Commemoration

Homily for the Feast of All Saints, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
November 3, 2019

Enlighten the eyes of our hearts, Lord, that we may know the hope to which we are called and may share in your glorious inheritance among the saints.

Link to Lectionary Texts

 

Blessings on this All Saints Sunday!

 

00100lPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20190827101726634_COVER (1)If you visit my office, either here at St. Mark’s or at VCU, it will be readily apparent that I appreciate being in the presence of saints.  I even brought some with me to share the pulpit today.  This icon of St. Phoebe, the first named female deacon of the early church, resides on my desk upstairs and inspires me to attend to 21st century formation of those called to this vocation of service and prophetic witness through the St. Phoebe School for Deacons.

 

00100lPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20190827190642935_COVER (1)

I also have a matching set of St. Frances Perkins icons displayed in my offices here and at VCU.  Frances Perkins was recognized as one of our Great Cloud of Witnesses in 2015, recognizing her contributions through social service and prophetic witness.  As Secretary of Labor under FDR and author of groundbreaking legislation such as the Social Security Act, she changed the lives of thousands of Americans.  This all took place through a foundation of her faith; Frances Perkins’ spiritual life as a devout Episcopalian grounded her social service through both public worship and private prayer.

But it has been an even more contemporary icon which has kept coming into my mind this week, one titled: “Our Lady, Mother of Ferguson and All Those Killed by Gun Violence.”  The image written on the icon by iconographer Mark Dukes depicts Mary with hands uplifted in prayer, bearing near her heart and womb the silhouette of a young black man also with arms raised…hands up…encircled in the crosshairs of a gun.

our lady ferguson

Shortly after I first encountered this deeply moving icon, which makes its home at Trinity Episcopal Church Wall Street, I heard some angry back-lash about it. One critic self-proclaiming as a devout Episcopalian even remarked, “Michael Brown was a thief, not a saint.”  When I heard that, I thought: you have entirely missed the point.

You see, I believe the reason that icon that keeps coming into my mind as I pray and prepare to preach on this particular All Saints Sunday is because it conveys a vital lesson for this ideologically charged time.  It is beginning to feel like we have a saint problem.  We are quick to focus on individual short-comings; we become disillusioned by seemingly good people who do bad things; we numb ourselves to injustice when we hear that a victim of violence has a less-than-pristine past; we blame human beings for bearing the flaws of human nature.  Our sense of sainthood gradually begins to erode, making us doubt the worthiness of others and ourselves.  Our understanding of saints becomes relegated to a series of artistic images of historically venerated examples of Godly perfection, utterly unattainable and therefore entirely dismissible.

But, once a year we celebrate this Feast of All Saints.  And I submit for your consideration that this holy day isn’t here for us to venerate the saints of the past, or solely to remember the beloved of our own lives who have died in Christ.  This Feast of All Saints is for us, together, to commemorate…literally speaking, to bring into memory together…all the saints with whom we walk this journey.  But first things first.  Maybe we need a little refresher about what being a ‘saint’ means to us here in The Episcopal Church.

So, amid all the festal white beauty, I’m also going to ask you to do something else rare and beautiful.  Reach into your pew and find the Book of Common Prayer…yes, the actual book…and turn with me to page 862.  We’re in the section of the prayer book that contains the historic documents of the church, and this particular historic document I’m drawing our attention to is our Catechism, a series of questions and answers about the way that we live out our faith in common prayer and practice in the Episcopal Church.  This isn’t just for confirmation class!  It offers us a grounding and shared understanding of what exactly it is we, The Episcopal Church, mean by the “Communion of Saints.”  So, are you ready?  I’m going to ask the question, and all of you are going to read the answer back, loud and clear:

What is the communion of saints?

The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

The whole family of God.

The living and the dead.

Those whom we love and those whom we hurt.

It’s interesting, isn’t it.  Nothing about perfection, unwavering faith, or unblemished virtue.  Nothing at all, really, about personal worthiness.  In fact, it seems that our Catechism suggests that recognizing the communion of saints relies not on the merit of individuals, but on our common lives bound together in Christ: in sacrament, prayer and praise.  Walking the walk, talking the talk, and most importantly, embracing our shared journey.  As we commemorate and remember together, we learn to recognize Christ in our midst.

When we use this lens of commemoration to hear the beatitudes as recounted in Luke’s Gospel, it becomes clear that in Christ, there isn’t a separation of the blessed from the woeful.  Jesus assures the crowd…and us…that God’s blessing rests with all of God’s people…the poor, the oppressed and the hungry, those weeping, mourning, and excluded.  In these humbling states of our life, we cry out to God and are found by the ever-present Holy One who holds us and embraces us in love.  But woe to us when we are caught up in our own self-interests.  In our over-confidence and self-assurance we not only fail to see others, but we risk not even seeing God-with-us.  Jesus points out to all those who will listen how to create beloved community: love, do good, bless, pray, give.  These are the actions of community…of communion.  Jesus instructs us and urges us to see with the eyes of our heart how to walk together through the highs and lows, the trials and tribulations, the joys and the sorrows of life.  We are bound together in Christ.  We walk together in Christ.  Even the death of our mortal bodies is no end to that divine communion as we are remembered together…commemorated…in Christ.

During this past year I have had the opportunity to engage very practically in this kind of saintly commemoration with another one of our Great Cloud of Witnesses, Dorothy Day.  Through a series of serendipitous events beginning with a search for a sermon quote, I became part of an international group of people working to prepare the diaries and letters of this social activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement for canonization as a Saint, as recognized in the Roman Catholic Church.

DorothyDay

Now, as an aside, Dorothy Day is also commemorated in the Episcopal Church as one of our Great Cloud of Witnesses; that resolution was passed at our most recent general convention in 2018.  My desire to be involved in this project isn’t focused on an outcome, but about walking with and learning deeply from this holy woman and her holy work.  I found myself wrapped into my own holy work of transcribing as I was preparing for ordination, and this project has truly opened the eyes of my heart. What walking with and commemorating this saint and Servant of God has done, and continues to do, is help me practically understand how God is at work among all of us, all the time.  I have typed up her shopping lists, her reflections on war and liberation, the fiscal accounting of her farm, her worries, her persistence, her travels to India where she met Mother Theresa, her holy reflections, her snarky remarks, and her prayers for mercy, peace and gratitude.  I see her blessed in poverty and comforted through tears.  I see her pride torn down and her faith rebuilt.  I see God’s providence, and unexpected grace, and the beautiful depth of a faith that I can see deepening over generations of time.  The words I type as I pour over her scrawling hand-written diaries and letters increasingly show the signs of human age, but also of divine presence and eternal changelessness.

This is what saints do: they offer us glimpses of God unshakably in our midst. Commemorating the lives of all the saints, isn’t just to remind us of who they were, but of whose we all are.

The eyes of our hearts are opened when we pray, when we bring with us to Christ’s table those whom we commemorate, when we praise God who binds us together in our common life and remakes us in sacrament, prayer and praise as the Body of Christ to serve the world.  The eyes of our hearts give us a vision that we live into here at St. Mark’s and in the world outside our doors.  It is lived out in faithful stewardship, hospitality in-reach and outreach in gifts of time, talent and treasure.  So, it is no coincidence that we celebrate our generosity and our faith today, in the communion of all the saints.  We see in each other…those whose lives have built the ministries of this parish, those whose gifts support us now, and those whose faithful and prophetic vision help us look ahead to the future…we see in each other the face of God who holds us, protects us, and nurtures us in our vulnerability every bit as much as in our strengths.  All of us, saints of God.

And so, we are bound together with those we commemorate today.  And, we are bound together with those who are suffering, those who are oppressed, those who are victimized by hate, and all those targeted in the crosshairs of this world.  We are bound together in Christ, with those whom we love, and those whom we hurt: the whole family of God.  You’re invited to the table, filled to overflowing with saints.  This table is always bigger and the guests more plentiful than we can ask or imagine. With open eyes and open hearts, allow yourself to truly commemorate all the saints, and to share the hope to which we are called, all of us, beloved children and saints of God.

Posted in sermons, work and life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bridging the chasm

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
September 29, 2019

Lectionary Texts:

Amos 6:1a,4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

I invite you to step with me from a still-feels-like-summer Sunday in Richmond to a chilly autumn morning in Buffalo. I was about to set out for my work day as a Hospice social worker but when I climbed into the driver’s seat of my car, I discovered that the battery was dead. The only other vehicle I had access to at that moment was an old clunker that I had been trying to sell. Technically speaking, it ran but it was held together…barely…by the rust from snowy winters and made loud, clanging noises when going over 30 miles per hour. That particular morning, I had scheduled back-to-back home visits with Hospice families, so a running car was better than no car at all. I flipped open my map book…some of you may remember that before the days of GPS…and I saw that my first visit of the day was in an affluent suburb to the north. My vehicle chugged and sputtered all the way, but it got me there reasonably on time. When I pulled into the driveway of my client’s luxurious home in a very exclusive neighborhood, I definitely felt like the pizza delivery person, not the grief counselor. But as it happens, grief and bereavement know no economic bounds. I was greeted at the door and ushered into an ornate and brightly lit sitting room, where tea was already waiting. But then, we sat silently as I attempted to push the conversation forward by talking about the anticipated processes of grief. Every time my client looked as if she might cry during our conversation, she would turn away, or excuse herself to another room. The vulnerability of emotion in which our human grief resides was palpable. It was too much for her to bear, being in another person’s presence in that vulnerable state. In retrospect, my own vulnerability and insecurity as a young social worker wearing clearance rack clothes and driving a beat up car compounded the gulf of silence between us. After what seemed a much longer time than it actually was, I thanked her for the tea, left a packet of information and my card and we parted cordially. But, I knew she was unlikely to invite me back. The chasm was just too wide.

My next visit took me into the thick of the city, driving through the west-side neighborhood I had lived while a student with its particular ethnic mix of Italian, Puerto Rican, and Jamaican culture. It was a low-income area, what some would consider “spotty” with some streets of single family and duplex homes next to boarded up houses with the markings of gang activity. I felt right at home, though, with my old car and my knowledge of how to navigate these streets. The address of my visit was several blocks beyond that more familiar neighborhood. I recognized the street names from the local news reports. People took note of me as I looked for a parking place. When I pulled up curbside to my client’s home, three young men walked towards me. As I opened my door they said, “Are you the Hospice lady here to see Grandma?” I nodded yes and introduced myself with my name badge. The tallest said, “We’ll sit here and watch your car for you” and motioned to the others to bring lawn chairs down from the porch. I tried to joke a little and said, “I don’t think anyone will bother this thing!” He remained serious and said, “people here don’t like strangers, but if you’re taking care of Grandma then your part of the family.” They walked me to the door and introduced me to their Grandmother who was newly bereaved. She hugged me and welcomed me like a long-lost family member. Her house was filled with pictures, and vases of flowers that still lingered from his home-going celebration. She paused me by the refrigerator where she kept his obituary: “I tell him who’s here to visit and what I’m up to whenever I pass by” she said. She looked at her late husband’s smiling face and said “This is Sarah and she’s one of the Hospice people here to check on me.” We sat at the kitchen table and spoke vulnerably and honestly about love, and loss and grief that day, our two worlds coming together in mutual support.

I can’t help looking back on those two visits like a personal parable which is my window to see into today’s scripture lessons. The Gospel offers a vivid illustration of the great spiritual chasm that lies between the structures of wealth and power in this world, and the mercies of God’s reign to come. We hear that Gospel lesson after a foundation of scripture: The prophetic words of Amos to those at ease and secure in this lifetime; the refrain of a great reversal of fortune evident in the Psalm; then the Epistle lesson exhorting the early church to guard against this division on the world’s terms, “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” Like the Magnificat Mary sings, the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. For us and for the hearers of Jesus’ time, there was already a foundation of scripture and prophecy underscoring this parable of the rich man and the poor servant Lazarus: “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” Lesson upon lesson today, we are reminded that there is a great reversal unfolding in the reign of God, up-ending the divisions that we have created and perpetuated here on earth.

But upending the status quo isn’t the end of the story, either. As Dorothy reminded us last week: the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. It would be so easy to get caught up in a good vs. bad dichotomy in this parable, perhaps in an attempt to align with those who eventually get rewarded. But I think there are some important clues in our Gospel text that encourage us to reach down deeper, to consider the artificiality of these divisions, and to challenge the necessity of that chasm we create when we think in dualities of “us” and “them.” The lesson isn’t a literal tale of the great beyond, but about living into the greater depths of what is already here.

You will notice as the Gospel lesson unfolds that the rich man and the poor servant are both referenced in word or image as beloved children. Both, we might note, have fled the mortal coils of this life. And both had been trapped by their social positions. It’s like my first client and I, unable to see our common humanity because we were fixated on the gulf between. If we try to take this parabolic story literally and see the life to come only as an enforced reckoning of what has already been…then we become fixated on securing our position in the great beyond just as we’ve been fixated on our social position in this life.

But as this parable reminds us, there have already been so many lessons that teach us to see beyond and reach across that chasm: what has Jesus been teaching; how has Jesus been living; with whom has Jesus preached, and healed, and dined with, and prayed with? Jesus, though this parable, teaches us to bridge the chasms of this world…in this world…through the power of the one who has come with outstretched arms to be the bridge. This is not a bridge we demand to cross in our privilege, or shrink from in our vulnerability. Jesus comes to be present, to overcome this spiritual chasm for us, to live in His life and in ministry; in His death and resurrection as the connection point bridging all the margins of this world which would threaten to divide us forever.

Like the young men and their lawn chairs, Jesus shows up and welcomes us to the family.

And there’s a little more to my parable, too.

When I returned to my car that autumn morning, the three young men were still sitting curbside in their lawn chairs, reminiscing about their Grandfather and engaging in that loving family banter that we do when we are known and loved. They stood up when the saw me, and I thanked them for inviting me into their family circle that day. I realized in that very moment that while Grandma and I were talking inside, they were uniting with each other and the memory and influence of their Grandfather. It was all happening right there, on a city sidewalk in one of those areas of the city people had written off. My car was irrelevant. So was race, social class, gender and all the other labels of this world which divide us. Love and family and connection were happening right there, where most people only thought gang activity took place. God was present, filling the human power gap with divine love.

Just like grief and love are present everywhere, so God is present for all of us, the beloved Children of God. We are loved in our poverty and our wealth, in mansions and boarded up apartments. We are loved when our engines don’t start and when we are sputtering and dragging to keep up. We are loved when we have clarity, and courage and conviction. We are loved when we are vulnerable, hurting, and scared. But mostly we are reminded that what divides us in this world isn’t of any consequence to the love of Christ which is beyond all of that vulnerability, beyond all the false security of this world. It is in that divine, bridging love…in the depths of that belovedness…that we come to experience being enfolded into the family of God. In this world and the next, with those who have gone before us, and those who will continue to live after us…we are supported by the bridge that is the boundless love of Christ. In that love is our hope; in that love is what unites us; in that love is our identity as children of God and our connection with each other in this world, and in the life of the world to come.

So, I invite you to bring your lawn chairs and join the family. Today, that might even mean literally at Bryan Park! No need to wait for the great beyond: today and every day, let’s recommit to bridging the margins of this world and living as Christ teaches us, insuring that the chasms and social barriers of this world never get in the way of our common bonds as the whole, human family. Keep watch with the vulnerable and stay in the conversation with your own vulnerability. Greet those you know and those who you don’t know yet in the name of Jesus Christ, who unites us all in love. This bridge Jesus offers isn’t just for the world to come, it is for this world…our world…all of us as the beloved family of God.

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jesus the Host, Jesus the Guest

Homily for Proper 17, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
September 1, 2019

Lectionary Readings (Track 2):

Proverbs 25:6-7
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

There is nothing more ordinary or extraordinary than sharing a meal. For most of us, the earliest meals we can probably remember involve family dinners or other shared dining with people who cared for us and would teach us to move from playing with our veggies to trying bites of what had been prepared for us. Sometimes that process goes more smoothly than others! But eventually we learn the manners of the table and take in the social cues of how we are to conduct ourselves during meals as social situations. And then, it’s time to start school. And, as we know, the school cafeteria is its own lesson in social graces, or lack thereof.

While we don’t live in the same cultural context as Jesus, I think that the school cafeteria offers us a relatable, and admittedly timely, way to enter more fully into today’s Gospel lesson. Imagine walking into the school cafeteria and sitting yourself down next to the pinnacle of popularity. Maybe even someone a few years ahead of you, popular and from the most senior class. Now, perhaps some of you were more popular than I was in school, but let me just tell you that sauntering up to those choice seats, even as a naive newcomer, would surely have resulted in my immediate expulsion from the lunch table, sending me with taunts of shame far, far away from the “in-crowd.”

Many of us have watched it happen. And some of us have spent plentiful time weaving in and out of uncomfortable lunch-time situations, not sure of where we belong and just hoping to find a seat or a seat-mate who will accept us. The social pecking order of the school cafeteria is not for the faint of heart. Reflecting back on my own experiences, though, I have to tell you: once I finally found what became “my seat” those rough and tumble, sweet and funny mutually nerdy friends who made a space for me at the table were some of the people who have remained my friends for life. Being an outcast from the center of attention actually taught me something that I believe Jesus already knew: the low end of the table is actually a fantastic place to be.

Jesus the guest was being watched in today’s Gospel lesson, and he was watching people clamor and climb to be seated in the power seat. In the cultural setting of a meal such as this, this would mean watching people trying to be the literal center of attention. The guests of honor reclined in the center of the room, with those who wanted to be seen and heard crowding into that central, often elevated space. Jesus’ parable, which at first might sound like an instruction for social advancement, is really an invitation to take a closer look at what we think we know and in doing so, to reverse the status quo of daily life to align with the vision of the reign of God.

In the first part of this lesson, Jesus is drawing our attention not just to finding our place at the table, but how we occupy that space. If we are only looking for power and prestige at the center of attention, then we don’t notice who is with us, or who we crawl over in the process of getting there. We stop seeing those on the margins, and we don’t bother building relationships with those whose seats are in the “lower places” of the social pecking order. When the guest in Jesus’ parable manages to snag a seat at the head table then subsequently gets demoted, it’s to an isolated and outcast position surrounded by those already thoughtlessly stepped over.

Jesus offers up a different perspective: being in relationship with those who are on the outskirts breaks the power cycle and builds community among those gathered at the table. Jesus points out that even if we are subsequently invited closer, then it won’t just be about us. If we are truly living in beloved community, others at the table are rejoicing and remaining in relationship with us. We are honored in the presence of all who are with us and because we know them, we will want them to remain with us, in relationship. Jesus the guest reminds us that it isn’t the position where we start out or where we strive to be in the social ranks, but instead it is being in relationship: seeing ourselves as a part of the table…the community…that makes all the difference. When one of those humble guests is honored, all of the guests are exalted.

I think of Jesus, the guest, reminding us that he didn’t choose to enter this world amid wealth and power. He chose relationship. His incarnate beginnings were humble, and his relationships crossed all the social margins that separated people of that time. And, it is through his exaltation and rising to new life that all of us….ALL of US…are brought closer to God.

Then, in the second part of the lesson, Jesus turns the table and invites us to see through the eyes of the host. Jesus the host is, in essence, inviting us to see the hospitality of God. The invitation extended by the host in this example isn’t based on worthiness, social power, or reciprocity. The invitation is extended to those who are broken, vulnerable, and marginalized in this world. This is our host, opening up the heavens to come down and be present with this world in the lowliest and most humble of places. This is our host, not wanting to be repaid but to rejoice with us together in the world to come which God is making. This is our host who loves us not in spite of our brokenness, but because of it. This passage echoes the blessings of the beautitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. We will see God, because we are invited to God’s table. The hospitality overflows for us at the table set by our lavish host who simply says, “come and be my guests.”

When we dine at the table set for us by God, is it any wonder that, as the Epistle suggests, we occasionally find ourselves entertaining angels unaware? We are reminded in today’s lessons that there are no places on this earth: not prisons, not places of torture, not detention centers, not border crossings, not hiding places, not abandoned houses, neither homeless shelters nor eviction courts where God is not particularly and purposefully present. The hospitality of God reaches into the most unfathomable places of this world with exquisite intention. When we find ourselves in those places: whether by fault, or by accident, or with intentional presence of showing up then we will most assuredly encounter God. It is only in our arrogance of thinking we already have everyone and everything we need within our own locus of control that we close our hearts off to experiencing God’s presence among us.

But I believe there is also one more vantage point in today’s Gospel lesson that it can be just as easy for us to overlook. In his book, Stranger God, psychologist of theology Richard Beck breaks down and reconstructs this phenomenon of encountering God in the other. Beck reminds us that when we listen to lessons of God’s hospitality as told in our scriptures, we can have a tendency to reverse these characters and see these stories unfolding as members of the audience, watching a type of morality play. We hear the lessons play out and think we are being asked to perform a task: to show hospitality to others in order to be like Jesus. And of course, that is the kind of hospitality that Jesus models for us. But the larger point of these biblical stories of hospitality, Beck reminds us, is not about trying to be Jesus. but to help us truly welcome Christ into our lives.

So, in today’s lessons, we may also consider the possibility that God isn’t just the host but also the guest. God is the one entering the world at the margins and the low places; God is the stranger whom we welcome when we are the host, opening the doors to the guest house of our lives. Hospitality isn’t about trying to be God, a task for which we will invariably fall short, but in welcoming God whose one great desire is to be invited into our lives. The miracle isn’t God showing up for our benefit as an angel is disguise when we most need to be made aware of Divine presence. The miracle is when we open our hearts to see and experience God who is already in our midst, in the people and situations we have chosen to welcome to the guest table of our lives.

Who is circling around the table you host in this world, looking for a seat?

Gracious God, you are the host who welcomes us to the table, and the guest who dines in our midst. May we welcome each other as you would welcome, and come to see you in the faces of all those whom we meet. This we ask in the name of Jesus, who has made his home with the lowly and with whom we all rejoice in his exultation. Amen.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Meal_in_the_House_of_the_Pharisee_(Le_repas_chez_le_pharisien)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

James Tissot 1836-1902 “The Meal in the House of the Pharisee” [Public domain]

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sabbath Lessons

Homily for Proper 16, Year C
August 25, 2019

Note: Today is both my final Sunday at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and the commemoration of the arrival of enslaved Africans at Jamestown, VA in 1619.

Gospel Lesson:  Luke 13:10-17

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

When I was away at seminary last summer, I had the opportunity to take an interfaith elective with a professor from the Center for Jewish Studies.  I hoped the course would deepen my understanding of what I thought I understood of this shared concept of Jewish tradition and our Christian faith and life.  But before I even finished the pre-class reading, I realized that I had to check my assumptions. I quickly had to confront the fact that I had started to equate an understanding of the Sabbath with our contemporary knowledge of self-care: a day off, a rest, a break from the constant motion of our lives.  And that is admittedly part of it. But, during that immersion into law, mysticism and experience in the Jewish tradition, I caught a glimpse of Sabbath as something so much more: not self-care, but God-care; not human time, but God-time. Sabbath is the gift instituted by God and into which God invites those beloved by God to participate for our benefit and our liberation from the toil of this world. Or, as spoken eloquently and prophetically by Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people.” [1]

And so it is that in today’s Gospel lesson, we are introduced to a Sabbath story.  The scene that unfolds begins with Jesus teaching in the temple on the sabbath. Teaching and learning, you see, are Sabbath gifts.  To study and learn and wrestle with meaning together brings us more fully into relationship with God. In today’s lesson, Jesus the Teacher is immersed in this sabbath experience within the Temple, and a woman appears on the scene.  Not just any woman: she is bent over, unable to stand upright, stricken with ailments keeping her in physical and spiritual bondage. Eighteen years is a long time to have only looked at the ground beneath your feet. Jesus calls her to come near, lays his hands on her and proclaims her liberation from disease.  And her first response upon standing upright is to praise God.  

One might think this would have been viewed as a Sabbath miracle.  But, the subsequent banter among those with power and authority was one of legalism: had Jesus’ healing action violated Sabbath law?  The details of healing in the story highlight multiple violations of cultural norms, religious traditions, and social taboos. And it reveals Jesus undoing those misconceptions without hesitation in the name of the loving, liberating life-giving God.  Jesus acts to proclaim a core truth: the Sabbath is all about liberation. Indeed, who wouldn’t liberate an animal, one of God’s creation, let alone this woman? To participate in Liberation is to participate in God. Just as Jesus heals this woman, Sabbath is God’s plan for liberating us.

Confronted with this powerful truth-telling, those gathered express two distinctly different responses: shame and rejoicing.

That’s the way it often is with liberation.  Our response is often a matter of perspective.

I want us to listen to another story of Sabbath and liberation.   This one comes about 1800 years after the lesson we just read, narrated reflectively by Frederick Douglass in his 1855 narrative, My Bondage, My Freedom. [2]  Douglass, orator and social reformer who spent much of his life enslaved as the property of white landowners in Maryland, wrestles in his narrative with the tension between two institutions: sabbath, instituted by God; and slavery, instituted by humans.  Douglass and those who bought him and owned the property he toiled on lived in a time of religious fervor. Sundays, regarded in law and practice as the Christian sabbath, were one of the few times granted to enslaved persons for rest. Perhaps that was seen as necessary; perhaps as morally justified; and perhaps we can and should look back on the juxtaposition of sabbath and slavery with shameful irony.  But that tension existed in the lives of the human beings of that time. But Douglass recognized with his God-given intellect and the holiness of his spirit the opportunity of the Sabbath to grant not only rest, but liberation.  

Early in his life, Douglass was able to attend Sabbath schools led by white sympathizers on those days of socially sanctioned rest.  Several of those early schools were interrupted by class leaders and religious officials who learned that the schools were teaching reading, writing and encouraging intellectual freedom among enslaved persons which made them less valuable commodities on the auction market. He describes how those leaders co-opted those sabbath schools and turned them into opportunities for religious indoctrination supporting the institution of slavery and to reinforce a narrative of mindless obedience.  

But God is always working.  

For a time, Douglass was in the holdings of a Mr. Freeland whom he described as making “no pretension to, or profession of, religion” which he notes as being of great advantage.  Since there was social convention around the sabbath as a day of rest “for men and for beast” [incidentally, a phrase sometimes credited to today’s Gospel lesson] Douglass saw within that smallest fragment of freedom an opportunity to establish his own Sabbath school.  Douglass organized his community, and they began meeting secretly in the home of a free African American. Douglass describes that community of men and women, enabled to “act as intellectual, moral, accountable beings” as being a true family of faith; he goes on to say “we would have died for each other.”  In their secret Sabbath school, they were free to study the holy scriptures read by those who could read, teaching those who had not yet learned. They could use the intellect given to them by God to be empowered through the Holy Spirit and the strength of their community to be emboldened to act. Douglass says in his narrative, “it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.”  Douglass and several other members of that school subsequently escaped their enslavement and were instrumental to the abolitionist movement and the founding of African American independent churches. [3] 

Even in the darkest corners of our human history, God was working.  

Sabbath is a gift from God.  Sabbath is liberation.  

And God’s liberating work is still happening in us, and in the world.

I was sitting with this week’s lessons and this narrative offered by Frederick Douglass during the very powerful and moving Service of Lament, Reconciliation and Commitment held by our Central West Region of the Diocese of Virginia last Saturday in observance of the arrival of enslaved Africans to Virginia 400 year ago.  As I sat in that space, and as I listened to my sister in Christ, the Rev. Dr. Dorothy White, preach the loving, liberating and life-giving Gospel, I thought about today’s Gospel lesson. With others there, I was confronting the shameful history of slavery and dehumanization of others of God’s own making, and the cruel aftermath of racism and white supremacy that has followed.  In her sermon filled with hope, as several of you were able to hear, Dorothy described racism as a heart disease, and one that our Great Physician is fully capable of fixing. But it requires intervention.  I hear this echoed in today’s reading.  Like this woman, even stooped over from the weight of collective history, we need to appear before Jesus.  I think of all who gather in God’s church today carrying the weight of this world and the legacy of the sins of slavery, racism and oppression as this woman standing there before Jesus.  This ailment has inflicted us for so many years with hatred, fear, distrust: we can barely stand upright sometimes. But finally something stirs in us and we recognize our need for healing.

And when we do, we meet Jesus, still teaching on our Sabbath.  Jesus sees us. Jesus comes to us. We are not cast-aside in our shame, nor are we sent away to tend our own symptoms.  We are met by Jesus who proclaims that this ailment and its diseased spirit no longer have hold of us. We are met by the loving, liberating, life giving God of the Sabbath.  

The question in our midst this liberating Sabbath day is: how will we respond?  

Talking about racism sometimes makes people feel shame, and shame is a paralyzing emotion.  Confronted with shame, we might convince ourselves we are unworthy to appear, as individuals or as a church or as a society.  But nothing changes if we live in that shame. We might be tempted to double down and justify our presumed moral authority or distance ourselves from the past in an attempt to keep the status quo and feel better about ourselves.  That doesn’t address the shame, either. It’s just a humanly applied band-aid of ignorance and blindness; and a band-aid does nothing for a disease of the heart and the soul.  

So what will it take to rejoice?  I believe we are given this story so that we can live into the model we see from the woman in today’s lesson, who could have stayed home, could have remained in her place, could have suffered in silence, could have felt sorry for herself; could have blamed others; could have blamed God.  Instead she chose to be present exactly as she was. She chose to appear before Jesus, ailments and all. She stood in her vulnerability and received the liberating, life-giving, healing love proclaimed by Jesus and she was transformed, made to stand upright. And her first action in response was to give thanks and praise to God.

We are given the same opportunity today.  We’ve already shown up on this Sabbath. We know and recognize and on this day at 3 p.m. churches and public institutions alike will toll bells to acknowledge the history of enslaved persons who first landed in Virginia in 1619, four hundred years ago. We may feel shame in that history. I know that I do. But, we also have an invitation to healing as we approach and experience Christ.  The Holy Eucharist, our Great Thanksgiving, is God’s gift of liberation to us: to ALL of us. It frees us from shame, from bondage, from self-serving acceptance of an unjust status quo. This meal together transforms us to be the Body of Christ in this world, to seek and serve Christ in each other, to love our neighbors as ourselves. We come back again and again not of our unworthiness or our pride, but in our great thanksgiving of what has been, what is, and what is yet to come.  

I stand humbled and honored to call us to this table together today.  You’ve all been a part of bringing me to this place, of forming me for ministry to the church and to the world.  I rejoice in that, and I bring myself filled with flaws and potential to the healing hands of Christ with my own desire to go forth and continue to be the heart and hands of Christ in this world.  So, I extend this invitation to you, too, the parish that has so meaningfully helped to form me. We are all in need of healing. So, bring yourself, your own narrative, your vulnerability, your heart in need of healing.  Jesus sees us, and meets us, and heals us. And together we are transformed by that liberating love, renewed and remade together to do the work that God has called us to do.

Amen.

References:

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel (1951). The Sabbath (FSG publication reprint, 2005, p. 89).

[2] Frederick Douglass (1855) My Bondage, My Freedom.  [Online edition, Project Gutenburg] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

[3] Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. (2005) “Reading Against Jesus: Nineteenth Century African Americans’ View of Sabbath Law” in SBL Forum [accessed online] https://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=403

Of note:

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has asked our Episcopal churches to take part in a national action to remember and honor the first enslaved Africans who landed in English North America in 1619 by tolling their bells for one minute today, Sunday, August 25, 2019 at 3:00 pm ET.  This is proclaimed as a day of healing, and I invite you to keep it in your heart…or with your own bells…tolling for the profound pain of the collective history we bear, sounding as a plea for healing, but also ringing out the defiant acts of liberation like those shown by Frederick Douglass where God’s presence was known even in the depths of oppression.  God is liberating all of God’s people, yesterday, today and in the days to come.

img_3995

 

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magnificat

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

small points of light

August 15: Feast of St. Mary

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

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

View original post 1,006 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Constellation of Faith

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

Lectionary Readings (Track 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in sermons, work and life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teachable Moments

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

Lectionary Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Jesus Teacher

Posted in sermons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Neighborly Vocation

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

Lectionary Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

pantry praying hands

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Face of Christ

A Homily for Proper 9, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

Lectionary Texts (Track 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

00000IMG_00000_BURST20190625114702568_COVER

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hey, Boo…

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

Lectionary Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice when this fear happens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Wells, priest and ethicist, describes it powerfully:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

23882050887_7fbe427c17_z

Posted in sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment