Looking at our Demons

Homily for Proper 7, Year C

preached at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church (San Francisco, CA)

Scripture References:

Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Video of full service including homily can be accessed at the bottom of this post

Sermon Recording:

Podcast link: https://saintgregorys.libsyn.com/podcast/sarah-price-june-19-2022-looking-at-our-demons

Sermon Text:

Long before I was a priest…back when I was a newly minted social worker…I worked for a residential health care facility in Buffalo, NY where my assignment included staffing both a medical unit, and a memory care unit.  I floated between the two units, so one of my responsibilities was to determine which space better met the care needs of each resident.

One day, I was working on the medical unit making sure my notes were up-to-date during the annual inspection from the state health department.  We had a newly admitted resident who was sitting in her chair, directly in my line of sight. I’d been asked to observe her to see which unit might be a better fit for her care. As happens when staff are under the watchful gaze of authorities, everyone was feeling on edge.  Nurses were making sure the right medications went out at the right time to all the right people, and CNA’s were scurrying to get people dressed, bathed, and fed with more expediency than perhaps was typical.  The resident under my watchful care was trying to talk to all the busy people passing her by, “Excuse me!” she’d say.  The nurse would reply, “I’ll be right back!” and hurry off with her cart. “Could you help me?” she would say to get the attention of the CNA who was wheeling someone off to their room, “I’ll be back in just a minute!” they would reply.

My head was down, writing my intake note when I heard the woman suddenly burst into a loud cry, “THE DEVIL!  THE DEVIL!!  THE DEVIL IS OVER HERE!!!!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.  I flew out from behind the desk to run over to intervene in this mental health crisis, the nurse left her cart, the CNA reversed course to see what kind of situation had emerged.  And we all did a double-take when our new resident calmly shifted herself in her chair and said, “There we are.  Now that I have everyone’s attention: could someone please help me to the restroom?”

Suffice it to say, my assessment read: “Excellent self-advocate with no cognitive deficits noted”

That was a pivotal moment in my early career. My own presumptions got in the way of truly seeing a person in strength and humanity.  I’ve shared that story with my social work students back home at VCU as a prelude to talking about the human and spiritual dimensions of the social work profession.  I’m talking about the blend of social work and spiritual care right now at Church Divinity School of the Pacific where I once studied, and now I’m serving as a Visiting Professor this summer.  We grow from moments like this that sneak up on us, and catch us right in our assumptions.  We’re given one of those moments in today’s Gospel.

The Gospel sounds like a movie script, doesn’t it?  I can practically see the trailer: a creepy cemetery with a figure lurking around, cutting to a hillside filled with pigs running headlong to their demise.  But let’s step away from the cinematics to the heart of the lesson.  I’m convinced that the people living in the country of the Geresenes thought they had this situation all figured out.  I can imagine the kind of stories that were told about the naked, crazy man who lived in the tombs, cast out from the daily life and residential vibe of the city.  I’m sure that the rumor mill was on fire whenever he was acting out, and the authorities began to think nothing about binding him up in chains and shackles in the name of safety, “for everyone’s good.” I can imagine parents scooping up their children and shushing them when they wondered out loud who that man was and asked what he was doing, living where the dead were supposed to be. Childish curiosity turned quickly to fear, and fear turned to stigma, and stigma turned socially sanctioned discrimination where no one thought twice about marginalizing this outcast labelled as a demoniac who didn’t have access to housing, clothing or basic needs because (subtext) they couldn’t really be human after all, could they?  Being less than human, of course, justified their acts of punitive exile and carceration for the safety of self and others.

We may be living in a different century, but some situations seem shockingly familiar. 

Enter Jesus, who earlier in the Gospel according to Luke, has just stilled the winds and waves of rough waters and now steps from sea onto dry land.  Jesus is welcomed ashore by this outcast who has seen torment, shackles, ridicule and oppression; that which is in possession of him recognizes Jesus for exactly who he is and he exclaims it at the top of his voice.  I doubt it sounded like holy recognition.  Like my resident on the unit, that greeting probably struck fear into the disciples and all who were nearby.  Everyone was in position and ready to react.

Except Jesus.  Instead, Jesus asks: “What is your name?”

What is your name

It sounds like a simple question, but it tells us so much about Jesus.  The question Jesus asks is singular, personal, human.  And even when the man cannot identify himself beyond that which possesses him, Jesus’ response is to cast away that which was not of the person, to free the human being who has been imprisoned by the evil forces of this world.  After all the resulting drama involving swine and cliffs settles and the swineherds go into the city to tell the tale of what they saw, because…well…who doesn’t want to share a story like that…people drop their busy lives to rush into the dramatic scene to see what has happened.  They set out anticipating great drama unfolding from one they had demonized, and arrive to see something else entirely: a person who is whole, clothed, calm and sitting as Jesus’ feet. 

And they were afraid.

The order of operations by which this Gospel lesson unfolds isn’t lost on me, and I don’t for a moment think it’s accidental.  Deep fear sets in when they see the person, the human being, the one just like them.  They came to that scene expecting what they had come to expect: a demoniac, a non-person, an outcast.  Now, they saw a personAnd they were afraid.

It was too terrifying to confront the reality of our common humanity, to recognize that the person Jesus was able to see singularly was in effect, every person.  The sad reality is that it’s easier to keep a demoniac…or any other “label”…cast out from a community, then it is to welcome and greet a human being that we now see clearly is and always has been one of us. 

Jesus sees that man, and each of us, as a person. That radical love was too much for the people of the Geresenes.  They ask Jesus to leave; the fear of seeing their common, equal humanity was just too great.  But it was enough for the healed man, who saw himself renewed and asked to go with Jesus.  I can imagine why, can’t you?  It’s hard work to confront stigma and fear, day after day.  But Jesus asks him to remain and he does, using his voice and story and person to share the Good News even to those who had cast him aside, who were afraid, who could not see him as a person. Yet. But Jesus had seen him, and healed him.  And being seen, respected and loved was enough for him to stay and proclaim the good news of what Jesus had done, believing others would eventually see it, too.

The Good News in this story is profound: there is no amount of human marginalization, no amount of possession by the structures and forces of evil that can keep us from being seen, and known and loved by Jesus and healed by divine love and grace.  Not a legion of demons; not the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism; not the terror of unchecked gun violence; not the structures of addiction, illness, fear, or oppression.  We are seen, known and asked our name…invited to see ourselves beyond the structures and forces of evil that can enslave us and others.  The value of our personhood matters to God, profoundly.

We can also be overwhelmed when confronted by the holy equality of the Good News of God in Christ: Can we see others as Jesus sees them?  Can we see ourselves, as Jesus sees us?

I hope the answer to both questions is:  I will, with God’s help.

We are invited to move from the fear that enslaves us and into a new reality, a new freedom, a new way of life through God’s healing grace.

That kind of radical celebration is the heart of Juneteenth: an anniversary celebration of the words of General Order No. 3 reaching people at the furthest edge of Texas who were still enslaved not by law but by the continued abuse of power and perpetuation of the oppressive status quo.  That document reading was two years after the emancipation proclamation, and two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.  We can imagine the freedom and emancipation conveyed to those who had been enslaved, and lament the reality that fear still fueled the hearts of those wielding the power and privilege of possession.  Juneteenth invites us to solidarity: celebrating freedom from the evil of slavery and the evils that enslave us, liberating us to live into the vision of holy equality we read today:

In Christ there is no longer Hebrew or Hellenist, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Imagine that as an invitation.  Imagine that as the lead in to Jesus asking you not how the world sees you but, “What is your name?

There is healing that needs to happen with the oppressive structures of this world, and there is healing that needs to happen in the most personal, ordinary everyday spaces where we greet each other with our common humanity. The Good News is, Jesus models for us a place where we can begin and from which healing and transformation can and will emerge, with God’s help.

So, I invite you to ponder, and then to pray, and then to act: who are we being called to ask, “what is your name?” 


Watch the full service (Zoom Stream from St. Gregory of Nyssa):


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Why can’t we have complex things?

A reflection originally written following the leaking of information suggesting the pending overturn of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade.

For the past 25 years of my professional life, I have been a professional social worker, grief counselor, professor and priest. Most of my work, along with my clinical and academic expertise, has focused on reproductive health and mental health. I’ve heard stories that are beautiful and gut-wrenching, I have held confidences shared behind closed doors and companioned people through some of the most difficult and complex situations and decisions of their lives. I’m someone who reads, thinks, ponders and holds nuanced ethical positions on a host of issues because I understand the complexity of life through the experiences of others.

These recent days have been trying times for my soul.

I am taking time to write this post today because I believe that the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade is bad news for the mental health of women and parenting people everywhere. I also believe that the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade is bad news for educated, trained, ethically practicing professionals who provide health, mental health and spiritual care everywhere. And, no matter what your political affiliation or ideological beliefs are, you should care about that, too.

As things stand right now, all of the complicated decisions that I’ve accompanied people through are personal choices that are legally supported, made with ample consultation with the medical, mental health and spiritual advisors in their lives. The people who have shared their stories with me each have different individual, familial, cultural and religious beliefs and experiences that they are able to talk about and ultimately, inform the next steps of their journey. Not everyone makes the same choice. Not everyone has access to the same options. But up to this point, I have had the autonomy to inform, explore, and accompany people through whatever they determine is the best course of action without civil or legal penalty. And they have had the autonomy to seek the best course of action for their lives, also without civil or legal mandate.

In all of the work that I do, I have to guarantee the well-being of my clients. As a social worker, I have ethical guidelines which I agree to follow which include competence, integrity, the dignity and worth of all persons as realized through client self-determination, and the centrality of human relationships. Because I also engage pregnant people in my research, I must guarantee the safety of human subjects, and there is an addendum that I provide to the Institutional Review Board at my institution for every study, no matter how benign, to assure them that I am acting in ways that do not jeopardize the well-being of a pregnant person or fetus. As a priest in The Episcopal Church, I adhere to the promises of my baptism and those I made at my ordination, and I live in obedience to spiritual authority. The vows of my religious life also include honoring the dignity and worth of all persons, and caring for those I love and serve as a priest: the young, the old, the rich and the poor. I take all of these vows seriously, and that allows me to be an informed, compassionate, confidence-holding companion to many people and their many life situations. I read and I study, so that I am offering resources and support grounded in sound theology, science, and ethical practice. My professional and vocational training…a doctorate and three Master’s degrees…helps me to be a trusted and educated voice of wisdom and grace-filled companionship so that, when all is said and done, each person, in each person’s own situation, can feel informed, loved and supported in having navigated difficult decisions in the best ways that they can.

I have never, in all my various settings of practice, encountered a person of any age, race, socioeconomic or spiritual background who took issues of life and death lightly. This includes decisions around the beginning and end of life.

Now, we stand on a precipice where instead of professionals like me who are trained and ethically grounded accompanying people through the complexity and offering cognitive, emotional, spiritual and ethical guidance in some of the most challenging moments of their lives, the court of public opinion will determine the options, if any, available to them. Many of the people that I counsel, for the record, will choose a course of action that even some of my most conservative friends would wholeheartedly embrace. But you see, here is the heart of the matter: it is still about choice. Making informed choices honors our human agency; it allows us to consult and consider what we believe, and why. It allows us the freedom to weigh moral, ethical and practical consequences of our options. Responsibility comes with freedom, and when we enact our rights and freedoms with an understanding of that responsibility, it makes us not only agents of our own lives but wiser about what is important to us. That wisdom ultimately leads us to respect others and their decisions, even if they differ from our own.

So, I am forced to confront in these days where my spirit is ill at ease: can we still honor the capacity of people to make complex choices? Have we come to a place where we are willing to sacrifice human agency for moral absolutes?

What is unfolding in the United States right now isn’t about elective terminations of pregnancy; it goes far beyond labels value signalling one’s stance on the politicized concept of abortion. The dismantling of constitutional freedom is an affront to complex thought and critical thinking. It leads to partisan box-ticking on election day and moral absolutism that underscores shame, blame and stigma of “the other” which I hear playing out in how people describe who they picture when they hear about someone considering abortion. I can assure you: that pool is far more wide and diverse than many people realize. Ultimately, a lack of choice and freedom erodes mental health and human agency of all of these individuals, not only those who ultimately may decide to terminate a pregnancy. At the same time, it undermines the role of vocational and professional education that prepares health, mental health and spiritual care providers to honor and accompany people through the complexities of human life.

Why can’t we have complex things?

We are a society that is thriving on distrust and division. We are weary from comparing what we don’t have with what others seem to have, and we are grasping for a sense of moral certainty. But this push to dismantle rights and freedoms doesn’t bring us closer to the moral high ground that we’re seeking. It discounts the complexity of experiences, identities and belief systems that make up a nation as diverse as the United States.

I’m writing this today as food for thought, another perspective to consider in these days where debates rage on and people are feeling hurt, divided, angry or vindicated. My intent is to invite all of us to pause and consider the bigger picture beyond whether we are “for” or “against” a decision. How are lives being impacted: of pregnant people and professionals, as well as humans-in-development? It’s a complex question, and I am not looking for seemingly easy answers. I’m actually hoping we can learn to embrace complex things and in doing so, learn to listen more deeply to and companion each other through the difficult situations of life.

Gracious God, we thank you for the love that sustains us through the difficult choices we have made. We bless your name for granting us courage, peace, and strength. Give us grace in the days ahead to recognize your boundless mercy. Strengthen our faith and support us with your love that your goodness and mercy may follow us all the days of our lives, through Christ, our Good Shepherd. Amen.

–“Following a Difficult Decision” from Enriching our Worship 5
(Church Publishing, Inc. 2009)
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Poems for Holy Week 2022

Filling my soul with poetry during Holy Week 2022 (updated daily)


Palm Sunday

The Poet Thinks on the Donkey

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

-Mary Oliver

from: https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2021/3/23/the-poet-thinks-about-the-donkey-by-mary-oliver


Monday in Holy Week

“Mary Anoints the Feet of Jesus” by Frank Wesley

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,
anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.
—John 12.3


God does not promise to save you from suffering,
or to remove you from this life and its jagged edges.
God shares your space in it, offers blessing in it,
anointing your nights as well as days.
The cross is no scheme to get you off a hook somewhere;
it’s the Beloved, with you in your pain.

Let the Beloved pour herself out on your troubles,
let her pour out a jar of tears for you,
wipe your aching feet with her hair.
Let the whole house of you be filled
with the fragrance of God’s blessing.
Others don’t feel your pain but she does,
they will flee but she will be with you.

Lay before her your sorrows and your rage.
Feel her hands upon you, her hair, her heart.
You are in the holy of holies.
The world’s derision fades away outside the gate.
She looks at you with love
that will stay with you forever.

–Steve Garnass-Holmes

from: https://unfoldinglight.net/2019/04/03/6x8wwacjmsz3wpwpw9hage9znb9cnz/


Tuesday in Holy Week

The Shadow of Death” by Frederick Stacpoole, 1878

Christos

Jesus: a prophet or a god

Because in the shop, he

Made, as every carpenter

Of the time:

            Tables and chairs—

Out of wood came the

                                Word,

As the original impulse

            Was to hide

Behind an act. One can’t

Be a prophet or a god with-

Out a cover. Something to

Do

            Till the word

            Gets around—

So to speak—and as metal

Was not a thing for laymen

To play around with, it had

To be wood,

   The only dry thing

That could catch

Fire, and lead—like the

Word—peoples, animals

And angels—off course,

            Toward the light.

–Ahmad Almallah

source: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/157534/christos


Wednesday in Holy Week

Jesus washes Judas’ feet.

That moment, when you knelt before him,
took off his sandals, readied the water,
did you look up? Search his eyes?
Find in them some love, some trace
of all that had passed between you?

As you washed his feet, holding them in your hand,
watching the cool water soak away the dirt,
feeling bones through hard skin,
you knew he would leave the lit room,
and slip out into the dark night.

And yet, with these small daily things –
with washing, with breaking and sharing bread,
you reached out your hand, touched, fed.
Look, the kingdom is like this:

as small as a mustard seed, as yeast,
a box of treasure hidden away beneath the dirt.
See how such things become charged,
mighty, when so full of love. This is the way.

In that moment, when silence ebbed between you,
and you wrapped a towel around your waist;
when you knew, and he knew, what would be,
you knelt before him, even so, and took off
his sandals, and gently washed his feet.

–Andrea Skevington

source: https://andreaskevington.com/2019/04/09/poem-jesus-washes-judas-feet/


Maundy Thursday

icon written by Julia Stankova

The grass never sleeps.

Or the rose.

Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,

and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,

and heaven knows if it even sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe

the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,

maybe

the lake far away, where once he walked as on a

blue pavement,

lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not

keep that vigil, how they must have wept,

so utterly human, knowing this too

must be a part of the story.

— Mary Oliver

source: https://incarnationbmore.org/uncategorized/gethsemane-a-poem-by-mary-oliver/


Good Friday

Mosaic Icon of the Crucifixion of Christ, Basilica San Clemente (Rome, 12th Century)

Psalm 22 (paraphrase)

My God, My God,
You are the sparrow’s fall
And the flower’s garments.
You are the hallowed hammer
And the hanging tree.
I am poured out like water.
Why have you forsaken me, my father?

Yet surely I was cast on you from birth.
From the ordinary altar of my mother’s womb
You have been my God.

You are the light’s benediction
And the silent sky,
Both the chasm and the passage,
My canticle and call.
I am the veil, gripped and rended,
In the darkness until the dying is ended.

You have pierced my hands and feet,
Yet as long as light has walked between stars
You have been my God.

You tell the sun your grief
And darkness dances across the noon.
You are unyielding.
I am cross-hearted and heaving.

All who cannot keep themselves alive
Will kneel before you.
You have been my God.

You shake the shattered earth of its ancient dead.
You are the breath in buried chests
Who rise and walk and praise you again.
I am the fountain found
I am the holy wine swallowed down.
I am trussed and scattered.
As grapes are crushed, I stagger.

Though the beasts surround me,
And trouble is near,
I will find your face
For you have been my God.

You dreamed of flesh in the ground, growing.
For you are the God of scattered seed.
But now I am kernel crushed
Chaff blown, flayed and flying.
I am the flesh you dreamed of dying.

Why are you so far from saving me?
I can count all my bones.
My heart melts. I lay in the dust.
As long as the afflicted have lifted prayers to you,
You have been my God

I am the holy bread, chewed and eaten.
I am the Prince of Peace crowned and beaten.

—Andy Patton

source: https://rabbitroom.com/2021/03/the-chasm-the-passage-poems-by-andy-patton-anna-a-friedrich/


Holy Saturday

Onto a Vast Plane

You are not surprised at the force of the storm


you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

source: https://onbeing.org/poetry/onto-a-vast-plain/

During Holy Week 2022, I am immersing myself in poetry, art and verse on the themes of each day’s scripture lesson. This blog post will be expanded each day.

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Grace All Around

CDSP Community Eucharist February 24, 2022

Epiphany VII Year A (Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church)

Scriptures: Isaiah 61:1-4/ 8-10; Song of Songs 3:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:1-10; John 2:1-11

The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth; and from this fullness may we receive, grace upon grace.  Amen.

A few months ago, I witnessed and blessed the marriage of two beautiful human beings surrounded by family and friends in the middle of a brewery.  Before that day, I had read and heard this Gospel passage of the Wedding at Cana many, many times.  But, context matters, and in that particular context, I became palpably aware that we were all gathered to witness and bless a holy transformation, surrounded on all sides with barrels and bunches of hops…the practical elements of transformation.  Standing in that context, everything about this particular Gospel began to take on a new life for me. 

I don’t have to tell you all that this has been a season of our lives where everyone’s best laid plans have been tentative, at best.  Will and MK wanted to be married in the parish they loved and called home. But then there was COVID, and gathering restrictions…and then a period of optimism, during which time they set a date, reserved the church, booked a brewery for their reception, and invited all their family and friends. And then there were more variants, more waves, and more gathering restrictions.  You know the arc of this story…we’ve all lived it in countless ways over the past two years. 

I was sitting with Will and MK during one of our premarital counseling sessions where all of the hopes and realities of the day were converging on those best-laid plans.  In that particular moment where I was feeling equal parts social worker and priest, the changes and changes of pandemic life were all around us. One…or both…vocations stirred through the scarcity and we began to move forward around three questions: What’s really important?  How will we honor that?  What changes, and what remains? 

I’d also like us to hold those three questions as we approach today’s good news.

When we enter this story of the Wedding at Cana, we encounter the Mother of Jesus who is present and at the center of this narrative.  We know her as Mary although she isn’t named in the Johannine text. Six large, stone jars filled with water for ritual purification are also present. (Side note: I now have a better sense of size and scale after learning that those barrels of fermenting beer at the brewery also hold about 30 gallons).  Jesus and his disciples are passively inserted into this narrative, until Mary initiates a conversation to convey that the wine has run out.

The conversation that follows is, in a word, terse.  We can go back and forth about the cultural and linguistic dynamics of the Jesus and Mary exchange, but I don’t think there is any doubt that the Gospel writer wasn’t suggesting warmth of tone.  Changes, chances and scarcity are imbued in every word: scarcity of wine, if we take in the conversation from Mary’s perspective; scarcity of time if we step into Jesus’ immediate reaction.

Our first guiding question:  What is really important here?

Everything in this text tells us that it is relationship.  The entire Johannine Gospel narrative begins with relationship, among Godself and in relationship with God’s creation.  As this miracle of the wedding at Cana unfolds, all of the separations…the changes and chances of this life…give way to relational abundance.  We see it in Mary’s invitation to Jesus to initiate his public ministry at this time, and in this space. I might also argue, we see it in her willingness to trust Jesus’s own free will about how exactly that might unfold:  “Do whatever he tells you to do” is a powerful statement of her unconditional, relational belief in Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity.

The next question follows:  How will we honor what is important? 

Time after time, relationship is centered and honored in this text.  Jesus’ response honors Mary’s recognition that the time for public ministry is here, and it begins in the sacred space of human relationships. Mary honors Jesus in her direct, trusting admonition to follow Jesus’ instructions, whatever they may be.  The servants honor the steward; the steward honors the bridegroom; the newly married couple honor their guests.  Abundance begets abundance, and this Gospel narrative inaugurates a public ministry centered in relationship where actions of faith ripple outwards from the heart of divine love into the healing and repair of human hearts and relationships.

Finally, we are left to see what changes, and what remains

Our attention tends to focus on the transformed wine in this public miracle.  But so much else has changed, too: relational understandings between Mary, and Jesus and the disciples; public acknowledgement of Jesus, whose glory is revealed and in whom the disciples believe.  Like the servants who knew the source of the water-now-wine, we are changed, too: what we’ve now seen, we cannot unsee.  What remains in this scene of transformation is tangible evidence of divine love and grace, the abundance sourced in relationship that now overflows in tangible and sacramental form.  Our hearts open to change when we recognize the elements of transformation all around us: substance and people. Whenever we gather as Eucharistic community, we are called on to remember this in our hearing of the word, our prayers of the people, our Great Thanksgiving.  Ordinary transforms to extraordinary, and when we leave we are never the same.

On Will and MK’s wedding weekend, what emerged was also an abundance of love and trust about how things would unfold: we scrapped the customary rehearsal in favor of celebrating a simple and lovely wedding eve Holy Eucharist for parish family and friends in which we intentionally honored the love of God that draws all of us to each other.  Then, we preempted the big brewery reception by exchanging vows and blessing their marriage in the midst of all present: literally, affirming their love surrounded on all sides not only by barrels, but by the family and community that formed and supported them. We didn’t do these things in spite of a pandemic: we creatively lived into the intention of the sacrament of marriage, bearing witness to transformation. 

Will and MK, surrounded by the love of their families and witnesses, confronted the pandemic scarcity and at the same time, embodied the abundance that is love.  We embodied it in the language of liturgy, scripture and prayer. We were able, in all these things, to name for those who gathered safely in large, open spaces in the late, exhausting days of a global pandemic that love wins.  In all the ways that we could, including living it out step by step, we proclaimed that the abiding and abundant grace of love is present and transformative, right here and right now.  Plans may be disrupted but the Love of God is undeterred.  God chooses to stand with us, Creator eternally abiding with creation. I can tell you, the presence of God was palpably present. I also have to say, I may never preside at a wedding the same way again.

So, why tell stories about a wedding on a day when our hearts are heavy: for the people of Ukraine; for trans youth and healthcare workers offering gender-affirming care; for those who teach critical knowledge and history from the vantage point of the marginalized and not just the rich, white and powerful; for those who experience the daily microaggressions and macro oppressions of life in this country and around the world; when we see ourselves hurtling toward environmental devastation and climate disaster?  Yes, our hearts are heavy today and with good reason.  And why did Jesus inaugurate public ministry at a family wedding turning water into wine, during a politically occupied time where fear, imprisonment and disruption were palpable?  What is really important here? 

Oh yes, that question again.  Oh yes, God’s repeated answer: Relationship. Love. Grace.

Those are the lessons, in the midst of the changes and chances of this life that Mary knows, viscerally.  Knows like her own body, her own heart, her own child.

Grace, we are told repeatedly in John’s Gospel, has come to us through the person of Jesus Christ.  In the fullness of the mysteries of incarnation and love, we have received grace upon grace.  Grace is undeserved, unwarranted, irrational.  Grace sources in unconditional love and opens up the possibility of seeing ourselves as beloved even when we aren’t ready to think of ourselves that way. 

Grace is a doorway to transformation, and in that invitation is the encouragement to lay down our fears and insecurities in favor of possibility: we get to see it; to experience it; to be it.  We are compelled through relationship, love and grace to declare good news to the oppressed; to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberation to the captors and freedom to the prisoners.  We are led in that prophetic way because God transforms us

God is the source and the action of the transformation of which we are a part. Through the relationship, love and grace of Christ, we are the water that transforms to wine.  And even if we feel like those immovable stone jars sometimes, we may still find ourselves compelled to cry out. And when we do, what good news we will find spilling forth when we recognize the One through whose hands our ordinary materials have been transformed.

We come to this Eucharistic feast filled with the potential to encounter all of the overflowing abundance that is conveyed in this story of the wedding at Cana.  We are all invited to participate, fully, in the transformation that is about to take place, the elements of transformation all around us. And as ones who are transformed and renewed, evidence of that transformation is within us and moves through us, like an abundance of the best wine saved for last at the wedding feast ready to be poured out to the world, a world we know to be thirsting and yearning for divine relationship, love and grace.

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Three Prayers

Homily for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

February 6, 2022

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA (SKP’s departure sermon)

Lectionary Texts:

Prologue:  

I often begin my homilies with a prayer.  Today, I echo three prayers uttered to the divine from the lips of the beloved, chosen servants of God from our lectionary readings:

Here am I, send me.       

How Long, O Lord?        

Yet, if you say so.  

We’ll come back to these prayers.  But first, a few words about our journey together.

Journey:  

Having grounded ourselves in these prayerful expressions of what it means to walk our Christian lives together in love and service, I’d like to take the liberty of beginning where I began with all of you: a newly minted priest in the Summer of 2019.  

This diocese is not in the habit of using the term “curate” although it was often the term used for the first place in which the newly ordained was placed under the mentorship of a more senior cleric in order to live faithfully and formatively into the first years of their call.  This idea of a “cure” took form from the Latin root, cura meaning “to care for” and by extension, the curacy was a time in which the newly ordained was to be given some additional support and care while learning the art of caring for the needs of others.  This spiritual apprenticeship was something I yearned for: being in the presence of a community where I could be supported while deepening in my own learning and experience of this new, sacramental commitment I had undertaken in my life.  “Here I am, Lord” is an expression one should never utter lightly.  And so it has been that with David and Buck and Dorothy and Malinda and all of you to guide and encourage me, I have grown more deeply into my priestly call, and more deeply in my love and regard for all of you.

I’m also keenly aware that there are other uses of the term “cure” which have more widespread usage and applicability.  This includes both the Middle English application to the emerging art of medicine which strove “to cure” by caring for the body not only by soothing symptoms but through science and study.  And then, there is the third meaning of “to cure” as often applied to ham, bacon and other deliciously aged foods which cure over time, naturally allowing more flavor to seep into their very essence.  I’m told that the process of curing meat requires at least one of three mechanisms: smoke, salt and time.  I’d like to thank Buck particularly for adding to the smokiness and saltiness of my curing process, and say that I have loved every minute of it.

In all seriousness, I think all of these definitions apply to our time together.  And while I technically have been working here with the title of priest associate, I find this concept of a curacy fitting.  Here, I have learned to care, deeply.  Here, through soothing our weariness and applying science, technology and study I have witnessed growth and healing emerging even in the midst of a global pandemic.  And here, the very essence of what it means to be a priest has sunk into my flesh, my mind, my heart, my spirit.  It has permeated me in a way that is unalterable.  I will always be the priest that I am…wherever God calls me…fully cured with the love that is the tradition of St. Mark’s.  And so for all of that and the tremendous love of the past three years, I thank you all.

Back to those three prayers.  

Here I am, send me.  Today’s first lesson is also one of the appointed lessons for the ordination of priests.  I was at an ordination recently where an outstanding scholar and homilist The Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams began right where all of us sitting there were thinking when this scripture was read: shaking our heads in unison at the audacious and enthusiastic prayer, “Here I am, send me!” as if to say, “Isaiah, Isaiah…what are you thinking?”  She went on to unwind this passage like the hem of the robe filling the temple and invited us to consider the real possibility that this wasn’t an expression of naivety, nor was it Isaiah’s first call or encounter with the almighty.  It was, she suggested, the prayer of one who had already been seasoned by living a life in response to God’s call and learning that our fighting, our struggling, our fleeing are all just the vanity of our humanity.  The yes-saying that we do to God is a prayer; it is one we eventually learn to utter with grace and humility because at some point we realize that all we are and all we have ultimately belongs to God.  And so it is that our response to our creator is one not of self-assured readiness, but of humble recognition that who we are is already at the service of the one who has loved us into being, and loves us still.  Here I am. Send me.

How long, oh Lord, how long?  One of my St. Phoebe School students reflected a month or so ago that in all her visits to parishes and all through all the many prayers we offer for those ill with COVID, those who have died from COVID, those who are struggling with mental health and economic hardship from COVID…never once had she heard someone boldly and confidently pray for an end to the pandemic.  She’s started doing exactly that, by the way.  Every. Single. Day. Why is it so hard to raise our voices in lament and frustration…not just for comfort in affliction but in the powerful and curative belief that God is powerful enough to end affliction.  This kind of prayer is a modern day echo of Isaiah’s tormented cry, “how long, oh Lord, how long?” after he receives the prophetic indictment that God knows the people are listening but do not understand; that they see but do not comprehend.  In this era where skepticism abounds, is it possible that we withhold our fervent prayers because we fear they may not be answered?  Do we place limits on God by not seeing clearly and therefore, not recognizing the capacity our God has to heal and love in ways utterly beyond our own comprehension?  This prophecy echoing across the ages challenges us today, living in our age of logic, prediction, and control.  What would happen if we fervently prayed to end the pandemic.  What would happen if we prayed publicly and fervently for an end to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia?  Praying shapes believing, and we act on our beliefs.  What would we be doing differently in our everyday lives if we began to pray so boldly?  Sometimes I wonder if we hold back from prayer because we know the truth, deep down: prayer doesn’t only change situations; it changes us.  How long, Oh Lord, how long?

Yet, if you say so.  Now, this prayer spoken by Simon Peter to Jesus might sound at first like a lack-luster version of “here I am, send me” but I suggest to you that it is different, and it has deep relevance for the work we…the Church and the followers of Christ within it…are called to do.  You see, Simon’s trade was fishing.  Simon knew fishing, and he was good at it.  Being an expert at something means that you know it so well that you can tell when effort is required, and when effort is futile.  It was as much a part of Simon’s expertise and guidance to other fisher-folk to know when to call it a night as it was to know when to cast the nets out.  Simon had used his expertise to ascertain that this was not the time to lower the nets and catch fish.  But Simon saw and heard Jesus.  And in that moment, all of his own learned expertise and wisdom were set aside at the request of Jesus.  “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”  Simon may have been tired, and he may have even felt like his knowledge and control were being second-guessed…but all of that comes to a close with an expression of trust.  I commend this prayer to you. It invites us to step aside from our typical inner dialogue which for me might be something like, “Thanks, Jesus…just give me a bit more time to second guess myself and think through a thousand possibilities to explain why it might not work and then I’ll be in touch and let you know if I decide to take action.”  This prayer of divine doing acknowledges our doubt and still says, “Yet, if you say so, I will.”  When we are still enough to hear in our soul when it’s time to trust in the power of God in our lives, when we acknowledge the cacophony of our doubts, our insecurities and our fears; when we are ready to pack it all up and head home we can still say, “Yet, if you say so” and drop our nets.  Perhaps that means dropping our facades, our defense mechanisms, our insistence about how we think things should be.  We can do these things asked of us not of our own power but because we trust the One who is speaking to us to fill those empty nets with everything we need.  Yet, if you say so.

After Simon utters this prayer, he drops the nets and hauls in so many fish that both boats are sinking. Jesus acts with abundance.  It is all just too much for Simon.  I’m not talking about the two boats full of fish.  I mean the overwhelming, overflowing magnitude of God’s love and grace even in the midst of our human exasperation.  This is what drops Simon to his knees, suddenly feeling all the places where he has fallen short.  And it is in that very place…on this journey that Simon is on, that James and John are on, that St. Mark’s is on, that I am on…where Jesus meets us.  It is in that moment where we grasp the enormity of God’s abundance that our hearts break open. There is newness, revelation, a transforming encounter with divine love and grace.

And in that moment Jesus said to Simon the expert at catching fish: “Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be catching people.”

Jesus saw in Simon all that was needed, for exactly who he was

And in this very present moment in the midst of our lives, Jesus says to us: “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus sees in us exactly what is needed, for exactly who we are.

And we know how this Gospel passage ends: And they left everything, and followed him.

Epilogue:  

I think it would be disingenuous to end this homily or walk away from this Gospel as if it were a fairy tale ending, like “and they lived happily ever after.”  We know from all our Gospel texts that following Jesus was filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for those who chose to be disciples.  And so it is for us, the Church and the followers of Christ today.  Jesus isn’t promising us a life free from trouble, or pain, or bittersweet goodbyes.  Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension are our reminders that lives of discipleship are enfolded in the ultimate reality that Love Wins; that even death is no match for resurrection.  

This lectionary year, Year C, we are reading primarily from Luke.  The three lectionary years each focus on one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark or Luke.  John’s Gospel is woven into particular places across all three years but we never get to the final verses of John’s Gospel.  We do hear the part of the final chapter of John, during the Sundays of Eastertide, where a grieving and perhaps despondent Simon Peter goes back to fishing.  In that resumption of his familiar trade, he has an encounter with the risen Christ, who nourishes the disciples physically and spiritually with a breakfast of grilled fish on the beach, served with love in the midst of the awe of resurrection.  Whether the final verses of John beyond that story were penned by the author or added by a scribe several generations later, the Gospel according to John ends with this incredible statement which I hold as spiritual truth: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

I will close today with that expression guiding my closing prayer for you, and for all of us:  May there be so many incredible things that Jesus does that if every one of them were written down, you would run out of paper to write them.  May our prayers be fervent, and our living out of the work God has called us to do be earnest.  And may the time we have spent together nourish us, cure us, and inspire us to boldly say again and again, “here I am, send me.”

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One Body

Homily for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Text Reference: 

There is one Body, one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us.  Amen.

It is January, so unless you’ve been living apart from every kind of media…print, broadcast or social…you’ve been hearing a lot about about bodies.  On any given day, the ways that I am encouraged to alter, improve or otherwise enhance my body seem to increase exponentially.  This isn’t just an aberration of my age or demographic.  According to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness and self-care industry has grown to a world-wide market economy of $4.5 trillion dollars…and that was in 2018. At this time and place in our collective lives, we’ve never been so consumed with our individual bodies, and even more so with the parts of our individual bodies that we find most problematic.  You see, couched in the term “wellness” is often a motivation by problem.  We engage in wellness because there is something about our bodies that we dislike, or something that could happen to our bodies that we fear.  It might be cosmetic, or hereditary.  It might be aestetic, or medical. Imagine if I asked you right now to make a list about what you love and what you would change about your body if you could: well, I’m going to guess that most of us would have one list that was a lot longer than the other.  I think today’s scripture might be a reminder to us that we are losing sight of the forest by focusing on the trees…or perhaps losing sight of the body by focusing on its members.

Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Today’s Epistle lesson brings this concept of the body centrally into our understanding of our common lives in Christ: we are the Body of Christ.  Bodies have been a focus of attention and thus, a powerful human metaphor for a long time.  That includes Greco-Roman culture in which the church in Corinth was immersed.  We know from other writings that the political rhetoric during the rule of the Roman Empire used the body metaphor to concretely explain why it was that appendages (“members”) needed one authority (“head”) to exercise control, so that all the parts of the body were working together.  When we read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, what we should be hearing…along with the metaphor…is a sharp rhetorical argument about the difference between our lives in Christ, and the body politic of the world around us.  Paul doesn’t describe Christ as the “head” or persuade members to see themselves as inferior and dependent appendages.  Instead, Paul poses a counter-cultural and counter-political argument about the very nature of the Church as the whole Body of Christ: 

God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Paul’s argument here is as direct and perfectly clear as any political body metaphor.  It isn’t that it was difficult for people to understand intellectually.  It’s that in 1st Century BCE Corinth, just like in our 21st Century, we are taking in so many social messages from the empire around us which are built on a superiority/inferiority hierarchy that it’s all too easy to conform our theology, our knowledge of God, to those clamoring voices.  And for many of us, it relegates us to the inferior.  And then, it becomes all too easy to focus all our energy on manipulating that which we deem inferior about ourselves to the will and control of what we have been told is superior. And when we do that, it becomes all about managing our individual inferiority, over and over again.

What Paul suggests…and what I am inviting us to consider and affirm today…is that there is an entirely different and God ordained way of being together as the Body of Christ.  This way isn’t about hierarchical adherence, or conforming to norms or perfection, or even pretending that every member is perfectly perfect all the time.  No: we are called to be a body with all of the members together being Christ with and for each other: freely distributing honor, wealth, confidence among members with a reciprocal understanding of shared needs which ebb and flow through our lives; sharing the same God-sourced care for one another; mutually suffering and mutually rejoicing.  This image of the Body of Christ is about synergy and solidarity; it allows a continued healing flow as needs among the members change and it works together for the good of the whole, not the ego maintenance of the individual.  Today, as in the first century, it is a counter-cultural and counter-political message.

I think it’s helpful to have a concrete image of what this kind of care can look like.  The image that I offer up to you is one written by social worker and trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem, in the introduction to his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies.  I’ve selected this book as one of the readings for Social Work and Spiritual Care course I’ll be teaching this summer during my time at Church Divinity School of the Pacific; it’s also a book that we use to teach in the MSW program when we focus on trauma recovery.  But, this time, I’m choosing to use it in both a social work and a theological context.  So, I would like you to imagine this opening dialogue between the author and his grandmother not only as the author’s personal recollection but also as a spiritual conversation, a parable of the Body of Christ:

When I was a boy I used to watch television with my grandmother.  I would sit in the middle of the sofa and she would stretch out over two seats, resting her legs in my lap.  She often felt pain in her hands, and she’d ask me to rub them in mine.  When I did, her fingers would relax, and she’d smile.  Sometimes she’d start to hum melodically, and her voice would make a vibration that reminded me of a cat’s purr.

She wasn’t a large woman, but her hands were surprisingly stout, with broad fingers and thick pads below each thumb.  One day I asked her, “Grandma, why are your hands like that? They ain’t the same as mine.”

My grandmother turned from the television and looked at me. “Boy,” she said slowly. “That’s from picking cotton.  They been that way since long before I was your age.  I started working in the fields sharecroppin’ when I was four.”

I didn’t understand.  I’d helped plant things in the garden a few times, but my own hands were bony and my fingers were narrow.  I held up my hands next to hers and stared at the difference.

“Ummm hmmm” she said. “The cotton plant has pointed burrs in it.  When you reach your hand in, the burrs rip it up.  When I first started picking, my hands were all torn and bloody.  When I got older, they got thicker and thicker, until I could reach in and pull out the cotton without them bleeding.”

My grandmother died last year.  Sometimes I can still feel her warm, thick hands in mine. (Menakem, 2017, p. 4)

What Resmaa Menakem is illustrating in his book goes beyond the ways in which our bodies carry generational trauma and moves us to consider the ways in which we bear collective responsibility for naming, feeling, and healing that trauma first in our bodies and then through transforming our collective, social well-being.  He goes on to say:

Our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our cognitive brains.  This knowledge is typically experienced as a felt sense of constriction or expansion, pain or ease, energy or numbness.  Often this knowledge is stored in our bodies as wordless stories about what is safe and what is dangerous.  The body is where we fear, hope and react; where we constrict and release; and where we reflexively fight, flee or freeze.  If we are to upend the status quo of white-body supremacy, we must begin first with our bodies. (Menakem, 2017, p. 5).

What if we re-read our Epistle lesson and understood it as instructional not only for the church but for our entire world?  That might mean that we stopped trying to intellectualize oppression or classify those who are hurting into fixed groups, demographically or ideologically.  It might mean that we encouraged the tired to rest their feet on us, and within that same loving support we leaned into them and showed them our own hurting places and invited each other with childlike earnestness to hear the stories that accompany the scars.  Those actions of our bodies would move past the constriction we feel, would release us from the fight/flight/flee reflex, would help us bear one another’s burdens, including the burden of history.  We would move away from the temptation to say that history is not ours, because we would see it in the broad, thick hands that had developed with resilient strength to protect against the burrs of systemic racism and realize it belongs to all of us.  We would do these things as a body, and hold these things as a body, and heal together as a body, and feel in the Communion of Saints the beauty of those hands from which not even death can separate us.  Imagine, if you will, the transformative potential of that understanding of the Body of Christ.  Imagine the power of that to transform this world.

There is a portion of one of our Eucharistic Prayers, Prayer C, which I hold on my heart whenever we come together for worship.  I invite you to hold it in your own mind today as we come together for Holy Communion: Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.

Friends, today’s Epistle challenges us right here in 2022 in the midst of our ego-driven world of haves and have nots.  It has relevance to how we are church with each other, and how we live as the church in the world.  It invites us into a whole new way of encountering those who are socially marginalized, through seeing and naming our own marginalized places and allowing others to massage our wounds, just as we invite others to stretch their tired legs over us and rub the painful hands while we hear the stories that help us see the strengths in those same hands.  This vision, and our common worship, invites us to be transformed in body, mind and spirit.  

As you hold these images today, hear the prophetic words of Isaiah Jesus read in the Temple echoing not only to us but through us, the Body of Christ:

“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.”

And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. 

The eyes of all in the synagogue…all in the pews…were fixed on Jesus. 

Then Jesus began to say to them…and Jesus says to us

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

May it be so, my friends.  May our coming together as the Body of Christ transform us to make it be so.

Amen.


Image: “Mother of Mercy” icon, written by Ivanka Demchuk (which hangs in my office)
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The Star and The Dove

Homily for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face. 

Epiphany blessings to you all!  Those of us who gathered for Compline Thursday evening had the opportunity to hear that collect as we celebrated the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus on the Feast of the Epiphany.  We even sang “We Three Kings” in glorious harmony…or maybe cacophony…in our own homes.  I’ve always loved singing the verses with their rich imagery and symbolic gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh offered to the infant Jesus by those who traveled over “field and fountain, moor and mountain” to offer tidings to one whose birth resonated through heaven and earth.  The story of the magi following the star is only conveyed in Matthew’s Gospel; there have been explanations astronomical and astrological; literal and literary for the radiant Star of Bethlehem. Whether you source this portion of the Christmas and Epiphany narrative as literal truth or holy symbolism, it adds richness to our understanding of the infant Jesus not only as Messiah of the Jewish people, but as Savior of the whole world.  

I admit, I’m not a skeptic on this issue. I am totally drawn in by the Epiphany star.  

The lavish images of the Magi arriving come after what I can only envision as a miracle of heavenly proportions.  This astronomical event drew in wise and educated people across culture and context.  There was a disruption in the cosmos; and from this disruption, people who had no connection to the lineage of the house of David took notice. This star signaled so much hope for these learned leaders that they set out on a journey of months and potentially, years, using the directionality of the star as their guide to reach an unknown child in an unknown place.  They also outwitted the nefarious King Herod after leaving their richly symbolic gifts, the meaning and significance of which which Mary also pondered deeply in her heart while the magi went home by another road.

The Epiphany star emerged first as a disruption; it compelled people to set out on a long journey into the unknown; and it led, ultimately, to rest over the infant Jesus whom they worshiped with rejoicing.  The brilliance of that star may have been their inspiration and their guide but it wasn’t their destination.  Disruption and journey led them to the place where eventually they rejoiced and worshiped the savior of the world.  

On this First Sunday after the Epiphany, our lectionary lessons through the Gospel according to Luke move us on past the visit of the magi and beyond the story of young Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem as we heard last week. The narrative guides us from the temple to the banks of the River Jordan.  The story of the Baptism of Christ is another rich with imagery: we re-encounter John the fiery preacher and baptizer, the one who has been preparing the way for one who is to come, calling out the Brood of Vipers, and preaching a baptism of repentance.  The story begins as if we’re in Advent again.

The people gathered around John at the opening of our Gospel lesson have been traveling in the wilderness together for a while.  It’s left them wondering to each other whether maybe this was the destination: perhaps John was the Messiah.  John tells them that he is not the messiah; that the messiah is coming after him. Like children asking “are we there yet?” on a long road trip, I think they likely realized the answer was no.  Often it is our restlessness, not our wisdom, that leads us to wonder whether we’ve reached our destination. And then, suddenly, more disruption.  This time, it becomes evident that the messiah is with them there: not in gold and finery, but among all the others approaching John for the baptism of repentance.  John baptizes Jesus, along with all the others who have followed.  And it is at that point in Luke’s Gospel that we hear the Baptism of Jesus described: when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Again, the heavens are disrupted to show the world what we might fail to recognize on our own: this person of Jesus is also known, beloved and of one being with God.  God is present in the voice of the Father.  God is present in Jesus, the savior and redeemer of the world.  God is present in the Spirit who is seen in the form of a Dove.  God’s own self is made manifest to our human ears, and eyes and tangible revelation in the person of Jesus.  Our siblings in the Greek Orthodox tradition mark this day and this season by this moment: the Theophany, the revelation of God made human.  And on the Feast of the Theophany, this prayer is offered:

Lord, when You were baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father gave witness to You, calling You Beloved; and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the certainty of those words. Glory to You, Christ our God, who appeared and enlightened the world. (Apolytikion for the Feast of the Theophany)

In this season of the Epiphany, Jesus the Christ is made manifest: the Light of Salvation for the whole world is proclaimed.  The star shines light on our journey to worship the beloved, and the heavenly dove rests upon the recognized, claimed and beloved God-made-human.  

These Epiphany events are for us, all of us.  They disrupt our status quo and upset the order of how we think things should be.  They challenge us with signs, wonders and miracles that our logical brains want to minimize or reject.  They enlighten and inspire us to wonder.  They make us aware and then invite us to explore the mystery, not just about events that unfolded long ago but of God who is with us, one of us.  Human, Savior and Beloved in the person of Christ.  Human, Savior and Beloved with whom we are reunited in our sacrament of Holy Eucharist.

The Star and The Dove: these symbols of our Epiphany season are doorways to hope.

While the message of the Epiphany is transcendent and universal, the presence of Christ in our midst is also immanent and contextual: God with us.  The star and dove are also symbols for us, as we walk together through this Epiphany season as well.  I’m not going to ignore how bittersweet it is for me to have responded to a beautiful new opportunity on another coast that disrupts my ability to be present here at St. Mark’s.  I’m on a journey and you, the people of St. Mark’s, are also on a journey through our own times of transition.  But we’re also part of something larger because God is With Us.  Whether we have recognized it or not, we’ve been preparing one another for this journey.  We have been strengthened and fortified because we have been journeying together and learning from each other.  Our relationship with each other has helped us know who we are.  More importantly, we know more deeply whose we are.  We have journeyed through Zoom church and regathering, and we have been woven together in worship and through the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, fed and nourished with the Body of Christ to be the presence of Christ in this world.  And we have good work that God has called us to do.

The Star reminds us of the guiding light that leads us on the journey.  That light is sourced in God and leads us to God.  We need the star to brighten our path, to help us follow the course that leads us to worship the savior who is in our midst and who invites us to share in being the Love of Christ in the world.  And the Dove: that dove lands on us as the Body of Christ and reminds us that we are the Beloved, united with God and each other through Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism.  The dove is our reminder of our own belovedness to God and each other, no matter where our journey may lead.

So, beloveds, this is the journey that we are making, step by step.  The star and the dove with us as reminders that God is in our midst, even as we come to see our own belovedness time and time again in the face of each other.

Image: The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), as captured by Hubble Space Telescope
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2022: Making Room


I typically step aside from the artificial pressure of proclaiming New Year’s resolutions. That said, my planning-focused mind inclines to reflection and its wise companion, foresight. Wisdom persistently beckons when it’s time for change. And this is such a time, so I resolve to listen with attention.

Retrospectively: during the past two years of my personal “work-demic” in the midst of a global pandemic, I have been fully engaged in nurturing my three strands of vocation, weaving them together in ways that a mostly virtual environment allowed me to do. Commuting between laptops and Zoom accounts has its advantages when it comes to making the most of time. Even as we began emerging and re-gathering in 2021, I was making it work as much as I could. If you know me in any one of those spheres, you probably know something about the other two. I’ve tried to be transparent about my commitments, and I have tried to make each aspect of my vocational work the center of my priority while I am there. So, I hope however you know me, you felt like you were getting the best of me (that’s what I’ve been going for, at any rate). My family and a few close friends have had to live with me simultaneously engaged in all three, and their heads spin. I understand. My head began to spin, too. Wisdom began persistently beckoning me to pay attention to how much longer I could keep doing this, at least a full year ago. I kept going. I kept thinking it would work its way out. Then, a few months ago I lost my ability to be still. I couldn’t be present and attentive to my full self at any one point in time without the rush of an ever-expanding to do list taking over any break or respite I chose to create.

So I closed 2021, the year that has been, by listening to wisdom and choosing to make room.

So, on this New Year’s Day, I begin not with a resolution but with a public acknowledgement of change. I’m taking this year as one to be present to my life; I will listen and discern and in order to do that, I will lighten the workload I’ve been carrying. I am stepping away, even from situations and people and places that I love, in favor of making room to be present to the persistent beckoning of wisdom. As my Orthodox siblings in Christ say in their divine liturgy:

Wisdom, attend!

Here’s a few of the things that will be taking shape over the next few months, attending to wisdom:

I will be lavishing love on the parish that I currently serve, St. Mark’s Richmond, throughout January. Then, I will conclude my time serving with them on February 6.

In mid-February, I will be heading west to Berkeley, CA for an amazing (and unexpected) opportunity to serve as the St. Margaret’s Visiting Professor for Women in Ministry at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. I’ll be there for several weeks during the spring term, then return to campus for June Intensive to teach a course I’ve designed just for the occasion: Social Work and Spiritual Care. As I live into this short-term and beautiful new call, I will be exploring how my own vocational identities as social worker, priest and professor blend together. I expect it will be transformative, and I will allow it to transform me.

This means that I’ll also be taking some leave at VCU (a sort of “mini-sabbatical”) during my time on the West Coast. I’m visiting…not moving…so when I’m back at home in Virginia, I’ll be living into the “professor” part of my call finishing out a modified academic year at VCU and living into the “priest” portion of my call as the formation director for the St. Phoebe School for Deacons in ways that the pandemic hasn’t allowed me to do. I will enjoy time on Sundays as the “traveling priest of St. Phoebe” visiting parishes throughout the dioceses we serve to talk about St. Phoebe School, to speak with people inquiring and discerning about the diaconate and to seek out partnership and internship opportunities in parish and community settings to strengthen the work we are called to do in the church and in the world.

So yes, 2022 will be a different kind of year for me. I’m making room, and sometimes that even means stepping back from what I love for a while. I love parish ministry and have been transformed by it; but I will not be working in a parish this year. I love my work as a professor but the spheres in which I am engaging that work will be different. I am deeply called to the work of vocational development and in order to engage that work authentically with others, I need to spend this year focusing on my own vocational discernment and formation and the unique blending that it will take on in the next iterations of my journey. It is an essential and ongoing process. Wisdom beckons, and she is persistent.

So much has yet to emerge. Those of you who have specific questions about what the future might look like: you’re not alone. I wonder, too, trust me. But first things first, I am making room and being present. Listening deeply. Attending to wisdom.

And so this is my wish for you all in 2022: wisdom, attend! It’s high time to shake up business as usual, and to listen to the persistent beckoning of wisdom so we don’t keep doing things just like we always have been. I hope to hear what that looks like for you. I look forward to paying attention, being still and writing about all the small points of light I encounter along the journey. I’ve missed this place of free and open reflection, and I am looking forward to letting my muse speak again.

Grace and Peace for this New Year 2022.

Sarah+

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Students of Hope

Homily for Christmas Eve, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
December 24, 2021

O Come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.

For as long as I can remember, Christmas Eve has felt like the unfolding of a magnificent mystery. My earliest memories involve tinsel garland wreaths bobby-pinned to my hair and singing “Angels we have heard on high” with the other wide-eyed cherubs, all the while thinking about what might be waiting under the Christmas tree. As an adult, I spent almost every year singing the mystery into being from my place in the alto section…or last year, as we all did, over Zoom. I’ve learned to hold the mystery of this night wrapped in song and immersed in worship. But here we are on this particular night, and I am standing in this particular place, and I am filled with an overwhelming awe at the very idea of breaking open the word on the very night that we celebrate the mystery of the Word coming to be present with us. And here we are: God with us.

It’s easy enough to feel like we know the Christmas story…it’s a good and beautiful one, the stuff of pageants and poetry. But what if we choose to move beyond the imagery and step into the mystery? What happens to us when we enter this story standing in this world filled with doubt and fear and allow ourselves to have a radical encounter with lavish love and outrageous hope? That’s the invitation before us as we set out on this journey together tonight.

First I need to introduce you to a friend of mine, who is also a traveler on this road of hope. Patience is a photographer and a doula and a self-proclaimed kindness revolutionary. She and I met for the first time at a food pantry, and then we kept running into each other while our kids were both applying to high schools. We ended up sitting next to each other one afternoon in a high school gymnasium. I had been dreaming about this wild idea for what eventually became the Faith from the Margins to the Web project and serendipitously, I shared my musings on this bible study that centered the voices of people who are often marginalized, and wondered if she might be willing to bring her photographic gifts and experience to the project. It was, in that moment, like we both had an encounter with hope incarnate: an idea taking on a spark of life. I still see that spark every time I look at the photographs and wisdom shared by participants in that project. Engaging that project changed me: I started to see people’s souls in a more radiant way than I ever had before. I began to truly see Christ incarnate in each and every face.

Recently, Patience shared with me about a new project called the Lens of Hope, in which she and another photographer friend are choosing to literally focus on hope as it emerges in every corner of this world, even where we least expect to find it. While bringing this project into being, they worked together to write something they call their “hope manifesto” where they give words and language to their inspiration. That manifesto ends with this statement:

We believe we are students of hope, curious and open to each experience teaching us more about humanity and ourselves.

That ending statement is where I invite us to begin our journey on this most holy night.

Whenever the Christmas Gospel is proclaimed, hope permeates the narrative. Perhaps your hope is found standing in the fields with the shepherds, first trembling with fear then filled with amazement at the hopeful and glorious refrain of angelic messengers, proclaiming the good news of the messiah who had been born in the form of a tiny child.

Perhaps your hope makes its way across mountains and deserts with the magi who follow the brilliance of a star marking the way slowly and steadily towards Bethlehem.

Perhaps your hope resides in the wonder and amazement of a child born under the most unthinkable and undesirable of ways: no lodging, no supports, no place to push through the pains of labor except the straw of a barn with a feeding trough as a crib and bands of whatever cloth could be found to wrap around a tiny, wriggling body for protection and warmth

Perhaps your hope is more of the theological or philosophical sort: that this whole scenario of the nativity of Jesus, playing out at one particular time in the midst of a chaotic world actually served a divine purpose, in spite of how ridiculous everything seemed on the surface.

In all of these ways, there is hope in the story that God was present: immanent and transcendent, breaking into the time and space of this world to become intimately present with humankind. Which means, in all of these things, perhaps there is the hope that God is present, immanent and transcendent, breaking into the time and space of this world to be with us. Even now. Even in the midst of all our fear and doubt. All because of love.

Hope feels crazy and illogical, friends, because it is. Hope is the opposite of certainty, of control, of pragmatic proof; hope stands in opposition to the despair that comes when we see things the way they are and think they might never change. Hope invites us into astonishment, amazement, possibility, and the unknown. Hope requires trust: indeed, hope and trust are inextricably linked. As we dare to place our hope in God with us, we are placing our trust in a vision of what is possible beyond anything that we can currently see. That might be the best understanding I have of what it means to truly follow God.

And so, we are called to be students of hope. Let me remind you of that hope manifesto again:

We believe we are students of hope, curious and open to each experience teaching us more about humanity and ourselves.

On this holy night, the whole tableau of the nativity reminds us that God’s hope for humanity looks nothing like the way we would script it for ourselves. God comes to us in the most vulnerable and unexpected ways, tearing down our assumptions and breaking through our expectations of how we think things should be. This scene…this nativity…is beautiful for us because we never would have done this on our own. We probably would have scripted the scene with all the best amenities for the tiny babe, born of God. We would have done it out of love, of course, but our love still gets caught up in the way our society and culture teach us to love: with possessions and power. God has a wilder vision of love, and a wider view of hope.

God crafts a scene that has nothing of the world’s treasure and is lavish only in love. This scene is beautiful because all we can see is the overwhelming love of God for humanity. God’s action on this night of holy mystery is to invest trust and hope in humanity in our most vulnerable and stripped down state. The invitation is simply that we do the same: trust and hope through each moment of our lives immersed in the knowledge that the love of God surrounds us. God, after all, has come to us. We are the students of hope: filled with curiosity, openness and learning for the one who created us.

If I had a camera right now, I would set my lens of hope not on the glorious angels or the adoring shepherds or the landscape of Bethlehem under a bright and shining star. I would take a cue from my friend Patience the photographer, doula and kindness revolutionary and focus in on Mary who has this night labored, and waited, and pushed and panted and finally brought into this world God’s gift of Hope Incarnate. Mary is the quiet one in this scene, steadfast amid all the glorious chaos, a mother enfolded in love and caught in the absolutely overwhelming beauty and mystery of new life: and Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

This picture of Mary is an image of us as students of hope. Having a face to face encounter with divine love. Pausing to take it all in; to hear and see and know from being face to face with each other what it really, truly means to be human. To experience it all: joy and grief; love and loss; delight and despair and through it all to know that this experience we are having is one in which God is with us. All of it. We’ve barely scratched the surface of all that God has for us to learn about love, about life, about each other. That’s why we are students, each and every day of this life that God gives us. The more we truly see, and know and live into love for each other, the more we see and know and love God. We are here to be with each other, to learn from each other. To see God in each other. Students of Hope.

Eventually on this holy night, the shepherds return to the fields, and angelic choirs softly fade. Animals return to their chewing and eventually they sleep. Mary treasures, ponders, loves.

And Hope remains. Hope in God’s willingness to come to us in total vulnerability; to experience all of humanity; to live and die as one of us. Hope not for a world that has it all figured out, but for a world where the least among us are the greatest, and those who seem to have nothing have everything. Hope that we will walk together and see and experience God in each other. Hope that we will have a face to face encounter where we recognize that God-with-Us means Us-with-God. Always. Forever. Without Exception. Hope transforms. Hope sustains. Hope remains.

Then, and now, on this most holy night and in these very present and teachable moments:

Hope remains.

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What then should we do?

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)

Lectionary Texts:

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Do you have a friend in your life who is close enough to you that they can tell you the truth that you need to hear, even if it’s not the truth you want to hear? You all know what I mean: that person who is willing to pull us aside when we have toilet paper hanging off our shoe, or spinach from our lunch-time salad caught in our teeth. Perhaps we are even fortunate enough to have people who go beyond the superficial: who are willing to take the risk and let us know when our words or actions may have been hurtful, or when the impact of what we did doesn’t match our intentions. These kind of friends are the minor prophets of our lives: their truth-telling happens out of love and their honesty realigns us from being lost in our messy mistakes to becoming our best selves.

This morning, we are offered a glimpse into that unabashed and prophetic truth telling. In a move that no homiletics instructor has ever recommended nor endorsed repeating, John the Baptist prophetically begins his sermon to the faithful gathered around him by calling them out: “You brood of vipers!”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have thought the crowd would have dispersed following that vivid in-your-face truth-telling. The amazing part of today’s Gospel lesson in my view isn’t the John’s poignant exhortation: he was, after all, a prophet. What I am drawn to is that the crowd didn’t flee. They stayed.

Consider for a moment that there isn’t anything in the Gospel lesson that suggests anyone became angry, or tried to run John off of a cliff. There isn’t even a suggestion of shock or confusion. The followers weren’t looking around at each other wondering, “Vipers?? What vipers?” No one voiced the merits of holding onto the barren branches of apathy and the bitter fruits of injustice, either. I invite you to consider that they already knew what John had to say. And this prophet sent to prepare the way loved them enough to tell hard truths. What John spoke, this crowd knew.

We know, too. We know what the barren tree looks like when our best efforts yield little to no response. We know a snake pit when we see it. We know who loves us, and speaks hard truths for own growth and we know when we have paid attention that that wisdom, and when we have not. We usually only have regrets about the exhortations offered in love which we chose to ignore until it was too late. Standing with the crowd, we can hear them receive John’s tough honesty because it was rooted in a deep love. So, they didn’t recoil but instead asked a question that pointed the way to a better path. They model faithful integrity for us when they ask: “What, then, should we do?”

Because this was an exhortation rooted in love, John responds lovingly and concretely. His call, after all, was to prepare them. And so, he gave the crowd crystal clear advice on paving the way for the One who was and is to come. John’s prophetic exhortation to make way for the divine involved stepping away from the selfishness, greed, and pride…the arrogance that comes by thinking that anything we seem to have or anything we have the power to do is of our own merit and creation. He invited his followers to follow a pathway which would bear fruits worthy of repentance: when you find you have what you need in this world, give the rest away. If you have been given authority over others, don’t use that to your advantage. Just because you live or work in the snake-pit, don’t give in to the threats and lies in an effort to save yourself. Give what power and possession you are clinging to away so that your heart will be open, and in doing these things, you will make room for God.

It’s an act of faith to sit in hard truths like these which continue to resonate over time. But that is exactly what we are asked to do today on this Third Sunday of Advent, too.

God shakes us up, and God loves us. As the Epistle reminds us: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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

Our contemporary saints, our Great Cloud of Witnesses, also offer us prophetic wisdom for our Advent preparations to welcome Christ incarnate. Dorothy offered words from Howard Thurman last week, and I want to offer words from Óscar Romero today. Oscar Romero was Archbishop of San Salvadore in the Roman Catholic Church and an outspoken advocate for the poor and marginalized. He was murdered in 1980, a prophet speaking in his own wilderness, while celebrating mass the chapel of the hospital of the divine providence. Shortly before his death, he offered these Advent exhortations that invite us to deeper reflection:

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

Let me say that last line one more time: Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

God speaks to each of us when we stop giving into the vipers of greed and hatred and instead open our hearts to God. God answers as we earnestly ask the question “what then shall I do?” God loves us so much that sometimes we will be told exactly what we need to do, even when it isn’t what we want to hear. The prophets who tell us what to do may be in the wilderness, or the streets of our city, or in the neighborhoods or around the world. If you ask, God will answer, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. We don’t always hear what we want to hear. But God-with-us is always telling us, in love, exactly what we need to do.

This Advent, don’t worry about anything, but ask God for everything. Allow yourself to be loved so fully that you can be vulnerable, opening to see your own poverty of spirit where God desires to dwell. Go forth to be uncomfortable, to be convicted by the needs of this world, to evaluate your life not for how good it makes you feel to do kind things, but for what it speaks to the world about God-with-us when our acts of true, selfless charity are wrapped in deep, present and persistent love just as God loves us. Then, just as John invited people to the waters of Baptism, we can allow the love of God incarnate to fill us anew with the joyful and life-giving potential to liberate love in all the corners of this world, including this very place we find ourselves, right here and right now.

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