Sunday, June 19, 2016

Irresponsible to be Silent

A sermon preached June 19, 2016
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia

(“Dear Lord: Carry your word into the most protected parts of our hearts.”)

Today I don’t have a traditional sermon. I certainly don’t have a sermon about Father’s Day, but now that I’ve mentioned it, happy Father’s Day. Today, instead of a traditional sermon, I feel led to share some things that have been on my heart this past week.

I’ve been your Rector here since August of 2012. Those of you who have been here a long time know that my preaching style is almost always “expository,” a fancy word that simply means you take a passage of scripture, and having studied it during the week, you show – or expose – its meaning and relevance as best you can, and then you sit down, trusting Holy Spirit will be hard at work simultaneously translating for each of you what you need to hear on any given Sunday.

One of the implications of this style of preaching is I tend not to preach “topical” sermons, and I don’t preach “politics from the pulpit.” 

Part of the reason, by the way, I don’t preach politics from the pulpit comes from the fact that my first real job out of college was working on Capitol Hill for 2 ½ years, and I was briefly assigned to a presidential campaign, and I worked as a lobbyist/issues person for a year, then as a press secretary and speech writer back in Indiana, involved in a statewide campaign.

Even as an entry-level legislative aide, I developed, and have kept, an appreciation for the fact that most issues are complex and nuanced. And that more than one person can be correct on an issue. And that even if someone is wrong, at least it’s possible to be honestly wrong.

I also realize there are lots of experts in this very congregation: editors, writers, legislative directors, policy wonks.

It strikes me as presumptuous and naïve for preachers to try to tell you what, specifically, to think or how, specifically, to take action on a particular issue.

So I promise not to stand up here and offer a particular specific solution to any particular political problem, saying that "we must all go out and support HR1234” as the way to address this particular problem. In fact, I’ll go further: when it comes to political problems we face, I promise not to offer any solutions whatsoever.

But is that – being too political, weighing in too often on social justice issues – really the side of the cliff I’m in danger of falling off of?

Here’s what I wrestled with this past week: is my silence from the pulpit and in my weekly e-news messages sending an inadvertent message of indifference?

Last week I said there are so many times we find ourselves in a situation where we witness a wrong, and we know it has to be made right, but out of fear that we come across as judgmental, out of a fear that we’ll offend,

we get cold feet…

we go into our conflict avoidance mode,

we decide to wait it out,

not because we’re being patient, but because, if we’re honest, because we don’t want to rock the boat: we lack the courage to speak up, speak out, say something.

But then along comes something like what happened exactly a week ago Sunday in Orlando – except there hasn’t been “something like” what happened there, it set a new horrible modern American record.

Picture a Venn Diagram, with three circles:


And the overlap part is a perfect storm that seems irresponsible to be silent about.

Sure, we offered prayers during Prayers of the People last week. For some of you, that’s enough. I get that: you don’t come to church to hear what you hear all week long.

Especially when we add to that Venn Diagram the fact that we’re in a particularly toxic presidential campaign,

and add to that our culture -- especially inside the Beltway -- of shaming and blaming, of polarization, divisiveness, and name-calling -- that we’re all tired of and want a respite from...

...well, it is any wonder that out of a fear that I’ll offend, that I get cold feet...

That I go into conflict avoidance mode,

I decide to wait it out,

not because I’m being patient, but because,

if I’m honest, because I don’t want to rock the boat: I lack the courage to speak up, speak out, say something.

Well, I’m not asking you to agree with me, and again I promise not to offer any solutions, but surely it is possible to tell the truth, but tell it in love.

Besides, as the Gospel reminds us today, Jesus – and the Body of Christ the Church, you and I – have power over that which would "corrupt and destroy the creatures of God." And the power to bind and to loose the evil powers of this world begins by naming them: Legion, for they are many -- not by pretending they aren’t there, or by looking the other way.

And here is the truth in regard to gays, guns, and Latinos. (Guns first, then Latinos, then gays).

Guns: I was going to say that our culture has a gun problem, but even to say “our culture has a gun problem” is politically charged, because it sounds like I’m advocating specific stances about which people of good will can honestly disagree.

So I won’t say we have a gun problem: I’ll say something we can all agree on, and that is we have a violence problem in our culture.

We glorify violence.

We have violence as entertainment in the movies and on television.

But here’s the thing: our violence problem is exacerbated by the fact that it has become too easy for someone intent on killing innocent people to kill lots of them very quickly.

I don’t know, and won’t pretend to tell you, what must be done about that.

But something must be done about that.

Latinos: our culture also has a racism problem. It’s a racism problem that goes all the way back in this nation’s history: As we will acknowledge later this fall in a series of events, and with the placing of a new marker, historical evidence points to the conclusion that our historic church was built by slave labor -- race-based slave labor. And the legacy of racism is with us today. It’s just aimed at different minorities in different decades.

I don’t know what the solution to racism is.

But I do know this: that demagoguery and fear-mongering feeds racism, and it is not Christian behavior to support anyone running for political office who spouts demagoguery and fans the flames of fear-mongering.

Gays: it’s easy to point fingers at other people, without realizing we have three fingers pointing right back at us.

I regret to say that in this very church, and from this very pulpit, year after year in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, words were spoken and a theology (sociology) was preached that caused harm and hurt to gays and lesbians. That may or may not have been the intent, but intent does not equal impact, and harm and hurt to gays was the impact. Although I was not here, and although this church is now unapologetically an ally of gays and lesbians, I repent of the harm that has been done here, and I resolve to be more outspoken whenever the dignity of a gay or lesbian person is not being respected. 

As a Facebook post by Alex Drake[1] puts it, in part,

Here's the thing you need to understand about every LGBT person in your family, your work, and your circle of friends: We've spent most of our lives being aware that we are at risk. … 

When you hear interviewers talking to LGBT folks and they say "[what happened in Orlando] could have been here. It could have been me," they aren't exaggerating. I don't care how long you've been out, how far down your road to self acceptance and love you've traveled, we are always aware that we are at some level of risk.

... When I reach to hold Matt's hand in the car? I still do the mental calculation of "ok, that car is just slightly behind us so they can't see, but that truck to my left can see right inside the car". If I kiss Matt in public, like he leaned in for on the bike trail the other day, I'm never fully in the moment. I'm always parsing who is around us and paying attention to us. …

Over the last few years, it started to fade a little. It started to feel like maybe things were getting better. A string of Supreme Court decisions. Public opinion shifting to the side of LGBT rights. Life was getting better. You could breathe a little bit. … This weekend was a sudden slap in the face, a reminder that I should never have let my guard down, should never have gotten complacent... because it could have been US. … Those little PDAs you take for granted with your spouse. They come with huge baggage for us. Every single one is an act of defiance, with all that entails.

So do me a favor. Reach out to that LGBT person in your life. Friend, co-worker, or family. Just let them know you are thinking of them and you love them. That will mean the world to them right now. I promise you.

To admit we have a violence problem exacerbated by guns,
to admit we have a racism problem,
and to admit we have a long way to go toward full acceptance of gays and lesbians,
is not political.

It is speaking the truth -- I hope, in love --
that Orlando can be a wake up call to all of us
to do a better job of keeping our baptismal promise
to respect the dignity of every human being. 


[1] The full post is

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Power of Words (and a top reason why people will go to church)

Greetings from Princeton Theological Seminary, where I'm attending the Frederick Buechner Writer's Workshop.

This is is part of my annual Continuing Education-Professional Development time, or what I would call time to "restock the overfished pond" -- time set aside to step back for a few days and renew, restore, and restock my thought-well.

One of the recurring themes at this year's conference is the power of words.

For example, the written word can time-travel: words written over 1,000 years ago still have the power to move us today. And through the written word, a writer can bi-locate, being present in someone's living room in Cincinnati at the same time that writer is present to a reader on a subway car in Tokyo.

Words also have power to bring about change. They can bring about tremendous psychological and social healing ("with malice toward none, with charity toward all...") and they can cause great psychological and social harm (and here I don't want to provide examples, because even to repeat hateful words is to give them power).

In her keynote address this morning, author Kathleen Norris spoke about the power of words on Sunday mornings.
First she read a series of humorous examples of bad prayers. Then she gave us counter-examples of beautiful prayers.

(Proud Episcopalian moment: this prayer, from the Book of Common Prayer's "Order of Compline" was her prime example of a beautiful prayer:

"Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake.")

That prayer was Kathleen Norris' segue into the end of her talk, which contained a great reminder for those of us who preach and lead prayers on Sundays.

She ended by saying people go to church "for relief from hearing things they hear all week long."

Yes. What a great reminder. In our culture, words are used so often to sell products, mask truth, and divide people. Words are so often cheapened.

By contrast, Church can and should be a place where words are used to share God's unconditional love, illuminate truth, and remind us of what unifies us. Where words are used for the purpose of praising and worshipping God.

That's a high calling. A calling we'll never be perfect about living into, but -- I hope you can see - is one toward which we strive.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Grace That Scorches Us -- Jan Richardson

I ran across this prayer/poem a little bit after Pentecost Sunday, but hey, it's still the season of Pentecost, a season to take Holy Spirit seriously, so here goes. 

It's one of those poems that each time I re-read it, I get something new from it. 

A Blessing for Pentecost Day

Here’s one thing
you must understand
about this blessing:
it is not
for you alone.

It is stubborn
about this.
Do not even try
to lay hold of it
if you are by yourself,
thinking you can carry it
on your own.

To bear this blessing,
you must first take yourself
to a place where everyone
does not look like you
or think like you,
a place where they do not
believe precisely as you believe,
where their thoughts
and ideas and gestures
are not exact echoes
of your own.

Bring your sorrow.
Bring your grief.
Bring your fear.
Bring your weariness,
your pain,
your disgust at how broken
the world is,
how fractured,
how fragmented
by its fighting,
its wars,
its hungers,
its penchant for power,
its ceaseless repetition
of the history it refuses
to rise above.

I will not tell you
this blessing will fix all that.

But in the place
where you have gathered,
Lay aside your inability
to be surprised,
your resistance to what you
do not understand.

See then whether this blessing
turns to flame on your tongue,
sets you to speaking
what you cannot fathom

or opens your ear
to a language
beyond your imagining
that comes as a knowing
in your bones,
a clarity
in your heart
that tells you

this is the reason
we were made:
for this ache
that finally opens us,

for this struggle,
this grace
that scorches us
toward one another
and into
the blazing day.

—Jan Richardson
from “Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons”

Friday, June 3, 2016

Counter-training Manual for Yard Work, Part the First

In Which our Hero describes Various Perils of Seemingly Simple Tasks

Today is a day for catching up on yard work. 

Yard work is not my specialty. Except for the fact that it gives me an excuse to be out in the sunshine with a cigar and not feel guilty that I am just out in the sunshine with a cigar, yard work isn't my favorite activity, either. I find it frustrating.

Most of the reason I find it frustrating is that each time I do it, there's a real-life version of "There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza" going on in my life:


You know: There's a hole in the bucket which needs mending, which needs straw to plug it, but the straw is too long, which means it needs cutting, which means you need an axe, but the axe is too dull which means it needs sharpening; but the stone to sharpen the axe is too dry, which means the stone needs wetting. 

Which means you need a bucket to wet the stone. 

But there's a hole in the bucket.

In today's real-life case, Mary told me that if there was just one thing I could get done today, it would be -- and this is a direct quote -- "to mow over the big ugly stupid things" that are taking over the back yard. 

Except our lawn mower has been stalling out after only ten feet of cutting, so I had to take it in to get fixed. Except we needed to Yelp-review and then ask Brown's Hardware where to take it, and finding out, and the repair place being several miles away, we needed a van to get it over there, but two weeks ago we sold-loaned our van to our son Graham, who drove it to California. So that meant I needed to swap cars with Elizabeth, who drives a CRV, but who was going to drive to Leesburg the one day I could get it over there and that meant swapping cars with Will, which meant driving Mary to work after putting the lawn mower in the trunk of the Accord which meant I needed a bungee cord, but the bungee cords are, last I saw them, in the van with Graham, which meant shoving the lawn mower in the trunk and duct-taping the trunk to the bumper which meant having to find an orange flag to warn tailgaters that there was a lawn mower sticking out the rear of our car.

Turns out the lawn mower fix-it place is four weeks behind on repairs. Which meant borrowing our neighbors' lawn mower. 

But mowing over "the big ugly stupid things" probably meant stressing or even ruining our neighbor's lawn mower, which we didn't want to do.  

Which meant I needed to weed-whack them. 

But the weed-wacker needed string. 

It is not easy to re-string a Stihl trimmer. But thankfully there are YouTube videos to watch with step-by-step instructions. 
All you have to do is go down into your basement with your weed-trimmer and iPhone, watch this video fourteen times, and then -- after figuring out which of the three models your model is, and after deep-breathing exercises -- do it yourself, just like the guy in the video, who apparently does this for a living because he makes it look really easy.

It is not really easy. 

Now listen: I have a master's degree. I have counseled couples back into marriages who were ready to poison each other's coffee. I have, with Mary, raised three teenagers, with only minor disasters and jail times. I'm competent at difficult things, damnit. 

But after re-stringing a trimmer, I am now confident that I can single-handedly negotiate a lasting peace in the Middle East while fixing all U.S. infrastructure woes, because really, how hard can that be compared to re-stringing that thing?

I was also aware that at this point in the day I had not yet gone outside. 
But, finally, re-strung trimmer in hand, I ventured outside to attack the Big Ugly Stupid Things. 

Except, out there, it suddenly occurred to me that that terms like "big," "ugly" and "stupid" are all relative terms. And it being several weeks after Mary had asked me to get rid of the big ugly stupid things, now the entire back yard was filled with big ugly stupid things. 

I will also admit I was only half paying attention when she gave me those instructions. At the time they seemed pretty simple. 

But I recall she also said to "be careful NOT to mow over the 'packs of Sandra.' Or the "Liriope." 

"Liriope" I could, and did, google-image, and manage to avoid. But I never did see packs of Sandra, or even any individual Sandra's. 

So I week-wacked everything in sight.

Our back yard now looks like a scene from post-apocalyptic The Book of Eli. 

Mary's not home yet to see my yard work. But, I now wonder if I should be careful sipping my coffee tomorrow morning...

Thursday, June 2, 2016

How I combat political despair (and other forms of worry)

It is, to say the least, an odd and rancorous election season. (And to think it's only June, with nearly half a year to go until November elections.)

I'm not the only one noticing that there's a palpable sense of worry in the body politic. And given all the turmoil, polarization, and rancor in the political system, it's not surprising that some people are falling into a form of dread, and even despair.

I want to address that sense of political dread. But -- don't worry -- I'm not weighing in politically, here. In fact I want to remind everyone that at The Falls Church Episcopal, when we say "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" there is no asterisk after the "you" -- meaning ALL are welcome there: liberal and conservative, straight and gay, millionaires and homeless, life-long Christians and first-time-visitors-doubting-this-whole-religion-thing, newborn babies and octogenarians, and everyone in between each of those spectrums.

So while I'm not here weighing in on any political stance, I do want to admit that sometimes I get worried about politics. And sometimes I have to remind myself of good antidotes to political and other kinds of worry.

And on the chance that you, too, sometimes slide into political despair (or any kind of worry) -- I want to offer some of those antidotes, for your use.

The first antidote is a line from my mentor from college years, William C. (Bill) Placher. I love this quote so much I've recently made it part of my email signature.

Placher said,

"The way we best show our love to the whole world is to love with a particular passion some little part of it."

The reason I like that quote is it that it's hope-full. A lot of our feelings of despair and worry are based on a sense (valid or not) that "so much is beyond our control"  -- that there's very little we, as one person, can do.

But there's hope in taking action. We counteract discouraging feelings when do something. When we do something. And the best way show our love to the whole world -- the best way to make an impact on the community, the nation, and the world -- is to love with a particular passion some little part of it.

That sentiment is very consistent with another favorite antidote to despair and worry, and that's the line "it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." Sure, there's lots of darkness, lots of rancor, lots of polarization. But we can light a candle, and light -- the Light of Christ-like behaviors -- overcomes darkness. Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

The third and final antidote to despair and worry is the line "we are a 65-mile-an-hour people, and often God is a 3-mile-an-hour God." 

That, for me, is a reminder to be both persistent and patient. It brings to mind what The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That the United States is, on the world stage, still in its adolescence (yet driving a very powerful car). That God ain't finished with any of us yet, and that we all have much to learn -- from the Christian faith, from God, and from one another. Which leads us all the way back to persistence and patience, showing our love to the whole world by loving with a particular passion one little part of it.

And that, we can all do.

I hope this helps.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Sharing some Joy...

One of the lessons assigned this Sunday -- the lesson from Revelation -- has a recurring theme of invitation:

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come."
And let everyone who hears say, "Come."
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

During a recent "Invite-Welcome-Connect" workshop at The Falls Church Episcopal, we heard about the value of invitation.

It's a fascinating fact that even though we live in an era of internet, advertising, Twitter and Facebook, the number one reason people come to church is - or get connected to a ministry once there - is because someone invited them.


Here's what I find even more fascinating, though:

No one ever has to tell you to invite your friends to something about which you are genuinely enthusiastic.

You see a new movie or discover a new music act or read a new book, and you say, spontaneously, "have you heard about ________?"

There's joy in sharing joy.

So...ponder this a minute:

What are some reasons you come to church?

Why do you, among all the choices you have on Sunday mornings, decide to go to church?

And - if you're connected in any way to any ministry of the church - why? What's the reason you're involved, and not just attending?

I think - I hope - that if you dig deep enough into your reasons for coming, or getting involved, you'll eventually get to the word "joy."

Remember that Christ - and therefore Christianity - is announced in the Bible as "Good tidings of great joy."

That is first thing that is said in the angelic announcement about God coming to earth as Jesus.

As the author Steve Backlund writes,
The angel did not say, 'I bring you news of a teaching that I hope you can follow,' or
'I bring you news that Jesus is coming; and boy, is He mad!' but no, the message was, 'It's time to celebrate!' 
God is doing what you couldn't. God is making a way where there was no way. You are being saved from the curse, from rejection, shame, punishment, poverty, sickness; and from performance-based living. The door is being opened to eternal life; intimacy with the Father, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and so much more. It is incredible, joyous news!
That is the message; that is the reason - I hope - at the root of your coming to, and being involved in, church.

(If you don't feel joy about your church, then that's a problem; talk to your leadership (me or Rev. Kelly or Nina or one of the wardens, if your church is The Falls Church Episcopal.)

So yes, plug your favorite new movie or restaurant or vacation spot.

But if you feel joy about your church, give yourself permission to plug your church too.

Invite someone.

Don't worry about his or her response; God is in charge of their response, not you.

Only concentrate on what you have control over: sharing your joy, and inviting....

...saying to someone, soon,


Friday, April 22, 2016

Christianity -- One of the Oldest Games of Telephone?

Remember the game "telephone," in which one person whispers something to someone, who then whispers it to another, and the message is passed on down the line until the last person, who then announces the message out loud to the group?

Because errors accumulate each time the message is passed along, what is said at the very end is often hilariously different than the original message.

Or have you ever played the related game "broken picture telephone," where someone writes something on a post-it, and the next person has to draw what has been written, and then the next person has to describe what has been drawn?

In the above example, "a car at the mechanic" becomes, in only 11 steps, "I bring you flowers and I have blue pants." 

Makes me wonder if Christianity is one of the oldest games of telephone.

In Sunday's gospel, Jesus said,

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

It's a simple opening statement:

Jesus said

1) love one another the way he loved us. And 
2) people will know we are Christians by our love.

The earliest Christians painted imperfect images of that message -- the early church -- in their lives. 

Luke wrote down what he saw in The Book of Acts.

Other Christians tried painting images of church based on Luke-Acts. Accounts of those churches got written down, which resulted in more drawings, and more summaries.

If "a car at the mechanic" can become, in only 11 steps, "I bring you flowers and I have blue pants," is it any wonder that "love one another the way I love you and people will know you are Christians by your love" can become, over 2000+ years, everything from love-filled Mother Teresa serving the poorest of the poor to hate-filled people picketing veterans' funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs?

Come to think of it, isn't the real miracle, the real surprise, the fact that after all those years of broken picture telephone, some Christians still get the original message?

So -- you know I'm going to say it -- that's why daily Bible study is so important. That's why it's so important to go back, on a daily basis, and read the original message (or, more accurately, that which comes as close as we can to it). Don't rely solely (or even primarily) on what a hierarchical, power-hungry, neutered, tamed, trained, in-love-with-itself religious institution is telling you about who Jesus is and what Jesus said. Read it for yourself.

And -- you know I'm going to say it -- that's why daily private prayer is so important. That's why it's so important to find daily solitude, to "go into your room, shut your door," and pray to God in secret. Don't rely solely (or even primarily) on ordained clergy, already-written prayers, or structured, formal times of worship for the basis of your relationship with Jesus. Take time to develop, and become more and more conversationally intimate with God, yourself.

That way, "love one another the way I love you and people will know you are Christians by your love" might have a better chance of getting painted, in your life, as something pretty close to "love one another the way I love you and people will know you are a Christian by your love.”

Thursday, March 31, 2016


There is a version of Chrisitanity that implies (or comes right out and says) that it's somehow un-Christian to doubt.

Even worse, there's a version of Christianity that implies or says doubt is a sin.

If that's the kind of church abuse you were exposed to, you'll be glad to hear Sunday's Gospel and hear more about a branch of Christendom where doubt is not viewed as a sin. You'll be glad to know that
  • doubt has a place in the Bible; 
  • "doubting Thomas" has a place among the disciples,
  • doubting people have a place in this church.
God can work through any kind of doubt we have, but it's interesting that Thomas' doubt is a particular kind of doubt.

Thomas doesn't say, "I'm not interested in believing it."  He doesn't say, "Jesus alive again?!?--that's a stupid story!"

He says, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

So -- more about this in my sermon -- I think Thomas' doubt is really a desire. 

What Thomas wants more than anything is to experience God, right where he is.

And that's why all of us -- not just doubters or the doubting part of us -- can connect with Sunday's passage: because we can all connect with Thomas' desire to see and touch the Living Son of the Living God right where we are.

This is why church -- the Body of Christ -- is so important: how can Thomas -- how can we, how can the world -- possibly believe in the resurrection, unless he sees -- unless we see, unless the word sees -- the resurrected?