Holding Space for Hope: A Liturgy of Hope and Healing

Join me and the St. Phoebe School for Deacons in Holding Space for Hope

Virtual Chapel of St. Phoebe



Holding Space for Hope

A Liturgy of Hope and Healing for [extra]Ordinary Time

Visit our Facebook Page for Live Stream Premiere: https://www.facebook.com/stphoebeschool


Welcome and Opening to Hope:

Welcome to Holding Space for Hope, a liturgy of hope and healing offered to the people of our Dioceses and the world by the St. Phoebe School for Deacons. All summer, we have been reaching out to deeply listen to the reflections, stories, and hopes of a diverse array of God’s people in this world. Woven into this liturgy are the voices and prayers offered up by God’s people through videos, images and quotes from those who have graciously offered their visions of hope in a world where it is so desperately needed. In this liturgy, we center our visions of Hope in the words and experiences of people whose voices we don’t always hear at the forefront of our Episcopal worship…

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Fires and Faith

Homily for Proper 17, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Virtual Worship in the Time of Pandemic)
Richmond, VA

Track 1 Lessons:

Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

There have been so many fires this week.  My friends in California have been struggling to breathe in air heavy-laden with smoke and ash.  This is fire season, and they are making the best of it from a lifetime of learning.  But in a pandemic, evacuation is exceedingly more difficult.  A friend wondered on social media which mask, one to keep the smoke out, or one to keep the coronavirus at bay, would be the safer way to move through the day.

There are fires of risk and fear.  My week has been wrapped in the emotional baggage wrought by this viral pandemic on the lives of students and faculty on a college campus.  Plans made on paper suddenly ignite when exposed to real world flames.  Whether higher education or K-12, it feels like every decision…even ones we agonize over and spend months preparing for…are quickly engulfed by flames of personal choice and public health.

And then there are the fires of injustice, flames of which are ripping through communities and this nation after yet another young, black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back while walking away from police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Every act of state sanctioned violence and the continued blatant disregard for black lives fan the flames of this fire and further exposes how widespread and devastating it has become. To quote Michael Paul Williams in the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday, “To be Black in America today is to be traumatized by a steady stream of videos showing Black people being killed or otherwise abused by law enforcement on camera.”  There are protests in the streets and walkouts from the NBA.  Each time yet another manifestation of this injustice flares up, the outcry is like a fist raised to the heavens crying out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

There are so many fires burning in this world in which we live.  So today I wonder if we, like Moses, can allow ourselves not to flee these fires, but to see them, and draw near.

As our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures opens today, we encounter Moses in his early adulthood.  Quick recap:  Moses was born of an enslaved Israelite family and saved from forced male infanticide by being put into a basket in the river; with the intervention of a few wise family members and midwives he was raised by the daughter of Pharaoh with close ties to his birth family. Moses, as a hot-headed youth, went to observe his own people toiling in the fields and killed an Egyptian who was beating enslaved Hebrew people, just like him. Knowing his own life was now in danger, Moses fled Egypt.  He was still a fugitive in Midian when he encountered the daughters of the priestly family who were attacked by shepherds while drawing water from the well.  He fought them off, was spoken highly of by the daughters and was subsequently welcomed into the family through marriage. Meanwhile, Moses’ own people were still enslaved in Egypt and their ruling captor, Pharaoh, had just died.  Immediately before the lesson we read today, God’s enslaved people were crying out.  Holy Scriptures tell us: God heard their groaning, remembered the covenant of belovedness, looked upon them and took notice.

All that is the context in which we enter today’s lesson.  Moses…former captive, vigilante and fugitive…was going about a much calmer and stable livelihood now: herding cattle for his new father-in-law the Priest of Midian.  Moses moved with the flock beyond their usual grazing wilderness, toward the Mountain of God.  While on this journey, he noticed a bush caught on fire.  Moses…with his eyes still set toward the holy…saw this clearly for what it was: Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When God saw that Moses had taken notice, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”

This is a really remarkable story. So often we hear this story referred to as Moses encountering the burning bush.  But I think it’s fairer to say: Moses approaches the burning bush and encounters God.  I mean, it isn’t as if Moses is distracted by the fire.  Moses has seen fires. He is drawn to this fire while nearing the Mountain of God and he is aware of God’s presence from the first glimpse.  Moses is prepared to stand on this holy ground and say: Here I am.

As the story unfolds, we are reminded that these divine actions of seeing, drawing near and responding to the holy are revealed to Moses who is uniquely prepared to experience them.  God speaks to Moses from the heart of the flames, conveying love for the people of Israel:  I have observed their misery…I have heard their cries…I have known their suffering and I have come to deliver them.  God reminds Moses that he isn’t being sent to free his people from bondage alone; Moses is going with God, who was, and is, and will always be the great I AM.

God’s presence in a bush wasn’t a ploy to get Moses’ attention: Moses had already been paying attention.  In that holy moment, on that holy ground: God made God’s self known, even in the midst of what typically consumes and destroys.

Likewise, God is made manifest in the fires of our lives, making the very ground on which we live and work and serve and promote justice with God’s help holy ground.

This is what Jesus is trying so hard to teach his disciples.  The portion of Matthew’s Gospel which we’ve been reading across these recent Sundays is all about people recognizing God in the person of Jesus.  In last week’s lesson, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  The revelation from the mouth of Simon Peter was definitive:  You are the Messiah, the Son of God!  Jesus proclaims his name as Peter from that moment onward, the rock on whom the church will be built.  Peter, Petros, the rock.

But in this week’s portion of the Gospel lesson, Jesus further reveals himself to his disciples by describing the injustice that will indeed surround him, like a fire:  there will be the flames of suffering and death but he will not be destroyed, or consumed.  It is too much for Peter to hear about the pain and death of Jesus, who is both friend and Messiah.  He pulls Jesus aside and says “Forbid it Lord, that it should ever happen to you!”

What Peter sees as destructive fire, Jesus presents as a holy necessity; the fire that burns, but does not consume.  Jesus speaks to Peter from the flames of Peter’s own human fear: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I can viscerally feel how Peter must have felt in that moment, engulfed by the flames of his emotion: first in imagining the suffering of his friend, and then in this stern rebuke.  Here he was, named as the Rock.  He was trying to support Jesus…isn’t that what rocks do?

When Peter saw the harsh flames of injustice, he became afraid.  Like the tentative steps on the water, the human fear of drowning or dying was too distracting for Peter to see the unwavering presence of God.  So behind the seemingly reassuring words he uttered to Jesus, there was a dismissiveness of the divine, a rejection of suffering and mortality, a futile attempt to douse the fire.  We do this, too:  we personalize issues which are larger than we are, we try to smooth things over and tamp down the flames so we can prevent damage to those we love. But we can be so caught up in the flames that we fail to notice that God is present.

Jesus…fully God and yet still fully human is present for Peter and for his disciples and for all of us, too.  Jesus sees our misery, hears our cries, knows our sufferings, and comes to deliver us.  In biblical narratives, that delivery isn’t always on our terms, but is always in the loving hands of a loving God who remains with us and shows us what to do.

God was present with Moses and on the whole journey of the Israelites through the wilderness and into the promised land.  Jesus reminds his disciples that God will be with them, all along the journey of their discipleship, too: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?

And God is present with us, too.  Even and perhaps especially now when the fires of this world are ravaging us.  We’re given some powerful images, words and stories this week for navigating these times in which we find ourselves.  Setting our minds on human things is destroying us…the fires of hatred, injustice, and fear have plenty of fuel on which to be fed.  But God is present with us in these flames.  God sees us, and hears us and responds.

God has said I AM through the life, death and resurrection of God’s own self, through Jesus Christ.  We don’t have to be afraid.  We don’t need to rely on our own merits, throwing thimbles full of water at giant flames and inevitably becoming overwhelmed.  We have the opportunity to align with the One who is not consumed, to take off our shoes and bare our souls in recognition that we are on the holy ground to which God calls us.

Our Baptism into Christ aligns us with God’s eternal self.  God says, I AM.  Our response, “here I am” is an act of faith, and a radical act of commitment to that which is eternal.  And, like a gift, God helps us imagine the eternal actions of solidarity to which we are called, nestled among our readings today in the Epistle:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Live peaceably with all; do not avenge yourself; give food and water to your enemies; do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Yes, the fires are burning, but God…I AM…is with us and will show us what to do.

This is holy ground, my friends.

How will we respond?

We know how:

Here, I am.

 

burning bush

David Holleman, Revelation: The Burning Bush, stained glass with epoxy edge gluing mounted on plate glass. Dedicated in the 1960s in memory of Sarah Rosen, Harry Fishman, and Anna and Louis Kurtzman, Temple Beth El, Quincy, MA. Now in the collection of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
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Fight, Flight or Feast

Homily for Proper 13, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia
August 2, 2020: Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic

Lectionary Readings:

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7,16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

As the days stretch into weeks, and the weeks stretch into months of our physical distancing, it’s right and good that we start talking about our mental health, in addition to our physical health.  This time has been stressful…and distressing…for a lot of people.  Many of us are wrestling right now.  So perhaps during this particular time and place, we relate to Jacob like never before.  We may wrestle all night long with worries, with fears, with “what if” scenarios or “when will it end?” questions.  Sometimes we don’t even know what, or who, we are wrestling.  Sometimes God shows up for us right in the middle of that, reminding us who we are, and sometimes these struggles change us in permanent ways.  The lesson of Jacob’s divine wrestling match reminds us that walking away with a limp can be a reminder of our strength, not a sign of weakness.

This week’s lessons convey a lot of wrestling, as well as a lot of walking away.  They also reveal a lot of stress. Scientists who study stress remind us that our human bodies physically respond to stressful situations.  Stress activates our adrenal glands to secrete epinephrine, which moves throughout our entire body almost immediately, impacting every part of our system.  Stress activates what has commonly been called the “Fight or Flight” mechanism, where seemingly beyond our conscious control we are overwhelmed with the compulsion to either wrestle or run from the immediacy of the dangers that our bodies instinctually perceive.

I’m going to admit, I’m a “flight” responder.  There have been several times in my life when I have experienced deep pain or tragic grief.  In those moments, my only thought has been to run away and be entirely by myself.  It isn’t that I don’t love or care for those around me at those moments…it is as if my body is acting of its own accord, compelled to flee.  In those solitary moments, emotions spill out of me in all kinds of crazy ways. And often, I pray…or at least, I recognize what I’m doing as prayer.  Through my ugly shouts and tears during those times of flight, I have come to know that our God of mercy hears me.  Once I reach the other side of that acute stress response, I often find that something has been deeply moved in me, and I have a new sense of clarity about what I need to do.

Maybe you wrestle, like Jacob.  Maybe you flee, like me.  Either way, these responses are how we operate as human beings.  And either way, God sees us.

So, with that acknowledgement of our humanness, let’s revisit today’s Gospel lesson.  We need to start just a bit earlier, though, because this week’s lectionary really doesn’t give us the whole story.  Right before today’s lesson of the feeding of the 5,000, we are told a tragic story of injustice inflicted by the Roman Empire.  Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great, whose mercilessness we hear about in the story of Jesus’ birth) had imprisoned Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.  John had prophetically spoken out against Herod’s relationship with Herodias, who was his own brother Phillip’s wife.  At a court-sponsored banquet, Herodias’ daughter…Herod’s step-daughter…dances for him.  He becomes enamored with her and promises her anything she asks for.  Herodias prompts her daughter to ask for a gruesome gift: the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  This is an act of pure spite and retribution.  And as things go in the powerful empires of this world, Herod grants her request.  John the Baptist is summarily beheaded and his head is delivered by court servants on a platter to the girl, at the banquet.

It’s a horrible, graphic murder based in treachery, lust, greed, and power.  That banquet was everything evil and despicable about the empires of power and greed in this world.  Just before we enter today’s appointed portion of the Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are the ones who go and claim John’s body and bury him.  And then, they deliver this news to Jesus.

Our lectionary reading begins in mid-sentence, which depicts Jesus’ action as if he were going off on retreat.  It sounds very serene to go off in a boat by oneself.  But I think there’s a really important lesson for us hearing this Gospel lesson in its full context, the way that the Gospel writer tells it.  When we do that, we hear the whole story differently, picking up from the moment that the disciples bury John the Baptist and deliver the message of his brutal death at the hands of empire to their friend: “When Jesus himself heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a quiet place.  And having heard of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.”

In this week’s Gospel, we have an image of a human, hurting Jesus whose bodily response to a brutal and unjust death, I might suggest, was to flee as far away as he could.  If we truly believe in the full humanity of Jesus, along with his full divinity, we can feel the weight and the power of this tragic and unjust death on his person.  We can feel his human, cellular response to the overwhelming grief overtaking him, compelling him to withdraw to a quiet place by himself.

Let’s pause for a moment and honor the sacred and holy space of Jesus’ deep, human grief.

I think it’s important that we recognize that we are currently living in a world where other cousins, siblings, mothers, fathers and friends are painfully and deeply grieving and responding to death from a rampant and ravaging pandemic, as well as from unjust deaths at the hands of the authorities and servants of the empire.  In response, they might be fleeing, or they might be fighting.  Either way, people in our lives and communities are immersed in and overcome by the pain and grief of injustice and death.  And maybe we are, too.  This is a holy, hurting space that Jesus deeply understands.

Maybe, alone in that boat, Jesus wept.  Maybe he cried or shouted his lament to his heavenly Father.  We don’t know what Jesus…fully human and fully divine…experienced in his solitude.  But we do know that people who cared about him and who heard about this painful grief and unjust murder started gathering, marching, and supporting.  They set out on foot, not even caring if they packed their lunch.  They went together, like we still do, to collectively mourn and keep vigil in solidarity.  They came in the thousands.  They were, we are told, a great crowd.

This is what we do when we grieve injustice and those who speak out against it.  In Galilee.  In Minneapolis.  In Portland.  In Louisville.  In Atlanta.  In Richmond.

As Jesus moved through his anguish and came to shore, he met the crowd who had come to support him.  He saw them.  He had compassion on them, we are told in our translation.  In the Greek, that word is one of my favorites: ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplanchnisthē) which is used only a few times in specific contexts: when Jesus chooses to heal a person who has been blind since birth, when Jesus heals a young woman whom others say has died; and in the parable we know as the Good Samaritan, when a priest and a Levite pass on by on the other side, while the outcast Samaritan goes over to the man in the ditch, sees him and feels ἐσπλαγχνίσθη.  You see, this isn’t a general sense of compassion.  This is deep compassion and mercy sourced in the pain of grief and human empathy which transforms us to action:  I see youI will respond.

Jesus’ well-meaning disciples probably suspected the large crowd might be overwhelming, so they offered to send them off to get something to eat.  But Jesus saw them.  So, Jesus says No.  In fact, he does more than that.  He invites his closest friends to step aside from their own misgivings about the crowd and step into the depth of his enormous compassion.  Jesus extends a transformative invitation: care for these people, “You give them something to eat.”

The disciples are confused and concerned.  But Jesus, having moved deeply into his own grief and now moving back toward them, is moved again with mercy and compassion.  He takes whatever they have to offer which happens to be five loaves of bread, and two fish.  He looked toward heaven and in a sequence of actions that mirror those we have patterned our Christian life around for generations to come, he took, blessed, broke, and shared that offering with all who gathered there.  Actually, he did one better.  He collected his closest friends who had also carried the weight of that grief with him and charged them to give the gift of God’s abundance to the tired, hungry, weary crowd who were sitting in the depths of collective grief.  Holy Service.  Jesus offered his friends transformation through actions of service grounded in faith.

This story, my friends, is about so much more than an abundance of food.  A platter of death and injustice served by the empire was now replaced with baskets of abundance lavishly revealing God’s grace, delivered by the hands of God’s servants.  This story has everything to do with God’s transformative healing and grace in this broken and grieving world.

So this week, I want to invite you to sit with our lessons in your own quiet places.

  • Where is the stress of this time and the pain of injustice hitting you the hardest?
  • In what ways are you fighting, or fleeing?
  • Where has God touched you, even if that place has caused you to limp a little?
  • What is Jesus holding out for you to serve to the crowds who are hurting?

Maybe reach out to a friend or a neighbor this week and ask them one of these questions and share your own response.  Just listen. We may find that Jesus is feeding us more abundantly than we realized, and we may find in our sharing that there is even more left over than we thought we had in the first place. We may feel like we have only crumbs and virtual Zoom boxes of church right now, but we are beloved and Jesus sees us.  God is in these gifts.  God gives us words on which to feast on during our own time apart.   God gives us community and a relationship of prayer to transform us.  And transformed, God gives us the honor and responsibility of sharing the abundance of God’s grace…of being the Body of Christ…to a hungry, hurting world.

It is not just a miracle.  It is OUR miracle.

Amen.

loaves fishes tile

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No Neutral (Thanks be to God)

Homily for Proper 9, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA
(Virtual Worship during a Time of Pandemic)

Epistle Lesson: Romans 7:15-25a
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

This summer, I’ve been reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi.  One of the things I love most about this book is that Kendi uses the power of language to move his readers…notably, people like me who desire not to be racists…progressively into deeper and more challenging topics by pairing contrasting definitions, which he then illustrates through poignant, personal reflections. Here’s his starting place:

“The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist.”

He goes on to state: there is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’  After this declaration, he proceeds to share a vulnerable story revealing a time when his own internalized racism was proudly put on public display.  In retelling that narrative, Kendi displays what he learned and lays out his own life as a parable of the struggle for racial equity in a world filled with structural injustice, so insidious that it seeps into even those directly impacted by the forces of oppression.

I can’t help thinking about Kendi’s book when I consider today’s Epistle; St. Paul is also asserting that there is no neutral position between “sin” and “God.”  Even our best efforts to do what is right and good take us to places where we find ourselves doing the very things we hate. In fact, I think that if the Apostle Paul were writing an Epistle to the Church of the United States of America rather than an Epistle to the Romans, he might very well use a similar cadence to deliver us some challenging exhortations that mighty be particularly pertinent to ponder on this Sunday of the Independence Day holiday weekend, in the midst of our renewed awareness of the ongoing struggle for racial justice. Maybe we could imagine that Epistle something like this:

To the Church in the United States of America, a nation founded under God with “liberty and justice for all” who 244 years after its founding is still struggling under the burdens of racism and white supremacy: How is it that we do not understand our own actions? How is it that time and time again, we do not do the things that we want to do by our baptismal vows: to love each other as Christ loved us, to seek and serve Christ in all people, to love our neighbor as ourselves. But instead, we do the very things we hate: we fall back into patterns that reinforce the way things always have been; or avoid directly confronting racism when we hear it or see it. We want to do what is right and good, but we get pulled into patterns of silence, or indifference. We distance ourselves from a painful history of racism and its present day consequences: economic and social inequality; persistent health disparities; poverty; underfunded school systems and racialized school suspensions, mass incarceration, racial profiling and police violence. We don’t strive to align ourselves with these things. But even when we try with our best human efforts, we become entangled in the sin of racism that still defines the context of this nation in which we live. Who will rescue the Body of Christ from this body of death?

The Epistle answers that question, and we will get there, too. But, I’ve learned from Kendi’s style that one way to invite deeper learning is to pause the lesson and engage in vulnerable self-reflection. So today I am pausing mid-homily to offer a parable of sorts from my own life about this place where there is no neutral: the vulnerable intersection of sin and grace.

The year was 1990, and I was about to start my junior year as a social work major at Buffalo State College. That summer, I started a part-time job as an activities assistant at a skilled nursing facility, the Episcopal Church Home. I wasn’t an Episcopalian then, incidentally, but that’s a story for another time. My job was to plan activities both inside and beyond the facility walls to enhance the quality of life of our residents. In addition to bingo and crafts, I had to learn to drive the facility’s wheelchair van…a big, boxy, vehicle…nothing like my own little car. My driving instructor was the Director of Facilities, whose name was Eugene, Gene for short. Gene was a quiet, dry-humored man several decades older and almost two feet taller than I was. He would shake his head and chuckle when I had to slide the seat way up to reach the pedals and adjust all the mirrors to my height for our lessons. The bus was brand new, and I was one of the first people he was training to drive it. Gene was a long-time employee…and the only Black manager in that predominantly white facility. He had stories and advice he dispensed to me from his years coming up through the ranks, and our driving lessons taught me a whole lot, from an entirely different vantage point than my own.

The first time I took the bus out on my own, I was incredibly nervous. Things were going well until we arrived at the destination, and I realized that I was going to have to back the bus into the one remaining space. Gene had taught me well, and I managed to maneuver the big bus into the tiny space. Unbeknownst to me, there was a metal gate adjacent to that parking space which was closed when I backed in but was part-way open when it was time to leave. I pulled out of the spot to head home and immediately heard the horrifying sound of metal scraping metal. The bumper had gotten caught on the edge of the gate and pulled away from the bus.

Panic overtook me. New bus, new driver, young and inexperienced. I got everyone back home safely and put the bus in the parking lot. We didn’t have cell phones, so I wrote a note to my supervisor and filled out an incident report. I knew I wouldn’t be in the next day, so in that letter I begged my boss’ help: “Please calm the savages until I’m back on Tuesday to defend myself!” were the words that I wrote.

Monday came and went…no news felt like good news…and on Tuesday I went into work. On my desk, I saw the incident report returned to me with a note on it that said, “Come and see me when you get in. Gene.” My heart was pounding all the way to his office. I knocked on the door and he looked up from his desk. His demeanor was serious. He motioned me in and invited me to sit, then got up and closed the door behind us. I immediately started in on my nervous explanation about the bus, and the gate, and how it was a total accident. He shook his head: “I don’t care about the bus” he said. I stopped my excuse-filled chattering. He went on: “The reason why I asked to see you was because I read your report, and the note along with it. And what I want to ask you is this: what have I ever done to make you think of me as a ‘savage’?”

My face flushed, and I could feel myself suddenly confronted by my insulting, racist assumptions and language that I had paid no attention to, whatsoever. After some silence, Gene continued:

“Sarah, I know you well enough to know that you probably didn’t think about what you wrote, but I wanted to talk to you, so you and I could have a conversation about what it feels like to be a Black man who gets called a “savage” by a young, white woman.”

Sitting in that chair, I felt the weight of racism that was all around me, and within me. I couldn’t escape it. I apologized. I told him it wasn’t true, of course, and that I hadn’t meant it that way. But I knew that he already knew that. And I knew that wasn’t the point of the conversation.

Gene gave me an incredible gift that day. He didn’t let me off the hook. He saw me caught up in racism beyond my conscious awareness. He invited me into conversation based on relationship, not power. Gene taught me much more than how to drive a bus. He taught me how to be an anti-racist, to recognize power lines of difference, and to confront injustice directly, with respect. I hadn’t respected him with my assumptions or my thoughtless slur, but he respected me as a friend and colleague who had the capacity to learn and grow. It took me a while to really learn that lesson, I’ll be honest. My embarrassment, my worry, and my self-consciousness were still in the way for quite some time. But I did learn. And I am still learning. Eventually, I was able to thank Gene for the gift of relationship and the opportunity to learn that he gave me that day, for which I’m still grateful.

In this time and place in which we find ourselves, I have not one doubt that each and every one of us wants to align with God’s goodness and desires to be on the side of love and beloved community, rather than sin and racism. That’s why reading today’s Epistle is hard, just like sitting with the pain I’d caused Gene was hard, and just like reading Ibram Kendi’s book is hard, because it means we have to confront the fact that we do not always do what we strive to do. Intentionally or not…we fall into patterns that perpetuate the sin of racism over and over again. White supremacy is the reality on which our country was founded every bit as much as the well-intentioned ideals of liberty and justice for all. We know full well that all didn’t really apply to all people….just all white, land-owning men. Our founding fathers fell short. And when we fall short, we may find ourselves getting defensive, making excuses, drifting into the not-really-existent neutral ground of good intention, quickly jumping in to assert that “I’m not a racist” or “I’m not a sinner.” There comes a time when we have to recognize that we get caught up in structures of sin, like racism, that are larger than we are. There is no neutral. But we can choose the gift of grace that God has freely given us even as we sit in our awareness and our discomfort: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

That is the deeper learning.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus offers us a way to move forward. Jesus is not giving us an easy pass, a free ride, or an excuse to rely on the labor of others. Jesus is giving us a yoke that is attached to a Gospel message where the poor, the meek, the hungry, the grieving, and the persecuted are given the blessings of resurrection. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked onto the team, doing the work together to till the soil, learn the way and together plant the seeds of hope which bring forth the realm of God: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”

That’s right: learn from me.

Jesus isn’t talking about resting in what Dietrich Bonhoffer called cheap grace, being forgiven and let off the hook for any consequences. Jesus’ life was lived in costly grace, the ushering in of the reign of Christ in which we are invited to learn how to participate, yoked to the One who gave up life and living that we might know grace and salvation. Jesus invites us to be yoked to transforming love, to understand what it means to be gentle and humble in the way in which the pattern of the life of Christ teaches us to be. The ease that we find in striding along with Jesus our savior is the experience of grace. It is, in fact, that which takes us from the limp neutrality of being temporarily pardoned “non-sinners” and into daily work which is anti-sin, anti-racist and therefore truly and rightly, of God.

Now, at last, we are able to hear the deep truth of this Gospel lesson. The work and the learning are ours to do, but the Grace is God’s to give.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Amen

 

Another World is Possible

Photo taken in Marcus-David Peters Circle, reclaimed community sacred space around the Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, VA

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Imago Dei

Homily for Trinity Sunday Year A
St Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia
(Virtual Worship in the Time of Pandemic)

Lectionary Readings:

 

I don’t understand…

I’m hearing that phrase a lot these days. Maybe you’ve heard it, too. Here are a few real-life examples: “I understand the protests, but I just don’t understand all the violence”; “I don’t understand why people won’t wear a mask”; “I don’t understand why we’re still struggling over civil rights after all these years”; “I don’t understand why we can’t re-open…” ; “I don’t understand what the big deal is over the statues”; “I don’t understand why the color of my skin makes me a target for the police”; “I don’t understand why I’m invisible unless I’m angry”; “I don’t understand why all this is happening…”

The list goes on.

So here we are, on Trinity Sunday, gathering virtually together at a time where there is so much that we don’t understand. We might not even understand why there needs to be a special day on the liturgical calendar designated to focus on a heady, theological doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But like so many things we do as community, perhaps we can walk together into this cloud of unknowing, holding open the possibility that God gives us gifts when we gather to worship God together. On this day as we read, mark and inwardly digest the scriptures and the prayers that form us and feed us in our common worship, my prayer is that the gift we will receive is deeper understanding.

I was talking with a friend and academic colleague this week about what happens when we reach our limits of understanding. She shared with me a story of one of her mentors…sort of a legend in the field kind of person…who taught his students about what to do when they got stuck in a dense reading or hit something that was difficult to comprehend. What most often happens, he explained, is that people stop and skim ahead to see if whatever it is they are trying to get somehow makes better sense or is illuminated in the next few sentences. The temptation to skip on ahead is powerful but — it turns out — isn’t really helpful to learning. He went on to suggest that what we really need to do when we come across something we don’t understand isn’t to go forward, but to go back. Go back what you thought you knew and get a better grasp of it, to more fully understand what was leading up to that point…build a more solid foundation and study it more deeply until you’re ready to take in the new information.

It’s some good advice, and not just for graduate school.

So, let’s go back. In this week where our human understanding fails us, it’s interesting that our readings take us back to the beginning. As I have read and re-read this creation narrative during this tumultuous week, there was one resounding phrase that I heard over and over again. Did you hear it this morning, too? And God saw that it was good.

Let’s just pause there, before going forward. Do we really understand that? Do we truly understand that we…us…all people who on earth do dwell are created in the image and likeness of God? We say it, sometimes. But do we really understand ourselves and each other as Imago Dei: images of a beloved God?

If we can’t understand that…and I tend to think based on the way we treat each other we don’t fully understand that…then maybe instead of plunging ahead into stories which try to explain the fallenness and depravity of the human condition…or our own tendency to place certain groups more easily within our understanding of God’s belovedness than others…then we need to stop and go back even further. Maybe we need to revisit God’s vision for creation before the breath of God moved across the waters. Maybe we need to re-engage the idea that all of God’s creation emanates from God’s Self.

What does our scripture and theology teach us about the nature of God’s Self?

God’s Self is revealed to us in human history through relationship. Our lectionary readings give us some good examples. From the very beginning God is in relationship with creation, giving life and reflecting on its goodness. Those into whom God breathes life and provides for share the responsibility for the care and keeping of God’s creation. Our reading from Genesis reveals the reciprocity and relationship which are built into all of creation from the very beginning.

In our second reading Paul, having spent the better part of two epistles engaging in conflict management with the power-grabbing leaders of churches in Corinth who were falling apart at the seams closes with a reminder of who God is: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Paul reminds the church that God’s nature is not revealed in three separate, competing entities…God in these three manifestations is One and so we must also be one.

In the Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples…witnesses to the resurrection…are still filled with both fear and doubt, struggling to understand. And Jesus met them in that very place, where the profound knowledge of God in the person of Christ was revealed in their worship right there in the midst of their fear and doubt. That’s right…something we can totally relate to: worship in the midst of fear and doubt. This is the context in which the Great Commission is given: go into the world, even in the midst of your fear and doubt, and invite others into this divine relationship.

You see, when we go back and revisit these narratives we begin to see a common thread: the inherent and eternal goodness of the divine relationship…what we call the Holy Trinity…as the source of creation, reconciliation, and rebirth in our own lives.

Our understanding of the Holy Trinity doesn’t need to be an abstract lesson in spatial relations, filled with charts and graphics and semi-heretical metaphors. Our understanding of the Holy Trinity is an invitation extended by God who is relationship. There is a moving reciprocity, a divine dance of creating, redeeming, sustaining goodness from which God speaks creation…yes, including the creation of humanity…of us. We are made in the image and likeness of God. And God saw that it was good.

So, how does all this help us in our own dilemmas of understanding what’s happening right now, in this world in which we live?

You see, it matters that we have a God of relationship, the eternal “Singular They” of the Holy Trinity. The questions of understanding that we offer up…to God and to each other…are wholly different if they are asked in relationship, rather than as a rhetorical device that demands a singular, authoritarian truth or a dead end to our learning.

Imagine “I don’t understand” not as a stopping point, but as an invitation into deeper relationship: with history, with people different than we are, with our own well hidden biases and sensibilities about how the world should be. “I don’t understand” can be a statement that separates us and allows us to skip over the hard parts, or it can be an opportunity to go back and go deeper into a relationship of truly transforming knowledge, with God’s help.

The relationship that God holds out to us in the form of the Holy Trinity is an example of mutuality and reciprocity, of giving and receiving the creating, sustaining, restoring nature of God’s Self Love and God’s Love for God’s people. That relationship is also possible among the products of God’s creation…that which God created and saw as good. Our relationship with God involves deep, foundational understanding of that creating, redeeming, sustaining love.

Can we open our hearts and minds to hear new perspectives? God Creates.

Can we love in the presence of fear and doubt? Christ Redeems.

Can we move toward justice when structures seem immovable? Spirit Transforms.

So, I invite us today into deeper understanding. Don’t skip over the hard parts. Avoid the temptation to rush ahead to words of comfort and peace without first struggling with the hard work of repentance and reconciliation. Move into the fullness of the creating, redeeming, sustaining nature of God’s love for God’s people and be willing to enact this same mystery in reaching out beyond your zones of comfort and familiarity.

No Justice.  No Peace.

If we want to do the hard work of racial justice and break down the barriers that divide us by gender, sexual orientation, poverty, education, class, ability, age, ideology…then we are going to have to go back to God’s vision of creation as good, and recognize that to see someone or some group otherwise is to stand apart from the intention of God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. When our understanding is colluded by systems of oppression, we have to break down the outrageous nature of oppression, not hide in the shadow of not knowing. The only way we can do that is to go back to God’s vision, and seek out that goodness in the world that God has created, and to go forth into the world with that vision to live out the Great Commission even when we are surrounded on all sides by fear and doubt. The only way to do this work…truly do this work… is to revisit what we really mean when we say we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And we can’t even do that last part until we truly understand the depths of belovedness extended to us and all people as created in the image and likeness of God.

Seek to understand. Go back to learn and relearn when things get hard. Go forth boldly to proclaim the creating, reconciling, sustaining love of God for all of God’s people. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Amen

No Justice No Peace

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I am the way

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Virtual Worship

Lectionary Readings for May 10

A few weeks ago, on the first Sunday after Easter, I came to the defense of our friend the apostle Thomas who, based on the way I read the story, has been too easily characterized as a doubter, when what is really at the heart of the story is Thomas’ deep desire to have the full experience of the risen Christ.  Now, even though we don’t plan our preaching rotation around the content of the lessons, I am more than delighted that Thomas features prominently in today’s Gospel lesson as well.

Today, the lectionary takes us back in time to this earlier exchange between Thomas and Jesus, which occurs in John’s account while Jesus is beginning to prepare his disciples for the time when he will not be with them physically.  We enter this reading while Jesus is reassuring them, based on the depth of their own faith and the nature of their relationship: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me!”  Jesus goes on to reassure them that even if he isn’t there, and even if they are physically separated and they cannot see him that his love for them will remain.  He tells them that not only will his love remain, but he will be going to prepare a place for them, where they will be near to each other again.

This scene is one of love, and these words are words of comfort.  They have remained so…in fact, they are the words of comfort we still cling to, and that many of us hold fast to in the depths of our own grief when read as they often are in our funeral liturgy.  I think it’s relevant and important to point out that Jesus isn’t teaching, or preaching, to his disciples in this encounter.  Jesus is reassuring them: you know the way to the place where I am going.

You know the way.

Jesus is speaking these words to the heart of his friends; his temporal and spiritual companions who have literally journeyed with him, making the physical trek around the countryside and battling the winds and waves of the sea of Galilee throughout his ministry.  These are the people with whom he has shared and taught and invited into an ever-building depth of understanding the deep truth about God’s reign.  I imagine Jesus looking around the room, meeting eyes with each one of his disciples with the kind of compassion and love that one has when seeing friends of the heart for whom you want to offer comfort and reassurance.

But Thomas…oh, my friend Thomas…he doesn’t just nod his head and go along with it.  I’m sure he heard it, and maybe even was moved by it.  Thomas, the authentic voice of our human questions, has the vulnerable courage to speak his heart and mind back to his friend Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

I believe the question Thomas asked was from his heart.  The words that Jesus speaks back to him are so profound, they have formed the basis for sermons, reflections, theological discussions and debates which have spanned centuries: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Then, as now, Jesus meets the earnest questions of our heart with revelations of profound truth.

What I invite us to think about today is the depth of these words that Jesus offers to Thomas, and to his disciples.  I invite you to think about it like a movie.  This scene playing out like a foreshadowing of the exchange between Jesus and Thomas on that first Sunday after Easter.

In this passage, Jesus who is in physical form like we expect any person to be, speaks reassuringly to his friends and followers about his eternal and divine nature: I am the way, and the truth and the life. Or perhaps we could hear it:   I am the journey, and the discovery, and the essence of being alive.

Compare that with the last Thomas story we broke open together: post-resurrection Jesus, in his eternal and divine nature, appears through closed doors and speaks reassuringly to his friends and followers of the physical reality of his presence with them: Peace be with you.  Touch my side.  See my hands.  Know me.  Do not doubt, but believe.

Both of these exchanges between Jesus and Thomas, surrounded by the disciples, are so authentically human.  It takes Thomas’ honesty and Jesus’ steadfast love together to help the disciples and those of us who hear these stories now understand how deeply and poignantly Jesus wants us to know both his immanence and his transcendence.

Jesus is right here with us; Jesus is the source of all that is.  To know Jesus is to know God.  To know the creation is to know the Creator.

In these Eastertide days where we are still learning to open our hearts to the joy and belief of the risen Christ, we like Thomas crave reminders of the immanence and transcendence of the one whose identity we claim as our spiritual home.  If the path we walk towards the divine is the way Jesus walked, then we are invited into the fullness of that journey which is with and in the risen Christ.  If we seek truth through all the means of our senses, our intellect, our spiritual and artistic natures then we are seeking the Source of all Truth who we know in the risen Christ.  If we live each breath and each step of this life with intention and appreciation, those moments of ordinary and sublime spendor we experience are life in the risen Christ.

The immanent presence of Christ in our lives helps us to know our transcendent identity as members of the household of God.

Building on Dorothy’s beautiful reminder last week:  the illustrations we are given about who Jesus is are not intended to shut others out, but to open up our understanding of the abundant and all-encompassing love of Christ.  Jesus the Good Shepherd isn’t tending a gate that pens us in, but calling our names to nurture, love, and protect us.  Jesus the way, the truth and the life isn’t an exclusive destination to a singular truth intended only for specific lives.  The way, and the truth and the life of Christ lead us to know our Creator who loves us into being.  We will know the way by our longing for God’s presence, and we will be encouraged by the voice who calls us to remember that, like a homing beacon in our hearts, we already know where we are going.  The totality of Jesus’ life and ministry is a lesson in just how much we are all created, loved, nurtured and cared for by God, starting with the very least of this world.

This week, I invite you to pay attention to where Christ is present for you.  Where and when do you have an immanent encounter on your journey with Christ?  What do see or hear or taste or touch or smell that leads you to recognize your Creator?  What moments of this earthly life touch your spirit?

I’m going to close my reflection today with a poem.  I’ve shared this with a few of you on a retreat at Roslyn but want to share it in a different context today.  This poem, “Briefly it Enters and Briefly Speaks” is written by Jane Kenyon.  She illustrates so beautifully the immanent moments of our lives where God’s transcendence is made known.  Or, as our Gospel suggests, where the way and the truth and the life are revealed in the simple moments of knowing.  I’ll post the link to the poem with my sermon.  Be aware of those moments where God breaks into your ordinary this week.  Share one, maybe with a parish friend and companion on the journey, or in our parish Facebook group, or in a note or email.  Embrace them.  Let them embrace you. When you have a moment when you worry, or doubt the way, or stumble: go back and read these moments of recognition we can share with each other.  See God being made known in them, reminding us that we know the way home because it is God calling us there. Remember that you are not alone; that we are never alone.  We are family in the household of God.

And God…the way and the truth and the life…is with us, always.

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
by Jane Kenyon

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .

I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .

I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name. . . .

To access this poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49765/briefly-it-enters-and-briefly-speaks

Easter 5

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Priesting in Pandemic

On this particular morning in the midst of our pandemic diaspora, I rose knowing to my core what day it was, a definite change of pace since generally speaking, my days seem to be blending into one another.  Wardrobe selection is often a particular challenge for me on days when I’m serving as Professor and Priest because while my dual vocations blend in task and timing across my days, my wardrobe isn’t necessarily as flexible.  But Sundays have a singularity in purpose, dress, and focus which always feels like a bit of a reprieve.

This morning, my waking thought was that I wanted fresh flowers for my home altar, but time and rain had finished off the last of the lilacs and flowering spring bulbs which I’d been replenishing since Easter Sunday.  So, fully dressed in clericals, I went for a morning walk through my yard equipped with bud vases and scissors, hoping for some offerings of nature.  She did not disappoint: soon my empty glass containers were filled with some variegated hosta leaves, spiked purple spiderwort, vinca with its green leaves and flowering periwinkle petals, and blooming white hawthorne branches.  I set both vases of flowers, still wet with dew, on either side of the wooden cross my Dad made for me, one of the last gifts from his wood shop before that favorite hobby was too much for his health.  That handmade cross at the center of my home altar is adorned right now with a set of anglican prayer beads, one of many that emerged from my hands on Good Friday as I rent my heart open and prayed.  It was the only set unclaimed by someone after I’d extended the invitation to select one for me to mail.  This particular set of beads were the ones that spoke to me the most as I strung them together; but it was only as I prayed over all those rosaries on Easter morning that I realized that they were intended for me.  Sometimes we forget how to receive, particularly gifts to and from ourselves, and I was particularly grateful for that Easter morning reminder.

It has been a year this week since my father’s death (April 23) and very soon it will be the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood (May 11).  Nothing about this past year has been ordinary, or anticipated.  I’m profoundly aware of that reality in these days of physical distancing.  I’m also aware of the heart-wrenching injustices and racial disparities highlighted by this pandemic. I feel the grief, anxiety, and loneliness circling around me; I’m shaken by my own uncertainty all the while knowing that for some it borders on despair.  These are real, human, and profound responses to this real, profound and unprecedented time.  Some nights, I feel all this ripping my heart open.  And I remind myself that the call to minister in this time of pandemic is not to try to fix, or to placate.  It is a call to pay attention; to love deeply; to remind others and oneself of God’s loving presence in this particular time and place; to boldly live and help others live into what we are each called to do.

I was still thinking about the unanticipated living out of my own call as I prepared for virtual worship today.  St. Mark’s, the parish I serve, has lovingly started referring to me as the “Minister of Zoom.”  This was a technology platform I already used fluidly in my teaching, so it was a gift that was easy for me to give to my parish.  Like most of us, I could laugh or cringe at the recognition that technology is so central to all that we do these days.  But that isn’t the real story.  Technology is method, not heart.  The heart is bringing who we are and what we know how to do in order to do the work we are called to do.  The gift within being the “Minister of Zoom” is that through this shared experience I have unquestionably grown even closer to these beautiful people with whom I worship and serve…and we have all grown more aware of God in our midst.

It’s true in all facets of my life, actually.  I realize more every day how deeply I care about my faculty colleagues and my students; those relationships are the core of all that I do in my academic roles in faculty and administration.  In this blended vocational life, I am also shepherding the emergence of the St. Phoebe School for Deacons, a new iteration of diaconal formation for my diocese and one of our neighboring dioceses as well.  It is not lost on me during this time when everyone is “shifting” to virtual spaces that I was already resident, inhabiting the virtual there.  The first aspect of the St. Phoebe School to emerge…last year on the Fourth of July, to be exact…was the Virtual Chapel of St. Phoebe.  Daily opportunities to pray together virtually were all ready to go when we knew we needed to physically distance.  Now, those who are a part of the school and others gather synchronously every morning and we have become a community of mutual support.  I can’t imagine starting my days any other way.

Priesting in pandemic reminds me that relationships…with each other, and with God…are what everything else is about for me.  That’s not new information, but it’s uncluttered for me now, as my blended life takes on its own form.  In the pre-pandemic “business as usual” other physical preoccupations…like which desk by body sat behind in which office at which time during the day…tended to get in the way.  My vocational self has singularity of purpose now.  I don’t want to go back to the way things were.

We say that we weren’t prepared for any of this, any of us…not the academy, not the church, not our society.  But in these strange days as we grapple with new, pandemic realities of having to lovingly distance in order for the most vulnerable among us to survive, I have discovered there were roots of preparedness to do this work that had been taking root in my soul.

Like those flowers filling my empty vases this morning, there were blooms emerging where we didn’t think to look until we needed to.

As I strolled my garden this morning, discovering hidden blooms, I thought about the things that were taking root that I didn’t even see.  When I felt called to the priestly life as a full time professor in a secular field, I couldn’t imagine what seminary would look like.  Much to my surprise, I felt deeply pulled to a low residency program where in-person intensives were matched with intense online study.  To that point, I was somewhat skeptical of online learning.  But the learning I received, in the format that I received it, utterly transformed me.  At the same time, speaking truth with love: it was also an uphill battle to convince people “on the ground” that my learning and transformation in mostly virtual format were “real.”  The doubt, the skepticism, the “but how can there be spiritual formation online” were a persistent drone, and I learned to anticipate it. Hear it. Hold it. Pray with it. And in the end, simply to live what my transformative experience was, and is, and communicate that with authenticity.  It was challenging, and different, and new, and beautiful.  I learned to trust online teaching as an online learner.  I learned to pray across distance, time zones, and physical boundaries.  I built deep relationships with people I saw rarely in a physical sense, but whose essence of person, intellect, prayer and persona I came to know deeply.  I learned that physical contact was not a prerequisite for spiritual connection.

My priesthood, in fact, has uniquely emerged from that transformative learning.

This morning, I logged onto Zoom as the host and greeted my parish family with joy.  I said a silent blessing on each person as I saw them enter, as they chatted before the service, and as I lined up the readers and the clergy and the singers so I could find them in the virtual dance of muting, unmuting, screen-sharing, chatting and praying together.  I said loving hellos, and passed birthday wishes and inquired about the well-being of people and their families.  We have people who call in on landlines, and participate by smartphone and tablet and camera-less voice…some who are in dining rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, others who have virtual backgrounds and cameras connected so that they can sit back and participate from comfortable chairs.

Behind the scenes, I sit on my guest room bed in my make-shift home office with cobbled together odds and ends of furniture, looking at my home altar set up on an old cedar chest spread with a decorative scarf.  My computer rests on a tray table atop my bed where I also take calls for work, grade papers, and attempt to remain a scholar.  My virtual background sometimes displays my academic office but today, it is a photo from last year, the altar at St. Mark’s set for Easter.  I “see” myself in these places, and indeed, I am there.  And I am here.  And I am in the homes and places of the people who gather.  It is is grace and relationship which makes this seemingly impossible connection possible, not just technology.  I’ve learned to trust the technology of our age to serve as the invisible playground of the Spirit who will and does create in us opportunities to love, relate and connect in ways we didn’t know we needed, until we needed to.  And now, with new eyes, we are able to come together as Church in the world.  It is changing us in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.

On these singular-of-purpose Sunday mornings as I gather with the parish I was called to serve, I know who I am.  But I am coming to realize that I always knew.  That is the imago Dei, the image of God that each of us bears in this world.  When I pray as a priest, my hands extended as the Eucharistic prayer moves through us, transcending time and space, we are caught up together in that sacramental space where the physical meets the spiritual, transformed, that which divides and distracts us in this world falling away to reveal the essence of our selves, our individual and collective identity as Beloved.

Our physical distancing now is a gift borne of that belovedness: love for each other, and the most vulnerable among us.  Our virtual togetherness honors God who is always in our midst.  We are held in a divine dance, carried through unprecedented times, marvelling in the mystery of how and why this virtual togetherness is working and burning in our hearts week after week.  It is different, yes.  It is challenging, yes. But it is holy.  Like the virtual learning that formed me as a priest, our virtual worship forms us as the people of God who do not need to be bound by physical limits.  We are discovering the invisible, loving, transforming presence of the divine in our midst.  Our hearts are opened on this long road to Emmaus we walk together during this pandemic, and the recognition of Christ’s presence is burning within us as the scriptures are opened for us to hear with new ears.  Jesus will be known to us, profoundly, when we gather together in physical space to break bread together again.  And I suspect we will know with even more veracity the ways in which we have been fed and nurtured all along the way.

On this Sunday, my spirit is full and my heart is burning within me.  I am renewed and reminded that the yes-saying of a soul to transformation by the holy is not a finite or predictable work.  It is a gift continually unfolding, for times when it is essential.

The essential is now.

 

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Believing Thomas

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Virtual Liturgy during COVID-19 Pandemic
Richmond, VA

Whenever the liturgical calendar flips to the 2nd Sunday of Easter, I feel like I need to come to the defense of one of my patron saints, Thomas the Apostle. A lot of my formative years as an adult Episcopalian were spent in a parish named for the central character of today’s Gospel lesson. And every year, I feel a renewed conviction that Thomas the Apostle is the source of a lot of undeserved criticism. We get called a “Doubting Thomas” when we ask questions about something we’re supposed to just take at face value. Even at our best, we tend to think of St. Thomas as a sort of early church, “show me” guy, or as the patron saint of doubt. But I am here this Sunday to assert that I think we’ve been the ones giving Thomas a bad reputation. In fact, I happen to think we’ve been getting this story entirely wrong.

If I’m being entirely honest, I think perhaps we’re quick to label Thomas because it feels good to scapegoat doubt as something “out there” that those other people have. Maybe the “faithful disciples” and scribes were doing a bit of that, too. Let’s be real: for most of us, Thomas’ response in the Gospel according to John is like a mirror showing us the inner dialogue of our own lives. A lot of the reflections I’ve read on this week’s Gospel text start with titles like, “Doubt Not!” But I’m not so sure that doubt and believe are all that separate from each other. And doubt isn’t really the central theme of this story.
Maybe this year…behind our own locked doors, filled with questions and doubts of our own…we can hear this Gospel lesson for what it offers us on a different and deeper level. There are gifts within this challenging time of physical distancing: having to change our routines gives us new insight into even the most familiar things.

So, let’s step into this scene with fresh eyes. This story begins on Easter evening. Grief and wonder were fresh, bewildering and overwhelming for the disciples who had watched their friend Jesus die an excruciating and painful death just three days earlier. In the midst of their profound grief and fear, there was this morning’s news of their friend’s body missing…some saying he had risen from the dead. Some had seen the empty tomb; some were simply bewildered. Mary Magdalene, after her personal encounter with the risen Christ, had come to the house of the grieving disciples to announce and proclaim Jesus’ resurrection.

Now, one might think there would have been great rejoicing and ecstatic relief in that household when they heard that news. But, what we’re presented with isn’t a scene of Easter joy. Instead John’s Gospel draws us into this Easter evening scene where the gathered disciples…some having themselves been to the tomb, and others having just heard Mary’s proclamation…were gathered together behind closed, locked doors in fear for their lives. Into their midst, Jesus appears. Seeing the fearful, locked-in disciples, Jesus greets them with reassurance, “Peace be with you” and shows them his hands and his side. Then, John tells us, they rejoiced and believed. Jesus again offers peace, sends them forth in his name and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, exhorting them to forgive the sins of others.

As it happens, Thomas, wasn’t with that group of gathered disciples that Easter evening. His friends found him, though, and told the story of what they themselves had seen and experienced first hand. Thomas has what I believe is the most human reaction of all: he wants to have that personal experience of joy and belief that the other disciples have had! Seeing his friends rejoice at having themselves seen the risen Lord, I’m think that what Thomas expresses is probably not doubt at all, but perhaps deep disappointment at having missed out. How can I experience the same joy you’re having unless I get to experience it, too?

Let me pause there. I think most of us have a version of this story in our minds where Thomas expresses doubt in the face of Jesus. That’s influenced more by some famous artists than what we read in the Gospel text. I think it might be more accurate to say that Thomas is reacting to his friends. His retort to his friends is that he wants to believe, and he wants what they have already been given: unless I see and touch, I will not believe.
Let’s think about that in our own lives. How often do we want and crave the experience of Christ that we hear other people are having? When it seems others have joy…and instead, we are feeling confused, bewildered, and sad…we feel out of place. We begin to think something is wrong with us, or that we are missing out. We might even wonder…like we hear in so many of the Psalms…why God has abandoned us while being present for others. I’m going to readily admit that I can relate to prayers that begin, “why them and not me, God?”

Maybe some of you can relate to that, too.

It’s part of our humanness to crave and to yearn for experiences of God’s presence. It’s part of our humanness to want to participate in the wonderful experiences that we see others having. It’s part of our humanness to react to that longing with a bit of jealousy or resentment. And so, in that spirit, perhaps we hear our friend Thomas telling his excited and rejoicing friends, essentially, “well, I’m not going to believe until I get to have the experience you had.”

If Thomas has a failing here, it isn’t doubt. Maybe in our current vernacular, we’d call it FoMo: Fear of Missing Out. It’s his human desire for that personal 1:1 with Jesus that his friends have already experienced. It’s completely understandable…I venture to say, we can all relate. But it also means that he isn’t able to see Christ reflected in the face of his friends.

I don’t know what Thomas’ spiritual life was like during that post-Easter week. I imagine there were lots of thoughts going through his mind. Maybe some of the psalms and prayers of his faith expressed his frustration, and maybe familiar beliefs and practices sustained him. But what I do know is that the following week, on the first day of the next week, he was gathered with the other disciples together in the house, again with the doors shut.

And what happens next is the heart of this story: On that Sunday after Easter, Jesus meets Thomas exactly where he is.

Jesus appears and reassuringly greets all the disciples again, “Peace be with you.” And then, John’s Gospel tells us, he speaks directly to Thomas in his own place of human longing. Jesus says to Thomas, without any hesitation, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

And Thomas responds, “My Lord, and my God.”

What this Gospel lesson gives us is yet another reminder of the profound, intimate, loving presence of Christ entering into the most human places of our lives. The Good News of this Gospel lesson rests in the knowledge that the conditions we impose on ourselves in our humanness are no match for the boundless love of God, expressed in Jesus Christ. Jesus knows us, and comes to us, and invites us into belief.

Jesus the teacher then offers a lesson for Thomas, for the gathered disciples and by extension for all of us, a teachable moment in the midst of our collective fear and doubt: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

This portion of John’s account of Good News changes perspective at this point, from recounting the story in what we might call a “3rd person omniscient” voice, to narrating directly to the reader, in the second person, in the way that teachers instruct: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Blessings abound not only for those who see with their eyes, but those who believe in their hearts.

Yes, blessed are we. Like Thomas, we are met by this Gospel text right where we are. We don’t all have a direct and physical encounter with Jesus. But we are blessed, continually, by Christ’s presence. We have the experience of seeing the workings of Jesus Christ in the faces of those who believe. We have the Holy Spirit working in and among us to make us the hands and heart of Christ in this world. Blessed are we when someone calls to say that they are praying for us at a time when we are feeling alone. Blessed are we when someone shows up with exactly what we need, or when we show up to worship even if we don’t feel like it, and we hear exactly what we need to hear. Blessed are we when we volunteer to help our neighbors and someone sees Christ in our actions of outreach and love. And blessed are we when we see Christ in our neighbors. Blessed are we in the quiet moments of prayer when we suddenly knew, even in the midst of our human doubts and fears and loneliness, that we are not alone; that we are seen, and loved, and held even in our darkest hours. We are met and blessed continually with Christ’s presence in the faces of our community. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ, the Church.

The Good News, my friends, is that the Risen Christ loves us, and meets us exactly where we are, exactly as we are. Even…and perhaps especially…now in this time of our bewilderment and uncertainty. We are blessed by love that shows up at unexpected moments, in unexpected ways. We are loved, and seen, behind our closed doors, in the midst of our fears and in whatever human experiences make us yearn to see and know Christ. And, like Thomas, we are met by a loving Jesus, holding out His hands of love and breathing the power of the Holy Spirit into His Church so that we can see and know the presence of Christ.

When that happens may we, like Thomas the believer, be bold to say: “My Lord, and my God.”

St. Thomas Apostle

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I wonder…

Palm Green Leaves Palm Leaf Plant Palm Tree Leaf

Homily for Palm Sunday, Year A

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA (Virtual Palm Sunday Worship)

Lectionary Readings for Palm Sunday

 

A few years ago as part of my Faith from the Margins to the Web project, we  engaged in a thought exercise called, “I Wonder…” After reading the Gospel text, we sat for a few minutes with the vivid images of Palm Sunday: the donkey, the crowd, people waving branches and spreading their cloaks on the ground, shouts of “Hosanna!” filling the air.  I recorded that conversation and it went something like this:

  • I wonder if Jesus knew that the disciples would obey him?
  • I wonder what the people who were watching were thinking?
  • I wonder what the disciples thought Jesus was going to do with the donkey?
  • I wonder if the donkey thought, “Why does this man want me?   Is it because no one has ever ridden on me? Is it because I’m pure of heart?
  • I wonder what the rest of that donkey’s life was like?  
  • I wonder what happened after that day, all those palm branches and all of those crowds…what happened after that?
  • I wonder if everyone in the crowd really knew who Jesus was, or were they just following along?
  • I wonder what I would have done, if I really didn’t know Jesus as Lord, but this man Jesus came up to me, or paraded by me?

Sometimes we turn to our holy scriptures thinking we are supposed to find all the answers.  But exercises like this remind me that the Holy Spirit is alive and moving in our questions and our wondering, too.

This week, I have found myself wondering how our physical distancing invites us to see this Palm Sunday story differently right now.  How I would love to gather with that crowd to welcome Jesus in our midst! I would love to rush head-long into that scene and pick up the refrain, “Hosanna in the highest!” waving branches high above our heads. And, I would love to speak those words together with you just as we have said Sunday after Sunday, wrapped within our Eucharistic prayers.  I wonder when we will be able to celebrate Holy Eucharist together again, and I wonder when I can embrace you all in what will inevitably be the longest passing of the peace we’ve ever experienced…and that is saying a LOT here at St. Mark’s! I wonder these things, and I long for these things. And I don’t have any easy answers.

But this week, I have felt the nearness of God’s presence in that wondering.  I find myself filled with wonder and an awareness that the crowd gathered at the entry point to Jerusalem didn’t know what was to come, either.  The donkey didn’t know the destiny of the one riding on its back. The disciples didn’t fully take in the message of how short the time was with the friend they loved.  No one waving their branches knew what would follow as the tide turned from triumphal entry to betrayal, denial and walking the way of the cross. In the course of that week, everything would change day by day, and hour by hour.  The crowds, the disciples, the animals and even Jesus had to walk the rest of the journey as it unfolded, step by step.  

I think we all feel that scene and that reality differently this year.  We know something very deeply about what it means for everything to change on a dime, and to move from being caught up in the midst of a joyous crowd to following a different, solitary road. 

I invite our shared wonder on this Palm Sunday, as we enter into the journey of accompanying Jesus on a different road than the crowded one strewn with cloaks and branches. I wonder how this time of containment offers us an opportunity to experience transforming grace and to receive Jesus’ gift of love differently?  This path we walk right now is a narrower path that asks us to confront our fears, that rends our hearts, that removes us from the way we have come to expect things to be. But I wonder what we are learning, and how we are seeing God in our midst in ways we never noticed before. I wonder at the joy I see each time we catch glimpses of one another in these little boxes and hear each other’s voices even when we crackle and falter from time to time.  I wonder at the ways our common prayer unites us, in a profound way that we cannot take for granted. I wonder about how our very choice to refrain from beloved worship practices in person for the greater good of the body helps us better understand the ways that our sacramental worship has formed us to be the Body of Christ. In that metaphor, I wonder whether we have thought about our lives as the church dispersed throughout our communities serving as the defense system for the most vulnerable in our midst, acting collectively so that those most at risk can survive and thrive.  

I wonder at our resilience, at the ways in which our love for one another takes the form of phone calls, and notes, and Zoom, and chats, and texts in ways we had overlooked before.  We are realizing every day how powerful the love of community is, and that physical distance may challenge us, but it does not remove us from God or from each other. And in all these things I wonder: was it also like this for Jesus, his mind flooding with memories, people, moments of realization as he walked a road of soul-wrenching injustice for the greater good of the whole world.  Jesus walked though that week with wonder and belief propelling him forward step-by-step in the assurance that death and sin…even the sin and injustice of the whole world…would be overcome and transformed by the unbounded love of God. 

I wonder if this time offers us something new and unexpected in our spiritual journey as we walk together into Holy Week, seeing with new eyes God’s vision of divine mercy and grace. 

This year, we understand something more about how much harder it is when the crowds disperse.  But our wonder about how we will be church together is a gift through which our hearts have opened to the new movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, individually and as the Church in the world.  The assurance of our faith tells us that God is with us, and the reassurance of our communication and even our technology reminds us this is indeed still a community emanating Christ’s real presence.  This is a community that has seen and known Christ in our midst; that has been fed and nourished in body, mind, and spirit. This is a community that has fed and still feeds others. We are no longer in the crowd but we are not alone: the liberating and transformative nature of divine mercy and grace accompanies us with every step.  Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to understand our very nature as the Body of Christ in the world. In our prayers, God meets our fears, our hopes and our wonder and helps us to know more fully who…and whose…we really are.  

The journey of Holy Week is filled with opportunities to wonder.  So, I invite you to wonder as we walk together through this week. I invite you to walk the way of the cross virtually with our Stations of the Cross and leave each other electronic notes along the path.  I invite you to join together for Holy Week prayer, including Wednesday Compline and the liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday through this video conference connection we’ve established. I invite you to reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while and remind them they are not alone.  We have been prepared for this journey through the waters of our baptism and nourished at the table of the Lord; we are enfolded in the great grace of salvation, and the gift of knowledge that the cross was not the end, but in fact, was the very beginning. Our participation in this Holy Week is invited not so that we are inflicted with sorrow, but so that our pain can be borne by the One who loves us more than life itself.  Even in the darkest days, we can be filled with wonder.  

In the dark of unknowing, wonder is the first glimmer of resurrection.  

May your Holy Week be filled with wonder.

 

 

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Virtual Stations of the Cross

For your Holy Week journey, take some time to reflect on the Stations of the Cross:

 

Blessings as you walk the Way of the Cross this Holy Week.

Sarah+

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