in their turn would have been the youngest at one point or the other, and would have been the favorite for a time. 

Their responsibilities might entail a bit more than Joseph’s, I guess. But in time, Joseph will have to quit helping around the house, and take up his duties with the flocks, venturing far from home, sleeping in the open air, accountable for droves of smelly sheep. 

There doesn’t appear to be any serious degree of inequity between Joseph and his brothers, but still they hate him. They long for the time when it was just they who receive their father’s approval and attention. It’s not that they don’t have what they need, what is their due as dutiful sons of their father. They do. 

They just don’t like it that Joseph has some of those things too. 

So, they band together to plot against their brother. They’re going to kill him at first, and then they settle upon selling him into slavery in Egypt. 
Jealousy, envy, resentment.

We saw similar motivations at work in Charlottesville, Virginia over the last few days. 

As you know by now, a rally called ‘Unite The Right’ took place in Charlottesville this weekend. White supremacists marched on Friday night, seemingly unmolested and unrestricted by police, across the grounds of a public university, the University of Virginia. The next day, the same crowd was joined by more white supremacists and American Nazis at a protest in one of Charlottesville’s parks.



These crowds chanted slogans like, “You won’t replace us” which some amended to “Jew won’t replace us”. They chanted “blood and soil,” a favorite march chant of the Nazis in Europe in the last century. Their were taunts that people like me have heard often enough in our lives that employed two words beginning with the letter F, the latter one a slur against gay men. And chillingly, Nazi symbols and salutes and shouts of ‘Sieg Heil’ and ‘Heil Trump’ were seen and heard from the protesters.


We might well ask the same question that we just asked about Joseph’s brothers’ resentments. Why? What has been taken from these people? What is it that others have that these people do not? What are they angry about? In what ways have they been oppressed?

There aren’t attempts to take marriage rights away from whites as there are now in Texas against LGBT people.

Nobody is saying that these people should pay higher insurance premiums to cover the cost of white healthcare, like some have said women should do to pay for the costs of women’s healthcare.

These people haven’t been wrongly accused of voter fraud, with a federal government probe launched to investigate them. No one’s trying to take away their vote.

The laws of the United States never allowed their great-grandparents to be enslaved as African-Americans once were. The laws of the United States never sanctioned the theft of their ancestral lands as Native Americans have experienced. The laws of the United States never allowed them to be detained in concentration camps as Japanese-Americans were.

Junk science has never tried to prove that whites were intellectually inferior to blacks. They aren’t banned from traveling because of their religion as some Muslims are.
  
Their churches were never burned, nor have their prayer groups been assassinated. Their lawns have never been decorated with burning crosses. Their ancestors were not lynched. Their mothers aren't being torn away from them by ICE agents and deported. The president has not set up a hotline to report crime committed at their hands, as he did for undocumented immigrants.

The problem is not what they’ve lost. Like Joseph’s brothers -- the problem is that someone else is beginning to enjoy some of the same rights and privileges as they do. 

There are other voices in the public square that are being heard now, not just white voices. We don’t just say Merry Christmas anymore; we also say Happy Hannukah and Kwanza and Diwali, and we wish our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters a peaceful fast at Yom Kippur and Ramadan; and they’re angry that it’s not just Merry Christmas, only Merry Christmas that’s heard in our land. 

American Nazis, White Supremacists and White Nationalists are angry and resentful not because of what they’ve lost; they’re angry and resentful about what others have gained.

++++++++++++++++++

The story of Joseph has a wonderful and heart-warming end, as you probably know. He becomes the right-hand man of the pharaoh in Egypt, and is able to save his family from certain death during a famine. Then he is restored to his family and he and his brothers, and his father, and the child of his old age, are reconciled.

The story unfolding in our country doesn’t seem headed for any reconciliation, not anytime soon, at least.

So, how am I going to end this sermon? I usually try to end the sermon with some glimmer of hope, at least, if not a promise of God’s mercy and salvation. Every time I come before you, I try to proclaim to you the Good News in some form. 

But today, I don’t have any Good News for you. 

If that leaves us feeling downcast, hopeless, cut off from salvation; if it feels as if we’ve been left on the cross to hang there all Good Friday afternoon, then so be it. There are many people in this country who feel like it’s Good Friday every day. 

They worry every hour about the harassment their loved ones might be experiencing at the hands of newly emboldened white nationalists. They fret over whether their parents or grandparents will be deported. They’re watching their livelihoods diminish because the workers they used to rely on to staff the counter and pick the crops haven’t been allowed into the country this summer. They wring their hands and they whisper to their black sons, “Remember what I told you to do if you’re stopped by a policeman. Don’t forget!”

This is life for many of the people we share this great country with, every day. Maybe it’s not too much for us to do to spend a Sunday afternoon thinking about that hopelessness and oppression. Knowing how blessed we are; and resolving to do what we can to extend the blessing when next we are given the chance.

I don’t know what form that will take. And I know as you do, that ridding this country of racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, and resentment is going to take nothing short of a miracle. 

You might as well try to walk on water as try to reverse the ugly direction we seemed to be headed. 

But the time may come when you’re asked to do just that. And when that time comes, when the opportunity next comes your way to do something, to strike a blow for righteousness, or to extend the blessing to more and more of God’s children, I charge you to take that chance. 

Step out of the boat, in faith, and do not falter. Because we need a miracle, and the miracle we need this time is going to have to be one of our own making. 

+Amen.

© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Speech to the Vigil for Peace and Unity, Glen Rock, NJ

The events of recent days* that have compelled us to gather together here tonight are deplorable. They are a betrayal of the values that we hold as Americans. They are a betrayal of the values that we hold as New Jerseyans, proud residents of one of the most diverse states in the United States of America. And they are a betrayal of the values that we uphold here in our borough of Glen Rock, in the town of Ridgewood, and throughout Bergen County.
The Religious Communities of Glen Rock is an association of all the worshipping communities that call Glen Rock home. And part of why we join together as people of different faiths is to work to prevent the kind of racist violence and religious intolerance we have recently seen.
These acts are a betrayal of our civic values, of course; but they are a betrayal of our religious values as well. We people of faith seek God and seek after those things that we hold to be sacred in many ways. But for all our differences, there is one thing we share in common, and that is a mutual respect for our diverse traditions. So, while we may not share a common faith, our respect for those of other faiths and traditions is something we do share in common.
Therefore, we must condemn racist violence and religious intolerance. And we condemn those who would incite such acts. But our strongest condemnation is reserved for those who would incite or carry out these acts in the name of God. These acts are not of any God that we recognize.
But the work we are called to do, as people of faith, is not merely to condemn the guilty; it is to protect the innocent. If you or someone you know is threatened or afraid, know that you can call on any one of the members of our communities, and we will help you. You can seek shelter in any one of our gathering places and we will protect you.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a person of our faith, or of any faith. Our beliefs compel us to help you, our faiths require that we protect you.  So, we come here tonight as people of faith not just to condemn the evil we see in the world; we come to help cure it as well. Thank you.


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*On February 22, near Kansas City, Kansas, two men of Indian descent were targeted in a racist attack. Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed; and his fellow engineer Alok Madasani was wounded along with Ian Grillot, a bystander who intervened. The shooter thought the men were Middle Eastern and he shouted racial epithets, telling them to get out of ‘his’ country before he started shooting. Recently, Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia were desecrated. And more than 100 threats against Jewish community centers and synagogues have been received in the few months of this year alone. In response, members of the Religious Communities of Glen Rock, the Indian community and others organized a Vigil for Peace and Unity that took place on Saturday, March 4th, drawing more than 300 people to Glen Rock Borough Hall. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Glory of God: a sermon for Year A, the Last Sunday after Epiphany

Preached on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at All Saints' Episcopal Church, Glen Rock, NJ. Lectionary readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here.

Alzheimer’s and dementia are terrible diseases. They completely transform their victims. And it’s not just their victims who suffer, but every one around them is affected. My mom’s dementia began after a stroke. She recovered somewhat from the stroke, but it set in motion the symptoms that would eventually take so much from her. There were some difficult transitions, stages of the disease, which were hard for her, and hard for those around her.

But then, came a kind of golden time, a last reprieve. I would’ve missed it or misinterpreted it, I think, if the social worker at her nursing home hadn’t pointed it out to me. She told me, “You know, Mark, your mother is now past the point where she’s troubled by her dementia. She’s no longer aware that she’s lost her capacity to remember. And she’s pretty much happy almost all the time now, and she laughs at everything. She’s quite a joy to be around.” 


On my next visit to Memphis, I saw what she meant. My mom lived every moment as if it was the only moment. She was always glad to see the aids and social workers and nurses who tended her, even if she’d just seen them moments ago. She smiled and said hello every time they came into her room or passed by in the hallway. She watched their every move, and would laugh with them, and sometimes at them, as they struggled to bathe her, change her clothes, bedding; and later wheel her around the nursing home in her wheelchair.

She proved to be a favorite of the staff at her nursing home, and they gave her a bit of an honorific; she wasn’t just Peggy to them, but Miss Peggy, because, as one of the aids told me, “She’s so nice to us that we wanna treat her nice, so she we all call her MISS Peggy.” 


My mother did not have an easy life. She was addicted to opiods throughout a good portion of my life; and as a result, she knew legal and medical troubles; and her addictive behavior caused much pain to those who loved her and many broken relationships and many heartaches. But before her addiction took control of her life, she’d been quite a joyful person. And funny, she did have a great sense of humor, and she loved a joke. She would trick and tease my brother and I when we were little kids, and laugh and laugh, and cause us to laugh along with her, despite ourselves. 

At the end of her life, when her fears and anxieties, and all her heartaches were forgotten, she became that joyful person again; she was filled with laughter again. It’s like when all her trials were forgotten and all her troubles were left behind, she returned to her real self, her essential identity, her best self; and in many ways, she returned to what I think of as her truest self.

I thought of my mother, and the remanifestation of her truest self, a few months ago, when I clicked on a link that someone had shared on my Facebook feed. The link led to a story in National Geographic about the family of a friend of mine, a fellow priest, someone Sue and I were at seminary with. The magazine piece detailed the story of my friend Kate and her family, particularly her teenage daughter Emmie, who had come out as transgendered. The video that accompanied the story followed Emmie as she underwent gender confirmation surgery. 


Emmie said that she’d known she was a girl from an early age; and she was just 15 when she came out, and claimed her identity, her truth, her truest self. It was quite an adjustment for her family, her identical twin Caleb, her community, and as all of us here might imagine, for the parish that her mother served as rector. At one point in the video, Kate said, “What my husband and I keep remarking unto each other is, ‘This just feels so right. It’s so her. It’s so the child we’ve always known and loved, even though a few years ago, we wouldn’t have necessarily anticipated this step.’” 

I’ve come to consider these two women -- one dead now for more than five years, the other starting college in the fall -- I now consider them in somewhat of the same light. At the end of her life, my mother was able to come back to what I think of as her truest self. And Emmie was able to claim her truest self, was able to assert her most authentic identity, quite early in her life. But yet both of them, through God’s grace, were able to be who they really are.

++++++++++++++++

In our gospel reading today, Jesus and three of his companions, Peter, James and John, climb the holy mountain. And there a miracle takes place. Before their eyes, Jesus is transformed, transfigured into a being that shines like the sun, whose garments are made dazzlingly white. Beside him are Moses and Elijah, representatives of the Law and the prophets, giving literal witness to him as the one predicted by the prophets, the one to fulfill the law. And a voice from heaven, the same voice that spoke at his baptism, is heard again saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

There on the holy mountain, with his companions as witnesses, Jesus is transfigured, and his true identity, his most authentic self, is revealed. Peter, James and John had known him as a Galilean carpenter, and then as a roving preacher and prophet, even as a healer and miracle worker. Then, on the holy mountain, he appears to them in a new guise, as his essential self, his truest self, his most authentic identity, as the beloved Son of God.

++++++++++++++

One of the early theologians and bishops of the church was called Irenaeus. He lived in the second century, and died in the year 202 AD. He was bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul or as it’s now known, Lyon, France. Irenaeus was one of the first writers to really explore the Christian faith in a systematic, an academically rigorous, way. He wrote this about the Incarnation of Christ, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself.”

That glorious revelation of Jesus on the holy mountain is also a revelation of who we are. Through Christ, we have become beloved daughters and sons of God. His glory is ours. His truest, most authentic self is our truest authentic self.

Jesus will come down from the holy mountain and head toward Jerusalem, where he will know trials and troubles. He will be put to death only to rise again in even greater glory -- and thereby win for us a glory everlasting, in a life eternal that we will share with all the daughters and sons of God, at the end of days. 

Irenaeus also said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” I hope in your journey through this life, that you come to know times when you are fully alive, fully present in the moment, fully and authentically who you are. 
It may come to pass in your life quite early, as it did for Emmie. Or perhaps it will return to you late in life, as it did for my mom. Or maybe it will come to you as it did for Jesus, in just a few moments that transform you, transfigure you; just before you face the toughest trial of your life.

As you come into your truest self, your most authentic identity, don’t be surprised if you hear a still, small voice whisper to you, “Your are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased, in you, am I glorified.”

The Glory of God is the human being fully alive. Be that glory. Claim it for yourself by being who you really are. Be witnesses to all that is glorious in those around you. Be fully alive, for in so doing you make manifest to the world the great glory of God -- which is you. +Amen. 


© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Begetting Blessèdness: a sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Bible readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here. Preached on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at http://allsaintsglenrock.org/, Glen Rock, NJ.

Today in our gospel reading, we encounter the Beatitudes, the version that is found in Matthew’s gospel. We’re near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, in fact. Heretofore, Matthew has described the birth of Jesus, his flight into Egypt as a refugee fleeing the genocide of Herod, and his return to Nazareth; then his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, followed by his temptation in the desert. Then comes our reading today which comprises the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew goes on for some time. Indeed, we will be reading parts of it for four Sundays in a row, beginning today. This sermon will not last nearly so long, I assure you.


In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is the very first public act of Jesus. This is his first undertaking, his first effort; this is the first work of his earthly mission. Each of the evangelists starts off the story of Jesus’ public ministry a little differently. In Mark, Jesus’ first public act is an exorcism. In Luke, Jesus begins his public career by declaring that his ministry will alleviate the suffering of outcasts and the downtrodden of the world. In John, Jesus’ first endeavor is to turn water into wine at a wedding feast at Canaan. So, an exorcism, a declaration of solidarity, a miracle, and then in Matthew, a teaching.

Matthew’s Jesus is first a foremost a teacher, a Rabbi, one who teaches us what we should know, teaches us the difference between right and wrong. And if Jesus is a teacher, then that makes us and all who would follow him his students, learners who hearken to his lessons, and through his teaching, gain in knowledge and wisdom.

But if Jesus is a teacher, his first lesson is a little suspect. He seems not to have his facts straight. His first teaching seems not to be grounded in facts at all. Instead we are given ‘alternative facts’, some sort of fantasy, a description of a world that we don’t recognize.

Blessèd are the poor, blessèd are the bereaved, blessèd are the hungry, blessèd are the persecuted. Well, no, I don’t think so. 

The poor don’t enjoy many blessings in our world or any world we’ve ever known; far from it. Poverty in our world seems to perpetuate itself. Our social scientists tell us that children born into poverty often live out their days in poverty. The cycle of poverty seems unbreakable. And the hungry… more families in our country struggle with more food insecurity every day; and those affected are overwhelmingly women and children.

The persecuted and beleaguered aren’t blessèd, not by us anyway. As of yesterday, we began to turn them away. 
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! 

So says the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Yesterday, that golden door was slammed in the faces of some of the most persecuted people in the world, those who are dog-tired of war and violence, whose homes, indeed their entire homelands, have been laid waste, those who gasp for a breathe of the freedom that we so cherish.

The world Jesus describes is not the world we live in at all, and it’s not the world he lived in either. The world Jesus depicts in his lesson from the mountaintop is nothing less than the kingdom of God. It is not a description of the world as it is, it is a vision of a world in which God, and the tenets of God, the values of God, reign supreme.

Not a world in which we deport the persecuted, rather it is a kingdom in which the persecuted belong, as much as anyone else. The world Jesus envisions is not one in which the poor are denounced as lazy, rather it is a kingdom that belongs to the poor, as much as anyone else. It is not a world in which the hungry are demeaned by drug tests in order to qualify for aid; it is a kingdom in which the hungry are filled with good things. It is not a world in which the meek are diminished as weak, to be exploited; it is a kingdom in which the meek inherit just as much as the mighty.

It’s an upside down world; one in which everything we know of the world we live in is upended.

+++++++++++++

In our reading from Corinthians today, Paul tells us such beliefs as these are foolishness to some. The hope that this kingdom that Jesus describes is the world that could yet be is a stumbling block to the more pragmatic, the more practical among us.

No, sadly, this lesson of Jesus’ is not one we’ve taken much heed of. It’s a lesson we’ve heard before, often, but we not yet passed the test. We’ve not yet shown that we got it. We have not built the kingdom of God that Jesus envisions for us. And for many of us, it seems the task of doing so just got a lot harder. 

But that’s no excuse for despair, or disillusionment on our part, friends. Our Christian duty to the poor, the hungry, the persecuted and the meek might seem harder today, but that duty has not decreased -- quite the opposite. 

The world needs to believe in the vision Jesus gives us, now more than ever. And we need to be about the work of building that kingdom, right now, maybe more than ever before.

Paul admonishes us, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” and so we must. And what is that call? The prophet Micah gets at it this way, “What is good? What does the Lord require of you?” he asks. He tells us it is nothing less than to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” 

You may feel that justice is in short supply these days. You may long for a kinder world. You may miss the time when humility was something more often seen. And if so, you’re not alone.

So, then, do justice, in as much as you can. If you wonder what ‘doing justice’ might consist of, consider the words of a psalm today: Speak the truth from your heart. Let no guile be upon your tongue. Do not heap contempt upon your neighbor. Do not take back your word. Do not give your money in the hope of gain; and do not take a bribe against the innocent. And honor all those who fear and follow the One God.

Love kindness, name it, call it out when you see it, lift it up when you find it. Emulate it, always. 

And be humble. Don’t demean or diminish or denounce anyone, even those who demean and diminish and denounce others. As our bishop proclaimed to us at our diocesan convention yesterday, disrespect begets more disrespect; but then so too does blessèdness beget more blessèdness.

Be blessèd, because that is what you are. 

Whether you are poor in spirit, or hungry for righteousness, or mournful for what seems to have been lost, or meek in the face of such overwhelming moral wrong. Be pure in heart even still, and be blessèd. Be merciful in spite of mercilessness, and be blessèd. Be peacemakers in a world of controversy, opposition and adversity, and be called children of God.

Let the master teacher teach you a new way. Abide by the lessons of Rabbi Jesus. Do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. +Amen.

© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Peace Be With You: sermon for November 13, 2016

Preached on Sunday, November 13th at All Saints Episcopal Church, Glen Rock, NJ. An audio version of this sermon can (soon) be found here


Last Sunday we celebrated a baptism, a particularly auspicious ritual to occur on All Saints’ Day, our parish feast day. And it gave us all an opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant. When baptism occurs in the Sunday service, a few of the elements of the service change to accommodate and highlight the baptism. For instance, we begin the service with a special opening acclamation where we talk about baptism in particular. The priest says, “There is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” 

That “One Baptism” part is significant. During the early days of the church, persecutions of Christians would sporadically take place. Generally speaking, the Christians would be blamed for something – bad weather, loss of a battle; or accused of savage practices, cannibalism for one. Or they would be seen as a threat to civil society since they refused to sacrifice to the gods, particularly the gods who were or had been emperors. This made them seem unpatriotic, and unRoman, a foreigner influence set upon undermining the great Pax Romana, the (somewhat brutally enforced) ‘peace’ of the Roman empire. 

When these persecutions took place, often Christians would be called before the
authorities and made to sacrifice to what they considered to be idols, or they would be forced to recant their faith. As you can imagine, some would, but others refused to do so, and they were punished. Punishment could be the loss of a public office, the confiscation of property, and even death. Their deaths were particularly notable, as they usually took place in the forum, as public spectacles, meant to instill fear and enforce conformity among the citizenry. But it often backfired. The Christians very often went to their deaths joyfully, willingly sacrificing themselves as had their Lord. The persecution of Christians became the early church’s most successful propaganda weapon. An early church leader named Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” 

Often, the persecutions would blow over rather quickly. And everything would return to normal. And some of those not of the mettle of martyrs, who did, in fact, recant and deny their faith and sacrifice to idols, would return to their church communities, and apply to be readmitted. A question arose, should these Christians be re-baptized? Had what they had done, denying their faith and their God, been serious enough so as to require them to start all over again, from the very beginning of their Christian life, their baptism? It was determined that, no, there was no need, because the problem was not the baptism, it was our all too human propensity to fall short of the marks we set for ourselves, the marks that God sets for us. So, ever after and to this day, we declare that there is, indeed, One Lord, One Faith, and One Baptism.

But you can imagine what Sunday morning must have been like after the persecutions. In would come these people who had succumbed to the political pressures, the political exigencies of the day and who now wanted to rejoin the fold alongside those who had not bent to the prevailing political winds, and who may have suffered demotion, confiscation, or may have lost a beloved father or daughter to execution. How could you exchange the peace with each other in such a case? How could those who were so sharply divided be again, one body in the One Faith?

+++++++++++++++++++

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, we find the exchange of the peace in our earliest baptismal liturgies. The exchange of the peace, often the kiss of peace, has been part of our worship from almost the very beginning. The exchange of the peace is meant to be a literal replication of Jesus’s instructions to us in Matthew, chapter 5, verses 23 and 24, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” You’ll notice today, that is exactly where the peace falls in our service, right before we gather and offer our gifts at the altar of God.




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This has been a bruising political season. And a shocking one. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the outcome of the election was at least a surprise, if not a shock. David Brooks, the conservative columnist, called it the biggest political shock of his lifetime. That shock can add to the disorientation that many in our country feel. And we add that to what we also have to admit is one of the sharpest political divides we’ve ever known. It’s stark, there’s no doubt about it. There seems to be no middle ground, no compromise possible, no place to come together. 





Well I’m here to tell you that is not the case here. Because this is the place where we can come together. Because what calls us to be here, and what draws us together here, is so much more that what might separate us in the world outside. And regardless of the enmity we might feel towards our political foes, we are called to set those aside here, and to wish peace to those who might have responded differently to the political realities of this, our time. 

+++++++++++

Another thing we can do is listen. Jesus tells us in Mark and Matthew, “Those who have ears to hear, let them listen.” Some of the shock we may have felt on Wednesday morning might come from the fact that we haven’t been using our ears to hear, but rather to listen for faults in what our political opponents have said, or to listen for points we can easily counter, opinions we can quickly label deplorable. If you want an example of this, just look back at my Facebook feed this past year. I am guilty of this sin, friends. Mea maxima culpa.

Some of us may need also to speak of the disappointment we feel or the fear we feel in the wake of the election. All of us need to listen to that fear. Even when that fear is hiding underneath anger. Leading up to this election, I think many of us can look back and admit that we heard only the anger, and not the fear – and I want to be adamant about one thing this morning – anger is always the expression of fear, which lies just beneath it, just behind it; fear is always the genesis of anger; in every case, no exceptions. Anger in politics, anger in personal relationships, anger in parenting, every anger is an expression of an underlying fear.

Fear is hard to admit to, hard to express. And it is very, very hard to hear. But I think we need to express it and hear it, both. And we need to learn how to have ears to hear what those across the many divides in our country have to say. It may come to us first as anger, but our duty is to listen for and to hear the fear underneath and decide what should be the comfort and assurances that we can offer the fearful. 

+++++++++++++++



You know, around here, and in many other places, the exchange of the peace each Sunday has become more of a celebration of community – that’s a very lovely and pleasant, but unintended, consequence of the return of the peace to our Sunday liturgy. I’m going to ask you that today and in the weeks ahead, we get back to basics with the exchange of the peace. Make sure that when you exchange the peace with your neighbors is not just a hello-how-are-you. Make sure to wish peace upon each other, share your peace and the peace of Christ with those around you. They may be in serious need of it. And stock up on the peace you receive from one another. And take it with you into the world, which is in very, very serious need of it also. Amen+ 


© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Rebuilding the Jericho Road: a sermon for Year C, Proper 10 (July 10, 2016)


Preached on Sunday, July 10, 2016 at All Saints' Episcopal Church, Glen Rock, NJ. The Scripture readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here. To listen to an iTunes audio podcast of this sermon, click here

We come together today with a great many questions on our hearts. What is happening in our country; in our cities and towns? Why are we killing one another? Are we moving forward, toward a better future for our children, a more perfect union; or are we returning to some sort of Wild West, shootout-at-the-OK-Corral past in which both justice and injustice comes from the barrel of a gun? A time in which the redress of our grief and our grievances comes from the barrel of a gun?

What is wrong with our society that we should come to this? Who or what is to blame? How can it be fixed? What will it take for us to live in peace with one another?

Likewise, our gospel reading today is one of questions, difficult questions, tricky questions, controversial questions that often pitted one part of society against another. A lawyer, seeking to trip Jesus up, asks him a question. Jesus responds with a question. The lawyer answers, and then poses a second question to Jesus, one of the most contentious questions of the day: “Who is my neighbor?” 

Judaism, like virtually every culture in the world, then and now, was marked by boundaries. There were tribes and classes, distinctions between men and women, Jews and gentiles, slave and free. These past few weeks, we have been reminded of the boundaries in our own society, between gay and straight, Muslim and Christian, police and citizen, black and white.

And these tendencies in us to circle the wagons, to mark others as just that, as ‘other’, they contradict the admonitions in Scripture that we love one another and treat one another with respect. The Hebrews in particular, were called to welcome and respect and even love the foreigner, the stranger in their midst, so it says in Exodus, and again in Leviticus and yet again in Deuteronomy, ‘because you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.’ Like us, Israel was a nation of migrants and refugees, who were, in turn, called to harbor the poor, the tired, and the huddled masses that came to their shores, and that knocked on their doors.

So, when the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” he’s posing one of the most debated questions of the day. All the religious leaders, the Levites, Priests, Pharisees and Sadducees all had answers to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And very often the answers given were used to qualify somewhat the admonitions in Scripture to respect the other; they were often designed to divide ‘us’ from ‘them’, to preserve privilege for some, and to deny it to others. 

Jesus’s response is a parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite fail to do their duty by a suffering fellow traveler on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem and Jericho. Then along comes a Samaritan -- an outsider, a heretic, an enemy. At this point in history, there was a deep divide between Jews and Samaritans. That divide was a theological one, primarily, but one exacerbated by geography, and national and tribal identities. Samaritans were part of the ‘chosen people’ or had been, but ones who did not recognize the primacy of the Temple at Jerusalem or the Torah read there. Much like the conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and like the violent conflicts between Protestant and Catholic in our own history. Very many of the religious authorities in Jesus’s day would have told you that a Samaritan was decidedly NOT his neighbor. 

But, lo and behold, it is the despised Samaritan in the parable that exemplifies the tenets of Jewish law. He more than exemplifies them; he excels at them, nursing, housing, and underwriting the recovery of the wounded traveler. After telling the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, ‘Who is the neighbor in this story?’ 

And here’s another measure of the depth of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans in the lawyer’s response. The lawyer can’t say the thing that Jesus is trying to get him to say. He cannot bring himself to say, ‘The Samaritan is the neighbor’ for to do so would contradict all of his training, all the cultural and religious biases he’s received in his lifetime. He cannot bring himself to equate Samaritan with neighbor; instead he says, “The one who shows mercy.” And Jesus tells him go and do likewise. 

I wonder if he ever did. He’s had an encounter with one of the most enigmatic figures of his time who challenges some pretty strongly held cultural norms. I wonder if the lawyer was ever able to bring himself to ‘do likewise’ or if he retreated into his old prejudices, and his old way of thinking and acting.

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Malcolm Gladwell, author of many bestselling works on human history and social psychology including ‘The Tipping Point’, has a new podcast called ‘Revisionist History’. In the first episode of the series he talks about a concept that sociologists are talking about called moral licensing. What happens is that occasionally, very occasionally, the strictures and boundaries of our societies are briefly lowered; and a single individual is admitted into a space where heretofore her kind was barred entrance. Once this happens, people feel better about themselves. They’re able to tell themselves that they are not quite so bad anymore. They are no longer sexist or racist or anti-Semitic, or anti-Muslim. They’ve cured themselves of their ills. The admission of that one individual gives them a kind of moral license as good people. 

What often happens next is what’s intriguing. Some will continue to challenge their attitudes and change their beliefs and behaviors, continue to move forward. But others will feel exempt from the sins they were once accused of, and then begin to act in ways that unleash the unconscious prejudices and hatreds and rage that are still there, just below the surface, imbedded in the structures of society -- while closing that briefly open door that admitted the one exception to the rule, which, we know, goes further in proving the rule than otherwise. 

Gladwell talks about women in his podcast; the Victorian painter Elizabeth Thompson who disappears from art history after a triumphant debut; and the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. Gladwell ends the episode with a list of countries that have had a single female political leader followed by an unbroken succession of male leaders. 

If Gladwell is right, then maybe it is getting worse, at least in some quarters. That might be why the tone and temper of our public life has coarsened in recent times; why expressions of racism and homophobia have escalated since the election of President Obama and the legalization of same-sex marriage. (I’m reminded of a book by journalist Susan Faludi from the early 90s, that looked at the response to nearly 30 years of second-wave feminism; her book was titles ‘Backlash.’) Maybe this is why the hate has become so bitter and at times, so deadly.

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What will you do in the wake of these recent days? Will you follow Jesus instruction, will you go and do likewise as the Samaritan, or will you go and do likewise as you have always done? Will you seek to deepen your understanding of the problems we face, the problems that we are more starkly aware of now; or will you turn your back on the painful truths that lie underneath the violence, and the retaliation?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan in New York at Riverside Church in 1967, almost exactly a year before his murder. He said this,
On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

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You know, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us who every one of the characters is, except the victim, the wounded and suffering traveler. Was he a Jew, a gentile, even a Samaritan? It doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter to Jesus and it shouldn’t matter to us. The victim of the Jericho Road might be a man selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; or a motorist with a broken taillight near St. Paul, Minnesota; or a police officer protecting a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas.

++++++++++++++

Friends, by some manifestation of the divine will, these are the times we have been born into. These are our days. That simple fact, in light of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, calls us to help those who have suffered most along the Jericho Road that cuts through our society. And once we know something about the suffering of those who fall victim on the Jericho Road, what they face day to day, how they struggle; and once we have aided in the recovery of those victims of the Jericho Road; then it will fall to us to rebuild the Jericho Road to make it a pathway of peace, a highway of justice, a safe passage for all who travel on it, whomever they may be. 

We will have to work hard, harder than those who would drag us back. Our duty as the Body of Christ in this world at this very moment is to make the Jericho Road a safe place for all who travel there; a place where everyone who starts their journey gets to finish it, at Jerusalem or Jericho or wherever they choose to go. ~Amen+.
© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Sunday, February 28, 2016

What If You Had A Year: a sermon for Year C, Lent 3

This sermon was preached on Sunday, February 27, 2016 at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Glen Rock, NJ. The scripture readings this sermon is based on can be found by clicking here. 

Luke, the evangelist, is no arborphile. Trees have a hard time in Luke’s gospel. Fig trees, in particular, have a hard time of it in the gospels in general. In Mark and Matthew’s gospels, Jesus curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit even though it’s not fig season, and the tree withers and dies. In Luke’s gospel, trees are constantly under threat of getting axed, getting chopped down at the root.

Early in Luke’s gospel, we hear John the Baptist urging the people to repent, and warning them, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:9) And Jesus seems to be echoing this same warning, this same teaching in his parable today. (13:6-9) Once again, a tree, a fig tree in particular, bears no fruit and is threatened by the ax.

But before we get into that, let’s talk about the first part of this gospel, because it’s not at all repetitive, or reflective of other parts of Luke’s gospel or of any other gospel (or ancient text that we know of.) The opening of Luke’s 13th chapter begins will a discussion between Jesus and some bystanders of the significance of two events, very much, it seems, in the news. The word on everyone’s lips has to do with two tragic events -- the murder by Pontius Pilate of some Galilean pilgrims come to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple, and the tragic accident of the tower of Siloam which has fallen, killing 18 citizens of Jerusalem. It’s clear the people are wondering why God would allow these tragedies to befall these particular victims -- the people wonder what ill they could have done to cause God to punish them in this way.

It’s a common question, one we can’t seem to resist asking. We want to know why bad things happen; and we most often draw the conclusion that bad things must happen for a reason. But Jesus contradicts this thinking, this seeming connection between bad things and bad deeds, or bad things and bad people. He asks the people, “Do you think the Galileans that were slain by Pilates were somehow the most sinful of all the Galileans in Jerusalem that day? Do you think that the tower of Siloam fell at just the moment that the 18 worst sinners in Jerusalem happened to be walking by?” Of course not. The proposition is ridiculous.

Bad things happen because they do. They just do. And when they do, they remind us that life is fragile. And that fragility should cause within us some urgency. The very fact that we know life is so fragile should mean, should give way to, an urgency in the way we live our lives, the choices we make, the fruit we bear.

Now, let’s get back to that fig tree… Jesus leads right into this parable of the fig tree, in response to the people’s queries about the tragedies of the Galileans and the Tower of Siloam. In his parable, a man plants a fig tree, but in three long years, the fig tree bears no fruit. The man tells the gardener, cut it down; it’s a waste of soil. But the gardener begs for the life of the tree, and says, “Wait, let me tend to it, let me dig around it and add manure, and see if it will produce. If it hasn’t in another year, you can cut it down.” 

Another year. One more growing season, one more chance at producing the fruit that the fig tree was created to produce. What if you were given a year, just one more year, in which to save your life, save your career, save your marriage, or save your soul? Given that clear-cut and immediate a deadline, I imagine most of us would, like the gardener, start digging. If we knew, if we were given the warning as clearly as is the fig tree, I imagine we find that life would indeed take on an urgency. And we would be quite quick to take up our spades and shovels, we’d be quick to repent, to amend our lives and change our hearts.

I imagine that with that clear a warning, and that stark a deadline, we’d take an unflinching look at exactly what sort of fruit we should be producing and start doing all in our power to produce it. 

*****************

Of course, when you're a preacher, you're only given chances to preach about certain things on certain Sundays, and you gotta seize those opportunities when they come along. Given today's readings, I can pass up a chance to preach about… manure. There’s no mistaking the fact that, given a sense of urgency, the gardener’s first impulse is to start digging up some… I’m gonna keep calling it manure.


You know, when the tree stops producing fruit, it’s time to take a good look at the roots, at what they’re fed by, how are they nourished -- and what’s in their way, what’s in the way of the roots giving the tree what it needs to produce the fruit it should. Maybe the roots need some new resources in order to do their part in producing fruit. And maybe there’s some old… manure down there that needs stirring up, examining, digging out of the way, so that something that can feed and sustain us, something that can help, and not hinder, the bearing of fruit, can be put in it’s place.

So often in Lent, we give up something we love as a discipline, or we seek to add something to our daily lives, more prayer or more acts of charity, or generosity. That is, of course, all well and good. Discipline and charity are sorely missing in our culture, in our daily lives, I suspect.

But what if instead of these practices, we looked at what might be keeping us from bearing the fruit that we should; and what if we looked at our roots, and started rooting around down there, and maybe evening digging up some old… manure, and looking at how that old manure might be holding us back… preventing us from bearing the fruit we should.

Maybe Lent can be the beginning of that year we talked about, a year of digging around down there, where our roots lie, getting rid of the old… manure, and replacing it with that which is meant to fertilize, adding in that which we know is supposed to feed us and nourish us and help us to produce a goodly harvest.

You’ve got a year… a year in which to come round right, a year in which to bring in the harvest that you were created to produce. Life is fragile, and therefore most urgent… Start digging. Don’t let all that old… manure gets in the way. Dig around down there, dig out the old stuff. And feed your roots, so that you can bear fruit, the fruit you were created to bear… 


And if a year’s not enough time, don’t worry. I know a gardener, who is willing to stand up for you, to beg mercy and more time, in which you can become that which you were meant to be. He’s a pretty good guy, this gardener; he’ll give a lot of his time to help you become what it is you were meant to be. And he’ll do more than that; he’ll give his life so that you might have all the time that mercy can give you, to be who it is he knows you were meant to be, to be who it is he knows you can be. +Amen.

© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Down the Crab and Winkle Way

In my final year at seminary, I was blessed to have the opportunity to spend a part of the summer term in England, at Canterbury Cathedral, in fact, as part of the Canterbury Scholars Program. Canterbury Scholars are seminarians and newly ordained priests from throughout the Anglican Communion -- Hong Kong, Namibia, the Philippines -- who journey to Canterbury at the beginning of their ministries to spend a few weeks in study and in community with one another. It was an illuminating time, and I meet some wonderful people -- all of whom shared with me the call and journey to the priesthood, yet who had begun that journey in very different places throughout the far-flung reaches of Christendom. But for a brief few weeks, our journeys converged in Canterbury.

Canterbury Cathedral is an awe-inspiring place. If you’re an Anglican, it’s ground zero, the mothership from which what we preach and pray and practice originates. If you’re an American, it seems impossibly ancient. Everything is so much older than what we’re used to, even if you hail from a fairly old place like New York City. There’s history and tradition and cobblestones around every corner.


But Canterbury itself and its towering cathedral with its solemn, moving worship are just a part of the experience. The county of Kent in southeastern England is one of the most beautiful places on earth, a landscape of farmland and fishing villages comprising what’s called ‘the breadbasket of England’. Surrounding Canterbury are hop farms and golden fields of rape. There are conical oast houses, and pathways once trod by Canterbury pilgrims, and little villages in every direction. It was green and gorgeous that summer, glowing in the summer sun under the widest blue sky I’ve ever seen. 

A parishioner from the Canterbury Cathedral congregation loaned me a mountain bike for the duration of my stay. So, I was able to cycle about the countryside a little bit, as much as our busy schedule permitted. These little excursions allowed my inner introvert to unwind a bit, and showed me the beauty of Kent up close.

One of the world’s first passenger railways once stretched the great distance of 5 miles from Canterbury to the seaside oystering town of Whitstable on the coast of the English Channel to the north of the cathedral city. The Canterbury and Whitstable Railway became known as the C and W, and later, in that inimitable way the English have with nicknames, became finally the Crab and Winkle. Long since closed, the railway has become a bike path, the Crab and Winkle Way, and it leads from Canterbury, through swaying fields and over the racing highway towards the channel port at Dover, past family farms to the oyster shell strewn beaches of Whitstable.


I spent a free afternoon cycling to Whitstable from Canterbury and back on the Crab and Winkle Way. I had a nice amble around Whitstable, which dates from Roman times. I feasted on the countryside all around me, and got some much needed physical exertion to accompany the mental and spiritual exercises of the Scholars program. But I didn’t quite know how deeply that excursion had etched itself into my unconscious until I took it again last night in my dreams.

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I am soon to leave one ministry behind and take up another. My husband Denton and I will soon depart Manhattan’s Upper East Side; my term at the Church of the Holy Trinity is at an end. We head for All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Glen Rock, New Jersey, a small suburban town about 20 miles from the city. My ministry is taking a Pythonic twist -- it is now time for something completely different. 

Glen Rock is a little town in the north Jersey suburbs with a main street, a borough hall, schools and shops, and trees and lawns -- a short distance, but a far cry from the asphalt and apartment towers of the Upper East Side. The church I’m going to is a lovely midcentury modern affair of a scale to fit the town. I leave behind the beautiful but slightly faded Victorian pile in which I have most recently served; glorious it is, yet troubled by falling plaster and other needed repairs.

For many of my colleagues, moving from a storied, historic city church -- which looks like what we all know a church should look like -- to a suburb, of all things, to take the altar in a modern-looking church of but a few decades tenure is, well, to put it plainly, a bit of a comedown. So many of my fellow city priests have left just such places as Glen Rock to get here, to Manhattan, to be here and live here and minister here, in the big, shining city that never sleeps. 

I’ve come to find that I’m of a different mind. 

I fell in love with All Saints the minute I saw it. And that surprised me -- taste-wise, give me a Victorian pile any day. But that handsome midcentury church with its brick walls strewn with small, square stained glass windows (a bit of an homage to Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut I guessed) had such integrity as it commanded its spot in a triangle formed by suburban side streets. After a drive by the church and through Glen Rock, I couldn’t get them out of my mind.


A few weeks later, I met the churchwardens to discuss my coming to serve All Saints as interim rector. We talked at length about the people of All Saints and the priest they needed, the ministries they held dear, and the work they sought to do in service to God and God’s people. On the way home, I got a call. “Don’t take anything else until you hear from us. We want you, and we’re going to work to make that happen.” Suffice it to say, I’ve never had a less ambiguous response to an interview in my life. So, the feeling was mutual from the get-go. 

And now, it seems, my unconscious mind is wrapping itself around the next step in the sojourn the Spirit has set before me.

++++++++++++

I’m not an actor, and I’ve never been part of a theater company. Yet, I dreamed last night that I was in Canterbury again, in an old theater there in which my theater company had long been resident. I can’t quite tell if I was an actor in the company, or the company’s administrator, or perhaps a bit of both. It was a small troupe, that I know; and it was time for the show to close, and the company to move. 

I was talking to Cathi Martin. Cathi is a real person who works at Canterbury Cathedral and Lodge. She was the go-to person for we Canterbury Scholars in my time there. She was a rock, capable of answering every question and making endless recommendations of what to do and see in Canterbury and where to get toothpaste. We remain Facebook friends and I’ve learned that she likes cats and classic 70s and 80s rock and roll. 

In my dream I was explaining to Cathi that it was time for the theater company to move out of Canterbury, and its not entirely suitable, aging theater there. She was a bit taken aback when I told her that we were moving to Whitstable, of all places. 

“Whitstable?!??!! No one moves from Canterbury to Whitstable! Quite the other way around, in fact. Is there even an audience for theater there? Where will you perform? And why in the world would you want to live there too?” I should note here that I haven’t the slightest clue what the real Cathi’s opinion of Whitstable might be. She may, in fact, love the place; but in the dream, she represented and gave voice to the attitudes of a few of my city parishioners and clergy colleagues. 

I patiently explained to her that yes, Canterbury was Canterbury, and Whitstable was just Whitstable after all. And for most folks Canterbury was far and away the more desirable of the two. But, I explained, I had fallen in love with little Whitstable, there on the seaside, with the oyster fleets coming and going. And not only that, but there was a beautiful, and new, theater there where my company was to take up residence. All tall glass windows and wood beams and a cantilevered roof that soared out over the sea. And, I noted, it was designed for just the sort of contemporary plays and presentations we now planned to undertake -- it would better serve the work we wanted to be about in the future. “Trust me,” I said, “It may not be for everyone, but for the theater troupe and me, it’s just where we want to be.” 


Then the dreamscape switched entirely, and Denton and I were in the dreamt up theater in Whitstable. It seemed that on this night, I was not an actor on the stage, so I could take up a seat in the audience for the performance. As Denton can attest, I’m particular about seating for movies and such. I like to get there early to get my favored spot, midway back on the right aisle, and that’s what we did in the dream. As we moved into our seats, there was a couple seated one row behind us, and one row in front of us. But not in ‘our’ seats, thank God. As I looked again, I saw that the couple behind us was a gay couple too, two men, but quite a bit younger than Denton and me. And then I noticed the couple in front of us, also two men, but quite a bit older than us, well into retirement and out for an evening of theater. As we sat down, I thought to myself, “Yes, this is where we belong, at this stage in our lives… This is just the place for us.”

++++++++++++++

My real life, wide awake journey to Whitstable took place on one of the few free afternoons we had during my time at Canterbury -- the Canterbury Scholars curriculum was a crowded one. But we were all well aware of the break, and had made plans for how to spend the afternoon. Some of us elected to sleep off remaining jet lag. Some of my African colleagues were out to shop, and spent the afternoon loading up on bargains to take home to their families in South Africa and Namibia and Burundi. The Americans I had become friends with had planned a mini-pub crawl for the afternoon that was to begin at Thomas Beckett Pub, of course, and go on from there. I turned down all invitations that day, to get away on my own, to ride my borrowed bike and to find out what might lie at the end of the Crab and Winkle Way. 

I’m glad I did. 

I don’t always travel the same path as everyone else -- I’ve long known that. Sometimes, it seems like I’m headed in the opposite direction to the way all the world would go. I don’t mind -- such ways suit my somewhat contrarian nature. In the learnings that life brings us, I’ve come to try to have not just the courage of my convictions, but also a respect for my impulses and whims and last minute inspirations. I’ve learned to have an ear for the smaller, quieter call. I’ve learned to follow my nose wherever it might lead me; whether or not my mind or even my heart understands the path my nose seems to know.

So, Glen Rock, New Jersey, here I come. People of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, I’m on my way to you. I’ll be there soon enough; the traffic is less heavy leaving the city than that which clogs the roadways leading into it. Suits us just fine, I expect.

In my time among you, you may catch me looking wistful on occasion. You may see me with a faraway look in my eye from time to time. I don’t expect it will be reveries of the city I now leave behind that have caught up my thoughts. It might be the briny smell of the English Channel in my nose, and the crunch of oyster shells under my feet… the call of the seagulls that I hear and the wide blue dome of sky over golden fields that shines in my unfocused eyes. 

But I won’t be wishing to be anywhere else, I don’t think. Not Manhattan, not Canterbury, not even Whitstable, really. I’ll just be glad to have taken yet another journey down a less well charted road, satisfied to be finding out what lies down yet another byway of the Spirit.


© The Rev. Mark R. Collins