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]

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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.

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Magnificat

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

small points of light

August 15: Feast of St. Mary

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

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

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Constellation of Faith

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

Lectionary Readings (Track 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teachable Moments

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

Lectionary Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Jesus Teacher

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Neighborly Vocation

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

Lectionary Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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The Face of Christ

A Homily for Proper 9, Year C

Lectionary Texts (Track 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Hey, Boo…

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

Lectionary Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice when this fear happens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Wells, priest and ethicist, describes it powerfully:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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In the picture

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

Lectionary Readings:

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

 

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My Red Balloon

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit.

Amen.

doves

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