Sermon: Johann Sebastian Bach

Photo by Weston MacKinnon on Unsplash

In 1722 a composer applied for a music director job in Leipzig. There were five other candidates. The city council seemed to be looking for a college education, which this composer lacked. They offered the job to two other candidates, who both declined.  One councilman commented when they were calling the third candidate, “Since we cannot get the best, we will have to be satisfied with a mediocre one.”  That mediocre candidate turned out to be Johann Sebastian Bach.

The great composer Johannes Brahms wrote to a friend about a composition by Bach, “The man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I could picture myself writing, or even conceiving, such a piece I am sure that the extreme excitement and emotional tension would have driven me mad.”

It would seem that a driving factor for Bach and the music he composed was God.  He says, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hub-bub.”  Bach’s works are so explicitly biblical that the famous missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer, who was also an expert on Bach, called him “the Fifth Evangelist.” 

As part of his duties in one position, Bach was to provide an original composition for each Sunday’s church service, as well as various feast days. Bach thus set about composing a five-year cycle of cantatas, amounting to 60 cantatas a year, for a total of 300 works of an average duration of 25 minutes, so on average he produced more than one cantata a week during that five year period. 

He lived until age 65 and died in 1750 and neither he nor his contemporaries had any idea that his music would last throughout the ages.  In fact he was obscure for a century after his death until he was rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn.  It is likely that many of those hundreds of compositions were simply lost, but on those that do survive there is an interesting notation on some: in Bach’s own handwriting, the letters J.J. at the beginning of each and S.D.G. at the end.  They are abbreviations for the Latin, Jesu Juva (Jesus Help Me!) at the beginning and Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone!) at the end.

We often say that things are done to the glory of God, but it was my friend, St. Josemaría Escrivá who helped me to understand the meaning of the phrase: “Dei omnis gloria—All glory to God.  It is an emphatic confession of our nothingness.  He, Jesus, is everything.  We, without him, are worth nothing: Nothing.  Our vainglory would be just that: vain glory; it would be sacrilegious theft; the ‘I’ should not appear anywhere.” (The Way #780)  Like Bach, that is definitely something to consider the next time we say, “to the Glory of God.”  However, there is a consolation: we may be ‘nothing,’ but we are God’s nothing and in the end… that is really something!

I can’t sing it, but I’ll share the words of one of Bach’s most famous hymns (surprisingly, it is not in our hymnal!)

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.

Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
With the fire of life impassioned,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.

Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

Journal: July 25, 2021

Introducing Fermina

On the day of Dr. Urbino’s death, Florentino Ariza announced to the ever elusive Fermina Urbino, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.” This particular wine is Fermina in her younger years, when she sat out on the porch, gazing at the young man, Florentino, across the park, and watching him as he composed his letters of love to her. Either that or I just like the name. Either way, she is tasty. She was bottled today, which is a week later than planned–when trying last week, I accidentally hit the bottom of the carboy and disturbed the fine sediment. It was worth the wait. She settled out real purty. It came to 27 bottles, so that’ll make for some happy dinner parties in the near future (speaking of which, Creamy Chicken Francese is on the menu this Wednesday, served up with some Brussel Sprouts roasted in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and fresh made bread.)

Today, we had excellent church with several visitors… always a good thing! I had a preaching break and Ash C. stepped in for me. Love to preach, but nice to have the occasional Sunday off, plus it is good for everyone to hear from someone other than me. A line from Ash’s sermon that hit home: “We have expectations of how things should be and how we should respond to them, and yet when we turn our troubles to God we are surrendering our abilities to interfere and putting complete trust in him taking over and meeting our needs.” Yeah… she nailed it. She will make an excellent Dominican.

The most recent movie I watched comes from 1986, but one I’ve not seen before: Children of a Lesser God. Quite a remarkable film, especially the script that allowed for the audience to “hear” both sides of the conversation. Beautiful line: “Do you think we could find a place where we could meet… not in silence and not in sound.” Perhaps that finds the heart of most difficulties we experience when with others: we each want the other to enter our world, while we are unwilling to enter their’s. Perhaps a true and lasting relationship is one that discovers–together–the… new. Ah, but then we would have to sacrifice a part of ourselves and we just can’t have that! (So we retire to our separate corners for a respite and then come back out–gloves up.) I understand that the title of the movie is from a line in the poem Idyllys of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find Him not.
I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.
O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?

Thought for the day (and as it is Sunday): “Wine is like the incarnation–it is both divine and human.” ― Paul Tillich. I’ve had the first bottle of Fermina chilling for four hours… time to see how she really tastes.

Have a happy week.

Sermon: Mary Magdalene

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene (1545-1548) by Paolo Veronese

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.”

If you belong to the world, it would love you as its own. There was a time in Mary Magdalene’s life that she belonged to the world and the world loved her as only the world could. It gave her all it had to offer and then some.

How did the world love her and what did it give her? By subjecting her to evil spirits and infirmities. Scripture tells us that Jesus casts seven evil spirits out of her. What were they? We can only imagine: lust, greed, anger, depression… and they all loved her dearly.

There is the movie 300, about the 300 Spartans who took on the entire Persian army. It appeared that the Spartans would be victorious until a traitor went to Xerxes, the Persian King, and betrayed the Spartans. Xerxes makes his case to persuade the traitor to give up the needed information by saying, “Your gods were cruel. The Spartans too were cruel. But I am kind. Everything you could ever desire, every happiness you can imagine, every pleasure your fellow Greeks and your false gods have denied you, I will grant you for I am kind. Embrace me as your king and as your god. Lead my soldiers and your joys will be endless.” The traitor agrees and Xerxes responds, “You will find I am kind. I require only that you kneel.” The traitor knelt and the Spartan army was destroyed.

At a point in her life, the world said to Mary Magdalene, “I am kind. I will grant you every pleasure, every joy. I require only that you kneel.” Like the Spartan traitor, she knelt before the false gods and empty promises, but instead of possessing the world, she was possessed by it. It brought her to a state of utter misery. Yes, the world loved Mary Magdalene with great passion and its sole intent was to keep her from the love of God.

“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.” Yet Jesus went on to say, “As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.”

At some point early in his ministry, Jesus looked upon this woman Mary Magdalene. He saw her misery and her loneliness, but because of his great love for all of God’s children, he called out of her those seven spirits that possessed her, declaring, “No more. You can’t have her. She is mine. I love her and I have chosen her.”

Today we celebrate Saint Mary Magdalene. We celebrate her for many reasons, but the first of those reasons is the same for each of us. Jesus said, “I choose you.” She responded, “Yes, Lord.” Her actions that followed were in line with anyone’s who had been so clearly touched by God, because she was not only a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus as attested to in our Gospel today, she was also a witness to the death and resurrection of her own life. Her life demonstrated her thankfulness through a life of service to our Lord and those she witnessed to.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Mary Magdalene knew these words in her heart even before Paul had encountered the Risen Lord; by living them out, Saint Mary Magdalene demonstrates for us what it means to be chosen by God.

Opinion: Oxygen is a Basic Human Right

You will likely be offended…

What if we decided that a person’s right to oxygen was more important than a ten minute joy ride in space?

What if we decided that children should not be soldiers instead of being offended that someone might use our preferred pronoun when speaking to/of us?

What if we decided that raising people out of poverty where they live in garbage was more important than a film festival?

What if lives in India mattered as much as lives anywhere else?

What if a drink of water meant more than you getting to work faster?

You can call me a communist or something worse for thinking these “what ifs”, but I think of it as being a Christian. St. Paul would not rest until the sisters and brothers cared for those around them. Why do we?

Oxygen is a basic human right. What if we worked on solving this and then work our way up to the joy rides of our own egos and offenses. I am offended that we are not.

That is all.

Sermon: Proper 11 RCL B – “Signs and Wonders”

Photo by Jason Yu on Unsplash

A particular bishop brought in a consultant group to work with each individual church. They were reported to do wonders for any church who was willing to put in the effort. The only issue was that the consultants were all cannibals, so when the bishop hired them, he made them promise not to eat anyone. They all agreed.

After meeting with almost forty churches, things were going splendidly and each of those churches was growing and thriving, but then one day, the leader of the cannibal consulting group got a phone call from the bishop. Seems the secretary at the last church had gone missing and he wanted to make sure that it wasn’t the cannibals doings. Once he got off the call with the bishop, he asked his fellow workers if anyone had something to do with the missing secretary. One cannibal sheepishly raised his hand.

“You fool!” said the leader. “For weeks we’ve been eating clergy and no one noticed anything, but no, you had to go and eat someone important!”

Today, our Gospel reading was from Mark 6:30-34 and then we skipped to 53-56. What I immediately wanted to know is what went on in verses 35-52. Turns out, we skipped right over the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water. Huh? Why on earth would we skip those two events? They seem kind of important to me, but the more I thought on it, I realized that I was falling into the same mindset as so many during the time of Jesus. Jesus even pointed this out in John’s Gospel when someone came looking for a miracle. Jesus said, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (John 4:48) Yes. We give thanks for the miracles that occurred then and continue to occur today, but they also serve a very specific purpose outside of those who benefit from them.

Let’s say that St. Matthew’s becomes a place of miracles. Now, I believe we see them all the time, we just don’t recognize them as such, but let’s say that they are undeniable: someone who is blind… born blind comes to our church, they receive the sacrament of healing and prayer and… they see. And then there is someone who has never walked in their life and they are prayed over and they walk. After a couple of events like this, word starts getting around: people are getting healed at St. Matthew’s. Others begin to arrive, slowly at first, to check things out and see what all the fuss is about, but I guarantee you this, if that begins to happen, after a short while, you won’t be able squeeze in here with a shoehorn and not just on Sundays. This will be wall-to-wall people. Some coming to worship, some bringing others in search of a miracle, some bringing themselves in search of the same, and even some who will come to criticize and tear down, but what is the purpose of this all? Episcopalians be like: as long as no one sits in my pew, it’s all good, but seriously, in all that is taking place, what is the purpose? Is it solely for the healings / miracles? Those are important and amazing, but they are not the purpose. Is it that more people are coming to church? Again, good, but not the purpose. How about those whom the healings are taking place through? Yes, yes, and yes. All good, but the purpose behind it all is so that the Good News can be proclaimed. The miracles, the feeding of the 5,000, walking on water, site for the blind are like beacons in a dark night, guiding people to a place where they can encounter God and hear the message. What is the message? Jesus is Lord. Forgiveness of sins. Salvation. Eternal life. The miracles occur so that this message, which is the Good News, can be proclaimed. Miracle: Lazarus was raised from the dead. It got a lot of people’s attention, but Lazarus is going to die again. Good News: Lazarus may die again, but through the forgiveness of sins and his faith in Jesus Christ, Lazarus will rise again, but this time he will rise to eternal life. The miracles demonstrate Jesus’ authority, so that we might believe his teaching and his word: salvation has come to all who believe.

The miracles then are like a beacon, calling out to those who would see and know God. Before Jesus, that beacon was to be God’s chosen people, the Israelites. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God said:

“You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
(Isaiah 49:3)

And a few verses further:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:6)

The Lord is saying, it is not just the Israelites that I want to hear of my salvation, but all of humankind, so you will lead them. You will be a beacon to the world, but our reading today from Jeremiah tells us that they did not succeed: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!… It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” The shepherds might as well have been eaten by cannibals, because no one would have even noticed if they were gone. To be honest, I don’t believe it was a task that could have ever been fulfilled through human hands, but they were still the chosen ones, so when they failed, God said, If you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself. Continuing to speak through the Prophet Jeremiah, God said, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

And here is where our Gospel reading comes in. Jesus and the apostles had been doing the work, but Jesus also recognized their need for rest, so they tried to get away for a short time, but the crowds found them. Jesus could have pushed on and said, “Enough! We’re on vacation,” but that was not Jesus. Instead, “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Israel was to be the beacon and the shepherd of God’s people, but when they failed, God said, “I myself will gather the remnant of the flock…”… I myself will be the beacon and the Shepherd. And Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)

The miracles that were performed by Jesus and the Apostles acted as a beacon, so that the world would be drawn in to hear the teachings and the message of salvation. And now we, as the Church, have been entrusted with the task of continuing that great work, but where are the miracles? Where are the beacons? Answer: sitting in the pews. You are the miracle. Your very life is a beacon, a testimony of God’s great work in this world and your life is a testimony that needs to be heard. You are a miracle that the world would in fact know was missing; therefore, through both words and deeds, live into your calling as witnesses to the Good News of God and then watch in joy and amazement as the miracle that is you, takes place in others.

Let us pray:
Loving God,
Send us out to draw others to You,
into Your peace,
into the Church,
into lives dedicated to the Gospel.
May our voices speak of hope and welcome to all.
May our hands lift high the torch of new life in You.
May our hearts yearn for justice and truth.
Renew in us the courage and strength
to reach out to the neediest in our midst.
United in faith and prayer, with Mary,
keep us ever steadfast in Your love
as we strive for Your vision of a world renewed.
We ask this through Christ, Our Lord.

Journal: July 16, 2021

Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash

#1 danger of journaling late at night… you might tell the truth!


You have to look at your own life. Your own sins. And then you wonder how you can change. At what point do we recognize that we’re not any better. You try so damn hard to be holy and righteous in the eyes of the Lord and fail so miserably every damn day. It’s funny how you look at the world differently. What do you want?

What if someone actually gives you permission to love? You don’t have to seek anyone’s approval, really not even your own. It is just something you know. Why sit around second-guessing your heart?

The world is full of such beautiful people. Where does hate come from? Why don’t we love the color of their lives?

To have someone pray for you in the language that they understand. Their words touch the face of God.

There’s nothing to be afraid of.

I write these words because I have no voice to speak to Him. I write these words because the sun rose behind the moon and there was no light except for you.

Life should be color. A riot of color.

#1 danger of journaling late at night… you might tell the truth!

What I learned today: see above.

Thought for the day: We need more scars. They hide the fresh wounds.

Sleep well.

Sermon: Benedict of Nursia

“Listen carefully, my child,
to your master’s precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart.
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father’s advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.
To you, therefore, my words are now addressed,
whoever you may be,
who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King,
and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.”

Those are the opening words of The Rule of St. Benedict.

Benedict of Nursia, considered the father of western monasticism and who we celebrate today, lived during the turn of the 6th century, dying in the year 550. He received his later education in Rome, but by his mid-teens was repulsed by the debauchery he saw there, which led to him retreating to a life of isolation. As he grew in wisdom of the Lord, he attracted others to the lifestyle he had chosen and would go on to form a community of likeminded individuals. Between 525 and 530, he moved this community to Monte Cassino, about 80 miles southeast of Rome, and it was there, around 540, that he wrote what we now know as the Rule of St. Benedict.

When analyzed, the Rule prescribes the day of the monk: four hours of liturgical prayer, five hours in spiritual reading, six hours of manual labor, one hour set aside for eating (including three glasses of wine per day – primarily because water may not have always been clean enough), and about eight hours of sleep. By adhering to the schedule the monk would discover a balance of life in silence, prayer, humility, manual labor, and obedience.

I don’t know of many who would be able to assign nine hours per day to prayer and study, as a priest I don’t know that I could even manage that, but for everyone, Benedict’s Rule points to a life of balance. A balance of what we give to God and what we give to this world. To what end? Esther de Waal, one of the great Benedictine scholars, wrote that all of Benedict’s writing could be summed up in the short passage from chapter 4, verse 21 of the Rule, “The love of Christ must come before all else.”

The Rule of St. Benedict is one of those books I would encourage you to read. You’ll come across directions for the day-to-day matters of the monastery that seem to be irrelevant to us today, but can provide significant spiritual insights. For example, chapter 22 describes how young monks are to sleep and how they “should remove their knives, lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep.” You’ll read that and think it has nothing to do with you, but how many spiritual “knives” have you gone to bed with that ended up cutting your soul more deeply than any real knife could cut your flesh?

There are more resources for Christian living than you’ll ever be able to read. One of the greatest that you should read comes from Benedict of Nursia. Today we give thanks to the Lord for Benedict’s life and his teachings.

Novels: Shameless plug…

As the header states, this is a shameless plug for The Golden Fistula. The price has been lowered to $.99 for the eBook and will eventually go to free (just in case you’re holding out for the real bargain.) Trying to do one more sales run before the second book in the series, The Marble Finger, comes out, which will hopefully be by the end of the year. That said, click the image below to order your copy today!

Journal: July 11, 2021

Friday night was the night at the ballpark and a visit from dad, Saturday was a writing day (added 3,500 words to The Marble Finger) and today was the preaching day (the sermon–you can find it here–seemed to work) followed by a nice nap. That, my friends, is a delightful weekend. Now, to ease into next week and get a few more items checked off the list, one of which is Contemporary Koinonia a.k.a. COKO.

COKO is a journal that a priesty friend and I are starting. We both got so tired of hearing all the bad / angry news out there about the Episcopal Church and we both knew that there were some remarkable stories to tell, so we are in the process of creating a resource for sharing them. It is not a local journal, although some stories will be, but we are working to bring the stories of the church into a tool that will allow congregations, clergy, and bishops to see and hear about the great and transformative work that is taking place in our church. More to come on this later, but the first issue–we hope–will be out in October. Don’t worry, you won’t need a subscription. Good news should always be free!

Hard change of gears (hear them grinding) and we’re off to the movies….

After watching Snatch, I’m wondering who does crazy better, Brad Pitt or Jack Nicholson. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And we all know Jack Torrance is about as crazy as they come! That said, Mickey O’Neil (Brad Pitt) is an excellent nut case and the movie is fun, but I have to wonder if Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson / The Shining) could take him. I’ll let you all weigh in on this one. Oh… it was a bit back we discussed Judi Dench’s laugh… brilliant, but I forgot about Brooke Adams in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1973). It’ll make you happy just to hear it (and the movies is one my favs.)

And now we begin a new week. What surprises will it bring… a friend unexpectedly pulling up in your driveway, a moment to see Jesus in the face of another, a few more words in the novel… who knows. Maybe all of the above. Hoping your week is filled with the unexpected… that reminds me of a sermon I preached years ago: there are no coincidences, there are only God-incidences–it was probably as goofy then as it sounds now, but you get the point.

What I learned today (at least for me): being disciplined requires a goal. To simply say I’m going to do something doesn’t generally motivate me to accomplish it. I need a carrot. Perhaps that’s OK, but wouldn’t it be nice… and perhaps even easier… if you could do something simply for the love of it? I think I need to work on this (although I do love my work and wouldn’t trade that for anything!)

Thought for the day: “Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.” ― Dante Alighieri, Inferno It’s probably one of those that you print on a coffee cup and remember to read every now and then, but… that doesn’t make it any less true.