In All Our Complexity

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”

“You are the salt of the earth”; “You are the light of the world”

We’ve been hearing these inspiring passages from Matthew’s Gospel during the past few weeks of post-Epiphany ordinary time, echoes of Jesus the preacher extolling the crowds gathered for what we’ve come to call the “Sermon on the Mount.” But no sooner than all of us…the blessed beacons of light on a hill…follow Jesus into the depths of his own sermon over the course of these recent Sundays, we are met with today’s Gospel where we are confronted by a few less comfortable sermon topics: murder, anger, infidelity, divorce.

It must be time for the seminarian to preach!

But, all joking aside, today’s Gospel really can make us feel like squirming in our seats. So, let’s just get that out of the way right up front. Ordinarily, we might be tempted to pat ourselves on the back if we haven’t blatantly violated the “Big 10” of the decalogue: murder, adultery, bearing false witness which are the specific commandments Jesus references here. But, I don’t know one single human being who hasn’t at some point been overcome by anger, dismissed someone as a fool, harbored a grudge longer than we should have, let our minds wander into flights of wild fantasy, said one thing with our lips while intending another thing entirely. Succinctly and perhaps shockingly, Jesus dismantles our tendency to think of “them” and “us” and reminds us that while we love to think of ourselves as the salt and light, blessed by God, we are also vulnerable and complicated human beings who are all too quickly pulled in to the structures of brokenness, deceit, and unfaithfulness which scar this world.

Jesus knows his people, and he knows our complexity.

I grew up in a small, rural town in upstate New York where there was one stop-light, a Mom & Pop grocery store, two Churches flanking Main Street (Baptists to the West, and Catholics to the East) and where the biggest harbinger of modernization that I remember while growing up was the opening of a Subway…the sandwich shop, not the rapid transit system! The biggest moral decision discussed over the water fountain at school was whether that mass produced sandwich product was tastier, cheaper and/or “better” than the subs at Ronni’s pizza, the fastest food operation that we currently had in town. On the surface, it seems like a delightfully simple and quaint upbringing. But, of course, there were other moral dilemmas. The town’s one manufacturing company was bought out by a massive overseas corporation, so my friends and their families were rapidly experiencing unemployment and economic uncertainty. There were always various and assorted numbers of love triangles and illicit but ever-so-interesting stories spread via local gossip, hushed whispers in hallways and more blatant name-calling. In this quiet, country town where we knew right from wrong…or at least we thought we did…a friend’s gentle spirited younger brother ended his life after relentless adolescent name calling questioning his sexual orientation. And my neighbors across the street both died as a result of a murder–suicide that was quickly hushed up and never discussed, nor was the chronic and persistent presence of untreated mental health and substance abuse which were tearing apart lives and families in this rural community. And that is just one community. Each one of us can run parallel stories that cut through our own lives and experiences.

Our human, communal lives are so much more complicated than we can make them seem on the surface.

Now, I realize that it can be tempting for us in 2017 to think that has something to do with our modern era. We can be critical and even cynical of the world that we see around us where it is difficult to discern whether and how God is in our midst. Our modern lives are so complicated, that we even coined a relationship status on Facebook to declare it to the world.   But, today’s lectionary readings call that assumption into question: the holy scriptures keep it real for us. Let’s start with Moses, who has to explain with great precision to God’s chosen people…who had been led out of slavery in Egypt and who had just been assembled to hear God’s faithful covenant renewed…that there are choices to be made about their own faithfulness and keeping their side of the covenant with God, the consequences of which were life and death; blessings and curses.

And then there’s the Psalm:

“Oh, that my ways were made so direct that I might keep your statutes!

Then I should not be put to shame, when I regard all your commandments.”

It seems that even Moses and the Psalmist knew something about complexity, about how the laws that seem so direct and straightforward for others seem so complicated and unwieldy to us. Its easier to judge others, to keep quiet in our own corner and assume that if no one else knows, then no one is affected. Jesus, the preacher, asks us to check the intentions of our own hearts first which opens us up to a deep, common mercy towards those whose lives are as complicated as our own. We begin to realize it isn’t THEM. It’s US.

There is Good News, even in all of our complexity: God is still with us.

No where in the scriptures do we see God abandoning us in our complexity. In fact, the exhortations and stories in today’s readings invite us to be vulnerable in acknowledging our faults so that we can welcome the presence of God into the complexity of our lives to help us discern the way forward. Our communal lives of prayer, united as the Church, the Body of Christ, are always moving forward with God’s help. The situations that Jesus reveals…our anger, our wistfulness, our deceit, our infidelity, our lying, and our covering all of these things up…this is what we do when we cling to the power we think we have and use it to further our desires and fuel our passions. The invitation to choose life is a different path: to invite God into the complexity of our life’s journey as it emerges step by step, with God’s help.

One of my favorite prayers, from Thomas Merton, captures this deeply human, divinely present yearning:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

–Thomas Merton

The image that continues to replay in my mind this week is that of Jesus the preacher. Jesus, who knows our hearts and speaks the words that make us squirm, Jesus who stands on the mount of olives looking out over the crowd, seeing everyone in the midst of their poverty, doubts, bland saltlessness, anger, infidelity and false speech…in short, seeing us exactly as we are. All that vulnerability and frailty. All that complexity. All that potential. And Jesus is right there…right here…with us. The Gospels don’t come with stage directions, but I imagine that there were times during his sermon when Jesus paused to look at the crowd, to really see his congregation. The sense of uncomfortable awkwardness and conviction was probably palpable to him, too. He may have even seen a few people trying to sneak on the side, unnoticed. In the center of this scene, up there on the mount, I imagine Jesus, the human and divine preacher, still remaining present with this crowd who had gathered to hear the Good News. I imagine Jesus delivering these words we read today with the murmur of the opening blessing he had offered to them still resonating in the air and in their minds, landing now as a prayer:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

You are blessed when you see that I am with you. And I am always with you.

Jesus was right there with the crowd, exactly as they were. Jesus is, in fact, here with us, in all our vulnerability and squirmy human imperfections, too…exactly as we are. The Good News is that none of our complexity, our indecision, or inability to see where we are going keeps us from the knowledge and love of God. In fact, it draws us nearer to God and to each other, to see Jesus Christ who is with us, who remains with us, and who invites us through the ages and amid all the complexity to say a courageous Yes, Yes and choose life together in this God-shaped space, step by step by step.

–February 12, 2017  Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

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Image Attribution: Louis Comfort Tiffany Window at Arlington Street Church (Boston), photo by John Stephen Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Blessed

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

As someone who doesn’t like crowds, I can always relate to the stories of Jesus where he does what the more introverted people like I do: as moving as the rest of today’s Gospel is, it begins with Jesus pulling away from the noise and confusion.  I don’t think that was just a distaste for crowds.  Sometimes, we need to pull away in order seek out a clear path so that the divine message carried in our words and actions can be heard loud and clear.

Our Gospel reading today is the first part of Jesus’ teaching in what we often call, “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Several chapters of Matthew’s Gospel detail this message and the great wisdom with which it is filled.  What stands out for me today, though, is the way in which this teaching begins.  Jesus sees the crowds.  Jesus sees the people in the crowds.  He sees them.  I imagine in doing so that he also sees the enormity of the need and yearning in those who have gathered.  Whenever there are crowds, there is usually a desire to be seen, and heard, and understood.  That was true for Jesus, and it is true today.

Last weekend, I had my own experience of standing in a crowd.  Like many people, I made my way up to Washington, DC to stand in solidarity with my sisters and brothers who wanted to send a message to our new president.  I was gathered in that crowd not to see a person, but to stand up for the people I know and the issues important to me, and to them.  I was wearing a scarf full of ribbons with the concerns of people I care about: my friend from high school who has adopted children from Guatemala and fears for the lives and well being of other immigrant children in this country; my social worker friends and colleagues who work every day for better resources for housing, mental health care, and meaningful work opportunities that require funding that keeps getting cut.  There is a lot on my mind and in my heart these days.  There was a lot of my mind and my heart as I stood in that crowd.  As I look back I think to myself: how amazing would it have been to be seen; to be heard.  

That amazing thing is, I believe that is exactly what Jesus did.  He saw the needs of the great crowds that began to follow him in these early days of his ministry.  He saw the needs and yearnings of the crowd, and he took them with him to the mountain.  On that mountain, he gathered his disciples around him, and he began to speak:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

These are not vague, abstract promises of what might someday happen for God’s people.  These are the blessings set upon those who are gathered and yearning to be seen.  They set out what God’s promise is for God’s people.  That is as true today as it was during Jesus’ life and ministry.  What are the blessings that Jesus calls upon us, when we gather and look to Him, our hearts filled with yearning?  I suspect that if Jesus was talking today, his blessing might sound something like this:

Blessed are you who yearn; God’s love is right here.

Blessed are you who are grieving; God gives you comfort.

Blessed are you who are quiet; God speaks to you in the stillness.

Blessed are you who seek goodness in a broken world; God will open your eyes to see.

Blessed are you who forgive when you have been hurt; God enfolds you with grace.

Blessed are you who see God in all things; God also sees you.

You see, these blessings…the beatitudes…come at the beginning of a time of Jesus’ great ministry of teaching and healing where he repeatedly and relentlessly tells us something about God’s ever-present reign of love on this earth, which is greater than any political power or economic system.  God’s reign of love transcends what we human beings do to try to manage our limited resources.  God’s reign of love is abundance, the creative and creating power to fill our yearning with an abundance of divine grace.  Later, in this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will teach his disciples to pray, using the words of the Lord’s prayer which we will also pray in a few minutes.  In that prayer, we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Our prayer to God is also Jesus’ prayer: bring our earthly life into alignment with the heavenly life.

On this day, we are blessed.  You are blessed.  As we gather together in the name of Jesus, it is Jesus who sees the yearnings of our heart and the brokenness of our world.  It is Jesus that extends to us through time and history a knowledge of God’s abiding presence and blessing upon those who seek a path leading not to power and might the way the world sees it, but to God’s reign of righteousness where those who mourn are comforted, where those who hunger and thirst are filled, where those who seek God are seen, and known, and met with that abundance of divine grace.  Like a great wave, some of us pray.  Some of us advocate.  Some of us are the doers of acts of mercy great and small.  Some are the tellers of the stories of seeing that mercy at work in the world.  Like our story last week of Jesus calling his disciples to bring themselves, to be the fishers of people in this world, we are all called to work of creating God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.  We do it every day in the way we move through the world, in the way we see each other, in the way that we breathe and move and talk and act out of the abundance of divine grace which enfolds us.

Blessed are we who gather here, for God is in our midst.

Homily prepared for Red Door Healing Service at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church: Friday, January 27, 2017.

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Feet on the Ground, Not Backing Down

Yesterday, I attended the Women’s March on Washington along with my daughter and marching beside one of the friends who has known me the longest on this earth.  Feminists, unite.  This is me, in the thick of it, wearing the names and causes of over 100 people marching in solidarity with me:

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I write and reflect today here, having been re-energized by the vitality of millions of small points of light who ARE and WILL make a global difference.

My enduring reflection from yesterday is this: unshakable unity while embracing diversity. Those who attended had many issues of importance to them, personally and socially. But, we were together and united by a common cause of advancing women’s rights as human rights. Diversity was notable and palpable. This is what my feminist foremothers taught me, and the march reminded me: feminism embraces multiple truths and complicated realities, bound together in the advancement of gender equity. Feminism is artistry, and advocacy. Feminism is intellectual and emotional; empathetic and outward looking to embrace the well being of our sisters everywhere. So grateful for the opportunity to live into that palpably yesterday and today, writing letters to my local, state, and national representatives to let them know I am here and will never be silent while injustice impacts any of my sisters and global siblings.

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Today, I am writing letters.  I will say upfront, when I compile the list of people who are my representatives in City, State, and National government I am humbled to be among them.  I have been grateful to elect people I believe are warriors for justice and change-agents in their spheres of influence.  So, I took time to write and remind them that I also have a voice that I will use, and I’m in this with them:

I write on this Sunday after I have witnessed a peaceful transfer of power which is the hallmark of our U.S. Governmental process, and after I have marched in the streets of Washington, DC to advocate for women’s rights as human rights; this demonstration is also the hallmark of our democracy. Today, I write to express to you, my representative, what I hope you will stand for during your terms.

Women constitute more than half of the population of this great country. We bear the children of this country; we contribute economically, socially and politically to the fiber of what makes this nation great. Yet, we are subject to laws which unfairly discriminate against our access to health care by taxing and regulating reproductive health in ways that our brothers do not experience; we do not have the same earning power as our male brothers who are not called into account for these enduring economic sanctions; we do not receive support for roles in leadership without being subject to commentary from men on our clothing, our physical appearance, or other aspects of our bodies. Our intellectual strength is demeaned by over-attention to sexualization and objectification of our bodies without those levelling this patriarchal power being called to accountability. The mothers of this country, especially those in poverty, are bound up in policies which limit their access to family planning while being demonized for bringing more children into this world. It must stop. We must begin to view with equity the social, economic, intellectual, and political strength of women of all races, all socioeconomic strata, and all walks of life.

I write to you as someone with a voice, to remind you that I will use it. I will use my voice as a citizen to craft social policy and work it through the local, state, and federal processes. I will use my voice as a Professor to train the next generation of leaders to understand the social forces which interweave us as human beings beyond ideologies and identity politics and into real, human experience. I will preach from my pulpit the Good News of dignity and worth of every human being. I will be unafraid to publicly support policy which upholds the worth of my sisters and global siblings, and to protest against that which breaks us down. I am your constituent and I shall not be silent. I am grateful for your leadership, and I want to let you know that you have my vote, my voice, and I have your back as you continue your advocacy.

If my voice can be used to amplify equity, call upon me. This is the birth of a movement for equity and I, your constituent, I am on the front lines and ready to stand.

In solidarity with women everywhere,

Sarah

I will write a different letter to Donald J. Trump.

In the meantime, I will keep on teaching and writing and offering pastoral care and tangible support to those experiencing homelessness, to young mothers and children, to those across lines of socioeconomics, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender expression, religious affiliation.  I will work preferentially with those who are poor and oppressed, because I learn from them and with them what it means to be human.  I will see God in all spaces, because God is showing Godself to us in those spaces.

Yesterday I marched, today I act.  I implore you to do the same.  Brighten the world with your own presence, all those who are reading.  It is time for us to birth a new movement for light and justice in this world.

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Here is a bit of inspiration for my title, delivered by the amazing Alicia Keys:

Alicia Keys at the Women’s March on Washington

 

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Pondering…

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

Friday, December 30, 2016

Luke 2:15-21

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

This Sunday, we will celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name which on the church calendar is the day when this tiny baby, born to Mary, was given the name that would define his life on this earth.  This holy day is celebrated on January 1 every year, eight days after Christmas.  But this year the Feast of the Holy Name falls on a Sunday, so we celebrate it in our public worship in a way that we don’t always take the time to acknowledge.  As is our custom at Friday’s Red Door service, we always use the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel as our reflection.  So, we are reminded by today’s lesson for the Feast of the Holy Name that this incarnate Jesus whose birth we have just celebrated is both fully human, and fully divine.  Last week, we talked about The Word who became flesh, and who dwells with us.  This week, the scripture that we read together tells us even more specifically about the power of one particular kind of word: the power of a name.

Names are important…so I wonder, do you know where your name came from?  Do you know the story of how you were named?  If you have named someone else, how did you choose that name?  Do you have a name that you try to live in to, or live up to?  Pause to think for a minute about your name, and what it says about you.

The name “Jesus” is from the Hebrew Joshua, or Yehoshuah, “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh will save.”  This name given to infant Jesus was already sourced in divine mystery and future expectation.  Luke tells us a bit earlier in his Gospel the story of how Mary came to know this name during her pending motherhood.  It was her first divine glimpse into who this child was destined to be:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  (Luke 1:26-33)

On a first reading of today’s Gospel, it might seem like the circumcision and naming of Jesus are simply cultural and religious actions of an obedient and observant Mary and Joseph.  But, when we consider today’s lesson together with this angelic visit we begin to hear and see that there is so much more to this story.  The language of the story Luke is telling in his Gospel suggests that the unfolding of the story of God’s incarnate and redeeming loving was overflowing, even from this first encounter before Mary had even conceived this child. As we celebrate the feast of the holy name, it is remarkable that even the angel in this story is given a name: “Gabriel.”  And we are told, very clearly, the name of this beloved child of God who is being invited to become an integral part of God’s divine plan: her name is “Mary.”  Names are important; they give us substance and individuality.  They are a recognition that we are invited, known, loved, respected.  In this story, names heighten our awareness that these individual lives matter…that our individual lives matter…as a part of God’s intimate knowledge of us even within the vastness of the divine imagination. This story is as real and specific as our stories: we are known and beloved of God by name.

In both passages from Luke, we are also told that Mary is pondering: first, she ponders the angel’s greeting and intention.  She takes in the power and significance of this divine visit, and having done so, she willingly agrees to participate.  Then, in today’s Gospel passage, we hear her pondering again all the words that she has treasured up during these nine months of expectant pregnancy and throughout this time of the birth of this child: from the declarations of the shepherds, the prophecies of angels and the prayerful, holy expressions of others who have come to kneel before this tiny child that she has nurtured into being during these past nine months.  She ponders in her head and in her heart what these experiences mean because, like us, she isn’t able to fully grasp and comprehend the meaning of the circumstances in which she finds herself.  That takes time; that takes prayerful pondering:

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

When I ponder the words of the stories of Christmas, I always come back to this phrase. As a mother, there are images and words that I hold in the sacred space of my own heart.  There are moments that I knew were important when they first happened, but the real significance of them doesn’t become clear until much later.  The same is true in this life of faith that I lead, and the journey that I am walking now as a child of God, discerning and forming to respond to the call God has set upon my life.  I hold these things that happen to me, and I ponder them.  Usually, pondering for me happens in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep, or in the early hours of the morning when I first wake.  At those moments, sometimes it feels as if it is just me, and God.  At those moments, the most treasured moments and memories of my life feel like they are touchable, as if I could reach out and grasp them.  Sometimes, in those moments where I am profoundly still, I listen deeply and I ponder.

This week, as I have pondered, I have thought of Mary: visited by angels, blessed by her cousin Elisabeth, overwhelmed by the glory of God acting in her life, led on donkey across deserts, giving birth in a barn, struggling to make sense of shepherds following a star to find this tiny baby who she was caring for as best she could under challenging circumstances.  I imagine her pondering as she looked to the bright star of the heavens; as she looked into the eyes of her newborn child, as she nursed him, swayed him and soothed him to sleep.  As she did all these profoundly motherly acts of caregiving, she was treasuring the moments and pondering the mystery and meaning of the words she had been given, wondering how he would live into this holy name spoken by angels.  I think about the ways in which the holy name, which was placed officially on Jesus’ life during the rites of initiation, marked her own journey of faith.  Eight days after he was born, the name of Jesus resounded fully with both humanity and divinity, each time speaking a window into time and space and meaning.  So deeply intimate as a mother’s love for her child, so vastly divine as to be “the Son of the Most High.”  Of course Mary treasured these words, and pondered them in her heart.

Pondering is a holy space.

When you find yourselves pondering the past, or considering the meaning of your present circumstances, or pondering what may still be unfolding for the future: remember, pondering is Godly work.  Pondering can be a prayer, where we open ourselves to God.  Like Mary, we ponder.  And, in our pondering, God meets us there in that most holy space where we are known, loved, and treasured through the holy name of Jesus Christ, who abides with us.

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The Word Became

A homily for Christmas, prepared for the Friday Red Door Healing Service at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

Merry Christmas!

Our Friday Red Door congregation is special in many ways, but what is particularly special about this day is that you are the first people to hear those words said in this space, in this season.  If you come back tomorrow for a Christmas Eve service, which you are all welcome and invited to do, you will hear Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, the familiar words of the story of Mary and Joseph, travelers and strangers in a foreign land who are denied a place to stay, being told there is no room for them at the inn.  Mary, “great with child” (which, I might add is the perfect phrase for being in the very last days of pregnancy!) finds herself sheltered in a stable where she gives birth to the baby Jesus, attended by cattle and shepherds and the awe of angelic heavenly host singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!  Glory be to God on High!”  The story is familiar, lived out in nativity sets from the small and intricate to the massive and life-sized versions.  But, the Gospel that we hear today is another telling of the incarnation: the in-breaking of God into our human lives in such a way that God comes to dwell with us.  The Christmas Day Gospel lesson we hear today offers us a reflection that remains with us, and abides with us.  It is a gift to be unwrapped and treasured in our hearts.

John begins his Gospel with a creation story:  “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.”  In Greek language and philosophy, John’s use of Logos (Λόγος) conveys the perfect, ideal essence of “the Word.”  This is not just a word…it is THE WORD, the same Word which spoke all of creation into being, the Word that bears the essence of God by being One with God.  The Word contains all things, more than just the forms of speech that our human ears can hear, or our human experience can understand.  All that may sound very philosophical and abstract, but it actually reflects a deep, human truth: words are power; words convey meaning; words remain with us even when all else fades away.

Let’s make this real together.  I want you close your eyes, and listen with your heart and mind and memory.  In the silence we hold together, I want you to hear a word that remains with you, and in you.  Maybe it is a word that reminds you that you are loved; maybe it is “I do”; perhaps it is a word of forgiveness, a show of respect, or the way someone who cares for you speaks your name; maybe it is a first word spoken by a child, or a last word breathed by a loved one.  Listen for that word which is in you, and with you.

[silence]

…And the Word became flesh, and lived among us.  

In John’s telling of the entry of God into this earthly world to be with us, God’s own ideal divinity takes on the form of our human lives.  God incarnate…the second person of the Holy Trinity that we come to speak of as Jesus…is the Word that lives in God, just as the word of your own being lives in you.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

This perfect Word came into this imperfect world, and lived among us.  It wasn’t an accident that Mary knowingly entered with rejoicing into the depth of relationship with God through which she carried, birthed and nurtured the infant Jesus as a young, single woman who would be socially branded as one who didn’t yet have a husband.  It wasn’t an accident that Joseph stood by her and supported her when he had every reason to walk away.  It wasn’t an accident that people turned them away, time after time; it wasn’t an accident that there was no room for them in the few places in the foreign land where they travelled where they could rest.  It wasn’t an accident that God entered our world in the lowliest of birthing places: in a barn, on straw, surrounded by animals, with a feeding trough as a resting place.  In this scene that gets depicted time and time again, what we see in the Word becoming flesh and choosing poverty and humility as the places where God makes God’s self known.  The glory that we see isn’t a castle with the finest birthing suite and servants and midwives scrambling to provide care.  The glory is that of grace, and of truth.  The glory is the grace and truth that we see when all of those human distractions of money, wealth and possessions are stripped away.  The glory is what remains when we come to see God who loves us so much…the kind of love a parent has for their only, beloved child…that all of the messiness and pain and rejection and hurt of human life is inconsequential when compared to the true Word of divine love and grace which dwells with us.

That Word that is in you: the Word that speaks your name; the Word that tells you that you are loved, and beloved; the Word that forgives, that welcomes, that is present from the moment of our birth through our very last breath: that Word is the grace and truth of God that dwells with us.  There is no greater gift.

Merry Christmas.

Nativity scene - adoration of the shepherds

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In the wilderness

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

Friday, December 2, 2016

Matthew 3:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Being Prepared

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

Sunday November 27, 2016

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

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

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

But planning is not the same as preparing.

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

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

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

So, how do we prepare?

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

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

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

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

It’s Advent…

Stay awake.  Be Prepared.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

 

waiting

Lectionary References:

 

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The Kingdom, The Power, and the The Glory

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

Luke 23:33-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I breathe

I breathe today.

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

I breathe today.

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

I breathe today.

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

I breathe today.

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

I breathe today.

Join me.

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Making Room

A reflection for Proper 25, Year C

Luke 18:9-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

crossicling

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

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