Tending the Soil

Homily for Sunday, September 29, 2019
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Timothy 6:6-19

“But as for you, man of God, shun all this.” – 1 Tim 6:11

12th-century_painters_-_epistles_of_st_paul_with_gloss_-_wga15727We don’t know who exactly wrote Paul’s First Letter to Timothy—the letter is “pseudepigraphal”; that is, falsely ascribed—but whoever wrote it had a good bead on Paul’s style.  For example, as did Paul, the author makes ample use of the first person singular: “I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia…” (1:3).  The author captures Paul’s knack for “woe is me” melodrama: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1:15).  Not unlike Paul the author exhibits a swaggering (and sometimes insufferable) confidence: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service” (1:12).  And as with Paul, with this author there are no half-measures: “But as for you, man of God, shun all this… I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:11-14).

Not only does the author have a good bead on Paul’s style, the author even—in a way I don’t know why but I find endearing—exaggerates Paul’s worst aspects.  For example, if you thought Paul gave a lot of commands (and he did), 1 Timothy is drenched in the imperative: “Do not speak harshly to an older man” (5:1); “Now a bishop must be above reproach” (3:2); “Deacons likewise must be serious” (3:8);  “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old” (5:9).  If you thought Paul held some questionable attitudes about women (and he did), 1 Timothy is downright cringe-worthy—go, check it out.  If Paul made bold, sweeping statements (and he did), 1 Timothy is given to even “global” statements: “I urge that…prayers… be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions…  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved…” (2:1-14).  And if you thought the stakes were high with Paul (and they were), in 1 Timothy they are even higher: “Certain persons have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1:19-20).  (What are we supposed to do with that?)

If Paul was dramatic (and he was) the author of 1 Timothy is “operatic”: 1 Timothy is all about big moments, big gestures and big consequences.

In spite of the author’s swagger and seeming confidence, the word that for me sums up The First Letter to Timothy is the word “brittle.”  Let me explain…


In his book, Underland, Robert MacFarlane writes of the Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard’s study of the logged and then replanted forests of British Columbia.  In her study Simard noticed that when native birch saplings were “weeded” out from the timber-industry’s clear-cut and the area then re-planted with stands of Douglas firs, the human-planted firs tended to die.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that weeding out the saplings would leave more nutrients in the soil for the firs, and that the firs would then thrive.  But when the wild birch saplings were weeded out, the firs died.  Simard set out to discover why.  MacFarlane writes:

Using microscopic and genetic tools, [Simard] and her colleagues peeled back the forest floor and peered below the understory, into the “black box” of the soil…  What they saw… were the pale, super-fine threads known as “hyphae” that fungi send out through the soil.  These hyphae interconnected to create a network of astonishing complexity and extent.  Every cubic meter of forest soil that Simard examined held dozens of miles of hyphae…

Beneath her forest floor [existed] what she called an “underground social network,” a “bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species” that linked sapling to sapling… In a research plot thirty meters square, every single tree was connected to the fungal system, and some trees—the oldest—were connected to as many as forty seven others…

Simard discovered that…

Trees [moved nutrients] around between one another using the mycorrhizal network… The Douglas firs were receiving… photosynthetic carbon from [the] birches… [so] when the birches were weeded out… the firs weakened and died.

In a… summary of her findings… Simard wrote [that]… The fungi and the trees had “forged their duality into a oneness, thereby making a forest.”  She proposed the forest as a “co-operative system” in which trees “talk” to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence she described as “forest wisdom…” [and in which] soil fungi [are] a key indicator of future forest resilience.


Newton Cemetery 1Peeling back the “soil” of 1 Timothy, perhaps what is most striking is not what we find—the imperatives, the “global’ statements, the “opera”—but what we don’t find.  1 Timothy, for example, barely mentions the Paschal Mystery, Jesus’ Passion, death and resurrection.  1 Timothy makes no references to Eucharist or to Baptism.  Liturgy and worship—what the Church does every Sunday—are almost entirely absent.  The letter contains no passages suggesting conflict over deeply-held convictions or a community wrestling with theological complexities.  1 Timothy makes only fleeting reference to the Hebrew scriptures.  And there is nothing to suggest that either the letter’s sender or its recipient(s) had any connection to—or any knowledge whatsoever of—the Hebrew tradition out of which Christianity grew.  Without these hyphae of Scripture and Sacrament, of worship, Tradition and community—all that undergirds the authentic Pauline letters—the “soil” underneath 1 Timothy is industrialized, as it were; it is nutrient poor.  Absent this rich understory, the author must rely not on connections but on commands, not on the riches of a vibrant community life, but on making sure that everyone knew their place (especially women); he relied not on his own voice, but instead posed as Paul.  The author writes as though under siege; he seems to regard the Church not as a place of forgiveness and renewal but as a bulwark; he seems to see Jesus not as a source of grace but as a sustainer of human and, dare I say, typically “masculine” effort.  (“But as for you, man of God, shun all this.”)

Lacking the hyphae that undergird a healthy forest and connect the trees one to another, the First Letter to Timothy is brittle.


Having said all this, we might be wondering, as did Luther about The Letter of James, if 1 Timothy is an “epistle of straw” and what, if anything, it offers.  Though 1 Timothy lacks the “hyphae” and resilience of a healthy mycorrhizal network, the letter absolutely does offer us something; because like all scripture, 1 Timothy tells us about ourselves.

saprophytic-hyphae-under-oak1 Timothy reminds us that there is a part of us that is brittle. The letter reminds us that there is a part of us that deep-down lacks connection.  1 Timothy reminds us how easy it could be for us to seek comfort in commands and certainty in “global” statements.  It reminds us how easy it could be for us to forget the Paschal Mystery, to forget the riches of the Hebrew Scriptures and the graces available to us in the Sacraments, and how easy it would be for us to overlook the possibility that is always in Jesus of forgiveness and renewal.  Though in many ways unappealing, 1 Timothy tells us about ourselves.

As we would with all parts of ourselves, and as the Church Fathers and canon of Scripture did, we would do well to own 1 Timothy.  We would do well to own 1 Timothy so that it and all that is brittle within can be plugged in, hooked up, and connected to Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection.  For as we connect to these hyphae of the Paschal Mystery—hyphae found in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments, in worship, Tradition and the gathered community—we come alive.  Connected by this rich understory, we become like a forest—a Church with healthy, complex and resilient soil.  A forest, a Church, capable of sustaining life.  A forest, a Church, connected to the world around.  A forest, a Church, that gives off oxygen so that all might through Him, through us, breathe and experience the life abundant found only in Jesus.


Crossing the Stage

Homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019
Pentecost 15C
Luke 16:1–13

“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” – Luke 13:9

What exactly Luke means by these words, I don’t know; and I’m not sure anybody knows.  And I want to return to Luke and these words, but first, some opera.

Semper Opera House Staatsoper Dresden Germany Europe architecture history historic column columns arches arch arched marble entertainment opera theatre theater cloister cloisters main hall music main auditorium baroqueMy introduction to Richard Wagner was not the happiest.  Ashley and I had just arrived in Dresden, Germany, for an academic conference (hers).  On the conference agenda for night number two was an option to attend Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Dresden opera house, which, when we were back in the States and in the comfort of our own home, sounded like a good idea; so we bought tickets.  Never mind getting drenched in a crashing thunderstorm on our way to the opera house and then sitting in air conditioning.  Never mind the backrow, “nosebleed” section seats.  Never mind being jetlagged.  Das Rheingold, as you may know, has no intermissions… and it’s two and a half hours long. Continue reading

God Repented!

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 15, 2019
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 19C

Exodus 32:7–14
Psalm 51:1–11
1 Timothy 1:12–17
Luke 15:1–10

My Friends:

God on Mt. SinaiBecause all three of our readings this morning so strongly emphasize the theme of God’s infinite concern for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of sinners, it’s possible to overlook the truly astonishing statement about God embedded in these same readings.  The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Exodus states this morning: “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people”!  That’s right—that’s what it says—“The Lord changed his mind”!  In other words, God “repented”!!!  Now, if this is really true, then we need a big re-think about a whole lot of modern assumptions about the way things are.  Perhaps we are not living in a purposeless, clockwork universe after all, in which the cosmos mysteriously came into existence with the “big bang” billions of years ago; is still expanding and unfolding according to the immutable laws of nature; and will burn itself out in the distant future when all of the energy of that initial explosion of energy is finally spent.  In this schema, our “accidental cosmos” is nothing more than blind and meaningless exploding and imploding energy and matter, and we are merely an improvised variation of the “stuff of stars.” Continue reading

With Full Freedom

Homily for Sunday, September 8, 2019
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Philemon 1–21

“Men, you should have listened to me and not set sail from Crete!” —Acts 27:21


Paul shipwrecked—pcstratman

I know that these words from The Acts of the Apostles are not in today’s readings, but I share them nonetheless because in these few words Luke—so gifted in “painting” people with just a few strokes of a pen—captures the essence of Paul: the guy is difficult.  He’s a pain in the backside, actually.  Let me explain…


You may recall the story in Acts 27 from which these words are taken: Paul is sailing to Rome just as winter is approaching.  The wind is against them, and the ship is progressing but slowly.  Paul advises the centurion in charge to winter over in Crete. “But,” says Luke, “the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul had to say” (27:11)—imagine!—so the ship sailed on.  Soon, they became caught in a storm and Continue reading

Who Are We?

Homily for Sunday, September 1, 2019
Pentecost 12C
Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16

14804860903_ce2c727dff_bIf the church at Corinth was the Church’s first dysfunctional congregation—already in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul calls them out: “I appeal to you… there should be no divisions among you”; (the Church at Corinth was rife with division)—the community that received the Letter to the Hebrews (from which we heard this morning) was perhaps the Church’s first healthy congregation.  In the letter to the Hebrews, for example, there is no mention of factions (as in 1 Corinthians: “‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’” (1:12)).  In Hebrews there is no mention of scandal (as in 1 Corinthians: “It is actually reported that… a man is living with his father’s wife,” (5:1)).  In Hebrews, church members are not litigating against each other (as in 1 Corinthians: “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?” (6:1)).  In Hebrews there is no mention of disorderly worship (as in 1 Corinthians: “If… the… church comes together and all speak in tongues [with none to interpret], and outsiders… enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (14:23)).  In Hebrews there is no mention of the abuse of the Sacrament (as in 1 Corinthians: “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.  For when the time comes to eat… one goes hungry and another becomes drunk,” (11:20).  This is only a partial list; the church at Corinth was a mess!

In contrast, consider what the Letter to the Hebrews asks of its community:

  • “Pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1)
  • “Exhort one another every day” in this teaching. (3:13)
  • “Hold fast to our confession.” (4:14)
  • “Let us go on towards perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings…” (6:1)
  • “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (12:1)

And in today’s lesson:

Let mutual love continue…Remember those who are in prison…  [Remember] those who are being tortured… Be content with what you have…  Remember your leaders…  Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have.

Reading the Letter to the Hebrews, one gets the sense that, “They’ve got this.”  The Hebrews know who they are and what they’re about.  All they need do is to “hold fast” to what they’ve been taught; not to “drift” but to “go on,” to “persevere,” to be “diligent,” to keep on doing what they’re already doing.  It’s as though the author, were he their cross country coach, is saying to the Hebrews: “You’ve trained for this race; you are prepared.  Now go and run it!”

agape_feast_03I know it’s a little unfair to compare churches—the church at Corinth was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, while the community who received the Letter to the Hebrews seems to have been entirely Jewish; and the church at Corinth was only recently established, while the community addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews appears to have been well-established.  But still….  The community in the Letter to the Hebrews was not split by factions, was not marred by scandal, did not have disorderly worship, did not have members suing each other, did not have people becoming drunk at Eucharist….  Their pastor needed only encourage them to keep on doing what they were already doing: “Pay greater attention to what you have heard.”  Do “not lay again the foundation,” but “go on toward perfection” (6:1)—“hold fast,” “go on,” “persevere,” “remember,” “continue.”  In other words, “Keep on doing those things you have already been taught and are already doing!”

I wonder if the community addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews was healthy because they—in contrast to the Church at Corinth—were clear about who they were.

Those addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews were clear about who they were.  For example, they knew that:

  • “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors… by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” (1:1)
  • We are “partners of Christ” (3:14)
  • We are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” (2:11)
  • “We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14)
  • “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (4:19)
  • We have “confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (10:19)
  • We have “endured a hard struggle with sufferings” (10:32)
  • “We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, [we are] among those who have faith and so are saved” (10:39)
  • …and so on and so forth. “We are,” “We have,” “We are.”

Unlike the Corinthians—who are confused as to whether they belong to Paul or Apollos or Cephas, and as to how to conduct their worship and indeed their lives—the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews are clear about who they are; like Jesus (in John’s Gospel (8:14)), they “know where [they] have come from and where [they] are going.”  And I suspect that it is this clarity of identity that keeps the community of Hebrews from factions, from scandal, from suing each other, and leaves them free to “run the race that is set before them.”



‘Photo Credit: Craig Orsini

The Hebrews’ clarity of their identity begs the question of us and our identity: “Who are we?”  If we would know health—as individuals and as a community—it might help to be clear about our identity.  Our identity as Christians is most clearly set forth in our Baptismal rite, which can be found on page 299 of The Book of Common Prayer… and also in the Sacrament to which Baptism admits us, the Eucharist.  By symbol and word, Baptism and Eucharist tell us who we are and why we’re here on this earth—what we’re about.  Maybe in the coming week, take some time to look at our Baptismal rite in the Prayer Book (page 299).  And maybe in just a moment, pay close attention to what is about to happen at the altar.  Which is actually what God desires to happen in each of our hearts; and which—if we are honest with ourselves—is what our souls crave and is, deep-down, how we want to live our lives.

Healing and Release

Homily for Sunday, August 25, 2019
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 13:10-17
Preached at St. John’s, Newtonville

nativity-sceneThose from Trinity know that I have a… “complicated” relationship with the Gospel of Luke.  John I appreciate as a source of deep spiritual insight.  Mark I like because he “tells it like it is” and in an economy of words.  Matthew I respect for the Sermon on the Mount and his creative engagement with Judaism.  But Luke I have trouble with.  I have trouble with Luke because, both in his Gospel in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke always seems to be “arranging the flowers,” trying to make things picture-perfect.  (Luke is the “Instagrammer of the New Testament.”)  There, in the Annunciation, the angel appears to Mary, whose lines sound just a little too practiced: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” There, in the infancy narrative, are the angels and the shepherds, and “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger…” just so.  There, in the Presentation, is Simeon, “looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” and Anna, who “never left the temple, but worshipped there…night and day”—both just a little too wholesome. Continue reading

What Do You Want?

Homily for Sunday, August 18, 2019
Pentecost 10C
Luke 12:49–56

Ashley and I have just returned from Ireland where we saw beautiful scenery, drank good beer, heard fabulous music, survived driving on the “wrong” side of the road, understood most of what was said to us, and almost nothing of what people said to each other.

sheep-dog-showIn rural Ireland some farms have “sheep dog demos,” in which a local shepherd demonstrates how he and his Border Collies herd sheep.  They are astonishing.  (Astonishing!)  By the shepherd’s whistled commands the exact dog—a good shepherd can work with up to four at once—the exact dog knows exactly when to sit or when to stand; when to move the flock to the right or to the left; when to bring them closer or to drive them further up the range.  And with some pointing, the dogs can even separate the males from the females(!).  It was truly astonishing—and beautiful—to see this centuries-old craft still practiced, and to such a high degree. Continue reading