Magnificat

I wrote this a number of years ago. It was, in fact, just as I was starting out on this journey of discernment and formation. I remain so grateful for the opportunities, every day, to see God’s movement in the world around me. Like Mary, “my soul proclaims the glory of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Sharing this today for my own reminder of these moments of deep reflection on this journey I am walking.

small points of light

August 15: Feast of St. Mary

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in you, O God my Savior, for you have looked with favor on your lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your name.

I saw you there, sitting across from me. We were both mothering our newborns in the great glass fishbowl of the NICU. The swaddled eight pound bundle of red-faced crying baby that I carried looked suddenly so big next to others so small. You sat outside the plexiglass womb, the tiniest of babes being nurtured into life by something more complex than either of us could understand. I resented being there, feeling more hostage than home. I rocked my daughter and thought, “let us out! we are fine!” and I argued with the nurses…

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Constellation of Faith

Sermon for Proper 14, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia

Lectionary Readings (Track 2)

One of the great joys of summer nights is finding a clear, starry night to look up toward the skies. I still love a good evening of stargazing. In the summers of my youth, I spent what seemed like hours looking up at the stars and searching for constellations in the vast night sky. Sometimes it was cloudy, or the lights of contemporary life would get in the way of clear vision. But I loved it when the sky was cloudless, and filled with stars. The longer I looked, the more my eyes would adjust and the further it seemed that I could see. There were times when I felt entirely alone in the world, as we sometimes do. But in that vast expanse of space, there was also an assurance that like the stars in those constellations, I was connected with others in a way that perhaps I couldn’t see. Standing beneath those stars, I had a conviction that there was more to this life, to this universe, and to the vastness of God’s creation than I could see or feel at that moment.

One summer during my star-gazing wonder years, I went on an evening field trip to a planetarium. I remember looking up at the domed roof when the presentation began and seeing the entire night sky emerging with a clarity unlike anything I had been able to see with my own eyes. At first, I thought it was a movie being projected for us; then the guide explained this was not a movie: this was the night sky right above us, coming into greater clarity with the aid of a high-powered telescope. I remember feeling mind-blown; I suddenly knew with certainty that the conviction I had was true: there was more to this universe than I could ever see on my own.

I imagine Abraham standing in the pit of his own human sense of inadequacy, feeling much the same as you are I might when that which we hope for doesn’t seem to be emerging. And as he stood there in that vulnerable place, the heavens began to open up for him with the assistance of God’s telescopic vision. Abraham, grounded in hope and yet standing in a place of his personal scarcity was given a divine revelation beyond human comprehension. Like a young child suddenly made aware of the vastness of the heavens, Abraham’s hope became conviction. “And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is born of God’s unconditional love and our human yearning to respond to that love. It is the tension between hope and certainty. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we hear familiar examples of the faith of Abraham, echoing the first lesson we read today. But attunement to the context of this letter means putting ourselves in the constellation of Hebrew Christians living in a Greco-Roman world. Faith, in Greek is πίστις. In Greek mythology; Pistis was the one pure and good spirit held in Pandora’s jar (box) who, once released, fled the earth and escaped back to the heavens. So, faith was not on this earth; faith had escaped to reside in the heavens.

Imagine, in that cultural context surrounding the early church what it meant to profess faith, and to hold the Christian conviction that God has become embodied in Jesus Christ, incarnate God-made-human to dwell on this earth. Heaven had come to dwell with us, returning faith to our midst. And thus, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews sees and names the profoundly counter-cultural conviction that this incarnate love of God is the basis of our faith: in Christ, the embodiment of God, resides faith. This faith is not only known in heaven but also here on earth.

Like a high-powered telescope, this heightened understanding of faith expands our vision and helps us see further into the Gospel lesson: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If heavenly faith has come to dwell with us here, why would we even need to worry about stockpiling these finite resources? God has come to dwell with us, and faith resides in that relationship.

Howard Thurman, theologian, mystic and civil rights activist reflects poignantly on the nature of this kind of transforming, convicting faith in the way we live our daily lives in this relationship with God. In his book, Deep is the Hunger, Thurman writes:

“The human spirit has two fundamental demands that must be met relative to God. First, [God] must be vast, limitless, transcendent, all-comprehensive, so that there is no thing that is outside the wide reaches of [God’s] apprehension. The stars in the universe, the great galaxies of spatial groupings moving in endless rhythmic patterns in the trackless skies, as well as the tiny blade of grass by the roadside, are all within [God’s] grasp. The second demand is that God be personal and intimate…all of us want the assurance of not being deserted by life nor deserted in life. Faith teaches us that God is—that [God] is the fact of life from which all other things take their meaning and reality.” (p. 159)

So, for those of you for whom all this week’s talk of far-off stars and heavenly treasure still seems a bit too obscure, let me offer a tangible, everyday example of God’s vastness and our connectedness which resides right here at home. Last Friday, I began my day with Morning Prayer, then went to work at VCU and at lunch-time walked over to help out with the Red Door Ministry at Grace and Holy Trinity where I also supervise two social work interns who work with people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. A young woman came in for Red Door lunch. She was quiet, and scared, and had just been evicted and didn’t know what to do. We sat with her and made sure she was connected with the homeless point of entry and the YWCA. I sent her off with a fervent prayer that the system…which I know has many holes…would work for her and that she would find a safe place to stay. I went back to my office at VCU after the lunch program and finished some work. I decided to pack up some books to bring here to St. Mark’s on my way home, where I am slowly moving in to my soon-to-be-office. When I arrived here and pulled into the back parking lot, I saw a few parish volunteers along with women waiting to come in for CARITAS intake. And among that group of people, I recognized the same young woman I’d spoken with earlier that day. When she arrived at the point of entry, she was referred that same day to CARITAS intake, landing her right here in your midst at St. Mark’s. As I walked into the parish hall, I was greeted by Diana, the CARITAS site manager. She and I are connected through CirclesRVA, but now I was seeing her in action in her work with CARITAS. In less than five minutes, I’d given multiple hugs to people who had originally crossed my path in my life at VCU, with Red Door, with CirclesRVA, and at Grace and Holy Trinity. And now here we all were in the midst of the warmth and hospitality you were offering to women in CARITAS, including this young woman who hours earlier had been terrified and unsure of where to go and who to trust. Here, she was held and loved and known, in the midst of a constellation of grace and connection. I watched as conviction and faith renewed in the expression on her face. When I left that evening, she told me she was confident that she would get back on her feet, and knew that she had support. That Friday expanded my vision and renewed my conviction, too: God is present in all these great and small actions of our lives; God yearns for the invitation to help us see God in each other, just as much as we yearn to know God.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The good news for us today is that we, too, are a part of both the vastness and the personal presence of God in this world. There are times when we may feel alone, or overwhelmed, or discouraged and disgusted by what we can see of the world around us. But God is with us, and God’s vision surpasses our own. When we catch a glimpse of that vision and are emboldened to act out of the conviction of our faith, our efforts are never in vain. Our connections with each other are vast, like the expanse of the stars in the heavens. But God knows them, and works with them and with us to restore this broken world to a wholeness of God’s vision. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of this one person…one shining star…at a time. Sometimes we see God in the connections we form with each other, emerging like constellations in the night sky. In all these moments we lean with conviction into the faith that we are a part of something larger than we are, even if we can’t see everything clearly just yet. And this, too, is reckoned to us as righteousness. We come to know this in the faith which dwells in our hearts, when we open our eyes and engage with our actions to do the work that God calls for us to do.

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Teachable Moments

Homily for Proper 13 Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

Lectionary Readings:

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Christ who is all and in all, teach us to listen to the lessons you have for us. Amen.

During these summer post-Pentecost Sundays of ordinary time, we are immersed in the stories of Jesus’ ordinary ministry, which was teaching. During this particular time in my life and ministry, the call placed on my soul has invited me to open my heart to the ministry of vocational teaching both in my academic and my church life in new and creative ways. So, I’ve been drawn as both a priest and professor to seek wisdom at the feet of Jesus the Teacher.

Now, I know that a number of you are or have been teachers over the course of your career. So, I am going to go out on a limb and assume you are also familiar with the random off-topic question. Having taught adults for twenty five years, I’ve had my fair share of classroom derailments. Sometimes I can practically see it when the hand is being raised. My spouse works with younger children, so he refers to this phenomenon of the excitedly waving hand as “Question, or Story?” Joke as we might about these tangential teaching interruptions, there is truth in the fact that students retain more information from the questions they themselves ask. People actually study this. Educational theorists like Piaget, Dewey, and Vygotsky understood that the way in which we construct our learning is based on the way we see the world. In other words, when the questions which emerge from everyday life inform the lessons that we teach, learners will understand the lesson more fully and apply that learning to their lives.

The tragic interruptions of the world in which we live are teachable moments for us today.

But first, we turn to the wisdom from today’s Gospel lesson. In the earlier portion of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus the Teacher has been offering instruction to the inner, core group of his disciples while a crowd has been gathering. Right before today’s lesson, he instructs them, “do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” We pick up today’s lesson at that moment, with an interruption from the crowd breaking into the midst of that intensive discipleship seminar, so to speak. So, imagine Jesus intently instructing his disciples, but hearing one particular voice from the crowd breaking through: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!”

Now, let it be known that Jesus the Teacher could easily have let that request go in one ear and out the other. And let’s be honest: he’s not really thrilled about the interruption, either. It seemed off topic, it broke up the intensity of the lesson to his inner circle, and as he points out, it wasn’t even a question. It was a request for arbitration, specifically in hopes of securing Jesus’ favor on the side of the person asking. And yet, Jesus is all and in all.

I have to admit, I’m rather in awe of the teaching style of Professor Jesus.

In the parable which unfolds from here, which is sometimes referred to as the “Parable of the Rich Fool” we hear about a prosperous man patting himself on the back as he sees his storage silos filled with the abundance of his fields. He is preoccupied not by the blessings of this plenty, but by greed. He has an abundance management problem which convinces him that what he already has isn’t enough; he becomes driven to store up even more for himself by tearing down what he has…effectively destroying the plenty already in his possession…just so he can stockpile even more. The man goes to great lengths to think about how to accomplish the task of accumulating the biggest possible pile of plenty and then, with egotistical confidence in his own plan, he converses with his own soul: “you will have stored up everything you need…so you can eat, drink and be merry!” But, at the end of the parable we are drawn to see the short-sightedness of his actions. Human life, we are reminded, is finite. We do not have the degree of control over it that we try to convince ourselves we do.

I feel like we are reminded of that lesson, every single day. It cuts through our complacency with news stories, and mass shootings, and car accidents, and personal tragedies. It’s during these times of crisis we pause to ask “where is God in this?” But this parable reminds us that the question of Where is God? is a question of urgency we should be attending to all the time.

Nowhere in this story do we have a sense of anything beyond this man’s privileged and selfish view of that which has accumulated around him. Did others in his community help him acquire this wealth? I’m certain of it. Did he have servants or forced labor he would demand work from? Almost assuredly so. Were others around him also feeling so over-confidant about the prosperity of their own lives and futures? I’m not so sure about that. Greed, power and privilege are blinders to our common humanity. Or, to put it into the terms of our own baptismal covenant: blinders to seeking and serving Christ in every human being, and to loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Our desire to stockpile and manage what we see as “ours” leaves no room for God. The desire for more had consumed the thoughts, the deeds, and the soul of this man. He was completely preoccupied by what he considered to be his possessions. His foolishness wasn’t in being rich, but in being caught up in greedy self-assurance, so much so that there was no thought for others, no consideration of the meaning and purpose of his life, and no room for God.

Foolishness can only hear itself talk. But Wisdom attunes our hearts to hear God’s voice.

And so, two thousand years later, Jesus the Wise Teacher poses a lesson for our own lives. What are we storing up? Is it money, or power, or privileged social status? When we recognize our wealth do we begin to panic that we might lose it and focus only on ways to store up more? Or do we see ourselves and our lives as situated within the Source of all abundance, as well as pay attention to those around us who have contributed to or could benefit from sharing in the abundance that we recognize that we all have as members of the household of God.

What would happen if we all stopped being distracted by the allure of accumulating more wealth, more power, more privilege, more guns, more possessions…more and more and more for ourselves and instead, opened our hearts and invited God to speak to our souls about what it means to fully embrace a shared life in the family of God? What if we made room for God in the times of our abundance, and not only when we sense scarcity? What if our thoughts and prayers were how to better care for each other, rather than preserving our wealth and power?

When we open our hearts and souls to hear and to trust the providence of God for all of the family of God, only then will we begin to truly hear the other voices around us over the clamoring of our own wants and needs. We will begin to see God’s providence at work not just confined to our own self-interests, but in the present and profound love of God for all God’s people. We will become able to see how God is working in us and through us and with us, shaping our lives to accomplish more than we ourselves could have asked or imagined. We will begin to see the world through the eyes of a loving and providential God who weaves together members of this family to support each other. The urgency of seeing this world through God’s vision is right here, and right now. This is a world desperately in need of that hope.

God’s vision extends beyond the storage silos of our individual lives. Jesus the teacher instructs us through a vision of the Realm of God, where providence and abundance are not of this world, but sourced in God. In the Realm of God, the division of labor isn’t that one person sits idly by in their wealth while others scramble to build and fill the storehouses. In the Realm of God, we share the abundance of our lives joyfully with others who are equally beloved of God. In the Realm of God we receive what we need, and we give what we can. It isn’t about us or getting our fair share. It’s all about God. And then, at the end of our days, we will rest fully in the assurance that we will return to the same source of providential love who has been working with us all our days, and enfolds us still.

When we are rich toward God, only then will we truly come to understand abundance.

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me!” said a voice from the crowd. And Jesus, the Wise Teacher looked around and saw God’s abundance in the crowd, and God’s abundance in his followers, and the abundance of God’s love and mercy already in their midst. And he saw a teachable moment through which his disciples, and the crowd, and generations yet to come could understand more about the plentiful abundance of God’s love and generosity. Jesus knew the real inheritance that was sourced in God, shared by the whole family of God. But he heard a voice breaking through, the voice of our human fear getting in the way of the message of God’s beloved community. And so, Jesus the Teacher offered up a parable to his friends, and to the crowds, and is still speaking it to us today. Jesus, who we know as Christ, is all and in all. And Jesus speaks to us.

Jesus, our teacher, we hear the urgency of the lesson you are teaching us in a world in need of your love and your hope. Open our hearts to hear your wisdom and recognize God in all people and in all things. Through this knowledge, transform us to action so our work in this world reveals your presence in all things.

Amen.

Jesus Teacher

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Neighborly Vocation

Homily for Proper 10, Year C
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
July 14, 2019

Lectionary Texts:

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-9
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart

Moses speaks these words to the people in our first reading, but all of the Word of God we read today is very near to us. In fact, our Gospel is such a familiar story that I can remember hearing it since my earliest days as a child in Sunday School. I’ve read it, I’ve studied it, I’ve even preached on it…my very first church sermon preached right here from this pulpit, as a matter of fact! But even though I’ve read this passage so many times, something new always comes through. It wasn’t until this week, for example, that I noticed just how many professions are specifically mentioned by name in this one short passage: Lawyer, Teacher, Priest, Temple-worker, Innkeeper…if we want, we could even add “Robber” to that list. As they say, it’s a living.

But all joking aside, it made me consider that the work we perform in the world can and does shape the way that we think, as well as how we hear and respond. In today’s Gospel, it becomes clear that Jesus the Teacher knows this, too. It’s one of the reasons Jesus employs parables as what I might even call the signature pedagogy of his teaching ministry. Jesus uses this form of the parable to hold the familiar routines of people’s lives while transforming them into gateways to understand the realm of God in new ways.

In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus the Teacher was approached by a lawyer with a question. Jesus, the Wise Teacher knew that the question posed by the precise lawyer was really a rhetorical question-behind-the-question. It begged a particular answer which could be cast into doubt through its detail-level semantics. And so, Jesus responds first on face value, pointing him to the most familiar common point of their shared Jewish heritage and teaching:. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength” which is then followed with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When the lawyer pushes the issue further, he chooses to emphasize the detail of law over the heart of faith. Jesus the teacher recognizes that vocational lens, but also unfolds a parable that offers the lawyer…and all those listening…a doorway to a deeper, teachable moment.

I believe that this familiar parable holds the same potential for each and every one of us.

I was once given a seminary assignment to re-write this parable in my own words. For that memorable assignment, I decided to paraphrase this Gospel lesson through my professional lens as a social worker. As I was working with the lectionary texts this week, that assignment returned freshly into my mind. I searched in my files, and when I found what I had written, I was stunned by its timeliness and relevance for me today.

The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.

And so I share this paraphrase of the Word with you today:

Suddenly, in the middle of class, a student raised her hand: “Professor, what can I do to be an exceptional social worker?” she asked. The Professor said, “You can follow the NASW Code of Ethics: Do you remember what it says?” And she answered, “Social Workers actively work to promote social and economic justice. You should respect the dignity and worth of every human being; You should honor the value of relationships, practice empathy, and foster self-determination in all your clients.” And the Professor said, “You have given the right answer; you shall pass!”

But, testing her point further, she then said to the Professor, “But, who are my clients?” The Professor thought a moment and replied: “A woman was walking through an unfamiliar area downtown, when suddenly two muggers attacked her. They dragged her into an ally and robbed her of her bag, her wallet, and her phone. They ran off, leaving her bruised and beaten, propped up in a doorway. A therapist, on break between clients, passed by her, seeing yet another revolving door alcoholic sleeping one off in the alley. A community organizer strolled by, rolling her eyes at the stoned, homeless prostitute lying in the very place she was hoping to plan a community rally. But, then an undocumented worker scurried by, hoping not to be late for her third part-time job of the day. She stopped suddenly and felt her heart in her throat, realizing that the slumped over mound in the doorway she just passed was a person. She immediately went over to her, and reached into her own purse to gather the first aid supplies she carried for the elderly woman she watched in the night. She pulled out some towels she had salvaged from the recycle bin at the house she had just finished cleaning. She washed the woman’s wounds gently with some hand-soap and cleaning wipes, bandaged up her cuts, and spread the last of her hand-cream lovingly over her bruised hands, telling her she was not alone and she would be ok. She wrapped her arms around the woman and they moved slowly, step-by-step toward a more gentrified street where they reached the airbnb of her bosses, the people for whom she was about to clean that afternoon. She knocked, and the head of the household answered. She explained in a mix of English and Spanish that she would still clean for them that day; but this woman was hurt and needed a safe place to say where she could be cared for. She explained she would pay, deducted from her wages, to be sure she had a bed to sleep in, food to eat, and a safe place to stay that night. The owner was moved and welcomed them in.

The Professor then said to the student: “Which of these, do you think, was a social worker to the woman who was mugged?” The student said, “The one who had empathy, who was compelled to deep caring.” The Professor said to her: “Go, and be that change you want to see in the world.”

What happens when you allow this Gospel lesson to play out with your own voice and your own life? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I want you to take a moment and really think about it. I read a CBS news article this week about how it looks for one woman, Elisa Filippone, who lives on the Texas border and works near the Brownsville and Matamoros bridge where asylum seekers are spending months waiting to cross for asylum. She fills her backpack with tacos, water and hygiene supplies and walks them over the bridge each day before leaving work. When asked she said, “The situation is happening three blocks from where I work. Three blocks from where I live. I cannot just pretend that there are not 50 people on the side of the bridge who need food and clothing….I can’t forget it and go about my life, knowing that it is happening three blocks from where I live.”

So, I’m going to ask you to pause and consider a few questions:

  • What is the lens of vocation through which you approach Jesus?
  • What is your question for Jesus?
  • What values does Jesus speak which guide you?
  • Who are your role models and what happens when they let you down?
  • Who do you expect to be the one who helps?
  • Whose generosity of help surprises you and why is it a surprise?
  • Who are the presumed untrustworthy groups in your own life?
  • And last but certainly not least: Who is your neighbor?

The world in which we live needs us to reflect on these questions…to answer them…but more importantly, to live them. We, as people of this world cannot continue to walk by the world’s brokenness and simply feel overwhelmed by it. The need is too great; our hearts must also be moved to compassion. This week we have the charge to make the words of this parable the reality of our lives. When people in this world are lying broken in the ditch, we will all be someone in this story. And the good news is, we can walk that road not once, but multiple times. We can get better on reflecting on it role each and every time. Reflecting on these questions helps us know who, and why, and how we are called to act, individually and as the Body of Christ. It’s the lesson that Jesus, our teacher, gives to us ponder today.

The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart

Amen.

pantry praying hands

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The Face of Christ

A Homily for Proper 9, Year C

Lectionary Texts (Track 2)

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

As daring as it is for an Episcopalian like me to do, I’m going to start out this sermon letting you know that today, we’re going to have a little talk together about Evangelism.

Now, I truly understand the discomfort when we hear the “E” word, because I have experienced that discomfort myself. Evangelism has sometimes gotten a bad reputation from those who have tied it to judgement, worthiness, or an imposed desire to have people act and think “just like us.” And yet, the sharing of the Good News is the basis of our faith. Today’s Gospel’s lesson offers us a beautiful example of what true evangelism looks like. So, I’m going to ask you…especially the Episcopalians…to set aside your fears and our preconceived notions about evangelism. I’d like us instead to approach this passage with a fresh set of ears, and an open heart. There are lessons deeply embedded in the Gospel we just heard that have helped me recreate the meaning of Evangelism in my own life and, I believe, help all of us become a living and thriving Church in the world today.

Let’s start with a bit of a prelude: the portion of Luke we read today comes after Jesus’ original charge to his closest followers, the twelve disciples. In the 9th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the twelve are literally sent off, ἀπέστειλεν (from which we derive the terms both “postal” and “apostle”). The twelve are given a specific charge: to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal They are charged to act on Jesus’ behalf with the same set of instructions: take nothing with you, stay where you are welcomed, shake the dust off your feet when you’re not. They went forth to heal the sick and to evangelize, to share the Good News. In the passage we read today in Chapter 10, Jesus reaches out again to a larger group: the seventy (or depending on the translation, the “72”). Jesus gathers them with a prayer, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Jesus sends out this group before him to the places Jesus intends to go. The seventy are not just “sent out”…they are sent out ahead, πρὸ προσώπου, literally “before the face” in the same usage that John the Baptist was described as the one sent to make the way for Jesus. They were, in a word, sent out to be the face of Jesus for the world.

Being the face of Jesus for the world. That is a whole new take on evangelism.

Jesus goes on to offer traveling mercies for those he sends. There is wisdom in these instructions that is worthy of our reflection, too, as followers of Christ in this world. Like any good professor is trained to do, I’ve distilled these into six key points for your consideration:

Share the journey; don’t go it alone. Jesus isn’t worried about a workforce supply issue when he talks about laborers for his harvest; he realizes what it truly takes to yield a harvest. He begins with prayer, and advises them to continue in the company of each other. When Jesus sends his followers out in pairs, it tangibly demonstrates that we are stronger when the journey is shared. This also means that everything that is accomplished on the journey is shared, both joys and sorrows; successes and failures. It is never about me or you…it is always about us.

Leave your baggage at home. We become weighted down by the things we feel we must bring with us. While the Gospel speaks of the material possessions often carried at that time, these still represent the material cares which can preoccupy us, and draw us away from the mission: money, possessions, self-protection. When we insist on carrying all our own baggage, not only are we weighted down but we cling to a false sense of security by thinking we must supply all that we need. This is also true when we insist on carrying our emotional baggage. We always end up lacking the one thing Jesus names as our true possession: Peace.

And thus begins the next set of instructions about what to share and how to receive:

Peace is what we are given; peace is what we give. The instruction is to convey peace, which implies we have peace. If even one person receives peace, the gift is shared with the whole household. This isn’t a magic formula: this is how peace works. Peace flourishes when it is shared; Peace given freely releases the love of Christ to transform a weary world. Peace was and is Christ’s gift to us and it will keep spreading to others as often as we share it.

Relate rather than retaliate. Jesus reminds those he sends not to bounce around from place to place but to remain steadfast, to foster the kind of relationships where we are mutually nourished, cared for and compensated for our efforts in ways which are fair and just. The economy of God isn’t like the economy of this world. This instruction from Jesus is really an invocation of justice; the in-breaking of the reign of Christ into business as usual in the world. In accepting what we need, in giving freely of what we have, in realizing that we can participate rather than retaliate: we are doing the work we are called to do and participating in God’s working in the world. The rest falls away, shaken off like dust.

And once we relate rather than retaliate, we are free to step into the next iteration of call:

Offer hope and healing. This is the heart of what we are called to do. It is the fundamental call of each and every follower of Christ. We aren’t asked to convict, convince or convert. We are instructed to offer the hope and healing of Christ; this is the face of Christ that we show to the world. A quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi conveys the essence of this instruction very well: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”

And finally, the instruction in which lies our own hope, and the foundation of our faith:

Acknowledge the nearness of God in all things, in all situations, and to all people. The nearness of God is not dependent upon how we are received, or even in how we ourselves receive the Good News. Christ is near; Christ reigns in all things. This is true when we are welcomed and embraced with open arms, or when we are rejected and brush the dust off our feet and go on our way. God’s presence is not dependent upon anything we do, or even anything that others do. In all people, in all responses, in all situations the instruction is the same: remind those we meet that God is near. We are, after all, the face of Christ. And when we are steadfast in our recognition of God with us, then God is made known in our very being.

This story of evangelism isn’t about what we do to convince others or even about what we accomplish in commanding the forces of evil in this world to back down. These things will happen because God has this, and God is with us. Jesus reminds those he sends about that which is truly important: knowing where and to whom we belong. We belong to God.

This, my friends, is what it truly means to be an evangelist, to be the “first face” of Christ and to share the Good News with a hurting world. Our charge today is to live fully into this call: go forth and be the face of Christ: together, without burden, in peace, with justice and always with the knowledge that God is near; indeed so near that we can know God’s very presence in our hearts, in our words, and in each other.

Amen.

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Hey, Boo…

Homily for Proper 7, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
June 23, 2019

Lectionary Readings:

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Psalm 42 and 43
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

If you’re familiar with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m assuming that most of you are, you may recall Boo Radley, the reclusive neighbor to the Finch family.  Scout and Jem along with the other children in the neighborhood introduce us to Boo as a sort of other-worldly spectre in the midst of what seems an otherwise idyllic town.  We almost immediately take on a suspicion of Boo which matches the taunting of the children who sneak into his yard to bang on his door and fabricate tales that heighten fear in others in order to preserve their sense of power.  It’s more complicated than that, of course; but its where we begin the story.

Our Gospel lesson today also opens in a kind of in-between place with a character who also seems to be located somewhere between the living and the dead.  The Gospel writer describes a naked man, possessed by demons, making his home among the tombs outside the city walls.  As Jesus approaches, we intuitively think we know who to sympathize with.  “Watch out, Jesus” we think, “whatever is lurking about in that graveyard is up to no good!”  Our suspicion holds true even in 2019, when we know there might have been any number of psychological reasons why the kind of behaviors described might have been happening.

Even holding open what might have been going on in the body, mind and spirit of the tomb-dwelling man, the linguistics of this passage convey an important undercurrent in this story which is easy to overlook in translation.  The Greek words employed in the opening portion of this passage are the generic word for any man (ἀνήρ) accompanied by an indefinite pronoun (τις) diminishing the certainty of status, gender or even unique personhood of the one Jesus encounters among the tombs.  Like our initial impressions of Boo Radley: we assume this is a less-than-fully-human outcast, a recluse, and an undesirable tomb-dweller.

But Jesus defies our expectations.  He approaches; he engages; when confronted with the knowledge that this stranger seems to recognize both his humanity and his divinity Jesus responds by asking the man his name.  But when asked his name…the response given to Jesus isn’t a human name but the state of his situation: he is the possessed.  At this point in the Gospel story, we are becoming more concerned.  But Jesus is becoming more invested.

As the story proceeds, Jesus encounters the person and reverses this situation, sending forth that which is truly evil from the human being he was able to see and recognize.  The people who saw it fled and, as we are all keen to do, told others what had happened.  When they arrive, they see something completely different than they expected:  Jesus sitting with a fully recognizable and clothed human being (ἄνθρωπον) of sound mind and self-control (σωφρονοῦντα).  The linguistics alone reveal the transformation from the less-than-human we think we see, to the beloved human being that Jesus sees.

Going back to our literary reference, I’m reminded of a moment further into the story of To Kill a Mockingbird when we come to understand something of the complexity and redemption of Boo Radley’s character.  It plays out beautifully in the movie version of the book.  Once Scout realizes Boo has been looking out for her and Jem, she then truly sees Boo as a person.  Recognizing the superficial knowledge prevailing up to that point, Atticus introduces them by their full names: “Miss Jean Louise, meet Mr. Arthur Radley.”

We know, in that instant, that a true and authentic transformation has taken place.  But the transformation isn’t just with the possessed man in the Gospel lesson, or with Boo Radley.  It is with us.

Back to the Gospel lesson:  “they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.

Notice when this fear happens:

It is when encountering the full, human being released into his personhood by the divine intervention of Jesus that they were afraid. 

It is the struggle for those gathered, for the early Church, for Maycomb County, Alabama and for us right here today.  It’s our human tendency to side with the people who seem to be like us, and to vilify the stranger who doesn’t seem to belong.  As long as that other is outside the walls of the city…or our lives…or even our church…we live in self-protected safety.  But when outsiders become insiders, it disrupts our sense of safety.  In the Epistle to the Galatians, Jewish Christ-followers were wrestling with the idea of how to mix with Gentile Christ-followers, because that threw the Church into what they saw as a perilous situation under the law.  Practices such as eating and bathing between Jewish and Gentile Christ followers were terrifying.  And, if those who were seen as unclean strangers could be Baptized and share the Lord’s supper, then what did that mean for slaves, servants, women, and all those other outsiders? The early Church was face to face with this conflict between law and faith and they, too, were afraid.  Just as Jesus presented a fully clothed human being in his right mind sitting where those gathered anticipated a monster to be, the early Church had to confront a vision of our common personhood in Christ in a way that defied their sense of what was right and pure:

 “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus sends the newly healed man back into his community, to continually speak knowledge of the workings of Christ.  In the Epistle, the followers of Christ are clothed and welcomed to a new community of faith, the Church, in which they are reminded the divisions of the world no longer have dominion.  In Baptism, we too renounce the evils of the world, and are joined by faith to Christian community.

This community to which we are joined, and to which all are invited to return, is the realm of Christ.

This is true of the healed person who once dwelled in the tombs; it is true of the outcast Gentiles and the less than fully human slaves and the socially marginalized women in the culture of that time. Today, it is true of all those who dwell in the outer margins of what we consider to be acceptable society as well: the streets, the jails, the border-lands, the tent cities, the detention centers, the places where we are not and where we’d rather not acknowledge that other people are.  And yet, Christ is encountering all of us with the intention to heal, to transform, and to make and remake us into sound mind and body.  And by “us” I mean the Church, the actor in this drama, where those given new identity in Christ are recognized and met together.  The Church is the place, both in and apart from society, where this wholeness actually happens. It happens in our oneness, in our sacrament and in our communal life.

Samuel Wells, priest and ethicist, describes it powerfully:

By sharing bread with one another around the Lord’s Table, Christians learn to live in peace with those with whom they share other tables–breakfast, shop-floor, office, checkout.  They develop the skills of distribution, of the poor sharing their bread with the rich, and the rich with the poor.  They develop the skills of equity, of the valued place of the differently abled, differently gendered and oriented people, those of assorted races and classes and medical, criminal and social histories.[1]

I’m also reminded of the description of the Holy Eucharist offered up by scholar of psychology and theology, Richard Beck:

The Lord’s Supper is a profoundly deep and powerful psychological intervention.[2]

Beck goes on to describe how the symbols and practices of Holy Eucharist restructure our experiences of singularity and otherness into wholeness; we imagine, we participate and we are reconstructed from our positions of personal wealth, privilege and ability and made into whole beings, all of us transformed and now made of new mind together in Christ.

We live in a world filled with very real human drama.  But our lives together in Christ are intended as a transformation, not a repetition of the way things are in the world.  Jesus’ intervention is jarring and unsettling to us because it asks us to trust in a reversal of our social expectations.  And it will change us.  The action of the redemptive love of Christ is to recognize our need for wholeness and to transform that which is unclean to new life.  That isn’t just true for those we consider to be the unclean other: it is also true for us.  We are asked to come eye-to-eye with the humanness in ourselves and each other, transformed through Christ.  Repeatedly coming back into community…and Communion…is an act of conscious grace.  It is a practice, an intervention, and an opportunity for transformative growth.

So come, you who have much faith and you who have little; you who have been here often and you who have not been here long; you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.  Come, because it is the Lord who invites you. 

Amen.

[1] Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004), 83.

[2] Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Morality (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011) 113.

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In the picture

Homily for the First Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday) Year C
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
June 16, 2019

Lectionary Readings:

 

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[Of note: In the Children’s Sermon immediately preceding this homily, we talked about the icon of The Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev referred to in this homily (and pictured at left). So the story goes, there is a place in this icon where a mirror was thought to have been affixed, considering the welcoming of the stranger in the story of Abraham and Sarah and reflecting the image of the Holy Trinity, One God to include us as well.  For general reference, please visit Fr. Richard Rohr’s commentary, “Take Your Place at the Table.”]

 

For the past four years, my mid-June has been lived out in summer intensives at my seminary on the West Coast. Thus, Trinity Sunday has been an opportunity to visit, worship and serve in parishes throughout the San Francisco Bay area. I have heard some sermons about the Holy Trinity from learned theologians and cathedral deans; I’ve danced at the intersection between brilliance and heresy. I’ve explored feminist theology and eco-centered liturgy with trinitarian themes; I’ve even carried a banner in procession at Grace Cathedral, which almost caused me to set sail from the top of Nob Hill when a gusty wind found my banner just as we were exiting from the service. But for my final West Coast Trinity Sunday last year, the wisdom which found me was at my home-away-from-home parish at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. St. Gregory’s is known for it rotunda of brightly painted, “dancing saint” icons. The parish is also home to several incredible iconographers, including their rector Paul Fromberg. On this particular Trinity Sunday, Paul offered up a thought-provoking homily using the iconic image of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. He had also placed an icon in the entry that Sunday, and around the image was written:

This one body that we are includes the whole world, the earth and all its beings, and these are in conversation with heaven, all participate in the responsibility of each for all.

Now, not only is Paul the rector of St. Gregory’s but I have also taken several courses with him in practical theology and parish ministry during my four years at seminary. He’s shaped my priesthood in many ways, so you can either thank him or blame him for that! I know Paul to be brilliant, spiritually grounded, quick on his feet and have an answer to almost any question posted to him, usually astute and if not, at least lovingly sarcastic. On this particular day, Paul’s sermon invited us to consider the relational nature of Holy Trinity using the illustration of a dinner party he had recently held where each person reminded him of an attribute of the Holy Trinity. The conversation which emerged from that gathering required the unique and full participation of each of these particular persons; yet, the conversational whole which emerged was even greater than the sum of its parts. As is the custom at St. Gregory’s, there is a time after the sermon where the hearers are invited to reflect back their questions or response to the group. As Paul opened that time of sharing, one parishioner astutely said, “Fr. Paul, with all respect, it occurs to me that while you described your three friends so beautifully as contributing to that conversation, you were also at that table.” Paul smiled, in his characteristic way, and after a few false starts at trying to respond philosophically or with loving sarcasm, he finally replied pastorally and, I believe, theologically: “Yes” he said. “Yes. Thank you for reminding me.”

This one body that we are includes the whole world, the earth and all its beings, and these are in conversation with heaven, all participate in the responsibility of each for all.

Theologian Catherine LaCugna says of the Holy Trinity: “The doctrine of the Trinity is not ultimately a teaching about “God” but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other. It is the life of communion and indwelling, God in us, we in God, all of us in each other.” [1]

God in us. We in God. All of us in each other.

God in us builds on the reassurance we hold that something happens to each and every one of us in our Christian faith and life as God’s spirit comes to dwell in us. Perhaps, as we reflected on during Pentecost last week, that is through listening to the still small voice encouraging us and empowering us to use the gifts we have been given to serve the world. Or perhaps it is a sense of being changed, forgiven, loved, and known: all of these are hallmarks of what we know and understand it means to be beloved of God who has created us. God in us helps us sense that we, individually and collectively, are the beloved of God. This is divine, blessed assurance which is born of relationship, embodied in our theology of incarnation: Immanuel, God-with-us.

We in God. The personal God who loves us is also the transcendent God who holds all of us: past, present and future…people known and unknown…wonders we’ve come to know and wonders we are only beginning to uncover…all within the vastness of Who God is. We rest in God, trust in God, affix our faith to the knowledge that God is greater than any of the things that life can throw at us. We are in God, together, as the people of God. When we offer our Eucharistic prayer, just before we say or sing the Sanctus, it is with the words: “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name.” That prayer places us all together in the chorus of the divine, resting in the praise and worship of the triune Holy, Holy, Holy God.

All of us in each other. If God is in us and we are in God then that brings us to the third trinitarian realization of our Christian life: all of us are in each other. My Christian faith echoes my social work training on this point: the core of all that we do rests on the centrality of relationship. I have learned this professionally, and I hold to it theologically as well. We exist as human beings to be in relationship and God’s desire is to be in relationship with us. Our understanding of creation teaches us that we are created to be in relationship with each other, and with God. Life itself requires relationship for continuity; and if we hold that we are in God and God is in us, then God is also best understood through our relationships with each other.

When we bring all this together, we come to understand LaCugna’s assertion that the Holy Trinity is about relationship and not about hierarchy. Again, LaCugna reflects that the doctrine of the Trinity supports, “a vision of authentic human community structured according to the divine community, characterized by equality, mutuality, and reciprocity among persons.” [3]  If we understand the relationships among the three persons of the Holy Trinity to be dynamic, creative, and contributory then we understand that flow of energy to be sourced in love and relationship. It is love which binds together the three persons of the Holy Trinity into One God, continually acting and revealing Godself through Love. Focusing our thoughts on the Holy Trinity in this way is not a once-a-year deep dive into abstract theology: it becomes a model for how we live our everyday lives as well.

If God is in us, and we are in God, and all of us are in each other then there is no need for hatred, or power, or trying to vindicate ourselves or support our cause to the expense of others. Our primary goal moves away from ego and becomes about relationship; experiencing the depth of love by the working of God in us, and through us, and among us. When relationship becomes our focus, the ways in which we humanly separate from each other, or latch on to privilege, or demean a person or group are antithetical to our understanding of God. These power-grabbing actions aren’t part of relationship and so they fall away, in the service of Love.

I go back to the story where I began this: Holy Trinity also encompasses and uniquely involves us: each one of us, and all of us. Before I visited St. Gregory’s there was a sort of fan-girl awe for me after reading many of Sara Miles’ books. But, it felt like home from the first time I visited both their Friday food pantry, and their Sunday liturgy. I have been drawn back to serve and worship to St. Gregory’s time after time because the charism of that parish reminds me of this parish. No, we don’t have painted icons in a rotunda and not every Sunday involves liturgical dance. But, this parish has a sense of itself through its direct and intimate connection to serving the local community as well as seeing God through the face of the other. And both St. Gregory’s and St. Thomas’ can be so focused on loving those who the world has rejected that we can have a tendency to think of ourselves as on the margins, a bit like the inhabitants of the  “Island of the Misfit Toys.” Am I wrong? But there is something vital and, in fact, Godly about knowing we are each invited to the table, holding up a mirror to be reminded that we are also created and held within in this very image of God, embodying the attributes of God in us, bringing ourselves into that iconic picture of what it means for all of us to be in each other, wrapped in and transformed by the divine relationship that is the Holy Trinity.

Our Gospel lesson reminds us that we don’t…and can’t even bear…to know everything there is to know about God. The depth of our trinitarian faith isn’t a remote and abstract theological explanation of God, but a deep and relational understanding about the nature of God, lived out in our relationships with each other. We are guided by the living out of our faith into deeper truth, including the knowledge that each one of us is a reflection of God’s enduring commitment to loving relationship. We are at the table, in the conversation, relating and communing with all of who we are to all that God is, and is revealing Godself to be. God in us. We in God. All of us in each other. No exceptions. Even you. Even me.

This one body that we are includes the whole world, the earth and all its beings, and these are in conversation with heaven, all participate in the responsibility of each for all.

Amen.

Maker:S,Date:2017-3-26,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-Y

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna (1973). God for Us: The Trinity & Christian Life.  Chicago, IL: HarperCollins. p. 228

[2] Book of Common Prayer, Holy Eucharist Rite II, Prayer B (p. 367)

[3] LaCugna, God for Us (p. 266)

 

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My Red Balloon

A sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2019 (Year C)
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia

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Lessons appointed:
Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-27

 

Come, Holy Spirit. Come as wind and cleanse; come as fire and burn; convert and consecrate our lives to our great good and your great glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

I invite those of you of a certain age, who may recall a time before there were movies on demand, to step with me into the childhood bliss of seeing a 16mm film projector being rolled into your school classroom on a rainy afternoon. Every year at least once it was the story of Johnnie Appleseed, and anything featuring Jiminy Cricket as a narrator was always a sure hit. But the most memorable classroom movie for me was The Red Balloon, a French film by Albert Lamorisse. Its original release in 1956 combined with its popular acclaim and classroom use throughout the 1970’s and beyond leads me to believe that perhaps some of you may also be familiar with it. Quick recap: the film follows a little pascalboy, Pascal, and his red balloon running together through the streets of Paris, with child and balloon befriending each other and sharing a sweet synergy over time. The film has virtually no spoken words and yet, we are able to follow exactly what is happening. It is one of those quaint films that captures the innocence of childhood belief, accompanied by the logical but often misguided reaction of adults and bullies who try to break the simple joy and playfulness of friendship playing out between them. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice it to say that many parallels of life, death and resurrection are also played out in this story without words.

Looking back at my childhood, I realize I had a lot in common with Pascal. My imagination was constantly in motion and I spent a lot of time on my own, nurturing a storyline in my mind. There were bullies in my life, and some adults who were helpful while others didn’t seem to appreciate the joy and playfulness of my childhood imagination. In a series of scenes in the movie, Pascal and his balloon are looked after by a kindly janitor, and smiled upon by a group of nuns who shield his balloon beneath their umbrellas on a rainy day. But, Pascal and his balloon don’t fare so well trying to get on a bus together, and then they are very emphatically turned away from the grand entrance of Notre Dame. This reminded me that while there were many kind people who sheltered my journey, not every place…including church…felt like a safe or welcoming space for me. 

I was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, so I was taught to pray fervently to receive the Holy Spirit, which in that context meant speaking in tongues and being “slain in the spirit” as people say.  As a child, it was sometimes frightening and confusing, and as I aged, it felt like a forced expectation that frankly, was unattainable for me. Sometimes when I tell people about the faith tradition I was raised in people find it wildly fascinating and curious. We all have our ways of worshipping, and one is not better than another.  This way was just my life as I knew it, every Sunday Morning and Sunday Evening, and again at Wednesday Bible Study. Perhaps it was like Pascal’s streets of Paris which seemed so exotic to me in rural upstate New York but to him were simply the fixtures of his life to navigate, finding moments of peace and contentment while dodging and hiding from those who sought to squelch his joy.

Pascal’s Red Balloon travelled with him through the Paris streets and alleys, sometimes seeming to play with him and sometimes helping him outmaneuver the bullies. The relationship felt simple and loving, which is what makes the film so hauntingly beautiful. For these reason and perhaps others, I developed an affinity for that Red Balloon which somehow spoke to my childhood spirit in a way that words could not.

During my college years, I had a parting of ways with the tradition in which I had been raised, and I made my way into the Episcopal fold as a choir singer, even if I hadn’t really stepped “all in” into our tradition at that point. There was still fear, and self-protection, and some passive avoidance of getting too involved or attached to any kind of organized religion.  This arms-length avoidance helped me keep my illusion of control. But I admit, I actively avoided Pentecost Sunday.

But, in 2007, my family and I had relocated to Richmond and we began attending St. Thomas just before Easter. img_20190609_101617I felt that special kind of love this place can offer those who are in a sort of spiritual recovery, where all are welcome and none are forced, as I like to say. I heard it was going to be the 100th Anniversary of this little parish I was growing to love, and I wanted to be a part of that. The Bishop was coming on Pentecost, and there were going to be baptisms and confirmations.

I remember entering this space with some reservation that day, but feeling a lightness come over my spirit when I saw the joyful bunches of festive red balloons and people embracing the day as a celebratory gift. It reminded me of the same joyful moment of Pascal seeing his bright red, helium-filled friend that he thought was lost. I didn’t even need words to hear the resonant truth the Spirit of God was speaking to my spirit: Don’t be afraid. I am right here with you. I always have been. And, I never left.

Sometimes we are reminded of gift of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives in the most unexpected and unpredictable of ways. Even through red helium balloons.

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I have had several other incredibly beautiful reminders of the Holy Spirit’s presence since that day. Some of them were also here in this parish: one, like the brush of a breeze during a quiet compline while attending our Inquirer’s class; another, the sense of a true burning away of the pain of the spiritual wounds of my past during my Confirmation; and most recently the comforting and life-giving embrace of the Holy Spirit enfolding me at my ordination, transforming that which I offered to God to be used, I pray, for the continued growth and healing of the Church and the world. These weren’t flights of imagination but are, I believe, real and palpable moments of my life where I have been able to perceive the Holy Spirit at work in me. Like the disciples gathered in that upper room, it was like a clear voice cutting through all the other voices and languages of time and space to say: I am with you, I am here. And, I will always be.

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In our lessons today, this is the message we are all offered from the Holy Spirit: the abiding presence and steadfast relationship of the Spirit of God given to all of the people of God. The Holy Spirit moved across the waters of creation, breathed the breath of life into being, stirred the hearts of those who met Jesus, enlivened the followers of the Way of Christ to become the Church to reach to all parts of the world. Today we joyfully celebrate the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to the world in what we have come to know as the Church and honestly, it’s OK to embrace that with childlike joy.  That’s why we have balloons, and dove pendants, and joyful  music and of course, cake!

What is truly amazing is that the Spirit is still moving in creative and adaptive ways so that the transforming and redeeming love of Christ spreads to all the corners of the world, as well as into the depths and recesses of our hearts. The “Spirit of Adoption” that we hear in the Epistle to the Romans applies to all of us, who are enfolded with love and welcomed into the family at any age. We are continually brought into the loving embrace of God through the action of the Holy Spirit. We are given the Spirit of Adoption to counteract the spirit of fear, to know that we belong wholly to God, as children of God. We are loved, and beloved, and embraced in that love for all time.

I’ve learned so much more over the years about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Our Comforter and Advocate is with us, filling us with what we need to make God’s presence known in the world. Those gifts differ for each of us, and they are not all in one form or expression. I am reminded in our lesson from Acts that the real action of the spirit wasn’t in the outpouring of languages, but in the ability of everyone present to hear clearly, in the language of their heart, about what our lectionary, in its NRSV translation, describes as “God’s deeds of power.” I would push that translation a bit, though, as the Greek adjective used to describe the working of God, μεγαλεῖα, might be more meaningfully translated as “magnificent” or “wonderful” not with a sense of earthly power, but with the knowledge that the wonderful workings of God are greater than we could ask or imagine. In Greek, it is the same root as Mary’s Magnificat, proclaiming from her soul the greatness of God. This magnificat of the Holy Spirit is what resonated through time, space, culture and language on Pentecost to rest in each hearing ear and open heart.

And so it is with us too. The attributes of God’s magnanimous presence will speak differently to each of us, and activate within us the different gifts we bring: hospitality, teaching to young and old and everyone in between, prophetic witness, preaching the Gospel in word and deed, translation of God’s redemptive love to a hurting world. The Holy Spirit fills us with these gifts, and empowers the Church to transform the world. God speaks, God moves, God works in us.

Take time this Pentecost to listen, deeply, to the Holy Spirit moving in your life, conveying with simple wonder the gifts and grace we each have been given to show God’s love in the world. Celebrate that, and be joyful! Sing your Magnificat! Reach out for the string of that red balloon not because you fear it will float away, but because we are in relationship with this enlivening, joyful and very present Spirit of the Living God who fills us to overflowing with joy and possibility. It is the gift of this Pentecost day, and all the days that have been, and all the days to come.

Come, Holy Spirit. Kindle in our hearts the flame of your love that in the darkness of the world it may glow and reach to all for ever.

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit.

Amen.

doves

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Jesus Prays for Us

A Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after the Ascension), Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
June 2, 2019

Lectionary Readings:

One week ago today, I was wrapping up my time at seminary…this time, my seminary graduation…attending Sunday Holy Eucharist at my “home away from home” parish of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. At the close of the service, that community gathered around me and offered a communal sung blessing on my graduation, ordination and journey and into new ministry. In that holy space filled with color and light, I felt such a depth of love and connection with these people, some of whom I know well and others of whom I didn’t know well at all. But there we were, being Church, lifted together in voice and prayer into the presence of God. We were one, and we were One in Christ. I felt that. It was a holy moment and a palpable reminder that prayer is that which connects us with God and each other.

But, standing here this week, I hold that joyful memory along with a heavy heart. We worship today disquieted by the violence of this world, and we would not be true to the Gospel and the vows of our Baptism without pausing to feel and name the grief and anger and hurt we share with our neighbors in Virginia Beach, grieving the friends and family who were civic employees gunned down at the close of their work week. We also hold in our hearts Markiya Dickson, third grader gunned down at a family picnic in a park in southside Richmond last weekend, a standby victim of gun violence. We mourn the deaths of two transgender women of color, Muhlaysia Booker and Michelle Washington, also targeted and killed this past weekend. Our hearts still ache for our siblings in Christ gathered for Easter worship in Sri Lanka, our Jewish siblings praying in synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh, and our Muslim siblings attending Mosque in New Zealand who were attacked within their places of worship. And we grieve with our family of Christ who worship in historic black churches, set on fire and targeted by racial hate crimes which go against everything we are taught in the Gospel. These aren’t even all of the unjust and violent acts which break our hearts. There is much to grieve, and obviously much to do. And there is, I believe, an incredibly important lesson in this week’s Gospel for us about the fervent and persistent power of prayer during times such as these when we feel the most comfortless.

I think that it is fitting as we commemorate Christ’s Ascension this Sunday that the reading from John’s Gospel is not focused on the leave-taking of Jesus from among his friends, but instead on the prayer that Jesus offers to all those who follow him. Jesus’ final action…yes, action…is to pray. Jesus prays for the disciples who were present and those who were not; Jesus prays for the disciples of the age in which he lived and of the age to come. The prayer Jesus prays, in fact, is every bit as much for us today as it was for those who were gathered at that particular time and place. And it is the continual working of that prayer which Jesus offers, and the way it calls us to action, that I would draw our attention to today.

Rather than offering a fleeting platitude of “thoughts and prayers” for those who grieve, I will assert that using the depths of our Christian thought and responding actively with prayer, as Jesus models for us, will lead us down pathways of change and hopefulness. Distancing ourselves from the pain and discomfort of our world flies in the face of everything we hear uttered by Jesus Christ in today’s Gospel lesson. It leaves us numb and isolated, with hearts that are unmoved by injustice. We are called to more than that. We are called to transform the world through the love of Christ.

In our fervent prayer and worship we genuinely come to know and hear how to respond to that love, as individuals and as a community. From the very core of our tradition we are taught this. Episcopalians are unquestionably and unapologetically a people of prayer. The Anglican tradition we embrace was forged at a time when people were being put to death over their conflicting religious expressions. Common prayer was then, and is now that which holds us together. Every time we gather, our unity is in our prayer. We pray together, whether we agree with each other or not and whether we know each other well or not. Like my moment at St. Gregory’s last week reminded me: our common prayer is what solidifies our communal identity in Christ. Our Book of Common Prayer emphasizes a broad and transformative understanding of this form and nature of prayer which we embrace: (see p. 856), “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” Responding to God requires action on our part. The act of prayer presumes our openness to be transformed to action by God.

While I am obviously responding to the immediate events of our world, I am not preaching some new or transient theology. Throughout history, prayer as action has been the core of Christian life. The story of Paul and Silas in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows them jailed, out of spite and malice, singing their praises to God. Their prayer wasn’t for their personal release or retribution; their prayer was praise to the living God. In that worship, Christ was made known to those imprisoned with them and even to the jailor whose belief releases him to freedom and new life in the love of Christ and through the waters of Baptism.

The transforming power of Christian thought and worship through common prayer in our Anglican identity is also expressed eloquently by theologian F.D. Maurice in his sermon on the prayer book, delivered in 1893:

Thought and prayer both come from a hidden source; they go forth to fight with foes and gain victory in the external world; they return to rest in Him who inspire them. Oh! how fresh and original will each of our lives become, what flatness will pass from society, what barrenness from conversation, what excitement and restlessness from our religious acts, when we understand the morning prayer is really a prayer for grace, to one whose service is perfect freedom, in knowledge of whom is eternal life; when at evening we really ask the One from whom all good thoughts, and holy desires, and just works proceed, for the peace which the world cannot give.[1]

Let me repeat that, from 1893 to 2019: The peace which the world cannot give.

This peace is the prayer that we hear Jesus offering up in our Gospel lesson: “Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus prays for us. Jesus intercedes and petitions for us. Jesus’ prayer is specific and purposive, embodying both his divine intention and his human longing. Jesus prays for us…and by that I mean ALL OF US…that we may be one, even as Jesus and the Father, Source of all Being, are One. Jesus was praying not only for his disciples gathered around him but for all who would believe on his name. That means Jesus was praying for Paul and Silas, for the jailer and his family, for the enslaved young girl who would be freed from spiritual bondage even if held by human captors. Jesus was praying for John, exiled on the Island of Patmos and for those disciples after the Ascension who would gather in fear, eagerly awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was praying for the early church, those at the first church Councils, and for the saints, martyrs and everyday folk of our Great Cloud of Witnesses over the ages. Jesus prays for the quiet followers, and the public figures; the spiritual leaders and the prophetic voices. Jesus prays for those who are born with voice and privilege, and for those at the social margins of this world. Jesus prays that we come to know that we are all one, and that we are also One with Christ just as Christ and the Father are One.

Jesus’ prayer is powerful and counter-cultural. It enfolds us, as community, and lifts us into the divine presence of God. It fundamentally changes our understanding of who we are as followers of Christ. Jesus’ intercession for us is that we become completely one, so that through us, the world might know the depth of God’s transforming love for all of God’s people. And, if we go back to that core understanding of prayer as a response to God with thoughts and deeds, with or without words, we can see the opportunity for everything we do to become an action of prayer. When we welcome as God would welcome; when we feed those who hunger not out of pity but out of love; when we hurt with the grieving rather than distancing ourselves; when we respond to our convictions by thoughtful and prayerful action; when we set aside our need for human recognition and set our sights instead on letting the Love of God be known through our words, actions and intentions then we are living out the prayerful life which Jesus intended for us, and prayed into being for us. That was true in those moments where Jesus’ disciples were gathered around him, and it’s true for us today as we continue to gather in the name of Christ and come to this table together as one Body, united in common prayer.

As we commemorate the Ascension we come to know that even as Jesus is lifted into glory, we are not left comfortless. The worst thing we can do is grow numb and distance ourselves from the children of God who are hurting in this world, which is a false comfort. Instead, Jesus’ prayer invites us into the fullness of God as experienced in each other through the Holy Spirit who unites us and makes us one. All of us. And the wider we allow that circle to grow, the more we will experience and liberate the expansive, transforming love of Christ for all the world to see.

So, on this day where Christ is lifted up, we have more reason than ever to lift up our hearts and give our thanks and praise for the great gift we have been given: the resonant blessing, the gift of Jesus’ prayer which continues to make us one with each other, and one with God. In this is our comfort. In this is our hope. In this, we are made one.

Amen.

 

ascension window

 

[1] F.D. Maurice (1893) Sermons on The Prayer Book and the Lord’s Prayer. London:Macmillan and Co.

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New and Good

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
May 19, 2019

Some of you may know that I’m a part of CirclesRVA, which is a poverty-alleviation program that was recently formed here in the City of Richmond by a collection of downtown congregations and social service partners. Every Tuesday evening, 50+ Circles leaders, allies and their families gather for dinner, mutual support, and learning about each other’s lives, circumstances, and the characteristics of our common life in Richmond which we can be begin to change in order to alleviate poverty and break down barriers of income inequality. The first activity that we do together in the Circles model is to share something “new” and something “good.” Sometimes, people have something to share which is both new AND good. Often, though, I hear someone acknowledge a “new” thing, reserving judgement as to whether or not it will turn out to be a “good” thing. To put it into context, I was working with the youth last week and someone shared, “Something new is that I finished my SOL test. I’m not sure if that’s something good yet or not, though…” I suspect there are a few of you who might relate to that!

All joking aside, I think that most of us can relate completely. We look with anticipation toward something new, but hold our reservations because something new is also something different where the outcome is still uncertain. In fact that’s the point of CirclesRVA. It isn’t a bunch of people who have it all figured out telling others what to do. It is a coming together to understand each other; to see life through each other’s eyes and to work together to re-imagine and re-make the communities in which we live and work. It’s hard work, framed in trust and respect. The whole program is echoed in that opening exercise: it is all about the new and good we come to see in each other.

Today’s lectionary lessons also speak to us of all things new and good. In these post-resurrection weeks of Eastertide we are confronted with stories of that which has become new, and these stories also give us insight into our human reservations about how we struggle to learn that these new things are indeed good: this is true of our kindred spirit Apostle Thomas who needs to touch the nail-pierced hands of the risen Christ; it is true of the disciples casting their fishing nets again into waters that haven’t yet yielded any catch. And in today’s first lesson it is profoundly illustrated by Peter who in the early days of ministry has been given both new vision and new mission about the expansive reach of God’s intention for the Church and yet is confronted by the current community of believers about whether or not this extension of God’s belovedness to those on the margins can possibly be a good thing. It takes time and persistence for them to recognize this something “new” as something good and holy.

All of this new which we hear about in today’s lessons emerges from that that which has been: it does not suddenly appear but has been made, is being made and will continue to be made new by the active resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That which is being made new is now imbued with God’s fullness; its inherent goodness comes not from a fascination with something new and shiny, but with a deep and permeating presence of God’s creative and transforming energy which is made known to us in the resurrection. People who once were considered outcast are now the newest members of the Body of Christ; the flawed and broken earth becomes the new Jerusalem when touched and transformed by God. The potential of the new is revealed: it holds the infinite nature of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

And so it is that we reach our Gospel lesson. This “new” commandment of which Jesus speaks does not mean that there has been no prior commandment to love God, or to love one another. It is actually an ancient and great commandment: the greatest commandment of the Jewish people, Sh’ma Yisra’el, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  What is new and good about this commandment is its enlivening in the risen Christ, which allows the resurrection to be seen and known and experienced through the ways in which we show Christian love toward one another. Behold, God is making all things new in us, even in the new way in which our love for God, lived out through our love for one another, reveals resurrection.

So, back to this idea of “new and good”…

With all our emphasis on what is new, how do we grapple with our ambivalence and fear about whether this “something new” is “something good”? Because, like my group of honest youth, we too often hold out reservations about whether the new workings of God in our lives are going to turn out to be something good. But our Christian life is not an SOL test. This new life in Christ is a new life with God, with God dwelling in us and with us. Perhaps we cling onto some comfortable things about the way things have always been which we are afraid to let go and place into the hands of God. Perhaps our fear of the unknown gets in the way of the hope and belief of what is to come. But we are reassured of the Good News in Christ, that God has come to dwell with us. The Greek words of the Revelation to St. John are more literally saying, God has tabernacled with us and is making all things new. (1)

This isn’t a prophecy that suggests God will make all things new sometime, in an unknown future yet to come. This is the active presence of God in our lives and in the Church, making and remaking of all things new, and all things good. Even our tears and our sorrows are transformed. Or perhaps, as we assert together in our funeral liturgy, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” (2) This becoming new, the emergence of the Good brought into being by the transforming love of God in Christ is that in which we have confidence.

Some of you may have read the poem and blessing from John O’Donohue which I posted on the morning of my ordination. It has been a guidepost on this journey and was the reminder I needed on that beautiful day of the new and good that God has been, is, and continues to work in my own life and ministry.  It is a poem of new beginnings: not the shiny, sparkly uncertain kind but the deep, God-laden new beginnings in which our work in the world is revealed.

So, I want to close today with this prayer and ask you to allow it to soak into your heart. Open your heart to see that which God is making new: the creation of a widening and diverse array of the family of God; the ways in which we learn to love and serve one another; the transformation of that which is broken by pain and death into that which is alive in Christ. These are the new beginnings in which we come to know the risen Christ. And as we love each other, it is through that love that the world comes to know Christ in us. See, God is making all things new, even in our lives and community:

In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

 

(1) Revelation 21:3, σκηνώσει from σκηνὴ, “tabernacle” (noun and verb forms present)

(2) Book of Common Prayer, p. 499

(3) “For a New Beginning” by John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us (2008, Doubleday)

 

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