Imago Dei

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

Lectionary Readings:


I don’t understand…

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

The list goes on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Justice.  No Peace.

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

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

No Justice No Peace

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I am the way

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

Lectionary Readings for May 10

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

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

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

You know the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
by Jane Kenyon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To access this poem:

Easter 5

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Priesting in Pandemic

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

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

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

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

It’s true in all facets of my life, actually.  I realize more every day how deeply I care about my faculty colleagues and my students; those relationships are the core of all that I do.  In this blended vocational life, I am also shepherding the emergence of the St. Phoebe School for Deacons, a new iteration of diaconal formation for my diocese and one of our neighboring dioceses as well.  It is not lost on me during this time that the first aspect of the St. Phoebe School to emerge was the Virtual Chapel of St. Phoebe.  Times to pray together virtually were ready to go when we knew we needed to distance.  Now, those who are a part of the school and others gather for prayer every morning.  I can’t imagine starting my days any other way.

Priesting in pandemic reminds us that relationships and prayer are what everything else is about.  We know that, of course; but often other things get in the way.

No, we weren’t prepared for any of this, any of us…not the academy, not the church, not our society.  But in these strange days as we grapple with new, pandemic realities of having to lovingly distance in order for the most vulnerable among us to survive, I have discovered there were roots of preparedness to do this work that had been taking root in my soul.

Like those flowers filling my empty vases this morning, there are blooms emerging where we don’t think to look until we need to.

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

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

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

Behind the scenes, I sit on my guest room bed, looking at my home altar set up on an old cedar chest with my computer resting on a tray table while my virtual background displays the altar of our parish, set for Easter.  I “see” myself there, and indeed, I am there.  And I am here.  And I am in the places of the people who gather.  And it is not only technology but also the Holy Spirit who makes this seemingly impossible connection possible.  I’ve learned to trust the technology of our age to serve as the invisible playground of the Holy Spirit who will and does create in us opportunities to love, relate and connect in ways we didn’t know we needed, until we needed to.  And now, with new eyes, we are able to come together as Church in the world.  It is changing us in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.

I recognize that there is conversation and debate in my theological circles regarding Holy Eucharist and Spiritual Communion.  For me, on Sunday mornings as I gather with the parish I was called to serve, I am fed and nourished with the reminder that in God’s time and space, we have never left the table.  We are being fed and nurtured as the Body of Christ that we have been formed to be.  That is what I pray as a priest, my hands extended as the Eucharistic prayer moves through us, transcending time and space.  I go back to that memory of priestly presiding, etched in my spirit, even as we worship now through common prayer and the Liturgy of the Word.  The transformation is essential, and sacramental: it was, is, and will continue to be in the gift of our selves that we bring.

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

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

That essential time is now.








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Believing Thomas

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

Virtual Liturgy during COVID-19 Pandemic
Richmond, VA

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe some of you can relate to that, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Thomas Apostle

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I wonder…

Palm Green Leaves Palm Leaf Plant Palm Tree Leaf

Homily for Palm Sunday, Year A

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

Lectionary Readings for Palm Sunday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your Holy Week be filled with wonder.



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Virtual Stations of the Cross

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


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


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At Night

Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Lent
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia

Lectionary Readings:

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Sometimes, things need to happen at night.  

Take, for example, the date that the Bishop proposed for my ordination as a transitional deacon.  November 10, 2018 was a perfectly fine date. It was such a fine date that it was also selected by the Richmond Marathon for their big annual race AND by the Altria Theatre for a matinee production featuring Peppa Pig.  That would all be fine…I’m perfectly willing to share…except that both of those events were happening all day on the same block as the parish where I had been appointed to serve and where my ordination would be held.  A logical solution soon emerged: we kept the date, but planned the ordination that evening, after dark.

But, after dark was a harder time for some of the people in my life to be present.  This was true especially for those whose days were spent on the streets and whose nights were spent in shelters.  Shelters have rules about when one must be in, and exceptions are not made for ordinations. For others, the night was just too dangerous; I welcomed them in spirit but knew better than to expect them in person.  But, one of the unhoused people who found their way to my ordination that evening was a true character and friend, W.B. Braxton-Bantu, aka Scoutleader Bat, the self-described grim guardian of the poor and down-trodden.  He slipped in just after the processional and sat on the back row in his characteristic suit, tie, leather jacket and round wire-rimmed glasses. W.B. and I both referred to each other as “Professor” and spent many hours together talking about policies and practices related to poverty, eviction and homelessness, drafting letters to representatives and discussing everything from theology to movies to time travel.   I was glad to see him there. But after a long day on foot and on bike, in the quiet safety of sanctuary, W.B. did what many people do when they find rest in their restless days: he drifted to sleep. I noticed this during communion when I didn’t see him come forward. Along with my friend Amy, who was chalicing, we walked from the chancel to the back of the nave to serve communion to those for whom walking was difficult, and then I went all the way in the back to W.B.  I touched his arm…he awakened instantly and his eyes met mine. We both greeted each other with a smile and our greeting: “Professor.” And in what I can only describe as a pure and holy moment, we both encountered the presence of Christ palpably together in that sharing of Holy Communion.  

My friend and photographer Patience happened to catch that iconic moment on her camera.  She gave it to me in the album that was my ordination present. Every time I look at that picture now, I go back to that moment, and all I can see is Christ.  It is my icon of ministry, and it grounds me into doing the work that I was called to do. We were in that place, on that night, both of us seeking an encounter with Christ.  And Christ met us there.

I’ve been living that encounter over and over again in my mind this week, because I learned that my friend W.B. died unexpectedly last week.  WB’s death makes me deeply sad, for personal as well as pastoral reasons. But when I look at that picture, I realize it isn’t just a fond memory: it’s a reminder of a shared encounter with Christ.  And it reminds me that sometimes the most important encounters begin in the dark: whether that is the darkness of grief, or the darkness of night. Always, in that encounter with Christ, there is the first hope of resurrection.

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.  New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”  

And so it is that today in our Gospel lesson, we meet Nicodemus who also finds himself encountering Jesus in the dark of night.  We make a lot of assumptions about why that might be. Maybe he was afraid, or sneaking around, or didn’t want to be spotted. Our mind goes there, but actually, we don’t really know.  We do know that he was a leader among the Jewish people, a respected member of scholarly Jewish legal counsel and temple authority. And we know something was stirring in Nicodemus or he wouldn’t have sought out Jesus for a conversation.  

Sometimes, things need to happen at night.  And always, Jesus is there to meet us.

When Nicodemus encounters Jesus, he is given more food for thought than answers to his specific questions.  Jesus speaks to him through the metaphor of birth: that other very human experience where darkness is essential and necessary in order for the transformation of new life to occur. In many ways, Nicodemus approaches Jesus exactly as we might: with the smallest actions of faith, filled with questions, hoping for a glimpse of the possible.

You see, hope and possibility thrive in the dark:  gestation, the energizing of bulbs, the necessary germination of seeds until they can withstand the light of day.  Jesus speaks to Nicodemus through this context of possibility, addressing his questions not with answers (“helping him see the light”) but with a fitting analogy for the darkness: birth and the gestation of new beginnings.  

Jesus, as the incarnate word made flesh, makes God known to Nicodemus in the dark of night.  The revelation isn’t in the answers given; it is in the encounter itself.  

Something really interesting happens in the text of John’s Gospel after this encounter.  No longer are Jesus and Nicodemus in conversation with each other, as it might be if we were just nosy eavesdroppers on their night-time chat.  The grammatical structure of the whole narrative shifts, and the “you” to whom Jesus refers becomes not singular you Nicodemus, but second person plural…YOU…as in, all of you.  Now we, the readers, are standing together with Nicodemus in our shared encounter with Christ. And it just keeps getting better when you dig more deeply into the Greek of the text.  That Sunday School verse of John 3:16 means so much more: “For God so loved the world…” isn’t spoken in dialogue solely to Nicodemus the night visitor but is proclaimed to all of us: πᾶς (pas) “all”, as in all of the parts of a whole, and in this case the whole moral κόσμον (kosmon), all of the orderly creation.  We…us…”all y’all”…are brought into this encounter with Jesus who reveals to us that God so profoundly loves us that Jesus has been sent from heaven to earth…birthed into being in human form…so that all parts of the whole of creation may be σωθῇ (sōthē): saved, healed, and reconciled.  

Sometimes, things need to happen at night.  

We stand today, brought into this narrative through John’s Gospel to stand with Nicodemus in this profound encounter with Jesus’ revelation of his nature, and desire to rebirth the world as we know it.  It is the dark of night, and the light of salvation is speaking.  

Perhaps Nicodemus seems to disappear from the centrality of this story because he, like us, is germinating in this new revelation of faith.  You see, nothing about this story aligns darkness with fear or negativity…we need to check some of our own assumptions about that. Darkness is filled with the unknown and the unknowing, but that is inextricably necessary to the growing.  

Nicodemus re-appears two other times in John’s Gospel.  In chapter 7, he is named among the temple authorities debating with the temple police over whether Jesus should be arrested for proclaiming himself as Messiah. Nicodemus advocates for Jesus to be given a hearing, so that people may learn what he is doing. But, he is silenced. Perhaps there was still a need for more time in the dark.  We are introduced to Nicodemus one final time near the end of John’s Gospel. Now, he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, carrying a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus is referenced again as the one who had come to Jesus by night. And now, again, it is night. A night darker than any other night.  And I can’t help but wonder what thoughts were running through Nicodemus’ mind, remembering his first encounter with Jesus in the night, pondering the faith which has undoubtedly been germinating in his soul, running these powerful encounters through his mind all the while preparing Jesus’ physical body for burial. That encounter with Jesus had changed everything for Nicodemus, or he wouldn’t be there.  Just like our encounter with Jesus changes everything for us, or we wouldn’t be here, either. I want to believe that his soul stirred, and mixed in with the heavy perfume of aloes and myrrh was the glimmer of resurrected hope.

We also stand in that hope, even in nights of unknowing.  As we pray in our burial liturgy: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Sometimes things need to happen at night.  So, in closing, I offer you this Night Prayer from the New Zealand prayer book.  This is a prayer not just for the setting of the sun, but also as we move together through the nights of unknowing in this lenten season, encountering Christ who is in our midst:

Lord, it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done; 
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night is dark.

Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.

The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.

In your name we pray.


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Ashes and Chalk

Homily for Ash Wednesday

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Richmond, VA

Last year, Ash Wednesday happened to coincide with my Spring Break at VCU.  It was a transitional time for me, literally: I was in the midst of serving as transitional deacon and Missioner to Monroe Park, while at the same time exploring options for what might follow my priestly ordination later that spring.  My situation was a familiar refrain to many of you, I’m sure: just when it seemed like the perfect opportunity was coming together…appropriate for the story I’m about to tell…my best laid plans went up in flames. I decided to take some much needed time away during that week away from academic classes to think and to pray.  But, there was also a practical reality to attend to: we had a day full of services, but we didn’t have quite the supply of ashes that we thought we did. Thankfully, there was still a retained supply of dried palm crosses and fronds from the prior Palm Sunday…and for those of you who don’t know, that is the source of these ashes that we use to mark the beginning of Lent.  

Not to de-glamorize the process, but I think it’s important to give a little context to my story.  Mid-afternoon on one of those transitional spring break days, I found myself in the midst of the holy work of ash making.  Let me set the scene: a Priest, a Deacon, a Property Manager and a Sexton gathered in a parking lot around an oversized aluminum mixing bowl that had been borrowed from the parish kitchen…a bowl, incidentally, that I often used to mix huge quantities of salad for those seeking food and shelter during the weekly hot lunch meal we served every Friday at that parish.  It was windy, so it took four of us acting as a human wind-break around this make-shift firepit, kindling up a palm fire which we were hoping would neither overtake the bowl nor get blown out. We were successful, in case you were wondering: no-one was singed and there were plenty of ashes to go around. But that isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is that after tending that fire and breaking down of the carbon remnants of the palms into a fine ash then preparing them for imposition: I knew where they came from.  I held those ashes the following day, praying with my lips the words which call the Church to repentance, while imposing the ashy remnants of palms waved with shouts of hosanna, stripped down to their essence by purging flames contained in a bowl of hospitality, protected and tended by the caretakers of the Church’s spiritual, physical and material well-being.

Sometimes we need to be reminded where we come from.  

Ash Wednesday offers us that opportunity.  It breaks us away from our patterns of life as usual.  It requires us to interrupt our best laid plans, our normal routines, and to rend our hearts open.  We impose ashen crosses on our physical form and pray words collectively and individually that remind us of our non-glamorous origins.  Ash Wednesday doesn’t placate us and it doesn’t absolve us: it calls us to prayers of repentance, and ushers us into a whole season of opening our hearts to meet God in new and palpable ways.  With our hearts open and humble, we can’t rely on our outward displays of piety, or our shouts of loud hosannas, or treasures stored up on this earth. Those aren’t going to save us. Like the ashes imposed on us today, we are purged and refined; we are reminded that all of us are of the same essence, formed of the same dust.  

It is also a day where we are reminded that God, the Source of All, knows us and loves us all, profoundly. We are sometimes reduced to our essence in this world.  But we, too, are held in a bowl of hospitality and tended by the One who knows what we are really made of. So, into that purging fire we are invited to toss away the human-induced hurts that weary our bodies and consume our thoughts: our afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.  Because, even reduced to our essence, we are beloved.

As we are reminded in our Epistle reading, it is through the purifying power of God that we can then open ourselves to freely receiving the gifts that belong to God: knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, truthful speech, and genuine love.  We store up these heavenly treasures, opening to God’s work through us. Nothing goes to waste; purging that which distracts us from God frees us to do the work that God calls us to do.

But, even though it is Ash Wednesday, I want to talk a bit about another substance today, too: chalk.  Chalk in its original form is a naturally occurring sedimentary rock, a form of soft limestone extracted from sea water as it evaporates.  We’ve developed easier ways to manufacture the white (or even colorful) blackboard and sidewalk chalk we use today. But chalk, scientifically, is naturally composed of calcium carbonate formed underwater by slow accumulation and compression of the calcite shells from microscopic, single-celled organisms.  And when chalk is manufactured today, its close chemical cousin calcium sulfate, also known as gypsum, is used as a base. Both of these minerals are water soluble; they will wash away with water and eventually return to the sea where their molecules will be added to layers of marine calcium. Over millions of years, these will again become compressed through time and gravity, forming layers of hardened calcium carbonate chalk or beds of gypsum.  The calcium cycle repeats. Chalk, even when it seems to be washed away, is never destroyed.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are part of something greater than we are.

So, I’m inviting us to think about the lessons of ashes and chalk as we begin a holy lent.  When you leave today, take a piece of chalk with you. This is a reminder to love and to pray.  Find a place…or several places…in need of love. Maybe it’s in your neighborhood, or where you work.  Perhaps its a place that is abandoned or somewhere that reminds you of healing that is yet to happen. I invite you to take your chalk and make your mark on or near that place…draw a heart, write an encouraging word, let people know that place is loved because there is no corner of this world where God’s love cannot reach.  Then, I invite you to pray. Pray for that place. Enfold that place with love, sourced in God. Revisit it when you can. Not for piety’s sake. But because you are a caretaker of God’s love this Lenten season, right where you are standing. Leave more chalky love there if the rain washes it away. Nurture and tend that place God has called you to love this lenten season, and open your heart to what God has to tell you.  

This is the good news, my friends:  we are dust, and to dust we will return.  We are of the essence and form of this world that God created, and nothing goes to waste.  Purging our pain, our worries, our fears and our woes opens us to new forms of love and grace.  God tends us so that we may open our hearts to the greater gifts and allow God’s patience, kindness, holiness, and love to work through us.  We are the dusty, beloved people of God who don’t need to beat ourselves up or tear our clothes or fast until we faint to prove a point…we just need to be open to the work God is doing in us: to fully immerse into the cycle of giving and receiving love, just as we were created to do.

And so today, we have ashes and we have chalk.  Both are dusty reminders, each in their own way, of where we come from and the greater work of which we are a part.   

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

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“Yes” is Enough

Homily for Epiphany 6 Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia

Lectionary Readings:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

I realize this is probably a dangerous way to begin a homily, but I want to invite you to take a moment and bring into your mind the most memorable sermon or inspiring speech you have ever heard. Perhaps it was the heartfelt charisma of Bishop Michael Curry, or the justice-on-fire of Dr. William Barber; maybe it was the theological wisdom of Richard Rohr, the saintly sarcasm of Nadia Bolz-Weber, the vulnerable inspiration of Brené Brown or the celtic spirituality of John Philip Newell. Or perhaps it was not a famous preacher at all, but a beloved pastor or teacher who seemed to be speaking words directly to your soul.

Go ahead: hold that moment in your mind. Right there, in that inspired moment: Where is God for you?

….OK, When you’re ready, you can open your eyes and come join with this preacher in this pulpit again now…

No matter whose lips spoke the words that inspired your spirit, I hope that the answer to that last question brought an undeniable recognition of God’s presence in that encounter, in that palpable and memorable moment in time.

Today’s Scripture lessons place us in the middle of three inspiring dialogues between people and their spiritual leaders. First we hear a portion of the speech given by Moses to the Israelites who are about to enter the promised land. Moses’ dialogue famously includes the imperative, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…”

In the Epistle lesson, we hear Paul’s exhortation to the churches in Corinth to come together across their growing divisions. Paul, with love, is also pointedly calling his people out for fracturing off into comfortable enclaves identified with their human leaders. He yearns to speak with them of spiritual things, but instead finds himself having to speak to the human divisions that are getting in the way of spiritual growth.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus pushes those listening to the Sermon on the Mount into tougher terrain than they have been before, moving them from the comfortable structure of thinking about themselves as law abiding followers to the unsettling lesson that there’s no place for an “us vs. them” mentality in the realm of God. We all share the lustful thoughts, anger, and failure to communicate our genuine intentions which are enough to keep up from experiencing the transformative love God has for all of God’s people.

Our lessons today are all examples of tough love, spoken by Godly leaders. And I’m pretty sure they were memorable for all who heard them.

You see, lessons like these are gifts of growth. They aren’t glossed over with beautiful illustrations and empty platitudes. The wise words of the spirit passing from each leader to the people in their care are challenging, disquieting, and yet spoken with a depth of truth and love sourced in God. Today’s scriptures tell us about how God is present in the lessons that need to be conveyed to people in every age and context, in order to invite our participation in the work God calls for us to do. Sometimes that requires some strong words, tough love and deep faith.

Take, for example, the wilderness-wandering Hebrew people who showed great faith and perseverance but who also had not always been dutiful and grateful followers. And Moses had not always been the willing leader and spokesperson for God, either. In fact, if we go back to the 4th Chapter of Exodus, we hear Moses campaigning and trying to convince God to find someone else for the position of inspirational leader: “Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” But Moses said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”

This frightened, trying-to-escape-the-call human being is not the Moses we tend to remember but surely he is someone with whom we can relate. We also tend to set aside what comes after this inspired speech, where Moses is indeed shown the promised land which will be given to his descendants, but into which he himself will never go.

And in our Epistle, we hear a very confident St. Paul the leader and inspirer of many churches, who was also once the barely-recovering his sight Saul-transformed-to-Paul who must let go of and then remake all that he once believed, having now seen the glory of God and experienced the blinding power of the Spirit.

And yet, each of these spiritual leaders speaks the truth needed at that precise moment of time within the context in which the people God has entrusted to their care reside. The Israelites on the cusp of arriving at the promised land when the darkest hour seems to be upon them are reminded of God’s life-giving presence throughout their journey, their exodus, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night who has led them, and still leads them. Choosing not to give in to human fear and to reject the allure of false gods and idols gave God’s chosen people the opportunity to remain in the presence of God: choosing God was choosing life; choosing life was choosing God.

The people of the churches of Corinth were about to splinter apart, focusing so much on the qualities and distinctions of their human leaders that they were losing sight of their common, spiritual worship. Paul calls out their humanity, and in doing so helps them see the desire God has for their spiritual growth.

Jesus, knowing the ways in which human beings can so quickly default to sorting the unworthy from the worthy, is able to go so deeply inside the law that it transforms the law and transforms us into seeing that without God, none of us are worthy. Yet with God, we are enough.

Indeed, each of these leaders learns that with God, they are enough. Moses, at the end of his ministry, has learned that God has put the words in his mouth and had already set in motion all that was needed for him to do the work he was called to do. Paul speaks to the churches in Corinth of what he has come to know, that God works through us as one body. God gives the growth for all that we are meant to be as beloved community: “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Jesus reminds the crowd gathered for the sermon on the mount…and in doing so, reminds us…that God does not ask us for our perfection, but for our consent: let our yes be a yes to the work that God has called us to do.

And this is our Good News: With God, we are enough.

Taken together today, these passages from our Holy Scriptures remind us that at whatever places and points we are at in our ministries, God gives us all that we need. We are enough: in our newness and vulnerability, in the intense and frustrating depths of ministry when we are at risk of cynicism and division, in the parting words of wisdom that allow us to hand our work to those who will come after. In all these, God is with us and the Holy Spirit of God is equipping us to do and to be all that is needed for God’s work in the world. And God is still working, speaking and moving today with essential lessons for our time and context, too.

So, go back with me, if you will, to that memory of inspired preaching. See God in that place, with that person, filling them with the inspiration to speak the words and the wisdom that you, the listener, needed to hear. If you can, take a moment to recall and take in that lesson again, the lesson that God had…and still has…for you.

And now, see God in that very same place, equipping you. Giving you the words, the inspiration, the awareness of the call God has placed on you and the divine presence that is with you to make that same palpable presence of God known to the world in which you live.

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Open yourself to God. When someone is in need of a glimpse of the divine in a broken world, you will be that beacon. When there are words that need to be spoken, God will provide. God is in the midst of us, reminding us that we are enough, asking us to be who we are, inviting us to say an honest and authentic “yes” to what we are called to do, working through each of us so that we are, all of us, the many parts of the Body of Christ working to make God’s transforming love known to this world in which we live.


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Called to Community

Homily for Epiphany 3, Year A (January 26, 2020)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

Lectionary Texts

I was at an academic conference last weekend and had the opportunity to hear a talk by Stacey Abrams focused on her deeply passionate political advocacy to end voter disenfranchisement.  She chose to begin her talk with us…an audience of social workers…by giving us a sense of her identity within her family. This included her parents…both of whom are now ordained Methodist clergy…as well as her five siblings who each had a very different life trajectory, from neuroscience, to law, to working diligently every day at being a person in recovery.  She loved and honored every one of them in that speech. I know you weren’t there to hear the whole thing and I cannot even attempt to recall it all with the eloquence she did…but there were a few things about that talk that have lingered with me as I’ve been working with the texts of today’s scripture lessons.

First, there was a predictable outbreak of applause at the mention of her brother, the social worker.  Those of us present might not have known him, but we had an instant recognition of shared vocation and call whether or not we knew anything else about each other as individuals; the connection made us family.

The other lingering thought was how deeply and personally she was inspired to action by her youngest brother who exemplified the persistence and hard work it takes to move through patterns of incarceration and treatment to navigate a complex history of mental health and addiction.  She didn’t have to tell us all the details of his story: she knew she was speaking to a crowd full of people who also knew how easily people fall through the cracks of a broken system; how people self-medicate when there is no access or means to pay for essential medication; how much concerted work and resolute faith it takes for people to get up every day and walk the step-by-step journey through addiction. We were right there, walking with her as she told her story, taking in the narrative she told about the people who raised her, who inspired her and the policies and institutional barriers that frustrate her and injure the people she loves.

As I sat there listening to her story in that shoulder-to-shoulder packed room, I was reminded about the way in which call manifests in our lives.  We might be tempted to think of “call” as a mountaintop moment of personal clarity. But walking along the sea of Galilee with Jesus, we begin to see that call resides in ordinary, everyday relationship.  God speaks and the common threads of our lives begin to weave together in ways we never before realized were possible.

In the Epiphany stories of Jesus’ baptism, we were given a glimpse of the divine call made manifest in Jesus’ own life.  But in today’s Gospel, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ call on a more human and relatable level. The baptism of Jesus was a moment of divine recognition but it also inaugurated a deeply human story between John and Jesus, whose lives intersected profoundly when each entrusted the other with an intimate knowledge of meaning and purpose and identity.  John, whose call was to baptize Jesus whose sandals he did not even feel worthy to untie; and Jesus, prophetically stepping into the waters of baptism with his wild, living-on-the-margins, zealous older cousin John, a prophet who spoke hard truths, called for repentance and lived off the grid…as we might say now…in direct and defiant opposition to empire.  

As the narrative unfolds, Jesus relocates his life from Nazareth to Galilee and settles in Capernaum, on the northwest Galilean shore.  This was Roman-occupied territory, the seat of the empire that his cousin so often spoke out against. But, John had been arrested; his resistance to empire had been recognized as a threat and he had been taken away.  Jesus’ change of location was likely practical…we know from accounts in the Gospel of Luke that he was effectively chased out of the temple for his teachings in his hometown of Nazareth. But, it was also prophetic and poetic, as echoed in Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus left his Hebrew home to settle in the land held by the Roman empire that had imprisoned John. And he went there knowing full well what happened. Jesus goes into the heart of the empire to shatter the empire, taking up the cry of his cousin but this time, speaking with his own unique, clear and compelling voice:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  

I’m struck by this intertwining of the ministries of John and Jesus where today’s Gospel lesson begins.  There are so many unanswered questions: what compelled Jesus to that particular place? How did the news of John’s imprisonment inspire Jesus’ actions?  While we don’t have clear answers, we have all the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry that follow, reminding us not only that John was pointing the way to Jesus, but that the character and qualities we see John the Baptist living were woven inextricably into this narrative of Jesus’ own ministry: Jesus who met people at the margins, withdrew to spaces set aside, lived in juxtaposition to empire even within empire; Jesus who preached the need to turn and change and reclaim a vision of the kingdom of heaven in our midst and who showed through story and example the reign of God which has come near.  Jesus, moved to action by the darkness of injustice, now moves deeply and deliberately into the light of call. Only then could Jesus recognize and call others.

You see, I’ve always focused more on the second part of this story than the first.  How was it that the disciples of Jesus would just leave everything and follow? But I am beginning to realize that the calling of the disciples may not have felt like a singular moment or a solitary choice but perhaps, instead, like the next faithful step forward into a community that saw them as they were, asked them to come as they were with the skills of their human lives, and saw the divine spark of purpose and call in the midst of their ordinary lives fishing, and building, and repairing.  Maybe we could see it another way: Jesus and the disciples on the shores of Galilee saw the need to feed those who hungered, make shelter those who needed rest, and mend the lives and structures that were broken. And so it was that a community emerged; God’s justice flowed like water and the kingdom of heaven came near.

I’m reminded of the intersecting lives of a few modern day prophets and justice bringers, too.  I listened recently to an interview with Ruby Sales, a civil rights veteran and (by her own admission) unexpected public theologian.  She, like many of our black siblings, felt the weight of oppression during the civil rights era in the tightening of Jim Crow laws and state sanctioned discrimination.  She felt a need to stand up and do something. During one of her first protests…in 1965 when she had just turned 17…it was Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels who, freshly arrested and then unexpectedly released from jail earlier that afternoon, took a bullet fired directly at them by the town’s police deputy.  Jonathan died; Ruby survived. Her subsequent life of faith, of civil activism, and of public witness has been constantly intermingled with oppression by the empire. And yet she does not stop. Even more, she asserts that the central question of our public theology must be to turn to one another and ask: “Where does it hurt?”

In that interview, Ruby Sales explains “…love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that moves you to transformation and human up-building.”

Jesus’ move into the heart of an empire that had imprisoned his cousin John was likely not one of gentle peace.  When structures of oppression hurt those you love, you get angry. Jesus steps into that place of human anger and fills it with divine redemption.  In today’s Gospel he took up the call to ministry vacated by an imprisoned John, and allowed the free slowing of the Spirit which rested on him in Baptism to call into ministry those who were needed in God’s vision exactly as they were, to do the work of replacing the empire of human oppression with the divine imagination of what can be, with God’s help.  Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were invited to participate in the reign of God. Today we hear their resounding “yes” as an embrace of this ministry of heavenly redemption from the structures of bondage in this world. We are amazed, and we are terrified, and we too are invited to participate in this reign of God’s redemptive love for all of humankind. The kingdom of heaven has come near.

Not just our Gospel, but all of today’s lessons point to this universality of the Good News: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined; our baptism, like that of Jesus, is of God; being baptized in Christ unites us in the same mind and the same purpose. Jesus reminds us that the Good News is as present and relevant at the margins of this world as it is at the center of the empire.  God calls us as we are, with the gifts and the strengths that we bring, living within the particularities of our time and place, to live into the fullness of the mission and ministry God has for us in the places where it hurts the most.

Where does it hurt?  Where we see hurt, we are called to go because that is the very place where God will meet us.  In the darkness of our hurt and the hurt of this world in which we live, the profound piercing of the good news of the light of Christ will be the most needed, and the most evident.

Love where it hurts; immerse into a community where we feed and shelter and bind up one another’s wounds.  See Christ in our midst, calling us to be that light for the world in which we live. Say yes, not because you feel you must but because you realize that God has put you in exactly the place you need to be, in this community which Christ has called into discipleship.  The steps will emerge, the story will unfold, and the kingdom of heaven will be near.



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