Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Dick Toll



Today I want to offer a reflection of my early life with a man I never met.  I found him to be a follower of Jesus Christ.   I was fascinated, inspired, confused and wanted to learn from him.  I was in high school in the town I grew up in, Pecos, Texas.  I was 16 years old.  I heard for the first time about the work of Martin Luther King regarding civil rights.  My family had purchased our first television in 1954 and I could both see and hear civil rights issues being talked about in our country.  Especially around issues of school segregation.  The Supreme Court had a land mark decision in the 1954 case that the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitional.  The name of the case was “Brown vs The Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas”.

I will admit to being naïve on the subject of race.  It only came to me over time that as a white person in the United States, I was privileged and white supremacy had a long history in our country.  In my own small town of 10,000 people we had signs in restaurants that said “whites only”.  At the Greyhound bus station there were separate restrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “blacks”.  I asked my father about these concerns since as a well-respected attorney in Pecos.  He said it was the law of the land handed down by the Supreme Court.  Separate but equal meant separate schools for black and white people and there was to be no togetherness in social or religious settings.  I can remember thinking at the time…I had no choice to be born white.  A black person had no choice to be born black.  We are all God’s children so why do we have to have discrimination?  A question….I continue to ask and try to answer.

I was president of my junior and senior class in 1956 and 1957.  Our school board accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court and decided to integrate our schools.  I was amazed to discover that Pecos had a high school of 20 students that were black.  My ignorance was such that I did not know that.  The town became heated about the decision of the school board to integrate our school.  My father was asked to run for the school board as a last minute write in candidate because he was segregationist.  I was for integration so we had some very interesting talks.  I learned a lot from him and I believe he learned a lot from me.  We respected our different views and I have always respected my father.  He was elected to the school board but never once punished me or degraded me for my own thoughts.  Twenty students from the black high school joined our high school.

I was the manager of our football team and one of the black students was a talented end for the team who made many touchdowns.  He became a hero.  We would sit together on the bus to go to games and we became friends.  We had a pregame meal at a local restaurant at 4:00 before our games.  The restaurant was closed while our team was eating there.  We entered the restaurant and the owner looked at Bubba, my friend, and said to him, “Bubba, you know you can’t eat in the restaurant.  You go eat in the kitchen.”  I tried to argue but Bubba did not want to argue and headed for the kitchen.  I followed him and ate with him.  I felt as though I had been punched in the gut.  It was not right.  So I grew up a little that night and that year.

Fast forward to 1968 at Grace Memorial in Portland.  I was ordained a priest on January 10, 1968, here at Grace Memorial.  Last Sunday was my 53rd anniversary of ordination.  I worked two days a week for the Diocese of Oregon as City Missioner and four days a week as Curate at Grace Memorial.  Some of us here remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968.  The rector at the time was Duane Alvord and he and I spent many hours with black leaders trying to find our best responses for our churches and the city.  As we know this conversation continues to this day.

I would stop for gas regularly at a Texaco Station on Broadway just at the entrance to the freeway.  I had been ordained a short time.  On the sidewalk there were several prostitutes walking on what was then Williams Avenue.  As I was inspecting my car while getting gas, I heard a voice from the street, “Dick Toll is that you?”  I turned to the voice and a black woman wearing a blond wig walked toward me.  You can realize my surprise and wondering  what in the world was going on.  She came up to me and again called me by name.  She said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”  I said no I did not remember her and she said, “I was one of the black students who integrated Pecos High School 12 years ago.”  She handed me her card with a name I did not recognize.  We talked briefly and I asked her about her life style and coming to Portland.  I will always remember her answer, “What is a black girl from Pecos, Texas, suppose to do to make a living?”  She left to go back to the street and I left in my car wondering about the new kick in the gut I had received.

I offer this reflection because of the very fact that I look back on so much of our society that has been built on racism.  We as a society have allowed our racism to enter into every aspect of our common life.  Whether it be the way we treat the Native American people and still deny them their rights or the exclusion acts for Asians, Muslims, Japanese and of course our long history with slavery.  We as individuals and as a society have allowed systemic racism to invade our lives.  And we live in denial if we do not allow ourselves to see it and to change what we have become.

I read this publication from the Oregon Historical Society.  It is a special issue about Oregon and white supremacy and resistance.  It spells out in detail the way that systemic racism was built into the foundation of Oregon from it’s very foundation…the way we took land from the native Americans, the way the government would not allow people of color to own property, the laws that were reflective of the society we were building throughout our country.  It took a man of the stature and vision of Martin Luther King Jr to confront our issues within our society that set us on a path of healing.  But the wounds are deep and need our individual attention today.

Over the years I have learned so much from people of other cultures and observed the ways they have been discriminated against.  I worked with Native Americans in the 1960 and help start the Native American Rehabilitation Center that is still in existence here in Portland.  The motivation for it’s beginning was that our Native American brothers and sisters wanted to find a way to heal their additions in their own cultural way and not depend on the white man’s way.  It worked and is working.

I assume you as and individual have felt punched in the gut the way I was as I watched injustices take place.  And I assume you have been willing to step forward to change the situation of injustices in the work place, the neighborhood, the city government, and on, and on.  My hope is the future will allow our responses more and more as individuals and communities.

We as a society have been honored by the lives of people like Martin Luther King Jr. He chose to follow Jesus just as we heard in the Gospel today when Jesus tells Phillip, “follow me”.  One thing I have learned from my black brothers and sisters is the deep longing for the Gospel message to be shared in music and in song.  The song I am going to sing was written by Thomas Dorsey, considered to be the father of gospel music.  He wrote this song in the 1930’s after he lost his wife and son in childbirth.  He closed himself off from the world as he grieved and gave us this beautiful hymn.  It was sung by Mahalia Jackson at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral in 1968.  The name of the hymn is “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 19, 2020


Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

Psalm 40:1-12

If you have ever taken an acting class – maybe in high school, maybe in university, maybe somewhere else – then you will likely have done the exercise of selecting a short line of text and seeing how many different ways that you can say it. The line might be something that your teacher made up or it might be a famous line from a famous play. For the sake of exploration, let’s say that the line in question is what might be the most famous line ever spoken on the stage.

To be or not to be. That is the question.

How many ways could we say these words that Shakespeare gives to Hamlet?

Well, maybe we could lean hard into To be and then go soft on the rest of the line:


(or not to be). That is the question.

Maybe we could borrow the technique of the late German actor, Bruno Ganz, who according to lore said:

To be

and then paused and paused and paused, waiting, legend has it, for more than two minutes of silence before concluding…

or not to be. That is the question.

Or maybe the first sentence with its contrasting choices isn’t as important as what comes next. How about:

(To be or not to be.)

THAT is the question.

We could keep on going as long as we wanted, as long as our imaginations lasted.

Scripture, like Shakespeare, doesn’t contain a lot of stage directions or other descriptions. Most of the time, folks in the Bible just say stuff. Their words are generally not followed by, “…she said, angrily” or “…he told them, with tears in his eyes and shaking hands.” The text does not volunteer whether their eyebrows are raised, whether they are speaking through gritted teeth, Clint Eastwood style, whether they are slurring their words, whether they are giggling as they talk.

And so here is my question for this morning. We are in the Gospel of John, right near its beginning. Jesus has just been baptised. And then the very first words that Jesus speaks go like this:

What are you looking for?

How shall we read Jesus’ words?

Let’s try out a few possibilities.

What are you looking for?

So, this is a Jesus who is aggressive, accusatory, and maybe wary. This is a Jesus who sees you glancing his way on the street and says, “What do you think you’re looking at?”

Now, stay with me here. Because we are so accustomed to Serene Jesus that we may want to reflexively rule out the possibility of Cranky Jesus. But I want to suggest that this is a thoroughly plausible reading of these words.

Because John the Baptist has just seen Jesus and announced to Andrew and his friend:

There goes the Lamb of God.

And what do we know about lambs? Well, we know that, as the old expression has it, they are led with some regularity to the slaughter. This is particularly true in Jesus’ time, where the sacrifice of animals is woven into the life of the temple. John is saying a lot of things when he announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God – there is a theological complexity to this statement that could and has filled up a few books. But one of the most basic things that it means is:

There is the one who is going to die in the service of the Lord.

Before Jesus predicts his own death – and as we know, Jesus predicts his dying early and often – John the Baptist predicts it.

And so we can understand why Jesus might speak with hostility, why he might say to Andrew and his friend:

What are you looking for?

Are you two here to watch me die? Are you like the people who slow down going past the car accident, equal parts horrified and titillated, both fearing and hoping that you will see blood on the asphalt?

Are you staring because I am a dead man walking?

What are you looking for?

Let’s try another possibility:

What are you looking for?

This is Jesus as the guru with the big beard on the mountaintop, this is Jesus as Yoda. Jesus is asking a question to which he already knows the answer. The purpose of the question is not for Jesus to learn anything, not for Jesus to find anything out. The purpose of the question is for the one being questioned to learn, for the seeker to learn. For you to learn.

This is maybe the Jesus with whom we are most familiar. And I can understand why: in a lot of ways, this is a reassuring Jesus: the Messiah who is in control, who is stable and powerful, who has something like superpowers.

Jesus asking the question in this way is like a guide on a journey. He knows the path on which we walk backwards and forwards, he cannot get lost. While he is on the journey with us, he shares in none of our discovery and none of our uncertainty. When we wander off of the way and into the briars or the poison ivy, he does not follow us. He stays on the path and asks his question: What are you looking for?

When Jesus ask his question, he is really saying: I know what you are looking for. Do you know what you are looking for?

Maybe there is a trace of a smile on his face as he speaks.

One more.

What are you looking for?

So, this is Jesus as genuinely curious. Not angry and challenging but not all-knowing either. This is the Son of God, shortly after his baptism, the day after the dove has descended and the voice of the one whom he calls Father has said:

This is my Son, the Beloved. In whom I delight.

This is Jesus wandering around in stunned wonder, standing in the wake of this profound mystical experience and not sure what is supposed to happen next. In the Synoptic Gospels (so, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this is the moment when the Spirit drives or maybe leads Jesus out into the wilderness. Here in the Fourth Gospel, this is the moment when Jesus notices that two people have left John’s side and begun to follow him.

Picture him, blinking in the sunlight, his clothes maybe not entirely dry from that day before, the silt of the Jordan still in his hair. He looks at Andrew and his friend and says:

What are you looking for?

This is Jesus who is, himself, not sure what he is looking for. This is the Jesus who shares with us in our search. We are lost and hoping to be found. And so is Jesus.

Which reading is right? Which one is true? Is it one of these three or still another?­ How does Jesus sound when he looks at you and he says:

What are you looking for?

Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Dick Toll

january 20, 2019


Isaiah 62:1-5

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

Psalm 36:5-10

We live in the moment.  And then that moment is in the past.  And we move on to new moments in the future,

Many moments in time are forgotten, and even though they remain in our memory, we sometimes have difficultly pulling those memories back into our present.  Many of our moments carry meaning for us and we remember them and realize how important those moments have been for us.

My first meaningful moment in time was when I was 2 ½ years old.  I have a snapshot in my memory of Pearl Harbor.  The news was on the radio and I can remember my parents and sisters huddled around the radio receiving the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I can remember opening the door for a neighbor who came by to talk with my father.  Our lives changed from that moment on because my Dad joined the Army.

We have moments of spiritual awaking…profound at times and sometimes gradual as we awaken to those moments when we ask, “who we are in relationship to the creation and the one who gave us life.”  Profound moments under the stars, the moon, on the beach, hiking in the mountains.  My most profound moment of spiritual awaking was in the desert of West Texas, under a full moon and looking at my footprint in the sand and realizing a relationship with the one who created me and all that was within creation….a moment I have never forgotten and still receive strength from in my inner life.

Today is January 20, 2019.  Can any of you remember what you were doing on January 20, 1968?  Raise your hand if you do.  Goodness, I must be the only one.  I was coming down the aisle here at Grace Memorial during the offertory and shouting, “It’s a boy.”  Our son, David, was born on 20 January 1968 and he is 51 years old today.  He was born 10 days after my ordination to the pristhood here at Grace Memorial on January 10, 1968.  Moments that remain.

The bible is all about moments of meaning that were remembered by individuals and the larger community that experienced them.  Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in today’s reading expresses the gifts of people he has known and personally experienced their various gifts.  He writes to the people in Corinth a letter to build up their faith and as that letter is captured by them it was captured for the centuries and is captured for us today.  A moment for them becomes part of our on going moments of learning’s from Paul. In John’s Gospel today,  Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  Who was there in that moment that put it in writing so we can share something of that meaningful time and find ourselves reliving what Jesus must have been like in a social setting rejoicing with a couple bringing their lives together.

How many of you remember when you were born?  That’s a trick question isn’t it.  But the stories of our birth are so important to hear from those who were part of your birth, at the hospital, or in a taxi, or maybe even at home.  Moments of life, moments of birth, moments of meaning.

And of course we know the pain of loss as we experience the loss of a loved one as they die and give up their last breath.  One of the moments of death for me was when I was in Chaplaincy training for a year at Emanuel Hospital.  I was on call one night and was called in at 2 o’clock in the morning.  I came to the room of a woman who had died and met her husband standing by the bed.  I spent about 45 minutes talking with him as he recounted their move during the depression to Coos Bay, Oregon.  He came from the East Coast with his bride and ended up in Coos Bay with $2 in his pocket.  He worked for years in the timber industry.  He talked about his marriage and his children and most of all he talked about his wife,

At the end of our conversation, I offered a prayer with him by her bed.  Then he took the wedding band off his wife’s finger and said a simple, “Thank you”.  I thought of the marriage service, “until death do us part”. 

It was for me a moment of grace in the midst of life and death.  It was for me a moment captured in my memory that has helped me understand the meaning of relationships.

We all have moments we remember from conversations with people.  One of the profound moments for me in my own learning about the Palestine/Israel conflict was on my first trip to Bethlehem in 1983 with 16 people from St. Marks Cathedral in Seattle when I was serving as Canon Pastor.  I was one who thought I knew something about the history and the issues and found out my profound ignorance as we were led around the region by a Palestinian guide.  He took us to a glass factory in Bethlehem where a young man about 16 years of age was blowing a glass bottle.  I have a memory of his saying to all of us, “I am so glad to meet you,  You are Americans and we know that Americans care for correcting injustices of people and you will go home and help us to end the military occupation that we live under.”  I have often wondered what happened to that young man as to his continuing his life under military occupation…and our own complicity as Americans in continuing to fund the occupation with our tax money.  Again, a moment that led me into many moments of learning and it continues.

Of course, we all have moments that we do not want to remember but are also part of what we experience.  I watched 60 Minutes recently on TV and saw a segment of the show which was about a person named Ryan Green with the nickname of Speedo.  Ryan is an African American opera singer who in his youth got in trouble and was jailed.  He had a teacher that believed in him and his talents and the teacher told him, “Do not let this moment define who you are.”  Now, he is a famous opera singer.  We all have moments to move beyond and discover how to use them to our advantage rather than our disadvantage.”

We also have our embarrassing moments.  What are your most embarrassing moments?  One of mine was at a General Convention of the Episcopal Church where a roving reporter asked me about an embarrassing moment.  I shared the fact that once when I was leading a Sunday service; I had to go to the bathroom.  I forgot to turn my microphone off.  I will never forget the faces of the people when I returned to the service.  What was more embarrassing is that my story was on the video at the convention and thousands heard my story.  Oh well.

I know that each of us is captured by our moments in our national and international history.  Some of us have experienced the end of WWII, John F. Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King assassination, and on and on.  A book I am reading now by John Meacham, The Soul of America, expresses the turning points in our Nations history.  In his book he speaks to the moment in our national history about a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  The sermon by Martin Luther King was given 6 days before his assassination in Montgomery, Alabama.  A quote from that sermon, “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” King said.   “And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the way God’s universe is made: this is the way it is structured.”  Tomorrow we honor Martin Luther King as a person who has made a difference in our national story.  Moments that we can recognize that can help us to move into our future. 

So, how do we embrace our moments that have been there and those yet to come?  How do we allow ourselves a way to embrace and nurture our lives with meaningful moments….painful as well as joy filled moments?

I believe it is important to learn how to reflect on our lives as these moments become a part of our past and can soon be forgotten.  If we can take a moment of meaning and reflect on it and savor it like we do with good food or a piece of candy we are able to let it become a part of us rather than a lost memory.  I am going to leave you with homework.  Start with 5 of the most important moments of your life and add to it with your reflections.  Before long, if you use pictures from the past, and old letters received and also diaries you will have so many moments to reflect on you will not be able to count them.  Reflect and enjoy.  Life is short.  We need to savor and reflect on our lives, we need to reflect on who we are and challenge what our moments have really meant to us.  I like to reflect in prayer and realize that every Eucharist is a meaningful moment that both reminds us of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus but is a moment in time in the here and now that is a sacred moment that moves us into the future…..a future that always includes God.


First Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

january 13, 2019


Isaiah 43:1-7

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Psalm 29

A while back I heard a short radio documentary. The feature began with a story about the reporter’s four-year-old nephew. The little boy was visiting a toy store with his mother and there he was terrified by a hideous creature, by a large statue of Frankenstein’s Monster standing by the entrance. The boy’s fear was so great that he ran deep into the toy store to hide. And that would have been an okay strategy, except that it created a logistical problem: there was only one door and, in order to leave the store again, it was necessary for him to pass the monster once more.

After a great deal of negotiating with his mother, the little boy made it clear that walking past Frankenstein’s Monster a second time was an impossibility. And so, his Mom picked him up and, his face buried in her shoulder, she carried him past the awful creature and out of the store.

For a long time thereafter, the boy was fixated on the experience, almost paralysed by it. Over and over he would say, “Mom? Remember the monster?” And he would retell the trauma of that day at the store again and again and again, much as you or I might retell the story of a car accident – such storytelling is how we wrestle with such an experience, how we make sense of it.

But one day something remarkable happened: the retelling suddenly shifted. Just at the moment in the story when the toy store monster made its shuffling evil entrance, the fear fell away from the boy’s face like a sheet of ice and it was replaced by something else. I’m going to guess that his expression was a combination of mischief and glee. (Is there a name for that look, for that mixture of emotions? There should be.) And he announced to everyone listening:

I saw the monster. And I peed all over it!

And in that instant, the monster lost its power over him. Like David letting the rock fly which fells Goliath, the little boy claimed the most improbable of victories by doing something new.

The reporter then spoke to a researcher by the name of Timothy D. Wilson who explained that the technique that her nephew had employed is what, in his research, he calls story editing. Story editing takes two major forms.

First, story editing may involve doing what the little boy did, taking a negative experience and writing a new happy ending to it. In the revised story, you have the perfect rebuttal to the guy who insulted you, you don’t drop the game-winning touchdown, you are able to defeat the monster in the store. That kind of story editing is a way of escaping from an experience which is haunting you, of gaining power over that experience. And as simple, as silly even as it may sound, Wilson told the reporter that it works.

The second kind of story is something that Wilson has focused on a lot more. It involves taking a limiting narrative in your life and reframing it. An example of such a limiting narrative might be, “I’m no good at math” or “I have a hard time making friends.” Within the church it might be – and this is a story that is often told with shame – “We’re an aging congregation.” The researcher said that he has taught this kind of story editing on a large scale with of first-year university students, with people who are often carrying the story that goes something like, “I’m out of my depth.” Wilson invites the students to take this narrative of limitation – a story that I suspect that all of us struggled with at age seventeen or eighteen, and that many of us may struggle with still – and to craft it into a new story, a story whose thesis goes like this:

“Everybody struggles at first.”

Wilson said is that, compared with a control group, he discovered measurable improvements in the outcomes of the young people who adopted the new story. That they did better on tests, on essays, on oral reports. They were happier. “Everybody fails at first” was a story that set them free.

Over these last several weeks of Advent and Christmas, we have once again walked with the holy family to Jerusalem, there to witness the Christ child’s birth. Today, we fast forward two or even three decades to Jesus’ baptism. With the exception of Luke, who gives us the awesome account of Jesus as a child teaching in the temple, we really don’t know anything about the intervening time. There is a gap in Jesus’ biography. We don’t know what history Jesus brings with him as he steps into John’s arms and the Jordan River.

We are pretty used to picturing Jesus as an almost impassive figure. Years of art have encouraged us to do so. In one painting after another, Jesus has this look of distant and holy patience on his face. Occasionally he smiles, although he almost never laughs. And, at the end of his life, he suffers. But, even then, even on the cross, the theme of impassivity remains – Jesus on Golgotha still has an otherworldly patience, a borderline terrifying serenity. And maybe artists are right to depict him that way.

What I don’t think I have ever seen is a painting us Jesus looking befuddled, looking confused, looking lost. Why not? If we take seriously scripture’s claim that Jesus was fully human and not simply an all-powerful god disguised as a human being, then, much as he shared in our pain, much as he shared in our joy, Jesus must have also shared in that sense of lostness that is sometimes part of everyone’s life. There must have been a time when Jesus was the Ancient Near East’s equivalent of a nervous first year university student.

And that makes me wonder: could the account that we just heard of Jesus’ baptism be an example of story editing?

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

All three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – begin Jesus’ ministry with some slight variation on these words of assurance. Now, I don’t doubt that God speaks these words in order for all of us, gathered with the crowd on the banks of the Jordan to eavesdrop, in order that we all might understand early on who our protagonist is. But what if God also speaks these words because he knows that Jesus needs to hear them?

What if Jesus comes to the Jordan labouring with the fears that so many of us have. The fears that say that God couldn’t have a purpose for someone like me, that God might not be able to forgive someone like me, that God might not even be able to love someone like me. And there, in John’s arms, God says to Jesus:

Let’s edit your story into something new. You do have a purpose. You are forgiven. You are good enough, you are worthy enough, you are loved enough to take on the ministry that is before you.  

Son, I’m proud of you. You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.

What if, in that moment, Jesus defeats the monster which has held him back? And that frees his ministry to begin, a ministry which will transform the world?

Here is the promise of the Gospel, the good news. God comes to all of us and invites us to edit our stories as well. Most of us don’t get an experience as profound as a voice speaking from heaven. Rather, most of us hear God through the voice of friends, through something we read, through an experience of beauty.

You may be lost. Everybody, God says, gets lost sometimes. Most of us get lost more than once. Sometimes we need to get lost. Sometimes it is in getting lost, in those experiences that we would never have chosen, that we learn the most about ourselves, about our neighbours, about God. You may be deep into grief. Everybody experiences grief. You may be full of doubt. Everybody experiences doubt.

These things do not define you, they are not who you are, they are not your story. Your story, God says, is:

you are loved.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert


Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42


In her marvellous book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown tells the story of a question that haunted her and that, ultimately, ended up setting her free. The question was initially posed to Brown by her therapist. And it goes like this:

Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best that they can?

One day, Brown is standing in line at the bank. And maybe her therapist’s question is running through her head, as it has been often over the past few weeks. A lot of things have been going on for Brown lately, including witnessing some pretty boorish and even destructive behaviour from a colleague. And as a consequence, her estimation of humanity is perhaps not at the high water mark.

Brown is maybe one or two people back from the teller’s window, when she hears the customer in front of her begin to aggressively and loudly question the employee behind the window.

“What happened,” the customer demands, “To all of my money?

“I didn’t make these withdrawals!”

The customer grows more and more agitated.

Now, the customer is a white woman in her late seventies. The teller is an African American man in his late twenties. As she becomes more and more agitated, the customer demands to speak to a manager. And when the teller indicates his supervisor – an African American woman – the customer says,

No! I want another manager.”

Eventually, the manager convinces the woman to come to her office and to talk things over. And Brown makes her way up to the teller where she says to the young man:

Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best that they can?

The teller smiles.

“Did you see what just happened?” he asks Brown.

“I did see that,” Brown responds. “She didn’t like what you were telling her. And she wanted a white supervisor. It was horrible.”

The teller raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “Yeah. She’s scared about her money.”

The two of them talk for a while. Brown learns that the teller is a veteran who served two tours in Iraq and who came home to find that his wife had an affair with someone whom they both new. “That did a number on me,” the teller explains. The two of them have that kind of immediate, intimate, and fleeting connection that sometimes happens between two strangers. Several minutes pass and Brown becomes conscious of the growing line behind her.

And so she begins to leave when the teller says:

“The thing is – you never know about people. That lady could have a kid on drugs stealing money from her account or a husband with Alzheimer’s who is taking money and not even remembering. You just never know. People aren’t themselves when they are scared. It might be all they can do.”

Over the next several weeks, Brown poses her haunting question to more than forty folks.

Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best that they can?

And while forty is not a statistically significant sample, Brown does begin to discern a pattern. There are those who respond like the teller, who say that, yes, they believe that people are doing the best. These folks tend to qualify their answers, they are almost apologetic in their responses. “I know it sounds naïve, but…” they will say or “You can’t be sure, but…” or “I know it sounds weird, but…”

Brown has the impression that these folks have perhaps tried to convince themselves that people aren’t doing their best, but that they somehow couldn’t give up on humanity. They often add that they do believe that people can grow or improve or change. But that doesn’t stop them from believing, that any given time, people are generally doing the best that they can with the tools that they have.

Then there are those to whom Brown speaks who immediately respond: No! No, people are not doing their best. This, by the way, is the response that Brown herself gives: Heck no, people aren’t doing their best. Brown notices two things. First, the equivocal nature of the response is gone. These folks are certain that people are not doing their best.

Second, the folks who answer this way – like Brown herself – tend to struggle with perfectionism. When they look for an example of a person who assuredly isn’t doing her or his best, their primary example tends to be themselves. I know that I’m not doing my best. So why should I think that other people are?

Several weeks in to her informal experiment, Brown realises that she has never posed this question to her husband, Steve. Steve is a pediatrician and, as Brown puts it, his job means that he sees the very best and the very worst in people. And so she asks him:

Do you think that, in general, people are doing the best that they can?

Steve thinks about this question for a long time. He stares out the window for perhaps ten minutes. Eventually, he says:

I don’t know. I really don’t.

All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment. And it lets me focus on what is, not what should be or could be.

And Brené Brown says that Steve’s answer feels like truth to her. Not an easy truth, but truth nonetheless.

Today, we begin a run of six Sundays on which we will read from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians is probably Paul’s most well known letter and maybe also his most beloved. Famously, it features the passage that is read at more weddings than any other (“Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…”).

Scholars figure that 1 Corinthians is written in the year 53 of the Common Era, two years after Paul visited Corinth and maybe twenty or twenty-five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is likely one of four letters that Paul writes to the young church in Corinth, two of which survive and are preserved for us in the Bible.

Corinth, the city where Paul’s letters are going, is a port town. And like port towns across history, there is a lot going on here: here is wealth; here are sailors and merchants from all over the place who bring with them their culture, their practices and habits and values and ideas; here is a loosening of sexual morality, and in particular, a lot of prostitution; here are athletic spectacles; here is diversity in religious practice.

In many ways, Corinth is as much like a contemporary American city as any place that you could find in the Ancient Near East.

In part because of the nature of Corinth, Paul’s letters to this city encounter a lot of questions that you may recognise:

What does it mean to be church in a context where a lot of folks aren’t Christians? More specifically, what does evangelism look like when a lot of folks don’t know much about Jesus and, maybe, have some pretty different values than you or me?

How do we explain the cross and the resurrection to others and to ourselves – how is a religion whose central figure is a murdered peasant anything other than absurd or pathetic?

Are there people who are “in” or “good” with God and other people who are “out”?

How does the church respond to conflict?

There is, in other words, a seminar’s worth of stuff going on in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, way more than we could hope to encounter in a sermon. So what I would like to do is to zoom in on one question in particular. It is a question that Paul encounters throughout this letter and, specifically, it is question that he encounters in that famous passage that we hear at weddings:

It is the question of spiritual gifts.

Now, in many respects, Paul’s assumptions, his cultural context, is pretty foreign to us. For Paul and his contemporaries, the presence of the supernatural, of the miraculous, in everyday life is a given. He talks about speaking in tongues, for instance, a practice that shows up in very few Episcopal Churches. And he assumes that the church is the healing business, something which those of us who live in West Coast cities a few centuries after the Enlightenment often regard with reflexive scepticism. (Although if you have ever participated in a healing ministry, such as the one that Corbet and Myra and Mariann lead on Sundays, you may find that you have witnessed or experienced things that challenge your scepticism).

In other respects, Paul’s experience is universal or eternal. Because what is it that he says underlies and activates all of the spiritual gifts? What does he say will outlast all of the spiritual gifts? What is the greatest of these three? Faith, hope, and…


This morning, I am wondering if we can use Paul’s language and understand the habit or the perspective or the world view that Brené Brown explores in her book – the habit of looking at our fellow human beings and saying that, generally speaking, these folks are doing their best – and understand that habit as a spiritual gift, as a practice that is grounded in God’s love and, thus, as a practice that holds the potential to transform ourselves and to transform the world?

What happens when you say, In general, people are doing the best that they can?

Well, I think that Brown’s husband, Steve offers a pretty good answer to that question: it keeps us from judgment, it allows us to see things as they are not as they ought to be. I’d like to use his answers and to flesh them out a little.

This assumption invites us to escape from a place in which we are judgmental. And being set free from judgment is a choice or a way of being ripples through our lives. Because escaping from judgment typically also means an escaping from cynicism, escaping from embitterment, escaping from apathy. Notice, as Brown discovered when she surveyed her forty-odd friends, that part of the judgment from which we are liberated is self-judgment or perfectionism. To believe that people are doing the best that they can necessarily means believing that you – a person – are doing the best that you can. To assume that all of us are doing our best most of the time is to immediately be gentler and more patient with our neighbours and ourselves.

This assumption allows us to meet people as they are, not as we wish them to be. I want to underline this point, because a reflexive critique of this assumption is that it lets people off the hook for their bed behaviour, that it gives folks some kind of a pass, that it turns us into pushovers. I want to suggest that it does the very opposite. I think I have told you before about the employee at the theatre that I used to work at – he was routinely belligerent and rude with clients. It was a big problem. I kept on talking to him and working with him. But his behaviour just wouldn’t change.

The day that I realised that he was doing his best was the day that I fired him. I recognised that his best was a bad fit for the theatre. And what I’ve heard since is that he’s doing great in another workplace – that the act of difficult compassion that was letting him go was freeing for him and for us alike.

Last of all, this assumption allows us to meet people who make different choices than we do, maybe even choices with which we disagree, with generosity and curiosity and patience. I cannot help but wonder how it would transform politics if we got out of the habit of assuming that the party for which we didn’t vote is motivated primarily or exclusively by base emotions, by fear, by anger, by selfishness, by stupidity. (I can’t help but wonder how it would transform, Thanksgiving Dinner.)

This assumption doesn’t mean, by the way, that we waive our right to critique other folks’ decisions, that we uncritically agree with whatever they have to say, that we engage in a lazy moral relativism where everyone has their opinion and they are all equally valid. It does mean that we allow the possibility that folks who are different from us have good intentions, that they experience the same hopes and longings and anxieties as we do. It allows us to respond to people with whom we disagree without feeling like we need to mirror their anger or add to their anger. And that is game changing. What kind of conversations become possible when we sit across from someone and say: this person – like me – is doing her best?

Across his ministry, Jesus encounters people with this lens, with this assumption. Jesus encounters people – including people who are doing selfish or even evil things – with this remarkable openness. Think of how he meets Zacchaeus the tax collector, think of how he meets the woman accused of adultery, think of how he even meets the two thieves that hang beside him on the cross. Now, to be clear, Jesus does push these people – he does push you and me – to grow and become more moral.

As my friend Jenny says, God loves us just the way that we are: and God loves us too much to let us stay that way.

Jesus meets you and me where we are. Jesus meets you and me in love. Jesus says to you and to me and to everyone: You are doing your very best. I know that you are. And with my help, you will grow and learn and evolve. That is, as Brené Brown says, a hard truth. But it is a truth that just might set us free.


Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert


Isaiah 62:1-5 

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 

John 2:1-11 

Psalm 36:5-10 



I love weddings.

I love the coming together of family and friends from far and near, everybody who cares about and is connected with the couple gathered together in a room like this one. I love the intersection of joy and wistful sorrow, the way that we look at the betrothed in their tuxedos and fancy dresses as they walk down the aisle and tears run down our cheeks and we say, “I’m just so happy.” I love the wild almost misguided hope contained in the promises that the couple utter to one another – ‘Til death do us part – who would dare to utter such words? I love the party afterwards, the people eating and telling stories and making embarrassing speeches and dancing.

And I love the way that people are transformed at weddings. Seeing the love between a couple publicly announced, publicly blessed – well, in a way that we can’t name, that somehow empowers and emboldens and deepens the joy and the possibility in all of us. And the couple themselves, as they make those impossibly big promises in front of God and everyone, somehow they become bigger. At a wedding, one and one add up to more than two.

Because I love weddings, I love the idea that Jesus’ ministry begins at one.

Scholars tell us that, in Jesus’s time, weddings were multi-day affairs, sometimes lasting as long as a week. So the scene that we are witness today in the Gospel of John didn’t begin a three or four hours ago when the bride and the groom arrived in a stretch limo after having their photos taken down by the beach. It began three or four days ago with the first blessing and the first song and the first dance and the first meal. Since then, there have been a lot of meals cooked, a lot of wine poured. This is a seriously festive occasion, full of seriously festive people – the sort of people who are willing to take more than a week off of work to mark a marriage.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the wine has worn out.

As different as this wedding is from the kind that you and I know, there remain plenty of elements that we will immediately recognise. Here is John, the Son of Zebedee, talking to a young woman, the two of them laughing and telling stories and whispering. John can’t help but dream, can’t help but wonder if the next wedding might be theirs. Here is Mary Magdalene, gathered with her friends and playing guitar. Here is Peter sitting in a corner, feeling self-conscious and awkward. There are a lot of people he doesn’t know and Peter just isn’t all that good at small talk with strangers. And here on the dance floor is Jesus. Dancing with the joy and abandon and the wild, prayerful energy that he brings to everything.

And because it’s a wedding, here are the transformations that just keep happening. Let’s see if we can count them.

Transformation #1.

The wine runs out. Mary spots the alarm on the face of the maître d’, watches as she whispers to the bride and groom, watches as the alarm spreads to their faces too. They are out of wine. There are two or three days left in the wedding and it is way too early for food and drink to be running low. It will be centuries before the first 7-11 will open, so this is a big logistical problem. No one can just run to the liquor store and get more wine.

Mary can’t stand to see anyone embarrassed, least of all a couple on their wedding day. And so she calls a couple of waiters to follow her and then wades out into the gyrating crowd on the dance floor to find her son. Jesus is swaying to the music, singing along with the band, his eyes closed, when his mother’s hand lands on his shoulder. Jesus is pulled out of his reverie, his eyes snapping open and fixing on his mother in irritation.

Mary shouts over the music, They have no wine!

Woman, Jesus shouts back. (It’s worth stopping here to note that scholars of Ancient Greek tell us that this form of address sounds a lot less harsh in the original language than it does in English – that it was pretty normal and actually pretty courteous. It remains incongruous and jarring, however, that Jesus chooses this form of address rather than calling Mary Mother.Woman, Jesus shouts back, What does that have to do with you and me?

Jesus may be thirty years old. But when you are talking to your Mom, it is easy to drift back into the petulant habits of an earlier time in your life.

Mary doesn’t let this brush-off slow her down. Instead, like countless parents across time, she challenges Jesus to get bigger. She challenges him to become a little more generous, a little less selfish, to become a little more the person whom she has known he is capable is being for years. She challenges Jesus to accept the transformationthat the one whom he calls Father offers to him.

She turns to the waiters and says, Do whatever he tells you.

Jesus’ mouth hangs open for a minute, staring at him Mom.

And then Jesus tells the waiters what to do.

Transformation #2:

The six jars are huge, made of stone, twenty or thirty gallons a piece. So the waiters roll rather than carry them into place. Their purpose is to be used in the Jewish Rites of Purification in which the Bride and Groom and Mary and Jesus and everyone participate, their purpose is to wash you and make you ready to participate in a wedding or another instance of holiness.

Now, there is a long and unfortunate history of interpretation that says that Jesus’ first miracle involves these jars in order to tell us that, now that Jesus is here, we don’t need the water that they contain anymore. Jewish practice used to matter, Jewish purification rites used to matter, in other words, but now we have something better. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at with this action, I don’t think it is what John is getting at by telling this story to us. I think that what this story proclaims is that everything that Jesus will in the coming years will take placewithin the context, within the vessels, if you like, of his Jewish heritage.

In these jars, Jesus is modeling a vibrant relationship with faith – a relationship that you and I at our best emulate. He is taking the tradition that he has inherited and wrestling with it and questioning it and complaining about it and celebrating it, even as he transforms it, even as the tradition transforms him.

Notice that, if you were to break down wine into its component parts, if you were to generate a list of ingredients,the number one ingredient by a country mile would still be water. What was there previously, in other words,remains – Jesus is not doing a magic trick in which a deck of cards is replaced by a rabbit, in which there is a full on disconnect with between what goes into the jars and what comes out. No. What Jesus does today, and what he will do throughout his time on earth, is to work in continuity with what already exists. He is not creating abundance out of nothing or holiness out of nothing. He is deepening the abundance and the holiness that is already there. He is taking the gallons and gallons of wonderful, quenching water and giving us gallons and gallons of wonderful wine.

And that leads us to:

Transformation #3:

So, here’s the punch line of the story. The maître d hasn’t seen what Jesus has been up to – only the waiters are there for the miracle. The maître d, in other words, is still seriously worried that this party is going down in flames, that she will never be hired to cater a wedding again. She is full of anxiety when the waiters call her over and say: Boss, you’ve got to taste this! When the maître d does, her eyes light up and she starts to laugh. That’s because the jars aren’t just filled with wine. They are filled with the best wine ever. And so she goes over to the bridegroom and says:

That was a good one. Most people serve the good stuff first and then bring out the plonk later when everyone is hammered. But you! You started the party with the plonkAnd now you brought out the good stuff.

And then the maître d laughs some more. And the groom has no idea – no idea – what the joke is. He’s just glad to find out that the wine hasn’t run out.

Later on in his ministry, Jesus will perform miracles for people in serious crisis: people possessed by demons, people with radical and debilitating illnesses, people who are desperate for food, people who are ostracised from community, people who are about to be stoned by angry crowds, even people who have died. Fascinatingly, in this first miracle of all, there is no crisis other than a social crisis: if the wine runs out, the worst-case scenario is that the bride and groom and the maître d will be embarrassed and will incur the expense of trying to find wine on short notice. No one is going to die.

And yet Jesus is there anyway. God is there anyway.

Sometimes someone will sit in my office and tell me about a problem in their lives – something that is weighing on their hearts, something that is making life harder than they wish it were. And after telling me about their problem, the person will apologise and say sheepishly, realsze that this problem isn’t a big deal compared with the problems that some people have. And what I will often say to that person then is a line that I learned from my friend, Jenny:

This isn’t the suffering Olympics.

Yes, probability insists that there are people in the world who have bigger problems than you. But that doesn’t mean that your problems don’t matter. And it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t matter to God. God is there with you in the big stuff: when you get sick, when you are lonely, when you are treated unfairly, when you are born and when you die. And God is there with you when you hold a party and the wine runs out.

God is always there with you. This is the last transformation. The transformation in you and me, when we realise that there is nothing in our lives, or anyone else’s lives, that is too small for God to care about.

Three transformations at Cana. A transformation in Jesus as his ministry begins. A mutual transformation between Jesus and the tradition which he has inherited. And a transformation in you and in me.

Mary watches from the shadows as the waiters bring the new, abundant wine around to the tables, as the party keeps going. And she says to herself,

I love weddings.