Upstaged by the Holy Spirit

Sixth Sunday after Easter, Year B

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Lectionary Texts:


The first lessons we read on these Sundays after Easter are the stories from the earliest days of the Church.  The Acts of the Apostles is the post-resurrection story of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the spreading of the Good News throughout the world.  When we hear the story of Pentecost conveyed in a few weeks, we’ll hear Peter’s voice speaking to the baffled believers and interpreting this revelation of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence as made known through wind, and flame and the simultaneous experience of the Good News in all the original languages of those present.  The Holy Spirit’s presence was made known on that Day of Pentecost in the symbols and languages people understood.  Peter’s words in that holy moment conveyed a truth he experienced in his soul, even if his mind hadn’t fully grasped the enormity of it.  In the 2nd Chapter of Acts, Peter quotes the prophet Joel and puts into context the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon all flesh, concluding with the words “…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).  Pentecost was a commencement, not a singular event.  It was the beginning of the unfolding of that which was beyond the imaginations of those gathered.  That prophetic vision continued to unfold, and is still unfolding today.

At the point where our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles opens up, a whole lot of interesting things are in motion.  The story unfolds at the beginning of Chapter 10, when we are introduced to the devout and loyal Cornelius…a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort…a Gentile…who prayed to God faithfully every day.  Conelius is visited by a heavenly messenger and asked to send for Simon, known as Peter.  Conelius follows this divine nudge, sending several soldiers under his command to go to the place where Peter is.  Meanwhile, Peter who has been lodging in Joppa with Simon the Tanner goes up on a rooftop, praying to God so earnestly that his hunger moves him into a trance like state.  He sees the heavens open and a sheet filled with animals…specifically, animals known to be unclean in Peter’s Jewish devotion and rule of life…being extended to him.  He refuses to partake three times, declaring his purity and devotion to God.  Eventually, Peter hears a heavenly voice saying, “What God has made clean, you may not call profane.”  At this same time, the messengers sent by Cornelius arrive and Peter is again challenged because while they have an amazing story of being sent by God’s command, they are still Gentiles.  Peter knows he cannot by temple law associate with Gentiles or he will be considered defiled and therefore, unable to enter the Temple.  He has still been puzzling over his dream but In that moment, it comes together for him.  He hears the story and invites the men to stay with them for the night, before they leave for the house of Cornelius.  

Now, let’s just take note of how joyful it is when moments of serendipity like this happen.  I imagine Peter thinking, “That’s it!  Now it makes sense…I’m supposed to see Cornelius!  Thanks so much for the dream, God.  These are good people you’ve sent.  I’ve got it from here…”

Maybe I’m mistaken about Peter’s inner dialogue, but I suspect it was something along those lines.  We often experience these moments of incredible divine serendipity as events unto themselves, destinations rather than doorways opening into the unknown.

After this welcoming experience, the messengers and Peter set out to visit Cornelius.  Cornelius opens his home to Peter, just as Peter welcomed the messengers.  Peter seizes the moment.  He begins to preach them the Good News, opening with the line: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” and then he slips into his own familiar narrative, a story of how Jesus lived with, died for, and appeared to a chosen group of believers who were then charged to preach this message.  It isn’t as though Peter was saying, “this message isn’t for you.”  In fact, his hope was to convince Cornelius’ followers that the message he brought was meant for them.  But if we listen closely, there is still possessiveness: Peter implicitly draws a line between “us” and “them” in conveying the Gospel message.  Jesus appeared to us, and now we will share that message with you.  It implies there is a group that has, and a group that doesn’t yet have.  The “haves” are sharing with the “have nots.”  Peter is still learning the depth of this message, still growing in his faith.  He means well.  He’s building a case in his mind as to why this “other” group where he has been sent, the Gentiles gathered with Cornelius, should hear the Good News and believe in Jesus.  Peter reaches the point in his sermon where he says, “All the prophets [read: “our prophets”]  testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

That’s a great message if you are the chosen group.  What does it feel like when the tables are turned and you’re the hearer: do you hear Good News, or someone preaching in a way that between the lines it conveys “my prophets were right” and “you’re all sinners.”   

While Peter is still preaching, the Holy Spirit comes rushing into this group of believers, inwardly filling and outwardly displaying the same signs and wonders of the Spirit’s presence as Peter and the other disciples had experienced at Pentecost.  You see, rather like the Ethiopian who already believed and ran to the waters of Baptism, those gathered in the household of Cornelius were already believers.  They were known to and beloved by God.  God was speaking to them, and loving them, and giving them divine instructions.  And in Peter’s presence, the Holy Spirit poured out into their midst, an outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual truth.  Peter’s challenge at that moment was to move from sermon to sacrament: from sharing the Good News to those he thought had not heard it, to recognizing a household of believers that he didn’t expect and that didn’t look like he thought they should look.  Peter had an instantaneous confrontation with the recognition that the Holy Spirit of God is active, alive, filling and abiding with people we simply haven’t encountered yet.  In that instantaneous expansion of his faith he responds lovingly and sacramentally, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  

In the household of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit moved through all those gathered, uniting them across the dividing lines of this world and making them recognize what God already knew:  they were all part of one beloved community, Children of God redeemed by the Risen Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.  God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer does not “belong” to any person or group.  God is present, God’s salvation is made known and God who is Love abides physically and spiritually with everyone who believes.  Everyone.  No exceptions.

This short passage from the Acts of the Apostles offers us a very profound lesson for the ways in which we, the Christian church, encounter people today.  

Many of us, myself included, have been wounded when individuals who purport to represent Christ inform us by word or action that they consider us to be in the “out” group.  It’s a trap that followers of Christ have fallen into since the earliest days of the church, and it’s often some of the most zealous and well-meaning people who become colluded by this idea that we can somehow own or possess the Love of Christ within our own group.  The error in our judgement comes when we have a list of things we think people need in order to be “in” our group: believe like us, behave like us, look like us, think like us, have education like us, have money like us, have homes like us, have jobs like us…the list goes on.  Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit will upstage and unsettle those assumptions by making known that God is already present in the lives of all the people we are tempted to “other.”  The error is in our misconception in claiming that the power of the Risen Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit belong only where we think they should be.  Oh no, my friends.  The Holy Spirit will upstage that every, single time we start to preach.  Thanks be to God!

Instead, as our Gospel text reminds us, the way in which we are exhorted to move through this world is to abide…truly live…in the Love of Christ and to keep the commandment that Christ offers his disciples again, and again, and again: Love one another, as I have loved you.  Love is the sermon, and the sacrament.  Love that is of God can never be contained in one group, one nation, one time, one place, one race, one doctrine, one community, one culture…no, not one single dividing line in this world can stand up to the Holy, Loving Spirit of God.  

What a lesson for us all in these few short sentences.  How will the rushing winds of the Holy Spirit break us open?  How will the tongues of fire burn away our doubt and shame?  What will enliven in us when the inner grace transforms to outward actions of divine Love made known to the world in which we live?  That, my friends, is the work of the Church.  And may the Holy Spirit continue to upstage us, every single time.


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Sheep of the Good Shepherd

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Texts:


This is a perilous and high-stakes week to be preaching about shepherds and sheep.  

On this Fourth Sunday of Easter…which we often call Good Shepherd Sunday…our yearly readings invoke comforting, pastoral images of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Jesus, who embodies the rich imagery of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” where we are guided, comforted, and restored.  Jesus, with a lost sheep separated from the fold lifted up on his shoulders with the rest of the flock following dutifully behind. We are reminded, lesson after lesson, that our Good Shepherd lays down his own life for his sheep.  

Our Holy Scriptures were written for a cultural context that was agrarian, and these metaphors of shepherds and sheep were instructional and intuitive to hearers of the Good News.  The many, many biblical references to sheep aren’t there to suggest a divine preference for cute, fluffy animals.  Sheep were livelihood…their survival was necessary and valuable for clothing, food, trade, sacrifice.  Sheep were not always easy to manage, terrain was not always easy to navigate, and shepherds often had an exhausting, smelly, dirty job keeping the flock safe and protected.

A good shepherd values each and every smelly, ornery, valuable, beloved sheep.  

This week, I found myself wishing that we had the capacity to value beloved, human lives the same way that a good shepherd values the lives of their sheep. In a high-stakes and perilous week such as this, we have watched a trial unfold for a murder that never should have happened and awaited a jury’s verdict knowing all too well how rare it has been for an on-duty police officer to be convicted.  Our collective tension was palpable, and even though there was great relief in the verdict, the ugly truth of racial injustice and state-sanctioned violence remains exposed. 

I turned my thoughts this week to this valuable flock that our Good Shepherd is tending.  There are so many other sheep of the fold who are on this journey, who by their very presence as valuable members of the flock are reminding me of the continued precariousness for some of the sheep of the fold.  We all have the same loving shepherd, but we are not all residing in lush, green pastures.  Just as Jesus reminds us, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own and my own know me” Jesus also says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, loves and values the other sheep.  At the cultural time and location of John’s Gospel, “other sheep” may have referred to those to whom the Gospel had not yet spread fully…to the Gentiles, the Greeks, the Romans…or like our evangelist namesake St. Mark’s to Alexandria and eventually spreading around the world.  At the writing of this Gospel, I’m fairly certain no one imagined the sheep of 2021 following the Good Shepherd the way we are doing now.  We have been the other sheep, and we, too, can fail to imagine that there are other sheep that our Good Shepherd knows and calls by name.  There are always more sheep than we can see from our vantage point within the flock, and with those sheep there is always the watchful eye and heart of our Good Shepherd.  The temptation that we get sucked into is thinking only of ourselves as the poor, lost sheep being picked up, cradled and supported on Jesus’ shoulders.  We need to remind ourselves that we are all the sheep of a flock, and that flock is more vast and diverse than we could ever imagine.  And yet, our Good Shepherd loved us profoundly, and knows us all by name.  All of us.

As I was trying to keep myself centered this week, I took a little “Good Shepherd Tour” through the artwork of Henry Ossawa Tanner.  Tanner, one of the first notable African-American artists of the early 20th Century, experienced a sort of religious intensification in his early life after which turned his career focus to religious art.  I learned this week that he had a particular pull to the image of The Good Shepherd.  In fact, I managed to uncover several very different paintings of this biblical reference. Let me show you one that is perhaps a typical, familiar “Jesus the Good Shepherd” scene from the mid-point of Tanner’s artistic career:

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The painted scene is pastoral, and given the serene quality of his art, one might assume the artist felt this tranquility in his own life.  But continuing to read on, I realize more about the cultural context of his experiences in the post civil war United States and later in his travels and residence in France.  Later in his life, Tanner offered up reflections on the continued, pervasive racism that he experienced from the years he lived in Philadelphia and which he experienced throughout the rest of his life and artistic career.  In his autobiography, he states, 

I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.

Tanner’s son Jesse later reflected on his father’s fondness for the Good Shepherd image and his father’s reflection that ​“God needs us to help fight with him against evil and we need God to guide us” (Jesse Tanner in Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, 1969).  

After leaving Philadelphia Henry Ossawa Tanner traveled to Morocco and spent time in the Atlas Mountains which also became thematic in some of his works.  I want to take a moment and show you a very different painting of the Good Shepherd from the 1930’s.  As a later life work, it reflects a different facet of Tanner’s faith and perhaps also offers us a retrospective image of the perilous and high-stakes experiences of his own life and context, too.  

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd (Atlas Mountains, Morocco), ca. 1930, oil on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Robbins.

I think it holds something for us to consider about shepherding other than green pastures and quiet waters.  How long did it take you to even notice the Good Shepherd?

These are high-stakes and perilous times, friends.  I believe Henry Ossawa Tanner, Black American artist and beloved follower of Christ, knew a great deal about that.

Imagine following the Good Shepherd through Tanner’s depiction of such a precarious domain.  If there are plentiful other members of the fold around us, tending each other and helping to keep us together and navigate the high and rocky cliffs without harm then perhaps what we see isn’t the vast chasm but the presence of other sheep.  But what if we are separated, or the world tells us we don’t belong in the same fold, or we are singled out and marginalized.  The vulnerability of the precious, valuable sheep is the focus of the Good Shepherd’s gaze.  It is the Good Shepherd whose eyes are on the terrain, and the perils, and who is directing the course of our journey.  It is the Good Shepherd whose eyes are on the sheep, who brings those who might be in danger of being lost back into the fold.  We cannot all be lost sheep, wandering off in our own directions oblivious to the peril to ourselves and others or there won’t be a flock and our Good Shepherd will be running after us all.  We are a flock…a community…who care for each other as we are guided, together, by our loving Good Shepherd.  As we hear in our Epistle reading, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

Those words have echoed for me this week, as I watched the trial of Derek Chauvin and listened to testimonies of people whose only way to help was to stand by and film what was happening AND YET that visual testimony served as a catalyst for one of only seven convictions since 2005 for the death of a person at the hands of a police officer. Help can look like steadfast witness; tangible support; solidarity of spirit with those who are oppressed; laying down our power and privilege to advance equity of those whose way is more perilous than our own.

Like Tanner’s picture of the gaping chasms of the Atlas mountains, the context of the world in which we live is perilous and dangerous for too many people in the beloved community that we share.  And yet, our Good Shepherd is leading us with love, not fear.  And if we are paying attention to and care for each other, then even as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we will fear no evil.  We will realize that those who lose their footing are the ones most likely to be pushed to the outside, or disregarded by the many.  Those who find themselves at risk in the perils of this world are the beloved sheep of the flock iover which the Good Shepherd is keeping the most diligent watch.  

How can we abide in the love that has been lavished upon us unless we are willing to help the Good Shepherd keep the flock together?  When we abide in God’s love, sharing that love is our desire, not just our mandate.  Loving is a way of being, not a chore of doing.  We go beyond seeing ourselves as the lost sheep that need to get rescued and lifted onto the shoulders of the shepherd, and instead find our sure footing by helping each other navigate the path that has been set for us amid the changes and chances of this world.  The Good Shepherd has us all. 

And all means all.

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Succulent Wild Love

Homily for Maundy Thursday
April 1, 2021
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church — Virtual Worship in the Time of Pandemic

Lectionary Texts:

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Psalm 116:1, 10-17

As I began writing this sermon earlier this week, I had just finished posting some words of love on the CaringBridge site for a friend of mine who has begun her Hospice journey after a decade long struggle with chronic health issues. I met Arlene 20 years ago when she was a later-in-life seminary student at Eden Theological Seminary and I was a social work grad student at Washington University in St. Louis. We serendipitously met as part of a group of other so called “Succulent Wild Women” who had come together after reading the work of writer/poet Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, better known by her pen name “Sark” whose inspirational books creatively drawn in bold colors with handwritten words and illustrations were popular among some free-spirited women like us at that time. While I had other work friends, and school friends…this group of succulent wild women friends didn’t share any tangible career goals or contrived common interests. We just celebrated the spirit of each other and were there to mutually support, encourage, and lift each other up.

It was kind of like Church.

Many of my friends in that group, like me, were at life junctures. I was always fascinated by Arlene’s seminary journey…mind you, never giving a thought that I might embark on one of those myself in the future. And so it was that after I met my husband Michael and when we decided to elope, we asked my friend Arlene if she would perform our wedding ceremony. Ironically perfect for two nerdy graduate students living and loving on a budget, our wedding vows in Forest Park also became one of Arlene’s final seminary projects. We worked it all out together at our favorite restaurant. We broke bread together and celebrated love, in the name of God who creates, redeems and sustains us all.

Again, kind of like Church.

Now, many miles separate us and Arlene lives in a residential setting with limited visitation due to COVID-19. So, her Caring Bridge journal is the best way for us to communicate with our friend who is living out her brave and beautiful decision to discontinue treatments that are no longer working for her. Her choice to live boldly into the days that remain feels both courageous and heartbreaking. She said to her friends the other day that she has always lived her life out loud, and now she is living her death out loud, too. Time feels precious. I want to learn all that I can from her through her beautiful writing, and she wants to connect with all the people that she loves in all the ways that she is able to. I love reading what she is writing, and I laugh and cry and remember. I am reminded through this loving, caring exchange with my friend: this is the way that it is. The centrality of love and relationships is all that really matters when life as we know it is drawing to a close.

This is the way it is with Jesus, too. We can hear it in the first refrains of this Gospel lesson that we read on Maundy Thursday:

Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Maundy Thursday is a Love Story: it is filled with love between Jesus and his friends, between God and the world. The narrative of John’s Gospel draws us close into the heart of Jesus. So close, in fact, that we have no choice but to confront the overwhelming power of his love. Those who had followed Jesus had seen the miracles, heard the teaching, kept busy with the details of the living and the travelling and the doing of ministry. Now, those days were drawing to a close.

Jesus knew this. His friends, the disciples, weren’t quite ready to believe it.

Through the eyes of love, the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples becomes a visceral illustration of lavish love that knows no hierarchy. That kind of messy, intentional, lavish to the point of ridiculous love is reflected in the actions of Jesus whose vision had shortened and intensified; who was compelled to show the depth of his love to those who were everything to him in this world, whether they were struggling with their futures or their faith. We are drawn to the very heart of Jesus so that we can see and feel Jesus manifesting human and divine love toward his very own own beloved community. He knew where they were struggling. He knew what he needed to do. He endearingly called them his children. And he was unabashedly and unhesitantly willing to be their servant. All because of Love.

The voluntary and counter-cultural offering of the service of footwashing…in a role normally relegated to an involuntary slave…was a plot twist too stunning for the disciples in the moment. They were still focused on the work, the ministry, the needs of the others. On that night when they broke bread together for the last time, Jesus’ Love broke into that space in a powerful and lavish way. Being in the presence of such an outpouring of Love compels response and also requires profound trust: we instantly are in touch with the part of us that asks, “am I worthy of this?” That’s what I hear when Peter refuses to have his feet washed: the vulnerable fear of being truly loved. To love, and to be loved, is to see one’s value in the eyes of the other and to risk the pain of loss. When the days of one’s life are a scarce quantity, the abundant and generative power of love is palpable. It’s all that really matters.

And Love is all that matters to Jesus, too. Bearing the towel and choosing the role of a servant, Jesus defies hierarchy and blurs every line of assumed superiority for one and only one reason: and that reason is Love. Like the scent of the lavish perfume that Mary had poured over Jesus’ feet a few days before, the power of this loving act truly sinks in. It washes over Simon Peter and melts away his vulnerability. Once he gets it, his trust melts into belovedness. And at that moment, he becomes exuberantly part of this beautiful, overwhelming lavish love story, telling Jesus: not my feet only but also my hands and my head!

Jesus is a quintessential teacher, and he knows how to seize a teachable moment. So, he steps fully into the exuberance to offer a lesson, to explain that which he has done by radically reversing the roles of this world and redefining love as radical service. Not only does he help his friends understand what they are personally experiencing in this outpouring of love; he gives the knowledge to them as a new commandment: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

I hear Jesus saying to his friends: you finally opened your hearts, and now you are experiencing the overwhelming love I have for you. Let it transform you. Embody it. Then look at each other: see that same belovedness in the eyes of every single person in this place. Let my love transform all of you. Now look out into the world and see my love in the eyes of every single person that you meet. Let that transform you, too. Embrace it and embody it. Not only will it change you: it will change the world.

So here we are, two thousand years later, looking at each other on this holy night of Holy Week with Love connecting our Zoom boxes. We ache…I know we do…for the way in which Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. As we get closer to regathering, we may begin to feel that longing even more. Jesus knows our longing and meets us in it. In that very longing of our souls and in our community is the Presence of Christ who has always been here with us, and is still here with us now, persistently loving us through distance and Zoom boxes so that we can show that love to the world in the actions of mercy and justice that flow from the heart of this parish to the world. So don’t turn away from the longing that the images and readings for Maundy Thursday stir up in us. Allow the longing of love to transform you. Spend some quiet time tonight as we move deeply into Holy Week truly taking in and embodying the great Love that Jesus offers to his disciples, to the world, to all of us. Then, as we close our time together in that silence, take up the new commandment to show that love to the world and each other in lavish and counter-cultural ways through your loving, your giving, your caring.

May your response to Jesus’ invitation be: Not just my feet, but my hands and my head, too.

These days of Holy Week are reminders to us of Jesus’ last days and his greatest gift: Love. Jesus is living his life and his death out loud in this story of Love he speaks to his disciples, and to us. Cling to his words. Cherish them. Learn them so you can live this new commandment out loud in succulent wild and beautiful ways, too:

Love one another, as I have loved you.

Amen

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Revealing

Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic

Texts:

Media Reference: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/02/20/691298594/the-power-of-martin-luther-king-jr-s-anger

Sometimes, when I’m working with a group and we encounter something uncomfortable together I like to pause and do a check in. So before I go too deep into my homily, I want to check in with you: how are you feeling about this Gospel image of a very angry Jesus? You can think about that and if you feel inclined, put a word or two in the chat. This Gospel lesson is very emotionally evocative. I’ve heard some people say it is liberating while I recognize that for other people it can feel very disruptive and even downright disturbing. I want to name and honor all of those reactions before we lunge ahead.

Wherever you are, its OK: let’s enter into this passage together for what it offers us today.

Scholars consider this account of Jesus’ public display of anger at the money-changers in the temple to be historically accurate. It appears in all four Gospel accounts of our Holy Scriptures. In the synoptic Gospels…Matthew, Mark, and Luke…it is placed toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, suggesting that this action was a catalyst for the events that lead to Jesus’ arrest. But here in John’s Gospel, this portrayal of Jesus driving out the cattle and pouring out the coins of the money-changers appears early in the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The later placement of the story seems logical and might even be more plausible historically. But John’s Gospel invites us into viewing this particular image of Jesus as a visible and foundational aspect of the arc of Jesus’ ministry. So let’s ponder that prospect. I’m going to ask us this morning to consider that this story, in this place, at this time in Jesus’ ministry is a message of Good News. It invites us to take a journey together into exploring the role of anger in God’s economy of Love.

There are three important things to remember about anger: anger is a passionate emotion; anger makes us vulnerable; and anger often reveals deeper truths.

Anger, the passionate emotion, leads to unpredictability: at its most effective, anger is jarring when we encounter it and makes us pay attention. At its most damaging, anger inflicts hurt and pain.

Anger, the vulnerable emotion, tells people something about us and where our hidden and precious breaking points are. At its most effective, it shows where our heart most wants to protect us. At its most damaging, it lashes out where we have been hurt the most.

Anger, the revealing emotion, tells people where we stand and situates us in opposition to what we cannot tolerate. At its most effective, it shines a high-beam light on hidden injustice and systems of oppression. At its most damaging, it showcases our own biases, prejudices and brokenness.

With these attributes of anger in mind, perhaps we can revisit the depiction of Jesus in today’s Gospel and ask: what is this image of an angry Jesus revealing to us?

I’ve been sitting with that lesson this week. While doing so, I listened to a very powerful episode of NPR’s “Code Switch” about the power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s anger. The episode includes an interview with King’s speechwriter Clarence Jones who asserts that from Dr. King’s standpoint, anger is part of a larger process that encompasses anger, forgiveness, redemption and love. Think about that: passionate, vulnerable, revealing anger. This is not the anger of hatred, power, privilege and destruction. This is anger that shatters assumptions and breaks open the possibility of transforming Love.

Jesus’ anger disrupts business as usual in the temple marketplace, that is clear. This story also breaks us open during this Lenten season and makes us pay attention. It fills us with profound emotions, like the ones we carry with us into this narrative. We use another emotional term during this season,“Passion,” when we relate the story of Holy Week. In our annual retelling, we are emotionally broken open to take in the poignant magnitude of gut-wrenching love evident in Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death. Jesus’ anger at the Temple and Jesus’ eventual willing submission to an unjust and brutal death disrupts our belief system that good things happen to good people; that following the rules of the authorities always leads to justice; that society’s marking of something as acceptable means that it’s right and good. In this story as in Jesus’ Passion, it isn’t the violence and brutality that prevails; it is God’s transforming love.

Jesus’ jarring actions in this narrative disrupt a scene which in that time and context was socially acceptable and seemingly benign: temple activity aimed to make it easier for people coming into town to offer required sacrifices. People needed to exchange local money for Roman coins, to buy the livestock that were required under the law for sacrifice which would have been burdensome to bring with them. At first glance, all that activity seems rather ordinary: but had the status quo taken away the meaning of these actions in the hearts of those making the pilgrimage? Had convenience morphed into profiting off the needy? Were the activities taking place benefitting the Empire in Rome, as much or even more so than the purported piety of these activities? Did the public face of the temple begin to resemble a facade of cheap and easy grace, rather than the holy house of God?

Jesus’ disruption of the status quo placed him dangerously in opposition to both Temple and Roman authority. It publicly marked him as oppositional to what was socially acceptable. It also allowed him to make known a powerful truth about what God sees in the actions that society is blindly following, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Jesus’ vulnerable anger placed him at risk, tangibly. His actions revealed his alignment, and that alignment wasn’t with structures of power in this world’s terms. It was with the vulnerable, the oppressed and the outcast. Jesus’ revealing anger enacted in that space poignantly placed God’s reign above human convenience. It revealed rifts between the heart of ministry and the clutches of Empire. It shone a light on the commercial aspects of purported piety and forced those present to question the intention of their own hearts.

Seen in these ways, Jesus’ anger is a jarring, vulnerable and revealing revelation of God’s abundant and freely given grace to all of humanity. I allowed it to jar me this week into asking hard questions and thinking differently about the choices we make in our Christian lives. When we shake up the status quo…and this year has certainly done that…where and how is Jesus speaking to us in new and transformational ways?

I was reminded this week that Jesus speaks to us through angry outcries against injustice, and that injustice can too easily remain hidden beneath a conflict-avoidant status quo. Lest we forget, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written as an outcry against a group of seemingly well-intentioned white clergy people…including two Episcopal Bishops…who had signed a statement asking King to moderate his protests and leave Birmingham to end the violence erupting there. In pointing a finger at protestors, the clergy leaders had missed the whole point. They failed to see and acknowledge that racial injustice was the real heart of the issue. You see, when the silence of the status quo perpetuates oppression, it leads us all away from the vision of God’s transforming love. At those points, we need to be shaken up to our common identity and mission. Or, better stated in the eloquence of Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I was also reminded this week that Jesus speaks to us through our own anger. What is it that ignites us with anger? How does our anger make us vulnerable, or break us open in new ways? What does that anger reveal in us that is in need of healing and transformation? In our own anger, where do we see Jesus? And if we don’t, perhaps we can ask Jesus to help make known to us whether our anger is pointing us toward or away from the knowledge and love of God. God wants to love us, and does love us: fiercely and unconditionally. If anger gets in the way of experiencing that, God’s desire is that we seek healing and wholeness so that we can experience the enormity of divine love and grace which always enfolds us.

This is what Jesus’ anger reveals to us: a vision of Jesus where justice and love are so inextricably linked that no human places, practices, or prejudices can stand in the way of that love. Jesus tells us this in sermons, in parables, in healings, in conversations, in miracles, and yes, in anger. Jesus tells us this with his whole life and in his death. And in resurrection we are given the ultimately divine reassurance: Love always wins.

Anger, forgiveness, redemption, and love: this is the unfolding story we are given in the Good News of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Perhaps John’s Gospel places this story exactly where it needs to be.

Revealing God, open our eyes to see and grant us the inspiration to transform this world in which we live. Amen

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Ἰησοῦς κυκλόθεν (Jesus, circling)

Food Pantry, Saturday February 27

I have no icon engraved for this siting of you, Beloved.  But my heart has been stirred.


The day was gray and we skirted raindrops by huddling beneath the patch of roof
covering the doorway we once used when we could enter our house of worship safely.

Now we serve those who hunger outside our doors, while a pandemic rages
and we huddle together and make community in virtual boxes and empty parking lots.

Our offerings had been brought the day before, now packed up in well-supplied bags of
plentiful sandwiches and homemade chocolate chip cookie-perfect love.

An abundance of food and groceries were piled on tables, and bags for fur-babies, too.
The rain kept the multitudes away, but those who came empty-handed left with plenty.

There at the threshold of world and church, you made your presence known in song.
I had not known Pharrell Williams to be a hymn writer until Happy pierced the gloom.

Triumphant as you arrived by bike: yellow rain slicker radiating with celestial light.
You looked at us, dark skin covered with mandatory mask and yet, we saw your smile.

Angel choirs and heavenly trumpets can sound like R&B played on a bike-rack radio.
Our arms were up, hands clapping and voices raised as you nodded along in time.

Circling, like a labyrinth that only you could see, around that rain-soaked asphalt.
Around and around, circles growing smaller and larger, near and away and near again.

You came close as I was singing and met my eyes. “No brakes” you said, still circling.
“No breaks” is what I heard and wondered if you meant that for you, or for me.

You heard my silent questioning; circling once again my way, you put your foot down.
You spoke words of truth: “See, that’s how you stop without falling down.”

All the cares of this world were tied up in the bags you had strapped to that bike.
You didn’t need groceries, or any more baggage. But you accepted our love offerings.

I asked if you needed anything else: “A cool drink of water” was your only reply.
With that provided, we broke bread and gave thanks. Dreary transformed to delight.

Circling again, you turned up your tunes. We lifted our voices and you nodded in time.
Your work here was done so onward you moved: next town, next healing, next call.

We kept singing, joy burning within us. We lingered, and listened, and hoped.
No longer longing for what things once were, our eyes saw what is and ever shall be.

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Lent within Lent within

My home altar, Lent 2021

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the church year calendar. For this blog, though, it is an anniversary, since it was Ash Wednesday 2013 when I wrote my first post. The liturgical date that year fell even earlier on the calendar: February 13 the archives tell me. I had burning within me to convey the story of the first time I participated in an Ash Wednesday service, including the ritual of imposing ashes. Eight years later, now an Episcopal priest, I find deep joy in reading the story of My First Ashes which poured from me before I had any inklings that I would be discerning a call to ordained life. It is, for me, a reminder that God is always working in us and in the world even (and perhaps especially) when we aren’t aware of it.

This morning, one particular thing that I wrote in that first blog post stands out to me, “I just headed down the dark stairwell to the basement where no one ever went.”

I had to stop right there and ponder that. If you read the whole post, you’ll note that the service I participated in happened to take place in a chapel in the basement of a dorm where I lived. I was even attending a religiously affiliated school, but we never went there. Even now, when I draw my mind to remember the space, it is mysterious. I still see those dimly lit stairs leading to a room which was dark and sparse. I can’t draw up details of what it looked like, except for a few chairs in a circle, and then kneeling at a small altar rail to receive ashes. But in that space, my spirit was stirred. It ignited something that has been burning in my soul ever since.

This year, that is how Lent feels to me. As some of my friends and colleagues have said, it feels like we’ve been living in a year-long lent as we’ve navigated this global pandemic, and struggled for racial justice, and began reckoning with things we have too long ignored. On many levels, that feeling rings absolutely true. There has been such a pattern of giving up, doing without, setting aside, calling ourselves in and wandering through an emotional desert that is has begun to feel familiar. Like living in a dorm, we know it’s not home. It isn’t normal, but we fall into a pattern of normalcy. And if we aren’t careful it all goes back to a pattern that circles around and repeats.

So, shaking ourselves up from the way we’ve accepted things to be right now, we are invited to keep a holy lent. What does that even mean? We are starting in a different place, now. We are invited to go somewhere that is already right here with us, but into which we’ve never gone. We are invited, if we choose, to descend into spaces of our lives we know are there but from which the busy comings and goings of our lives keep us from knowing, or seeing, or experiencing.

Perhaps lent this year is less about what we do outwardly, than where we allow ourselves to go within. We have to do that work so we can do what we are truly called to do.

I am still priesting in pandemic, so I extend an invitation to you as readers of this priest’s blog. From my home alter in my makeshift pandemic office, I invite you to keep a holy lent within your own self and your own space. Where are you being led, in the deep thoughts of your soul? What are the places and spaces of your life where you haven’t gone which perhaps are waiting to be transformed to the holy? Where does prayer carry you when your own steps feel uncertain?

What I learned that first Ash Wednesday, and continue to learn every day since, is that what awaits in the silence is the familiar embrace of God. Not answers. God. God has us, and is working in us and inspiring us to do what is most needed in the world step by step and day by day. We come to God most genuinely not with the belief that we have all the answers, but with open hearts that listen. We find our holy lent not in the actions of the busy, but in the quiet of divine presence. Sometimes we need to be broken open to do that. Or simply invited.

So, I invite you: may this “lent within lent” truly be a holy lent within.

Grace and Peace,

Sarah+

Resources for keeping a Holy Lent:

Post your prayer requests, which we will pray for every day in the Virtual Chapel of St. Phoebe

The Episcopal Church:  Life Transformed: The Way of Love in Lent (2021)

Episcopal Relief and Development: Lenten Meditations 2021

Ignatian Solidarity Network  Steadfast: A Call to Love for Lent 2021

Cathedral Church of St. Peter: God Brings New Beauty: A Lenten Guide for 2021

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Transfiguration Moments

Homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)
Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic

Last weekend, I had the delight of spending time with our newly elected and continuing Vestry members for their retreat. I have to tell you…the enthusiasm and dedication of these leaders is so inspiring. Over the course of those two days, I even began to forget that we were in little Zoom boxes as we freely shared our hopes and ideas while coming together for learning and planning and prayer. Our computers and iPads and devices may be our medium for connection, but community is the heart of this parish.

It’s like that these days whenever we worship together at St. Mark’s, too. I mean, I know in my head and can see with my eyes that we are each in our separate spaces, logging in together at the appointed time complete with children, cats and dogs making their serendipitous appearances. I have to toggle between screens to see all of your individual faces the closer it gets to 10:30. But now that we have been praying and talking and loving each other across distances for these many months, the honest truth is that when we enter into worship together, I don’t even notice the confines of my computer screen anymore. I just see you…this parish…the heart and soul of St. Mark’s.

I was pondering this week about this as a transfiguration moment that we’ve been experiencing right here in our virtual worship. We had a long climb up a high mountain when this global pandemic struck last year. Each of us initially approached the idea of virtual worship a bit differently: fear, hesitation, confusion, frustration, longing, curiosity, hope. There’s probably some thoughts and feelings you all have had that I didn’t name out loud, too! I had some familiarity with this thing called Zoom at that time, but nowhere near the fluidity that I’ve learned in the months since. I’ve lived into the call of being your “Minister of Zoom” and like any call, I’ve been bewildered and overwhelmed at times, but I’ve grown into it, too. We are engaging in connections together now in ways I wouldn’t have dreamed of a year ago. What strikes me, though…and this is why I refer to it as a transfiguration moment…is that we have climbed this mountain following Jesus and we are seeing the light of who we really are: the gathered members of St. Mark’s, the Body of Christ.

In our Gospel lesson today, we enter the passage with the disciples making their journey: Peter, James and John being led up the high mountain by Jesus. I can imagine their own feelings of fear, hesitation, confusion, frustration, longing, curiosity and hope all along the way. Then, arriving at the mountaintop, they encounter the dazzling reality of the presence of Christ, in the ethereal company of Moses and Elijah, the embodiment of the law and the prophets. I’m amazed that Peter could speak at all. But when he did manage to speak, his expression was a perfect framing of our human response to being overcome and overwhelmed: we cry out in our need for steadiness and equilibrium. We don’t always understand the depths of what we are saying, but there is often truth even within the seemingly ridiculous. As someone who understands cognitive overload in the midst of stress, what I hear Peter saying is, “if we could just slow down and stay here together a little longer together, then maybe…just maybe…we could have a chance to take it all in, and I’d start to feel at peace.” Peter, like all of us, craves equilibrium.

What happens next, though, is not equilibrium. Peter’s desire for physical and mental reprieve is met with more cognitive disruption: instead of tents of comfort there is a cloud of unknowing. I’ll have us take note that it is within that place where senses are totally overwhelmed and all that remains to do is trust, is when the disciples on the mountain with Jesus hear God’s call clearly. The voice of God speaks to them in the language of relationship, an echo of Jesus’ baptism: This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.

On that mountain, there was nothing else to do at that moment except to listen. And when the narrative of the transfiguration draws to a close, the disciples, we are told, saw only Jesus. The treasure in this story…the truly good news…is that we are given the knowledge of what happens when all our overwhelming transfiguration moments take place: we see only Jesus.

I had a memory flash into my mind this week, one that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It was at least 10 years ago now, and the parish I attended at that time was planning their summer vacation bible school which served many families both of the congregation and the community. I was up for helping, but I couldn’t make the planning meeting. So, I told our Christian Education Director to count on me to fill any hole she really needed help with. I was counting on something like, “help out with arts and crafts” or “prepare snacks.” She called me after the meeting, excited to tell me that she’d nominated me to be the lead teacher for the preschool classroom. I think at that moment, I might rather have climbed a high mountain all by myself. I mean, I love children but let’s face it, I’m an adult educator for a reason. A large group of preschoolers was definitely outside my comfort zone…and the whole idea of leading such a week-long adventure made me lose my sense of equilibrium. She must have seen my shock and disbelief, but she didn’t offer me an easy off-ramp. She had been very prayerful about this, and I knew her…so I knew that. She kindly and pastorally said something like, “You are giving of your time and talent to create a beautiful, spiritual foundation for these children; and my prayer is that one day…maybe not even right away, but some day…you’ll look back and realize it was a beautiful gift for your own spirit, too.”

Let me say, without pulling any punches, it was a challenging week. A choir friend offered to be the second adult teacher with me, and we became closer than ever as we put ourselves to this task neither of us were sure we were up for. We ended up with 18 preschoolers…let me repeat, 18 four and five-year olds, all in one room… and pulled in some extra helping hands from among our youth. The first day, I counted it a win that it only took us two hours to clean up the classroom after the ruckus was over, given what it looked like when we started. The second day, we used our choir skills and learned a whole bunch of simple songs to sing together to keep everyone engaged, and introduced a quiet time with some soothing music; two of the youth helpers fell asleep, even if the preschoolers didn’t. By day three, I knew everyone’s name and who really needed the extra 1:1 our youth could offer, and there was a bona fide art project on the theme to take home. Then, on day four, we managed to get our hands on a donated play pool on a hot summer day and everyone got to “fish for people” and splash each other… that was the first day without any tears, whatsoever. And, we learned that water outside makes for a much easier clean up. By Friday, I sat down for our last story time and 18 kids piled onto me. The quietest and shyest one among them sat on my lap and helped me turn the pages as we read about Jesus and the disciples.

I can’t say that I felt any less bewildered or exhausted at the end of that week, even when everyone else went home. If I had a tent, I might have just crawled in and slept. It was a few weeks later, I ran into one of the children with her Mom at the neighborhood pool. And all of a sudden, that littlest and shyest one who had sat in my lap and turned pages ran over to me and hugged me and said, “I know you…we fished for people and read Jesus together!”

All of a sudden, I remembered the VBS director’s prayerful prediction and felt so deeply grateful. Because all that I could see in that tiny face was Jesus.

You see, our transfiguration moments are not always picture-perfect. Sometimes, they are uphill climbs putting ourselves to work in the spaces where we are needed, whether or not we think we’re up for the job. And sometimes, we are led on the journey all the while hoping just to make it to the summit…not even knowing what we’ll find when we get there. Our epiphanies don’t always come in the moment when we are awe-struck by the experience. Sometimes transfiguration is happening all the while our human senses are overwhelmed and finally, all we can do is listen. We may not have the right words to express our experience. We may not have our bearings at all, and we may just yearn for shelter and rest.

God hears us in these moments and in the vastness of that cloud of unknowing, sets our sights on the Beloved. And in the end, all that we see is Jesus.

So, my friends, my prayer for each and every one of you today extends from the one that was given to me all those years ago. I extend upon you the blessing of transfiguration moments. As our Wardens and Vestry and ministry teams do their prayerful work, may all you see is Jesus. As we continue our virtual worship until we can be together in person, may all you see is Jesus. As we do the hard work of making decisions about that transition with love, may all you see is Jesus. As we move prayerfully into our Lenten devotions, may all you see is Jesus. And may you know that as you listen to God’s call and respond in love…perhaps one day in which you least expect it…the radiance of Jesus’ love and grace will be made known to you. And all that you will see is Jesus.

Amen.

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Ready to Follow

Homily for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic

Link to Lectionary Texts

referenced: Mark 1:1-20

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ

I’m convinced that one of the most theologically profound insights on today’s Gospel lesson occurs in the first six minutes of the 1973 movie version of Godspell. Without words…in fact, without anything except the occasional blowing of a shofar horn, the lives of ordinary people are transformed. In the midst of studying, dancing, driving, and working each person is interrupted from their concentrated daily routines by a quick glimpse, a wave hello, a peck on the cheek which interrupts their routine with sudden belonging and familiarity. If we’re paying close attention, we can take in some theatrical context clues interpreting what that experience might have been like. These same people…who we at first think are unsuspecting…see and experience that spark of call and have an epiphany. In their various ways, we can see that their inner light was already shining while they were engaged in the minutiae of life that we observed: enlightening their minds while doing menial work; finding musical joy in a traffic jam; pausing to take in wonder during the daily commute; rejecting forced social identities, embodying inner peace in the midst of impersonal crowds, subtly asserting their right to take up the same spaces as others when socially minimized based on race and gender. They are just ordinary people doing ordinary things. They are not waving their hands and calling attention to their merits or trying to attract Jesus to them.

Ultimately, it is Jesus who sees the extraordinary in their ordinary and who reaches out to connect with them: suddenly, simply, relationally.

In the movie, as in the Gospel lesson, these ordinary people leave what they are doing at that moment of recognition and do one thing: they follow. In that split second, their ready hearts begin to recognize the Prince of Peace and they turn and step in the direction of that light…admittedly, in the movie, first pausing for baptism-by fountain. But you get the point.

I think it’s important to point out here that there is a major distinction being drawn between our leader-focused secular world, and the follower-focused life into which Jesus invites us. In social terms, following seems like a passive activity. I don’t think for one minute that the disciples would tell it that way. I invite us to consider that in the counter-cultural reversal of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus completely elevates the role of follower. So, let’s follow along.

In Mark’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus after two defining events in his early ministry. Jesus first appears in the narrative at his baptism by his cousin John, who has been preaching a baptism of repentance. Jesus emerges from the water after this symbolic submission and at that moment, his divine identity as Son is revealed. Immediately afterwards, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. So it is that Mark’s Gospel first reveals Jesus, who we like to think of as a leader, as an active and obedient follower to the urgency of call initiated by Father and Spirit.

In today’s text, Jesus emerges from the wilderness and is immediately confronted by the injustice of the world. His cousin John, who paved the path for him, was now unjustly imprisoned. In the space of this short passage of scripture, Mark situates Jesus’ ministry as one who has followed so that he can now lead. Jesus takes up the forcibly abandoned evangelism of his zealous cousin, proclaiming the good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This entire passage is a narrative of divine following: knowing who you are and whose you are and acting in that knowledge.

Jesus begins the leadership of his earthly ministry filled with the knowledge of his identity in God, confronting injustice of the world, and following the divine call on his life.

As Jesus goes along the sea of Galilee, he encounters people fully engaged in the work of their own lives. He encounters Simon and Andrew who have learned to cast their nets upon waters where others see nothing, but they can see the movement of fish beneath. He encounters James and John whose labors were spent repairing, restoring and strengthening the nets essential to their trade. Even in these short fragments of scripture we read today, perhaps we can imagine the fullness of Jesus’ vision to see not only their outward actions, but the preparation of their hearts and minds to see beyond the surface and to mend that which the cares and occupations of this life have broken.

Jesus calls them when they are doing exactly what they ordinarily do. They weren’t waving their hands or yelling, “pick me!” and they weren’t even necessarily the brightest, fastest, or most popular people. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer expounds upon in the Cost of Discipleship, it is Jesus who initiates every call, and Jesus who invites and compels us to action of the heart. We participate in a divine purpose beyond our human awareness: fishers of fish will be made to be fishers of people. Bonhoeffer goes a step further to remind us that at the very moment we think we must exert personal influence into that purpose, or when we fall into the trap of thinking how important and essential our individual leadership is, it ceases to be God’s call and simply becomes our own.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks those who will eventually come to be known as his Disciples to do one thing, and one thing only: follow me. Prompted by a call held out to them in relationship…and I would also presume a nudging of Spirit…they took the route of action and followed. Jesus’ leading required their following. Following was the essence of their call.

So, back to ordinary us. Like the characters in Godspell, we are also immersed in a world of traffic jams, identity crises, menial work, and everyday social injustices. In relationship, we have all been invited to take on a new identity as members of the Body of Christ. We are seen, recognized, and called as exactly who we are.

Imagine simply following. Not trying to figure out the right thing, the logical thing, or running the pro/con list of which things will benefit us most on the world’s terms. Imagine just doing our thing with the God-given strengths and skills we have identified and nurtured. Imagine engaging with a full and open heart the work that is given you to do, whether that’s because you’re good at it, or you like it, or because you’ve inherited the job, or because it’s necessary. Imagine that Jesus who loves you sees you doing your thing and envisions you in the realm of grace, justice and truth working to further the kingdom. Imagine the moment that you catch a glimpse of Jesus and you realize Jesus sees you…really sees you. Imagine following. Nothing more. Just following. Imagine the rest unfolds from there, step by step. Imagine this happens not because you have to figure it out on your own but simply because you follow and learn as you go. Simon Peter and Andrew do become fishers of people. James and John each learn to weave the nets of community. Everyone has a role. While the journeys of following can turn out to be quite adventurous, those journeys are made by walking in relationship, step by step.

“Follow me.” That’s our invitation. Not to plan the journey or compare our merits or wonder what the whole narrative will turn out to be. Our invitation is simply to follow. To do our thing, transformed by God’s vision. Following looks like open-hearted listening, which we do in prayer. It means open-minded reading and studying the Word, which we do in our scriptures and the holy writings inspired by them. It means paying attention to Who we are really following…as Bishop Curry is fond of saying, “if it isn’t about Love, it isn’t about Jesus.” It means using our skills and strengths in service to other followers and those we encounter, as we encounter them along the journey. It means that what we think or hope or wish that we were called to do is less important than what God unfolds for us to do in the journey of our followership. It means walking day by day and step by step with Jesus who calls us, and sees us, and continues to lead us through the power of the Holy Spirit into the still unfolding reign of Christ in this world in which we live, and to which we are invited to participate. In this space of our ordinary, extraordinary lives, Jesus calls us to join in this world-changing, life altering mission and ministry.

Jesus invites us, “Follow me.”

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ

Amen.

Image from detail of mosaic at Washington National Cathedral (photo by author)

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Reflections on Mary

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA (virtual worship in the time of pandemic)

Scripture Readings Referenced:

Luke 1:26-38

Canticle 15

For the record, I want to say that I’d like Dorothy White and the good people of St. Mark’s to gather for a womanist bible study on the scripture text every time I’m scheduled to preach!  On Wednesday evening, the thoughts and ideas that flowed out from the group that gathered was a balm for my end-of-semester tired and weary soul.  If you weren’t able to be there, I commend it to you for a listen.  We were focusing in that conversation on the characters of Mary and Elizabeth, who are central to the scripture texts we read on this fourth Sunday of Advent.  We came away with a renewed conviction that these two expectant mothers…one in her age, and one in her youth…were necessary for each other.  And I was reminded of how necessary we are to each other as well, as the Word of God in Holy Scripture breaks open for us in our lives, in our questions, and in our holy conversations.  So, this morning, I invite us into relationship with this Gospel text.  I want us to spend some holy time with holy Mary.

I read an article this week in which feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson said, “as a result of the Reformation disputes, Catholics developed a severe case of fixation on Mary, and Protestants developed a severe case of amnesia.”  Now, as a faithful Episcopalian of the Anglican “via media” (the “middle way”) I think it’s fitting for us all to journey together into today’s Gospel lesson, no matter on which side of that polarity we may find ourselves.  I’d like to offer three reflections about this story that I hope can open our hearts and prepare us to receive the Christ child with wonder and joy.

First Reflection: with apologies to lyricist Mark Lowry and a star-studded host of musical performers who have crooned the question, “Mary did you know?” I have to assert that Yes, Mary did know.  Mary as presented to us in Luke’s Gospel may be a young woman, but she is a fully aware, engaged and active participant in this unfolding of God’s plan.  For any of you who have…or once had…a young woman in her teens living in your household, let me remind you that what they may lack in life experience, they more than make up for in enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is often based on the giving of one’s word: promises of friendship, of time, of love, of relationship, of trust.  In today’s story, the conversation related to us takes place between young Mary and the heavenly visitor Gabriel.  But, I want to note that this portion of the narrative we read today immediately follows the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist.  Zechariah, John’s father, also receives a visit from Gabriel and is described as “terrified and overwhelmed by fear” and ultimately, responds to the angelic message with skepticism about its validity due to the age of both he, and his wife Elizabeth.  Suspicion and skepticism, the hallmarks of adulthood…and as a result, Zechariah’s adult voice is taken away until the birth of his son.  But it is a different story with Mary, when she is visited by Gabriel.  Mary pays attention, wonders, listens, and takes the risk to act on the information given to her about God’s choice and invitation for her to participate in this unfolding of salvation history.  Mary hears God’s promise and takes God at God’s word.  This trusting participation comes at a cost to Mary; it may compromise her social standing, her relationships and her own sense of identity.  But she has also heard the word of God revealed to her, and she believed what she heard even without certainty.  Faced with a heavenly messenger and a mind-blowing message, Mary says with a willing heart that both consents and assents to God’s invitation: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.  Yes, Mary knew.

Second Reflection:  Mary is a preacher of the good news.  She may have been young, and she may have been socially on the bottom rung, but this woman preached from the depths of her heart.  Having said her holy “yes” and being filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary literally embodies and nurtures the Good News of God’s inbreaking into the world. Like the pregnant young woman she is, she grows more deeply into awareness of herself in relation to the child forming within her day by day. I can close my eyes and imagine Mary, so filled with the Spirit of God, that she cannot contain the glow.  The ancient hymn we read today, which we have come to know as the Magnificat, emanates from Mary in response to Elizabeth, who acknowledges her as one filled to overflowing with the grace of God.  Mary is filled, pregnant with the holy and now growing in her lived awareness of God’s fortune-reversing, liberating justice that comforts the afflicted, frees the imprisoned, feeds the hungry, and lavishes abundance on those who have nothing.  This song that her spirit sings is the song of God’s love and humanity’s liberation through God’s intervention.  This proclamation pours forth from Mary, who has herself been marginalized by society and yet is lifted up by God.  Her joyous praise is not tied up with earthly prosperity, but is abundant with heavenly promise.  And oh, does she preach!  You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation; You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Mary, preaching as a prophet of the poor and marginalized of this world represents hope renewed.  Mary, who we have come to call theotokos, the God-bearer, bears the Goods News not only in her womb, but through her fully embodied proclamation of the loving, liberating and life-giving God.  She even preached that before Bishop Michael Curry preached it, and I don’t think he’d argue with that one bit!

My third and final reflection: Mary helps us see and know that when we participate with our whole selves, the main actor in this story, and in our lives, is always God.  Mary knows this truth from the first greeting: Greetings, favored one: the Lord is with you.  This is the heart of the story, my friends.  Mary recognizes the presence of God with her, in her, and through her.  She is not irrelevant or passive.  Mary is the one God chooses as the first face of the incarnation, who shows us the joy of wholly embodied trust in God’s sustaining providence.  As John the Baptist proclaims the unfolding of the ministry of Jesus, Mary proclaims the incarnate reality that God has, and is, and will continue to be the one who enacts love in the world of God’s own creation.  This story is all about Mary AND it never ceases to be about God.  God is the source, the action, and the Word made flesh.  It is through Mary’s willing embrace of this call placed upon her life that we are able to see God’s action on behalf of all of us reflected in her.  This doesn’t diminish Mary; this magnifies the visibility of her faithfulness, her trust, and her steadfast witness to God-with-us.

So, you’ve heard my reflections.  Now, I offer some questions for us to ponder in these remaining Advent days: How is God inviting us to know the truth of God’s presence in our lives, and in this world?  How is God proclaiming the Good News through us, in our words and in our actions?  How do our lives reflect God’s action in the world?  

The gift within these questions is the mystery and the miracle of Christmas.  Jesus comes to this world anew through us, as we live in this world as the hands and feet of Christ. This world still craves and yearns to know and experience that love.  We need Christmas.  The world needs Christmas.  And this gift of the incarnation that is Christmas is lived out in the unfolding of our lives, in response to the call that God has placed on us.

So, in these final Advent days, as you bake the cookies and wrap the gifts, hold these truths and ponder them in your heart.  Mary knew.  Mary preached.  Mary magnified the inbreaking of God for the liberation of God’s people.  And we, like Mary, are invited to hear, to trust, and to respond to that transforming and divine love in our own lives, too.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen

Icon of Mary, Theotokos
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Seeing the Face of Christ

Last Sunday of Pentecost, Year A (Christ the King)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church: Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic
November 22, 2020

Lectionary Texts:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Listen to Sermon Recording

Sometimes Christ the King looks like a short, hunched-over woman with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last bite of cake while mumbling and singing to herself. 

Perhaps I should explain a bit more…

In the Fall of 1989, I began the first of many internships that would be a part of my preparation to be a practicing social worker.  I had just transferred between schools and so, I was a little late to the registration process.  And as sometimes happens, I didn’t get my first pick of placements.  I didn’t even get my second or third pick.  It seemed to me that the powers that be had gotten things completely mixed up: I planned to be an administrator and community organizer so I was hoping for a high power, influential internship that would land me a great, lucrative…well, as lucrative as social work can be…post-graduation job.  Instead, I learned that I would be placed in a community board and care home which offered long-term shelter to deinstitutionalized adults with mental health challenges who had spent most of their lives in the local psychiatric hospital.  This shelter, a transitional housing facility operated by the YWCA, sprang into being when deinstutionalization was a political cost-saving measure, not a humanitarian best practice.  People were released from inpatient care without community living skills. There were no safe spaces for people with long-term psychiatric disabilities to live and homelessness became visible: a chronic and deadly problem in the harsh, Buffalo winters.  The old boarding house-turned-transitional shelter had peeling paint and dirty old carpets and very minimal staffing.  My first day on the job I thought: I don’t know if I can do this.  But, I heard a voice in my soul saying, “People live here; You can work here.”  That became my motto.

After a few weeks of required training and shadowing staff and volunteers through support groups and recreational outings, I was given a choice.  I could continue to work scheduled hours with these group activities as part of the staff team, or become an individual support volunteer with some of the more challenging residents and work my own hours.  My supervisor hinted that they had plenty of students helping with the groups, but what they really needed were people who were willing to spend that quality 1:1 time with people who weren’t able or willing to be a part of group activities.  I had classes, and worked another paid job and really craved the freedom of setting my own hours. I heard my lips saying yes while my brain was shouting  “No, what are you doing!”  But my yes had been said, and that meant I was now on my own.  Very quickly, I was handed a name and room number.  “Your job,” said my supervisor, “is to get Ruthie engaged.  She used to go out all the time, but she hasn’t left her room in weeks, except when we tell her she has to bathe.”  Great, I thought, a very promising first client.  As I headed down the hall toward the residential corridor, she added, “Oh, and don’t take it personally if she swears at you!” 

My first visit with Ruthie lasted exactly 10 seconds.  I knocked on her door.  She uttered several non-sermon-appropriate words followed by “Go Away!” 

I lingered by her door long enough to tell her my name, that I was a social work intern, and that I could come back to visit her again another day.  I heard her shuffling toward the door which gave me hope, and then I heard her promptly lock it.  She yelled, “Go away!” then in a quieter voice mumbled what sounded to me like, “come back a different day.”  And so, I did.  The next visit was largely the same, and the visit after that.  After a few more tries and frankly, as I was about to give up and ask for a different client, I knocked on her door and announced myself one more time and heard her shuffling around inside.  This time, Ruthie cracked her door open and looked me up and down.  “Come back tomorrow” she said, “Bring fifty cents and we’ll have coffee.” 

The next day I came back with a few quarters in my pocket.  Fifty cents meant I had to dip into my laundry money; my own budget was very stretched in those meager days of student living.  When I knocked this time, she shuffled to the door and opened it.  A tiny, bent over woman emerged, this time wearing a coat and two hats tied onto her head with a scarf.  “We’lll go now” she said, “I’ll show you.” 

Against my better judgement, I followed her down the hallway, through the main living area and past the front desk.  I looked up at the receptionist with eyes that probably looked like a deer in headlights.  She was admittedly surprised to see us but waved us through, asking me to sign the register book with the time we were leaving and where we were going.  “Coffee” said Ruthie.  “We are going for coffee.”  I had no idea how much learning I was in for.

What I was in for was week after week of walking with Ruthie through the back streets of downtown Buffalo, hearing about the people who used to live there: her Russian immigrant family, her neighbors, the unheard history of a city I thought I knew.  She knew every place to get a cheap cup of coffee to warm her tired hands.  She would mutter and curse and tell me about growing up during the Great Depression, about her best memories and her worst ones, too.  I grew fond of her stories, even though she often repeated herself.  Her life had been a very, very hard one.  She knew first hand about poverty, grief and feeling cast-out.  I began to marvel that she trusted me…a stranger she barely knew…with the wealth of her stories.  She taught me more about listening and being present than any textbook could ever convey.

A few weeks later, during one of our walks, Ruthie told me the next day was her birthday.  “I wish I could have a cake” she said, “a white cake, with white icing.”  She paused.  “And sweet tea, with lemon.  Very sweet.  With sugar.  But not too much lemon.” 

I managed to scrounge up enough money that night to buy a cake mix, white frosting, two lemons, and some birthday candles.  With what I had in my apartment, I made a two-tier round cake and frosted it.  I brewed tea and added much more sugar than I thought should be in it, and sliced up lemons to float in it for flavor.  I also found a sweater in my closet that I didn’t wear all that much but that I thought she would like, and I wrapped it up. 

I showed up the next day, and found Ruthie sitting in the lounge.  She was wearing all her usual attire, topped by a birthday crown from a local fast-food restaurant.  “Free coffee today” she said, with a mischievous smile.  Of course.  Then she saw the cake, and the tea, and the present.  “My Birthday?!” she exclaimed.  And I said, “Yes, Ruthie, it’s your day!”

Recluse Ruthie stood up and shuffled around, gathering up all her friends in the lounge and scooting everyone to the sun porch.  She was singing, “It’s my party; come to my party!”  In the hour that followed, I watched her move from a reclusive outcast to the beloved guest at the center of this birthday feast.  

“I myself will search for my sheep” says the Lord God. “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture.  I will feed them with justice.”   Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

It can be so easy for us to assume we know the difference between the sheep and the goats.  Of course, we want to think of ourselves as the sheep of the Good Shepherd, so it’s natural to look around and see God in faces of those who are familiar to us.  But what about the unfamiliar, reclusive, muttering and swearing, triple-hat wearing people whose stories force us to see the familiar through different eyes?  What about the times when seeking and serving Christ in the other brings us into full awareness of all that we would rather ignore about this world in which we live: poverty, mental illness, addiction, confinement.  Like me, the skeptical student, we become blinded to joy which lies hidden in unlikely places and hardened by all the faces in this world that make us afraid, or don’t look like we expect them to. 

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

But when did we see you, Lord?

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ “  Matthew 25:31-46

The Good News we need to hear today isn’t a pat on the back for our good works.  No, my friends.  The Good News is that this Realm of Christ about which we read is also right here, and right now.  Christ the King and our Good Shepherd feeds us, clothes us, nurtures us, sustains us.  We recognize our residence in this realm of divine generosity when we reach out to do the same to those in this world who come to us hungry, thirsty, wounded, and vulnerable. 

I am reminded that every time there has been a knock on the door to my heart and I have said, “Go Away” our Good Shepherd has returned with patience and persistence, until I have been ready to crack open the door.  I am reminded that I am the one who has been fed at the unexpected banquet of mercy and grace, sometimes in ways so ridiculously simple and beautiful that they have transformed the ordinary into a divine banquet.  I realize that every time I think I’m helping someone else, it is at that moment that I am able to see all that has been lavished upon me and upon each and every one of us by God who loves us beyond all measure of  understanding.

We are all sheep in the pasture of the Good Shepherd, and citizens in the Realm of God. The taste of that heavenly banquet is not just a fabled story or an afterlife dream.  It can taste like warm coffee on a cold day, or birthday cake joyfully shared in community. We are invited, constantly, to become God’s hands and feet in the world so that in our openness to serving others with love and without judgement, we can come to see and know and experience a taste of the abundance of God’s realm. We see and experience that in our love and service to our neighbors and each other.  It is in those faces…every single one of them…that God is revealed.

Perhaps that’s why each and every time that I close my eyes to pray with this Gospel, it is Ruthie’s face that I see.

“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”  Ephesians 1:15-23

So yes: sometimes Christ the King looks like a short, hunched-over women with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last morsels of birthday cake while mumbling and singing to herself, “It’s my party…come to my party.”

Be known to us, Lord Jesus, as we meet you in each and every face that we see.

Amen.

Icon: Sophia, Wisdom of God
(Photo by Sarah Kye Price of icon on display at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco CA)
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