All posts by Rachael Clark

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost –Dr. Joel Marcus


Matthew 18:21-35

Our Gospel text for today, the Parable of the Unforgiving Slave, is one that I struggle with. When I saw that this was the Gospel reading for today, I briefly considered preaching on the Old Testament lesson instead. But I preached on an Old Testament text my last time in this pulpit, a few weeks ago, and besides the Old Testament lesson is a bit thorny too—were all of the Egyptians so wicked, did they all deserve to be drowned in the sea? I could have preached on the Psalm, but that is just a recapitulation, in hymnic form, of the drowning-the-Egyptians story. I even thought of preaching on the Epistle text from Romans, but that seemed like unpromising material too—I couldn’t imagine how I could make anyone interested in the dispute between the vegetarians and the omnivores in the church of Rome.

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Third Sunday After Pentecost –Dr. Joel Marcus


Genesis 21:8-21

If you don’t mind, I’d like to concentrate on our Old Testament lesson today. After all, the Old Testament is just as much sacred scripture as the New Testament is; and some of the narratives in Genesis, like our passage today about Abraham and Hagar, are such wonderful stories that they’re just too good to pass up.

I say it’s a wonderful story, but of course it’s also a distressing story. That’s probably part of what makes it a good story. After all, there would be no Star Wars trilogy without Darth Vader, no Alien trilogy without that creepy monster popping out of people’s chests, no Wizard of Oz without the Wicked Witch of the West and her cackling laugh. You usually need something bad to happen to make a good story. Maybe if we were more like angels we could enjoy a story that was full of good things only. But we’re not. We need some shadows on our landscape to make it an interesting landscape. Maybe this is because we have so much anxiety inside ourselves that a story that doesn’t reflect that anxiety doesn’t seem like it’s talking about us. Or maybe I’m just talking about myself.

Anyway, our story has plenty of anxiety. It’s loaded with psychological tension, with sexual and others sorts of jealousy, with hatred, with despair. When I think of the dynamics here, I think of the ramshackle frame house I lived in in Seattle’s University District in the late sixties. The house was called“The Magic Mountain.” I’m not making this stuff up. As Paul says in Galatians, “I swear before God, I’m not lying.”

This house was inhabited by various odd counterculture types, and among the oddest was a middle-aged guy, who said he was the head of a revolutionary organization called the White Panther Party. He once showed me a photo of himself dressed up to look like the head of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, with a black leather jacket and a beret and an ammunition belt slung over his shoulder. I think this guy’s name was Jack, though I can’t be sure, it was so long ago. Anyway that probably wasn’t his real name.

But in addition to being the head of the White Panther Party, Jack also claimed to be a Mormon. And not a modern, compromising sort of Mormon, but one who embraced the original doctrines of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, including polygamy. And he lived in one big room in the basement of The Magic Mountain with his two wives, one of whom I’d say was in her late thirties, and came from Cuba, and with whom he’d had a couple of kids, and the other of whom I’d say was in her early twenties.

And Jack and his two wives and the kids put on a good show of being one big happy family, but late at night screaming arguments would often break out between the two wives, or between Jack and one or the other of the wives, or between Jack and both of the wives. Before I lived with them, I had thought that polygamy seemed like kind of a cool idea—well, I was seventeen years old at the time. But, as we used to say in those days, I began to get bad vibes from Jack and his family, and being a perceptive youth, I thought I perceived that there was some tension simmering beneath the surface.

Well, there’s a similar tension in Genesis 21. It’s a story that is fraught with anxiety, and sometimes the anxiety shades over into despair. The despair first hits Abraham, though he doesn’t start the story that way. Rather, he’s celebrating the birth of his son Isaac, whose name means “he laughs”—a name that was foreshadowed when his wife Sarah laughed in mockery when the angels announced that within a year she would bear Abraham a son. A year later her mocking laughter had turned to joyous laughter when Isaac was born. But now, for Abraham, the laughter seems like it’s about to end.

Because Sarah has come to the conclusion there’s room for only one source of laughter in the household. She, of course, was Abraham’s original wife, but she hadn’t been able to get pregnant. And finally Abraham had given up on her, and Sarah had given up on herself—they had both come to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to bear him any children. So they hatched a plan together whereby Abraham would protect his inheritance by having sex with his slave-girl, Hagar, in the hope that she would produce an heir, who could then be adopted into the family. This Hagar had done, and the boy was named Ishmael. And since this is a biblical story, that name is also symbolic: it means “God hears” (the “shma” sound in “Ishmael” is the same “Shema” that’s found in the central creed of Judaism, the Shema Israel, which means “hear, O Israel”). The full significance of this name will become apparent as our story unfolds.

Interestingly, however, the name “Ishmael” is never pronounced there. When Ishmael is referred to, he’s never referred to by name, but only as Abraham’s son, or Hagar’s, or as the yeled, “the boy” or the na’ar, which I would translate “the young ‘un.” And it’s important sometimes in biblical narratives to observe not only what a name means, if it’s mentioned, but also when a name is not mentioned.

I don’t want to go all post-colonial on you, but I think the absence of the child’s name here is because Ishamel and his mother Hagar are powerless characters—he, even more so than she. They are slaves—not “servants,” as older translations euphemistically call them, as if they had stepped out of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs. No, they are slaves; they are property. They belong to the master and mistress. In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on this biblical story, this sort of absence of agency is symbolized by the main character’s lack of a name—she is referred to as Offred, because she belongs to the high official Fred, not by the name her parents gave her in the good old days before a fundamentalist sect staged a coup.

Besides dehumanizing Ishamel by depriving him of his name, our story reveals the brutal reality of slavery in other ways. Because the basic reality of slavery is that the slave is in the master or mistress’s hand, to do with as they will—a tool rather than a person. We’re not told how Hagar felt about spending the night with the hundred year-old Abraham, but we might be able to imagine. We’re not told whether Abraham was gentle or brutal with her. The story seems to have no interest in such details. She simply does what she’s supposed to do. And it’s not even Abraham himself who comes up with this ingenious scheme, but Sarah, to make sure the wealth stays in the family. Sexual jealousy is all very well, but the bottom line is more important.

At least for a while. Because later on Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar and her child, and tells Abraham to drive them out into the desert, and he, rather spinelessly, does so. And this happenes not once but twice, because our story is more-or-less a repetition of the events five chapters earlier, in Genesis 16. But this time it’s a permanent banishment, unlike the one in Genesis 16, because now Sarah has her own boychik, and she doesn’t need Ishmael anymore. The tension here becomes unbearable—and it’s increased when you realize that the description of Ishmael “playing,” which is the pretext for his and his mother’s banishment, is another instance of the theme of laughter. Because the Hebrew actually says that Sarah got mad because she saw Ishmael laughing—another pun on his half-brother Isaac’s name, which means laughter. There can be only one laughing child in the family, and you can be sure as shooting that it’s not going to be the son of the slave.

So Abraham sends Hagar and her anonymous son out into the wilderness, with a waterskin and a loaf of bread on one shoulder and her son on the other. I’m not sure exactly how we’re meant to picture this. Or maybe the implication is that she’s leading the son with one hand while she’s holding the rest of the stuff on her shoulder with the other. Anyway, off she goes, with no word of protest. After all, the master has spoken, and even more relevant, so has his wife. So off go the concubine and her nameless son into the desert to die.

The story now reaches its crisis point. After some time the water runs out, and Hagar knows that her child is about to die. So she throws him under a bush. Notice the pathetic combination of callousness and care: she abandons her child to die, she physically throws him down—a gesture expressive of rage or desperation. But at the same time she puts him under a bush, so he won’t be visible to scavengers or exposed to the rays of the hot sun. She abandons him, she goes far enough to be out of earshot of his feeble cries, but not that far away–she doesn’t turn around and walk several miles in the other direction. She goes just far enough to separate herself, to put herself out of the way of hearing or helping, but not far enough away to block him out altogether. And in this agonizing paralysis of spirit, she cries.

Some of us are probably able to relate to this picture of parental paralysis–God help us. Hagar has given up hope for her child’s recovery. The next call she gets may be the one that tells her he’s dead. And so she has separated herself, because it’s too painful to see your child wasting away and dying. It’s too painful to stay there and watch. But she also can’t leave.

Fortunately, there is another actor in the story—an actor I have not mentioned until now, though there have been hints about his presence all along the way. And this other actor hears, not only the feeble cries of the child, which the mother is trying to block out, but also the mother’s own cry of despair. This other actor hears, and in so doing he fulfils the boy’s unspoken name, Yishma-El, “God hears.” When we’ve given up, when we’ve even stopped listening, there may be someone else who is listening, someone else who can act.

This week, I’ve been thinking about Sarah and Hagar, and about Isaac and Ishmael, not only because of the lectionary but also because of the lectionary of our times. It is now fifty years since the descendants of Isaac conquered the land on which the descendants of Ishmael had been living. Fifty years of occupation; fifty years of dehumanization; fifty years of terror on both sides; fifty years of hope drying up like a raisin in the sun. Of course, the story didn’t begin just fifty years ago, but 1967 was a turning point. And both before and after that turning point, the dynamics of our biblical story have been repeated many times. There has been hatred; there has been exile; there has been despair. Well-intentioned people have tried, from time to time, to do something about it, but their efforts have mostly come to naught, and some of them were killed for their efforts.

Well, what is to be done? It is tempting to cut one’s losses, to concentrate on protecting oneself and one’s people, to build a big wall and hide behind it, and wait for the next explosion. That is a perfectly natural way of reacting to the trauma. But our story suggests that there may be another way.

Because, although the story is obviously written from the point of view of the children of Isaac and Jacob (the Jews) it still, surprisingly, acknowledges God’s care for the children of Ishmael and Esau (the Arabs). It breaks through the power dynamics encoded in the rest of the story to acknowledge the other side’s humanity–even, amazingly enough, its election by God. And it does so in words that are strikingly similar to the promises God made earlier to Abraham about the Jewish side of his family: “Get up, take your son’s hand, for I will make of him a great nation” (21:18; cf. 12:1-2).

I conclude with a poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who was born in Germany in 1924, fled with his family to Palestine in 1935, fought in the armed conflicts from the War of Independence in 1948 to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and died in 2000. It was written when Amichai lived close to the wall that, between 1948 and 1967, divided West Jerusalem, which was in Israel, from the Old City and East Jerusalem, which were in Jordan.

On a roof in the Old City
laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
the white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
the towel of a man who is my enemy,
to wipe off the sweat of his brow.

In the sky of the Old City
a kite.
At the other end of the string,
a child
I can’t see
because of the wall.

We have put up many flags,
they have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy.
To make them think that we’re happy.

(Trans. Stephen Mitchell)

2 Easter –The Rev. Karen C. Barfield

John 20:19-31

Alleluia. Alleluia. Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Alleluia.

A friend of mine is a cardio-thoracic surgery PA.

Last Friday – Good Friday –
he began an operation by making an incision in the side of a patient’s chest.

He was making an incision in order to save someone’s life
while Jesus was being pierced in his side to ensure his death.

And yet, as we read in today’s Gospel reading, it is seeing that very wound in Jesus’ side that allows the disciples to rejoice in the possibility of new life.

Once again,
death and life,
fear and joy,

Following the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion the disciples have locked themselves away in fear.

Not just once
but at least twice
and probably every night for the past week!

Something in this itinerant preacher’s manner had called them forth from their lives.

They had let go of all they had in order to follow him.

They had accompanied him day and night for three years,
teaching and healing and baptizing…
touching the untouchable,
speaking to the ostracized,
setting people free from the demons that besieged them.

This man, Jesus, was the Messiah,
and when they were with him,
they knew that to be true.

He emboldened them to believe that life could be different.

Being with him gave them a courage they had never known…
like healing on the Sabbath because life was more important than the Law…
or turning over the tables of the money-changers, tossing upside down a corrupt system that continued to oppress the poor,
or giving sight to a man born blind,
or raising up the lame or straightening up a women nearly doubled over.

You couldn’t keep company with a man such as this and not believe that the rough ways just might be made smooth

and the valleys raised up
and the mountains brought low.

And yet…
Just a few days ago he had breathed his last
and a sword pierced his side and blood and water, of all things, came gushing out.

It is finished, he said.

It is finished!
It is over.
Hope is gone.

Jesus was laid in the tomb, and the tomb was sealed.

The Marys said the tomb was empty, but where was Jesus?
They didn’t even have a body to comfort them.

So, they locked themselves away in their fear,
their despair,
their hopelessness.

At least they would be together,
shutting out the world and any threats that loomed,
aside from the darkness that threatened their own hearts.

And then in the shimmering dusk some man appeared among them.

Who knows where he came from…
perhaps he snuck in through the window or climbed in through a hole in the roof.

“Peace be with you,” he said.

Are you kidding?
Our Messiah, our healer, our teacher, our leader, our Savior, is dead!

And then this man showed them nail wounds in his hands
and his side that had been pierced by a spear.

Their hearts began to burn, and their eyes lit up.

Alleluia! Jesus is risen.

So, Jesus says again…now that they can hear him:
Peace be with you.”

My friends, peace be with you.
You need not sit here locked in fear.
The Light has come into the world, and the world has not overcome it.

Two things fascinate me about this story:
The disciples do not recognize Jesus until they see his wounds.

Somehow, some way, Jesus has been raised from the dead, but in his resurrected body they do not recognize him…something about him has changed profoundly.

And yet, Jesus maintains his wounds after the resurrection,
and that is how he is recognized.

Jesus and his disciples meet each other in their wounds.

Even though Jesus speaks a word of peace into the fear and anxiety and despair of the disciples, “Peace” was not the only word Jesus had for his disciples.

He also said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

They have a mission.

Jesus sends them to be a light to the world as he had been…to witness to the ever-widening, ever-expanding love and Grace of God to a broken world.

After he said this, Jesus breathed on them…
filling them with God’s life-giving Spirit.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Go and free the world, Jesus says.
Free yourselves.

Having been whipped and scourged and mocked and spit upon,
Jesus was hung upon a cross and pierced in his side.

As he hung upon that cross, his prayer was this:
“Forgive them, Father, for they have no idea what they are doing.”

They do not know that in their hunger and thirst for power,
they are crucifying the one who loves them.

They are putting to death the very one who offers them life.

Forgive them.
Set them free.
Open their eyes to the one who will not retaliate but will lay down his life in love.

Let them see that the shackles of death and pain and dissolution are broken open by the bonds of love…that God walks into our very places of pain and fear and speaks a word of Peace.

And, as God accompanies us in our dark places,
we too are called to remind others that God is with them,
that a wounded God meets us all in our wounded places, too,
and calls us forth from the tomb into new life…
even when we can’t see that life right now.

My friends, the Easter news is this:
Christ is risen!
Christ will raise us to new life,
and Christ calls us forth to proclaim the Good News!

Alleluia. Alleluia. Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Alleluia.


Easter Sunday, Yr A –The Rev. Karen C. Barfield

Matthew 28:1-10

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

“After the sabbath,
as the first day of the week was dawning,
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”

Friday had been horrific.

Jesus had talked about his impending death, but it just wasn’t real…
at least
not until his arrest.
What a travesty –
a mockery –
of justice.

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Fifth Sunday of Lent–The Rev. Karen C. Barefield

Ezekiel 37:1-14
John 11:1-45

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

Jesus wept.

This past week I came across a picture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Standing in front of the wall was Pope Francis.
The upper part of his body was bent forward;
his right hand was outstretched, touching the wall…perhaps placing a folded piece of paper with a prayer written on it in one of the cracks between the massive blocks of limestone.

The Western Wall is sometimes called “The Wailing Wall,” or the “Place of Weeping.”

Standing behind the Pope some 10 or 15 feet was a Jewish man, patiently waiting, watching… as the Pope prayed.

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Fourth Sunday of Lent — Dr. Joel Marcus

Gospel: John 9:1-41

Collect: Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


 The story of the man born blind in John 9 is one of the most artistic compositions in the Gospels. John loves to set up a story as he does here: to show Jesus confronting a single representative individual with his incomparable claims about his own person. Think of Nicodemus in chapter 3. Think of the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. Think of Doubting Thomas and Mary Magdalene in chapter 20. And then think again about our story of an unnamed blind man in chapter 9. Continue reading

Third Sunday of Lent, Yr A–The Rev. Karen C. Barefield

John 4:5-42

O God of mercy, lead us into the way of all truth,
comfort us in our sorrow
and bring us to life everlasting. Amen.

The day was unbearably hot…
the sun directly overhead…
the heat was absolutely oppressive at this noon hour,
even the scorched earth begged for just a drop of water.

At this hour there are no locals to be found.

All the women know to come early in the cool of the new dawn to draw their water for the day.

And all those who missed the morning cool will just have to make do until evening when the sun begins to set and loses its heat once again.

However, one woman – a Samaritan woman – specifically chooses this time to come to the well.

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1st Sunday of Lent, Yr A– The Rev. Karen C. Barefield

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

I have heard the story told that there is a village somewhere on the African continent where if someone in the village commits a crime, that person is brought into the center of the village while all the villagers gather around them.

And then the villagers proceed to tell this person all the good things about them.

They embody an infusion of love to counteract the destruction of sin.

Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.

But let us remember that before entering the wilderness, he is first claimed as God’s beloved at his baptism.

Just as we have been! Continue reading

Ash Wednesday, Yr A–The Rev. Karen C. Barefield

Joel 2:1-2,12-17
Psalm 103:8-14

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

Blow the trumpet in Zion!
sound the alarm on my holy mountain.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people. (Joel 2:1; 2:15)

On February 7th Bishop Anne sent out a Lenten letter, which began with this passage from Joel.

I will not read her entire letter but do want to share some of it with you…in part because she is our bishop, and I think it’s important to hear what she has to say…and in part because she speaks so clearly with spiritual wisdom and guidance for these times:

“Dear People of God,

“Lent is fast approaching. And I use the word fast intentionally.

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Fifth Sunday After Epiphany — The Rev. Karen C. Barefield

Isaiah 58:1-12    
Matthew 5:13-20

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

“You are the salt of the earth….
You are the light of the world.”

What if we read these words not as a challenge or a demand but as a promise?!
Not “you better be the salt…”
or “you must be the light,”
but “you already are.”

You already are the salt of the earth.
You already are the light of the world. Continue reading