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Monday, October 20, 2014

Homily - In Which Jesus is Found to Laugh with Delight

Homily for the Installation Service of Rev. Greg Morrisse to the Senior Pastor Call at The Plymouth Church in Framingham - October 19, 2014

Gospel Reading    Luke 10:25-28

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus asked, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus replied, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”


It seemed like any other day in the Gospels of Our Lord and Savior.
- Disciples full of questions
- Sadducees concerned about the integrity of the temple
- Pharisees discussing everything as they adapted faith to changing conditions
- …all familiar to Jesus.

Actually, in the Gospel stories, not much surprises Jesus. He pretty much sees coming what’s coming.

In this story, the gospel writers send yet another putz up against the hero, Jesus. This time, it's a "lawyer."

And we, the readers are more than readers. We are an audience with popcorn, bread, and grape juice and we have front row seats!

‘Cause we get it.

- There are people in our lives who have opinions about what we should eat, how we should fertilize our gardens, what car we should drive, who we should vote for, etc., and we would sometimes like to tell them to take a hike.
- There are people in our lives who think that there is a God whose voice stopped when the Bible was “written” or a founding spirit who vanished when the US Constitution was signed and we would like to tell them that the spirit of this nation continues to change and grow and that God is Still Speaking.
- There are people in our lives who don’t seem to quite "get" us and that is both wearying and irritating and we impatient with being so patient.

So, we’re all set for a Jesus smackdown.
- We're ready to see him meet corruption with angry table throwing
- We can't wait for him to respond to pedantry with devastating truth
- He's about to put the lawyer on the ground with a folding chair!

Not only doesn’t that happen, but Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap at all.
I mean, he doesn’t fall for the trick-question trap that the writer of Luke places in the mouth of the lawyer.
He also seems not to fall for the writer’s trick either – I mean the setup for a dramatic refutation and confounding of someone opposed to Jesus’ story about the kingdom of God.

And you won’t fall for it anymore either, will you?
Greg has shown us all how the stress and anxiety of this life, of his life, and of this church do not command his behavior. Greg chooses again and again not to fall for the trick.
Beloved, if you haven’t realized it before this minute then this minute is your time to pivot – to turn the tables on the trickiness of life. After now, you won’t fall for any political ad trying to get you angry. You won’t be fooled by anyone’s attempt to put you down.
When someone tries to make their anxiety into your problem you will take a dancer's step back so it doesn’t land on you and listen kindly – without taking it on.
Now you will leave that manipulation behind.

So Jesus turns the tables on this trick situation – and I propose that the Bible narrative fails to fully report the surprise ending. And I hope you like surprises, ‘cause…

Here’s the picture of Jesus I want to paint for you today, I want you to imagine!
See him there in his rough clothes and a rough beard,
See him there surrounded by some who love him, some who aren’t sure, and a bunch of strangers.
See him ready for people in need of a kind word, in need of healing,
...People yearning for deeper meaning, "leaning out for love," for just one touch of the hem of his garment
…and he expects it all – he’s expecting the dust, the mixture of people, the suspicion, the anxiety, the expectations, and, yes, the trick questions,
…and sure enough, here comes the lawyer.

From wherever Lawyer is sitting, Lawyer pops up, raising a hand high and 
Lawyer:   Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Brad:       And expecting just one more of these interactions, Jesus turns
                patiently and asks,
                “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
                And I think the lawyer might have paused briefly to think. And
                then eagerly said:
Lawyer:  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
                and with all your soul, and with all your strength,
                and with all your mind; - and your neighbor as yourself!
And Jesus is so surprised by the beautiful answer that he wraps the lawyer in his everlasting arms with a great shout, “Yes!” And Jesus, filled with delight, laughs and laughs and laughs!

Beloved, God grieves when we grieve. And the source and spirit of life itself rejoices when we get it right.

Oh, one more thing. Jesus doesn’t at this time make a promise about eternal life, no, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” Period. This life. Right now.
And we all know now that there is solid ground on which we can stand and that ground is to love our God and from that ground we can go forth to love our Neighbor and with that confidence, we need no longer be tricked by the world’s trivialities, we can live and live with joy, and that beloved friends, will make Jesus laugh and laugh and laugh!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Losing - or Keeping - Your Faith
From a Letter to a Student
Flannery O'Connor
Reprinted from

Burdened by a crippling disease but armed with a razor-sharp mind and unshakeable convictions, writer Flannery O'Connor left a large and impressive body of spiritual writings when she died at 39.

Though not as widely known as her gothic novels and short stories, these pieces are more readily accessible, and (probably because so many are letters) they speak with a highly personal, immediate voice. In this one, written to her good friend Alfred Corn, she decries what she once called a "tired cliche": the idea that education in general, and collegiate / university life in particular, must inevitably lead to a shipwrecked faith.

I think the experience of losing your faith, or of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.

I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.

A friend once wrote to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he could believe.  He must have expected a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “give alms.” Perhaps he was trying to say that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.

Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge… and that absence doesn’t bother me because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth. You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories.

If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for time devoted to its cultivation…Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Homily at a Wedding

I want to tell you two stories.

Look at these two people! We know enough about human sexuality and culture to see how they might discover each other and be interested, right? In the musical “Guys and Dolls,” the character named Sky Masterson called it chemistry. It’s not so surprising that they would find a connection. It is reasonable. This man and this woman make sense together. It is a good story to tell.

Look at each other. Go ahead. We know enough about how guest lists are assembled to figure out who is here today. Humans are social beings and a kinship analysis would reveal how everyone you see around you is connected by one or more threads of relationship to other people here. We can talk about family ties, ties of friendships long and short, we can understand the “Who’s Who” of this gathering. It is reasonable. This gathering makes sense. We make a fine story – call it chapter two of our first story.

Now expand your vision to this place. There is light and sea and air. We see the Maine coastline revealed in the stone ledge under our feet; formed from the slow shifting of tectonic plates, the grinding of giant ice sheets, the gradual erosion of the elements. We know the geology is mapped. The meteorological explanation of a sunny day is also something we can find on the web. When you dig into it, it is rational and makes sense. So we have chapter three of our first, good story.

Here is another story.

Can you see the poetry in the shapes of these stones? Do you feel the thrill of this sea air? Does your heart respond to the expectation of the open horizon? Are you brightened by the wonder in our spirits? Breathe it in! Let it fill you up - at the same time that it makes you empty and yearning for something more. We are in a world that has been made by a love well beyond our sense of time and understanding. There is surrounding us a flow of something ancient and unimaginable. It is right here and also elusive. Something or someone is delighted with all this and filled with wonder, just like we are.

Can you see that this gathering is extraordinary? We will never recreate this particular gathering of people and relationships another time. You are right here, right now. There is nothing else in your life you can really be sure of but this precious moment in which we are alive together. This couple and their parents have given us this moment as a completely unexpected and impossible gift, a completely unexpected blessing. Maybe like me, you can hardly believe it.

Can you imagine the complex web of choices that brought this particular man and this particular woman to this season in their lives and to this particular moment? A missed train, a different friend, some alternate decision about staying or going – it is as if they have been guided here. You know, God loves a romance as much as any of us, where boy and girl eventually find each other. And what God really loves is a story that starts this way and just keeps going.

So. I have set before you two stories. You can be happy with the fascinating story about chemistry, kinship ties, and the geology of coastal North America. You can be happy with the story about a creating love that is greater than time and space, the unexpected blessing of this moment together that you will never forget, and a destiny fulfilled and ready for the next step. I suggest you keep the first story in mind but choose the second.

Beloved, choose the better story!

Illustrating "Who's Garden?"

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white!  L-L-Love! My God! – and the deathbed leap of faith.  Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.

Yan Martel, The Life of Pi, (Knopf Canada, 2001), Chapter 22

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Whose Garden?

Dear Ones,

"Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
   and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
   and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home
   in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey;
   its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood;
   and where the slain are, there it is."
- Job 39:26-30

That text of Job is in quotes. Someone is speaking. Can you remember who speaks thus in Job's grand story of misfortune and fate? It is part of the song God sings - or hollers - at Job when God decides to set the record straight. The speech is another of the creation stories, among the many in the Bible, and this one comes from the very voice of God!

I love these passages. God is upbraiding Job (although God's real targets are Job's “learned friends") with a voice dripping with sarcasm...and yet poetry. "Is it by your wisdom" is sarcastic. Then notice the beauty of "that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?" "Is it at your command," is sarcastic. "That the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high," is beautiful.

Then something even more compelling happens in the passage. God loses it. God is caught in wonder at creation even though it is the work of God's own word, God's own will. The voice 
seems to lose track of the scolding and go off in another direction entirely, marveling at how the hawk hunts and how its "young ones" are fed. Do you hear it? God is in love with all that is created. God's delight and awe in the face of nature is overwhelming even to God; just like it is to you!

Earlier this summer, I noticed that some of our church garden vegetables were nibbled to the nub. I suspected a few local residents. In particular, I had my eye on the groundhog who lives under the Grace Church shed. I did not forget to suspect the bunny (undoubtedly one of many) who is fond of the grass that grows beneath the elevated garden, where the lawnmower doesn't go. I also had the seemingly infinite number of turkeys who make a daily promenade through the field on my list. Only just now am I considering that deer, chipmunks, mice, opossums, racoons, skunks, and squirrels are also potential diners, although I haven't observed them myself. And there are other kinds of birds too.

It is tempting to think of them all as pests; vermin determined to thwart our attempts to grow some herbs for human consumption. I suppose they are. They may in fact thwart my plans to grow a tomato in the yard this year.

Perhaps another way to think of it is that they are operating from another plan. Perhaps our rational approach to creating free food for Framingham is only one plan. After all:

"Is it by your wisdom that the groundhog digs deep,
   and makes an exit from under the shed to all the compass points around?
Is it at your command that the bunny watches
  and turns like lighting to vanish from the yard?
They live near the earth and make a home
  where it is cool and dark and invisible.
They see wider than 180 degrees
  and notice every shadow, every quivering leaf.
They might know the coming weather
  and how to escape the flood.
They make many young
  for the meek shall inherit the earth."

Enjoy your vegetables, flowers, and all your gardens, beloved. Then give a sweet prayer of thanks to the one who finds joy in all growing things, who longs to heal all blighted and benighted things, and who, most particularly, loves you, loves you, loves you.

Peace and Blessing

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Joseph in Jail

How is your memory of the Book of Genesis? With all the drama, epics, and archetypes, Genesis is just packed! Let's run through a few. 

Creation, creation again, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood(creation yet again,) the Tower of Babel(that would be another creation story,) Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Lot & Co., Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, playing host to angels, wrestling with angels, brother-betrayals, famine, journeys to Egypt, and a whole mess of "begats!" Some of these moments, characters, and plots resonate with my life. How about yours?

One dramatic moment happens when Joseph was first a servant, a slave, for Potiphar, who was "an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard." Joseph gets on well in his job until the day he is falsely accused of inappropriate physical contact by Potiphar's wife.

And Joseph's master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. Genesis 39:20

There was no trial, no evidence-gathering, no judge, and certainly no jury. The way Egypt worked in those days was the way that authoritarian systems work most of the time. The most important factor in the economic, justice, and social system is the relative power of each person. What is important is who has power, who carried the day, and can be expected to show power in the future. The playing field isn't even supposed to be level. It's supposed to be the way it is.

In our time and nation, we hold to ideals of a justice system that is based on something other than the preferences of those in power. We have tried, with varying degrees of success, to establish a law enforcement that is just. It may be that for you law enforcement has been just, appropriate, reasonable, consistent – fair. That wasn't the case for Joseph.

Joseph needed circumstances – fate – to turn around for him. That's just what happened. He made his way back into trust, out of jail, and upward in the Egyptian realm until he was as powerful as anyone, anyone who wasn't the Pharaoh himself. Actually, the Bible attributes the turnaround using its well-known explanation, "because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper." In fairness, the text also gives some credit to Joseph's skills, although if we say Joseph was a gifted steward we consider who it was gave Joseph the gift.

Have you been falsely accused? Have you been locked up or just locked? Have you been in a position where you didn't and couldn't move forward in your job or your relationship with someone? Have you ever been stuck? If in your difficult time you have longed for deep sustenance, then you know the direction God's help comes from. Consider your heritage.

You inherit the love of God that God has for all creation – open yourself to the possibility that God's love is available to buoy you up. You inherit a practice of praying for just what you need (your daily bread) and no more – open yourself to the hope in that prayer. You inherit a way of living in which each of us shares with each other (see Acts 4:32) – open yourself to your brothers and sisters in faith that they might know your need and share with you their strength.

Joseph did find his way out of the fix where he was stuck. May this be your story too! May you always find your way through the stuck places you encounter and realize that those stuck places do not completely define your life. Your life is alive in the very being of God, the Holy One, the Source. That is where you live and move and have your being. The place where you're stuck? That's just a place you are in "for now!"

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Clearway School, Inc. - Foundations

Clearway School, Inc. – Foundations

One of the current co-directors at Clearway School asked about how it all began. So I wrote this version of the history trying to capture the best reasons that we did things the way we did them.

With Respect and Love,
Brad Watters, May 2014


In 1974-75 school year, David, Holly, Alan, Sally, John, and I were teachers and Victoria was the office manager of another small school like Clearway. That school had in its past shared the leadership in some sort of co-director model. By September 1974, when I started, there were two co-directors. While these two had experience and skill, they also held information closely and so decisions seemed arbitrary or perverse. Through the year, things grew bad and by March and April, staff began to resign "effective the end of the year." We would gather after school and sit around feeling pretty sorry for ourselves until one day, someone started talking about starting a school. My wife Debbie joined the effort to make us seven. We were all in our 20's and early 30's.

Flatten the Org Chart

As those conversations progressed, our late-60's early-70's mistrust for authority, which had been fertilized by the, "experience" of the school year past, made various alternative models of governance appealing. Think Summerhill. Recall that then current education models had been shown to be discriminatory (Boston busing decision) and inadequate (Chapter 766.) We thought we would create a school that combined a) the best professional practices and innovations in teaching children with learning disabilities and b) the opening of educational possibilities that the alternative school movement was exploring. If avoiding a hierarchical model was our starting point, we gradually made it our hallmark. We postulated that with a clear focus on the healthy growth and education of our students and with the clear advantage that we were all friends, we could make a school work. So that's how we started thinking of ourselves as co-directors.


We were friends and we were also a group of strong personalities. There would be problems because of that (e.g., no founders working at Clearway by 10 years out.) We knew there would be hassles and we wanted to make sure we were at least making a tradeoff. What are the benefits of having a bunch of strong individuals? Well, we varied enough from one another that every kid ended up finding connection with at least some adult. So we figured that as long as every kid was spending some time or had access to every adult, those connections could happen. Tutoring became a mandatory part of each kid's program. Also, we had an expectation of individuality for our staff, as if it was written somewhere, "If you want to roll with us, you needed to stand out." That expectation was exactly our approach to each of our students. We wanted the ones who didn't fit in. We wanted them to learn that what had been a handicap was going to turn out to be their strength.

My Classroom: My Rules

We were idiosyncratic about classroom and playing field discipline. We had the idea that while some people (Hello, parents?) find themselves saying, "I’m not going to let you talk that way to me young man," others are just going to think you're funny. Some behaviors were acceptable in Sally's classroom that made David nuts - so the kids had to practice in school their already somewhat developed perception that those differences existed. In response to "it's not fair! Holly let's us..." my response could be "Oh, it's fair. It's just not the same. You know I’m not Holly!" "Mom and Dad" don't actually agree all the time and teacher independence inside and outside the classroom brought that challenge into the social development curriculum.

It also removed one of the main functions the principal and assistant principal have in most schools. So we made it a virtue that there was no higher authority than the adult on the spot.


The school was going to be small because that's all we could imagine, really. Again, we chose to make this a hallmark. A small school would have a good shot at creating community. We asserted that the power of the community to self-regulate wasn't just a pipe dream of that guy over in England (Summerhill, again.) We turned away from certain things that make some schools run with a different logic. For example, we didn't segregate activities by age. We did use some classroom leveling but we emphasized that we're all in this together; school spirit! (The teams then were the Clearway Bulldozers. Don't know how long that survived!) I think this is the impulse that led to the community coming together on Fridays for an hour or so in a gathering we called "moot." (Some of us were Tolkien fans, what can I say?) There were certain rules and habits about moot and I forget most of them. In my mind, the valuing of each person's contribution was somehow non-negotiable. If you had something to say and were being appropriate, you got to speak. Also, each moot was run by a different co-director. Moot was sometimes an activity, sometimes a film, sometimes ... you get the idea. We tried to take advantage of the differences in style and content. Friday's were half days.

Making Decisions

The biggest problem of having too many head chefs was, of course, decision-making. We had a lot of decisions to make because we were starting something new. We had a lot of decisions to make because we were full of ideas. And, even though having every one of us taking that vaunted idiosyncratic approach to kids was important to us, we needed the counterbalance of a shared understanding of each kid and his or her needs.

School Decisions

Our pattern was to meet in our major meeting from lunch Friday until we were done. Those meetings could run late! We all had thick enough skins to handle them and, as painful and interminable as those meetings could be, the group was very funny and we got through it.

Focus on a Kid

One of our best changes was how after a couple of years, we teamed up with the extraordinary therapist Tod Gross of the Adams Street Associates in Newtonville. Debbie and I had met Tod and his wife Jackie when taking classes for our Masters at Lesley. They taught a class in adolescent psychology that was clear and useful. We arranged for Tod to come to Clearway at the end of school on Mondays. Staff would gather in a circle and one teacher would present one of the kids he or she tutored. Then others of us would fill out the picture of the kid with Tod drawing us out. There were two amazing aspects of this arrangement with Tod. The first was that Tod is one of the more amazing (did I already say amazing?) listeners and he drew out of us our best insights. The second was that Tod is just good about adolescents, and people in general. I think he did share his expertise with us sometimes but mostly, he made us the best we could be. Maybe it would have worked with any outside group leader because it definitely changed the chemistry of this group of co-directors to have outside ears in the circle.

Divide and Trust

I also ought to mention that we did a lot of trusting. Perhaps this flowed from us being friends but not all of us were friends to start with. Still, we trusted each other to take on different roles. Victoria and Sally became the gurus of state approval, of one sort or another. Victoria and Debbie paid attention to how you do payroll and cash flow. I fixed furniture. We trusted the ideas that each other produced. David and I took kids to New Hampshire and stayed in cabins along the Appalachian Trail. At some point, we hired Mark. This was a big deal because in our model, every newly hired teacher would become an instant co-director. Mark fit in fine but I'm not sure if the model could have been sustained any longer than we did.

I am pleased and proud to have been part of Clearway's beginnings. But I'm also clear that it was the arrival of Mary Ryan that positioned Clearway to survive and flourish and grow into what you are today. It is her life's work.