Everything

Homily for Maundy Thursday
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
April 18, 2019

Readings for Maundy Thursday

Last year during lent, I met my colleague and friend Saba for coffee over at Panera on West Grace Street. Saba was one of the first people who took me under her wing as a new, junior faculty member at VCU. Over the years, she became my colleague, collaborator and friend. A physician trained in Ethiopia, she faced countless structural barriers moving her medical credentials to the United States when she immigrated. Rather than despairing, she earned a PhD in Public Health and joined the Family Medicine faculty at VCU. Saba was one of the hardest working and most conscientious research academics I have ever known. She was also a devoted mother, so we often shared snippets of our lives and chatted about our kids while planning our latest research projects together. But on this particular day last year, she had no interest in the collaborative research updates; she just wanted to talk with me: about her faith, and her fears, and especially about her children. Her eldest, a senior in high school, was struggling with a decision around college. The younger, a sophomore, was having a crisis of faith. “I don’t really care about anything else right now” my friend told me. “I love them, and they are all that matters to me with the time I have left. They are everything.”

You see, my friend Saba was dying. She and I both knew that. Stoic and hard-working as she was, she rarely even acknowledged the severity of her illness in our professional realm. But in that moment, she knew and conveyed to me without hesitation the essence of what was important to her. Of course, she had always loved her children and her family. But it was clear to both of us, in that very poignant moment, that her whole life was now being lived in service to that love. It was everything.

Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own that were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The grief and the love that I feel even now when I remember that conversation with my friend breaks my heart open to hear the poignancy of the Maundy Thursday Gospel lesson in a whole new way. The narrative of John’s Gospel draws us close to heart of Jesus. So close, in fact, that we have no choice but to confront the overwhelming power of love. Those who had followed Jesus had seen the miracles, heard the teaching, kept busy with the details of the living and the travelling and the doing of ministry. But now, seated together, Jesus and his disciples were looking at each other across the table with new eyes. Jesus, fully aware of his limited time left with them, could only see them through the eyes of love. It was everything.

Through the eyes of love, the story of footwashing that we’ve taken on as a holy week custom becomes a visceral illustration of lavish love that knows no hierarchy. It is the action of Jesus whose vision has shortened and intensified; who is compelled to show the depth of his love to those who are everything to him in this world, whether they are struggling with their futures or their faith. Jesus who for so long and in so many ways had demonstrated to them how to love the “others” of this world now looked through eyes of love at them: his very own own beloved community. He saw what was needed. He knew where they are struggling. He endearingly called them his children. And he was unabashedly and unhesitantly willing to be their servant.
That voluntary and counter-cultural offering of the service of footwashing…in a role normally relegated to an involuntary slave…was a plot twist too stunning for the disciples in the moment; they were still focused on the work, the ministry, the needs of the others who were “out there.” Being in the presence of love compels us to open our hearts to receive what is right here; but that requires trust. I hear this when Peter refuses to have his feet washed: the vulnerable fear of being loved. To love, and to be loved, is to risk the pain of loss. When the days of one’s life are a scarce quantity, the abundant and generative power of love is palpable. It is everything.

And Jesus loves them through it all. Bearing the towel and choosing the role of a servant, Jesus defies hierarchy and blurs every line of assumed superiority for one and only one reason: that reason is love. And like the scent of the lavish perfume that they had breathed in when Mary poured her life over Jesus’ feet, the power of this act of love truly sinks in. It washes over Simon Peter and melts away his vulnerability. Once he gets it, he becomes part of this beautiful, overwhelming lavishness: not my feet only but also my hands and my head!

Jesus isn’t just speaking to their sentimentality, though. And thus, Maundy Thursday for all its dramatic and poignant moments shouldn’t be solely sentimental for us, either. Jesus took on the role of servant not for the dramatic effect, but because it was the only way to convey to those he loved the last and most important lesson of his lifetime:

Little children, I am with you only a little longer…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

At that moment, in that community, it was to say: open your hearts and experience this overwhelming love I have for you. Let it transform you. Embody it. Then see it in the eyes of every single person in this place. Not only will it change you: it will change the world.

This love is everything.

Last year, when I asked my friend Saba what I could do for her, she asked only one thing: pray for me. Not “submit my grants” or “finish my manuscripts.” She said, pray for me. At the end, it becomes all about love. And so I prayed, and I pray, and I strive to show others the love she showed to me as my sister in Christ. It’s part of the long-term nature of grief, to find a way to give back and pay tribute for the way people we love have touched our lives. Grief theorist Therese Rando calls it, “emotional re-investment.” We are changed by those we love, so we want to take action and change the world for the better in their honor. It isn’t superficial or sentimental. It’s a reflection of how we are fundamentally transformed by love.

So, I have to ask myself: why would I do any less for Jesus?

Death is never the end of love. It wasn’t for my friend, and it isn’t for those whom we all have loved and lost, and it certainly isn’t that way for Jesus. In these days of Holy Week, we face the harshness of life head-on: longing, betrayal, agony, loss, despair, grief. And yet, as seen through the eyes of Jesus, it is all about love.

So, tonight, I invite you to draw near to the heart of Jesus, and focus on the love. Take the role of a servant. Commit to an action of service not because it feels good, or because it alleviates a sense of guilt, or even because you enjoy it. Voluntarily put on a servant’s towel as an act of love, in remembrance of Jesus who loves and serves us. Wash a foot or scrub someone’s shoes. Come to Good Friday liturgy tomorrow and stay to sit at the table and talk with our Red Door congregants, or come back another Friday to sweep the floor, or wash and dry the dishes. When someone in your community is in need and you have the money, don’t ask a litany of controlling questions; just pay the bill. Buy the groceries for someone in your neighborhood store. Tell someone that frustrates you that not only do you love them, but you actually want to learn how to love and understand them better. Make a point to talk to the person in the room that you are least inclined to have a conversation with and when you do, open your heart to see God in their eyes. Recognize your own broken pieces, and allow someone in this community to see you in your vulnerability by asking them for help, or to pray for you. Tell someone thank you for the unseen work they do that goes unnoticed. Speak out for someone that others are putting down to show the world the belovedness of Christ that you see in them. This is what we are called to do. This is how we practice the everyday art of footwashing in the age in which we live. It is how we will learn to be the kind of beloved community that Jesus wants us to be. It is how the world will know Christ.

When we realize that life is short, the precious gift of love is everything.

Let all the rest be stripped away on this holy night.

Jesus’ gift of love is everything we need.

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Right Neighborhood, Wrong Tree…

Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Texts:

Spring is starting to come into full bloom after some very chilly winter days. In addition to the blooming daffodils and the budding trees, I’ve been greeted every morning by our front-yard woodpecker…bless its heart…who seems to have mistaken our chimney cap for a tree trunk. If my alarm isn’t enough to wake me, the jack-hammer like insistence of its morning quest for food will surely get me out of bed. There are probably brighter and more savvy woodpeckers on our street who are happily feasting on the insects in actual trees. Our feathered friend at least has persistence, and perhaps some extra iron and minerals in its diet along with a well-polished beak. I found myself standing out in my yard the other morning, trying to coax the little creature towards a tree. But, to no avail. I don’t speak woodpecker, and it doesn’t speak English. And so it continues, day after day…

There are days when I feel a bit like that woodpecker: I’m doing the best I can, and doing it with persistence. But, it just isn’t feeding me. I’m reminded, in the world of metaphor, that sometimes I’m in the right neighborhood but perhaps not quite the right tree.

In today’s passage from the Gospel according to Luke, we are presented with two metaphors. Jesus has been making his way toward Jerusalem, teaching through parables which are intended to bring a deeper glimpse of the kingdom of God to all those who will hear. Before we even reach the passage of Luke’s Gospel we hear today, Jesus has been using metaphors of their daily lives…like yeast, and fig trees…in order to bring the words of this good news very near their lives, and their hearts. As we enter today’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus entering Jerusalem to preach and teach and heal. Just as Jesus himself is teaching, his colleagues the temple teachers…the Pharisees…come to him with their own message: Herod wants to kill him.

One’s status as a marked person is never a joy to hear. But, this warning really wasn’t news to Jesus. The ruler to which they were referring was Herod Antipas… the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great…you’ll recall from the Christmas and Epiphany narratives…is the one who ordered the deaths of thousands of innocent children in an attempt to ensure that the infant Jesus caused him no earthly threat. Herod Antipas, who took authority after his father’s death, had already issued the order for John the Baptist’s beheading. So, Jesus has already had his own life threatened and his cousin’s life ended by the figureheads for this system of political and social oppression. Jesus has felt the weight of thousands of lives being cut short, all for fear of losing power.

That was true at the time of this Gospel lesson, and it’s still true today.

So, when Jesus says, “go and tell that fox for me…” he isn’t posing a metaphor about Herod’s cleverness. Right neighborhood…wrong tree. That’s a more western, European meaning, derived from Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s fables. Scholars of Hebrew language and culture suggest that Jesus’ words are intended to deliberately point out the complete lack of authority and integrity of Herod with this turn of phrase, diminishing his leadership as one possessing neither majesty, nor honor. Foxes, your see, are the metaphorical diminutive to lions in this particular cultural metaphor. Lions represent authentic and honorable authority. The linguistic turn of phrase which is uttered by Jesus suggests that he is calling out Herod Antipas as the exact opposite of honorable, both in lineage and in action: Herod is a fox, son of a fox.

Strong words. Prophets are like that.

This passage is one of the times that we are called to recognize that Jesus…fully human, fully divine…is also fully prophet. Prophets see people for what they are but more importantly, they see structures for what they are: power, which corrupts; hatred, which destroys; fear, which builds false walls of protection for some and sends others fleeing. Prophets do the dangerous job of forcing us to look at hard truths, rather than scapegoat an oppressive system by focusing solely on the image of its figurehead.

Right neighborhood, wrong tree.

Jesus speaks a truth about the systems of power in this world which stand in the way of God’s nurturing and protecting providence. Siding up with the fox…even out of fear…doesn’t get the chicks any closer to genuine safety. Jesus, God-made-flesh who nurtures and provides for us, desires to enfold us, to gather us together as God’s children “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” That nurturing, divine love is right here, so close. And yet, the structures of this world can too easily distract us, collude us, pull us into repeating cycles that are unhelpful and ultimately, destructive.

Jesus, prophet and Son of God, has come to break that cycle.

Jesus also knows that people cannot kill prophets…not really…and not even people who are a fox. Prophets speak beyond their lives, and beyond their deaths, because they are conveyors of divine and resonant truths. The point of the prophetic is for us to see beyond what we think we see; to find the deeper truths instead of focusing on superficial distractions. Jesus’ exhortation as prophet is to see beyond the individual where we want to place blame, and instead to look long and hard at the systems which are keeping people imprisoned. It’s easy enough to blame Herod, the fox. It’s harder to blame the structure of false security that you’ve come to call home. And yet, Jesus does that too as he laments Jerusalem’s unwillingness and hardness of heart.

Like Jerusalem, we still struggle with those systems of power, oppression, hatred, and fear. And you can fill in the blank for whomever that fox looks like for you. Jesus the prophet calls us to see what is really happening and not to be pulled into its systemic cycle of hopelessness and fear. We do not need to be lured away from the work we are called to do because we fear for our safety. We do not need run away in despair. We have been enfolded, and are being cared for as children of God. God who loves and nurtures us has already and is still taking on those systems of evil and oppression on our behalf. We are not on our own, scrambling for safety through the might of our own merits and security. We don’t need to give up on God, either.

It’s a struggle as relentless and futile as the woodpecker in my front yard. But there is a voice calling to us, inviting us home.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection offer us the nurturing wings of God’s providence to enfold us. In this Lenten season, think about giving up collusion with systems of oppression and fear and allowing yourself to be fully loved and enfolded. Take on, instead, the words of the psalm appointed for today:

“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock.”

Jesus utters prophetic wisdom that helps us see the systems of this world for what they are, and know that the powerful and personal love of God for all God’s children overshadows the conniving foxes of this world who would keep us blinded by fear, hopelessly pecking away at what can’t even feed us. Our home…our citizenship, as we hear in the Epistle to the Philippians…is in heaven where God dwells. And if we are enfolded together as children of our loving God, then our attention turns away from the world’s wants and towards each other’s needs: “my siblings, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

In this metaphor, we…the fledgling chicks…are also each other’s siblings. We need God. We need each other. And we need to be reminded that we’re already in the right neighborhood, listening to the voice of God who enfolds us, loves us, and instructs us.

So, let’s not get our beaks bent out of shape on the fake trees or get our feathers ruffled by the foxes of this world. Allow yourself to hear the voice of the prophet, to be enfolded, loved, and nurtured by the God who calls us together and makes us one.

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Remember that you are dust

Homily for Ash Wednesday
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

That particular winter afternoon in upstate New York started out pretty much like most others: I trudged through the snow, making my way from my East Hall women’s dorm room to the John and Charles Wesley chapel auditorium. I was a freshman at this rural, Christian college where life, in many ways, felt more like the 1950’s than the 1980’s. It was a Wednesday, so I knew predictably that we would have a guest speaker for chapel, although I hadn’t bothered to check on who it was. Until this point, I’d been a pretty faithful and obedient kind of kid, moreso from fear than from choice. There was something about being at this particular college, though, which was draining me. It was what I called, “J Crew Christianity” where everyone looked the same, dressed the same, thought the same, sang the same praise songs, used the same evangelical buzz words. Personally, I was more focused on grades than godliness. I entered as a pre-med major, so my studying and lab time was my priority. I was scientifically minded, drawn to questions, not platitudes. Lately, those questions tended to focus on the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized and what our ethical response as Christians should be. As my roommate told me on her way to a popular campus prayer meeting that I declined to attend: I was starting to behave like the fringe people who sat in back of the cafeteria squishing up their chickpeas into make-shift hummus as they plotted to form an amnesty international chapter under a cloak of secrecy. I knew this was true, by the way, because I sometimes sat near them when I was late getting to the dining hall and my friends had already eaten.

I was thinking about those supposedly dangerous vegetarians and pacifists when I entered the chapel and heard some huge hullabaloo going on just inside the chapel doors, whispering and pointing, “who is that?” and “do they dress like that all the time?” and “I can’t believe that they let someone like THAT come to chapel HERE!” My curiosity had been engaged. So, I slipped in to my assigned seat to see a person wearing a monastic robe calmly sitting on the chapel stage, smiling quietly. My next door seat-mate said something sarcastic like, “This is ridiculous…are there even any Catholics here?” I hushed her from her chatter and decided to listen.

It turned out to be a really interesting lecture on the history of Ash Wednesday in the early Church. It’s been quite a few years since then, and the details of that lecture are fuzzy, but it was the first time I had heard of Ash Wednesday referred to as something in which the Church invited people to participate. I had always seen it as some action of individual piety and, in fact, had been taught to look down at the people who walked around with ashes because we…the “real Christians” were people of the resurrection who didn’t need to think of Jesus still hanging on a cross. My thoughts began drifting to the people I’d seen with smudged ashes on their foreheads, and my Catholic friends who went to Mass before school with their families and came in late, rubbing ashes off their foreheads so as not to stand out. I was pulled out of my meandering thoughts by the voice of the young-ish monk who…just before being upstaged by the praise song leader…announced, “Oh, if you are a closet Roman Catholic or even just curious, I will lead an Ash Wednesday liturgy tonight at 7:30 in the East Hall basement chapel.”

I heard a few audible gasps. And I felt a deep calmness settle in my soul as I realized with a profound and ironic joy that there were going to be ashes imposed in the basement of my dorm. It was almost scandalous. It was, actually, irresistible. God’s grace always is.

That evening at 7:25, I closed my textbook and told my room-mate I was going for a walk. “It’s late and it’s dark.” she said. “I’ll be back in an hour” I told her. I snuck down the back stairwell at the end of our fourth floor dorm hallway and began my descent to the basement. The lights seemed dimmer and every footstep echoed. I finally reached the basement and saw the chapel door ajar. I cautiously peeked in. The youngish, smiling monk motioned for me to come in and sit with the few other brave souls who had also made the Ash Wednesday journey. We didn’t make eye contact, but I was pretty sure I’d seen at least one by the chickpeas at the salad bar.

I sat down and closed my eyes. The musty, unused chapel now had a scent of melted beeswax from several lit candles. It was calm, and I felt apart from time and place. We read scripture, and we prayed. We were invited to come to the altar and kneel which, in my evangelical life at that time, felt pretty much like the altar call most every service ended with. Except this was silent, and bigger than me. I felt the cross of ash imposed on my forehead like sandpaper infused with healing balm.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I remembered my Great Aunt Edna the prayer warrior; my Uncle Bud, tragically killed too young by a drunk driver; my high school history teacher who died suddenly in my senior year, a few days after telling me that he thought I could be a professor someday.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I thought about the conversations I had with my residents at the nursing home where I worked on weekends and over my breaks. Agnes, who couldn’t speak but looked at me with eyes that said she was just ready and waiting to leave this world so she could see the next. Tom, who just said it outright, “Hope to see God tomorrow but if not, I’ll see you instead.” The Smiths, who loved and doted on each other…and now widowed Mrs. Smith who grieved her husband’s death and would tell me as I helped her get ready for bed how she prayed every night to see him again in heaven. “Soon” she would say, “soon.”

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The candle wax was melting low, and the young-ish monk put his hand on my shoulder. As I rose, I smiled and said thank you. I meant it.

Sara Miles, in her book City of God which details an Ash Wednesday lived out on the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District, gives words to the shocking yet resonant truth of this day:

The good news of Ash Wednesday, the blessing so many people seek so fervently, comes from acknowledging the truth: that we are all going to die. That these busy lives, full of eating and drinking and buying and talking on our cell phones, are going down to the dust. That despite the lies of the culture, the fantasy that money or objects will keep us alive, we mortals are just mortal and connected to one another through that raw, fleshy fact. And Christian evangelism, what we’re doing out there on the street, proclaims publicly that we are all also connected to God, past death. (pp. 139-140)

Those first ashes…imposed on my forehead over 30 years ago…offered me something that the world in which I was moving through listlessly could not. There is a depth and a yearning in our lives for that which is imperishable, that which belongs to God. We can’t grasp it all at once. We cycle through our liturgical year, coming back year after year to this day where we kneel, and rend our hearts, and open just a little more deeply each time so that the profound truth of God’s love can reach us through all the fortified layers of self-protection that we build. God’s earth shattering love sometimes comes to meet us in the gritty, ashen lines of what remains of the perishable.

But the imperishable is where our hope resides, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The mystery and meaning of Ash Wednesday…this day to which the Church calls us…is that we are thankful and grateful for a confrontation with a truth that we don’t want to acknowledge. And yet, when we are confronted with the reality of death, we are confronted with the greater truth of resurrection. We see it here, in the Church…over 2,000 years later and here we are, connected with God and each other.

“Ashes,” says Sara Miles, “are what a fire cannot burn; what’s leftover from a fire, or from a life.”  We wear the ashes of the perishable to remind us of that truth; but it is the imperishable truth of divine love, redemption and reconciliation which remains with us, urging us onward in this journey together through death into life. The Church calls us to Ash Wednesday not just because we need to be reminded of that truth as individuals, but because the Church needs that reminder, too. Our differences, our divisions, our wrestling with the perishable…these are not the end. They will also fade away, leaving us to know the deeper truth of the reconciling grace and redemptive love of Christ, who has made and continues to make us One.

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Holy Words and Holy Work

Homily for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

Readings:

It took me a full year to realize that the pearly-white doors on the credenza above my desk at VCU have a bonus feature of being dry-erase marker friendly. If you come by for a visit, you’ll notice that my vocational identity is apparent in the quotes that I keep around me from my personal Great Cloud of Witnesses like Jane Addams, Pauli Murray, Karl Rahner, Gustavo Gutierrez, Mary Oliver and Dorothy Day. Their inspiring words ground me and remind me why I do what I do…whether in the church, or in the academy. I also hope it conveys a message to those who cross that threshold about how I am living into my one, wild and blended vocational life.

This week, at the same time I’ve been sitting with our Gospel lesson, my focus has been drawn to one specific quote from Dorothy Day, social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement:

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Those are holy and challenging words. They were the holy words inspiring Dorothy’s daily work. And, they are words I have to sit with in order for them to really sink in…which is probably why they ended up written in dry-erase marker right where I can see them every day.

Because Dorothy Day was on my mind and heart along with the Gospel this week, I also travelled down the rabbit hole of intellectual curiosity and re-read some portions of her biography; I was reminded that she was baptized as an adolescent in the The Episcopal Church and later found herself pulled away from her practiced faith and into what she described as a humanistic political activism. In her early adulthood she became deeply interested in the lived expressions of holy poverty found in the writings of St. Francis and St. Clare. She shocked the secular news outlet she was writing for with her new found religious zeal, and finally made her home in the Roman Catholic church. She left the security of career and sought vocation as a co-founder of intentional, working communities where she and others could live into voluntary, holy poverty together with those experiencing the world’s poverty. In doing so, she came to experience Christ more deeply. For our Christian sister Dorothy, it wasn’t enough to do something for the poor, or even to advocate on their behalf. It was essential for her to be in a level place, to voluntarily embrace holy poverty eye to eye with others who were poor.

Jesus is also speaking holy words to his followers from a level place, as we heard described in last week’s Gospel lesson. Today, we are hearing another part of that same dialogue from the “sermon on the plain.” Whether the level place was literal or figurative, I am reminded that Jesus’ vision of ministry with those around him was also eye to eye, and person-to-person. As we move deeper into this week’s Gospel, Jesus’ declarative statements about blessedness become imperatives about our life in Christ. Think of them as directions for implementing and living out the blessings into which we are called while following the Way of Christ.

Love our enemies….

Do good for our haters….

Bless those who curse us….

Pray for those who hurt us….

Give without expectation of return

You’ll notice that it doesn’t say “do unto others as they did unto you” or “love the people you already like” or “pray only for those who you think deserve it.” Jesus’ message is evenness; reaching out to find God’s presence where we least expect it.

We can’t offer our other cheek without first turning to face the person who has slapped us. We can’t pray for those who abuse inflicts pain on people or the human condition without placing them in the hands of God whose ability and desire to love, convict, convert and reconcile clearly exceeds our own. These are not demands of personal accountability, but imperatives for how we…the followers of Christ…are invited to participate in the reign of God which far exceeds our own human efforts.

The Gospel message is as much about evenness and mutuality, as it is an inversion of our human tendency to privilege those we like, and give to those we find most deserving: God’s mercy surpasses what others deserve. God’s mercy surpasses what we all deserve. That includes God’s mercy toward others, as well as God’s mercy toward the parts of our own selves which we wrestle with, or want to reject, or where we have experienced hurt and abuse. We aren’t asked to fix our broken lives, our broken families, our broken communities or our broken world by ourselves. We are invited into level relationship with each other through God, who sees us with an amount of love we can never wholly deserve, and who sees others through that same lavish gift of love.

Our Gospel lesson today reminds us that relationships with others involve relationships with God. And, that our relationship with God involves relationships with each other. As Dorothy Day wrote in her diary: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

I’ve developed a deep connection with our sister Dorothy this week as her writings and this Gospel lesson have come together for me. And I have to share with you that something rather amazing happened while I was chasing down that rabbit hole of curiosity preparing this homily. I found myself rather serendipitously conversing with some scholars within the Catholic Worker community, who then connected me with someone at the Dorothy Day Guild who is also both social worker and church worker…and happens to be the person leading the effort for Dorothy Day’s canonization in the Roman Catholic church. By Thursday, I was oriented as a volunteer and officially part of a team of 35…three of us I’m told are Episcopalians…transcribing, coding, and analyzing her hand-written diaries. I finished this homily with the first scanned copies of my assigned sections of Dorothy’s diaries…I am assigned 1961…spread out across my desk.

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There are so many ways that holy words and holy work finds us.

Jesus offers holy words and holy work to those who follow him, helping us see God in our midst. Jesus’ holy words remind us that the poor and those on the margins of this world are blessed, because their eyes are drawn to God alone. Jesus compels us to action through holy work: to accept our own belovedness in the eyes of God, and to see others and act toward them through the same lens of belovedness.

We cannot love as fully as God loves. But, we can trust that God’s love is more powerful than the structures of hatred, fear, sin, pain, and judgement which keep us from experiencing the depth of divine mercy, love, and grace. Holy words and holy work will always find us, because that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Holy words and holy work are here for us today, to receive in a level place…in this community, in this communion, in the bread and the wine which are for us the body and blood of Christ in which we are joined together.

I had been praying this week for holy words and holy work to find me, and the Holy Spirit brought that into being in ways surprising and delightful. That’s kind of the way it works, in case you don’t already know. So, I share with you an entry of some newly transcribed words from Dorothy 58 years ago: holy words crossing through time that invite us to holy work today:

February 24, 1961 Day of Recollection, at Balmorhen Lake, Texas

A warm, sunny day. Not a cloud in the sky. Many are fishing at the lake but we have gone past them and there is complete silence, aside from an occasional call of a bird.

My heart is wrung by the suffering of the world and I do so little.

There was a picture in Newsweek of a dozen starving babies in the Congo, one tiny little one with his face in his hands. Terribly, terribly moving. The Only consolation is that God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. But woe to us who caused those tears. We white ones, the prosperous.

It seems to me that one of the happiest lessons in the Gospel is that of love. That we are told to love one another and to show that love by giving. And that love becomes more like that of God when we see Jesus Himself in those around us…

He taught them about love, about loving. The prodigal son, the sick, the leprous, the priviledged, the tax-gatherers, the sinners, those in prison–in other words, loving the unlovable, naturally speaking.

But truly, “Love” is the reason for it all. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who calumniate you, and to him who strikes thee on one cheek, offer the other also, and from him who takes away thy cloak, do not withhold thy tunic either. Give to him who asks of thee, and from him who takes away thy goods, ask no return.

It is a mystery to me how we keep going…these 28 years with nothing in the bank, and debts piled high. But we survive, and since where love is, God is, and God is Life, we can truly be said to truly live.

May holy work, and holy words, find us all this week.
Amen.

 

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Transitional

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

I am transitional.

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

We are all deacons.  But, I am transitional.

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

Being transitional is my place of repose.

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

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

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

In transition, I pray for you.

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

But that will be then.

For now, I am transitional.

And, I pray.

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Bearing Witness to Love

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

Lectionary Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iconic

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

Lectionary Readings:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that is prays to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that I am prays to you.

Amen.

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In the Neighborhood

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

Lectionary Readings

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Word became flesh and lived among us…

Amen

church meets world

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What then should we do?

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

Lectionary Readings Referenced:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Giving Out of Holy Poverty

Homily for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

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

Link to Lectionary Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

 

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