Holy Time and Holy Space

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
June 3, 2018
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lessons Appointed:

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23-3:6

 

The first time I set foot on the campus of Church Divinity School of the Pacific, I was greeted by a rather stately and majestic deer, a young buck who often visits campus and that I have since come to call “Amadaus” (which he seems to like!).   Earlier that afternoon, I had wrapped up my work week at VCU, caught a plane to San Francisco and naively rented a car at the airport to drive to campus. Let me point out, that was at 10 p.m. local time when I landed which meant it was 1 a.m. according to my not-quite-adjusted internal clock. Being frugal, I rented a tiny, economy car which I had to drive across the Bay Bridge in breakneck speed traffic and navigate myself in the dark through the East Bay hills to Berkeley. Still white-knuckled from my driving experience, I finally reached campus and stepped my shaky legs out of my car to be greeted by this most ephemeral of surroundings: a lush, floral, palm-tree lined campus mid-way up the Berkeley Hills, bathed in moonlight. At that moment, I was met by this quiet deer, who acknowledged me with a head nod as he sauntered down the road. I had been praying…not just for my safe arrival…but asking for God’s guidance to help me discern whether this program was the right fit for me in my journey toward ordination. In that moment, I instantly knew: this is a thin place. In my anglo-celtic heritage, these thin spaces where it seems that this world and the world beyond touch each other cut through the ordinary to reveal the divine. I knew in that moment that holy space had found me, and my formation there has indeed been a gift not only to my mind, but also to my spirit.

This week, I will return to CDSP for the last of my seminary studies. As I reflected on this week’s lessons while preparing for that return, I began to think about holy time, as well as holy space. For the last four years, in January and June, my low-residency colleagues and I come to campus and devote our every waking hour…and some typical sleeping hours, too…to be present to this process of formation happening within ourselves and with each other. When I am fully living into that holy time in that holy space, it becomes clear that everything I do is in service to call, in service to the God who knows and recognizes us. When I return home, I am living more deeply into an understanding of who I am called to be because of both sacred time, and sacred space.

Young Samuel also learned to recognize the significance of holy time and sacred space: he had been given to God, raised up in the temple of the Lord as a thankful offering from his mother, Hannah, who poured out her soul to God in hopes of a long-awaited child she feared she would never bear. Samuel learned to recognize the voice of the Lord in the silence of the night, breaking through time and space to speak prophetic words to his soul. Encouraged by his mentor, he answered that call: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” His ears and heart were both open to God’s call.

This morning, we also sang together the words of the ancient Psalm, yearning to understand how almighty God can know us, even in the smallest and most hidden of human forms, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it.” Then, we heard in today’s Epistle that when the finite nature of these clay jars of our human existence meet the radiant possibility of sacred time and sacred space, we become aware of the light of Christ radiating in us and in each other, each of us divinely known and recognized.

So much listening. So much yearning. So much holy time with God.

But this idea of holy time came into the most clarity for me with today’s Gospel lesson. This summer, one of the courses that I’m taking is at the Jewish seminary, one of the campus partners of CDSP that make up the larger Graduate Theological Union. This course, on the Jewish origins and practice of the Sabbath, involves reading a book by mid-century Jewish scholar and Professor of Social Ethics and Mysticism, Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his book The Sabbath, Heschel describes Judaism as a “religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time” (p. 8). In this book, he presents what he calls the “architecture of time” marked not only by yearly festivals and observances, but also the weekly cadence of meaningful labor, anticipation, and then celebration of the belovedness of the Sabbath. This book has caused me to put aside my own overly basic assumptions of Sabbath as about “not working” and instead, invited me to consider that Sabbath is the gift of God to God’s people, an invitation to an experience of God’s realm meeting our lives, which forms and perfects our souls created in the image and likeness of God. In The Sabbath, Heschel invites us to put away things and doing which serve the material world, and to take up being-in-time as a gift given to us by our Creator. In his own words. “Things created conceal the Creator. It is the dimension of time wherein [we] meet God, wherein [we] become aware that every instant is an act of creation, a Beginning, opening up new roads for ultimate realizations. Time is the presence of God in the world of space, and it is within time that we are able to sense the unity of all beings.” (p. 100)

Now, with this new depth of meaning, perhaps we can revisit this story of Jesus and his disciples on the Sabbath.

Looking only at things and actions, we might simply focus on the harvesting and healing, and think of Jesus as an agent of civil disobedience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Heschel himself became an interfaith companion to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the march at Selma, realizing that the six days we labor can and should be about working for justice. But this Gospel isn’t a story about work. This is a story about the sacredness of the Sabbath which prepares us to do the work that we are called to do.

Jesus embodies the divine gift of the Sabbath, embracing holy time as a gift to humankind to know our full potential in God, to see the holy and life-giving abundance of nature as a gift to feed our bodies and to view the reclamation of wholeness and healing to the man in the synagogue as an outward manifestation of the divine wholeness Jesus already sees in him. In this Gospel, we are given a glimpse of a thin time: seeing Jesus as wholly of God, wholly participating in the Sabbath as divine time in which the extraordinary potential of the ordinary is revealed: “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus’ frustration lies in seeing the Sabbath only as about human actions, rather than experiencing the Sabbath as the realm of God.

What are the lessons for us, gathered here today? Christians have adopted this language of Sabbath to think about the sacredness and sanctification of our own week, crowned by the weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, the ultimate victory of life in God over death in body. But, do we truly live into God’s gift of the Sabbath? How do we immerse ourselves in this thin time and this thin space where God who made us yearns to know us fully? Are we focused on the doing of “right behaviors” or on the withered hands and clay pot bodies of ourselves or others? Or, can we see instead the glorious potential of falling unabashedly into the Love of God for all of God’s people, including the unfathomable love that God has for each and every one of us. Imagine, if you will, living into the fullness of belovedness. Imagine the holy food and drink for a holy people nourishing us to see that belovedness in every person we encounter. That, my friends, is transformation. That is the gift of the Sabbath.

As we gather these words and hold them in our hearts; we come to this table together for a feast of abundance. As we extend our imperfect, withered human hands we are received into the wholeness of God’s healing love. The holiness of this day isn’t confined to this space of worship, it is a perfection in time where we walk together with Christ who has died, is risen and will come again. We walk this time with the saints of our past and God’s vision for our future all being held in Christ as a gift of sacred time. Listen like Samuel to the voice of God, and invite the Holy to speak. Open yourself to this Sabbath, this holy gift of time which is given to humankind by God for our benefit. Allow it to transform you into seeing as God sees, catching a glimpse of eternity. Or, as Rabbi Heschel concludes his own Sabbath reflection: “Eternity utters a day.” (p. 101).

Speak Lord. Your servants are listening.

deer berkeley

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. Macmillan, 1995
[Original Publication 1951, Farrar, Straus & Giroux]

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Secure Base

A Homily for Ascension (Easter 7), Year B

Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
May 13, 2018

One of my very close friends is fond of saying that everything that she has ever managed to ‘let go’ of has claw marks on it. For most of us, if we’re being honest, it’s far easier to sink our claws in and cling on tight than it is to lovingly let go. This is true of precious things in our lives: treasured objects, favorite momentos, cherished traditions and perhaps most of all, beloved people. When letting-go moments arrive, whether in the best or worst of circumstances, we find ourselves confronting the anxious and vulnerable nature of our humanity.

Endings and transitions have been constant companions in my own life these past few weeks. I have found myself circling back to today’s Gospel, deeply listening and taking in the words of Jesus praying for his friends and followers. In the lesson we heard, this farewell discourse comes at the end of Jesus’ earthly life, just before Jesus separates himself from his disciples to go and pray in the garden at Gethsemane. We know how that story was about to unfold and, with certainty, so did Jesus. Knowing that time was of the essence, Jesus could have focused on any number of lessons or points he wanted to make. But standing there on the precipice of great uncertainty and risk, Jesus chose to pray. He invited his friends into deep connection with God. And, as followers of Christ, this prayer is for us, too. It is a prayer that has echoed through my life this week in powerful and beautiful ways.

On Friday, I was sitting on stage at our commencement exercises at VCU watching my students walk across the stage with confidence, their families cheering and crying. There is so much hope and possibility that hangs in the air at commencement. Yet, as a faculty mentor, I know their struggles to get to that point and I hold their uncertainties, too. I felt a renewed awareness that their circling through my life is a sort of lived-out prayer of faithfulness for what has yet to emerge…that’s why we call it commencement, the edge of new beginnings. Less than twenty-four hours later, I was with many of the same people at another gathering entirely, remembering and paying tribute to the spouse of my doctoral student who has had to commence an entirely new chapter of her life after walking side by side with him through a brief but fierce battle with cancer. While there was great sorrow at his absence on this earth, the community gathered also experienced a re-awakening of the inspiration they had gained from their friend and brother. I witnessed their active commitments to embody the values they had learned from their relationship with him. In holding space for their grief and their tributes to be shared, I felt like I was living into this scripture, this prayer that Jesus prays: leaving and joining, departing and returning, building up confidence in the sure presence of God as seen in community.

If I have ever had a doubt as to whether I could be both professor and priest, this week has convinced me that the answer is already yes. So, bear with me. I’m going to blend the professorial and the pastoral for a few more minutes with you all today as well.

The way that social workers understand human behavior is through the importance of relationship. As I’m socializing my students into the social work profession, I teach them about mid 20th-century attachment theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby was trained as an old-school psychologist but became frustrated by the dominant psychoanalytic theory of his day which blamed the problems of our adult lives on deeply rooted internal pathologies of the mind. Instead, Bowlby believed that the way that we experience caring, loving relationships early on in life has a direct bearing on how we live out our potential in this world as adults. Bowlby was an intellectual and a theorist; he wrote three really fascinating (or at least, fascinating to me) books, describing how Attachment, Separation, and Loss are dependent upon each other through the duration of our lives. An example appropriate for Mother’s Day: John Bowlby coined the term “separation anxiety” emphasizing that in spite of the tears of toddlers, these separations are developmentally essential because they make us aware of loving attachments and anticipate joyful reunions. Without the anxiety of separation, we don’t experience the joy of reunion; without knowing the joy of reunion, we become overwhelmed by loss.

Bowlby’s protégé, Mary Ainsworth, was more of an experiential learner. She made it her mission to put science and practice around these theories. First, she traveled to Uganda to study mothers and infants in their natural environment, pushing herself outside her own cultural expectations to observe human truths about the way attachments are formed early in life. Later, she tested out her observations by setting up an experiment called the “strange situation” where she observed 12-18 month old infants during a series of events involving separations and reunifications with the parent along with the addition of a “stranger” into the mix who would sometimes align with the parent and sometimes be present on their own. Her contribution was to observe and document how we human beings respond to transitions, changes and separations and explore how these attachments impact our identities and behaviors.

If you crave more social science details, I can walk you through each stage of the experiment sometime! But, what I want to convey is the heart of what we can learn from Bowlby and Ainsworth’s studies of attachment: we are able to be our best selves in this world…exploring, playing, responding to love and affection…when we know where and to whom we belong. The power of attachment can only be fully realized through separation; we are comforted when we know and recognize what Ainsworth called a secure base. Love is like a homing beacon that reminds us who we are.

OK, so perhaps it took a couple thousand years for social science to put words around what Jesus already knew but I think there is an important lesson where today’s scripture and our theories of attachment come together. Jesus knows that we are one body, one community; those who are his disciples on earth are those who will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to become the Church, the Body of Christ, even as Jesus returns to wholeness in God. In Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, our hearts also begin to hear clearly what our logical minds can’t quite grasp: leave-taking may be humanly difficult but it is never the end of the story. In God, we belong to each other and live out the divine relationship in our love and care for each other in this world. Jesus doesn’t prepare his disciples to let go and move on as he ascends heavenward; Jesus reminds the disciples of belonging already right there with them, alive and in their midst. Jesus prays to remind them of their secure base in God and in each other.

Christ’s ascension is our reminder of that lasting divine connection, a parting gift of divine relationship: “…and now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The Church…the Body of Christ…becomes the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of divine relationship. We…the Church…we are each other’s secure base because God is in our midst.

There’s a lesson for all of us in another letting go moment we’re standing in today, too. After serving as your seminarian for a very enjoyable two years, it could be tempting to cling onto things exactly as they are right now. But the risen Christ doesn’t call us to cling to the way things have been; the risen Christ reminds us to trust in His presence in our midst and to move as the Holy Spirit leads us into the world. No claw marks are necessary for this transition: our identity is with each other in Christ no matter where we go and wherever we move about in this world.

Some might say I’ve spent two years getting to know all of you, but really, what we have done together is invest two years learning how to see and know God in each other. Our understanding of God…the ultimate secure base…has expanded because of our relationship. I’m not the same person I was when I first began my time here, because God has been made known to me in each one of you. We pray together, we worship and we give thanks for our common relationship as the Body of Christ. In the sacrament of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, God’s presence is continually made known to us in each other.

Thank you…every one of you…for helping me see and know God more fully. And please know that Grace and Holy Trinity will always be a “secure base” for me, a place that I will know and cherish as my community. Together, we have seen and known God in our midst.

secure base

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You know us so well…

A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
April 15, 2018

Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

In the Price family, Friday night is pizza night. I didn’t invent that tradition. In fact, it was my Mother-in-Law, Marie, parent to 11 grown children who decided that once her flock had gone out on their own it was a pretty good idea to skip fancy Sunday dinners and instead, order pizza and open her house to whatever family could drop by after work or school on Friday evenings. The Price family in St. Louis shared many moments of life together over those slices of sauce, bread and cheese. Case in point: I learned years later that it wasn’t actually my hand-mashed, organic pears that were my daughter’s first food but instead, chunks of pizza crust that her Dad and Aunties would break off and give her to chew on! But, as these kind of traditions take on a life of their own, even after Michael, Cassandra and I moved away from St. Louis to Richmond and even after Marie’s nurturing presence was no longer with us on this earth, Friday night is still Price family pizza night. It’s become one of the ways that we are family together.

I had a bit of a chuckle a few weeks ago when I went to pick up our usual order, at our usual pizza place. I had just opened the door when the manager called back into the kitchen and said, “It’s Friday…Mrs. Price is here for her pizza!” At the same time as I felt a little embarrassed by my own predictability, I also felt all of that rush of family history and tradition washing over me, thinking how my mother-in-law Marie would love to know how this family tradition has carried on. It was a very sweet memory, ushered in by the simple words of a restaurant worker who recognized me, who knew who I was and why I was there, and who anticipated all of that with good humor and unexpected kindness, even though he barely even knows me.

And so our Easter story unfolds today, also in a very ordinary gathering of people who held in common the memory of their beloved friend, Jesus. In these subsequent Sundays after we celebrate the day of Christ’s resurrection, we hear the stories of Christ’s appearing to those he knows, and loves, and cares about. These are personal stories, retold across generations, that reveal to us something about how Jesus and his followers were family together: Mary recognizes Jesus from the way He speaks her name name; Jesus knows Thomas and anticipates his predictable need for physical proof to assuage his human doubts. As today’s Gospel lesson unfolds, two of Jesus’ followers who have had an encounter with the risen Christ on the road between Emmaus and Jerusalem have rushed back to tell the rest of their friends and family about this siting. Just as they are all about to eat some bread and fish together Jesus appears in their midst.

Jesus knows his friends. He knows their state of mind, their grief, their hopes, and their fears. He knows how they are family together. In anticipation, he greets them as known and beloved by saying, “Peace be with you.”

We might think that would be enough for them to immediately recognize and rejoice. But immediately after Jesus extends peace, the Gospel lesson reports that Jesus’ followers were started and frightened. Actually, that second word is a bit stronger than “frightened”; they were ἔμφοβος (emphobos); “filled with fear.” The Greek root is something we have carried over into a psychological: “phobia,” a deep and unsettling fear that cuts across our layers of consciousness and hits us at the core of our being. These friends were not just caught off guard and surprised. Even though they had already heard of the risen Lord; even though they now heard his voice speaking peace to them, they were terrified.

I think this portion of Luke’s gospel may be the most accurate representation in the Holy Scriptures for what most of us experience when Christ’s presence is made known in our lives. In fact, I did a little informal research this week among people I know…seminarians, clergy, lay leaders and others who would acknowledge having heard and responded to a call from the risen Christ. I asked them, “What word or emotion best describes what you felt when you first realized God had called you to new ministry?”

I made this graphic of these responses, which as you can see highlight “scared”; “fear”; “terror”; “disbelief”; “crazy”; “angry”; “anxiety”; “overwhelmed”; “gobsmacked”; “unsettled” and “shocked.”  Others shared with me that what was most vivid was their experience of “clarity”; “peace”; “calm”; and “heightened awareness” after the fact.   Deep peace seemed to emerge within the chaos of our very human emotions.

words of call for blog

I vividly remember my own response to the sudden and unanticipated awareness of the presence of Christ in my life, shocking me through tears into awareness of something new and incomprehensible and emergent that would completely alter how my life was being shaped and formed. I also remember that once I gave voice to that recognition, the priest who saw me off on my journey of discernment said to me: All I know is that you don’t need to be afraid. I’m not entirely sure I believed her in that moment, but those words have become the truth of my journey.

‘Don’t be afraid’ is what Jesus tells his followers, too. Jesus knew them, and Jesus knows us. We still are…and I know I still am…afraid sometimes. Jesus Christ who knows us and loves us anticipates that. “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at me…Touch me…see that it’s me!” These words from their friend and teacher reassure them, and remind them of how they are family together. They break bread together; Jesus eats with his friends, and opens their minds to understand the scriptures and his role in the ancient stories and prophecies that ground them as community. Fear, shock and terror are transformed into peace, understanding, and relationship.

Christ reveals himself to his friends, and his friends eventually come to understand, as subsequent generations of Christian will hear in our Epistle reading, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” That revealing comes when we step into our human fears and allow ourselves to see, to touch, to be transformed in the ways that each and every one of us are called to be. In the breaking of bread, we are reminded of the ways in which we are family, together. Jesus calls us into communion not just to open our minds to know him, but to open our hearts to who we are together, the family of God.

In this Eastertide, the stories of how Christ is made known to us remind us of the ways that we are family together. Our encounters with the risen Christ prepare us to be called to do the work that we are meant to do, to move us beyond our human fear and anxiety so that we can be witnesses of this love to the world. Whether we serve lunch to people who hunger, polish brass, arrange flowers, travel to other countries and communities to share God’s love, preach the Gospel, teach the children, or sing the songs of worship and praise: we are all God’s children now, and we are called to be family together.

Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.

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From One Celebration to Another…

A Homily for Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday, Year B

Sunday, March 25, 2018
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Lectionary Readings

 

Passing from one celebration to another,
from palms and branches let us now make haste, O faithful,
to the solemn and saving celebration of Christ’s Passion.

These are the opening lyrics of a hymn from Palm Sunday vespers in the Byzantine Orthodox rite. I first heard them as part of a choir anthem, Motet for Passion Sunday, by composer Frank Ferko.  The refrain of this chant has echoed in my mind every time we step into this Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday narrative. It’s a jarring day: we gather and raise our loud, “Hosanna!” and within a few minutes, we are turned on our heads, immersed in the narrative of Jesus’ final days of relationship, betrayal, unjust trial, humiliation, torture and death. So it would seem, we pass in a heartbeat from one seemingly triumphant celebration to another kind of celebration entirely.

As many of you know, it has been my Lenten intention to raise my voice in prayerful song every day. Some days, that has taken the form of chanting morning prayer. Other days, I chant the psalms or sing a canticle whether ancient or modern. This practice has opened me up to a daily experience of my human voice as an instrument and vessel for prayer. Some days I have brought my sorrows, and other days my joys. A few times this Lenten season, life has turned on a dime for me, or for those I love. Like the jarring juxtaposition between the liturgy of the palms and the reading of the passion narrative, we bear the changing emotions of our own lives. How surreal and life-altering those unfolding days must have been to Jesus’ family, friends and followers. I wonder what it was like as they sang a hymn together after they broke bread at what we now call the Last Supper. Throughout the ages, our embodied human emotion pours out to God through word and song. Is it any wonder that Jesus’ words from the cross express lamentations of the Psalms, or that his path of suffering love embodies the experience of exile we hear in Isaiah’s Song of the Suffering Servant? We might not immediately think of St. Paul as a choral musician, but in today’s Epistle reading, he chooses the words of a hymn to profoundly convey Christ’s humility and divinity.

What songs are your carrying in your own soul as we enter this holy week?

Passing from one celebration to another,
from palms and branches let us now make haste, oh faithful,
to the solemn and saving celebration of Christ’s Passion.
Let us see him undergo voluntary suffering for our sake,
and let us sing to him with thankfulness a fitting hymn.

On this Palm Sunday, we are invited to accompany Jesus on a journey that we instinctively do not want to travel. We yearn for the loud chorus of “Hosanna” to become “Alleluia!” again. But there is still a road that needs to be travelled, and it isn’t a superficial one where the crowds will carry us along in hopes of catching a glimpse at a larger-than-life messianic superstar. This is a narrower path that will make us confront our fears, that will rend our hearts, that will change our song from one of naive and self-serving expectation, to one of soul-wrenching injustice overcome and transformed by unbounded love. We are, indeed, passing from one celebration to another. The first, triumphant entry requires very little of us. The second walk to the cross requires us to risk our human comfort as we walk together into God’s vision of divine mercy and grace. That transforming love wasn’t free, painless, or socially supported. It was costly, excruciating, and solitary. It was, and is, the gift to surpass all gifts.

Today we find ourselves just a heartbeat away from heartache. We know how much harder it is to be a part of this second crowd, watching as Jesus walks this path that we know is a soul-wrenching injustice. But we aren’t alone in this crowd, and we know through the assurance of our faith that the cross is not the end of that road. This second celebration…the solemn and saving celebration of Christ’s passion…reminds us of the liberating and transformative nature of divine mercy and grace which accompany us on every step of this journey. And that love and grace is not just for us. It is for the world. Every single injustice that we encounter; every single person we meet on this collective journey of life who is broken, tormented, struggling, aching, or exhausted beneath the weight of the world is also carried on the hard wood of the cross which is born by Jesus Christ. We are invited to share our songs together, to raise our voices with those who have been enslaved, tormented, oppressed, and wearied by the changes and changes of this life. We choose to walk this way of Christ crucified having been given the gift of knowledge that the cross was not the end, but in fact, the very beginning. Our participation is invited not so that we are pained, but that so our pain can be borne by the One who loves us more than life itself. Our voices join together not just to share our sorrows, but so that our sorrow can be transformed into the joy of resurrection, raised from death to new and unending life in Christ.

What songs will we sing this Holy Week?

Passing from one celebration to another,
from palms and branches let us now make haste, O faithful,
to the solemn and saving celebration of Christ’s Passion.
Let us see Him undergo voluntary suffering for our sake,
and let us sing to Him with thankfulness a fitting hymn:
Fountain of tender mercy and haven of salvation:
O Lord, glory to You!
(Motet for Passion Sunday, composed by Frank Ferko)

 

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Crossing Social Margins

Although this blog has been the central place for me to write (especially during Lent) for the past several years, I know that this year I have focused my efforts on getting another blog project, Faith from the Margins to the Web, off the ground.

I’m grateful to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia for inviting me to write about the project.  It really has been an amazing experience to bring people together across different social margins with their main point of commonality being the weekly Gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary.  I’m amazed week after week by how those who participate engage each other, and share the presence of God in their lives.

Please take a few minutes to read the article below, where I talk about how this project came to be and the ways it continues to transform me.  And please, follow and share Faith from the Margins to the web by email, facebook, twitter, or instagram.  Not just for me (although I appreciate it!) but so that these stories of faith and hope can find their ways to speak across the vastness of the web.  God is revealed in every person we meet.

Faith from the Margins in Virginia Episcopalian

jimmycover

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In the Desert

Homily for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Lectionary Readings

If you thought you just heard a familiar lesson, you are exactly right: today’s Gospel lesson begins where our past reading from the first Sunday after the Epiphany ends. By stepping back into this narrative at Jesus’ Baptism, we are reminded again that our own lives of faith begin immersed in those same waters. Holy Baptism, this sacrament of initiation is both of this world, and beyond. But now, the story continues as the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Unlike accounts in Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t emphasize the detail of Jesus’ temptation. Mark begins with the urgency of the Holy Spirit breaking through at Jesus’ Baptism with a message of immediacy as soon as Jesus’ full identity in and with God is proclaimed. Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit using the same language form we hear when demons are driven out. There is a spiritual urgency underscoring this time of formation, necessitating intentional nearness with God. Mark tells us only three things about this deeply formative time: Jesus was tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts, and angels (divine messengers, ἄγγελος) waited upon him, conveying hope and good news. [Ἄγγελος, as an aside, is where our word “evangelism” has its root…messengers of the Good News]. Jesus’ wilderness is both of and beyond this world, filled with the wild and the divine, but in constant communication with God.

So, what does our wilderness look like this Lent?

Twentieth-century theologian Paul Ricoeur uses this metaphor of wilderness…or to Ricoeur, “the desert,” to describe the intellectual and spiritual landscape where our faith is formed. To Ricoeur, “the desert” is a place of deep formation and transformation which we enter through moments of critical discovery: a new idea, a deepening intention, a glimpse of insight about who we are. The desert can also look like a crisis of health, the death of a loved one, senseless violence, or even a critical questioning of our faith in a way which shatters our assumptions. In that desert of uncertainty, we may feel besieged, but we also may begin to see that we are being cared for by messengers of God, sharers of good news who remind us of God’s presence. We may begin to experience a deeper, transformed understanding of who we are, and how God is present in our lives. And when we begin this transformation, says Ricoeur: “Beyond the desert of criticism we yearn to be called again.”†  Ricoeur reminds us that as people of Christ, we do not need to crawl our own way out of the desert. We are called out, given a divine message which compels us to move from the wilderness where we wander and into our next place of knowing. Ricoeur rightly calls this our “second naivete” because this process happens over and over again across our lives of faith, forming us with depth and intention. Without knowing who we are, we cannot recognize the divine messengers in our midst. Without entering the desert of criticism, we cannot grow into the fullness of who we are called to be.

Like Jesus in the wilderness, our lives of faith are fueled by the yearning to hear and respond to God’s call, supported by God’s messengers who nurture our growth.

As I’ve been engaging with this scripture this week, I realize that desert landscape is familiar territory. I’ve learned that taming the wild beasts of my own restless spirit is one thing: I can learn to see and know more about them, and find ways to live in harmony with my inner wild child. The principalities and powers of evil, on the other hand, are stealthy and often invisible. Fear and ignorance can leave us blind to seeing the structures of evil into which we can quickly become entangled: hatred, oppression, violence, greed, apathy to name a few. Our blindness traps us in the desert, where we yearn to be called out by the divine voice who knows us and speaks our name. And sometimes, as I think Mark’s Gospel reminds us, we need the messengers of God to minister to us and help call us into God’s possibility instead of the snares and structures of evil that surround us.

Let me offer a little illustration. When I was 19 and knew everything about the world, I was putting myself through school working in the activities department of a nursing home in Buffalo…the Episcopal Church Home, as a matter of fact. This was a caring non-profit serving predominantly low-income seniors and for years, the top “wish list” item was a bus to bring our residents to local concerts and events. We finally reached our fund-raising goal and my colleagues and I were able to greatly expand the quality of life of our residents through these community outings. I had to be trained to drive the bus, and it was our Director of Transportation and Security, a very kind and gentle older man named Gene, who was my driving teacher. Gene was one of the first employees of that facility 30-something years earlier, and he was now a well-loved department director and, incidentally, the only person of color in a management position. Gene was a patient teacher, and I passed his final driving test just in time to take a bus filled with residents to a concert at a local church one Saturday afternoon. All was going perfectly, until it was time for me to move the bus from the now filled parking lot to the front of the church to pick up our residents. Trying to maneuver the big bus while compensating for all the parked cars, I accidentally hooked the back bumper of the bus on the edge of a metal gate. I moved forward, and heard the sound of the back bumper of our brand new bus being pulled off. While it was drivable and all the residents were safe and sound, I was devastated. In my fear, I decided not to call anyone on their day off. Instead, I left a note with reams of details justifying my driving and the inevitability of this accident for my supervisor, signing off by saying “I hope you can calm the savages for me before I come in on Tuesday.”

On Tuesday morning, I came in to work and my supervisor said, “Gene told me to ask you to come to his office as soon as you got in.” My heart sank. I went to the office thinking of all the things that might happen: my fear projected being yelled at, or fined, or fired. When I arrived at Gene’s office, I gingerly knocked and he motioned for me to come in, and sit down. Without even giving him a chance, I immediately jumped into my own defense, explaining how hard I was trying to drive well and care for the bus and make sure the residents were safe. He stopped me mid-explanation: “Sarah, I don’t care about the bus. That isn’t why I asked to talk with you.” Without a hint of reprimand or condescension, Gene looked me in the eye and said, “What I want to know is, what have I ever done that would make you think of me as a savage?”

It was as if blinders fell off, and I could see the world from an entirely different perspective than I could in while trapped in my own ignorance and fear. I realize now that I was already in the wilderness, wanderly blindly and unable to see all the “isms” and assumptions that my fears were so quick to grasp onto in that carelessly written note justifying myself. I was trapped in my wilderness where the wild beasts of my own fear and the assumptions of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and ageism were holding me captive so that my careless and thoughtless words caused pain to a caring and kind person. That meeting would have been entirely different if the wild beasts and structures of oppression had dominated. Instead, God prevailed. My nurturing colleague met me in relationship, and saw me capable of growth and deserving of the respect that I had not shown to him. His gentle question broke down all the structures that had blinded me. I had to be called out of the desert of unspoken assumptions, so that I could move into the depth of divine relationship: of seeing Christ in the other without all the racism, sexism, classism, the oppressive powers and principalities of this world interfering in how we relate to each other as people of God. I was called out of that wilderness by God, through one of God’s messengers who was willing speak a divine and transforming truth. My heart opened. I remembered the words of the Baptismal covenant we make to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to respect the dignity of every human being with God’s help. I am grateful for my friend and colleague Gene, for being the ἄγγελος God’s messenger, who ministered to me in that wilderness.

I can’t know what the wilderness looks like for you. But I can tell you that when we find ourselves surrounded by wild beasts and temptations, we might just be there already. It might take an eye-opening experience to recognize what we aren’t seeing that keeps us from fully recognizing God’s voice, of hearing our call to live into the fullness of our baptismal identity, as individuals and as a community. Perhaps Lent means recognizing the desert spaces where we have already been driven with urgency, and listening with our hearts filled with yearning to understand God’s call on our lives. If you feel rocked by the structures of fear, power and pain that have besieged our world this week; if that fear keeps you from hearing hard truths or asking challenging questions then listen for the voice that is calling you to some new way of understanding, to some new depth of serving God in each other. Look for the messengers of good news who may be ministering to you, even if the message may be hard to hear at first. Avoid the temptation to crawl your own way out or to pretend not to see. Open your heart. Pray. Lift your voice to God in prayer, in lament, in song. Lean into the yearning to be called out of the desert spaces of your life so that your heart can hear the words the Spirit is speaking. Live with the yearning to be called out, and be willing to be transformed in the process.

“The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

† Paul Ricoeur,The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 349.

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Seeing through new eyes…

via Healing Welcome

I had an opportunity to participate in an interview for my own project, Faith from the Margins to the Web.  It always amazes me how these things work: something will happen (in this case, someone canceling with a cold).  I’ll initially panic and wonder what I’m going to do, and then in the calmness I’ll just realize that it will all be well.  On the day of this particular interview, I ended up leading Dale into the quiet chapel and filling in for the missing interviewer.  As soon as we began to speak, I knew beyond a doubt we were meant to be in that space, at that time, opening up this conversation with each other.

Seeing the light of my own ministry through the eyes of a person who is blind was an unexpected gift.  I share this small point of light with you, since it illuminated my own path.

Many blessings on this evening of the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany!

Sarah
healing light

Epiphany 5, Year B

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:29-39

After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Co-authors:  Dale and Sarah

Dale and I sat together in the chapel as we opened up this Gospel lesson together.  I hadn’t spent a lot of time talking with Dale  until today; he is the friend of several others who attend Red Door lunch and healing service regularly.  We’ve exchanged pleasant hellos but we hadn’t really talked.   Today, our bible study numbers were a bit uneven, so I filled in at the last minute.  What a blessing that serendipitous decision turned out to be!

As we began, Dale asked if I would do the reading since his eyesight kept him from being able to read out loud.  I noticed, even from the intent way that he listened to the Gospel, that he was hearing every word with a clarity most of us miss.

“I like that reading, I do” said Dale.  “I didn’t get that part before but this time I heard that James and John were there too.  Jesus was there, but the others, they had God’s word there with them.  I wonder, did they have power or something, like Jesus, to heal?

“That’s a great question, Dale!  I hadn’t even picked up on that.  Jesus does say at other times to his disciples that they have the power to heal, that Jesus gives others the power to heal in His name.  You know, I think about that a lot.  On Fridays here, when we have the healing prayer service, that’s something that is powerful to me when I say it each week before we offer prayers together in Jesus’ name.  I don’t have the power to heal.  It’s not like that, like a magic power or something, but when we hold a healing prayer service we pray together because we have been told that there is healing in God.  I’m not in charge of that healing: giving, or receiving healing.  But healing is there with us when we are gathered together because God is with us.  So, when we stand together, when I pray with people, it’s in the presence of that healing that God is made known to us.”

“You know, I believe that” said Dale.  He continued, “…because back in 2012, when I lost my eyesight from glaucoma, I was blind totally for about 18 months.  I went to the eye doctor and he said there wasn’t much hope.  I was imagining never seeing again, learning to read braille and stuff.  Then the doctor said, ‘there is this surgery, but its really 50/50 whether it will work or not.’  But, I thought, ‘I’m already blind, what do I have to lose?”  So, I had the surgery, but then there was nothing.  Six months went by, nothing.  Then one day I thought I saw light starting to come in.  So I started to pray, not begging but just feeling thankful to see light again.  And other people, they started to pray for me.  And always, those prayers were in the name of Jesus Christ.”

“That’s wonderful!” I said, “I think about that whenever we pray.  I may pray, I may ask, but we are asking in the name of Jesus Christ who is with us all.”

“Praying, you know, it’s like blessing.  We get blessed, we feel blessed.  But it isn’t about that.  It’s about passing along that blessing, that is also in Jesus’ name.”

Something else stood out for me, too.  “I keep going back to this part…about Simon’s mother…who is healed and then gets up and starts serving everyone.  At first I want to say, “hey, let the poor woman rest!” and then I thought about it.  She chooses to serve.  That is a show of love, a gift of family and community.  That is an action of thanksgiving and grace.  We can never say ‘thank you’ enough for our healing so we do what we do best: we serve as healed people, showing our thanks to God.”

Dale nodded.  “You’re right, because her way of serving, her way of saying thank you was to keep serving.  I’m just like her.  I wake up and keep seeing God.  My eyesight isn’t all back, but it is clear enough now that I can see light.  When I wake up, I say thank you God, because that light makes me know that God is there in that healing. And then I want to get out, and to serve others.”

“It’s like our thanks, our blessing, our healing are all together” continued Dale.  “I don’t know which is the right word to use.  But maybe they are all part of the same thing.”

I thought about this.

Dale went on, “Maybe this blessing falls to us, because it is so present with us.  I ask myself, ‘how do I live into this blessing, this healing’ and I see that here in this place.  Here, there are a whole lot of people who feel shame and hunger and think they will be looked down on.  But they come here, and there is healing, and there is food, but there is also spiritual healing where we are fed. I’m surprised sometimes by who I see come into that service.  But you are never surprised…you just show love to everyone. I see that in you.”

I felt myself smiling; I was blessed by hearing this, but I knew the story was deeper than Dale probably realized.  So, it was my turn to share.  “You know, Dale, there was a time that I was one of those people who was least likely to come into a church.  You see, I was mad, angry.  Really angry.  Then, one day I decided to just go to a church not because I had to but because I wanted to…actually because I wanted to sing.  And that day, the clergy person seemed to just look right at me.  Instead of feeling judged, I heard him say, “All are welcome…you are welcome.”  I felt that in my entire soul.  I knew that welcome came from more than just that person; that welcome was from God.  That welcome was God.  And in that welcome is where I found healing from all that anger.  Slow, just like your eyesight!  But gradually, the light comes back in and we are filled with thankfulness and gratitude.  So, I want to live into that now.  I know there are people every week who come here feeling broken, angry, and not welcome.  I know exactly how that feels.  So, I stand in that place of healing I have known, and I pray.  My prayer is always that I can offer up that healing and welcome to others, too.”

“I notice that too” said Dale, “when you all say the prayers, you always say that at the beginning.  You know you are welcome, you can be here just as you are.  Welcome is a gift, and a blessing.  Welcome is healing.  You know, I’m glad this was our lesson today”

I’m glad too, Dale.

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Five Golden Words…

A homily for the First Sunday after Christmas, Year B
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
December 31, 2017

At around 11 a.m. on December 25th, I glanced at my phone and saw a few friends posting their Christmas morning pictures of bleary-eyed toddlers surrounded by mounds of wrapping paper, children in pajamas with toys and books strewn in a million directions and tired teens scrolling through their smartphones while lounging on the sofa. These candid holiday photos were captioned with things like, “It’s not even noon and it’s all over already!” and “Christmas was done and gone before dawn at our house.” It occurred to me that these social media morsels are evidence of a larger, profound truth that I see in play this time of year: our way of being Church together is much more countercultural than we realize.

While cultural Christmas may have ended in department stores, radio stations, and whimsical coffee cups it has not ended here, in this community of the gathered faithful which we have come to call church. Today, we gather in the midst of Christmastide, celebrating the miraculous wonder and glory of the incarnation during these twelve days of Christmas. It’s also natural to reflect on the year which is wrapping up as we prepare to welcome 2018.

Something that surprised me during the past year…a miraculous wonder of sorts…was that my seminary studies taught me to love New Testament Greek. It probably helps that I love the beauty and meaning of words and how they help us express our humanity and our culture. I always thought of myself as someone who struggled with languages, but having a really good teacher accompanied by many supportive prayers and notes of encouragement opened me up to the possibility that this wasn’t just a class to get through, but one that might also truly enrich my formation for ministry.

I also love music…and I am greatly looking forward to the elective in church music and liturgical singing that awaits me this January.  So this morning, like the Old English folk tune, I have some gifts to share this Christmastide. Not twelve…that sermon would be much too long…but instead five golden words…in Greek…from today’s Gospel which radiate light, and life and meaning in this holy season for me.

We know that this Gospel attributed to John was likely the last among the four accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry to be written, and was likely written for a mixed community of people that included Samaritans and gentiles, as well as Jewish people.[1] The members of that early Johannine church community were also surrounded by hellenistic culture and thus, it is not only the history of the Hebrew scriptures, but also the language and metaphor of Greek philosophers that may have coalesced to help express their experience as followers of Christ. Not only now, but even then, Christianity and culture stood in this dynamic tension with each other.

Our reading today is from the prologue of John’s Gospel which begins at the beginning, sourcing the incarnation of Christ in the eternal nature of a loving, creating God from whom all that we know was spoken into being: In the beginning was the Word.

And so, the first golden word of Christmastide is: Λόγος (logos): In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God; the Word was God; the Word came to be with us. Words give us meaning, nuance, poetry, expression, communication, relationship. In Greek philosophy, Λόγος is the ideal, perfect, pre-existent Word speaking reasoned order into chaos and bringing into being all that we know and experience as light and life. Λόγος is both Word and Wisdom, spoken through the ages and continuing to enlighten, inform, and inspire us as the fullness of creation unfolds.

The Word, Λόγος, took on the form of human life and Ἐγένετο (egeneto), became (stem γίνομαι [ginomai] “to become”). The gift of this word involves a bit of a grammar lesson; in the Gospel reading, the verb tense in Greek [aorist] is different from anything we use in modern English. Rather than “past tense” which implies something is over and done, this “becoming” is situated in history but without a fixed duration; in other words, the Word became and from that action of becoming everything changed, from that moment onward and without end.

…and the Word became…

Σὰρξ (sarx): the fleshy, gritty, realness of being human. The Greek doesn’t suggest that God become some ideal, abstract perfection of humanity. Σὰρξ is literally the flesh which holds our bones together, the very base nature of physical existence. Eternal, almighty God became fleshy, fragile human. God did not become super-human. God came into being as that which God had created, born in all the realities of a human existence…as we know from other Gospel accounts…in a stable when denied lodging; born into the family of a young but bold woman and her trusting, betrothed partner; honored by smelly shepherds and noisy animals with a feeding trough as a cradle. Σὰρξ: the fleshy, gritty realness of being human. Latin American priest and theologian Gustavo Gutierrez translates it best in my view: “The Word become poor and dwelled among us.”[2] Which brings us to the next word:

Ἐσκήνωσεν (eskēnōsen): The gift of this word is in its origin. We may be familiar with the traditional “dwelled among us” or today in the lectionary translation, we heard “lived among us.” But, in the Greek form this verb for dwelling has the same root as the noun “Tabernacle.” The tabernacle was the holy space in which God was to be found and worshipped. God became flesh and tabernacled with us: God makes God’s home in the holy space of our human lives. Our lives, individually and collectively, are now the tabernacle in which God resides.

Δόξα (doxa): The last word gift for this morning is Δόξα: Glory. This is the glory which we have seen and the glory which we, in turn, give to God. We give glory (think “doxology”) in our common worship, in our lives of prayer, in our gathered community. The glory of the incarnation is given birth each time we give that glory together. I was instructed as an adult entering the liturgical tradition of The Episcopal Church to think of each Sunday’s Holy Eucharist as a “mini-Easter”, the reliving of the Paschal Mystery through which Christ has died,, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. But maybe we should also think of every doxology: every “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” and every “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” as a mini-Christmas, a reliving of the feast of the incarnation in which glory surrounds the birth of God-made-human.

Λόγος    

ἐγένετο    

σὰρξ    

ἐσκήνωσεν    

δόξα

Five golden words to remind us to celebrate Christmas in our hearts, and our lives, and our common worship during these twelve days and beyond. Despite all the cultural evidence to the contrary, Christmas is not over. The incarnation, set in motion by the divine word spoken at the beginning of time, still dwells in the holy places of our lives. This will be true even when the tree needs to come down, when the post-holiday clearance sales have removed the last strings of lights from the shelves, when the magi complete their journey and go home by another road, when the holy family makes their way from a stable in Bethlehem to live into the lives they are called to live. The miracle that is Christmas has happened, and continues to happen in our lives and in this community where we gather as Church to give glory together.

Merry Christmas…and Glory be to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen

[1] Adele Reinhartz, “John” in Fortress Bible Commentary, p. 268
[2] Gustavo Guiterrez, The Power of the Poor in History, pp.12-13

 

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“The Nativity”, Lorenzo Monaco; 1409

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Tidings of Comfort and Joy…

Sometimes, it only takes an instant for a small point of light to cut through the ordinariness of days and touch the depths of the soul.  A few weeks ago, I was gathering people for bible study while my friend Patience was photographing participants for Faith from the Margins to the Web.  It was one of those times where tears of joy could simply not stop flowing.  I could feel the warmth of human kindness even as flakes of snow began to fall, and the resonant joy of the season echoed through words and images.  This one, especially for today, is from Mary and Mary Ann who bring us tidings of comfort and joy.

Wishing all of you the blessings of this holy season as I share the special edition Faith from the Margins post for you:

Joy to the World: Faith from the Margins to the Web

Merry Christmas,

Sarah

Mary2

 

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Spirit is always moving…

Friends, I must tell you that this latest project of mine, Faith from the Margins to the Web, continues to delight and amaze me.  Today, on that blog I also curate, there is an interview posted in preparation for Advent 2 between two people who I must admit, I was uncertain about pairing together.  I had met one person (a student at the University where I teach) for about 30 minutes total; he liked the project but acknowledged having no background in a faith tradition.  The other person was a regular attendee of Red Door, a person experiencing homelessness, generally quiet and reserved.  I had gathered those volunteering for the project together around a table to do introductions, and then just basically paired people off to do the interviews.  This was the only one I didn’t even get to listen to, as the student also volunteered to transcribe it (which was an amazing gift for which I was grateful!)

When I read it, I wept.  Purely, simply, completely.  I would have never known the stories of these two men intersected so poignantly.  So, I commend it to those of you who read my blog here.  Here, John and LT  are the small point of light for my day and I hope, yours as well:

https://faithfromthemarginstotheweb.com/2017/12/05/camel-haired-messengers-of-god/

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