In the wilderness

A reflection for Advent 2, Year A prepared for Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Friday, December 2, 2016

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

I’m an academic who has been through a lot of formal schooling.  I would add up the total number of years for you, but it would probably be embarrassing.  My Dad, a self-taught kind of guy, has always been quick to call me “Professional Student.”  I used to get all defensive about that, explaining how sometimes opportunities have presented themselves unexpectedly, justifying my love of books and classrooms.  The truth is, I think he’s right.  But, that is because I think at heart we are all professional students.  Sometimes, in spite of all the formal places of learning that may be a part of our lives, wisdom speaks to us profoundly from unexpected sources.  When we are open to learning, our teacher will find us whether our classroom is on campus, or perhaps in the wilderness.

So today, in this Gospel for the Second Sunday in Advent, we are given a lesson from the wilderness.  Our teacher appears, wearing a shirt woven together from cast off animal hair, belted around his waist to hold it into place.  He scavenged for food before class, making bugs his lunch and braving bee-strings to get some fingers full of wild honey to wash it all down.  This prophet and teacher that we have come to call John the Baptist isn’t exactly on the list of the academic elite. And yet, we are told, even the temple educated were coming to him in search of wisdom.  Like the people of Jerusalem and Judea, we are on the move, heading out from our homes and communities into the wilderness in search of the wisdom this man of the earth has for us.

Why are people…and specifically why are we…so compelled to listen to what he has to say? I think it’s because whether we are spiffed up and highly educated or wearing sackcloth and eating locusts, we know in our soul when things just aren’t right.  What isn’t right with us?  We have rich and famous people amassing more and more money, while others sleep on sidewalks.  We have millionaires who are miserable, and people in poverty who give thanks.  The paths of truth and mercy in this world aren’t straight lines that make logical sense.  Justice doesn’t seem to follow a predicable course.  There are paths that we follow which are curved, confusing, and leave us wondering “where is God in this?”

I know that I’ve wondered that, and I imagine that you have, too.

So, it doesn’t surprise me that people near and far came to this prophet in the wilderness, the man that we’ve come to call “John the Baptist,” in order to seek some prophetic voice that can help make these crooked, winding, illogical paths straight and to feel cleansed and whole again.  That was the role of baptism…of ritual washing…in this era of time for the people of Israel.  People then and now are following a desire to be pure, to find order in chaos, to be free of that which binds us to the disorder that can make us feel so lost and frustrated in an imperfect world.

John, prophet of the wilderness, offers up some powerful words to those seeking him out.  He certainly isn’t one to mince his words.  He sees those coming toward him who are part of the status quo, who keep the same things happening in the world and in the church that are contributing to patterns of inequity out of fear for protecting what they have.  Even though they were searching for a prophet to make the crooked pathways straight again…they weren’t really looking for anything to change in real, profound ways.  They could only see far enough to protect themselves, like a viper might protect its habitat.

John the Baptist speaks prophetically and powerfully to this mixed group gathering around him in the wilderness, realizing as the prophet he is that this new world that people were searching for was not going to come about without radically changing some structures and practices.  The “one who is more powerful than I am” that John the Baptist was speaking of was Jesus, who would come to preach and live out an entirely different ministry than some people were expecting.  Jesus, who would bring good news to the poor.  Jesus, who would eat with sinners and those who were despised.  Jesus who would tell the rich to sell all that they had, and would welcome the poor, the lonely, the alienated into a larger Body of Christ.  Jesus, who would live, and die, and even when resurrected would send his Spirit into the world so that purity and belonging could be extended to the world through his reign of mercy and of justice.

What would John the Baptist say to us today?  He might remind us that we have been given these Gospel messages, these stories of the life and ministry of Jesus to help us know how to truly repent.  Not brood or feel badly for ourselves…not beat ourselves up or put each other down…but truly turn our lives into examples of the divine mercy and justice that Jesus lived out, for which he died, and in which we continue to live today as the Church, the risen Body of Christ moving through the world.

This is our lesson, for those of us who want to learn it.  This Gospel, foretold by John the Baptist and lived out by the live and ministry of Jesus Christ is our teacher: in the church, in this city, in the wilderness of life.  We teach each other as we live it out each day, learning more and more who we are called to be as we open ourselves to learning what this good news means in the face and experience of each person we encounter.

In the wilderness, a voice is crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Prepare our hearts, Lord, that we may live out the merciful love you have shown to us.

Amen.

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Being Prepared

A homily for Advent 1, Year A prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Sunday November 27, 2016

Greetings on this first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year and the start of a season of holy waiting. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with many of you, but I realize some of us haven’t had the pleasure of getting to know each other yet. In September, I began worshipping and learning with you as your seminarian intern, part of the requirements in the Diocese of Virginia for those of us preparing for ordination. One of the joys that I have is to worship with this community…a sea of new faces to me…and learn who you are, hear your stories, share my journey, and for us to discover the ways in which we can be Church together. I live in Ginter Park and have worshipped at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church since moving to Richmond in 2006 with my husband and daughter. But for the past 10 years, I’ve also been a sort of parish neighbor to you all…working every day about a block and a half away as a faculty member in the School of Social Work at VCU.

As I was preparing my homily for this week, it occurred to me that ten years ago I would never have imagined that the journey I was taking would have led me to stand in this place, at this time, under these circumstances. The field of social work has been the place where I have lived out my baptismal covenant: seeking and serving Christ in all persons; respecting the dignity of every human being. It was in that very act of doing exactly what I was already called to do…living out my vocational strengths as a baptized Christian…that in Advent of 2012 I would begin to experience God’s call on my life to serve God’s church. It’s been a joyful and unexpected journey that has highs and lows, blessings and challenges. I have learned that formation for ministry is a process of preparation, of opening to the movement of God in my life.

But a few years ago, I wasn’t thinking about “preparation.” I was entirely focused on planning. I am, most assuredly, one of those “Type A” personalities; a firm “J” on the Myers-Briggs spectrum. That means I find comfort in lists, and take great joy in checking things off. Sure, there is awe and wonder in listening to the voice of possibility, in responding to the desire to love and serve God and community in new ways. But, there were a lot of details to be thought through. How would I possibly go back to seminary? What would all this mean for the career steps needed to succeed in the academic life? Could I be a priest and a teacher and a social worker? What did I need to give up? How much would it cost in time, money, and energy? How could I check off all the to-do list items so that I could get to where I’m called to be? And…the inevitable question…what would that look like at the end, anyhow? Yes, there were (and are) plenty of planning questions to keep me thoroughly preoccupied by the details of the journey.

But planning is not the same as preparing.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers an exhortation to his disciples…it is a call to readiness for those who are already committed to following Him: we do not know the day or the hour when we will be called up to service. We will be doing our jobs, living into our worldly, productive well-planned lives when the world as we know it will change. “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day the Lord your God is coming.” Although we can read eschatological and global apocalyptic warnings into passages like these, the simultaneous truth is that each one of us lives our everyday lives unaware of exactly when we will be pressed upon to bring all of who we are, to all that God is calling us to be.

Planning keeps us in control; Preparing opens us to possibilities known by God alone.

This word for “prepare” to which we are exhorted: ἕτοιμοι: “hetoimos” would be most fully translated as “to be made ready”, to be on stand by, to stand wholly and completely ready to serve. That, my friends, is a tall order. It means so much more than planning. The Apostle Paul echoes this same exhortation to the church in Rome, which rings through the ages to our own ears: we are called to wake up from sleep, to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light which is to put on the essence of our Lord Jesus Christ. This degree of preparation is not a “to do” list. It is an exhortation to be prayerful, mindful and open to the call continually emerging in our lives, individually and collectively, as members of the Body of Christ.

So, how do we prepare?

Our ordinary lives which we live out in ordinary time bring us through the liturgical year to this new season of Advent. But those ordinary days have offered us great insight leading into preparation. I love to cook, so I’m intrigued listening to great chefs talk about the “mise en place” that allows a fine meal to emerge: everything is in its place, ready to be brought together at the precise moment in culinary time, creating something far greater and more delicious than the sum of its parts. Any athlete…or musician….will tell you that it is practice, practice, practice which builds both endurance and aligns our bodies, minds, and intentions for successful performance. Scouts learn to “always be prepared” and stand at the ready to do duty for God and country, for other people, and for themselves. We each bring our vocational preparation: Physicians…scrub up! Musicians…tune up! Students…study up!

But the phrase that I think resonates the most with me right now comes from my friends, my students, my colleagues who live in the daily struggle to be seen, and heard, and respected. “Stay Woke” has become a social media hashtag of many millennials, like my students. This phrase, which was given voice within the Black Lives Matter movement, urges us to see with new eyes the ways in which life is happening all around us, to know what is really happening in our community and in our world instead of simply taking in what we see at face value. Don’t go through the motions, Don’t be satisfied with the status quo: Stay Woke. Echoing the words of St. Paul: now is the moment for us to wake from sleep. It is time for each and every one of us from our own unique vantage point to be awake to see the appearance of Christ in our lives, to be at the ready to live into the call to which we are invited in our Christian faith and life.

But, I still love a “to do” list. So, how are we to prepare…to be ready to live into this call? Here are some prayerful, heart-opening things we can do, right here and right now:

  • We gather all of who we are and bring ourselves wholly as an offering to God.
  • We worship, and pray, and are met in Holy Eucharist together as the Body of Christ.
  • We stay awake, and learn to see Christ in each other not only in our similarities, but in our differences.
  • We practice living into the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
  • We stay together and pray together, even when it would be easier to walk away.
  • We boldly and courageously love, opening our human eyes to see the coming of Christ in our lives, in our community, and in our world.

It’s Advent…

Stay awake.  Be Prepared.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

 

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Lectionary References:

 

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The Kingdom, The Power, and the The Glory

A sermon for Proper 29, Year C: Christ the King

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today’s readings are are the last of this stretch of Ordinary Time for the last Sunday before Advent which we have come to call “Christ the King.” The lessons, the psalm, and this Gospel, which we’ll read again on Sunday, tap into the images of the Reign of Christ. Even in our windows here, we can see these reflected images of Christ as King. It would be easy, perhaps, to take the idea of Christ as King at face value. Most of us get our ideas about Kings from two sources: childhood fairy tales, or the narratives of Western, European History. In those accounts, the King is the ultimate authority.The King is rich, powerful, commanding, respected…or if not respected, at least feared. At least, that is what we are taught about “Kings.” But, this Gospel lesson seems to present a very different picture of our Christ our King. Luke’s presentation of these last hours of Jesus’ earthly life invites us to understand this image of Christ the King not from the fairytale stories of our childhood, nor from history books written by the privileged and victorious. Instead, we have a view from the perspective of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who in this Gospel is experiencing the painful and horrific final hours of his ordinary time on this earth.

One of the things that we pray in our own ordinary lives is The Lord’s Prayer. We’ll pray it today together as well. In that prayer, we close by saying, “The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory are yours now and forever, Amen.” In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory that are present in his reign on earth, as it is in heaven. As the Gospel lesson hints, it doesn’t sound like the kind of King we hear about in our stories. What Jesus…Christ, the King…shares with us about the realm of God is something far more transformative.

We enter this Gospel lesson at the close of week when Jesus has moved from triumphant hero upon his entry into Jerusalem, to a scorned and beaten prisoner crucified between two criminals. Luke records the first words of this scene as ones reflecting the immensity of healing and forgiveness that has characterized all of Jesus’ life and ministry right up to that point: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps our first glimpse of Christ the King is this reminder: we are citizens in the reign of a loving God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The wholeness of this reign is extended even by a beaten and dying Jesus who sees himself…and all those with him…as being embraced in this same realm of redeeming, forgiving love which is known and experienced. This Kingdom of which Jesus speaks emanates from the love of God, and touches even those who are unaware of their actions. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” There is so much love bestowed in that statement of the kingdom where even those seemingly committing the unspeakable act of crucifixion are extended forgiveness. In the the realm of Christ the King, it is forgiveness that reigns.

Then, there is the Power. Power is tossed around and flaunted by those of Roman authority, “Save yourself, King of the Jews!” and even by the criminal dying on the cross next to Jesus: “If you’re the messiah, save yourself and us!” We can tend to think of power as a bargaining chip: “Jesus, if you have power then let my candidate win!” “Jesus, if you have power, open the park back up” But, this isn’t the kind of power Jesus has ever advocated in the ordinary days of his ministry. Jesus has shown us repeatedly in his parables, his healing, his eating with and sitting with and praying with people-who-are-rejected ministry that power is with the meek, the poor, the marginalized. Jesus is himself, as black theologian James Cone powerfully advocates, the embodiment of the Oppressed One. Jesus meets his life, his world, and his death as the one who aligns with the oppressed so that those who are themselves oppressed may experience his powerful, redeeming love. This isn’t the kind of power that comes from stepping on others. The power of Jesus, manifest in the reign of Christ, is the power that emerges when the oppressed are set free. The power of freedom, of wholeness, of healing. Jesus’ power isn’t evidenced by pulling himself off the cross and saving himself, but in choosing to be the Oppressed One on the cross, losing his earthy life so that he can liberate all of us through his resurrection. That power is not selfish and privilege seeking; that power liberates and redeems.

Finally, as we pray together, we come to know the Glory which is this kingdom, this paradise extended to us through the unrelenting, unconditional love of Christ. Jesus extends redemption to the criminal who is hanging in the shame and guilt of his own life and reaches out not to demand or to mock, but to ask so simply: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The gift extended is paradise…the glory of life everlasting not down the road or far away, but today. “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.” The Glory is not what Jesus possess and flaunts. Glory is what we share…here, now, today…as the risen Body of Christ.

Christ the King whose reign is healing, forgiveness, redemption. Reign in our hearts, in our community, in our nation and in our whole world today. The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

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Prepared for Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Door Healing Service.  Friday, November 18, 2016.

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I breathe

I breathe today.

I wondered this morning what I would say to my daughter when she woke up, she who was jumping with joy to stand my my side voting for the first female U.S. President.  She dressed as a suffragette for Halloween, and at home, we have been studying together the history of the founding mothers who made it possible to have the right to vote, and to advocate in public arenas.  I hold as my spiritual and vocational matriarchs Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, Frances Perkins.  I thought of them.  I felt all the feelings that they too must have felt: anger, worry, uncertainty, determination.  I breathed in their strength for struggles of the past, struggles of the present, struggles yet to come.

I breathe today.

I have my personal political convictions, and I am grateful that I can express them.  I choose to deeply hold my faith in a non-partisan way because I believe that God is greater than any of our human politics or divisions.  I believe with unwavering certainty that Jesus always extended preferential treatment for the poor and oppressed, and that my deepest calling in life and ministry is to follow that example.  I am reminded on this post-election morning that this call is unchanged.  In fact, it has strengthened.  As a citizen, I am sad and I am angry, because I believe the country in which I live is now poised to make decisions that will hurt the poor, the marginalized, and the already disenfranchised.  So, my faith dictates that my advocacy be strengthened not around a candidate or party or ideology, but around this call to mercy and justice for those most at the margins.  I step into that call with renewed, prayerful commitment.

I breathe today.

This morning, my “to do” list seems irrelevant.  It is clear that I have places in my life and work where I have a voice that needs to be heard, and work that needs to be done.  My priority is to do that.  If I seem to not be so committed to projects without impact, it’s because I am.  Sorry if that hurts your feelings or leaves you with one less person on your committee to justify the existence of something insignificant.  I’m done with that.  Now is not the time to waste one moment.  It is the time to ready myself through prayer, study, immersion in community to do what has been my life-long calling: to join with and advocate for the poor, the oppressed, and those society would rather not see or hear.  We are joined together, all of us.  It has never been so important to be present with and for all people in this diverse and multi-faceted world in which we live.

I breathe today.

I’m aware that this breath of life which I have been given needs to be used and not wasted.  With it, I will speak and write and support and pray.  I am aware that at first I may seem to be more serious; less fun; smile less.  These are outward signs of an inward life committed to that which is greater than I am.  These will return, in time, because they are also a part of who I am.  But my first priority is to serve this call and commitment of my life.  Into the void of uncertainty, I breathe possibility.  My breath is not my own, but that which has been given to me to do the work to which I’ve been called to do.

I breathe today.

Join me.

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Making Room

A reflection for Proper 25, Year C

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Several years ago, I was invited to attend a conference at the very last minute.  I had just recently accepted a new position and knew that the rest of the people who would be attending were far more important, experienced, and well-known than I was.  But, since this national conference was happening here in Richmond and my colleague was coordinating it, I had a seat at this prestigious table.  So, on this particular morning, I found myself in the downstairs ballroom at The Jefferson, in a room filled with people I didn’t know.  I was feeling awkward, out of place, and my tendency toward introversion was NOT helping the situation.  I sat at a table where there were still several open chairs and occupied myself by reading through the conference program for the day.  I saw that right after lunch, the featured speaker was giving a talk on “vulnerability in professional life.”  I chuckled as I thought to myself: at least I know something about THAT.  In the midst of my self-absorbed thoughts of being out of place, out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman wearing jeans and a funky jacket (noticeably different than the crowd of dull-colored business suits) slowly descending the large, ornate staircase of the Jefferson.  She came halfway down, paused, looked around…then turned around and started to go back up the stairs.  Then she paused, came halfway down again, scanned the entire group and gathered herself together to walk down the stairs the rest of the way.  She started toward the first open seat she saw, which happened to be immediately to my left.  She whispered shyly, like I do when I’m nervous, “is anybody sitting here?” and I said, “You are!  Please join me!” rather relieved that someone other than me seemed to be feeling a little out of place.  It was only once we began talking that I realized that this nervous, seemingly out of place woman who came and sat next to me to share lunch was, in fact, the featured speaker that afternoon:  Brené Brown.

As it turns out, there had been a little glitch in communication.  It seemed that Brené had prepared for this speaking invitation assuming that she was speaking to a conference full of graduate STUDENTS, and not a room full of graduate program directors.  Her entire self-image shifted on that staircase as she…a famous scholar and public speaker about vulnerability…realized she was completely and utterly unprepared for and intimidated by this group. But, her humility (and she admitted to me, a prayer) brought her down the stairs instead of turning back around.  It was from that very real point of her own vulnerability that she found new meaning emerging in her own work that afternoon.  Her words and her presentation took on a whole new life.

In contrast to that transformative vulnerability, if there is one thing that I’ve seen way too much in recent weeks, it’s people who are full of themselves.  Whether politicians or publicists, it seems that we spend a great deal of time in this world listening to people talk a good game, find loopholes that benefit them, spin the situation to their advantage and tell their side of the story in a way that makes them come out looking shiny.  Exposing the truth of who really we, what we’ve actually done (or not done), and where our faults lie feels far too risky and dangerous…too vulnerable.  What quickly follows all of this inauthentic neediness is grasping to prove our worth in comparison with others.  So, what tends to happen is that the more we try to justify ourselves out of fear, the more we are tempted to put down others as less worthy so that in comparison, we look better.

I’ll let you draw your own inferences to people, politics, or situations who may resemble that scenario…

The parable Jesus relates places us in a similar scenario using ancient characters, but with these exact same themes we wrestle with in our contemporary lives.  It’s worth mentioning that today’s Gospel is attributed to Luke, the Evangelist and sharer of the Good News whose feast day we celebrated just a few days ago (October 18).  Luke’s desire…his call to discipleship…was to share and spread the good news of Jesus.  He was also educated…a Physician…and in Luke’s version of the Gospel we frequently hear emphasized the messages of hope and healing in Jesus’ life and ministry.  In today’s Gospel, I think of the way that Luke presents this parable of Jesus as a sort of “prescription” about the all-too-human temptation to justify ourselves, which is as relevant today as it was in Jesus’ time.  When we understand these two characters a bit historically there is great healing in the way this Gospel lesson breaks open for us as relevant to our lives today..

Before we even get to the characters, though, this story has a definite setting.  We are in the Temple, and two men (as it would be men at that time) have come up to the temple to pray.  This isn’t a random act; it is an act of intention conducted in a space of worship central to the shared religious life of these two people. This lesson as Jesus tells it takes place in the Temple…God’s house…or for us, it would be the faithful gathered at the Church.  This story doesn’t take place on a street-corner, or a political debate stage, or a University classroom, or the ballroom of a fancy hotel, or even in the middle of Monroe Park.  It takes place in a holy space, involving two people who have been drawn into the house of God for the purpose of communing with God.  The Temple was a designated space of prayer and worship.

The first person we meet in the temple is a Pharisee.  We hear a lot of mixed messages about Pharisees in Jesus’ teachings, but what we know from history and the Jewish culture is that the Pharisees were religious leaders who were respected, committed, law-abiding members of the community who were set apart to meticulously study the Torah and follow the law. So, in the Gospel narrative, we hear this particular Pharisee describe…clearly and precisely…just how law-abiding and respected he is.  In all likelihood, his actions were good and true.  He might be a great person worthy of our admiration.  But in his prayer…his connection with God…he almost seems to be instructing God about how respected and worthy he is, presuming that perhaps even God hasn’t paid close enough attention to his obvious worthiness.  He gives in to human arrogance; he uses this overly-pious opportunity to “give thanks” that he is better than other, specific groups.   Not only is it groups, though.  Into this place of prayer and worship, the Pharisee declares himself better than a specific person…THIS tax-collector…another follower of God who is also present in that same holy space to pray.

Now, it’s helpful to know that the tax-collectors of ancient Rome are not like employees of the IRS today.  Tax collectors were responsible for collecting the tax that was owed to Rome within their jurisdiction.  But, whatever money they collected beyond that was theirs to keep.  Tax-collectors were shrewd, deceitful, and sometimes bullying in order to insure not only Caesar got what belonged to Caesar, but that they made a hefty profit in the process.  The tax collector was likely wealthy, distrusted, and even despised.  He may even not have been a nice guy.  But, in this parable we don’t hear him singing his own praises or trying to justify his actions.  We hear an entirely different prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It could be tempting to read this parable and think about which of these characters we are most like and, with reverse irony, think of ourselves as better than the one who is self-righteous.  But, if we’re honest, it’s more likely that we see a bit of ourselves in each of these characters…each one of us has a bit of Pharisee and tax collector in the mix.  If we listen instead to the words…the prayers…of each of these two characters, we hear that there is something else happening altogether.  The words of the Pharisee are already full of himself; there is no room for the other, and no room for God.  This is a prayer justifying his own self-determined worthiness.  Does God need our worthiness?  Our piety?  Our money?   Is the kind of worth that we justify to defend our goodness even of importance in the economy of God?  The second character…the despised tax-collector…is praying in an entirely different way.  He has emptied himself of a sense of personal or wordly worthiness, and is asking instead to be filled with God’s mercy.

Where, in our moments of self-righteousness and justification or in our moment of falling short of the goodness we should show toward others, is there room for God’s mercy?  If we are convinced of our own worthiness, what do we have left to offer up to God’s grace?  But when we stand before the God who made us, acknowledging our vulnerability, we open ourselves to the possibility of divine mercy and grace.  The central question of this parable isn’t “who is the better person?” but “how do we make room for God?”

The answer Jesus gives is the healing prescription offered to us by Luke:  by making ourselves vulnerable, we can make room for the transforming and redeeming mercy and love that can be offered only from God.  “All who exult themselves shall be humbled; and all those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”  That is the stuff of transformation, of real soul-level change where we begin to see ourselves as part of the economy of God and the Body of Christ, instead of justifying our individual worth.  We come to understand that God is for US…all of us.  Not just for me, and certainly not more for me than for any other person.  God is with us, and for us, and only in God we are made whole.  Of the two characters, it is the tax-collector who goes home (in this translation) “justified” but this is a place where I turn to the ancient Greek for a better sense of the original context of that word.  In original translation, he goes down from the Temple to his home where he is δικαιόω (dikaioó), “shown to be righteous.”  The person who others once saw as despised now bears witness to the God-given righteousness with which he has been filled.

Being brought into right-alignment with the love and mercy of God requires us to make room.  And there is no place like this place…the Church…where we can open our hearts and make room for that transforming mercy and love.  As this parable begins, our story comes full circle today as well:  we come together in God’s house to pray.  As Jesus shows us through this parable, it is when we make room for God that we are able to receive that abundant mercy which transforms us and moves us to right alignment with God.  This is the humility through which we are exalted.  Together, we pray.  Together, we make room to open to God’s mercy.  And together, we leave healed, transformed, and whole…shown to be righteous, exalted even in the midst of our humble vulnerability through the transforming power of God’s mercy.

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Homily prepared for Episcopal Campus Ministry “Port of Grace” Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA).  October 23, 2016

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Made Well

A Reflection for Proper 23, Year C

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

Every time I read one the stories of Jesus’ healing, it seems like I find another gem of truth that helps me understand a bit more what it truly means to be made well.  Today’s Gospel is no exception.  I’ve probably heard or read this story of Jesus’ life and ministry a dozen times (or more!) but this week, as I read and prayed and studied, I began to understand a bit more fully about these experiences of being well and learning to give thanks, as Luke presents it to us in his Gospel.  So, let’s walk together through that story and see what healing and hope is offered in this Gospel passage.

First of all, I had to lose some of my own baggage, since I remember this story being used as a manners lesson when I was growing up, as in “why it’s important to say thank you and not be ungrateful.”  I don’t disagree…that’s a really good way to live our lives.  But there is something more happening here that it could be very easy to overlook if we are only focusing on the outward manifestation of politeness, instead of something much more transformative.

We begin with Jesus traveling from village to village between Samaria and Galilee.  Now, you may recall from hearing some other stories like “The Good Samaritan” that in the culture of the times, Samaritans were not highly regarded.  Then, as now, those with power and influence in Jesus’ own cultural group had a tendency to put down other groups, dismissing them as less worthy, less “correct” in their religious beliefs and practices, less deserving.  Being labelled “a Samaritan” meant being judged not by the quality of one’s whole human being, but by the group to which one belonged.  We can bring this story into our own, every reality by replacing “Samaritan” with any group to which we feel we have been labelled and assigned, or when what we are is more important than who we are.  Today we might call this discrimination, and understand their social outcast status as oppression.  But, another group also had this distinction of being outcasts: those who experienced the skin condition referred to in the Bible as “Leprosy” which today we know and treat as a specific condition, Hanson’s disease.  But, without our modern diagnosis and treatment capabilities, it meant that people who experienced a disabling condition which caused their skin to be filled with sores and places of peeling away were made to be social outcasts in their suffering since they were placed outside the gates of the village, believed to be too contagious to live in society.  So, we begin to get a different picture of this village into which Jesus is walking:  outcast, oppressed people standing on the margins who call out to Jesus as he passes for “mercy” (ἐλεέω, “eleeó”) which is closer to our contemporary words for “pity” or “compassion.”  The social outcasts call out for pity, for compassion in whatever means of basic support Jesus can offer.

What Jesus offers them could sound dismissive, “Go and show yourself to the priests.”  But at that time, it wasn’t a physician that could pronounce a leper clean; it was the temple priests.  So, Jesus’ exhortation to those at the gate is to leave the state of sickness and pity, and go to the priests to be declared well.  He essentially responds to the request for pity, with an offering of wholeness.  One of the overlooked miracles in this story is that they heard his words as a promise; they believed; and they went.  The passage tells us that as they went, they were made clean.  What a transformation: those who were outcasts, suffering, calling out for pity were presented with the possibility of being whole.  They follow, they believe, and with each step of their journey they were made clean.  It wasn’t an instant cure, a perfect “fix.”  Like each one of us, they were invited to make a journey of seeing themselves transformed from a state of pity, to a state of wellness.  Each person healed took action.

The Gospel lesson shifts to one of these former lepers, the one who returns to Jesus.  Unlike those whose journey took them all the way to the temple priests to be declared well, one person sees himself as healed…transformed…by the action of healing compassion that Jesus has enacted.  His response is not to move toward those who could outwardly recognize and “declare”that healing to have taken place.  Instead, he turns back, toward the one who has offered healing and compassion.  We hear in Luke’s Gospel that he stopped to thank God in a loud voice, then humbled himself by lying prostrate at Jesus’ feet, recognizing Jesus to be that agent of divine compassion who had bestowed healing.  Jesus sees both the irony and the beauty of this act of faith by the one who experiences the most oppression, the double-jeopardy, the greatest sense of being an outcast.  What Jesus pronounces is a truth that speaks to us, even thousands of years later: Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

The truth is that when we encounter God, we are already transformed.  We are already healed beyond that which human eyes can recognize.  If we are seeking approval of our healing from human hands, we know the places to go for that and we can go there.  But when we seek to be transformed by divine compassion, the response modeled by today’s Gospel is to turn toward God and give our thanks from the depths of our heart and soul.

One of the pearls of wisdom I uncovered from studying this text this week is that the greek word for “Giving Thanks” shown by the leper who is transformed, as he turns toward Jesus, is εὐχαριστέω, “eucharisteó.”  That might sound familiar…it is the same root as “Holy Eucharist” or as we sometimes rightly call it, “The Great Thanksgiving.”  The transformation offered through Jesus Christ offers to us the possibility of awareness of who we are, how we have been moved from pity to wellness, and how in the very act of humbly offering our thanks to the Almighty God we take in the depths of true transformation not only of body, but of mind and spirit as well.

Jesus says to the man, “Get up, and go on your way.  Your faith has made you well.” Receive the gift of those words in your own life today, as we pray for healing and give our thanks to God today.

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Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Door Healing Service. Friday, October 7, 2016.

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Crossing the Chasm

A reflection for Proper 21, year C

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

There are so many chasms that divide us in this world.  At times, it seems like we are being pulled further and further apart from each other.  It can be very tempting to fall into the illusion that “once upon a time” there was a perfect world without injustice, where we all were one happy family.  Somehow, in our illusion of that imaginary used-to-be-perfect world, we think that others had it better “back then” than we do now.  In 2016, it seems that the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.  It seems that there are not just dividing lines but huge chasms between the “haves” and the “have nots” or perhaps between Democrats and Republicans, progressives and liberals, Black and White, men and women, young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor: the list of what divides us goes on, and on, and on.  In 2016, its easy for us to draw boxes around groups of which we are not a part and think of “them” as “the other” who are for some reason less worthy.  But, Jesus breaks that illusion of the Good Old Days by bringing us into a story from another time…and another realm…where those chasms are still real, and made visible.  In this parable Jesus paints a vivid picture of the chasms that divide us so that we can then be offered a glimpse into the possibility of another world.

Whenever we find ourselves on the outside of the box of privilege or labelled as someone else’s version of “the unworthy other,” we can relate profoundly to Lazarus, the poor man sitting outside the gate.  In fact, I think perhaps Jesus gives us the vivid detail of how horrible it feels to be the one who is outside the gate precisely because he himself knows how dehumanizing it can feel to be the one who is rejected: “And at [the rich man’s] gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”  In contrast, Jesus also gives us a picture of the rich man: dressed in fine clothes, having the best of everything, eating sumptuous food every day.  We’d probably see that rich man today, looking back at us from the covers of entertainment magazines, glorifying the lifestyle of the rich and famous that so many people are trying to achieve.

But, to what end?

The picture that Jesus paints about the chasm that divides us was as familiar to that crowd 2,000 years ago as it is to us today.  Then, as it is now, there are are chasms that divide us in this world which seem unable to be crossed.  But the question Jesus holds out for his hearers…then and now…is whether there is a way to bridge that divide.

In Jesus’ parable, he tells us clearly how NOT to try to bridge the divide.  Specifically, we can’t expect that someone else can be commanded to do it for us.  Even in a tormented afterlife, the rich man doesn’t really “see” Lazarus.  He just assigns Lazarus to the same role, the same box he always has: a servant, someone to be sent to fetch a drop of water to cool his tongue.  The Rich Man tries to align himself with the all powerful Father, thinking that power and entitlement will save him.  But God, the divine protector that Jesus holds out in the image of Father Abraham says:

“Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

One might think that the rich man would have a moment of clarity at this point.  But, instead he once again fails to recognize the beloved child of Lazarus and continues to see him…as I might say, to “other him” as a servant who he thinks should leave his reward in heaven to come back to earth to save the rich man’s family.  Again, Father Abraham intervenes:

“Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

What stands out to me is the invitation to humility.  Crossing the chasm means that we think less about ourselves, and more about whoever is on the other side.  Crossing the chasm is to know, to listen, to take in the messages of the people and prophets of this world who bring a message of healing, hope, and reconciliation.  The chasm that is fixed between us exists because we persist in keeping some group as “the other” and assuming that we have some exclusivity with God to which that group is not entitled to.  Jesus paints a completely different picture:  all people have the same belovedness; the same prophets; the same stories; all of us are beloved and have the choice to recognize the belovedness in each other.  When we are blind to the belovedness of others, as God sees us, we are fixed only on the chasm that separates us.  When we embrace the humility of our common humanity, as Jesus does, we begin to glimpse his vision for a new world.

In his life and ministry, Jesus crosses that chasm of difference repeatedly.  That chasm is crossed at the moment of his birth, in the very moments of the incarnation of God becoming human and entering the world in the most humble of beginnings, in a manger…a feeding trough…amid animals, people, and without a place to call home.  Already in the stories of Jesus’ ministry that we’ve been sharing together over these past several weeks he eats with sinner and tax-collectors; he heals those who haven’t even the strength to ask; he invests in the lost sheep so that the community can be returned to fullness.  Jesus lives into a pattern of seeing the belovedness in every human being, and in his death and resurrection he crosses that chasm once and for all, joining all of us to be, together, the Body of Christ in the world.

How do we cross the chasms we encounter in our lives?  We choose to see and recognize that we are all named, and loved, and beloved.  Jesus extends himself as a bridge, creating community to all of us…ALL OF US without exception.  There are no chasms in the boundless love of God.  And there are no chasms when we join as one in Christ, recognizing the belovedness of each other as members together in the Body of Christ.

Closing Prayer: (Book of Common Prayer, p. 815)

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.

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Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Door Service

(Friday, September 23 2016)

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Choose Wisely

A Reflection for Proper 20, Year C

Luke 16:1-13

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?’ He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

A very good friend of mine is going blind.  I have known this for some time; in fact, I’ve known it for as long as I have known her.  But this week, she wrote an incredibly moving blog post where she openly talked about what it is like slowly but steadily losing her sight. The reality of her vision loss has become more poignant to her in recent weeks, ever since she realized that it is no longer safe for her to drive her car.  She made a choice to learn how to take the bus, to trust strangers to help her navigate the system’s unpredictability and route changes and how to manage stops and transfers that rely heavily on sight.  My dear friend, Ruth, is a brilliant and heartfelt writer.  She also works as a parish administrator at a local church, a church where I served for many years.  Most importantly, she is a friend and a group leader and trusted confidant to countless people that she encounters every day on the phone, over email, or walking into the office.  She knows, seemingly intuitively, when laughter will diffuse a strained situation or when to offer tissues or a hug to someone who simply needs to be heard.  She loves everyone, because she chooses to see God’s love reflected in them.  She is not only a person who is going blind, but one who sees…truly sees…more than anyone else I know.

I read Ruth’s blog post this week during time I had set aside to prepare today’s reflection.  I had been sitting with, studying, and praying over this week’s Gospel lesson, opening my heart to how this parable of Jesus…which is puzzling, in many ways…breaks open to share Good News with us this week.  But, my mind couldn’t settle on a direction for my reflection.  You could say I took a break, or perhaps more accurately, I leaned into the nudge of the Holy Spirit that I felt when I saw that Ruth had written a blog post.  I read her words, and I began to feel tears of love and joy in my own eyes as I saw her own beautiful spirit reflected in the words and stories she had dictated to her computer so that others could read them.  The words that she wrote are what opened my own eyes to this week’s Gospel in a new way.  She said:

“If there is one lesson I can teach people from this process that seems to become a new normal each day, it is this: there is a greater purpose in this life than the things that keep us busy in our minds each day. There is a greater purpose in this life than the things that keep us distracted in our minds everyday. There is a greater purpose in the effects of our lives on this world.”

You see, Ruth has been given the gift of seeing clearly in ways that have nothing to do with her eyes.  She could choose to be angry, bitter, worried, preoccupied with trying to find ways to “get by” or to disclose from those she loves how she really feels, or what she is experiencing.  But, she makes a different, wiser choice.  She places her confidence in the greater purpose of living for the common good, of sharing the love of Jesus Christ with the world, instead of trying to grasp for and protect what is her own.  She tells beautiful stories in her blog post of the people who recently took the time to help her .  She recognizes and thanks them by name because through them she experiences the kindness of strangers in whom she sees…truly and clearly sees…God. I know Ruth, so I have to believe that the life of every person she encounters is equally transformed by her, as she allows the love of Jesus Christ to be present through her in the everyday ups and downs of this journey of life.  I know our friendship has transformed me, as the love of God flows through her.

In the Gospel text we read today, Jesus offers up a parable about choosing wisely.  He tells a story about living life in selfish shrewdness to try to be sure we get what we believe should be ours, or living life for the greater good where we share in God’s abundance.  We all know people and circumstances where taking care of ourselves, “taking what is rightfully ours” or cutting corners to the truth to turn a profit seem like reasonable actions in a dishonest world.  And perhaps at face value they are.  The wealth and power we acquire through dishonesty may feel good…really good…for a short while.  But, the advantages we gain through stepping on others to get ahead doesn’t fill the gaping hole in our souls which is searching for something more real, more meaningful, and more lasting.  That is a God-shaped hole that there is only one way to fill: by our earnest desire to open to God and experience the unconditional love and grace that can only come from One who is greater than we are, and greater than the situations that seem to define us.

What Jesus knows is what my friend Ruth knows, too: the wise choice is opening to the possibilities of how our lives can be used for God, rather than taking a path of selfish greed, or pride, or self-pity.   Sometimes we are treated unfairly; sometimes the situations in life in which we find ourselves truly aren’t fair, or equitable, or right.  Jesus knows this, profoundly.  Jesus recognizes that when we are confronted with this very real unfairness in the world, we have a choice.  We can manipulate the situation in every way we know how to try to get ahead.  That path is chosen by those who are rich and poor alike.  Serving wealth is a great temptation at all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.  We might even succeed in our deceptions; we might even get ahead, and earn street cred for being shrewd.  But, that path does nothing for the greater good.

Jesus offers up an alternative to being enslaved to this pattern of seeking wealth while turning a blind eye to the world, to the value and belovedness of the people who surround us.  Jesus offers us an entirely different route of serving God, where we realize that inequity exists, we understand that life isn’t fair, we speak our truth without deception and we still know that we are beloved of God and we are a part of God’s beloved community with others whose lives touch our own.  Living into that God-shaped reality means that the love which fills us connects us to others and allows our lives to be lived out in that heavenly, abundant love echoing into the world where people least expect it.  Love can be the active force that changes people, changes policies, changes systems that are enslaved to dishonesty and fear.  Loving as we are loved is an active choice.  God’s active relationship with God’s people emerges through love.  When we serve the God of Love there is, as my friend Ruth says, a greater purpose in the effects of our lives on this world.  That wise choice…the choice of who we serve…makes all the difference.

Choose wisely.  Choose love.  Choose God.

Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Door Service (Friday, September 16, 2016)

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Precious

A Reflection for Proper 19, Year C

Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

When I was working as a grief counselor, I had a poem hanging on my wall that was written by a grieving parent whose child had died.  It was a beautiful poem in many ways, but the reason why I liked it so much was because of the last line:  “Life can be the same after a trinket is lost, but never the same after the loss of a treasure.”  I shared those words with the grieving people who would sit with me, pouring out their hearts and stories.   Well meaning people would tell them to “move on” or worse, to “get over it.”  They knew this was impossible, but they didn’t want to remain stuck in the overwhelming pain of their grief, either.  Often they would share so much depth of love and detail with me that I could imagine their beloved right there in our midst.  It was clear to me how the lives of my clients had been changed forever by the relationship that they shared.  It was also apparent to me that the magnitude of their loss in those moments of intense grieving had to do with the immense amount of love that they shared.  Over time, our counseling sessions would shift from the intensity of loss itself, to the realization that love continued on even in the midst of loss.  After several years of offering support to the grieving, I began realizing deep in my own soul that the real work of grief is to re-discover the love that is still there, a hidden treasure in the midst of the pain. I began to reclaim the hidden lessons of love that stemmed from my own losses, too.  Most importantly, I began to understand the source of that deep, abiding love as God.

Love is too precious to be lost, even in death.

In our Gospel lesson this week, Jesus takes up this same role of counselor with those he is teaching.  The people who have drawn near to him, we are told, were those that society really didn’t want much to do with:  sinners, outcasts, tax-collectors.  The church leaders of the time…those with more power and authority…are also there in his midst, grumbling and complaining.  They are skeptical of the company that Jesus is keeping, making assumptions about the value and worth of those human beings and what that means for Jesus’ own merit.  But, to all of these people who are gathered around him:  the sinners, the outcasts, and even the self-righteous complainers….Jesus offers up these two parables.  These two stories are gifts that help us see more clearly and know more fully about the vastness of God’s love for God’s people.

In the first parable, Jesus uses a metaphor of sheep to show us how God shepherds us, finds us, and carries us even when have wondered off.  Now, it helps here if we know a little something about sheep.  Sheep are gregarious, social animals that are hard-wired to follow the leader and stick together.  Every one of their instincts tells them to follow the herd and keep their safety in numbers.  A lost sheep cannot cry out for help and they are not accustomed to feeling alone or vulnerable.  In fact, a sheep that is separated from its flock often becomes so fearful and anxious and out-of-sorts that it will lie down paralyzed with fear, making itself even more vulnerable to prey.  The sheep has no natural ability to save itself.  So, here we have a shepherd with a flock of 100 who notices that one sheep is missing.  The shepherd knows that sheep can do nothing to save itself.  But, the shepherd also knows that the 99 remaining sheep are a protective community for each other.  The piece in this parable that we sometimes miss is that the Good Shepherd is not abandoning the 99 to retrieve one.  The shepherd is entrusting the flock to protect each other while the one missing sheep is sought out and returned.  Once returned, the community is at its fullness again.

What does that say to us about how Jesus, our Good Shepherd, bestows love on us as individuals, and as beloved community?  I’ll let you think on that for a moment.

In the next parable, we have a woman looking for a lost coin.  We don’t know much about this woman, but we do know that a tenth of all the money she had has gone missing.  That lack of money that we were depending on is a feeling most of us can relate to.  And so, she searches…she lights up the dark corners; she sweeps out the cobwebs that get in the way of seeing her treasure.  She puts all her energy into finding that last coin.  I love what happens next, though.  When she finds the coin, she doesn’t horde it away so that she will never lose it again.  She calls her friends and neighbors and invites them to celebrate with her.  Because of that outward expression of her inward joy, she extends joy to the whole community.

In both of these parables, joy is found when full community is restored.  In both of these parables, it is God who searches, who finds, who loves, who restores. We celebrate the love that remains, the precious treasure of divine love and grace that makes us, as the whole of God’s church, so much greater than any of us are alone.

God sees the precious treasure in each one of you, and God rejoices in the precious treasure that is ALL OF US…the Church, the people of God.  There is no corner too dark that God’s light cannot enlighten us.  There are no cobwebs so thick that they cannot be brushed away to reveal the treasure God sees in us.  Even death cannot separate us from the transforming love of God.  Today, we are reminded that there is no fear or loneliness that can stand in the way of God’s profound desire to carry us back into community.  And this community…God’s beloved community…rejoices whenever you are here.

Take a few moments today to let that love sink in, exactly where you are.  God will find you there.

 

[Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Friday September 9 2016 (Red Door Service)]

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Where the journey leads

A Reflection for Proper 18, Year C

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

 

Many of us plan and mark the time in our lives with a calendar. At any given time in the Episcopal Church, there are actually three calendars operating at once. There is the standard calendar of events where we keep a rhythm of what happens when: Holy Eucharist on Sundays, our Red Door lunch and prayer service here on Fridays, various parish events in between. Then, there is something we call the “liturgical calendar” in which we walk through the cycle of preparing for and celebrating Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension and living out the life of the Church with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the season following. But, all the while this standard time and liturgical time is happening, there is also a calendar in motion that helps us remember the lives and ministries of the ordinary yet extraordinary people whose lives as saints, martyrs, and disciples offer us wisdom, insight, and examples of discipleship. This calendar of saints (or what we officially call a “sanctoral” calendar) reminds us of the Great Cloud of Witnesses who have lived with the depths of their souls into their lives of faith. They are those whose stories we look to for the lessons about how to live deeply, authentically, and boldly as disciples and followers of Christ. They are the role-models who do exactly what Jesus describes in this Gospel: they emerge from the interested but distant crowd to walk the walk with Jesus Christ as his disciples.

Today, I want to tell you the story of a disciple who we recently celebrated on that calendar of saints. This story begins in 1939, when Jonathan Daniels was born in New Hampshire. Jonathan was a regular guy, the oldest of two children whose father was a Physician. After high school, he moved south and attended Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia. He was kind of a misfit there at first, but eventually earned the deep respect of his colleagues. He wrestled with the pull in his soul toward ministry, something that had been with him since high school. After he graduated from VMI, he continued to postpone that sense of call and began formal studies in English literature. In the spring of 1962, following the death of his father and while attending Easter services at the Church of the Advent in Boston, he described himself as experiencing a renewal of God’s grace and felt a deepening call to study for priesthood. He began attending the Episcopal  Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fall of 1963, expecting to graduate in the spring of 1966. In March 1965, as Jonathan was entering the final year of his studies, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reached out to seminary students and others to join him in Selma, Alabama, for a march to the state capital in Montgomery demonstrating support for his civil rights program.  Jonathan received that invitation, and felt compelled to join this struggle for justice.  His family begged him not to go. He went anyhow.

He and others left on Thursday for Selma, intending to stay only that weekend; but he and a friend missed the bus back. During those extra hours, they thought about what it must feel like for the people who lived in Selma to watch people come and go; they decided to stay on for whatever was in store, asking for that whole term off away from their seminary studies to devote to civil rights work. Now, none of the stories I read talked about how Jonathan’s professors viewed that decision, but speaking as a faculty member I think its fair to guess that it’s very likely there were some dissenters among his mentors, in spite of his good intentions. He stayed anyhow. His time in the South was spent integrating churches, often walking with people…and especially youth…Sunday after Sunday to insure that whether they were Black or white, they had a safe journey and were given a place in God’s church. Even in Church, people scowled and resisted integration. He walked, sat, prayed and worshipped with his friends and neighbors anyhow.

Jonathan’s diaries and writings show that these actions of justice, mercy, Christian love and radical hospitality deepened his call to discipleship, “…I lost my fear when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God…With black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfills and “ends” all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.”

That entry was written just a few days before Jonathan, escorting several high school youth between school and church, was approached by a man with shotgun who threatened one of the girls he was escorting. Jonathan pushed her out of the way, stepping into the line of fire. He died from that shotgun blast in Alabama on August 20, 1965.

The Episcopal Church regards Jonathan Myrick Daniels as one of our “Great Cloud of Witnesses”…the saints, martyrs, servants of God who give us real stories and living witnesses of the kind of discipleship that Jesus speaks of.   The reason why I’m sharing his story today is not to tell a tale of how his life ended. My appreciation for Jonathan…the way in which I am inspired by him…has to do with the way he lived out the journey of his life as he followed the calling deeply into his vocation. When I read his diaries, I hear someone who is being continually changed by prayer. He kept living more deeply into his convictions; he kept listening to the yearning for justice; he said yes to experiences that led him to prayerful, committed action within a community experiencing oppression. Jonathan’s life was changed not because of one decision on one day, but because of his repeated decisions to remain in prayer; to stay in community; to allow mercy and justice to overcome fear; to advocate with people with whom he shared dignity and respect because he saw Christ in them. His life is a witness in its living, and his death was not an end but a testament to mercy and justice that continues to inspire us today. In giving up his own time, his own comfort, his own community, his own self-preservation and self-importance…in giving up all that he had, mercy and justice and life prevailed. In this story…even in his death…life was opened up for that young woman, Ruby Sales, whose life was spared. Ruby herself has herself become a world-changing civil rights advocate, tireless in her struggle to continue the work of mercy and justice. When we are disciples, the picture is always larger than we are.

When I think about Jonathan Daniels, I am able to hear Jesus’ words about discipleship in today’s Gospel. This Gospel doesn’t paint a rose-colored picture of being a disciple; it speaks of what we give up and how deeply our “yes” must resound. It also reminds us that being a disciple is a journey which will unfold, and may have a far greater impact than we realize. We don’t know when the kind word we offer or the prayer we extend touches a life, and changes it. We don’t know how others will respond to us. Like Jonathan, we don’t know how the story ends and how our story may be told and retold in years to come. But, we do know that our lives can all have a place in the living out of the Christian story. In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks us to step with him into the unknown, placing our hand with his on the same cross that he himself carries. Just as Jonathan began to lose his fear, we begin to lose ours. It isn’t because everything is going to be ok all of the time. It is because everything we do, every step we walk, every situation we encounter is in community with those who have gone before us, and with Jesus Christ himself who has taken on the road of the cross so that we never, ever need to walk that path alone.

In today’s text, Jesus speaks openly of possessions because he realizes that something will always posses us: the pressures of family, the fear of the unknown, our quest for self-preservation, the drive for prosperity or to do what the world tells us that we ought to do. Jesus gives us a challenge today: to wholeheartedly follow our call to be the disciples who walk the road of this Christian life together with him. He reminds us that when we begin to let go of what we cling to, we learn to experience the love of Christ more and more. It can seem like discipleship costs us everything. But as ordinary, extraordinary disciples like Jonathan show us…the world is changed when we let go of what we have so that Christ can work through us, transforming us and through us, transforming this world that is so deeply in need of mercy, justice, hope, and love.

In giving ourselves, wholly…in Christ, we are made whole.

Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church: Friday September 2, 2016 (Red Door Healing Service)

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Icon of Jonathan Myrick Daniels by Mark Friesland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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