Transitional

I’ve been a full-time professor for over a dozen years now and a social worker for more than twice that long.  And yet, three months into being a transitional deacon, that title feels like a forever friend.

I am transitional.

I have been given that title in my church life for a specific reason: I have been called to, affirmed as, and in educational and spiritual formation for ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church.  Priests in this church are first (and always) ordained as deacons, signifying the role of servant which forms the basis of any call to ordained ministry.  For those of us who will inhabit this space for a time, our position is referenced as “transitional” which originated at some point, I would presume, from the practical need to differentiate the trajectory of the transitional deacon from those who will inhabit this space as the primacy of their call as vocational deacons.

We are all deacons.  But, I am transitional.

I wear that title, transitional, with a different intention these days.  For me, being a deacon means inhabiting a space of transition.  The two will be forever linked in my mind.  I am not passing through, or waiting until, or biding my time.

Being transitional is my place of repose.

Today, I write from the beauty of the space that I occupy when I am being fully present to my call.  With some irony, I will let those of you who read this know that the space I most often occupy as transitional deacon is the columbarium chapel in the parish where I serve, which we have named, “The Chapel of the Resurrection.”  It gives an all new meaning to my place of repose.  But, it is really a place between.  I can step into this space from the church, which I often do in the mornings when I walk in the back door by the parking lot, through the dimly lit hallways and into this chapel where I will speak or chant morning prayer, whether alone or with others.  If I arrive before the sexton, I’m also the one to open the doors of that chapel from the inside, pushing them out onto the sidewalk facing the public park.  I hang out the sign that says “Open for Prayer” and fill baskets with winter items to place at the edge of the sidewalk, a gift of common humanity, love and warmth.  But those chapel doors can be entered from the street, too, opening up the church to the needs of the world.

Inside the chapel, I have been growing paperwhites which are reaching the close of their season, and the altar guild maintains a hanging vase of fresh flowers which they refill each week.  The world has access to a place to sit, to warm from the cold or cool from the heat, to kneel in prayer, to read the psalms from our prayer book, to reflect on pictures and poems which I rotate through the space…right now, it is a poem from Mary Oliver.

On the resting bench in that chapel, there is a small wooden box on which I have written, “Prayers and Hopes” and set some index cards and a pen next to it.  No one used it for a long time, although I check it every day so I can pray for those who wish me to.  Then, someone wrote a card and asked for healing for their wife.  And another, a request for a child.  Then others, for specific people and situations, began to appear regularly.  I write a little acknowledgement on each, signed “Deacon Sarah” that reminds them someone is holding space for them and for the longings of their heart.  I never know who comes, or comes back.  But the reminder is there, if they seek it.  I sit with each one, and sometimes linger in my prayerful consideration of the unknown writer who has sought refuge in this place of repose.  This is especially true of the one that was there today.  Unsigned, the quiet longings of a heart seeking relief, and grace, and God.

In transition, I pray for you.

When my prayers conclude…whether morning, noonday or evening…only then do I consider where I go from my time and place of repose.  I may walk into the church if there is work to do, or liturgy to attend to, or a meeting, or sermon writing calling my name.  I may walk out to the street and to my professorial duties if it is my university academic life that beckons me to teach, or write, or mentor, or lead.  Eventually, I will be called out from this place.  This, I know.  And I will move from being transitional to being The Next Thing, whatever that is.

But that will be then.

For now, I am transitional.

And, I pray.

00100dPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20190207125558085_COVER

 

 

Posted in work and life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bearing Witness to Love

Homily Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
February 4, 2019

Lectionary Readings

Love is in our lectionary today, just as we flip over our cultural calendar into a month where another kind of love is in the air.  It’s fascinating to me how the minor feast day of St. Valentine, a martyred third century Roman priest, has become the cultural festival of romantic love.  We have become infatuated with the idea that paper hearts, cards, flowers and candy are the ways one demonstrates love.  The angelic tongues of music and poetry express our human affections; we wax poetic and prophetic about which romances may indeed give us a glimpse of our supposed soul-mate; if we find ourselves single we may ponder the mysteries of true love, or profess faith that one day our beloved and we shall indeed find each other.  Or, we just check out and write it all off as childishness.  But today’s Epistle makes it exquisitely clear that life as the Church isn’t about candy-heart kind of love.  It’s about an entirely different and transforming kind of love.  And that is the kind of love that lands us squarely inside our Gospel reading today.

We’re dropped right in the middle of a story of Jesus’ ministry which began with last week’s lesson.  So, let’s recap.  Jesus goes to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, unrolls the scroll to the portion of the scriptures to be read from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims:

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

After some short-lived praise for his gracious delivery of Isaiah’s prophecy, the hometown crowd quickly deteriorates to nervousness, discomfort and then outright hostility as Jesus challenges their assumptions and makes it known that prophecy is being fulfilled in their midst.  Soon he’s getting run out of town, practically meeting his early demise being chased off a cliff.

It’s the preacher’s dilemma: bearing witness to God’s Love can be a dangerous thing.

Preacher Paul (the Apostle) was also wrestling with Love while writing to the Church in Corinth. Today, we hear him speaking to the cultural experience of love in their own vernacular which stood in sharp contrast to the life-altering conversion he had come to know in the love of Christ.  Christians in Corinth were living in a Roman occupied and rebuilt Greek city, bringing the cultural and religious practices of two distinctly different philosophical traditions into play even as they were trying to figure out how to live together in community following the Way of Christ.  There were big identity questions facing the Corinthians, as well as opposing viewpoints about which practices were allowable and aligned with this new way of being together in Christ.  There’s a lot of sorting that out in Paul’s Epistles.  In the midst of that is this incredible passage which reveals the character of Paul as pastor and preacher, drawing people from their divisions back to one central theme which he learned in his own conversion.  That theme is LOVE.

Paul took up the preacher’s dilemma and reminded the people of Corinth that the human ways we struggle and strive to feel special, to feel we belong, to assuage our longings, jealousy and selfishness is not the same kind of Love which God has shown to us. God’s love is eternal, not temporal.  It is about commitment, not sentiment.  It doesn’t belong to me more than you.  It doesn’t love me more than you.  It isn’t arrogant, or rude, or envious or insistent.  Love isn’t selfish or even self-serving.  Love…the Love of God…is focused on seeking and serving God the other, undoing the prideful and arrogant nature of our human grasping and fear.  God shows us, as Paul reminds the Church in Corinth, that divine Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  Love, which is God, never fails to expand our hearts or stretch our imaginations.

Jesus took up the preacher’s dilemma in his hometown of Nazareth.  His friends and neighbors gathered in the synagogue wanted to hear about human love and hometown privilege: they wanted to be pointed out as the favorites, the special ones.  Instead, Jesus delivered a message of revolutionary and transformational love: Love that frees the imprisoned, that upends the status quo and breaks the bonds of oppression.  Love that makes the blind to see…whether the literal eyes of St. Paul or the figurative eyes of our hearts, even today.  Jesus preaches good news to his own people…then and now…reminding us that we are beloved and so is everyone else, including people we like and people we don’t,  as well as people who belong to groups we consider to be poor, outcast, undesirable and marginalized.  Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that day in the midst of the hometown crowd wasn’t sentimental flattery to puff up the chosen few, but good news for the whole world.  Even 2,000 years later.  Even today.  Even to us.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus stood here today in the midst of this hometown crowd: His Church.  If Jesus were to unroll that ancient scroll and speak these prophetic words to us, would the sounding brass of cynicism or the clanging cymbals of divisive ideology make us quick to try to dismiss his divinity, or to downplay the message of good news to the poor?  Or, would we take the risk to step into the fullness of that love…to deeply listen, and hear, and respond with open hearts and courageous wills to what that divine, transforming love calls us to do?

Rejecting the messenger is a short-sited attempt to bind up the message.  But the Good News of transformative, divine love has a way of continuing to emerge.  It emerges through Jesus’ life and ministry, and his death and resurrection.  It emerges through the conversion of St. Paul and again in the words from Paul to the church in Corinth.  It emerges through centuries of saints, prophets, priests, martyrs and regular, everyday folk among our Great Cloud of Witnesses who set about to live fully in the love of Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons.  Think about the good news of the Way of Love which permeated the fairy tale setting of the royal romance of Meghan and Harry through the sermon preached by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Consider how we liberate love when we embrace the challenges of living as church together in this community through the mission and ministry we gather to hear about today in our annual meeting.  Most of all, draw near to the profound love we experience in the Body of Blood of Christ we receive with outstretched hands, bringing us together across context, time, and place into the presence of Christ no matter who we are or where we come from.  It is powerful love, y’all.  This kind of divine love can heal our divided world in ways we can only begin to imagine.

Bearing witness to divine Love can be a dangerous thing.  It was for Jesus, and it was for Paul.  And I’ll take up the preacher’s dilemma today and remind us that Love isn’t arrogant or boastful or envious or rude…if we’re living with those things as our companions, we’re not living in the Love of God.  God’s Love persists even when we mess things up.  God’s love persists even when our human leaders fail miserably.  God’s Love persists in spite of the racism and sexism and classism and ableism that create structural barriers to seeing each other as full human beings.  We only have each other in this world in which to see the image and reflection of God.  We can try to bind up that message, or blame the messengers.  But we’re only fooling ourselves.

But even when we fail to live into the fullness of that love…and this week has surely provided evidence of that failure…there is still Love, because God is Love.  Love that frees the captives and breaks the bonds of oppression.  Love that shows us another way where we experience love through serving one another instead of our own self interests.  Love that is given with total abandon rather than selfish intent.  Love that we come to know and accept will be lavished upon us relentlessly until we can finally look through that glass and see ourselves and each other…every single one of us…as fully known and fully beloved by God.  That is the love that persists.  That is the love of God which is being fulfilled in our midst today, transforming this world and each one of us, if we let that message of love take hold.  That is the dangerous, transforming and liberating love that abides with us, if we will open our hearts to receive.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

FullSizeRender 35

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iconic

Homily for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
The Baptism of Our Lord
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Readings:

 

 

Every January for the past four years, I have packed my luggage full of books and belongings and set off for Berkeley, California for several weeks of on-campus intensive study. Since my January seminary term always coincides with Epiphany, the customs and traditions of the way in which we are Church together during this liturgical season have taken on a distinctly West Coast flair. For me, that has meant chanting Epiphany Evensong in my seminary chapel…including the year we used plentiful incense to cover up the lingering scent of the skunk who also decided to spend that January intersession with us.  It also brings to mind the lovely receipt of Epiphany gifts of blessed chalk, a sack of freshly picked Meyer lemons and Epiphany king cake after attending high mass at the Episcopal Church of the Advent of Christ the King. I became accustomed to hearing read (or chanted) the Epiphany Proclamation of Easter…a diaconal privilege actually…sourced in the tradition of listing off the holy dates of the coming liturgical year, harkening back to a time before we were tethered to phone or even paper calendars and yet were called to be a people of common prayer. But, mixed into these memorable West Coast experiences, there is one particular Epiphany image that stands in my mind. You might even say, it is an icon for me of our life together in Christ.

This story is set in what is now my home-away-from-home parish, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Now, if you haven’t heard of St. Gregory’s before, I have to warn you that it is known for two things: the first is that the Sunday liturgy involves not one…but two…occasions at each service for holy movement, aka: liturgical dance. The second is the incredible 360 degree mural painted around the entire rotunda of the worship space depicting 90 Dancing Saints (and a few dancing animals, too) led by a 12 foot tall dancing Jesus. I know, it all sounds very out there for our Virginia sensibilities. I understand, because it also seemed like too much to me at first. Many of my seminary friends had made a pilgrimage to St. Gregory’s during our first summer on campus, but in spite of my curiosity, it felt like more than I could wrap my head around at that time. But, as these things happen when the Holy Spirit is in motion, I ended up taking a practical theology class taught by their rector, Paul Fromberg, and after writing a paper about my experiences of ministry with the food pantry at my home parish, he introduced me to Sara Miles, the founder and director of St. Gregory’s food pantry and author of several books about this ministry. I tried not to stammer like a fangirl, and that was easy with Sara’s down to earth demeanor. We soon made a plan that I’d come a few days early for my next term in January and spend some quality time with St. Gregory’s where I could be immersed in serving with this entirely different cultural context.

And so it was that the following January, on the Feast of the Epiphany, I flew to the West Coast a few days before my classes began for this baptism by immersion into the Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s. Early in the morning, I made my way from campus through the fog rolling across the San Francisco Bay, navigating the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood until I reached the doors of this oddly situated cedar shingled church with its tall, windowed cupola rising up in the midst of industrial buildings and breweries. I rather gingerly pushed open the red front door, crowned with mosaic tiles depicting Madonna and child with the words “All that is prays to you” written in mission style lettering across the entry.

img_2061

What happened when I opened that door is now emblazoned in my mind’s eye. I stepped from the street into the rotunda with its blazing colors of dancing saints illuminated by the morning sunlight suddenly cutting through the fog and radiating through the top windows of that tall cupola. The round communion table in the center of the rotunda was surrounded on all sides with huge piles of vibrant oranges, asian pears, kale, squash, bok choy, sweet potato…all the seasonal produce of the bay area pouring out like a holy feast. Volunteers were setting up in anticipation of the 400 or more people who would come to The Food Pantry that day to receive from this abundant outpouring of food, circling beneath those Dancing Saints with their grocery bags and wheeled carts in another sort of liturgical dance, nourishing their bodies and souls. I thought about Sara’s inspiration which she describes in her book, Take This Bread:

Because of how I’ve been welcomed and fed in the Eucharist, I see starting a food pantry at church not as an act of ‘outreach’ but one of gratitude. To feed others means acknowledging our own hunger and at the same time acknowledging the amazing abundance we’re fed with by God. At St. Gregory’s we do it now on Sundays, standing in a circle with the saints dancing bright above us. I believe we can do it one more time each week–gathered around the Table under those same icons, handing [food] to strangers, in memory of him.

img_2053

Looking across that outpouring of abundance, with the far doors still open from the morning’s deliveries, I could see the outdoor Baptismal font filling with water flowing from tiny streams in the urban rock garden which also serves as columbarium. I also felt immersed, called, and known. The words I had read upon entering echoed in my mind:

All that is prays to you.

Soon, I was greeted by the staff and volunteers and quickly wrapped into the activity of the day. I distributed twelve cases filled with pears and at least as much love to a myriad of people who spoke more languages than I had ever heard in any one place and yet, we found a common ground with each other in this sacred, ordinary feast. Not only was I able to be a part of distributing holy food to holy people that Friday, but I was welcomed back that Sunday, the Baptism of our Lord, where I renewed my own baptism in that context, and helped serve holy food to holy people gathered around the communion table as well. My wandering heart had found a home away from home. I served and worshipped at St. Gregory’s the rest of my time at seminary, even though I admittedly still trip over my feet when I try to dance and sing!

I share this story with you today, back home here on this snowy morning in Virginia on this Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord, because it reveals for me the essence of what we hear conveyed in today’s Gospel. Luke, who is generally known for his detail oriented descriptions offers us something different. He paints the Baptism of Jesus like an icon, opening our minds and hearts to see the holiness embedded in this simple image of a prayerful, human Jesus. Human time meets divine intention and Jesus is known, recognized and claimed as the beloved child of God. The voice of God the Father, the person of God the son, the physical embodiment of God the Holy Spirit present together are vividly conveyed in this holy moment. This image echoes the ancient promise of the prophet Isaiah, unfolding in sacred time:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

The gift of an icon is that it offers us a gateway to prayer. Like sacraments…the outward and visible signs of an inner and spiritual grace…icons are images which invite us to bring ourselves and our senses into a deeper knowledge of the presence of God. Or, in the words of the invitation over the entry point to St. Gregory’s: All that I am prays to you.

Whenever we stand at the waters of baptism, whether renewing our baptismal covenant or welcoming a newly beloved member of the Body of Christ, we are transported to our own baptism and to this icon of Jesus’ baptism where we encounter the Holy Trinity in all three persons. Like my own iconic moment entering the Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s, we become palpably aware that it isn’t a destination, but the beginning of a whole new chapter, the awakening and stirring in our souls to more deeply discern the ways in which our lives touch and weave together with all other lives, and the abundance of God’s love for God’s people becomes palpable, real, and lived out in our daily lives and our daily actions, whether we are handing our love and pears, advocating for justice and peace, proclaiming the good news or enfolding others in prayer. We become a people who live our baptism anew, revisiting the image indelibly etched upon us when we were redeemed by God, called by name, recognized and welcomed. In the words of Isaiah, in the words of God the Father to Jesus the Son and in the words given to us in the sacrament of Baptism: you are mine. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism and made Christ’s own forever. One holy, human family under God.

You are invited and welcomed to enter deeply into your own baptism again today, in word and in spirit. Don’t worry: liturgical dance will not be required! But, this icon of Jesus’ baptism does offer us a glimpse of the divine dance of the Holy Trinity at work in our lives. We are invited to recommit ourselves and re-enter this space of discerning, transforming prayer where we come to know who we are, because we are reminded of whose we are.

All that I am prays to you.

Amen.

img_2046

Posted in liturgy, sermons, Spiritual journey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In the Neighborhood

Homily for the First Sunday after Christmas (with Holy Baptism), Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
December 30, 2018

Lectionary Readings

 

If you know me, it probably won’t surprise you that my music collection contains a lot of musical theatre soundtracks. I’m someone who really likes listening to the full score album, not just the “greatest hits” whether that is Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber or Lin-Manuel Miranda. One of the things that I love about musicals is the opening overture, which is like a sneak peak into the most powerful themes about to unfold. We might miss the significance of a phrase or two the first time we hear it; but once we are familiar, just a few notes can transport us back into the narrative. Case in point: when I went to see Mary Poppins Returns recently, I heard a faint melodic strain of “Feed the Birds” as the panoramic view whisked us past St. Paul’s Cathedral through a flutter of feathered wings. In a second, I was right there in storybook London waiting for the story to unfold.

Our Gospel reading today is also an overture to the Good News. The words from John’s Gospel are as familiar and mysterious as Christmas. In the lyrical cadence of these opening verses we are reminded that this Christmas story isn’t just about angels and innkeepers and shepherds watching their flocks: it is also about the mystery of the incarnation, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In this version of the Christmas story, God is made known and enfleshed for the benefit of all creation. Through this opening overture we can already hear the echoing theme of “God-with-us-ness” which continues to unfold throughout John’s Gospel account.

This story of Jesus’ birth is as rich and complicated as it is beautiful and simple. On Christmas Eve we heard the who, what, when, where and how of Luke. In today’s Gospel there is mystery wrapped in poetry. Maybe, in this overture, we need to hear both of those themes. We need the simplicity of imagining the tiny child wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger in the care of loving, trusting human parents. And, we need to wrestle with the mystery and the magnitude of God’s own being contained in that frail, tiny child. It is summed up well, I think, in a theological assertion offered by Martin Luther King, Jr: “the doctrines of transcendence and immanence are both half-truths in need of the tension of each other to give the more inclusive truth.”

Immanence and Transcendence: God is both made known to us, and yet at the same time wondrously and transcendently unknowable. We read, “No one has ever seen God” but if we listen to the full Greek score recounting this language of the incarnation offered by the Gospel writer, we hear that no one has πώποτε  “at any time” or “ever yet” seen God. The linguistic stage directions suggest this is perfect tense, indicative mood, active voice: it is an assertion of a truth, having its roots in the past and continuing to the future. The Word, Jesus, dwells within the transcendence of God and yet has been made known to us right here, both in history and in continuity. A transcendent God, immanently known. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his Biblical paraphrase The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” What might it mean for us to be neighbors with God?

Today’s Gospel lesson isn’t just a story about Christmas. It’s also a story about our Christian lives. It is a story that invites us to pay attention to the neighborhood where God has chosen to dwell, with us. That includes this neighborhood: our parish, this community, the wider Church. Think about the way in which we are initiated into our lives in Christ. Baptism is, by nature, being joined with Christ, a sacramental acknowledgement that we, too, live our lives into the fullness of God-with-us. In our BCP, this is clearly laid out for us in the small print directions that we sometimes gloss over (p. 298): “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”

Indissoluble is also an interesting word, another theme in this story we are invited into today. Imagine something which we know can be dissolved: a spoonful of sugar into a glass of water. That water at room temperature will only allow so much sugar to dissolve. But, acting on the water…in this case,heating up the water to boiling, allows it to take on more and more sugar because it changes the way the molecules interact with each other. If you were to keep doing this until the boiling water took on all the sugar that it possibly could and then it was brought back to room temperature, you would have what is called a “supersaturated solution” where the water you see would contain more sugar than would be possible under normal conditions. That supersaturated solution can exist on its own, and it looks just like water. But when that solution comes into contact with even a small amount of sugar, its essence becomes known and it begins to form crystals which reveal the true nature of what that solution contains.

Parents, if the winter break is growing long and you have some sugar to spare, you’ve got yourself a science experiment there!

But, there’s a lesson in this illustration for us, too. Jesus, the fullness of God-with-us, this only-begotten of God is the immanent, enfleshed human incarnation, filled beyond what we can see or imagine with the transcendent divinity of God. John’s Gospel points us to the transcendent mystery of the incarnation where there is more than we can possibly see, more than we can possibly know until that moment where our own humanity comes into contact with that incarnate divine love. The Word made flesh became known to us not only at Christmas but also through the waters of baptism, where we are joined in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. In those waters we are transformed and become of new substance, indissoluble. Today, when we baptize and welcome two beautiful little children into the family of God, they will be sacramentally transformed, as we have been, through the immanent and transcendent God-with-us.
As our Epistle lesson reminds us, we are adopted as children of God through the same belovedness made known in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. No longer are we bound by disciplinary laws or the blind obedience of servitude; all that we are in Christ can be traced back to the substance of God with us. Through the waters of baptism, we are no longer solitary fragments of potential, but part of the family of God, beloved and crystallized, as it were, indissoluble members of the neighborhood where God dwells. We are not only transformed, but bound together. We are family, and what affects one of us affects all of us. We are, returning to the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

So, it’s Christmas. We have been singing songs of peace, love, and goodwill. We have been giving from what we have been given, sharing the gifts of this life with others with incredible generosity, serving those in this neighborhood that we know, as well as those we don’t know. The season of the incarnation didn’t end on December 25: it has only just begun! Christmas renews our reminder of God-with-us and this Christmastide gives us an opportunity to live into the gift of that grace-upon-grace through the Word made flesh, the only-begotten of God. We have become members indissoluble of the Body of Christ. Neighbors, together, in this world where God has come to dwell.

So now, we know the story. We can go back and hear the familiar refrains in this Gospel overture with a new attunement, inviting us to step into the story more deeply. Go ahead…listen to the overture again and again…recognizing the themes of transforming and incarnate love which will continue to form the melodious soundtrack of our lives, lived out together with our neighbors in this community filled to overflowing with the miracle of God-with-us.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us…

Amen

church meets world

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What then should we do?

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
December 16, 2018
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Readings Referenced:

Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

For better or for worse, we need people in our lives who will call things out exactly as they see them. You all know what I mean: someone who is unafraid to pull us aside when we need to attend to a “wardrobe edit” or when we have some spinach caught in our teeth, or perhaps more importantly to let us know when our words or actions may have caused another person pain. These minor prophets of our lives hold a vital truth-telling role: calling out our flaws, reminding us who we really are, and ultimately helping return us to the state of our best selves. We need someone who loves and cares about us so much that they are unafraid to tell us the honest truth, even if it stings a bit.

This morning, we are the recipients of that gift of unabashed truth-telling. In a move that no homiletics instructor has ever recommended, John the Baptist prophetically begins his sermon to the baptized faithful gathered around him by calling them out: “You brood of vipers!”

In spite of what might be anticipated following such vivid in-your-face truth-telling, the crowd did not flee away. While that might seem counterintuitive at first, I have to tell you, I completely understand. You see, I have a history with those words in this Gospel being spoken to me, too.

The day I remember hearing those words was another 3rd Sunday of Advent..another December 16th to be precise…six years ago. On that particular Sunday morning, I was sitting in my familiar, comfortable spot in the alto section of the choir in my neighborhood parish. But, I was struggling to make sense of the restlessness in my soul. Just two days earlier, the world had been rocked by the senseless and tragic deaths of 20 children and 6 adult staff members of Sandy Hook elementary school. That Friday morning was like any other: I dropped my daughter off at her school, oblivious all day to what was happening in another community, in another town. Like many of us after hearing the tragic news of that day, I picked up my safe and alive daughter that afternoon and hugged her, wishing I could just step away from it all and take solace in my comfortable life, to keep my family secure and to reassure her that I could guarantee she was always going to be safe and everything would be OK. But there was an unvoiced and painful awareness that the guarantee of safety I wanted…especially safety for all…wasn’t possible in the world in which we live, in the way we humans live together in it.

I vividly remember the Gospel procession passing by me that Sunday morning and feeling the weightiness as I watched my priest lift that Gospel book, readying to proclaim good news on a day when I knew that I didn’t feel it. Frankly, I’m pretty sure that none of us felt it. And yet, we were joined together, as one community in this collective, liturgical action. And as our ears and hearts opened to receive this same Gospel lesson, we heard those illusion-shattering words descend upon us. And it was as if I heard it spoken right to me: “You brood of vipers!”

In a split second, I found myself right there in that snake-pit staring at the tree which bears no fruit. I wanted to extract myself from the slithering masses of hatred, hopelessness and selfishness which seemed to be everywhere I turned. But we are one community, and one world. And I knew the strongest among us had nothing more than we were willing to share with the most vulnerable in our midst.

It would seem that even after thousands of years, prophets still have a way of cutting right to the heart of matter and making the way for God. Just as quickly, in that next moment, I knew in an unshakable way that this kind of divine encounter with the honest truth only happens because it is God who loves us all so much.

So I paused to really listen to the words of the prophet of old now speaking again in our midst, and I noticed that no one in the crowds gathered around John the Baptist seemed shocked or asked “Vipers?? What vipers?” No one argued for the merits of holding onto the barren branches of apathy and the bitter fruits of injustice, either. They knew. We know. In response, they met the honesty of the prophet by asking an earnest question, “What, then, should we do?”

John didn’t leave the crowd wondering over the details. His call, after all, was to prepare them. And so, he gave the crowd crystal clear advice on paving the way for the One who was and is to come. John’s prophetic exhortation to make way for the divine involves stepping away from the selfishness, greed, and prideful arrogance of thinking that anything we seem to have or anything we have the power to do is of our own creation. And so, he let the crowd know how to bear fruits worthy of repentance: if you have what you need in this world, give the extra away. If you have been given authority over others, don’t use that to your advantage. Just because you live or work in the snake-pit, don’t give in to the threats and lies in an effort to save yourself. Give what power and possession you are clinging to away so that your heart will be open, and you will make room for God.

It seemed like exactly the right question I needed to ask, too. So, on that Sunday six years ago, convicted and moved by the prophet, I had the nerve to ask it: “God, what should I do?” And much to my surprise and terror, God answered. “Here. Sarah. I need you here.”

I remember crying. The tears that I was crying that morning weren’t even for the victims of that horrible tragedy, or for the empathetic pain of those around me. They were, in fact, the same kind of angry tears that I hold back when someone tells me something I don’t want to hear. You know what I mean: when we ask a question that really has an answer we want and expect to hear, like “you’re doing great!” or “don’t change a thing!!” But instead, we are told something that activates our fears, our vulnerabilities and our desire for self-control. My work, I justified to myself, was already impactful; my life was comfortable; my education was done; my loans were paid off. So, serving the Church was not the answer I expected and it certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear. My tears continued to flow, though, as something holy and beautiful happened, and I realized that I was loved so much that I was invited to go to the most unfathomable corner of my own wilderness and preach the Gospel to people who were just like me: immersed in their grief, caught up in the changes and chances of life, struggling to make sense of the world we live in, wrestling with self-doubt, desiring true vocation in a world that preaches vain prosperity.

God shakes us up, and God loves us. And, with a nod of serendipity to the lectionary, it was the words of today’s Epistle lesson that were offered to me in the earliest days of my discernment in which I have continued to find my grounding as vocation and call have formed me:
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

You see, John wasn’t a random voice calling out in the wilderness, either. John was called to his wilderness. The reason he could call the people to repentance is that he had already stood in that place himself. He knew the peace which surpasses all understanding which is not human-sourced; it can only come from God. The call God had placed on him sent him to the wilderness, and took him away from the comforts of his life. His vocation, as he pointed out repeatedly, was to prepare people for the Messiah coming after him, when it would no longer matter who you were, or into what lineage you were born, or whether you were wealthy or poor, or if you worked as a tax collector or soldier. The Messiah was coming for everyone, to change everything. Then and now, in the best and worst of times in this world which we inhabit, the immensity of divine love invites and desires and beckons our participation to live and work and worship as one community, the Body of Christ. But first, as John knew, we need to make room.

Our contemporary saints, our Great Cloud of Witnesses, also offer us prophetic wisdom for our Advent preparations to welcome Christ incarnate. Óscar Romero, Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvadore and outspoken advocate for the poor and marginalized…who, incidentally, was murdered in his wilderness in 1980 while celebrating mass the chapel of the hospital of the divine providence…offers us these words that invite us to deeper reflection:

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God- for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”

God speaks to each of us as we stop to open our hearts, and as we earnestly ask, “what then shall I do?” The world around us may seem to fall apart; but our hope waits on the God who loves us so much that sometimes we will be told what we don’t want to hear. If you ask, God will answer, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways.

This Advent, don’t worry about anything, but ask God for everything. Allow yourself to be loved so fully that you can be vulnerable, opening to see your own poverty of spirit where God desires to dwell. Later in this service, it will be my role as Deacon to dismiss us to go in peace to love and serve the Lord after we celebrate this Great Thanksgiving together, but there’s a deeper invitation  within those words as well:  Go forth to be uncomfortable, to be convicted by the needs of this world, to evaluate your life not for how good it makes you feel but for what it speaks to the world about God-with-us. Then, just as John invited people to the waters of Baptism, we can allow the love of God incarnate to fill us anew with the joyful and life-giving potential to liberate love in all the corners of this world, including this very place we find ourselves, right here and right now.

Cerquozzi, Michelangelo, 1602-1660; Saint John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness

Michelangelo Cerquozzi; Saint John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness
Southend Museums Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/saint-john-the-baptist-preaching-in-the-wilderness-2822

Posted in sermons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Giving Out of Holy Poverty

Homily for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

November 11, 2018
St. Thomas Episcopal Church (My Sponsoring Parish for Ordination)

Link to Lectionary Texts

I remember the day that a few coins broke my heart open.

I was just a few weeks into my first year of seminary field education, piecing together how my work in the world and my work in the church might fit together into this vocational call I was pursuing.  I was setting up for the Friday Red Door healing prayer service, a service of word and prayer which takes place before our weekly community lunch for people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.  The campus ministry student who was the greeter that day called me over and said, “there’s a woman who just came in and says she needs an offering plate…what do I tell her?”

Her question caught me off guard; the last thing in the world I wanted to do was to set out an offering plate at a service attended by people whose lives were mired in poverty.  So, I walked over to this tiny, frail-looking older woman to see what she really wanted.  She had on simple, well-worn clothes and spoke to me quickly without making much eye contact.  As a trained social worker, I can tend to quickly assess what I think might be going on…sometimes to a fault.  And on that day, I admittedly presumed there had been some confusion, and perhaps this was a request for financial assistance mistaken as a request for an offering.  But, in seconds, I had to check all those assumptions of wealth and privilege as she repeated her request clearly and directly: “I said I need an offering plate” she said, “I have something that I want to give the church.”

I nodded and ducked into the chapel, picking up one of the carved, wooden offering plates on the back table.  She reached into her quilted purse and pulled out a smaller cloth sack.  As people filed in for the service, she poured the contents of the bag into the plate, until I needed to use both hands to support the weight of the heaping mound of coins she poured into that wooden basin in my outstretched hands.  The tellers would later report it was well over $50 of her collected change.  She didn’t want to be recognized, or to stay for the day’s programs.  But she did tell me that when she was younger, she had two children and not enough food to feed her family.  She would come to this church on Fridays and the volunteers would feed her, and make sure she had extra milk to take home for her children.  That compassion nurtured this woman and her family in body and spirit and now, she had come to give all that she had saved.

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Our logical minds and human actions want to separate “poverty” and “giving” or at the very least, to think of the latter as a way to alleviate the former.  We hear Jesus drawing these same distinctions in today’s Gospel.  First, he points out the complete hypocrisy that emerges when “demanding” is conflated with “giving.”  The extortion and corruption Jesus knew were taking place in the name of religion were the exact opposite of giving: the unjust system Jesus condemned imposed poverty on a vulnerable sector of society, devouring the security of home for the benefit of an institution.

But, the lesson doesn’t end there.  Jesus breaks down the barrier between “poverty” and “giving” even further by illustrating something new about the realm of God.  Jesus draws our attention away from the elaborate gowns and lofty prayers of the institutional authorities who seemed to have all the power and illustrates instead what was happening through the perspective of a widow who had felt the profound pain of injustice and poverty all of her life.

What does it mean…really mean…to see through the eyes of poverty, instead of the eyes of wealth?  Wealth is our human representation of security, power, comfort, assurance.  When we have wealth, we can feel self-assured and capable of deciding to whom we are willing to give what proportion of the abundance we possess.  We live in a society that values and protects the privilege of wealth.  But seeing through the eyes of poverty forces us to focus on what it means to give with trust, through the vulnerable eyes of scarcity and oppression.  Seeing through the eyes of poverty means we have to leave behind the glittery false promises of security, power, and comfort and rely instead on the providential nature God who loves and care for us.  Giving from our poverty is a true act of faith.  It’s what it truly means to Go Now Into the World and celebrate our participation in that economy of God’s mercy and grace.

Some of us have been at the receiving end of these gifts of mercy quite directly.  Some have felt what it is like to give with total trust and abandon.  But many of us have to pause intentionally in order to see and feel the weight of sacrificial giving others have enacted on our collective behalf.  This is why we have pause on the 11th day of the 11th month for remembering and honoring the selfless and sacrificial actions of our veterans; this is why we are urged to pray and recognize those who have given the gift of life through organ donation on this weekend of the donor sabbath.  We should and do stand in awe and respect of these sacrifices made by others.  But Jesus, in directing our gaze to this easily overlooked widow and her two copper coins reminds us that it isn’t enough just to admire sacrifice from a distance.  We are invited to move closer to this poverty of spirit in order to truly understand what it means to give.

Dorothy Day, founding mother of the Catholic Worker movement, writes about the liberating nature of voluntarily embracing what she describes as the true intention of holy poverty: “To love with understanding and without understanding. To love blindly, and to folly. To see only what is lovable. To think only on these things. To see the best in everyone around, their virtues rather than their faults. To see Christ in them.”

Taking up our Christian Sister Dorothy’s challenge, how do we look through the eyes of holy poverty to see the living Christ in our midst?

I can tell you that I saw Christ that day in the eyes of the woman who poured out all her change not because she was forced to do so, but because she had seen Christ in the giving actions of those who cared for her and her children.  Her gift reflected her voluntary participation in the realm of Christ rather than the realm of this world.  That day, as my heart broke open, I walked into the nave of the church carrying that coin-heaped offering plate, through the rows filling with people gathering from the surrounding streets, up the chancel stairs to the altar where I bowed, and prayed, set her offering to rest there for the remainder of the service.  God is the source of these gifts of holy poverty.  She didn’t want a tax receipt.  She wasn’t asking for anything in return.  She wasn’t engaging in a transaction with the church.  She was pouring out all that she had as an offering to God, a sacrifice of healing for our collective spirit.

Some of you know about one of the projects I’m currently working on, Faith from the Margins to the Web.  Each week, campus and community volunteers across social margins of age, race, wealth, social class and other human differences to engage in holy conversations about our weekly Gospel lessons.  Crossing the social margins of this world, each pair or small group is able to discover God in our midst, as revealed in holy scripture and in each other.

In the group which was discussing today’s Gospel lesson, the question was posed: is this widow a hero, or a victim?  There was a flurry of conversation following that question about how she gave from her heart, how she gave all she had, but also how she had been relegated to that state of poverty by the oppressive system of power in which society and the church participated.  Toward the end of the discussion, it was a woman named Theresa…someone who earlier that day had confided in me her pending homelessness within a few days and had asked me to pray with her for strength…who shared the offering of her heart through the eyes of her experience:

“You know, at the end of the day, I think maybe she isn’t a hero or a victim” said Theresa.  “I think she looked at those two coins and she looked up at God and she thought, ‘if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even have this.  You made me, and what I have is yours. So go ahead, have this: here it is. I want you to accept this, just like I accept what you give me.”

During this past week, as I have prepared for my ordination, and even more so now that I live into the vows that I have made, Theresa’s words have become prayer.  When it comes right down to it, all we truly have to offer God is the gift of ourselves.  We pour out the coins of our lives into the outstretched hands of God who has already given us all of who we are, and everything that we need.  The robes, the glory, the accolades: these are mere distractions from the trust that comes from knowing that all we have is already held in the hands of a loving God.  Oppressive systems cannot devour divine mercy.  God’s love prevails in our actions of compassion, in the holy poverty of having our hearts broken open so that we can give with open and loving hearts, receiving in return the gift of truly seeing Christ in each other.

“If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even have this.  You made me, and what I have is yours. So go ahead, have this: here it is. I want you to accept this, just like I accept what you give me”

Amen

 

FullSizeRender 35

Posted in sermons, Spiritual journey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bread of Life

This is a “tale of two sermons” from Proper 14, Year B

Epistle Lesson: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Gospel Lesson: John 6:35, 41-51

Sermon #1:  Saturday Contemplative Eucharist, St. John’s Episcopal Church

Additional Reading: Coming to God: First Days by Mary Oliver

“Here is the bread, and here is the cup, and I can’t quiet myself.”

In the pace of this world, we relish the things that save us time. There are books on 15 minute dinners, websites filled with time-saving life hacks and instructions on how to accomplish as much as possible without wasting a precious second. I understand this: I’m a multi-tasker myself and nothing makes me roll my eyes more than feeling like my time is being wasted. But if I’m cutting corners on time to fill my life with more busy things, that really isn’t saving time; that is just rearranging my busy.

Pausing a moment to let ourselves inwardly digest the lessons the we just read, I offer to you a few thoughts to feed on when Jesus says, I am the Bread of Life.

Bread is not always a quick thing. The best breads I have ever tasted are slow-rising, yeasty and made patiently and lovingly. Every Christmas I bake a yeast bread that rises overnight, a gift in recipe form from Franziska, an exchange student from Switzerland who stayed with us one year while I was in high school. Or, just this past summer, in the middle of an all-day, every-day class on The Sabbath, my Jewish professor Naomi brought loaves of freshly baked challah with her for our final class together, the taste of which was like being given a beautiful taste of her family’s cultural history to welcome the Sabbath as we closed our time together. The delight of these gifts are not that they are quick and easy; it is that they require time and love. Broken and shared, they fill us with a sense of being valued, cared for, remembered and embraced by love.

Bread, even savory bread, requires something sweet. Yeast actives and lives by the breaking down of sugars, so into almost every kind of bread a little sweet must enter: a pinch of sugar, a bit of honey, the sweetness contained within a particular grain or liquid which sets the action into motion. Even in a savory loaf…right alongside the saltiness…there is still a need for the sweet in order to activate fully. There’s a lesson about sweetness baked into bread which reminds me not just of the Gospel lesson, but the exhortation in Ephesians, too: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

When we quiet ourselves, we begin to settle in to this imagery of bread that Jesus shares, and perhaps to taste the depth of what it means for Him to be the Bread of Life that comes down from heaven. This bread is patient, kind, filled with loving-kindness. It conveys to us a story of who we are, and where we belong. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” He extends divine love and grace to feed and nurture us with spiritual food. Like the sweetness added to the yeast, these words activate the life-giving nature of Jesus’ message to expand beyond that fixed point of time and space, reaching out out across time and context to nourish hearers in every age.

In some communities, the invitation to Holy Eucharist uses a paraphrase from St. Augustine, “Behold what you are; become what you receive.” As we pause before this bread and this cup, as we wrestle with our swirling thoughts in an attempt to quiet ourselves, we are called to remember that we aren’t asked to be in perfect, harmonious alignment before receiving this gift. Like Jesus’ love for the whole world, we are simply given it, receiving into ourselves with sweetness the life giving potential that Jesus, the Bread of Life offers to us. As Mary Oliver names us: we are the wanderer who has come home at last, opening to transformation and receiving the gift that Jesus has given for the life of the world.

Wanderers and travellers, we gather here to welcome a time for silence, for prayer, for healing, and for communion. In the love of Christ, we are met just as we are and nourished with this gift of love from the One who wishes to make us one, and to be one with us. The words that I have been holding in my own silence this week are from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from Mass on the World. I offer them up as a prayer, as we move into this time to be loved, to be fed, to be transformed together:

This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves. Yet in the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted —and this I am sure of, for I sense it — a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out, believer and unbeliever alike: ‘Lord, make us one.’

Sermon #2:  Sunday Holy Eucharist, St. John’s Episcopal Church

Link to Audio of Sermon Here

I’ve been thinking a lot about bread this week. Growing up in Buffalo, my favorite winter days were when we baked homemade bread. I loved the way the whole house was permeated by the scent of those freshly baked loaves. I married into the Price family, who are also bread lovers, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that my daughter Cassandra is becoming a pretty expert bread baker herself. Any excuse to bake bread is a good excuse in my mind, not just cold winter days. Suffice it to say, I haven’t been able to stray far from thinking about bread this week, studying the Gospel lesson and preparing to break bread together with this community at St. John’s on this final Sunday serving with you as your summer Mid-Atlantic seminarian.

One of the things that I’ve been pondering is that bread, even the savory kind, requires something sweet. Yeast actives and lives by the breaking down of sugars, so into almost every kind of bread a little sweet must enter: a pinch of sugar, a bit of honey, the sweetness contained within a particular grain or liquid which sets the action into motion. Even in a savory loaf…right alongside the saltiness…there is still a need for the sweet in order to activate fully. There’s a lesson about sweetness baked into bread which reminds me not just of the Gospel lesson, but the exhortation in Ephesians, too: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

It’s a fitting image for us, the Body of Christ, to inwardly digest.

Today, in John’s Gospel, we hear words and metaphors of the Bread of Life through the ears of those in Jesus’ own cultural, Jewish context. Those who took his words literally were shocked and horrified; we’ll hear more from that group over the next two weeks. But today’s Gospel gives us insight into their confusion and attempts to take in and process this new information. The Jewish people who surrounded Jesus had been fed on the mountain side in miraculous ways, and were seeking to be filled again. They had just experienced the “bread of heaven” as miraculous loaves which had fed 5,000 hungry people from a young peasant’s lunch. Now, they wanted more.

Jesus moved the crowd gathered from meal to metaphor, describing God (the great “I AM” of the tetragrammaton) as the bread of heaven, more life-giving than bread that fills our stomachs and, in fact, even more life giving than manna in the wilderness. To the ears of those devoted Jewish followers, manna was the bread that came down from heaven, one of the primary historic actions of a loving God toward beloved people to sustain them in the wilderness, recounted at every Sabbath observance with the bread that they shared. So, when Jesus says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” he isn’t making a generic statement or waxing poetic. He is using a metaphor specific to the people hearing him, situated in their shared cultural context, in order to open their eyes and ears and heart to a new understanding about God’s providence, and Jesus’ own divinity. This statement would have been jarring to their ears and their imaginations, opening up an entirely new understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

We all need these moments of being shaken from our expectations to open us to new possibilities, but we don’t always receive that new information well. Continuing the bread baking metaphor, I might even suggest that we get a little salty! So, no surprise that Jesus’ hearers do what we all do when we are overwhelmed by new and challenging information: we fall back to practicalities: wait, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s son? How could he possibly be the bread that comes down from heaven?

When we read this lesson, though, we should never blame this group of people for doing exactly what we do all the time. All of us, even those who consider ourselves followers of Jesus in this age and context, have a long history of dismissing that which is mystery in favor of something we can more easily wrap our heads around. But that fall-back position may keep us from being broken open to receive a new and vital message.

When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” he extends the metaphor across time and place, aligning not just with his own cultural context and surroundings but with all of us, broadly and uniquely: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.”

I’ve sometimes heard those words misused in an attempt to limit eternal life to particular groups with certain fixed beliefs. But Jesus isn’t limiting the extent of love and grace; Jesus is being expansive. Like the sweetness added to the yeast, these words activate the life-giving nature of Jesus’ message to expand beyond that fixed point of time and space, reaching out out across time and context to nourish hearers in every age.

Time and again this week, I come back to the thought of how wonderful it is that bread looks and tastes differently from culture to culture and region to region. Even in my own life, I know I’m feasting in Church Hill when I’m tasting the crusty, grainy smokiness of Sub Rosa, or that I’ve landed in San Francisco when serving up avocado toast on a smooth, chewy slice of seeded sourdough. Someone hearing this lesson about the Bread of Life in Mexico might picture a freshly pressed corn tortilla, or a spongy injara in Ethiopia or a pillowy naan in India. Jesus is the Bread of Life whenever and wherever this Gospel is proclaimed. It is a profound reminder to us that the bread of life does not have to look and taste the same in order to nourish and sustain us. Jesus is the bread of life.

We can get so caught up in our own context that we lose sight of how transforming hat message is. We can think that our parish is better, or our denomination, or our race, or our country. But Jesus extends life to all. Jesus invites us to be fed with the Bread of Life so that we can celebrate the ways in which we become that which feeds the world. Our Epistle lesson reminds us we are called to become imitators of God. “Behold what you are; become what you receive” we sometimes say, paraphrasing St. Augustine. Every ingredient is essential; every person a member of the Body of Christ.

The bread we break together is the Bread of Life, which crosses ages and contexts and spaces of worship. We participate together in a sacramental life which doesn’t dissolve our diversity and difference, but which embraces it. Fed by the bread of heaven as we gather here together, our Christ-filled-ness transforms us to break bread with the world. Christ becomes known in the bread we share with friends, and with strangers. Christ the Bread of Life becomes known when we feed those who hunger in body; when we extend the Good News of the Gospel as the spiritual food to those who yearn for love; when we allow ourselves to feed and be fed as one community, one body where differences are welcomed and celebrated. We are one bread, and one body in Christ who gives us life.

“Behold what you are; become what you receive.”

Amen.

bread-2864703__340

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

From Scarcity to Abundance

Homily for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)
St. John’s Episcopal Church
July 29, 2018

Readings:

2 Samuel 11:1-15
Psalm 14
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Collect for the Day:  O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Listen to the Sermon Here

A few years ago, on a brisk autumn morning, I pulled up to the church I was serving and saw a line at least 30 people deep stretching out onto the sidewalk behind the still-locked food pantry doors.  It wasn’t even time to open yet.  As I slipped in through the back doors off the parking lot, one of the set-up volunteers greeted me with bad news: “the power went out last night, and a lot of our food was spoiled and has to be thrown away.  We aren’t going to be able to feed everyone today.”

A few weeks ago, I was in the media section at General Convention, preparing to listen to some deep theological conversation as the House of Bishops discussed resolutions about expanding the language of our liturgy and affirming marriage rites for all people.  Before they even began to speak, the update came from the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance that there wasn’t any money remaining to be allocated for prayer book revision.  Almost immediately, someone tweeted, “Prayer book revision dies for lack of funding.”

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him and so he asked Philip a rhetorical question, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” But Philip, in his anxiety, replied to a different question entirely: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Yet today in our Collect today, we pray:

with you as our ruler and guide, may we pass through things temporal,
so that we do not lose things eternal

What is it about our temporal, earthly lives that makes us live in want of power and in fear of scarcity?  Our first lesson…even more poignant in the age of #metoo…tells the tale of a powerful ruler, so fearful of losing the woman he seduced and impregnated that he sends her husband off to battle in a precarious position, setting him up to be killed.  I’d love to think society has come a long way, but that could just as easily be a news headline today.

While power craves more of itself, the rest of our lives function on scarcity: it seems that there is never enough money to go around, enough food to feed the hungry, enough jobs for those who yearn to work, enough space in our country for those seeking asylum, enough room in our hearts for those whom the world has cast aside.

The love of power and the economy of scarcity drive so many of our decisions: from business models to public policy and yes…if we aren’t careful…even the way in which we are church together.

When power and scarcity get the best of us, we often buckle down and try to fix things ourselves.  We slice the pie thinner and thinner so that we can preserve what we have and give away only what we must.  We set our own course and sail on until the sea becomes rough and the winds begin to toss us, then we become terrified.  We start rowing as hard as we can against a stormy sea and when we start to panic, only then do we call out, “Where is God?”

In our beleaguered state, we can begin to buy-in to the economy of scarcity and the abuse of power as “just the way things are” in this world in which we live.  But it isn’t the only way, or the permanent way and it certainly isn’t God’s way.  God’s way, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is fond of saying, is the Way of Love.

with you as our ruler and guide, may we pass through things temporal,
so that we do not lose things eternal

Today’s lessons are filled with human beings acting on their own power, caught up in the chaos of feeling overwhelmed, feeling the paralysis of need and oppression, giving in to the panic when the storms of life are brewing, forgetting amid all these changes and chances of our human lives the eternal truth that God is Love, and that we are grounded in that love.  These powers and principalities do not need to define us.  We need to be reminded, just as the Church in Ephesus was reminded, of the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

The Good News is that even today, God is still doing what God does throughout history.  God works through us, in all our human failings and complexities, in ways incomprehensible to human logic.  Through David and Bathsheba is born Solomon the wise, and so it goes for the 28 generations recounted in the Gospel of Matthew which eventually lead to a stable in Bethlehem and the birth of a baby without any hint of human power but overflowing with divine love so abundant that it will redeem the world.  In today’s Gospel, that same incarnate God-made-human in Jesus sees the hunger of the world and knows how to feed the multitudes.  Jesus hears panic on the seas and insures a safe arrival on shore.  Jesus is never working on scarce resources.  Jesus is always living in the abundance of love.

When Jesus holds that ordinary gift of loaves and fishes given from the hands of a child, what is the first thing he does?  He gives thanks.  When Jesus realizes that people have him confused with an earthly king, what does he do? He withdraws to the mountain by himself.  When Jesus hears and sees the fears of his friends on the stormy sea what does he do?  He moves toward them and reminds them, “It is I; do not be afraid!” as he sets their feet on dry land.

Jesus gives thanks; he moves away from the world’s power, he moves into deeper relationship with God and with others.  This isn’t a remote, historic miracle.  This is Jesus’ Way of Love:

with you as our ruler and guide, may we pass through things temporal,
so that we do not lose things eternal

On that chilly November day, we opened the food pantry doors and let people pour into a warm parish hall.  Together we made coffee and put out donated pastries and began to fill the shelves with the food we had.  We paused to pray, and invited God’s abundance into our midst.  I cannot explain how and why it was that the very last cans and boxes from back of the very last shelves were placed in the very last hands of those who were there, but there was enough that day for everyone who needed to be fed.  And before we closed the doors, new bags of donations were already on the doorstep waiting for the next week.

We walked the Way of Love.

In that hushed space in the House of Bishops…just as it happened the previous day in the House of Deputies…everyone paused business, and we prayed.  Eventually people spoke, people listened and new ways forward began to emerge.  We didn’t cave to social media hype.  We created a wider path…a “via comprehensiva”… that invited us to live more fully into prayer, new language, deep inclusion, open conversation and relationship as a whole body.  We turned a corner, moving deeper into possibility and away from blame.

We walked the Way of Love.

On that grassy mountainside, the young boy gave his lunch, and the disciples gave in to trust, and Jesus gave thanks to God.  People sat, and shared, and were fed.  And when they were satisfied, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” Meanwhile Jesus, instead of letting that crowd-talk go to his head, went up the mountain to spend holy time in the presence of God, modeling for us how to continually place our lives into the abundant care and keeping of our heavenly Father.

Whenever we share in God’s abundance, we walk in the Way of Love.

How will we open our hearts to abundance this week?  When will we step aside from our fears and stop thinking in terms of scarcity?  Where and with whom will we choose to walk the way of love?  I hope that we will do exactly as Jesus has taught us:  through thanks, through prayer, through relationship. We will pass through things temporal and keep our vision on things eternal, with God’s help.

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

FollowMeSaintJohns

Stained Glass Window, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gathered and Enfolded

A homily for Proper 11, Year B prepared for Westminster Canterbury, Richmond VA

Gospel Lesson:  Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

 

“Come ye apart and rest a while.”

stillness

If any of you have ever been to Shrine Mont, you may recall reading those words above a stone seat, formed from the rock that was used in constructing the outdoor stone cathedral that many people in Virginia (especially Episcopalians) have loved for many years.  When my parish retreat would head to Shrine Mont, it was always the children who clamored to sit in that space, even though I think some parents and grand-parents may have appreciated it even more!  But, that image of Shrine Mont comes immediately to mind for me when I hear today’s Gospel: the yearning for a quiet place of rest, set aside, with the gentle words of Jesus reminding us to stop and rest.

We are very good at talking about all the many active things that Jesus does: healing, teaching, preaching, guiding his disciples. It’s rare that our attention is drawn to the other thing that Jesus does with regularity: rest. It’s a pattern in Jesus’ ministry, actually. He deliberately pulls away and finds quiet and solitary places to rest and pray. This is why we find Jesus in deserts, gardens, mountains and the far side of lakes, as well as in the cities and towns where people learn to anticipate his arrival. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is met by an enthusiastic (and probably quite tired) group of disciples who are filled with stories to share about all the good work they have been doing. I can practically hear the chatter among them: how many places have we travelled, how many people have we healed, how we are responding to the needs of the world. I suspect, the disciples being human, that some of this might have even been a thinly veiled way of suggesting to Jesus that maybe, possibly they deserved a break.

Jesus hears their pleas, spoken and unspoken, and anticipates their need. Before they even ask, Jesus offers up to them: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” You’ll notice that the passage does not go on to say, “And the disciples argued back and said, ‘no, please, let us stay here and work harder!” The next thing we know, they are gathered together on a boat, setting sail and, I would imagine, feeling relieved to be sailing toward a well-earned respite.

But, news travels fast. Communication in biblical times might not be as rapid-fire as it is today, but word quickly spread that Jesus and his disciples were headed across the sea of Galilee. By the time they geared up their boat and sailed across that sea, people had already made it to the destination of their arrival on foot. They brought those who were seeking, those in need of healing, those who needed the touch of Jesus. Imagine, if you will, the tired disciples hoping for a calm, quiet stay ahead when instead they saw throngs of people headed to the shore to meet them.

And, it wasn’t just people who were happy to see them, or bringing them food and nourishment for their stay. These were people who were sick, outcast, needy, desperately longing and not at all interested in how tired the disciples were. I imagine the disciples looking toward the shore and seeing all the work that they needed to do coming toward them. One or two might have even headed Jesus’ way to lodge their disappointment and worry out loud, “How can we meet all of these needs?”

I can relate to the disciples when confronted by all the need I see. We are human beings and it can overwhelm us to see the level of need in this world coming toward us and feel our own level of exhaustion, physically and emotionally. But, Jesus is not overwhelmed.  Jesus is moved with compassion. Jesus sees the people and anticipates their needs for healing and hope, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” and, as the scripture goes on to say, he began to teach them many things. In fact, Jesus engages a rich ministry of healing and teaching throughout the region, anticipating the needs of all those he encounters.

You see, if we read this story again there is an important parallel. Jesus anticipates the needs of the disciples, and anticipates the needs of the crowd. Jesus gathers the disciples on a boat to move away, and gathers the crowds around him. Jesus enfolds the disciples with restful, loving care and enfolds the crowds with healing and hope.

Jesus, our Good Shepherd supplies our needs, whether we are disciples or distant strangers who are drawn by need and rumor toward the healing touch others have experienced. Through Christ, there aren’t just a chosen few who get treated royally while others get to hang around like a star-struck fan club hoping to catch a glimpse. In this world-turned-upside-down, everyone’s needs are anticipated, they are gathered together and enfolded in the loving care of the Good Shepherd.

It has occurred to me this week, reading and reflecting on this Gospel, that there was a holy lesson for the disciples which is also a holy lesson for us.  In our own lives, rest is a sought after destination which we  think of as a place and time set apart. But to Jesus, our human need for rest is the gateway through which ministry is revealed. We come to know rest not through our own actions…or lack thereof…but as enfolded in the loving care of God.  Rest is active.  We are gathered and enfolded in the arms of the Good Shepherd who knows the needs of the whole flock of this world. When we feel overwhelmed by needs of the world, Jesus reminds us that He is the Good Shepherd who enfolds us and gathers us. Our rest is not something that is just “yet to come” but also right here, in our participation in the Body of Christ which responds to the needs of the world.

That stone seat and sign post at Shrine Mont isn’t just about the destination, either. It is a stopping point for reflection on the way to the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration, the place in which the disciples see Jesus divinely transformed on the mountaintop. Perhaps this Gospel reminds us to participate in another form of transfiguration: to see Jesus as the source of rest and the gateway to healing.  It isn’t the busy pace of our own actions through which we earn rest; it is care and keeping of our divine shepherd who grants to us and to all the flock what we need in the great company of the Body of Christ of which we are a part.  We don’t need to worry. We don’t need to fix all the needs we encounter.  We need to rest in the quiet confidence of that faith and allow healing and transformation to flow freely.

Come ye to a quiet place and rest awhile.  Rest confidently in the knowledge that we are gathered and enfolded in the love of Christ, sheep in the fold of our Good Shepherd.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

IMG_0768

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We See You

Reflections after a trip to Hutto detention center. We all crave to be seen, and perhaps we hold up our signs and live in the hope that others see us and respond.

Center Aisle

Sarah Kye PriceReading time: 4 minutes

By Sarah Kye Price
Staff Writer

I’ve read lots of news stories as I’ve followed from afar the treatment and conditions of women, children and families attempting to cross into the United States seeking asylum and the promise of a new beginning. My blood begins to boil when I think about the people already here, who live in fear of being detained and deported. I’m downright furious, as both a social worker and a seminarian, at the idea that separating young children from their families when all of our psychological, sociological and neuroscience evidence tells us that this is psychologically damaging to both children and families. But even with all of that, I was still gut-punched and heart-wrenched as we pulled up to the Hutto “residential center” yesterday and began to unload our buses, singing songs of prayer and love and protest.

At one point, the…

View original post 710 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment