Sunday, 17 August 2008

Nincompoops and a sermon

Dream, dream, dream”. So sang the Everly Brothers.

We all dream when sleeping. Some of us remember those dreams when we awake.

For two years I’ve had dreams with a re-current theme. In them I am at St. Stephen’s in Pittsfield, MA or at St. James’s in Cambridge, MA. In each dream I should have left a month or two before, always to move to Atlanta, GA.

Sometimes the dream says that I should have been moving at Atlanta to take up a new Rectorship. Sometimes it’s been to work for the National Westminster Bank.

But it’s always Atlanta. Who knows why?

And in these dreams, I am still in Pittsfield or Cambridge long after I should have moved to Atlanta. Always I have not packed my bags, nor sold my house, nor confirmed to the Church or the Bank that I would accept the new position.

Last Friday night I dreamed that I was still in Pittsfield, long after I should have moved. In the dream the new Rector at St. Stephen’s arrived a day earlier than was planned. I remonstrated with him for arriving too early.

“Oh”, he said, addressing me, “you are nothing more than a socialist gnat”. I protested, but he continued to complain. I asked him what he meant by this.

He replied “I am here a day early because there is such a mess to clean up. You are nothing but an incompetent nincompoop”.

When I awoke on Saturday morning I remembered this dream so well, and started to giggle. I thought this: “ It’s the incompetent bit that I resent”.

With that in mind, here is my sermon at St. Hilary’s, Fort Myers, FL from August 16/17, 2008


Sermon for August 16/17
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Hilary’s, Ft. Myers, FL

Isaiah 56 Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.
3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Matthew 15 10Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


She was sitting on an old green leatherette sofa outside the Sacristy at St. Stephen’s Parish in Pittsfield. How I disliked that sofa. It was weary, old and battered. I could not wait to get rid of it.

It was frequently the resting place for weary and battered people who stopped by the parish office for a handout. And there she sat.

She was what we used to call a bag lady. I was in no mood to help her. I was tired and cranky, and I wanted nothing more than to shut up shop and go home for the evening.

I gave her short shrift. But with a twinkle in her eye, and an audacity born of hundreds of rejections she took me on. She simply would not take no for an answer. She persisted, and I gave in. I handed her the ten bucks or so that she demanded. She had enlarged my


We stood in the ancient Roman ruins in Tyre, South Lebanon. “We” were a group of eight tourists on a mini ‘bus tour out of Beirut. We’d been to Sidon where we seen the Crusaders’ “Castle in the Sea”, and wandered the ancient Souk.

Now we were in Tyre in the Roman ruins, which had been bustling with life two thousand years ago.

One of the tourists was a French Roman Catholic Priest. He wore his clerical collar, and was accompanied by two middle aged women. He asked if he might read something. Reaching into his pocket he drew out a typescript. As he began to read in French I got it. The reading started with these words “Jésus se rendit dans la région de *Tyr et de Sidon”. I got all teary eyed, and when he was finished I told the story from memory, in English.

Jesus had fed the multitudes, healed their sick, and encouraged Peter to “get out of the boat”.

Twice he’d retreated from the hurly burly to pray. Then he had taken on the religious guardians of sound doctrine, the Pharisees, by questioning the need for Kosher eating practices. He is questioning the established religious boundaries. But a new challenge awaits him.

He and the disciples move out of known territory into the region of Tyre and Sidon. And there she is, this Canaanite woman who dares to take him on. “Send her away” cry the disciples, which is precisely what Jesus is inclined to do.

He implies that she is no better than a begging dog. After all, he knew the scriptures well enough, those scriptures which told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites.

But with an audacity and wit born of rejection, she reminds Jesus that even dogs get the table scraps.

Jesus replies with a term of courtesy and honour. “O woman” he says, and that “O” is not reflected in our English text.

There are those who say that Jesus knew all along that he would grant the woman’s request, and that he was merely testing her faith. I do not believe that. For just as Jesus’ miracles are not about magic, so his encounters are not about semantic trickery. It seems clear that Jesus sense of his mission is growing and changing. God’s gracious compassion, to which he was always bent, challenges borders and boundaries, even those of Jesus.

We should not be surprised. For a regular theme of the Hebrew Bible with which Jesus is so familiar, is one which pushes frontiers. We read this in the passage from Isaiah. The Law of Moses specifically banned eunuchs from participation in Temple worship. (See Deuteronomy 23:1 and other passages), but Isaiah has a broader vision:

“To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off”.

There is a delightful and rather naughty pun in this text. Eunuchs are males who’ve indeed had a body part cut off. But the Lord says through Isaiah that they will be given an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

According to Isaiah, that which had been excluded is included. And the Jesus we try to follow included a Canaanite woman, who should have been excluded,

The earliest members of the Jesus movement got this well. The first Gentile follower of the risen Jesus was – of all things, an Eunuch. What’s more he was a Black man. The next was a Roman Centurion.

And very soon the leaders of the Jesus movement began to understand that all Gentiles who had faith could be included, male and female. It’s been a closely guarded secret, but many of the first leaders of what became Christianity were women: one of who is named as an Apostle.

Somewhere along the line, the Church began a process of exclusion. An elite religious leadership class which was entirely male emerged.

To be sure it was challenged. It was challenged by the powerful Abbesses of Monastic Christianity who wielded as much authority as their male counterpoints. It was challenged by St. Clare who was as influential as her better known companion St. Francis. It was challenged by the mystical St. Catherine of Sienna, who at a time when there were three rival Popes, (yes three!), knocked their heads together for the good and unity of the Church.

But for centuries many people were excluded from Church leadership because they were female, or Black.

We are rediscovering the powerful witness of women in the Gospels. We have sung about women such as Mary of Nazareth; the Samaritan woman; and Mary Magdalene, who was a sinner. (Episcopal Hymnal # 673).

In this day and age our beloved Episcopal Church has the brightest and most savvy Presiding Bishop in a generation, she is The Most Revd. Katherine Jefforts Schori.

Some in our Church would wish to exclude the Rt. Revd. Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire. I’ll admit my bias, Gene is a friend of mine with whom I have ministered on and off for more than 25 years. He is a born again man of God. I am proud that he has been included.

I am in danger of going on a rant, but I refuse to listen to African Bishops who have multiple wives, or who have taken mistresses; and American Bishops who have been twice divorced and now live with a third wife - giving us scolding lectures on what they call “Biblical morality”. Doubtless this is in part because I am a gay Priest, but I hope that it’s also mainly because the drift of scripture is towards inclusion.

It’s not that we don’t need boundaries. (Boundary-less people are dangerous). But it is that we need very broad and flexible frontiers.

So it is I pray that our Church will continue to be a people of green leatherette sofas.

I end this week not with a song. but with these words.

It’s not from the Bible, but it is a poem I love, which brims with Biblical sentiment.

He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

("Outwitted" by Edwin Markham)


  1. I think I would be in tears during your sermons. Thank you

  2. Brian R sent me... and gratefully so. I am moved by this post and now you will never get rid of me!

    Seriously- what a great sermon and that poem at the end.

    Pax to you.