New and Good

Homily for the Fifth Sunday after 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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Ordination

For over five years now, I’ve been posting on small points of light about the ordinary and extraordinary moments of divine presence on this journey of life.  I didn’t realize when I began that this blog would be a catalyst for helping me enter fully into my discernment, then formation for ordained ministry.  I was just writing here for whomever might read, starting this blog on a whim one Ash Wednesday.   Then I kept writing, and noticing, and reflecting. Gradually this journey began to fall into a pattern which others begin to recognize and name, and eventually I did, too.  It’s powerful now to look back on that journey in words, images, memories and flashes of insight.  I am so grateful for every single small point of light.

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One beautiful week ago, I was ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests in The Episcopal Church in the midst of a loving, supportive community who gathered in the church where I first began to hear and respond to this call.  Those who gathered around me were from the parishes I have served, from my seminary cohort, from my family; there were friends from my childhood, beloved colleagues and friends, students from my classes, social workers from among my colleagues and communities.  It was truly remarkable, and utterly transforming.

This blog entry contains some of my favorite pictures, as well as links to the sermon and the Worship Bulletin with the ordination liturgy  There is so much here to continue to ponder and allow to sink in, deeply.  As the choral anthem reminded us: God has work for us to do!

 

And a few more…

 

 

I was honored and grateful that my dear friend, the Rev. Susan Daughtry, travelled across the country to deliver a prophetic and spirit-stirring homily to send me on this journey as a priest.  I knew when I asked her that there were words she needed to speak, and that I needed to hear.  We ALL needed to hear and truly take in what she had to say.  Here is a link to her own blog post, complete with her sermon text:

Ordination Homily by the Rev. Susan Daughtry

 

 

All of this ordination joy…and indeed, it was true joy…reminds me deeply of the power of the resurrection.  Being ordained in Eastertide is a particularly joyful and moving experience.  We are, in this Easter season, constantly reminded that resurrection is not a static event of a historical past or a nebulous theological construct which we chalk up to mystery, but it was and is and will continue to be the way in which our lives are deeply infused with the transforming love of God.  I had the powerful experience of that immersion during ordination, but that is only the beginning of a new journey lived out day by day and step by step.

So now, the work continues.

I am, gratefully,

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Kye Price

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Shepherd Me…

A homily for Good Shepherd Sunday (Easter 4)
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
May 12, 2019

*Note: Homily preached on my first Sunday following ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests in the The Episcopal Church

Texts:

 

I have to admit, even for someone who tends to keep her schedule quite full: this has been a very eventful week. On Friday, I was wearing academic regalia and applauding my graduating students as they marched to Pomp and Circumstance. On Saturday, I was wearing white and humbly kneeling surrounded by loving community chanting Veni Sancte Spiritus.

Commencement. Ordination. Celebratory moments on the journey of our lives.

I find it lovely on this Good Shepherd Sunday that our Gospel situates us on a journey beside Jesus, who is walking in the temple, specifically the Portico of Solomon. This was in the outer portion of the temple, on the eastern side in what would have been the women’s court. So, imagine Jesus walking in Jerusalem winter, not in a place of hierarchical authority but in a place where those least likely to be considered leaders in that cultural context would have been found. Yet, people noticed him, and attempted to coax him into sharing his “elevator speech” about what kind of leader he would be…specifically, if he could clearly and plainly convince them he was the Messiah. Instead, Jesus spoke to them about following: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

In one simple reply, Jesus conveys all they need to know about leaders and followers. Jesus leads as a shepherd, through relationship. Jesus invariably encounters people, comes to know them by name and then invites them to follow, enfolding them in community. The same invitation is offered to us in the name of Christ, through our Baptism and in our own lives and ministries as well. This Eastertide is filled with opportunities to listen to the Good Shepherd and to live into the depth of that call. Not just true for the new priest. It’s true for all of us.

When I think about the voice of the Good Shepherd, I realize in ways simple and extraordinary that the most important lessons that I have learned on this journey haven’t been about leading. They have been about listening, and following. In these recent weeks, while preparing for my ordination, I re-read my journals and the four-times per year Ember Day letters that I’ve written to the Bishop as we do when we are in formation for ordained ministry. I have realized through revisiting the stories of my own journey that the voice of the Good Shepherd has been strong, and clear, and guiding. It is, like our preachers Mark Biddle and Melissa Jackson have been preaching in our Easter series, a voice that had been, is, and will be. It’s made me appreciate our faithful 23rd Psalm in a whole new way. And so, I am going to ask you to revisit it with me, too. Turn to the readings in your bulletin. We will read the psalm one verse at a verse at a time together. In response to each verse, I want to share back with you a little excerpt from my journey. It seems like a fitting thing for us to share together on this day when I will have the humble honor of fully living into the call that has been placed upon me, and calling us all together to this table where Holy Eucharist makes us one with Christ, our Good Shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

Discernment Retreat at Richmond Hill, 2013: A prayer while walking the labyrinth:
“I want to give you these, Lord. They are gifts and skills I use to serve the world and I have taken that seriously, my whole career. These became my vocation when I stepped into the world, even when I struggled with the church. But you didn’t leave me. And I finally drew near enough again to experience that. But, now, I want to work for you. I want to identify as ministering, as sharing the Good News in Christ, not merely doing good things. Then my human, worried thoughts interrupted my meditation (“but what if the church doesn’t want me?” the voices in my head began to say). And without reproach, in full acknowledgement of my humanity, Jesus seemed to answer “Don’t worry. First of all, they probably will. But even if they don’t, does it really matter? If you want to work for me, then just follow me.”

He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.

August 2014: ShrineMont. After dinner, I thought about walking the labyrinth. I stepped on the entrance stone, but paused and turned around. I hiked to the cross instead, solo, this time actually stopping at each station of the cross to pray. It was an amazing, contemplative hike on a hot and humid evening which made me sweat and pant and simply long to reach the cross as a respite. When I had that thought, I paused to take in the irony. Not the cross of atonement. Respite. Rest. When I reach the top, the sun is starting to sink toward the horizon at mountain level. I rest…literally…against the cross, drink some water, and allow it all to sink in: my journey, my lessons, my relationships, my divine longing and yes…even my divine wanted-ness. I am sobbing again. I have only one thing to say: I am yours. The answer is already Yes.

He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

June 2015: My head is spinning with seminary details, and reading and scheduling cross-country visits in sync with my new four year life calendar. I am so overwhelmed. I think: Just stop, Sarah. Just stop, I wonder if it’s all just too much. And then, a calm comes over me and I feel myself stop. I stopped begging for a sign that this was the right path. I just noticed that the palpable presence of God was still unshakably with me, even with all my human worries of the unknown and uncertain parts of this new adventure. All shall be well.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Ember Letter, Lent 2017: As the weeks have passed since John Bishop’s death, there has been shock, sadness and anger: sometimes at him, more often at the addiction, or at the availability of street drugs powerful enough to kill a grown man in seconds; really, we are angry at our own human brokenness. I am reminded that this is why we are held in the enormity of divine love and grace, because we cannot make all of this right in our own limited power. I often think of Bryan Stevenson’s quote from Just Mercy, “we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I prayed those words as I moved closer toward those who were grieving, shocked, angry, convicted, terrified. John’s death has been transforming for many, many people in our congregations and to leaders of feeding and support programs in this city. I can only speak, as I reflect in this letter, how deeply it has transformed me and invited me even more deeply to seek and serve Christ in ways that can only be profoundly experienced by proximity.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,and my cup is running over.

Monday, November 19 2018: I began this chapter of my life as a deacon one week and two days ago. It has been such a hard semester for me at VCU and yet something shifted last week. Even the people and situations that have weighed so heavily on me seem somehow more bearable. Honestly, I have never felt such profound joy and peace as I did in the moments of time where I knelt between the candles, surrounded by the choir, feeling the depth of prayer and invocation of the Spirit around me. It was profoundly humbling, and utterly transformative. It was as if joy rushed in to fill the spaces left as the residual bits of the non-essential parts of my life fell away.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Sunday, May 12 2019: Here I stand today after one of the most grace-filled and moving experiences of my life surrounded and supported by community. And it is goodness and mercy which surround me on this first Sunday as a priest. I am grateful to be here with you; grateful for the places and contexts in which I will serve. There is grace in the coming together of vocation in my life as new opportunities are on the verge of unfolding and to know that the journey continues with community to accompany me, and prayer to enfold me.

Jesus, who is our Good Shepherd: the sheep of your fold hear your voice. You have been, are now, and will continue to lead us, guide us and call us by name. We know you. We follow you. We love you.

Amen.

 

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Everything

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

Readings for Maundy Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This love is everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ gift of love is everything we need.

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Right Neighborhood, Wrong Tree…

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

Lectionary Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong words. Prophets are like that.

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

Right neighborhood, wrong tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

woodpecker

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Remember that you are dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holy Words and Holy Work

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

Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

Love our enemies….

Do good for our haters….

Bless those who curse us….

Pray for those who hurt us….

Give without expectation of return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Transitional

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

I am transitional.

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

We are all deacons.  But, I am transitional.

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

Being transitional is my place of repose.

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

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

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

In transition, I pray for you.

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

But that will be then.

For now, I am transitional.

And, I pray.

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Bearing Witness to Love

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

Lectionary Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iconic

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

Lectionary Readings:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that is prays to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that I am prays to you.

Amen.

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