Who’s rules??

Homily for the Proper 20, Year C

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)

Lessons Appointed:

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

While I recognize that some of you are already scratching your heads about the meaning and purpose of today’s Gospel lesson, I’m going to ask your indulgence of going just a little further and hearing the next two verses of Luke’s Gospel:

When the Pharisees, who were lovers of money heard all this, they ridiculed him. So Jesus said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God.

Today we get to wrestle together with a tough text: this seemingly strange teaching of Jesus which, on the surface seems to praise a shrewd and unjust manager who finds a way to “one-up” his rich boss by doing some discount deal-cutting with a few extended credit customers before he finds himself out of a job.  That’s all in there.  But it isn’t the full story.

If we listen with our hearts (and minds) open, we begin to recognize that this story is part of a theme that weaves throughout the teaching and example of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus repeatedly reminds us in word and deed that the way things are in God’s realm runs counter-intuitive to our human nature.  As Jesus says repeatedly, “my kingdom is not of this world.” 

But time and again, we hear the Word and then we live in the world.  And sometimes there is profound dissonance between the two.  We don’t need to look any further than today’s lesson which deals with the nature of debt and forgiveness: kind of a hot topic in 2022 as well. Jesus didn’t create the dissonance, nor do we. In parables like this, it just becomes obvious.

I think the dissonance begins with the parable of the prodigal son, actually, which comes immediately before today’s lesson if you’re reading the Gospel according to Luke from start to finish.  Our lectionary moves that story into Lent, but I think that loses the flow of what Jesus is doing in this series of teachings.  Most of you probably know the story of the prodigal son: there’s two brothers, one of whom stays home dutifully to help the father run the family farm, and the other asks for his inheritance, then goes off to the city and squanders it.  After a dark night of the soul, he decides to return even as a servant, since the servants had it better off than he did.  When he returns, his father welcomes him with open arms and throws a huge party in his honor.  If we read it from the perspective of the lost son returning, it’s all about undeserved, lavish grace and forgiveness.  We might feel some righteous indignation if we enter the parable from the perspective of the hard-working, loyal son who feels that dissonance when the prodigal is so generously welcomed after squandering his share of the family fortune, which means there’s less to go around for the stalwart sibling. If you went to the Whistler to Cassatt exhibit recently at the VMFA, you might have noticed Henry Mosler’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1879) where the errant son comes home too late, and he is depicted, weeping, at his father’ death bed. That work of art was a cultural interpretation: a morality tale that re-cast the ending of the biblical story of the Prodigal Son in a way that aligned with the cultural values of hard work and reward, rather than ridiculously lavish grace and forgiveness. 

In what image do we see God?

And so we find ourselves back in the dissonance of today’s lesson.  The shrewd manager ends up getting praised by his rich boss for finding a way to act even more shrewdly with those who owed the master money. Both the rich boss and the manager know how the world works: through cutting deals that make other people feel like they got the better end of the bargain, it will look good on them.  Jesus embraces the dissonance to point out the strategy within these human relationships which makes it clear how the world works. 

If that’s our game, then those are the rules.  Following those rules has its human reward, and its consequences: the manager is still out of a job, and the people who seem to be his friends may turn around and be just as shrewd with him at some point.  That’s how the game is played.

But what if that’s not our game.  What if our game looks like the utterly ridiculous notion of forgiving someone who has squandered everything?  What if our game looks like seeing the face of Christ in someone sitting on a park bench with their belongings shoved into plastic bags?  What if our game is getting out of the rat race we’re socialized to think about as “the road to success” and instead making decisions about how we see the wealth and earnings entrusted to us as having a role in the betterment of humanity as God sees us all, rather than our own selfish struggle to beat others to the finish line where the one with the most toys wins? 

We might look like ridiculous children of light.  We might seem soft, in a world full of harsh.  We might risk being seen as more like the poor than the rich; we might risk the emotional pain of mourning with those who are hurt by the rules of this world; we might be seen as meek and mild rather than shrewd and uncompromising; we might hunger and thirst for more God in this world, and less human suffering.  We might even act on those things.  And in doing so, we might find ourselves blessed in the realm of God in ways that we can’t be seen in the realm of this world: we might be comforted through our mourning and active confrontation of injustice; we might gain the friendship of those in low places of this world; we might be filled with the goodness of God instead of fed by our own greed; we might be shown the lavish mercy that we don’t deserve of our own merits.  The dissonance may drop us to our knees and fill us with gratitude for that which we could never of our own merits deserve.

Whose rules are we playing by?

As Jesus points out, we can’t play by two different rule books at the same time.  The rules to any game start with the purpose.  Is it to get to the finish line with the most money?  That’s the playbook for a lot of the games on our shelves in this culture in which we live.  Is it to have earned the most points possible through our hard work and efforts?  Again, I draw your attention to the many sportsball events to which we are drawn.  Those rules are laid out, and the purpose is clear.  I’m a baseball fan; I know that finding ways to steal bases is encouraged, as long as we don’t get tagged out. That’s all part of the game, and good fun. But none of these human games are the rule book of God’s realm.

What is the rule by which the Children of God live?

Love your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself. 

These are the rules for living life in God’s realm, where blessings come from unexpected places and people as we walk the journey together on earth, as it is in heaven.  And Jesus suggests to his disciples, the children of light: be clear whose rules you are playing by, and be committed to them.  Because if you’re trying to do both, you will love one and hate the other.  The dissonance we feel between the rules of the world and the rules of God is a temporary state: we’re going to make a choice to live into one, or the other.  And God knows our hearts.

I know it’s only September, but one of my favorite scenes in a Charlie Brown Christmas is when sweet little sister Sally is asking her brother Charlie Brown to help write her Christmas list to Santa.  After a long list of asks she finally adds, “You can make it easy on yourself and just send money; how about tens and twenties…” to which her brother offers an exasperated, “Good Grief!” over his little sister’s collusion with systems of profit and reward.  Sally looks at us and says, “All I want is what I have coming to me; all I want is my fair share.”

It makes us laugh because it’s relatable: even within her childhood naivety, Sally knows exactly how the world works.

But in God’s economy, there isn’t an ever-dwindling supply where we need to grasp for our fair share.  There are no deals that need to be cut.  We don’t need to win friends through doctoring the books and manipulating emotions.  Instead, we’re invited to life in a family of unwarranted and undeserved grace. 

Whose rules are we playing by? What is the real treasure, of our lives and of our hearts? 

I’m also going with the Gospel according to Peanuts on this one.  We find that treasure not in all the bright lights and shiny objects of this world but in the lowliest and most unexpected of places, even in a tiny and vulnerable baby lying in a manger. God chooses sides and enters our humanity in vulnerability so that we don’t have to live in the dissonance anymore. We can live full hearted lives as the children of light, just as Jesus lives and teaches us to do.

The rules of that game aren’t dictated by the rich and the shrewd; they are sung by the angelic choir and delivered simply, as they are in that children’s classic by Linus, who puts a blanket on his head like a lowly shepherd and reminds us of the angels song: Glory to God and Peace on Earth as we embrace the Good News which has come for all people.

Because that, my friends, is what life in Christ is all about.


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I commend to you our sister Phoebe

Homily for the Ordination of Deacons, The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia

September 10, 2022

(Spanish translation below/traducción al español a continuación)

Sermon Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-9; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 16:1-7; Luke 22:24-27


I commend to you our sister Phoebe.

Today, we gather for the ordination of two women called by God and affirmed by the Church to serve as Deacons.  Our Epistle lesson introduces us to another woman called by God, Phoebe, whom Paul names as προστάτις (deacon) in the church at Cenchrea, near the Greek sea port town of Corinth. Phoebe accompanies this pastoral letter in which she is commended by Paul to those in the church in Rome, “so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”

This brief encounter with Phoebe contains all of what our Holy Scriptures tell us about this saint among our great cloud of witnesses, for whom we named the St. Phoebe School for Deacons.  Biblical scholarship has built up our historical knowledge of Phoebe’s hometown of Cenchrea and her likely place within it; and through cultural studies we have made associations about her social standing as a benefactor (προστάτις) in the Greco-Roman world. What stands out for me, though, is the nature of mutual relationship we see through Phoebe’s introduction and commendation.  The language of this Epistle and Deacon Phoebe’s presence offer us a clear example of the early church living out the Gospel message: “I am among you as the one who serves.” 

Deacons are essential for our lives of faith; deacons are the icon through which we see Christ’s own ministry of service offered up within the church and the world.

I’ve had the joy of serving as the Local Formation Director for St. Phoebe School for Deacons since this formation program began in 2019.  I remember talking with others who were instrumental in its start-up about what name we should take on.  As we prayed over this together, I kept hearing the words of our Epistle:  I commend to you our sister Phoebe. St. Phoebe School soon had a name, and the very first thing we chose to do was to create a virtual chapel and begin offering daily prayer in that space, open to anyone.  I learned from St. Phoebe during those early days of this ministry, and I learned about opening my own heart, too.  We soon began to have students, and prayer partners.  The virtual space quickly became a beloved spiritual community. It reminded me of how we’ve always made church together from the 1st century to the 21st.

The virtual community of St. Phoebe was already praying together regularly in March 2020. While we weathered pandemic shut-down, we also welcomed all those who desired a community of prayer.  We have added three cohorts of deacons-in-formation and more are yet to come! We moved from praying together a few times a week, to weekday mornings, to twice a day for both Daily Morning Prayer and Compline.  We’ve offered services of healing prayer; for racial justice; “Holding Space for Hope” and we hold both joy and grief in community.  Some people pray daily, some for a season, some drop by when the spirit moves, some find us serendipitously online and send us their prayer requests which we hold in community, just as we name our own. Our patron saint, Deacon Phoebe, always seems to bring the people who need to be there together.  Through the Virtual Chapel of St. Phoebe, we are all strengthened and encouraged.

I commend to you our sister, Phoebe.

The vows that Deacons make–that Susie and Dawn will soon make–invite us to see the role of the Deacon as the very image of the way in which Christ is made known in our mutual ministry and service with each other.  The final sentence of the vows they will soon make sums this up fully:

At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.

That vow is the heart of diaconal ministry, and it implicates all of Christ’s people: that means all of us!  We are reminded through the presence of Deacons in our midst that serving others isn’t about feeling good about ourselves, or dutifully following a command, or even trying to be like Jesus through our own merits.  Deacons remind us that we are to serve those at the margins of this world because through that faithful service, we will meet and see Christ in each other.  

This is the pastoral lesson offered up in the Epistle to the Romans: by welcoming our sister Phoebe, servant and minister, you will be welcoming Christ in your midst.  Through this mutual relationship of ministry and service, you will learn together how to live as siblings, members together of the Body of Christ.

When we…the Church… learn to care for each other with the deep love of Christ only then can we…the Church…live fully into the depth of that loving care for all of God’s creation. Deacon Phoebe is our saintly reminder of the mutuality of love and ministry.  Deacons are our living reminders of the mutuality of Christ’s loving presence in every corner of the world and the church in which we live and work and worship.

I commend to you our sister, Phoebe.

Today, we are all witnesses to the Holy Spirit making two new Deacons to serve the church.  They have been and will be affiliated with parish communities, and will be part of the larger family of the Diocese of Virginia and The Episcopal Church…and the whole Body of Christ.  They will serve among all the people of the parishes and communities in which they live and work.  And yet, they are so much more.  They are mirrors to all of us and continual reminders of Jesus saying, “I am among you as the One who serves.”

So, I also want to commend to you our sisters, Susie and Dawn.  

I have seen Christ as the One who serves in Susie.  At virtual chapel, she is the first one to notice a new face and to make them feel wholly welcomed to fully participate in our “Chapel of Many Voices.”  She weaves patterns of prayer that enfold those in our midst who are struggling and creates networks of mutual support among the Body of Christ so that no person is ever alone in a hospital, on a metro, at a chemo appointment, struggling on a hard day, in a place where others don’t speak the same language, wondering about a next meal or school supplies for their children.  She stitches together networks of support and adds threads of bright and diverse colors to remind us all that the world is bigger, bolder and more God filled than we ever could have imagined.  And if we ever forget that, she will name it and remind us of it, boldly and with love.

I have seen Christ as the One who serves in Dawn.  She spends her working hours as a social worker in a skilled nursing facility where people often feel alone and cast aside but she reminds them they are valued, loved and the center of her attention and God’s love.  She invited me to celebrate Easter Sunday Eucharist for her residents there, who hadn’t been able to worship together since the start of the pandemic in 2020.  It was a resurrection experience where God’s presence was felt as palpably and beautifully in that makeshift cafeteria chapel than in any gothic cathedral.  I think she knew that would happen.  She works with her friend Remmie to deliver food and essentials to those living unsheltered…and most importantly they bring love, dignity, respect and a shared knowledge that God is with us.  Every place, every person, every day.

I could go on about each one of them, and about every single deacon-in-formation here today that God has blessed me to shepherd through their formation.  But I need to close by saying something to all of you, too: we need Deacons whose very presence breaks down our business as usual with God’s transformational love as evidenced through the servant ministry of Jesus Christ.  We need to welcome them, to support them, to see their ministry as central to the way we live out our lives of faith.  

I commend to you the gift that it is to have a deacon in your midst. I commend to you our sisters Dawn and Susie who make their ordination vows today.  And I commend to you our sister Phoebe, servant and minister and deacon, as a guide and inspiration to all of us on this journey together to seek and serve Christ in each other.

Eternal God, who raised up Phoebe as a deacon in your church and minister of your Gospel; Grant us that same grace that, assisted by her prayers and example, we too may take the Gospel to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Sermón predicado por la Rev. Dra. Sarah Kye Price, sábado 10 de septiembre de 2022 Ordenación al Diaconado – Dawn Sykes McNamara y Susannah Greer Harding

Lecturas: Jeremías 1:4-10, Salmo 119:33-40, Romanos 16:1-7, San Lucas 22:24-27

Les encomiendo a nuestra hermana Febe.

Estamos reunidos para la ordenación de dos mujeres llamadas por Dios y afirmadas por la Iglesia para servir como diáconas. La lectura de la epístola nos presenta a otra mujer también llamada por Dios, Febe, a quien Pablo distinguió como diácona en la iglesia de Cencrea, cerca de la ciudad portuaria griega de Corinto. Febe llevaba consigo la carta pastoral en la que Pablo la encomienda a los líderes cristianos de la iglesia de Roma con estas palabras, “recíbanla en el nombre del Señor, como se debe hacer entre hermanos y hermanas en la fe, y ayúdenla en todo lo que necesite, porque ella ha ayudado a muchas personas y también a este servidor.”

Lo único que dicen las Sagradas Escrituras sobre Febe, quien fue testigo de la fe cristiana y santa de la Iglesia, fueron esas breves líneas. Fue por esta encomienda de San Pablo por lo que le hemos atribuido a nuestra escuela diocesana para diáconos el nombre de Febe, la Escuela de Diáconos Santa Febe. Algunos historiadores bíblicos han recopilado datos del lugar de su nacimiento, Cencrea, y nos comparten detalles del estrato social de personas como ella, benefactores en un mundo grecorromano. Sin embargo, lo que más me llama la atención de Febe es la manera en que Pablo la presenta, como alguien quien por naturaleza compartió lo que Dios le había proporcionado a ella – la benefactora. Lo que se dice de esta diácona en la epístola nos muestra cómo operaba la Iglesia primitiva y cómo las acciones de aquellos seguidores se intercalaba con el mensaje del Evangelio: “yo estoy entre ustedes como el que sirve.”

Los diáconos son esenciales para nuestras vidas de fe; ellas y ellos son como podemos ver reflejado el ministerio de Jesucristo para servir dentro de la iglesia y en el mundo.

He tenido el honor y el placer de servir como la Directora de Formación para la Escuela de Diáconos Santa Febe desde que se estableció en el 2019. Recuerdo hablar con las demás personas que formaron parte del grupo organizador de la escuela de diáconos sobre el nombre que le deberíamos dar.  Mientras orábamos y reflexionábamos sobre el nombre apropiado, yo escuchaba las palabras de la epístola, “Les encomiendo a nuestra hermana Febe, diácona en la Iglesia de Cencrea.” Fue a raíz de lo que yo escuchaba en mi corazón que la escuela de diáconos obtuvo su nombre.

Creamos una capilla virtual para ofrecer la oración diaria en un espacio virtual y accesible a toda persona. A través de todo lo que estábamos haciendo en esos primeros meses aprendí mucho más de lo que nos dicen las escrituras sobre Santa Febe y también aprendí a abrir mucho más mi corazón. Inscribimos alumnos y compañer@s de oración y la capilla virtual pasó a ser una comunidad espiritual, algo que me hizo pensar las maneras en que los cristianos a través de la historia nos congregamos en cualquier lugar para orar.

A partir de marzo de 2020, la comunidad virtual de Santa Febe solo pudo reunirse debido a la pandemia y por el cierre de las iglesias. Entonces invitamos a toda persona que deseaba unirse a orar, y a partir de entonces continuamos invitando a nuevos grupos de diáconos en formación a orar diariamente en la capilla virtual al igual que a otras personas que desean orar. Inicialmente orábamos un par de veces por semana, de ahí pasamos a orar todos los días y en este momento oramos dos veces al día – la oración matutina y el oficio de completas en la noche. Ofrecemos servicios de sanación; oramos por la justicia racial, por la esperanza que tanto ansía tener el mundo, por las alegrías y por los desafíos de personas en nuestras comunidades. Algunas personas se unen diariamente, otras por temporada, y más aún otras se unen cuando el espíritu les mueve. Hay personas que nos encontraron a través de las redes sociales y nos envían peticiones de oración a través de esos medios. Me parece que Febe, nuestra santa patrona, reúne a las personas que necesitan estar ahí presentes.  A través de la Capilla Virtual de Santa Febe, nos fortalecemos y nos acompañamos.

Les encomiendo a nuestra hermana Febe.

Los votos que toman los diáconos y que en unos minutos tomarán Susie y Dawn, nos invitan a reconocer cómo Jesús se manifiesta en nuestras acciones y en los ministerios de servicio al prójimo. Las últimas palabras que ellas dos dirán antes de tomar sus votos diaconales resumen claramente lo que es la orden vocacional del diácono:

En todo momento, sus vidas y enseñanzas deberán mostrar al pueblo de Cristo que, sirviendo a los desvalidos, están sirviendo al mismo Cristo.

Esta promesa, estos votos, son el corazón del ministerio diaconal y a la misma vez implica a todo el pueblo de Cristo, ¡a cada uno de nosotros!  La presencia de diáconos y diáconas entre nosotros nos recuerda que servirle al prójimo no se trata de sentirnos importantes por lo que hacemos, o de seguir el mandato que Dios nos hace y ni siquiera de intentar seguir los pasos de Jesús.  Los diáconos han de recordarnos que hemos de servir a los que viven al margen de nuestras comunidades porque a través de ese servicio nos encontraremos con Cristo y veremos su rostro en los rostros de las personas a las que servimos. 

La enseñanza pastoral de la carta a los Romanos es que al acoger a la hermana Febe, sierva y ministro, también recibimos a Cristo. A través de la relación y del servicio mutuo, aprendemos a convivir como hermanos y hermanas en la fe, miembros todos del Cuerpo de Cristo.

Cuando nosotros… la Iglesia… aprendamos a cuidarnos los unos a otros con el profundo amor de Cristo, sólo entonces podremos… la Iglesia… vivir plenamente en el amor profundo por toda la creación de Dios. La Diácona Febe nos recuerda diariamente la reciprocidad que hay en amar y en servir al prójimo y los diáconos nos han de recordar también de la presencia y del amor de Cristo en nuestras congregaciones y comunidades.

Les encomiendo a nuestra hermana Febe.

Hoy somos testigos de cómo el Espíritu Santo está impulsando a dos nuevas diáconas al servicio de la iglesia y de las comunidades. Ellas están y seguirán afiliadas a parroquia y formarán parte de la gran familia de la Diócesis de Virginia, de la Iglesia Episcopal, y del Cuerpo de Cristo.  Servirán a toda persona en las comunidades donde viven y trabajan, y harán mucho más. Ellas son como espejos que nos recordarán las palabras de Jesús, “yo estoy entre ustedes como el/la que sirve.”

Así que encomiendo a sus oraciones a nuestras hermanas, Susie y Dawn. 

De ellas les puedo comentar que he visto por ejemplo en Susie el rostro de Cristo que sirve al prójimo. En la capilla virtual, es la primera en reconocer una cara nueva y les hace sentir acogidos invitándoles a participar como una voz adicional en nuestra “Capilla de múltiples voces”.  Ella “hila” las oraciones de participantes para crear un patrón de oración y se cerciora de que toda persona forme parte de esa red de apoyo mutuo que es el Cuerpo de Cristo. Se asegura de que ninguna personas se encuentre sola en un hospital, en el metro, en una cita de quimioterapia, en su lucha diaria, en lugares donde personas no hablan el mismo idioma, con los que no saben de dónde vendrá la próxima comida o con personas que no tienen suficientes recursos para comprarle materiales escolares para sus hijos. Susie crea redes de apoyo e intercala hilos de múltiples colores y diversos para de esa manera recordarnos que el mundo es mucho más amplio, brillante y lleno de Dios de lo que jamás hubiéramos podido imaginar.  Y si alguna vez nos olvidamos de aquellas personas que están al margen, ella es la primera en recordarnos incluirlos a todas y a todos, con ímpetus y con amor.

He visto en Dawn el rostro de Cristo que sirve al prójimo. Ella es trabajadora social en un centro de cuido para personas aisladas de sus comunidades donde les recuerda a diario a los residentes que son personas valoradas, amadas y el centro del amor de Dios. Dawn me invitó a celebrar con los residentes la Misa de Pascua de Resurrección este año porque no habían podido participar de una Misa desde el comienzo de la pandemia en el 2020.  Fue una experiencia de resurrección para mí porque vi con mis propios ojos la divina y hermosa presencia de Dios en aquella capilla improvisada del comedor del centro de cuidos; así como se siente uno al estar en una gran catedral.  Me parece que Dawn ya sabía de antemano que así nos sentiríamos todos. Ella y su amiga Remmie también reparten víveres y artículos de aseo a personas sin hogar… y lo más importante es que lo hacen con tanto amor, dignidad, respeto y conocimiento de que Dios está presente con todas las personas que conocen en las calles – en cada lugar, con cada persona y en cada día.

Podría seguir hablando de mis hermanas y de cada uno de los diáconos en formación presentes aquí hoy. Dios me ha bendecido para guiarles en su formación. Pero antes de terminar quiero compartirles algo importante: necesitamos más diáconos. Diáconos cuyas presencias en nuestras iglesias y comunidades rompan los esquemas de nuestras rutinas diarias con el amor transformador de Dios que sucede a través del ministerio de servicio que nos enseñó Jesucristo. A la misma vez necesitamos acoger, apoyar y ver los ministerios de los diáconos que tenemos como algo esencial en nuestras propias vidas y en nuestras comunidades de fe. 

Así que encomiendo a sus oraciones a estas diáconas entre nosotros. Encomiendo a sus oraciones a nuestras hermanas Dawn y Susie, que hoy toman sus votos de ordenación al diaconado.  Encomiendo a sus oraciones también a nuestra hermana Febe: sierva, santa, ministro y diácona, como guía e inspiración para los que caminamos en búsqueda y en servicio al Cristo que está presente en el prójimo.

Eterno Dios, que levantaste a tu sierva Febe como diácona en tu iglesia y benefactora de tu Evangelio, de modo que llevó el mensaje de tu apóstol Pablo al corazón mismo de un imperio hostil; concede que también nosotros, ayudados por sus oraciones y ejemplo, recibamos la misma gracia para llevar el Evangelio hasta los confines de la tierra; por Jesucristo, tu Hijo nuestro Señor, quien vive y reina contigo, en la unidad del Espíritu Santo, un solo Dios, por los siglos de los siglos.  Amén.


Gracias mi amigo y hermano Padre Daniel Vélez-Rivera que tradujeron mi homilia!


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Next Steps in a Blended Vocational Life

Depending on when you ask me, there is either a major shift or a “soft transition” going on in my blended vocational life. There are a few specific updates to share, but the real joy for me has been in the synchronicity and the journey to get to this place where I am right now. So, I decided that writing this blog post was my preferred way to tell the story to those who know me and support me on this journey, rather than just changing my profile on Facebook and LinkedIn. When your vocation resides in the blend of things that give your life meaning and purpose, there aren’t really “beginnings” and “endings.” Instead, all the pieces of our lives get rearranged and re-shaped in ways that help us do the work we’re called to do. I’m grateful to find myself in the midst of that soulful reshaping these days.

First, some concrete information:

“Letting Go” I will be wrapping up my time as Associate Dean in just a few days, and rejoining my faculty colleagues in the School of Social Work at VCU for the start of Fall semester 2022. I’ll be working on my scholarship and teaching in our doctoral program: the first year Research Methods course with our incoming students, and the Teaching Practicum with our students moving between coursework and dissertation. It will be a joy to work more closely with our doctoral students again.

“Taking On” I have accepted a call to serve as the interim Vocational Development Minister with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia on a part-time basis along with my faculty role this year. This doesn’t replace my role with St. Phoebe School for Deacons; rather, it deepens my work with Vocation and Call in our diocese, working with all those who are preparing to serve the world and the church through ordained ministry as priests and deacons. I hope to explore pathways for lay and bivocational/blended vocational ministry as well (an area around which I am clearly quite passionate!). Our diocese is in a Bishop transition, and my colleague who has filled this role for 12 years is in transition to his own new vocation and graduate study. So, it feels right, good and holy for me to be invited in, give what I can, and learn deeply in the process. I’m grateful for the invitation and opportunity to serve.

These new commitments are August – May; I am filled with excitement, curiosity, challenge and conviction to bring what I can to these roles where I’m called. There are still places for the projects around which I’m passionate: the social work and spiritual care development, the ministry with those on the margins, the visiting of parishes with preaching and teaching, the opportunities to serve in priestly ministry with congregations and colleagues who are dear to me, all of which fills my cup and gives me joy. All these weave into this present time of being. The rest will emerge.

Now, for a bit of reflection on all this. I direct your attention to two images.

The heavy tile paperweight of a line-drawn sheep was given to me in 1993 by my MSW field supervisor at the end of my final year of practicum. She noted two things (I paraphrase, it was a while ago): “Sarah, you are an outstanding social worker in the field. And, no grass grows under your feet!”

I’ve been thinking about both of those things in these days of navigating transition and call. “My field” of social work has never been just a job; it was and is my first vocational call. The time spent this spring and summer with seminarians at CDSP was so joyful and meaningful for me, bringing to my classes and conversations the best pieces of my 25+ year old, well-developed tool kit of social work to help them serve in ministry. It took me back to my roots, and made me recognize with gratitude the ways in which I am a social worker to my core. With that realization came the immediate recognition of the interconnectedness of social work values and ethics with the commitments I made in my spiritual life: the Baptismal Covenant of the Book of Common Prayer that I also encountered for the first time while a social work student. My vocations have been blending for as long as I can remember. And on this day, I give thanks for the continued blessings of that blending.

“No grass grows under your feet.” Yep…that is true. I like the ever-changing landscape of doing new things, learning new things, taking up an opportunity to try something new and challenging presented to me. I like to graze on the grass around me and see where that leads. I’m not someone who has aspirations to go the moon or become president (heaven forbid). I appreciate that which surrounds me, and when I’m invited into something new, I willingly step on that new patch of grass and see what it has to offer. I’m excited to have been invited to journey deeper into ministry with the Diocese of Virginia, to support those who are splashing around in the waters of new vocation and strengthen those who are preparing for ministry in their own vocational lives. I hope, with God’s help, that I have resources to offer to you who are opening your hearts to new ministry, and to those who support and shape you on that journey. My prayer is that this process will allow you to see new iterations of yourself and your gifts for ministry continuing to emerge.

I’m going to be noticing what is growing and taking root in my own spirit during this time, too. I know I will have to be adaptive and creative in this blended vocational adventure. I’m grateful to the leaders in both institutions where I work who have the trust and grace to step into this with me, knowing that my yes-saying is to both of these calls right now; I would not be true to myself and my call were I only to be in one without the other. I could easily end up trying to be 110% in both spheres of my life but that will be futile and disappointing to everyone, including myself. What I will strive to be is transparent, organized, thoughtful and most of all: present. Learning to blend one’s time is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual exercise (as we social workers say) in trust, grace, and presence. It isn’t about splitting up all the hours thinner and thinner like they are a scarce resource (though I acknowledge it may feel that way at times); it is about knowing that with God’s help, it will be enough. I am enough. You are enough. And we can be fully present to that enough-ness in ourselves, and in others.

Prayer is my foundation in this new endeavor.

I composed this set of Anglican prayer beads for myself this weekend, as I was preparing to take up this new blended vocational path in the coming months.

I chose some very specific reminders in making this set, and prayed some deep and important prayers for those whom I will work with and for my own journey, too. This set anchors with a Tree of Life, because the growing of vocation is the particular call I have been invited to take up. Each time I pray, it will be a reminder of that yes-saying. Two crosses follow, inviting me to pray into the plurality of call. I chose purple beads, taking on the diocesan color (for those who share office life nerdiness: my Google Calendar similarly demarcates my meetings by color that way, too!); there are 28 smooth amethyst beads, for clarity of mind and calmness of spirit. The cruciform beads demarcating the weeks are composite, an abstract mosaic of pieces smoothed together (like the fragments of my life, formed and shaped by God). Each one found its way on with a prayer.

For those who are reading all of this, thank you. I invite your continued prayers, and I am deeply grateful for all the love and support which surrounds me on this journey of life and vocation. I’ll close with a poem and blessing that has been important at other junctures of my journey, too. It is speaking to my soul again.

Sarah+


For a New Beginning

by John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

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Gifts of Sabbath

Agapanthus blooms at Church Divinity School of the Pacific

I am nearing the close of my June sabbatical in this beautiful space in the East Bay of San Francisco that has become a spiritual homing beacon that draws me back, time after time. As those who know me might anticipate, I’m feeling reflective as I approach the transition home. I know that what I want to say far exceeds a social media post, so I decided to write down some thoughts to share with those who have been holding me in love and prayer during my sabbatical journey.

The first time that I ever stepped foot on the campus of CDSP for a campus visit, I was greeted by a beautiful, full antlered deer strolling across the street of the Berkeley Hills, blissfully undaunted by people and buildings, just sauntering like any of the rest of us pedestrians making our way home. There was something about that moment: time stood still, my anxiety and exhaustion melted away and I was simply present. It was a gift, and it still is one. I have learned so much about theology and ministry in the seven (can it really be?) years since that first visit. More importantly, perhaps, I’ve learned to be present to my life, to my call, and to God.

I was walking home from the post office today after mailing home some of my books. While I was taking in the incredible flowers, succulents and fruit trees (loquats!), I suddenly realized I was looking directly at a young doe, making her way across the Berkeley street. In that moment, it all came full circle in my mind: a visitor, a student, a graduate, an alumni and now having taught an amazing class to round out this visiting professorship. In all of the learning, the studying, the relationships, the spiritual formation: what I have been doing at the heart of it all is learning to be present. It’s taken seven years and this solid month of sabbatical time for me to realize the incredible and beautiful simplicity of that. This life is a gift that keeps opening.

While I have been here, I haven’t been apart from a hurting world. I’ve stayed present with those who were crying and shed tears of my own as we collectively grieved over multiple mass shootings as well as personal tragedies in our lives. We navigated cases of COVID-19 in our gathered community, weathered the storms of policies and rulings that cut to the core of people’s inner lives and public witness, held public liturgies of lament in solidarity with our siblings at St. Stephen’s in Vestavia Hills and for those who suddenly felt their privacy and agency ripped away with a supreme court ruling. In our off hours, we heard the brazen truth-telling of congressional hearings as we crammed in all of the daily work relentlessly required during a summer intensive (for my students, reading and writing; for me, prepping and grading). And through it all, we prayed and built relationships. We took in new knowledge and gained immense wisdom. We learned to stop and to be present, with God and with each other.

I deepened in my relationships beyond seminary as well. I was able to be consistently present with the community at St. Gregory of Nyssa across weekly services, and even to wear the best liturgical garments anywhere (see prior post) and speak from my heart at the Spirit’s beckoning as I delivered a homily in worship with the dancing saints. I felt myself forming in and with this community of people, awakening to the gifts of hybrid worship that allow us to be present across time zones. A few people said to me, “you really get us” and I would say back: you all really get me, too. It’s profound to have a spiritual home away-from-home. It’s truly a gift for a priest, as my clergy friends are well aware. I promise to join you in hybrid worship whenever I can from the East Coast, and will look for my very own “button” with joy during my next visit, as I’m certain there will be.

I also walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral and paid my respects to those whose memories I have laid to rest in the AIDS Interfaith Chapel over the years; may light perpetual shine upon you. I sailed across the Bay, bought incredible local produce at farmer’s markets, spent way too long staring at all the good things at Berkeley Bowl, and this time added to my East Bay experience with a drive to Richmond CA to spend my birthday with Rosie the Riveter. I pilgrimaged to see Jane Addams in stained glass, met Donaldina Cameron via icon and made a quick stop past Cameron House that bears her name and continues her mission. I have had picnics on park benches and hiked to see sunrises over the hills and sunsets over the Bay and honestly can say, the awe never wears off.

This final sabbatical week has been a self-designed writing retreat, which is something I have intended to do for at least five years now. No time like the present! I’ve made use of every beautiful day to write outdoors, and on the cloudy ones I’ve nested in my space with the company of fresh flowers and my trusty basil plant which has flavored my meals and brightened my kitchen. I’ve found opportunity to nurture my soul every day, and what I have accomplished has been so much more than my workaholic ways generally lead to (amazing!). I’m taking that lesson back with me. My prayer beads and books of poetry have been well-beloved friends, and my sleep has been restful, especially on the cool nights where I crack my windows and burrow under a blanket, which never happens back home in the south during the summer. I’ve nurtured my spirit daily as a priority and while doing so I have prepped and taught a brand new class, led liturgy, preached, and produced a fairly solid draft of a book proposal; earlier today I would have aptly used Anne Lamott’s description of an SFD (“shitty first draft”) for what I have produced, but having read it over tonight, I’m pleasantly surprised. I am excited about writing again, and hopefully getting someone to publish it. Mostly, I’m happy about the first part and know the second part will come as it will. It all starts with being present.

When I return home, there will be a chance to rejoin my family who have been at all the things of their lives, too. It takes time to reconnect, so I will make space for that before running off to all the things that will pull me in. Next week, there will be a retreat to lead (oh, I’ve been preparing for that, too). There will be work to re-engage, people to catch up with, discernment about next steps in my life of ministry, and continued engagement with what has been set in motion during this visiting professorship. My relationship with CDSP continues, and I’m grateful to remain connected. Life moves on from this time of protected growth into full bloom. I hope to stand tall and bloom large, like my friends the agapanthus that proliferate with beauty all around campus. I’m coming to this next chapter of the journey with more strength, having been nurtured at my roots…not to mention the tender blessings of wind, water and sun.

I close with gratitude for this time and hope for whatever comes next. And of course, a few photos which will keep my memories alive and continually renew my spirit, until the next time.


Snapshots from sabbatical

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Looking at our Demons

Homily for Proper 7, Year C

preached at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church (San Francisco, CA)

Scripture References:

Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Video of full service including homily can be accessed at the bottom of this post

Sermon Recording:

Podcast link: https://saintgregorys.libsyn.com/podcast/sarah-price-june-19-2022-looking-at-our-demons

Sermon Text:

Long before I was a priest…back when I was a newly minted social worker…I worked for a residential health care facility in Buffalo, NY where my assignment included staffing both a medical unit, and a memory care unit.  I floated between the two units, so one of my responsibilities was to determine which space better met the care needs of each resident.

One day, I was working on the medical unit making sure my notes were up-to-date during the annual inspection from the state health department.  We had a newly admitted resident who was sitting in her chair, directly in my line of sight. I’d been asked to observe her to see which unit might be a better fit for her care. As happens when staff are under the watchful gaze of authorities, everyone was feeling on edge.  Nurses were making sure the right medications went out at the right time to all the right people, and CNA’s were scurrying to get people dressed, bathed, and fed with more expediency than perhaps was typical.  The resident under my watchful care was trying to talk to all the busy people passing her by, “Excuse me!” she’d say.  The nurse would reply, “I’ll be right back!” and hurry off with her cart. “Could you help me?” she would say to get the attention of the CNA who was wheeling someone off to their room, “I’ll be back in just a minute!” they would reply.

My head was down, writing my intake note when I heard the woman suddenly burst into a loud cry, “THE DEVIL!  THE DEVIL!!  THE DEVIL IS OVER HERE!!!!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.  I flew out from behind the desk to run over to intervene in this mental health crisis, the nurse left her cart, the CNA reversed course to see what kind of situation had emerged.  And we all did a double-take when our new resident calmly shifted herself in her chair and said, “There we are.  Now that I have everyone’s attention: could someone please help me to the restroom?”

Suffice it to say, my assessment read: “Excellent self-advocate with no cognitive deficits noted”

That was a pivotal moment in my early career. My own presumptions got in the way of truly seeing a person in strength and humanity.  I’ve shared that story with my social work students back home at VCU as a prelude to talking about the human and spiritual dimensions of the social work profession.  I’m talking about the blend of social work and spiritual care right now at Church Divinity School of the Pacific where I once studied, and now I’m serving as a Visiting Professor this summer.  We grow from moments like this that sneak up on us, and catch us right in our assumptions.  We’re given one of those moments in today’s Gospel.

The Gospel sounds like a movie script, doesn’t it?  I can practically see the trailer: a creepy cemetery with a figure lurking around, cutting to a hillside filled with pigs running headlong to their demise.  But let’s step away from the cinematics to the heart of the lesson.  I’m convinced that the people living in the country of the Geresenes thought they had this situation all figured out.  I can imagine the kind of stories that were told about the naked, crazy man who lived in the tombs, cast out from the daily life and residential vibe of the city.  I’m sure that the rumor mill was on fire whenever he was acting out, and the authorities began to think nothing about binding him up in chains and shackles in the name of safety, “for everyone’s good.” I can imagine parents scooping up their children and shushing them when they wondered out loud who that man was and asked what he was doing, living where the dead were supposed to be. Childish curiosity turned quickly to fear, and fear turned to stigma, and stigma turned socially sanctioned discrimination where no one thought twice about marginalizing this outcast labelled as a demoniac who didn’t have access to housing, clothing or basic needs because (subtext) they couldn’t really be human after all, could they?  Being less than human, of course, justified their acts of punitive exile and carceration for the safety of self and others.

We may be living in a different century, but some situations seem shockingly familiar. 

Enter Jesus, who earlier in the Gospel according to Luke, has just stilled the winds and waves of rough waters and now steps from sea onto dry land.  Jesus is welcomed ashore by this outcast who has seen torment, shackles, ridicule and oppression; that which is in possession of him recognizes Jesus for exactly who he is and he exclaims it at the top of his voice.  I doubt it sounded like holy recognition.  Like my resident on the unit, that greeting probably struck fear into the disciples and all who were nearby.  Everyone was in position and ready to react.

Except Jesus.  Instead, Jesus asks: “What is your name?”

What is your name

It sounds like a simple question, but it tells us so much about Jesus.  The question Jesus asks is singular, personal, human.  And even when the man cannot identify himself beyond that which possesses him, Jesus’ response is to cast away that which was not of the person, to free the human being who has been imprisoned by the evil forces of this world.  After all the resulting drama involving swine and cliffs settles and the swineherds go into the city to tell the tale of what they saw, because…well…who doesn’t want to share a story like that…people drop their busy lives to rush into the dramatic scene to see what has happened.  They set out anticipating great drama unfolding from one they had demonized, and arrive to see something else entirely: a person who is whole, clothed, calm and sitting as Jesus’ feet. 

And they were afraid.

The order of operations by which this Gospel lesson unfolds isn’t lost on me, and I don’t for a moment think it’s accidental.  Deep fear sets in when they see the person, the human being, the one just like them.  They came to that scene expecting what they had come to expect: a demoniac, a non-person, an outcast.  Now, they saw a personAnd they were afraid.

It was too terrifying to confront the reality of our common humanity, to recognize that the person Jesus was able to see singularly was in effect, every person.  The sad reality is that it’s easier to keep a demoniac…or any other “label”…cast out from a community, then it is to welcome and greet a human being that we now see clearly is and always has been one of us. 

Jesus sees that man, and each of us, as a person. That radical love was too much for the people of the Geresenes.  They ask Jesus to leave; the fear of seeing their common, equal humanity was just too great.  But it was enough for the healed man, who saw himself renewed and asked to go with Jesus.  I can imagine why, can’t you?  It’s hard work to confront stigma and fear, day after day.  But Jesus asks him to remain and he does, using his voice and story and person to share the Good News even to those who had cast him aside, who were afraid, who could not see him as a person. Yet. But Jesus had seen him, and healed him.  And being seen, respected and loved was enough for him to stay and proclaim the good news of what Jesus had done, believing others would eventually see it, too.

The Good News in this story is profound: there is no amount of human marginalization, no amount of possession by the structures and forces of evil that can keep us from being seen, and known and loved by Jesus and healed by divine love and grace.  Not a legion of demons; not the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism; not the terror of unchecked gun violence; not the structures of addiction, illness, fear, or oppression.  We are seen, known and asked our name…invited to see ourselves beyond the structures and forces of evil that can enslave us and others.  The value of our personhood matters to God, profoundly.

We can also be overwhelmed when confronted by the holy equality of the Good News of God in Christ: Can we see others as Jesus sees them?  Can we see ourselves, as Jesus sees us?

I hope the answer to both questions is:  I will, with God’s help.

We are invited to move from the fear that enslaves us and into a new reality, a new freedom, a new way of life through God’s healing grace.

That kind of radical celebration is the heart of Juneteenth: an anniversary celebration of the words of General Order No. 3 reaching people at the furthest edge of Texas who were still enslaved not by law but by the continued abuse of power and perpetuation of the oppressive status quo.  That document reading was two years after the emancipation proclamation, and two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.  We can imagine the freedom and emancipation conveyed to those who had been enslaved, and lament the reality that fear still fueled the hearts of those wielding the power and privilege of possession.  Juneteenth invites us to solidarity: celebrating freedom from the evil of slavery and the evils that enslave us, liberating us to live into the vision of holy equality we read today:

In Christ there is no longer Hebrew or Hellenist, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Imagine that as an invitation.  Imagine that as the lead in to Jesus asking you not how the world sees you but, “What is your name?

There is healing that needs to happen with the oppressive structures of this world, and there is healing that needs to happen in the most personal, ordinary everyday spaces where we greet each other with our common humanity. The Good News is, Jesus models for us a place where we can begin and from which healing and transformation can and will emerge, with God’s help.

So, I invite you to ponder, and then to pray, and then to act: who are we being called to ask, “what is your name?” 


Watch the full service (Zoom Stream from St. Gregory of Nyssa):


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Why can’t we have complex things?

A reflection originally written following the leaking of information suggesting the pending overturn of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade.

For the past 25 years of my professional life, I have been a professional social worker, grief counselor, professor and priest. Most of my work, along with my clinical and academic expertise, has focused on reproductive health and mental health. I’ve heard stories that are beautiful and gut-wrenching, I have held confidences shared behind closed doors and companioned people through some of the most difficult and complex situations and decisions of their lives. I’m someone who reads, thinks, ponders and holds nuanced ethical positions on a host of issues because I understand the complexity of life through the experiences of others.

These recent days have been trying times for my soul.

I am taking time to write this post today because I believe that the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade is bad news for the mental health of women and parenting people everywhere. I also believe that the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade is bad news for educated, trained, ethically practicing professionals who provide health, mental health and spiritual care everywhere. And, no matter what your political affiliation or ideological beliefs are, you should care about that, too.

As things stand right now, all of the complicated decisions that I’ve accompanied people through are personal choices that are legally supported, made with ample consultation with the medical, mental health and spiritual advisors in their lives. The people who have shared their stories with me each have different individual, familial, cultural and religious beliefs and experiences that they are able to talk about and ultimately, inform the next steps of their journey. Not everyone makes the same choice. Not everyone has access to the same options. But up to this point, I have had the autonomy to inform, explore, and accompany people through whatever they determine is the best course of action without civil or legal penalty. And they have had the autonomy to seek the best course of action for their lives, also without civil or legal mandate.

In all of the work that I do, I have to guarantee the well-being of my clients. As a social worker, I have ethical guidelines which I agree to follow which include competence, integrity, the dignity and worth of all persons as realized through client self-determination, and the centrality of human relationships. Because I also engage pregnant people in my research, I must guarantee the safety of human subjects, and there is an addendum that I provide to the Institutional Review Board at my institution for every study, no matter how benign, to assure them that I am acting in ways that do not jeopardize the well-being of a pregnant person or fetus. As a priest in The Episcopal Church, I adhere to the promises of my baptism and those I made at my ordination, and I live in obedience to spiritual authority. The vows of my religious life also include honoring the dignity and worth of all persons, and caring for those I love and serve as a priest: the young, the old, the rich and the poor. I take all of these vows seriously, and that allows me to be an informed, compassionate, confidence-holding companion to many people and their many life situations. I read and I study, so that I am offering resources and support grounded in sound theology, science, and ethical practice. My professional and vocational training…a doctorate and three Master’s degrees…helps me to be a trusted and educated voice of wisdom and grace-filled companionship so that, when all is said and done, each person, in each person’s own situation, can feel informed, loved and supported in having navigated difficult decisions in the best ways that they can.

I have never, in all my various settings of practice, encountered a person of any age, race, socioeconomic or spiritual background who took issues of life and death lightly. This includes decisions around the beginning and end of life.

Now, we stand on a precipice where instead of professionals like me who are trained and ethically grounded accompanying people through the complexity and offering cognitive, emotional, spiritual and ethical guidance in some of the most challenging moments of their lives, the court of public opinion will determine the options, if any, available to them. Many of the people that I counsel, for the record, will choose a course of action that even some of my most conservative friends would wholeheartedly embrace. But you see, here is the heart of the matter: it is still about choice. Making informed choices honors our human agency; it allows us to consult and consider what we believe, and why. It allows us the freedom to weigh moral, ethical and practical consequences of our options. Responsibility comes with freedom, and when we enact our rights and freedoms with an understanding of that responsibility, it makes us not only agents of our own lives but wiser about what is important to us. That wisdom ultimately leads us to respect others and their decisions, even if they differ from our own.

So, I am forced to confront in these days where my spirit is ill at ease: can we still honor the capacity of people to make complex choices? Have we come to a place where we are willing to sacrifice human agency for moral absolutes?

What is unfolding in the United States right now isn’t about elective terminations of pregnancy; it goes far beyond labels value signalling one’s stance on the politicized concept of abortion. The dismantling of constitutional freedom is an affront to complex thought and critical thinking. It leads to partisan box-ticking on election day and moral absolutism that underscores shame, blame and stigma of “the other” which I hear playing out in how people describe who they picture when they hear about someone considering abortion. I can assure you: that pool is far more wide and diverse than many people realize. Ultimately, a lack of choice and freedom erodes mental health and human agency of all of these individuals, not only those who ultimately may decide to terminate a pregnancy. At the same time, it undermines the role of vocational and professional education that prepares health, mental health and spiritual care providers to honor and accompany people through the complexities of human life.

Why can’t we have complex things?

We are a society that is thriving on distrust and division. We are weary from comparing what we don’t have with what others seem to have, and we are grasping for a sense of moral certainty. But this push to dismantle rights and freedoms doesn’t bring us closer to the moral high ground that we’re seeking. It discounts the complexity of experiences, identities and belief systems that make up a nation as diverse as the United States.

I’m writing this today as food for thought, another perspective to consider in these days where debates rage on and people are feeling hurt, divided, angry or vindicated. My intent is to invite all of us to pause and consider the bigger picture beyond whether we are “for” or “against” a decision. How are lives being impacted: of pregnant people and professionals, as well as humans-in-development? It’s a complex question, and I am not looking for seemingly easy answers. I’m actually hoping we can learn to embrace complex things and in doing so, learn to listen more deeply to and companion each other through the difficult situations of life.

Gracious God, we thank you for the love that sustains us through the difficult choices we have made. We bless your name for granting us courage, peace, and strength. Give us grace in the days ahead to recognize your boundless mercy. Strengthen our faith and support us with your love that your goodness and mercy may follow us all the days of our lives, through Christ, our Good Shepherd. Amen.

–“Following a Difficult Decision” from Enriching our Worship 5
(Church Publishing, Inc. 2009)
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Poems for Holy Week 2022

Filling my soul with poetry during Holy Week 2022 (updated daily)


Palm Sunday

The Poet Thinks on the Donkey

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

-Mary Oliver

from: https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2021/3/23/the-poet-thinks-about-the-donkey-by-mary-oliver


Monday in Holy Week

“Mary Anoints the Feet of Jesus” by Frank Wesley

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,
anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.
—John 12.3


God does not promise to save you from suffering,
or to remove you from this life and its jagged edges.
God shares your space in it, offers blessing in it,
anointing your nights as well as days.
The cross is no scheme to get you off a hook somewhere;
it’s the Beloved, with you in your pain.

Let the Beloved pour herself out on your troubles,
let her pour out a jar of tears for you,
wipe your aching feet with her hair.
Let the whole house of you be filled
with the fragrance of God’s blessing.
Others don’t feel your pain but she does,
they will flee but she will be with you.

Lay before her your sorrows and your rage.
Feel her hands upon you, her hair, her heart.
You are in the holy of holies.
The world’s derision fades away outside the gate.
She looks at you with love
that will stay with you forever.

–Steve Garnass-Holmes

from: https://unfoldinglight.net/2019/04/03/6x8wwacjmsz3wpwpw9hage9znb9cnz/


Tuesday in Holy Week

The Shadow of Death” by Frederick Stacpoole, 1878

Christos

Jesus: a prophet or a god

Because in the shop, he

Made, as every carpenter

Of the time:

            Tables and chairs—

Out of wood came the

                                Word,

As the original impulse

            Was to hide

Behind an act. One can’t

Be a prophet or a god with-

Out a cover. Something to

Do

            Till the word

            Gets around—

So to speak—and as metal

Was not a thing for laymen

To play around with, it had

To be wood,

   The only dry thing

That could catch

Fire, and lead—like the

Word—peoples, animals

And angels—off course,

            Toward the light.

–Ahmad Almallah

source: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/157534/christos


Wednesday in Holy Week

Jesus washes Judas’ feet.

That moment, when you knelt before him,
took off his sandals, readied the water,
did you look up? Search his eyes?
Find in them some love, some trace
of all that had passed between you?

As you washed his feet, holding them in your hand,
watching the cool water soak away the dirt,
feeling bones through hard skin,
you knew he would leave the lit room,
and slip out into the dark night.

And yet, with these small daily things –
with washing, with breaking and sharing bread,
you reached out your hand, touched, fed.
Look, the kingdom is like this:

as small as a mustard seed, as yeast,
a box of treasure hidden away beneath the dirt.
See how such things become charged,
mighty, when so full of love. This is the way.

In that moment, when silence ebbed between you,
and you wrapped a towel around your waist;
when you knew, and he knew, what would be,
you knelt before him, even so, and took off
his sandals, and gently washed his feet.

–Andrea Skevington

source: https://andreaskevington.com/2019/04/09/poem-jesus-washes-judas-feet/


Maundy Thursday

icon written by Julia Stankova

The grass never sleeps.

Or the rose.

Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,

and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,

and heaven knows if it even sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe

the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,

maybe

the lake far away, where once he walked as on a

blue pavement,

lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not

keep that vigil, how they must have wept,

so utterly human, knowing this too

must be a part of the story.

— Mary Oliver

source: https://incarnationbmore.org/uncategorized/gethsemane-a-poem-by-mary-oliver/


Good Friday

Mosaic Icon of the Crucifixion of Christ, Basilica San Clemente (Rome, 12th Century)

Psalm 22 (paraphrase)

My God, My God,
You are the sparrow’s fall
And the flower’s garments.
You are the hallowed hammer
And the hanging tree.
I am poured out like water.
Why have you forsaken me, my father?

Yet surely I was cast on you from birth.
From the ordinary altar of my mother’s womb
You have been my God.

You are the light’s benediction
And the silent sky,
Both the chasm and the passage,
My canticle and call.
I am the veil, gripped and rended,
In the darkness until the dying is ended.

You have pierced my hands and feet,
Yet as long as light has walked between stars
You have been my God.

You tell the sun your grief
And darkness dances across the noon.
You are unyielding.
I am cross-hearted and heaving.

All who cannot keep themselves alive
Will kneel before you.
You have been my God.

You shake the shattered earth of its ancient dead.
You are the breath in buried chests
Who rise and walk and praise you again.
I am the fountain found
I am the holy wine swallowed down.
I am trussed and scattered.
As grapes are crushed, I stagger.

Though the beasts surround me,
And trouble is near,
I will find your face
For you have been my God.

You dreamed of flesh in the ground, growing.
For you are the God of scattered seed.
But now I am kernel crushed
Chaff blown, flayed and flying.
I am the flesh you dreamed of dying.

Why are you so far from saving me?
I can count all my bones.
My heart melts. I lay in the dust.
As long as the afflicted have lifted prayers to you,
You have been my God

I am the holy bread, chewed and eaten.
I am the Prince of Peace crowned and beaten.

—Andy Patton

source: https://rabbitroom.com/2021/03/the-chasm-the-passage-poems-by-andy-patton-anna-a-friedrich/


Holy Saturday

Onto a Vast Plane

You are not surprised at the force of the storm


you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

source: https://onbeing.org/poetry/onto-a-vast-plain/

During Holy Week 2022, I am immersing myself in poetry, art and verse on the themes of each day’s scripture lesson. This blog post will be expanded each day.

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Grace All Around

CDSP Community Eucharist February 24, 2022

Epiphany VII Year A (Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church)

Scriptures: Isaiah 61:1-4/ 8-10; Song of Songs 3:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:1-10; John 2:1-11

The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth; and from this fullness may we receive, grace upon grace.  Amen.

A few months ago, I witnessed and blessed the marriage of two beautiful human beings surrounded by family and friends in the middle of a brewery.  Before that day, I had read and heard this Gospel passage of the Wedding at Cana many, many times.  But, context matters, and in that particular context, I became palpably aware that we were all gathered to witness and bless a holy transformation, surrounded on all sides with barrels and bunches of hops…the practical elements of transformation.  Standing in that context, everything about this particular Gospel began to take on a new life for me. 

I don’t have to tell you all that this has been a season of our lives where everyone’s best laid plans have been tentative, at best.  Will and MK wanted to be married in the parish they loved and called home. But then there was COVID, and gathering restrictions…and then a period of optimism, during which time they set a date, reserved the church, booked a brewery for their reception, and invited all their family and friends. And then there were more variants, more waves, and more gathering restrictions.  You know the arc of this story…we’ve all lived it in countless ways over the past two years. 

I was sitting with Will and MK during one of our premarital counseling sessions where all of the hopes and realities of the day were converging on those best-laid plans.  In that particular moment where I was feeling equal parts social worker and priest, the changes and changes of pandemic life were all around us. One…or both…vocations stirred through the scarcity and we began to move forward around three questions: What’s really important?  How will we honor that?  What changes, and what remains? 

I’d also like us to hold those three questions as we approach today’s good news.

When we enter this story of the Wedding at Cana, we encounter the Mother of Jesus who is present and at the center of this narrative.  We know her as Mary although she isn’t named in the Johannine text. Six large, stone jars filled with water for ritual purification are also present. (Side note: I now have a better sense of size and scale after learning that those barrels of fermenting beer at the brewery also hold about 30 gallons).  Jesus and his disciples are passively inserted into this narrative, until Mary initiates a conversation to convey that the wine has run out.

The conversation that follows is, in a word, terse.  We can go back and forth about the cultural and linguistic dynamics of the Jesus and Mary exchange, but I don’t think there is any doubt that the Gospel writer wasn’t suggesting warmth of tone.  Changes, chances and scarcity are imbued in every word: scarcity of wine, if we take in the conversation from Mary’s perspective; scarcity of time if we step into Jesus’ immediate reaction.

Our first guiding question:  What is really important here?

Everything in this text tells us that it is relationship.  The entire Johannine Gospel narrative begins with relationship, among Godself and in relationship with God’s creation.  As this miracle of the wedding at Cana unfolds, all of the separations…the changes and chances of this life…give way to relational abundance.  We see it in Mary’s invitation to Jesus to initiate his public ministry at this time, and in this space. I might also argue, we see it in her willingness to trust Jesus’s own free will about how exactly that might unfold:  “Do whatever he tells you to do” is a powerful statement of her unconditional, relational belief in Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity.

The next question follows:  How will we honor what is important? 

Time after time, relationship is centered and honored in this text.  Jesus’ response honors Mary’s recognition that the time for public ministry is here, and it begins in the sacred space of human relationships. Mary honors Jesus in her direct, trusting admonition to follow Jesus’ instructions, whatever they may be.  The servants honor the steward; the steward honors the bridegroom; the newly married couple honor their guests.  Abundance begets abundance, and this Gospel narrative inaugurates a public ministry centered in relationship where actions of faith ripple outwards from the heart of divine love into the healing and repair of human hearts and relationships.

Finally, we are left to see what changes, and what remains

Our attention tends to focus on the transformed wine in this public miracle.  But so much else has changed, too: relational understandings between Mary, and Jesus and the disciples; public acknowledgement of Jesus, whose glory is revealed and in whom the disciples believe.  Like the servants who knew the source of the water-now-wine, we are changed, too: what we’ve now seen, we cannot unsee.  What remains in this scene of transformation is tangible evidence of divine love and grace, the abundance sourced in relationship that now overflows in tangible and sacramental form.  Our hearts open to change when we recognize the elements of transformation all around us: substance and people. Whenever we gather as Eucharistic community, we are called on to remember this in our hearing of the word, our prayers of the people, our Great Thanksgiving.  Ordinary transforms to extraordinary, and when we leave we are never the same.

On Will and MK’s wedding weekend, what emerged was also an abundance of love and trust about how things would unfold: we scrapped the customary rehearsal in favor of celebrating a simple and lovely wedding eve Holy Eucharist for parish family and friends in which we intentionally honored the love of God that draws all of us to each other.  Then, we preempted the big brewery reception by exchanging vows and blessing their marriage in the midst of all present: literally, affirming their love surrounded on all sides not only by barrels, but by the family and community that formed and supported them. We didn’t do these things in spite of a pandemic: we creatively lived into the intention of the sacrament of marriage, bearing witness to transformation. 

Will and MK, surrounded by the love of their families and witnesses, confronted the pandemic scarcity and at the same time, embodied the abundance that is love.  We embodied it in the language of liturgy, scripture and prayer. We were able, in all these things, to name for those who gathered safely in large, open spaces in the late, exhausting days of a global pandemic that love wins.  In all the ways that we could, including living it out step by step, we proclaimed that the abiding and abundant grace of love is present and transformative, right here and right now.  Plans may be disrupted but the Love of God is undeterred.  God chooses to stand with us, Creator eternally abiding with creation. I can tell you, the presence of God was palpably present. I also have to say, I may never preside at a wedding the same way again.

So, why tell stories about a wedding on a day when our hearts are heavy: for the people of Ukraine; for trans youth and healthcare workers offering gender-affirming care; for those who teach critical knowledge and history from the vantage point of the marginalized and not just the rich, white and powerful; for those who experience the daily microaggressions and macro oppressions of life in this country and around the world; when we see ourselves hurtling toward environmental devastation and climate disaster?  Yes, our hearts are heavy today and with good reason.  And why did Jesus inaugurate public ministry at a family wedding turning water into wine, during a politically occupied time where fear, imprisonment and disruption were palpable?  What is really important here? 

Oh yes, that question again.  Oh yes, God’s repeated answer: Relationship. Love. Grace.

Those are the lessons, in the midst of the changes and chances of this life that Mary knows, viscerally.  Knows like her own body, her own heart, her own child.

Grace, we are told repeatedly in John’s Gospel, has come to us through the person of Jesus Christ.  In the fullness of the mysteries of incarnation and love, we have received grace upon grace.  Grace is undeserved, unwarranted, irrational.  Grace sources in unconditional love and opens up the possibility of seeing ourselves as beloved even when we aren’t ready to think of ourselves that way. 

Grace is a doorway to transformation, and in that invitation is the encouragement to lay down our fears and insecurities in favor of possibility: we get to see it; to experience it; to be it.  We are compelled through relationship, love and grace to declare good news to the oppressed; to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberation to the captors and freedom to the prisoners.  We are led in that prophetic way because God transforms us

God is the source and the action of the transformation of which we are a part. Through the relationship, love and grace of Christ, we are the water that transforms to wine.  And even if we feel like those immovable stone jars sometimes, we may still find ourselves compelled to cry out. And when we do, what good news we will find spilling forth when we recognize the One through whose hands our ordinary materials have been transformed.

We come to this Eucharistic feast filled with the potential to encounter all of the overflowing abundance that is conveyed in this story of the wedding at Cana.  We are all invited to participate, fully, in the transformation that is about to take place, the elements of transformation all around us. And as ones who are transformed and renewed, evidence of that transformation is within us and moves through us, like an abundance of the best wine saved for last at the wedding feast ready to be poured out to the world, a world we know to be thirsting and yearning for divine relationship, love and grace.

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Three Prayers

Homily for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

February 6, 2022

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA (SKP’s departure sermon)

Lectionary Texts:

Prologue:  

I often begin my homilies with a prayer.  Today, I echo three prayers uttered to the divine from the lips of the beloved, chosen servants of God from our lectionary readings:

Here am I, send me.       

How Long, O Lord?        

Yet, if you say so.  

We’ll come back to these prayers.  But first, a few words about our journey together.

Journey:  

Having grounded ourselves in these prayerful expressions of what it means to walk our Christian lives together in love and service, I’d like to take the liberty of beginning where I began with all of you: a newly minted priest in the Summer of 2019.  

This diocese is not in the habit of using the term “curate” although it was often the term used for the first place in which the newly ordained was placed under the mentorship of a more senior cleric in order to live faithfully and formatively into the first years of their call.  This idea of a “cure” took form from the Latin root, cura meaning “to care for” and by extension, the curacy was a time in which the newly ordained was to be given some additional support and care while learning the art of caring for the needs of others.  This spiritual apprenticeship was something I yearned for: being in the presence of a community where I could be supported while deepening in my own learning and experience of this new, sacramental commitment I had undertaken in my life.  “Here I am, Lord” is an expression one should never utter lightly.  And so it has been that with David and Buck and Dorothy and Malinda and all of you to guide and encourage me, I have grown more deeply into my priestly call, and more deeply in my love and regard for all of you.

I’m also keenly aware that there are other uses of the term “cure” which have more widespread usage and applicability.  This includes both the Middle English application to the emerging art of medicine which strove “to cure” by caring for the body not only by soothing symptoms but through science and study.  And then, there is the third meaning of “to cure” as often applied to ham, bacon and other deliciously aged foods which cure over time, naturally allowing more flavor to seep into their very essence.  I’m told that the process of curing meat requires at least one of three mechanisms: smoke, salt and time.  I’d like to thank Buck particularly for adding to the smokiness and saltiness of my curing process, and say that I have loved every minute of it.

In all seriousness, I think all of these definitions apply to our time together.  And while I technically have been working here with the title of priest associate, I find this concept of a curacy fitting.  Here, I have learned to care, deeply.  Here, through soothing our weariness and applying science, technology and study I have witnessed growth and healing emerging even in the midst of a global pandemic.  And here, the very essence of what it means to be a priest has sunk into my flesh, my mind, my heart, my spirit.  It has permeated me in a way that is unalterable.  I will always be the priest that I am…wherever God calls me…fully cured with the love that is the tradition of St. Mark’s.  And so for all of that and the tremendous love of the past three years, I thank you all.

Back to those three prayers.  

Here I am, send me.  Today’s first lesson is also one of the appointed lessons for the ordination of priests.  I was at an ordination recently where an outstanding scholar and homilist The Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams began right where all of us sitting there were thinking when this scripture was read: shaking our heads in unison at the audacious and enthusiastic prayer, “Here I am, send me!” as if to say, “Isaiah, Isaiah…what are you thinking?”  She went on to unwind this passage like the hem of the robe filling the temple and invited us to consider the real possibility that this wasn’t an expression of naivety, nor was it Isaiah’s first call or encounter with the almighty.  It was, she suggested, the prayer of one who had already been seasoned by living a life in response to God’s call and learning that our fighting, our struggling, our fleeing are all just the vanity of our humanity.  The yes-saying that we do to God is a prayer; it is one we eventually learn to utter with grace and humility because at some point we realize that all we are and all we have ultimately belongs to God.  And so it is that our response to our creator is one not of self-assured readiness, but of humble recognition that who we are is already at the service of the one who has loved us into being, and loves us still.  Here I am. Send me.

How long, oh Lord, how long?  One of my St. Phoebe School students reflected a month or so ago that in all her visits to parishes and all through all the many prayers we offer for those ill with COVID, those who have died from COVID, those who are struggling with mental health and economic hardship from COVID…never once had she heard someone boldly and confidently pray for an end to the pandemic.  She’s started doing exactly that, by the way.  Every. Single. Day. Why is it so hard to raise our voices in lament and frustration…not just for comfort in affliction but in the powerful and curative belief that God is powerful enough to end affliction.  This kind of prayer is a modern day echo of Isaiah’s tormented cry, “how long, oh Lord, how long?” after he receives the prophetic indictment that God knows the people are listening but do not understand; that they see but do not comprehend.  In this era where skepticism abounds, is it possible that we withhold our fervent prayers because we fear they may not be answered?  Do we place limits on God by not seeing clearly and therefore, not recognizing the capacity our God has to heal and love in ways utterly beyond our own comprehension?  This prophecy echoing across the ages challenges us today, living in our age of logic, prediction, and control.  What would happen if we fervently prayed to end the pandemic.  What would happen if we prayed publicly and fervently for an end to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia?  Praying shapes believing, and we act on our beliefs.  What would we be doing differently in our everyday lives if we began to pray so boldly?  Sometimes I wonder if we hold back from prayer because we know the truth, deep down: prayer doesn’t only change situations; it changes us.  How long, Oh Lord, how long?

Yet, if you say so.  Now, this prayer spoken by Simon Peter to Jesus might sound at first like a lack-luster version of “here I am, send me” but I suggest to you that it is different, and it has deep relevance for the work we…the Church and the followers of Christ within it…are called to do.  You see, Simon’s trade was fishing.  Simon knew fishing, and he was good at it.  Being an expert at something means that you know it so well that you can tell when effort is required, and when effort is futile.  It was as much a part of Simon’s expertise and guidance to other fisher-folk to know when to call it a night as it was to know when to cast the nets out.  Simon had used his expertise to ascertain that this was not the time to lower the nets and catch fish.  But Simon saw and heard Jesus.  And in that moment, all of his own learned expertise and wisdom were set aside at the request of Jesus.  “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”  Simon may have been tired, and he may have even felt like his knowledge and control were being second-guessed…but all of that comes to a close with an expression of trust.  I commend this prayer to you. It invites us to step aside from our typical inner dialogue which for me might be something like, “Thanks, Jesus…just give me a bit more time to second guess myself and think through a thousand possibilities to explain why it might not work and then I’ll be in touch and let you know if I decide to take action.”  This prayer of divine doing acknowledges our doubt and still says, “Yet, if you say so, I will.”  When we are still enough to hear in our soul when it’s time to trust in the power of God in our lives, when we acknowledge the cacophony of our doubts, our insecurities and our fears; when we are ready to pack it all up and head home we can still say, “Yet, if you say so” and drop our nets.  Perhaps that means dropping our facades, our defense mechanisms, our insistence about how we think things should be.  We can do these things asked of us not of our own power but because we trust the One who is speaking to us to fill those empty nets with everything we need.  Yet, if you say so.

After Simon utters this prayer, he drops the nets and hauls in so many fish that both boats are sinking. Jesus acts with abundance.  It is all just too much for Simon.  I’m not talking about the two boats full of fish.  I mean the overwhelming, overflowing magnitude of God’s love and grace even in the midst of our human exasperation.  This is what drops Simon to his knees, suddenly feeling all the places where he has fallen short.  And it is in that very place…on this journey that Simon is on, that James and John are on, that St. Mark’s is on, that I am on…where Jesus meets us.  It is in that moment where we grasp the enormity of God’s abundance that our hearts break open. There is newness, revelation, a transforming encounter with divine love and grace.

And in that moment Jesus said to Simon the expert at catching fish: “Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be catching people.”

Jesus saw in Simon all that was needed, for exactly who he was

And in this very present moment in the midst of our lives, Jesus says to us: “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus sees in us exactly what is needed, for exactly who we are.

And we know how this Gospel passage ends: And they left everything, and followed him.

Epilogue:  

I think it would be disingenuous to end this homily or walk away from this Gospel as if it were a fairy tale ending, like “and they lived happily ever after.”  We know from all our Gospel texts that following Jesus was filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for those who chose to be disciples.  And so it is for us, the Church and the followers of Christ today.  Jesus isn’t promising us a life free from trouble, or pain, or bittersweet goodbyes.  Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension are our reminders that lives of discipleship are enfolded in the ultimate reality that Love Wins; that even death is no match for resurrection.  

This lectionary year, Year C, we are reading primarily from Luke.  The three lectionary years each focus on one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark or Luke.  John’s Gospel is woven into particular places across all three years but we never get to the final verses of John’s Gospel.  We do hear the part of the final chapter of John, during the Sundays of Eastertide, where a grieving and perhaps despondent Simon Peter goes back to fishing.  In that resumption of his familiar trade, he has an encounter with the risen Christ, who nourishes the disciples physically and spiritually with a breakfast of grilled fish on the beach, served with love in the midst of the awe of resurrection.  Whether the final verses of John beyond that story were penned by the author or added by a scribe several generations later, the Gospel according to John ends with this incredible statement which I hold as spiritual truth: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

I will close today with that expression guiding my closing prayer for you, and for all of us:  May there be so many incredible things that Jesus does that if every one of them were written down, you would run out of paper to write them.  May our prayers be fervent, and our living out of the work God has called us to do be earnest.  And may the time we have spent together nourish us, cure us, and inspire us to boldly say again and again, “here I am, send me.”

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One Body

Homily for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Text Reference: 

There is one Body, one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us.  Amen.

It is January, so unless you’ve been living apart from every kind of media…print, broadcast or social…you’ve been hearing a lot about about bodies.  On any given day, the ways that I am encouraged to alter, improve or otherwise enhance my body seem to increase exponentially.  This isn’t just an aberration of my age or demographic.  According to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness and self-care industry has grown to a world-wide market economy of $4.5 trillion dollars…and that was in 2018. At this time and place in our collective lives, we’ve never been so consumed with our individual bodies, and even more so with the parts of our individual bodies that we find most problematic.  You see, couched in the term “wellness” is often a motivation by problem.  We engage in wellness because there is something about our bodies that we dislike, or something that could happen to our bodies that we fear.  It might be cosmetic, or hereditary.  It might be aestetic, or medical. Imagine if I asked you right now to make a list about what you love and what you would change about your body if you could: well, I’m going to guess that most of us would have one list that was a lot longer than the other.  I think today’s scripture might be a reminder to us that we are losing sight of the forest by focusing on the trees…or perhaps losing sight of the body by focusing on its members.

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Today’s Epistle lesson brings this concept of the body centrally into our understanding of our common lives in Christ: we are the Body of Christ.  Bodies have been a focus of attention and thus, a powerful human metaphor for a long time.  That includes Greco-Roman culture in which the church in Corinth was immersed.  We know from other writings that the political rhetoric during the rule of the Roman Empire used the body metaphor to concretely explain why it was that appendages (“members”) needed one authority (“head”) to exercise control, so that all the parts of the body were working together.  When we read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, what we should be hearing…along with the metaphor…is a sharp rhetorical argument about the difference between our lives in Christ, and the body politic of the world around us.  Paul doesn’t describe Christ as the “head” or persuade members to see themselves as inferior and dependent appendages.  Instead, Paul poses a counter-cultural and counter-political argument about the very nature of the Church as the whole Body of Christ: 

God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Paul’s argument here is as direct and perfectly clear as any political body metaphor.  It isn’t that it was difficult for people to understand intellectually.  It’s that in 1st Century BCE Corinth, just like in our 21st Century, we are taking in so many social messages from the empire around us which are built on a superiority/inferiority hierarchy that it’s all too easy to conform our theology, our knowledge of God, to those clamoring voices.  And for many of us, it relegates us to the inferior.  And then, it becomes all too easy to focus all our energy on manipulating that which we deem inferior about ourselves to the will and control of what we have been told is superior. And when we do that, it becomes all about managing our individual inferiority, over and over again.

What Paul suggests…and what I am inviting us to consider and affirm today…is that there is an entirely different and God ordained way of being together as the Body of Christ.  This way isn’t about hierarchical adherence, or conforming to norms or perfection, or even pretending that every member is perfectly perfect all the time.  No: we are called to be a body with all of the members together being Christ with and for each other: freely distributing honor, wealth, confidence among members with a reciprocal understanding of shared needs which ebb and flow through our lives; sharing the same God-sourced care for one another; mutually suffering and mutually rejoicing.  This image of the Body of Christ is about synergy and solidarity; it allows a continued healing flow as needs among the members change and it works together for the good of the whole, not the ego maintenance of the individual.  Today, as in the first century, it is a counter-cultural and counter-political message.

I think it’s helpful to have a concrete image of what this kind of care can look like.  The image that I offer up to you is one written by social worker and trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem, in the introduction to his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies.  I’ve selected this book as one of the readings for Social Work and Spiritual Care course I’ll be teaching this summer during my time at Church Divinity School of the Pacific; it’s also a book that we use to teach in the MSW program when we focus on trauma recovery.  But, this time, I’m choosing to use it in both a social work and a theological context.  So, I would like you to imagine this opening dialogue between the author and his grandmother not only as the author’s personal recollection but also as a spiritual conversation, a parable of the Body of Christ:

When I was a boy I used to watch television with my grandmother.  I would sit in the middle of the sofa and she would stretch out over two seats, resting her legs in my lap.  She often felt pain in her hands, and she’d ask me to rub them in mine.  When I did, her fingers would relax, and she’d smile.  Sometimes she’d start to hum melodically, and her voice would make a vibration that reminded me of a cat’s purr.

She wasn’t a large woman, but her hands were surprisingly stout, with broad fingers and thick pads below each thumb.  One day I asked her, “Grandma, why are your hands like that? They ain’t the same as mine.”

My grandmother turned from the television and looked at me. “Boy,” she said slowly. “That’s from picking cotton.  They been that way since long before I was your age.  I started working in the fields sharecroppin’ when I was four.”

I didn’t understand.  I’d helped plant things in the garden a few times, but my own hands were bony and my fingers were narrow.  I held up my hands next to hers and stared at the difference.

“Ummm hmmm” she said. “The cotton plant has pointed burrs in it.  When you reach your hand in, the burrs rip it up.  When I first started picking, my hands were all torn and bloody.  When I got older, they got thicker and thicker, until I could reach in and pull out the cotton without them bleeding.”

My grandmother died last year.  Sometimes I can still feel her warm, thick hands in mine. (Menakem, 2017, p. 4)

What Resmaa Menakem is illustrating in his book goes beyond the ways in which our bodies carry generational trauma and moves us to consider the ways in which we bear collective responsibility for naming, feeling, and healing that trauma first in our bodies and then through transforming our collective, social well-being.  He goes on to say:

Our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our cognitive brains.  This knowledge is typically experienced as a felt sense of constriction or expansion, pain or ease, energy or numbness.  Often this knowledge is stored in our bodies as wordless stories about what is safe and what is dangerous.  The body is where we fear, hope and react; where we constrict and release; and where we reflexively fight, flee or freeze.  If we are to upend the status quo of white-body supremacy, we must begin first with our bodies. (Menakem, 2017, p. 5).

What if we re-read our Epistle lesson and understood it as instructional not only for the church but for our entire world?  That might mean that we stopped trying to intellectualize oppression or classify those who are hurting into fixed groups, demographically or ideologically.  It might mean that we encouraged the tired to rest their feet on us, and within that same loving support we leaned into them and showed them our own hurting places and invited each other with childlike earnestness to hear the stories that accompany the scars.  Those actions of our bodies would move past the constriction we feel, would release us from the fight/flight/flee reflex, would help us bear one another’s burdens, including the burden of history.  We would move away from the temptation to say that history is not ours, because we would see it in the broad, thick hands that had developed with resilient strength to protect against the burrs of systemic racism and realize it belongs to all of us.  We would do these things as a body, and hold these things as a body, and heal together as a body, and feel in the Communion of Saints the beauty of those hands from which not even death can separate us.  Imagine, if you will, the transformative potential of that understanding of the Body of Christ.  Imagine the power of that to transform this world.

There is a portion of one of our Eucharistic Prayers, Prayer C, which I hold on my heart whenever we come together for worship.  I invite you to hold it in your own mind today as we come together for Holy Communion: Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.

Friends, today’s Epistle challenges us right here in 2022 in the midst of our ego-driven world of haves and have nots.  It has relevance to how we are church with each other, and how we live as the church in the world.  It invites us into a whole new way of encountering those who are socially marginalized, through seeing and naming our own marginalized places and allowing others to massage our wounds, just as we invite others to stretch their tired legs over us and rub the painful hands while we hear the stories that help us see the strengths in those same hands.  This vision, and our common worship, invites us to be transformed in body, mind and spirit.  

As you hold these images today, hear the prophetic words of Isaiah Jesus read in the Temple echoing not only to us but through us, the Body of Christ:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. 

The eyes of all in the synagogue…all in the pews…were fixed on Jesus. 

Then Jesus began to say to them…and Jesus says to us

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

May it be so, my friends.  May our coming together as the Body of Christ transform us to make it be so.

Amen.


Image: “Mother of Mercy” icon, written by Ivanka Demchuk (which hangs in my office)
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