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Ash Wednesday: 03/01/2017

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Homily, Ash Wednesday                                                                    J.B. MacKnight
1 March 2017                                                                                          St. Dunstan’s

I believe it was Woody Allen who said, “I don’t mind dying; I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” 

Most of us would agree…and in fact most of us do mind dying.  Our culture has taught us to fight death as ferociously as we can, even though we know intellectually that death is part of life, and like taxes, it’s a sure thing.  So why are we so afraid? 

To pretend we won’t die is to pretend that we are like God.  Prolonging a good life by caring for our health is one thing; but refusing to let go is another.  That is trying to play God: and not letting God be God is one of our greatest sins in this life.  

If Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about death – the certainty of our mortality: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  It’s a fitting reminder as we begin Lent, a period of self-examination.  We look at ourselves, our frailties and failings, our jealousies and greed, our unhealthy desires and addictions, and yes, our sins.  Wanting to play God is a Class-A sin.  It’s in the big ten: “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.” 

Matthew’s Gospel today gives us the early text of the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s a succinct model for all our prayer, a Jewish prayer to its core.  (Let us not forget, in these days of renewed attacks on Jews, that our Lord Jesus was a Jew his whole life, and never left that faith!  As our bishop states, when one faith community is attacked, we are all attacked.) 

This pithy prayer gets to the heart of the matter: we are not to try to play God!  Try to put aside your long, habitual associations with the Lord’s Prayer, and hear the words anew.  Jesus said, “Pray then in this way:” 

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  We address our God as Father, and this is in fact an innovation by Jesus – I’m not aware of earlier Jewish texts addressing God thus.  Jesus brings an new intimacy to our relationship with God – sharing his own sonship with us. 

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Now Jesus is getting edgier.  He is proclaiming God’s kingdom, right here on earth.  And if God is king, then guess who can’t be?  As someone put it, “When God’s kingdom comes, all our little kingdoms have to go!”  We can’t pray this prayer, and still hold back the areas of our lives that we want to control for ourselves.  But that’s our natural tendency.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”  With this humble request, we acknowledge that we are needy; we are not self-sufficient.  We need daily bread, both food to sustain our bodies, and food to sustain our spirits.  We need God.  Everybody has these same needs, and God wants everybody to have enough.  When we enjoy food or other things that feed us, we should stop and think if our lifestyles allow others to have enough as well.  If we have more than enough, then we need to be generous in giving. 

So, as we take these ashes upon our foreheads, as signs of our mortal nature, let’s really ask ourselves if we are prepared to let God be God.  Can we surrender our (rather foolish) quest to be in control of everything, even to the point of defying death itself? 

Jesus lived this same human life that we are given.  The unique thing about him is that he let God be God; he was content with humanity, even unto death.  And by joining us in our death, he invites us to join him in his resurrection – a resurrection that was God’s gift of transformation.  And that gift is still on offer – it’s available to us who follow Jesus’ way. 

Come, let us begin anew our Lenten observance.  AMEN.  


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Hard Knocks: Sermon 5

Posted 5:30 PM by
Sermon, Financial Hard Knocks                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
19 February 2017                                                                       St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


In our sermon series on hard knocks, we’re talking about financial hard knocks today.  So did you hear…

The best money managers in the Bible were Noah, who was floating his stock when everyone else was in liquidation, and Pharaoh's daughter, who went down to the bank of the Nile, found Moses, and managed to draw out a little prophet. 

Years ago I attended a hospital seminar on pain and pain management.  Various kinds of physical pain were discussed, and we looked at emotional pain from trauma, hardship, and grief.  Then the presenter surprised me: he introduced another kind of pain I hadn’t thought of in this context: financial pain. All of a sudden, I realized that the distress of not having enough was an identifiable source of real pain, anguish even.  We sometimes call it Feeling the Pinch. I recognized that experience, not so much from my own experience, but from my parents’. 

My parents had many advantages and privileges – they were white, both college graduates, from stable families. Yet that didn’t insulate them from financial pain: my dad suffered from extended periods of unemployment late in life, and my mom had a debilitating physical and mental illnesses. They had a legal judgment against them when my eldest brother stole and crashed a car at age 16.  I often marvel that they managed to pay the rent every month, and put food on the table.

You may, or may not, be familiar with that kind of grinding financial pain.  It’s different from being a bit short some months and having to juggle some bills.  It’s a constant battle to make ends meet, often robbing Peter to pay Paul.  At its extreme, this painful financial condition is poverty.  I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

The Bible has a lot to say about poverty and people who are poor. 

We heard in Leviticus that God calls for generosity – making sure poor people have enough.  (Enough is a concept we’ll come back to.)

In Leviticus, God’s economy was spelled out.  Those with capital (primarily land, in those days) are instructed to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, so the poor could come and collect food.  Gleaning, it’s called.  My friend Gary and I gleaned in a friend’s cornfield when we were in college, to raise money for a trip to visit seminaries. 

And there are labor laws, too: Moses commanded that the Hebrews pay a fair wage to their laborers, and always pay workers at the end of each day (otherwise the worker could go hungry that night).  God is clearly concerned about the welfare of the whole community, not just the wealth of some individuals.  It’s right there in the Bible. 

In the Gospel, Jesus calls us to give when someone begs….  We struggle with that today, on the streets, in the subway…

A recent encounter here at church: a man came with $11 in his pocket, needing $69 for a bottle of insulin for his brittle diabetes (just the copay – he actually has insurance, although who knows how long that will last), His next paycheck is 12 days away.  He also needs to raise rent money for a hoped-for new apartment in April for his family, including his wife and twin 13 year olds.  What should he do? 

I gave him what we had in the office to give - $27. 

Clearly, God doesn’t want anybody to be poor and desperate.  And God has provided enough to support all the people in the world – if we would just share it more equitably.  But we don’t. 

God’s view of the money and wealth is really very different from ours.  God doesn’t measure us by the vacations we take or the houses we remodel or the colleges we attend.  God sees us as human beings to be loved, whether we have lots of money or little.  If we really felt God’s love for us as beloved persons, we wouldn’t need so many material trappings in life to prop us up.  We wouldn’t always feel we have to keep up with the neighbors or the inlaws.  We would learn to be content – really happy – if we just have enough. 

Enough.  Everybody should have enough. 

If we looked at people from God’s point of view, we would also have more love for people who truly have too little to live on, because God loves them as God loves us.  Our thankfulness for our own lives would blossom into greater generosity for other people.  Jesus calls us to give to people who beg, lend to those who need to borrow, leave enough in the fields for the poor to eat; to love our neighbors, and even our enemies. 

Jesus calls us to a life of Modesty, Thankfulness, Generosity.  I don’t think Jesus hates wealth – he enjoyed the pleasures of the earth, of good food and wine.  (He did note that wealth would make it harder for people to enter the Kingdom of God….)  Jesus didn’t want poverty for anybody – he saw how the majority of people in his world were beaten down by taxes, landlords, and unjust systems. 

The Good News for those of us who do suffer financial pain is that money is not how God measures us.  Only the world measures a person by his money.  God’s abundant love disregards that.  (It still pains me to think of my dad’s deep shame when he couldn’t find a job!)  It can really help us when we stop trying to live up to someone else’s expectations, and start living modestly, thankfully, generously, for God. 

And God wants to free us from all that binds us, including financial hardship.  Not to make us rich, but to make us whole.  Our cult of wealth is so damaging to our country!  God depends on all of us to make the world fairer, more compassionate on people who are struggling.  Financial pain is real, but we know how to reduce it.  God will rejoice, not when everybody is rich, but when everybody has enough, when we stop hoarding and start sharing, when we all come to God’s banquet table as one human family.  AMEN.  


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Hard Knocks: Sermon 4

Posted 4:09 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany 5A                                                                  Jeffrey B. MacKnight
5 Feb 2017                                                                                 St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


The NYT Magazine has a column called “The Ethicist.”  A couple of experts respond to queries of all kinds.  A few recent ones:  What is I obligation when I am told that someone has gotten married simply for green card?  Am I obliged to tell my friend if I find out her husband is cheating on her?  What should I do if I witness a parent abusing a child in a public place?  When a coworker sabotages a colleague at work? 

We make ethical decisions all the time.  At the moment, many of us will make judgment calls as we prepare our taxes – what income must be declared, what deductions we can claim. 

And we face ethical decisions in the public sphere too.  When we witness injustice, what is our obligation to respond?  To protest?  The assist and advocate for the injured?  To try to get laws and policy changed? 

The prophet Isaiah railed against the religious folk of his time, for maintaining all their religious fasts, but failing to act with righteousness in their worldly affairs.  “Look…you oppress all your workers…you quarrel and fight….  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry….?”  Isaiah declared that God wants righteousness – moral behavior – not just religious talk and ceremonies! 

That’s still a problem for us.  But sometimes, we get it right.  There is a long history of the churches fighting injustice by fighting for political change.  The church fought slavery and helped to end it in this country.  The churches fought for civil rights, and against wars.  Many churches lead in the environmental movement.  Our neighbors in the Roman Catholic Church are adamant about fighting abortion and capital punishment as violating the sanctity of human life.  We may or may not agree, but they have the right to fight for their beliefs in the political arena.  

Many this last week are alarmed about the president’s directive to stop all refugees from entering the U.S., as well as other drastic travel restrictions on legal residents of our country.  Our Episcopal Church leaders have led the way, with clear statements from Michael Curry, our presiding bishop, and Mariann Budde, our own bishop: 

“All Christian Americans should be offended that President Trump has decided that some of the most vulnerable refugees on the planet are not welcome here because they are of the Muslim faith, but that Christians from the seven troubled countries that the President has named are to receive favored treatment. Such favoritism is an insult to Christians. I stand proudly with other Christians and interfaith leaders to protest this order, express solidarity with one another, and together call our nation to the highest of our common spiritual and civic values.  Scripture could not be clearer: we are called to welcome the stranger.”

Why?  Because we are all strangers ourselves…in Scripture, God reminds the Hebrews that they themselves were strangers in Egypt, so they’d better treat other strangers with respect.  The United States is uniquely a land of strangers, of immigrants.  Nobody can claim to be a native except native peoples – American Indians.  All the rest of us are of immigrant stock – I myself am the progeny of Scotch-Irish horse thieves, as near as I can tell.  We are all strangers; we all need a welcome in this world.  What could be a more basic human aspiration than to find a home, a safe, secure place for our families? 

St. Dunstan’s began a refugee ministry months ago, and we’ll continue it, adjusting for whatever realities come.  We put up a banner, “Help us help refugees,” last week, to show our commitment to the strangers seeking safety on our shores.  I got a call last week from a neighbor who said he was offended by that.  He said that it was a blatant political act, considering the timing of the banner.  He said he had not seen banners about other crises, such as the bombing of Aleppo.  He also said he himself was an immigrant to the U.S. and appreciated the welcome he received here.  Go figure. 

While I don’t back down from St. Dunstan’s right to display banners, this man, who wouldn’t identify himself, did make me think.  Many other humanitarian crises we have lamented, but let go by without taking a public stand.  Why?  What is our ethical obligation here?  How do we choose which causes to fight for? 

Christian ethicists have a number of criteria to apply to situations:  What principles are at stake?  What are our obligations to the parties involved?  Do we have the capability to make a difference in the outcome? 

Each of us must decide what to do, how to stand up for what we believe in.  We all must make that choice, because doing nothing is a choice too, and we are responsible for that choice.  As a congregation, we have responsibilities to live out what we say we believe about justice, equality, and the dignity of every human being.  We claim that we seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself.  Do we live that way?  Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  Salt can sting; it’s not always comfortable.  Light can reveal things we may rather keep hidden.  Refugees and immigrants may remind us that we were once just like them. 

I have a feeling that our Christian values will be challenged again and again in the world we live in today.  Will we be salt and light, or will we hide in the shadows, hoping our comfortable lives are not too much disturbed?   Isaiah, and Jesus, both call us to put our money, and our actions, where our mouths are.  I hope in the end God will judge that we have let our light shine brightly in this troubled world, working for justice and compassion for all our fellow human beings.  AMEN.  


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Hard Knocks: Sermon 3

Posted 6:56 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany 3A                                                                   Jeffrey B. MacKnight
22 January 2017                                                                         St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


Chopping cabbage, carrots, celery, and potatoes…. That’s what I spent a few hours doing on Monday morning, MLK day.  It was a day of service organized by Washington Hebrew Congregation, our neighbors down Mass. Ave.  Hundreds of youth and adults from all over the city did numerous kinds of work to help poor people.  My group was prepping veggies for a number of soup kitchens.  It was good, honest work to be doing.  I enjoy working with food.  And I emerged without cutting myself – just one callous! 

Doing something active, and doing something for somebody else, are two good ways to combat the symptoms of mental illness, which often include profound lethargy, a sense of paralysis and futility.  Mental illness is our “hard knocks” topic today.

I hasten to add that these activities can help with symptoms, but they do not lessen, much less cure, mental illness.  Illnesses of the mind have many causes, including proven chemical causes in the brain.  These are medical conditions. They have no simple or easy solutions. 

I’ll bet everybody here has direct experience with mental illness – either you’ve suffered from it yourself, or you know somebody well who has.  Maybe you know what it’s like to be Eeyeore – feeling listless and sad for no apparent reason.  Or you know what it’s like to be Winnie the Pooh – trying to be a good friend to Eeyeore, even when that’s hard to do.  I’ve been on both sides myself. 

The Mayo Clinic defines Mental illness as a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.

To that, I would add dementia, which is such a huge part of our lives now, as human beings live longer.  These illnesses seriously affect the quality of life for sufferers and companions alike.  The stress of living with someone whose mental capacities are diminishing daily is unbelievable.  If you’ve lived with an addict, or if you are one yourself, you know how destructive that is.  And we know that mental illness is one driver of heinous acts of violence such as shooting…although there are other factors that need addressing as well. 

Now, to the Gospel passage today.  In Matthew, Jesus does not begin his public ministry until John the Baptist is imprisoned, indicating that Jesus was a disciple of John’s.  When Jesus does announce his own mission, he quotes Isaiah: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  This is the nature of Jesus’ message: God is bringing light where there was only darkness. 

Was Jesus referring to mental illness here?  No, at least not particularly.  Jesus was announcing liberation from many oppressors – many sources of darkness.  These included oppressive poverty, the oppression of Roman occupation, oppressive class structures in society, and yes, the oppression of mental and physical diseases.  Jesus’ healing stories fill the Gospels!  Many of them are mental healings – freeing persons from demons and unclean spirits.  That’s the way they understood mental illness in Jesus’ day.  Jesus wanted people to be healthy and whole.  Jesus wants us to be healthy and whole!  We should never forget that – especially when we are feeling anything but whole. 

But the world is an imperfect world – beautiful, but imperfect: full of risks, hurts, disease, and misfortune.  People suffer – we all suffer in various ways.  And that gives us opportunity to help, to minister to people who really need it.  It’s like chopping vegetables for the soup kitchen – it feels good to help someone feel a little better, or at least a little less alone. 

And here, religion and science come together.  Scientists have developed tools to reduce human suffering.  For mental illness, many of these tools are drugs.  I am indebted to several of these drugs which have helped me since I first had trouble in college with overwhelming depression.  I am grateful these drugs exist.  Other treatments are crucial, too – talk therapy, cognitive therapies, and even electroshock therapy for some people. 

I asked my psychiatrist on Friday what one thing she’d want you to know about mental illness.  She said mainly that she wanted people to understand these are diseases of the brain, causing great suffering – just as physical diseases can. 

For addictive personalities, the 12-step movement has saved millions of lives, through hard, constant work – a lifetime of recovery.  Twelve step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are spiritual communities, often functioning like churches.  Our church has much to learn about the mutual support given in such groups, much of it one-on-one. 

Coping with dementia is perhaps the greatest challenge of our generation, because the number of sufferers is growing as the elderly population is growing.  Interestingly, some studies show that the actual prevalence has decreased – that could be very good news indeed.  Still, how do we support people as they enter dementia, and how do we support their caregivers?  Can we sit and talk with someone who has dementia?  Are we willing to offer a few hours respite care?

Finally, I want to touch on stigma, which still exists in American society, and other societies (Maggie has told me it’s worse in Scotland).  We should never, ever tell people to “buck up” or “get over it,” because they can’t – just as a diabetic can’t just “get over” his need for insulin.  We must fight this.  We must talk openly about mental illness as one of many medical problems we face, and advocate for help and treatments just as we do for cancer or heart disease.  Jesus actually destigmatized mental illness in the language of his own day: by addressing demons and unclean spirits who “possessed” people, he removed the fault from the human being himself or herself.  These persons were invaded by malevolent forces – diseases – that needed to be eradicated. 

This is why, every so often, I speak of my own struggles with depression in sermons and articles.  I’ve been treated with medication for many years.  I’ve done talk therapy on and off.  I am so grateful for these treatments, and the people who have helped me obtain them.  For good insurance coverage and family members who understand.  For friends who have stuck by me through my dark hours.  I see all these things – from drugs to friends – as healing gifts from God who loves me and wants the best for me.  That’s the same God who loves you and wants the best for you. 

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  This is the nature of Jesus’ message: God is bringing light where there was only darkness.  He wants us to walk in that light.  AMEN. 




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Hard Knocks: Sermon 2

Posted 6:52 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany 2A                                                                Jeffrey B. MacKnight
15 January 2017                                                                      St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


Hard Knocks #3:

When relationships break down: Sin and Forgiveness


“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

John the Baptist strangely announced Jesus in this way. 

Hard knocks: when we lose important relationships – many ways: through death or physical separation, or through conflict, anger, hurt, and sin.

All week, as I thought about this, I kept coming back to one matter of central concern to Christians: forgiveness.

I’m reminded of a story from my extended family:  in middle age, one member of our family had a fight of some kind with his brother.  The two cut off the relationship and did not speak for over 20 years, though they lived near each other.  It took the death of their sister to break the ice.  What a waste – 20 years without your brother!  No fight, no grudge is worth that loss. 

A strange saying of Jesus begins to make sense in this context: 

“When you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; when you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  (John 20:23)    

God forgives sin readily, eagerly: we know that through the suffering love of Jesus.  But humans do not forgive so easily.  We are good at grudges, we can nurse them along like some prized orchid…as if they were things of beauty! 

Yet we see the devastation we work when we don’t, can’t, refuse to forgive.  We think we are hurting the one who hurt us: getting back at him; making her suffer; tit-for-tat.  Sometimes that’s true.  But mostly, we are planting a cancer in our own hearts that will grow and infiltrate and destroy all that is good and joyful in our lives. 

Think of a time when you really struggled to forgive someone who hurt you deeply.  What happened?  Were you able to forgive in time?  Is the hurt still festering in your heart today?

I can think of several cases, when I felt so hurt and misused, I just couldn’t let go of the injury and resentment that filled my heart.  One time, I kept going over the matter in my head, like a loop tape I could not turn off.  I prayed for release.  I created a small ritual to represent letting go of the resentment I felt…by writing it down, praying to let go, and then burning the paper.  I went to therapy and talked it through.  Eventually, the resentment faded, and I was able to understand, and forgive.

French saying: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner. 

When all is understood, all will be forgiven.  It’s a nice, hopeful thought, and I’ve often wondered if it is true.  Perhaps that’s part of what heaven is about: when we have full understanding, we can accept others, and ourselves, as we are, warts and all. 

Rituals may help us.  We Anglicans like our rituals!  I have a book on marking life events with blessings and rituals, including “A blessing ritual for a broken trust” – for acknowledging an affair outside of marriage, and pledging to work to restore the relationship.  This is hard, hard work to do, and we need to ask God’s help with it.  There are other rituals for asking release from long-held anger and resentment. These are all grouped under the heading: “Letting Go.”  In the end, that’s what forgiveness is: letting go…and giving it up to God. 

Because sin and pain are real, we have to make room for sorrow in our faith, in our church life – not to dwell on it endlessly, but to acknowledge that sorrow that is a real part of human life.  Hymns help us with this:

To think on Jesus: “When I survey the wondrous cross….”

To remember how much God has forgiven us: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy…” 

There are Christian preachers who seem to promise a perpetual rose garden in life – if we believe the right things, maintain a positive attitude, behave the right way…and send money to their television “ministry”!  But that’s not the way life is really. 

Any religious faith worth its salt has to make room for sorrow, the honest grief that comes from real losses.  We love to celebrate the good things in life at church – babies born, weddings, all the blessings of our lives – and that’s good to do.  But we also need to grieve death and loss.  Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers can teach us something about this, in their emphasis on Jesus’ suffering sacrifice on the cross…. 

MLK Day – a day that calls us to remember the more sordid and shameful parts of our national history, and to renew our commitment to equal opportunity, fair treatment, and justice in this country.  I am reading the acclaimed new novel “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead.  It is an excellent novel, but it is hard to read of the sordid ways white people terrorized black people through fear, beatings, sexual abuse, and mutilations of black bodies.  God knows, there is much horrific sin here; so much to be rectified, so much to be forgiven.  It is staggering.  Any offense ever done to me, as a free, privileged, white male, is tiny by comparison. 

While many changes in law and society have reduced the horrors faced by black people in the United States, we have a long way to go.  Black lives do matter, and we must say so, because they are the ones who are getting shot so often.  Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that control over black bodies was at the heart of slavery, and then of Jim Crow, and we, as a society, still use violence to control black bodies. 

We are not there yet; the struggle must continue.  Dr. King exhibited an amazing ability to refrain from lashing out in anger and violence, even though he was surely provoked.  Did he forgive his tormenters? We don’t know his heart, but in his words and actions he portrayed a forgiving nature, even as he fought the wrongs against African Americans. 

So, forgiveness is hard, very hard.  Sin is real; we hurt each other terribly.  Relationships are broken, and may never recover.  That’s the bad news. 

The good news is that we can strive to forgive.  We can work at it.  We can pray for it. We can ask God to help us do it, because God clearly has sharpened God’s forgiveness skills for millennia dealing with human beings.  Remember that story about Adam, Eve, and the serpent? 

We started with the strange name by which John the Baptist announced Jesus: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  So, can Jesus really do this – take away our sins?  Well, yes: he reaches out to us and offers to take all our sins upon himself.  It’s an amazing gift of love.  But we have to be willing to hand our sins to him, and not just our sins, but our grudges, our bitterness, our dearly-held resentments against others.  And that’s where forgiveness comes in.  We have to let them go: open our hands and our hearts, and let the cancer drain out of us.  It’s one of life’s greatest challenges, and it promises life’s greatest rewards. 




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Hard Knocks: Sermon 1

Posted 3:48 PM by
Sermon, Epiphany I  Baptism of Jesus                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
Jan 8, 2017  “Hard Knocks” series                                            St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


I don’t like tunnels. 

We must first go down, down, down into the darkness, not knowing what we’ll find, what we’ll have to experience.  We have faith that we’ll emerge again into the light and air. My own phobia is getting stuck in a tunnel, in the dark depths.  I don’t like to think about that. 

Sometimes, when times are really tough, it feels like that old joke about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and then realizing it’s a roaring train headed right for us. 

Baptism of Jesus – Jesus is baptized into a fully human life: it starts with human birth, ends in a fully human death.  No way around that.  The liturgy even tells us that we are being baptized into Christ’s death – not a pleasant thought.  But we know it’s true: none of us is exempt from death.  It’s part of being fully human. 

This is the beginning of a new sermon series:  Hard Knocks.  It starts with baptism into human condition: the greatest joys, satisfactions, triumphs, and glories…and the deepest, darkest times that come with loss, hurt.  If we love deeply, we shall suffer deeply…they go together. 

Isaiah: “Here is my servant, my chosen – I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  This servant, whom Christians understand to be Jesus, is tender, gentle with us, because we are vulnerable human beings: “A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”  He is to be a “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, bring prisoners from the dungeon.”  We are the ones this savior comes to help; we are the ones who are blind, who are locked in prisons of all sorts. 

We leap ahead 600 years to Matthew’s gospel – Jesus must be baptized to fulfill all righteousness – because he was fully human.  The Spirit comes upon him, yes, but not to protect or exclude him from human pain, loss, and final death.  He is vulnerable, he is like us.  He’s going to endure a lot of loss, hurt, and dejection in his life, hard knocks, like us.  He’s going to die, like us.  And yet, he’ll come back, he’ll live and love again, he’ll be restored to life…like us. That’s the journey, and that’s the promise.  Our own baptismal liturgy is clear about this – we are baptized into the death of Jesus. 

Like all of you, I know something of death – both the literal and the figurative kind.  The early deaths of two of my brothers have been hard; struggles with depression have been part of my own life, and have affected me deeply.  There are no quick fixes.  And each of us has our own stories. 

This is the stuff of real life.  Our human bodies and minds are far from perfect; they fail us.  The world can be unkind, even cruel.  Relationships are hard, and they often break down.  Loving people does mean we’ll get hurt.  And yet not to love…that would be the most impoverished way to live – empty, sterile, without much meaning. 

That’s when we find ourselves in the tunnel, in a dark place, searching for a point of light, a sign of hope, some signal that joy might be possible again in the future.  That’s when Christians look at the cross, and the suffering of Jesus upon it, and remind ourselves that God has more to say than death. 

Weeping may linger for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.   (ps. 30)

So I want to explore some of life’s hard knocks in the next several weeks of sermons.  I’ll try to keep a sense of humor, even as we discuss difficult things.  I could list many of these, but I’d rather know: What are the events and experiences in your own life that come to mind?  Please, shout them out!   

Whatever you have faced, I believe two things can help:

1.     The love of God can comfort us when we are hurting.
2.     The Christian community can be a great support, when we know that a member is suffering.

Although I’m the priest, and you may think I’m the one that gives comfort, I have also received amazing gifts of support, prayer, and empathy from this community.  I know how powerful that is…I believe that is part of the power of resurrection, the power that brings us back up out of the depths, out of the darkness, into the light. 

It can begin with the prayers for healing we offer each Sunday after communion.  It could be a visit in the hospital, or a meal brought by your home.  Reading the psalms is a time-tested source of comfort for Christians.  Counseling can help immensely.  Singing hymns can be powerful.  Receiving the bread and wine of Eucharist strengthens us. We have many tools to help us get through the hard knocks. 

But I think the path of healing starts with our admission that we are baptized into the vulnerability of being human, and there is no escape for that.  How we deal with the hard knocks in life can make all the difference.  We’re much better off seeking help – from God, and from other people.  That’s what Christian community is for.  Thank God we are not in this life alone.  We have a God who loves us and wants the best for us, and we have a church community who care for us.  We don’t have to go through the dark tunnel – the shadow of death – by ourselves.  Thanks be to God.  


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Sermon: 12/18/2016

Posted 4:50 PM by
Sermon, Advent 4A                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
18 December 2016                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A kindergarten teacher announces to her class, "Tomorrow, we will have show and tell. I would like everyone to bring in a symbol of his or her religious faith." The next day, a little boy steps forward. "Hi, my name is David. I'm Jewish, and this is a star of David." Another little boy comes forward. "Hi, my name is Kevin. I'm a Catholic, and this is a crucifix." Finally, a little girl steps to the front. "Hi, my name is Susie. I'm a Baptist, and this is a casserole." 

We might well ask ourselves what an Episcopal kid would bring to show and tell!

Signs are important. 

Signs.  Isaiah – a child would be born as a sign – that war and conflict would soon cease.  This happened in Isaiah’s time – 8 centuries before Jesus. 

Yet we see Jesus as a similar sign from God – a sign of how life is, and what our destiny is.  A sign of hope, even when things are clearly not as they should be.  A sign of God being a part of our human journey.  The crucifix – the cross with a suffering Jesus upon it – is a fitting sign of this life, although it does not tell the whole story…the story of final resurrection, vindication, redemption of all that we hold dear.            

Although there is much beautiful Advent music, I do listen to Christmas carols in December.  The ones that tug at my heartstrings most are the ones that include the whole sweep of human experience – from birth and fresh new life and possibilities, through the real struggles of human life, the pain, the losses, and finally confronting death itself.  One of these has stayed in my mind this season.  It’s a beautiful old Basque carol.

1. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now reclining,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Angels are watching, stars are shining
Over the place where he is lying.
Sing lullaby!

2. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-sleeping,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon will come sorrow with the morning,
Soon will come bitter grief and weeping:
Sing lullaby!

3. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
Then in the grave at last reposing:
Sing lullaby!

4. Sing lullaby!
Lullaby! is the babe a-waking?
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not stir the Infant King.
Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Sing lullaby!

The sign that is Jesus  points to that whole sweep of human experience: life, death, and new life again.  We say it in the liturgy:

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again. 

We remember his death.  We proclaim his resurrection.  We await his coming again. 

We Anglicans love Christmas, perhaps even more than Easter.  The story of a wondrous birth, with a bright star overhead – that is a great sign indeed.  We should love it, celebrate it, sing about it, treasure it.  And so we do. 

And that sign is all the deeper because we know what will come – the human life, full of moments of laughter and elation, times of worry and darkness, and yes, dark valleys of almost unbearable sadness, pain, and loss.  It’s all part of the package.  Every child is born into this uncertain world.  Jesus is the sign that God is with us through it all, and that redemption comes in the end:

Hush, do not stir the Infant King.

Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Sing lullaby!

So if I were asked about the symbol of our Anglican/Episcopal faith, I’d be hard-pressed to choose just one, because our faith is a journey.  We are on the trail together, starting with our Hebrew Scriptures and heritage, leading to the revelation of Jesus’ life and death on the cross, and on into resurrection and whatever new thing God has for us.  And I’m sure our journey includes lots of casseroles too.  As we turn now to the joys of Christmas, find a quiet moment and thank God for the journey of your life, what was, what is, and what is to come…dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning, conquering death, its bondage breaking.  


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Sermon: 12/11/2016

Posted 4:46 PM by
Sermon, Advent IIIA                                      Jeffrey B. MacKnight
11 December 2016                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

When John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah of God, Jesus replied: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 

My brother-in-law Andre visited over Thanksgiving and told this joke –
 “What did the blind man say when he walked into the bar?  Ouch!” 

Andre’s one of the most active, hard-driving, yet gracious people I know.  Due to a rare congenital condition, he lost his eyesight a few years ago in his late 50s, first in one eye, then in the other.  He is now legally blind.  He has had to live with his blindness since – not an easy change to accept, much less adapt to.  He was cast into the wilderness.  He also got fired from his job because of his blindness.  Oh, and he happened to contract cancer too. 

Andre set out to reorder his life.  Andre and his wife Nancy moved to a house closer to public transit in Denver, where they live, so Andre can get around town on his own. Andre has gotten a service dog Pelham – a smart and gentle yellow lab who serves as his eyes. 

One of Andre’s greatest loves is bicycling – the heavy duty, long distance kind.  Without his sight, he has had to learn to ride tandem: in the back, not in the driver’s seat. He said that’s required learning humility.

Andre has learned to be amazingly independent – still an excellent chef, he’s also astute with technology.  But he’s also learned to ask for help when he needs it – something most of us need to work on. 

Jesus’ message of healing at first seems like welcome news for all of us, and at a deep level, it is.  But there is a catch: in order to receive Jesus’ healing, we must first accept our blindness, our deafness, our state of utter need.  We have to admit that we are not in control, we are not sufficient unto ourselves, we are wandering in the dark, in the wilderness.  We have to be humbled.  We need help.  That’s why Jesus added, at the end, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Blessed is anyone who can admit his state of need, blessed is she who can ask for help. 

Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr observes that the Christian life is a process – of traveling from our original order, through a state of disorder, and finally into a third state: reorder.  My brother-in-law Andre has certainly traveled this difficult path.  He had no choice.  It’s been hard.  Rohr says: 

We dare not get rid of our pain before we have learned what it has to teach us. Most of religion gives answers too quickly, dismisses pain too easily, and seeks to be distracted—to maintain some ideal order. So we must resist the instant fix and acknowledge ourselves as beginners to be open to true transformation. In the great spiritual traditions, the wounds to our ego are our teachers to be welcomed. They should be paid attention to, not litigated or even perfectly resolved. How can a Christian look at the Crucified One and not get this essential point?  The Resurrected Christ is the icon of the third [state], or reorder.

Once we can learn to live in this third spacious place, neither fighting nor fleeing reality but holding the creative tension itself, we are in the spacious place of grace out of which all newness comes.

There is no direct flight from order to reorder, you must go through disorder, which is surely why Jesus dramatically and shockingly endured it on the cross.  He knew we would all want to deny disorder unless he made it clear. But we denied it anyway.

Richard Rohr’s words are wise.  In other words, we’ve been blind, often on purpose.  Blind because we don’t want to see – see our failings, our sins, our disordered lives, our deep emptiness. 

I think the darkness of Advent is a symbol of this kind of blindness.  The church is wise to keep insisting that we pause in the dark place before we experience the brightness of Christmas.  There’s no shortcut.  We need time to journey through the wilderness, the darkness, the disorder, before God can bring something new into being in us, a new and marvelous order. 

I just got a new set of tires on my car.  That’s pretty easy to do on a car, but not in our spiritual lives.  As I get older, I realize that Advent is a season that makes more sense to those of us who have a lot of miles on us.  We get battered a good bit by life, even when life is good.  We may wish we could just get a new set of treads, but we can’t – not that easily.  We have to wait for God to do that…to allow us to wake up one day after a long time of clouds and thick darkness, and realize that we are being renewed.  There is a new light shining in the world, and in our hearts. 

That’s what Advent represents: that journey through hardship toward  peace, through darkness into a new light.  We can’t rush it; it has to happen in God’s time.  I don’t think children can get this, but we older folks do.  I’ve come to love Advent and its darkness…maybe even more than Christmas.  The light and joy of Christmas are lovely, but the darkness and quiet of Advent have much to teach us.  Let’s dwell here expectantly these next two weeks.  AMEN.  

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Bishops Visit 11/20/2016

Posted 5:26 PM by
Click here to read the Sermon delivered by Bishop Mariann Budde during her visit to St. Dunstan's on November 20, 2016.


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Consecration Sunday Sermon 11/13/2016

Posted 4:31 PM by
Sermon: Consecration Sunday, Veterans Day                               Jeffrey B. MacKnight
13 November 2016                                                                        St. Dunstan’s



Two hunters from Minnesota get a pilot to fly them to Canada to hunt moose. They bag six. As they start loading the plane for the return trip, the pilot tells them the plane can take only four of the moose. The two lads object strongly. "Last year we shot six, and the pilot let us put them all on board; he had the same plane as yours." Reluctantly, the pilot gives in and lets them load all six. However, even with full power, the little plane can't handle the load and goes down a few moments after takeoff. Climbing out of the wreckage, one Minnesotan asks the other, "Any idea where we are?" The second replies, "Yah, I tink we's pretty close to where we crashed last year." J

Sometimes life feels like that! 

Today our heads are crowded with competing thoughts, concerns, hopes, and worries.  It’s been quite a week: a big upset in the presidential election – some of us are happy and some are not.  Most of us are surprised, I’d say, and wondering what the Trump presidency will look like for the next four years.  The Church is not here to render judgment on politicians, favoring some over others.  In fact, followers of Jesus do not put their trust in the goodness of any political leader.  But the Church is very much here to critique all politicians, all national decisions and legislation, in the light of the values of Jesus our Lord.  Here at St. Dunstan’s, we’ll continue to look at our national life through the lens of Jesus’ life and teachings, as we always have.  We have a different, and higher, set of standards by which to judge our society, our world. 

The odd Gospel you heard today is from Palm Sunday, when Jesus finally rode into Jerusalem to face the Temple officials, the Romans, and finally the cross itself.  He rode in, not on the tall white horse of a conquering warrior, but on a little donkey-colt.  He was making a political statement – or, I should say, a critique of all human politics.  He was setting himself in contrast to the “powers that be” in his world: the Roman occupation of Palestine.  Just as the Roman legions rode into Jerusalem from the west, with chariots and armaments and great horses, to “keep peace” during Passover, Jesus rode in from the east on his little donkey.  He knew that every political leader would need to be countered by a people devoted to God, God’s radical and equal love for every human being.  The powers of this world will always need this check, this critique, this counter-force.  And we need it now. 

I want to focus on one little sentence in this Gospel: not the Hosannas of the crowds, but the 6 words used to secure that little donkey-colt from a sympathetic owner.  Those 6 words are:  “The Lord has need of it.”

How Jesus arranged for the little colt, we don’t know, but the words he used are clear enough: “Please give this, because the Lord needs it.”  What other need could supersede that?  All our plans, our personal desires, our hesitations fall away when we really hear the call of God saying, “The Lord needs it: the Lord needs you, your time, your money, your devotion and prayer.  Never mind your own plan, right now, the Lord needs you.”  Have you ever heard that voice in your life?  Had that overwhelming sense of call, of conviction, of action?  I hope you have.  That call changes us. 

“The Lord has need of it.”

This week we also observe Veterans’ Day, a time to stop and give thanks for the sacrifices of all who have served this country in the armed forces.  I think of my dad, who joined millions of Americans in the forties to fight in World War II.  In that war, the enemy was clear, vicious, and well-defined.  But I still stand in awe of those people who dropped everything and risked – or gave – their lives.  I believe most of them understood that call to be from God and country: “The Lord has need of me.” 

The wonderful Christian priest and writer Barbara Crafton wrote yesterday, reflecting on the American Civil War (after just finishing Shelby Foote’s huge history of that horrific conflict).  She notes the unfathomable cost in human life – well over 600,000 lives lost as both sides slaughtered our own brothers and sisters who saw this country differently.  We face such a split in the U.S. today, and it is a dangerous time for us.  Crafton writes:

 This must never happen again.

War never brings peace. It always sows the seeds of the next war. Violence on a smaller scale is the same: it may triumph in the moment, but it never persuades. The most violence can win is compliance based on fear, and a grim resolve to even the score next time, a resolve that can last for years.

We cannot designate our fellow Americans as enemies. We can be opponents, but we must not be enemies. We can be passionate, but we must not hate.

We can contend for what we think best. In order to do that, we must stay in contention. If we foreclose on relationship, we are no longer in the civic conversation.

“The Lord has need of it.”

Finally, we come together today at St. Dunstan’s to offer our financial pledges for the year ahead – another kind of sacrificial giving for God’s work right here in our own neighborhood.  Our church stands as a testimony to our values here: God’s love for every person, hospitality and acceptance of all, a safe and happy place for children every day, service and advocacy for people in need.  People see our banners on Mass. Avenue and know that this is a safe and welcoming place.  We don’t judge by race or social status or wealth or other characteristics; because Jesus doesn’t judge by those things. We look for Christ in every person. 

So today – in the midst of all that swirls around us – I ask you to vote for these values, with your pledge of support.  The Lord has need of it.  And I ask you to make it a bit more generous than you are comfortable doing, so that our church can thrive.  If you’ve already submitted a pledge, consider increasing it a bit.  Our budget challenges are great this year, because some revenues we used last year are not recurring.  Your leaders will work with what you, collectively, give, and we’ll devise the best possible budget to use those funds.  We shall live together by the decisions you make today. 

I conclude with the words of our own bishop, Mariann Edgar Budde.  Reflecting on the shock of the election, she calls for us to know our neighbors, especially the ones we disagree with, whose lives are painful and difficult in ways we do not know: 

Speaking on behalf of the Diocese of Washington, I pledge that I will take an active part in the healing of America. In faithfulness to God, we will seek the welfare of the cities, towns and communities in which we live. As Americans, we give thanks for the peaceful transfer of political power and we respect it.

“The Lord has need of it.”  The Lord has need of us – each and every one of us – today, in this country, in this city.  The Lord is asking for our hearts, our hands, our voices, and our dollars, to make peace with justice.  Will you answer?   


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