Mothers and Mercy

Homily for Proper 18, Year B

Lectionary Reference: Mark 7:24-37


First, a story…

It was in the middle of the day when word reached her. She had been in her usual state of overdrive: taking care of her home, taking care of her daughter, biting her tongue from the sharp comments of the neighbors who stared at her and whispered things about how her child couldn’t act right, holding in her body all the trauma from being told her child was evil and what kind of a mother she must be.. She had just used up every last bit of her wits, energy and motherly wisdom to coax her exhausted and overwhelmed daughter into taking a nap. In what she knew would be a short-lived respite from caring for the child she loved, exhausting as that may be, she took a quick moment to step outside to get some air. The breeze against her face made her pay attention to the tears streaming down her face. She didn’t even know how long she’d been crying. A neighbor walked by, shaking her head a little but turned away as soon as their eyes met. So it was, caring for a child that exhausted and exasperated everyone. She wiped her tears and turned to look at her daughter dozing in a fleeting moment of peace, “I love you. Know that you are loved.” she whispered.

Her friend came around the corner in a hurry, motioning to her. “He’s here.” she said. “I just heard that he’s here.”

Although her mind was racing at first to figure out what she meant, a wave of recognition suddenly washed over her. “Will you stay here with her while I go?” she asked her friend. As friends do, she smiled and nodded. She wrapped her friend in a hug of gratitude.

As she picked up her pace, her heart was racing and her mind was flooding with possibilities. The closer she got to the place where she heard he was staying, the more she thought about her daughter. All the things she’d been called. All the judgement. People didn’t even see the child anymore, just the outward manifestation of whatever had taken over her body, mind and spirit. Others had stopped seeing her daughter as a beloved child and others had stopped seeing her in any kind of loving way, too. She hadn’t been sleeping much. She hadn’t been eating well. She didn’t have a lot of people around her who cared other than a few friends that stuck by her, like the one who had come by today. But she had love for her daughter and hope in her heart that there was truth to the stories that she heard about the man who had been preaching and teaching and healing along the Galilean shore. Why he had come here, into the country of the Canaanite gentiles, was a mystery. She didn’t have time to worry about that, though. She’d tried everything and everyone else. She’d already been mocked and scolded and once, even spit at when she tried to protect her daughter from the hate and fear of others. Why stop now?

She found her feet moving forward, fueled by that seed of faith still in her heart. As she went through the doors of the place where he was staying, she saw him in the shadows. She didn’t ask permission; she just immediately went and knelt down at his feet. She was a gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. He was a Jewish teacher, a prophet, a miracle worker. She begged him from the place of her own exasperation to cast the demon out of her daughter. When he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” she almost laughed. As if she hadn’t heard that before. If she had a shekel for every time she’d been called a dog, she’d be rich. But her mind and her heart were fixed on love for her daughter and hope in something greater than her fear. Endless days of tough love now met with the faith that propelled her to bring herself to this place at this time. Words welled up in her and she answered him with a courageous retort that would either make her or break her, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” she said. Her voice didn’t even crack.

She was aware, in that moment, that all eyes were on her, in that place where she had made her own entrance out of the desperation that is love. Eyes were always on her, though. Today was no different in that regard. What was different were the eyes of this prophet and healer she had sought out, now looking at her with a clarity that told her she was seen, and she was loved. Even her daughter…not even there with her…was seen, and loved. In that moment, in that split second where the words he spoke met with the realities of her life everything she expected to hear and experience next shifted. Sometimes it’s like that when Divine Presence cuts through all the messiness of our human lives. In that moment, he looked at her and everything in her world seemed to shift, that small seed of faith taking root and bursting to life:

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

She knew it was true. She hurried home and met her friend who was already outside waiting for her, weeping tears of joy as her daughter jumped out of her bed with joy, running with happy excitement to throw her arms around her and say, “Mama, you’re home!” The demons of her former life had fled in the face of faith and love.


I read and re-read this Gospel lesson often. I know, I embellished the story a little bit there for you because this is how it plays out in my mind. Our Jewish siblings might call this a midrash of sorts, my maternal exegesis. In seminary we used to joke: that’s why we say the Creed after the homily, so that we can all restabilize from any heresies spoken by the preacher. But, all kidding aside, I do think about this Gospel lesson a lot and every time, I enter into it from the perspective of this “woman of Syrophoenician origin” who appears out of nowhere and engages in one of the most provocative conversations with Jesus reflected in the Holy Scriptures. Layers of meaning are always emerging, especially from stories like this. Just like the many images I just showed…there isn’t just one way to see it.

To me, this story is as beautiful and scandalous as the Maundy Thursday story of another unnamed woman who breaks open her alabaster jar of perfume and pours it over Jesus’ head. It’s shocking, unexpected, lavish…and filled to overflowing with love and divine wisdom. This was not a time or culture filled with empowered women whose witty retorts were recorded. More likely, their outspoken and courageous acts could land them being silenced or facing punishment much worse. And yet, the stories of these unnamed women are given to us in our Gospel lessons as a prophetic vision for understanding who Jesus is: not only in his divinity, but also in his humanness. Both are at work in this story.

In this scandalous act of faith and mercy-seeking, a mother carrying the weight of her child’s condition breaks in, falls to her knees and sees Jesus as the One who Heals. Jesus, who is both fully human and fully divine, may have been caught up more in his surroundings than in that moment…the outer things that his culture and society have taught might defile. He was in gentile territory, he wasn’t trying to stir things up, he had people around him, watching and trying to figure out what the plan was. Perhaps like us, he was filled with love but tired. This woman breaks in and shatters those attempts to lay low and remain unnoticed. This story conveys to us an image of human Jesus, caught up just like we are in the context of our lives. This woman shatters the scene by breaking open the alabaster jar of her vulnerability sourced in love, speaking more boldly than was safe or prudent to plead on behalf of her daughter. Her courage and wisdom in responding to Jesus is what shatters the ordinary and reveals God’s presence.

The divine pivot in this story happens after the shattering. This encounter breaks open the assumptions of people, cultures, families and religions to reveal the heart of love and healing where God acts, often through unnamed and socially marginalized people: the inbreaking of God’s reign into our human existence. In that space is healing: to the heart and soul of this woman where the love of her daughter dwells, as well as to her daughter. I don’t mind saying that I believe everyone in that space was changed from that encounter, even Jesus.

I think this story is a “calling-in” for all of us, actually. Most of us are familiar with the term “calling out” but I’d like to introduce the idea of “calling-in” which we use as a teaching model in social work for anti-oppressive practice. “Calling in” means that we recognize that we all are learners and we agree to hold mutual accountability and embrace humility when someone points out to us that we have made them, or another group, feel less-then, or othered. Calling in doesn’t assume perfection or assume we have done something malicious or even intentional. It assumes that part of being a human being is that even when we try our best, we live in a context where injustice and hurt have impacted people in ways we may not ourselves understand. Calling in welcomes the opportunity to hear how our words are received by another person. It steps away from blame and shame, and invites the opportunity to receive new information, learn from it, and grow. It breaks down the power structures of the world around us because it centers love and community. And let me tell you, this approach isn’t just for social work students in higher ed: imagine how much stronger Church would be if we learned how to meaningfully “call in” and learn from each other, for the mutual love and growth of all.

This story is a gift of Good News and a calling-in of our tendency to think that we need to be perfect in order to be like Jesus. That isn’t what we are asked to do. We need to be humble to be like Jesus. God works through the broken and the outcast, not only through the pious and holy. The pivot in this story happens when God works through this unnamed gentile woman and Jesus responds with love and grace. It models humility as the gateway to divine mercy and grace. Whether we enter this story as the Syrophoenician woman, as Jesus who reacts culturally but responds divinely, as the disciples and bystanders who witness this as a teachable moment, or as the young girl who wakes up with clarity and peace because of her mother’s courageous love in reaching out for divine Love and Grace: we all are changed through the encounter. I hope we, too, are broken open by this story so that we can be filled with the healing of God’s love and grace.

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I am the bread…

Homily for Proper 14, Year B

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Lectionary Texts:

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Jesus, the true bread that comes down from heaven: leaven us with your Holy Spirit, that the world may know the abundance of life in your new creation. Amen.
(
from Enriching our Worship I)

Last week, Buck’s homily offered us an appetizer in this “season of bread” in which we find ourselves immersed in our lectionary readings. I have to admit, I wonder at times if those who compiled the Revised Common Lectionary were trying to finish up Ordinary Time in Year B right before lunch! All joking aside, I agree that there was great intention in Jesus’ choice of analogy in these texts. Our human minds can’t fully comprehend the fullness of humanity meeting the fullness of divinity. But we can understand the more observable mysteries of substance-changing-substance that we see playing out in our ordinary lives, including the food science that happens when we bake bread.

During our recent road trip to upstate New York, my daughter and I were talking about bread, which is one of the things we not only enjoy eating but also baking together. That conversation and some of her astute observations got me thinking more about Jesus’ repeating statement this week, “I am the Bread of Life” in the context of my own embrace of bread-making. This week, I hope to lead us on a culinary and theological foray embracing both the bread that feeds our bodies, and Jesus the Bread of Life who nourishes our souls.

Bread begins with a base of grain: maybe it’s wonder bread white flour, or whole grain wheat, or a less glutenous alternative like amaranth, millet or corn. Every bread, at its base, is made from grain that is sown and grown in the earth, harvested and then pulverized into a fine flour. Think about that: the very substance of bread is dependent on the abundance of the earth and the toil of human labor. The very substance of Jesus, the Bread of Life is divine creation made incarnate in human nature. Or, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “God is the ground and the substance, the very essence of nature; God is the true father and mother of natures. We are all bound to God by nature, and we are all bound to God by grace.”

What binds our bread? Very often, it is that other essential and life-sustaining natural substance: water. Water is the source of life, the fountain of salvation. We are baptized in the living waters of our faith, and sustained by our thirst and love for God. Jesus refers to himself as the living water in other Gospel passages, just as here he takes on the bread of life reference here. Water is essential, moving and swirling over the surfaces of the earth even in our stories of creation.

One of the things that I’ve been pondering is that bread also requires something sweet and something salty. In order for yeast to rise there needs to be a pinch of sugar, a bit of honey, or the sweetness contained within a particular grain or liquid added to the mixture which activates the leavening. Salt is the ingredient that regulates the intensity of the rise: slow and steady, or fast and bubbly. Saltiness and sweetness change the nature and character of the bread that results: we need some of both. There’s a place for the salty and the sweet in the realm of God. It reminds me of the exhortation in Ephesians, too, after reminding us to keep our propensity for human saltiness towards each other in check: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Finally, bread needs to have the agent that catalyzes the leavening process. Whether we use cultured yeast or a natural fermentation process like sourdough which draws the wild yeast from the air around us: we are building on the chemistry of substance and air, harnessing the ways in which microscopic bacteria work to create the delicious rise and crustiness that we have come to know and love in our bread. We add to that with the activity of kneading the dough to physically initiate the process of all those ingredients coming together. Yeast converts the sugars present in dough into carbon dioxide and the salt level regulates its activity. When we finally bake our bread dough, the yeast dies and the air pockets it leaves behind “set” into the bread giving the final product a soft and spongy texture created from…and yet distinctly different than…any of its original ingredients.

Even in our baking of bread there is evidence of creation and resurrection! It’s truly a fitting image for us, the Body of Christ, to inwardly digest.

John’s Gospel also gives us a glimpse into Jesus, the Bread of Life, speaking this metaphor to those in Jesus’ own cultural, Jewish context. Those who took his words literally were shocked and horrified; we’ll hear more about that group over the next two weeks. But today’s Gospel gives us insight and helps us understand their confusion as they attempted to process this image. Jesus had fed his followers on the mountain side in miraculous ways, and they were seeking to be filled again. They had just experienced the “bread of heaven” as miraculous loaves which had fed 5,000 hungry people from a young person’s lunch. Now, they wanted more.

Jesus moved that gathered crowd from meal to metaphor, describing himself as the bread of heaven, more life-giving than bread that fills our stomachs and, in fact, even more life giving than manna in the wilderness. To the ears of those devoted Jewish followers, manna was the bread that came down from heaven, one of the primary historic actions of a loving God toward beloved people to sustain them in the wilderness, recounted at every Sabbath observance along with the bread that is shared. Their listening ears heard, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” in a different way than our 21st Century Christian ears. Jesus wasn’t just pulling out a general image of daily life or waxing poetic. Jesus was using a metaphor specific to the people hearing him, situated in their shared cultural and religious context, in order to open their eyes and ears and hearts to a new understanding about God’s providence, and Jesus’ own divinity. This statement would have been jarring to their ears and their imaginations, opening up an entirely new understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry.

We all need these moments of being shaken from our expectations to open us to new possibilities, but we don’t always receive that new information well. Continuing the bread baking metaphor, I might even suggest that we get a little salty! So, no surprise that Jesus’ hearers do what we all do when we are overwhelmed by new and challenging information: we fall back to practicalities: wait, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s son? How could he possibly be the bread that comes down from heaven?

When we read this lesson, though, we should never blame this group of people for doing exactly what we do all the time. All of us, even those who consider ourselves devoted followers of Jesus in this age and context, have a long history of dismissing that which is mystery in favor of something we can more easily wrap our heads around. But that fall-back position may keep us from being broken open to receive a new and vital message.

When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” he extends the metaphor across time and place, aligning not just with his own cultural context and surroundings but with all of us, broadly and uniquely: “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.”

I’ve sometimes heard those words misused in an attempt to limit eternal life to particular groups with certain fixed beliefs. But Jesus isn’t limiting the extent of love and grace; Jesus is being expansive. Like the sweetness added to the yeast, these words activate the life-giving nature of Jesus’ message to expand beyond that fixed point of time and space, reaching out across time and context to nourish hearers in every age.

Time and again this week, I come back to the thought of how wonderful it is that bread looks and tastes differently from culture to culture and region to region. Someone hearing this lesson about the Bread of Life might imagine a San Francisco sourdough, or a dense eastern European pumpernickel, a crunchy French baguette, a spongy Ethiopian injara or a pillowy naan from India. Jesus is the Bread of Life whenever and wherever this Gospel is proclaimed. It is a profound reminder to us that the bread of life does not have to look and taste the same in order to nourish and sustain us. Jesus is the bread of life. The gifts of grace and salvation present in Jesus Christ extend to all.

Like those gathered around him, Jesus invites us to be fed with the Bread of Life so that we can celebrate the ways in which we become that which feeds the world. Our Epistle lesson reminds us we are called to become imitators of God. Paraphrasing St. Augustine, “Behold what you are; become what you receive” as is sometimes said as an invitation to communion during the Holy Eucharist. Every ingredient is essential; every person is a member of the Body of Christ.

Nourished by the Bread of Life, our Christ-filled-ness transforms us to break bread with the world. Christ becomes known in the bread we share with friends, and with strangers. Christ the Bread of Life becomes known when we feed those who hunger in body; when we extend the Good News of the Gospel as the spiritual food to those who yearn for love; when we allow ourselves to feed and be fed as one community, one body where differences are welcomed and celebrated. We are one bread, and one body in Christ who gives us life.


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Interdependence Day

Homily for Proper 9, Year B, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA) 

Scripture reference: Mark 6:1-13

Anyone who has ever parented or worked with small children is familiar with the stage of development when the urge towards independence kicks in.  The baby we dressed and groomed becomes the toddler who stubbornly insists, “I do it!” whether or not that’s a particularly good idea.  The child once lovingly accepting our assistance becomes the teen who is infringed upon by our interference.  Growing up and developing into independent human beings is natural.  And, even if the adults among us get a little put out when we feel shut out of helping, we recognize it’s human development, and we accept it.  It’s part of maturity.

The urge to independence isn’t just a developmental response, though.  Independence is also applauded and encouraged in this particular culture in which we live.  In the United States, on this Independence Day, let’s admit that we have a cultural obsession with being independent.  Breaking away and asserting independence is a strong part of our national identity.  This plays out in our national heroes as well.  How many times do we applaud the star athlete, the stand-out actor, the self-made millionnaire…or billionaire.  We love the story of a stand-out.

Sometimes, when public accolades and awards are given, we get to hear human beings who have matured beyond the ego of all that individual recognition and are humble enough to recognize the people who supported their journey.  Even so, it is virtually impossible to name everyone who got us where we are going.  So many contributions are simply invisible. 

Focusing on independence and individual merit risks leaving out some vital parts of the story. I realize this might be a risky theme for Independence Day, but hear me out.  Even the founding of this great country is celebrated by lauding independence rather than the labors of many: ordinary people, enscripted soldiers, indentured servants, enslaved people, captives and fugitives who along with the military, political and social leaders made it possible to succeed in the Revolutionary War and the founding of a new country now 245 years strong after that day when the Declaration of Independence was signed. As someone who has benefited from all the privileges of citizenship in the United States: I’m grateful today for all of the contributors, not just to the heros that we publicly praise.  As a follower of Christ living into my baptismal covenant, I feel compelled to go beyond patriotic praise and instead, with God’s help, to name and recognize the dignity of every human being in the story, even the stories glossed over and omitted from our public education.  I’m doing that this summer with what is now my fourth Sacred Ground circle, this one composed of those preparing to be Deacons.  

Engaging the Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground curriculum means that we consider that living in the “land of the free and home of the brave” also invites us to see, and recognize and respect the indigenous peoples who were already here when pilgrims, colonists and colonizers arrived.  It means that we tell hard truths about history, re-examining the pathways through which Black, Asian, Latine and other immigrant groups arrived on these shores and what their experiences have been.  Their stories are important, too. The stories most of us learned about the History of the United States are incomplete without all the people and groups included. Admittedly, the stories we are engaging about the origins of this nation are much less glorious than the displays of fireworks and parades with which we mark this yearly anniversary.  People who have been made invisible by history are part of the story.  I want to speak with honor and respect about all those whose lives contributed to the liberty we enjoy today.  Honoring the interdependence of leaders on the people whose toil was necessary to their success is a show of respect.  It’s like noticing the janitors, housekeepers, line cooks and nursing assistants in the medical center and not just the prominent heart specialist.  We need each other, and we depend upon the labor of others, in order to survive and to thrive.

And that brings us to today’s Gospel lesson.  In his early ministry, Jesus had brought together a group of people to support his mission.  These disciples followed him to his hometown.  Now, if this story was all just about Jesus the individual, this scene would read as miserable.  Jesus was a known entity in this place of his birth: the carpenter, the son of Mary, the one whose siblings were still there and perhaps even telling some less-than-flattering stories of their youth, as siblings are known to do. In the midst of the hometown crowd, Jesus stood in the Temple and preached with wisdom and authority, as he had elsewhere.  But there at home…that wasn’t working out so well.  Mark’s Gospel recounts that Jesus could do no work of power (δύναμιν, like we use “dynamic”) there. The power, might, strength: they didn’t belong just to Jesus. Even Jesus was not a solo act.  Just like in our Gospel lessons last week, Jesus isn’t a magician: it is the faith of people, the relational faith of people seeking out Jesus, that brings wholeness. 

And so it is that Jesus doesn’t storm off in a rage and insist on exerting his divine power to show them all what for. Jesus heals those who come seeking healing, and Jesus calls together his community…his disciples…and instructs them to go into the villages, to make this bigger than just about him. He empowers them and instructs them to go in pairs. This isn’t just a “safety buddy” recommendation from Jesus. It is a reminder that all true ministry is a ministry of relationship and community.  It is never about one person, no matter how dynamic that person is.  Jesus’ message is also his mode of action: Go together, share in the authority, take nothing with you, enter one house and stay there.  In the margins of that exhortation is the deeper implication: make relationship.  Be the face of Christ for the household you enter and make that love known in and through each other.  

I mean, imagine if it were you.  If you were entering an unfamiliar place with someone, you would certainly want to look out and care for each other.  If you’re fighting or bantering over who is greater, no one is going to want to be in relationship with that.  But if you’re demonstrating the power of relational love, others will take notice.  Jesus also reminds them of what to do if they aren’t welcomed: shake it off.  As he had just experienced: the power of divine love and grace doesn’t manifest itself through coercion or independent charisma.  It happens through relationship, with respect for every human being as our siblings, our family members in the realm of God who is Love.  That includes those who aren’t ready, able, willing or desiring to hear the message…or hear the message yet.  Don’t get angry; don’t be coercive.  Shake it off.  If we trust God, we don’t have to be the saviors of every situation.  We have shown up as the face the God in that moment.  That is enough.

What lessons does today’s passage leave for us, the Church?  The independent nature of the culture in which we live can result in some problematic understandings of our Christian lives, especially when we begin to envision our role as independent saviors of others.  I’ve heard a phrase coined, “Disney Princess Theology” describing what happens when we only see ourselves as the central characters and heroes of every story: we are always Moses or Mary or Jesus and everyone else are the unbelievers, the corrupt, the sinful.  We can run the risk of elevating ourselves or believing that we must singlehandedly save the world or right the injustice in it to the point where we don’t feel that we have need for each other, or even for Jesus.  Then, there is a comforting but limiting, “Me and Jesus” theology, where we spend so much time focusing on how much Jesus loves me, me, me that we are blinded to seeing that Jesus loves us…us…us.  The love of Christ doesn’t stop where my person ends.  As Christians, and as the Church, we are compelled to see beyond ourselves.  The Love which is Christ entends in circles far beyond our own imaginations and experiences.  That relational love of Christ is for all.  And all means all.  

So, I would invite us all, on this Independence Day, to shake off the strident independence that can keep us from seeing the many diverse, beautiful and sometimes easily overlooked people who have been the face of Christ for us over the years.  I would invite us into the spiritual maturity of intentionally thinking and caring about all of those who are part of community; all of those for whom Jesus has shown up as the face of someone who cared in the midst of an uncaring world; all of those for whom their choices were removed or limited and yet they still had a part in the story, and have a role to teach us in history.  I would invite us into thinking about and yes, even imagining, those whose stories we are just coming to know, and to recognize that there are stories we don’t even know about yet.  But God knows.  And God loves.  The hard truth telling…including the stories of those who have been silenced…is holy and sacred ground.  Take time to listen to the stories.  You can even start today by listening to historic abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ words spoken as a once enslaved person about the meaning of the Fourth of July

Being sent out to do this deep listening brings us closer to God by bringing us into right relationship with ourselves and each other, through seeing and acknowledging the people who were and are loved by God, even if history, power and time erases their memories from the history books.  The indiginous peoples of this continent are not forgotten.  The enslaved people who were conscripted into warfare are not forgotten.  Those who died and whose names are unknown were known, and loved.  The people who fought on the side we cheer for, and those on the side we did not: they were and are beloved children of God.  God’s action is relationship.  God’s realm is community.  It isn’t about our fierce individualism or our stubborn need for independence: not then, and not now.  It’s about our deep belonging and mutual caring for one another.  

That is worthy of celebration. 

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Called Forward

Homily for Proper 5, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

Lectionary Readings:

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)
Psalm 138
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

This week we step out of the changing, multi-colored liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter and we enter the long post-pentecost season of liturgical green that we call Ordinary Time. It’s interesting to enter this season of “ordinary time” now, when we are redefining the ordinary. We are simultaneously re-entering what was once the ordinary of our own lives: seeing loved ones, gathering in groups where we relearn how to socialize, how long it takes to commute, resuming activities that we once enjoyed and perhaps even appreciating things we earlier took for granted. It feels much different than it did before. There is an extra-ordinary excitement about resuming the ordinary, and simultaneously, there are moments of worry and hesitation as well. We are a generally cautious group here at St. Mark’s, having focused on loving the most vulnerable in our midst. We haven’t rushed back into pre-pandemic modes of worship and we are constantly thinking about and talking about what is best for everyone…not just the risk takers who are willing to dive right in, but everyone…even those for whom it is complicated or even impossible, geographically to resume formerly ordinary things. In fact, we are learning that moving into this ordinary time isn’t so much about going back is it is about moving forward together, to envision new ways of being, to integrate what we’ve learned from the past year with what we’ve loved and found to be familiar. The task going forward for us will be to learn what forms our ministry will take in the new ordinary time into which we are entering.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we encounter Jesus preparing to enter an ordinary yet extra-ordinary time of his earthly ministry. In the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with a tour around the Galilean seaside, performing miracles and accumulating followers. Just before today’s lesson, Jesus has gone up to the mountain and appointed his closest followers…his Apostles whom he named and sent to spread the Good News. After the naming of this group, Mark simply tells us that Jesus went home.

When I read this passage, I imagine that Jesus went home for all the human reasons of the heart: seeing people that he loved; desiring some stability and respite from what surely was a whirlwind time of his early ministry. It’s possible that Jesus was seeking to return to something ordinary…the beautiful, heartfelt ordinary.. But, there was nothing ordinary to be found in the place that he once called home. The crowds were pressing in, the stories had travelled and conspiracy theories were abounding: was Jesus a prophet of God, or someone overtaken by forces of evil? Jesus was battling not only with groups that did not understand his message, but with the recognition that the ordinary safe space of home was no longer what it once was.

If we’re honest with ourselves, this Gospel resonates with our own lives right now. As much as we may think we want to, we cannot go back. So we don’t lose heart, I’m here to tell you that is GOOD NEWS.

It was at this time last year that we were thrust into a summer of racial justice reckoning. Our sensibilities and our sense of urgency were heightened as we responded to utterly devastating and senseless acts of police violence and racial hatred. Our country and our church are still wrestling with this, and now is no time to think about going back to places of white-washed safety, power and privilege. On the contrary, we are called to the front lines of promoting love and advocating for justice as the actions of our daily lives in full participation with our baptismal covenant. We have professed to live into that call to work for justice, freedom and peace every single week during Eastertide, and we have answered affirmatively the call to seek and serve Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being. Friends, our hearts have been broken open in this past year just as Dorothy reminded us last week. We have come to see with new eyes and hear with new ears the proclamation that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and that includes the house of God, the Church. We have seen injustice in our world and within our historic walls. We have begun to tell the truth, to repent and repair, to move to secure justice and a spirit of reconciliation. We CANNOT go back to what we were, even if it once felt comfortable. Healing miracles have been taking place and we have been called as followers of Christ in this ministry of love and justice. We can’t go back…we have to keep going forward.

As we regather, too, we are tempted to ask “when will we be back?” But what do we really mean by that? What is the “back” where we think we want to go? Perhaps we are now realizing that as appealing it may seem, “back” was a time when not all of our beloved church family could be physically present on Sundays. “Back” was a time before we all navigated the loss, chaos and confusion of a global pandemic and its ripples of socioeconomic, health and mental health impacts.. We have learned new things, we have grown in new ways…and while we are and will continue to worship together in the virtual and physical space of St. Mark’s we are not ever going to be back exactly as we were. There is both grief and opportunity in this recognition but most of all, there is the accompanying and real presence of Christ in our midst.

Just as Jesus sought to go home and could not, Jesus is present with us in our yearning to experience equilibrium by seeking out things to be as they once were. Jesus loves us as our hearts are broken-open and as we realize that the work we are called to do, we cannot simply do by picking up things just like they used to be. Jesus, breaking free of constraints, gets called back to the loving normal by those who knew who he was. And Jesus…changed…also changes this picture and gives his hearers a new meaning of family, a new ordinary of experience in Christ: “whoever does the will of God is my mother, and my sister and my brother.”

This phrase that Jesus utters can be utterly stunning to us. Is he dismissing and disrespecting his family? That would be the old ordinary talking, clinging to special privileges for a select few with whom one is fully at home. A new ordinary is breaking forth on the horizon where we welcome what was, what is, and what is yet to come not with suspicion, but with a mutual recognition of God in each other so that we are truly family and siblings in Christ

Moving forward does sometimes mean that we need to let go of old, familiar ways of thinking and knowing and being. Moving forward with God in the guidance of the Holy Spirit means that we allow our hearts to be broken open so that those who have been strangers become family, and that those we kept outside the circle of community now become family. In this new world, we can all be siblings together in this beautiful, diverse, expansive realm of God.

Our foray into ordinary time in this season of our lives brings us to a crossroads. What will we do with the lessons this year has taught us? How have our hearts been opened, and our understanding of “church” and “family” expanded? How is God calling us to be the family of God in new and expansive ways? Where are we holding back? What are we afraid of? Where is the Holy Spirit burning in our hearts and helping us see new ways forward?

In the closing refrains of today’s Gospel, I could so easily go to the place of a family member feeling marginalized. But what if instead, we get ourselves inside the perspective of all the “others” who were outside that inner circle? What does it feel like to hear Jesus’ declaration of family through the ears of those who were, in that moment, seen and called and named by Jesus as family? What about the new followers who were just named Apostles and who were just beginning to wrap their minds around the journey on which they were embarking as followers of Jesus. Letting go of the familiar opens us up to hear a new call, a new way of being, an ever more widening and expansive circle of who we love and how we serve as we expand our awareness and understanding of our family in Christ. If we can stand in this Gospel story and hear Jesus extend the call of family to us, we are compelled to extend that to others in this world, far beyond the reaches of what currently feels safe and familiar.

This is why we can’t go back, friends. If we live and walk in the love of Christ, we have to go forward. We will not lose heart.

I’m going to close today with the words of a hymn which might be known to some of you, but is likely not as familiar as some old favorites. It’s a hymn from the Iona community that I turn to often in prayer. I’ll read the lyrics to you for now, and look forward to the time we can sing it together. That time is coming, friends, and now is the time to open our hearts to the new call that God is placing in our hearts, on our lives, and within our community. Welcome to ordinary, extra-ordinary time, friends. Why go back when we are called to go forward:

The Summons: John L. Bell & Graham Maule

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,
and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?

Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I’ll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.


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Upstaged by the Holy Spirit

Sixth Sunday after Easter, Year B

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Lectionary Texts:


The first lessons we read on these Sundays after Easter are the stories from the earliest days of the Church.  The Acts of the Apostles is the post-resurrection story of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the spreading of the Good News throughout the world.  When we hear the story of Pentecost conveyed in a few weeks, we’ll hear Peter’s voice speaking to the baffled believers and interpreting this revelation of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence as made known through wind, and flame and the simultaneous experience of the Good News in all the original languages of those present.  The Holy Spirit’s presence was made known on that Day of Pentecost in the symbols and languages people understood.  Peter’s words in that holy moment conveyed a truth he experienced in his soul, even if his mind hadn’t fully grasped the enormity of it.  In the 2nd Chapter of Acts, Peter quotes the prophet Joel and puts into context the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon all flesh, concluding with the words “…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).  Pentecost was a commencement, not a singular event.  It was the beginning of the unfolding of that which was beyond the imaginations of those gathered.  That prophetic vision continued to unfold, and is still unfolding today.

At the point where our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles opens up, a whole lot of interesting things are in motion.  The story unfolds at the beginning of Chapter 10, when we are introduced to the devout and loyal Cornelius…a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort…a Gentile…who prayed to God faithfully every day.  Conelius is visited by a heavenly messenger and asked to send for Simon, known as Peter.  Conelius follows this divine nudge, sending several soldiers under his command to go to the place where Peter is.  Meanwhile, Peter who has been lodging in Joppa with Simon the Tanner goes up on a rooftop, praying to God so earnestly that his hunger moves him into a trance like state.  He sees the heavens open and a sheet filled with animals…specifically, animals known to be unclean in Peter’s Jewish devotion and rule of life…being extended to him.  He refuses to partake three times, declaring his purity and devotion to God.  Eventually, Peter hears a heavenly voice saying, “What God has made clean, you may not call profane.”  At this same time, the messengers sent by Cornelius arrive and Peter is again challenged because while they have an amazing story of being sent by God’s command, they are still Gentiles.  Peter knows he cannot by temple law associate with Gentiles or he will be considered defiled and therefore, unable to enter the Temple.  He has still been puzzling over his dream but In that moment, it comes together for him.  He hears the story and invites the men to stay with them for the night, before they leave for the house of Cornelius.  

Now, let’s just take note of how joyful it is when moments of serendipity like this happen.  I imagine Peter thinking, “That’s it!  Now it makes sense…I’m supposed to see Cornelius!  Thanks so much for the dream, God.  These are good people you’ve sent.  I’ve got it from here…”

Maybe I’m mistaken about Peter’s inner dialogue, but I suspect it was something along those lines.  We often experience these moments of incredible divine serendipity as events unto themselves, destinations rather than doorways opening into the unknown.

After this welcoming experience, the messengers and Peter set out to visit Cornelius.  Cornelius opens his home to Peter, just as Peter welcomed the messengers.  Peter seizes the moment.  He begins to preach them the Good News, opening with the line: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” and then he slips into his own familiar narrative, a story of how Jesus lived with, died for, and appeared to a chosen group of believers who were then charged to preach this message.  It isn’t as though Peter was saying, “this message isn’t for you.”  In fact, his hope was to convince Cornelius’ followers that the message he brought was meant for them.  But if we listen closely, there is still possessiveness: Peter implicitly draws a line between “us” and “them” in conveying the Gospel message.  Jesus appeared to us, and now we will share that message with you.  It implies there is a group that has, and a group that doesn’t yet have.  The “haves” are sharing with the “have nots.”  Peter is still learning the depth of this message, still growing in his faith.  He means well.  He’s building a case in his mind as to why this “other” group where he has been sent, the Gentiles gathered with Cornelius, should hear the Good News and believe in Jesus.  Peter reaches the point in his sermon where he says, “All the prophets [read: “our prophets”]  testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

That’s a great message if you are the chosen group.  What does it feel like when the tables are turned and you’re the hearer: do you hear Good News, or someone preaching in a way that between the lines it conveys “my prophets were right” and “you’re all sinners.”   

While Peter is still preaching, the Holy Spirit comes rushing into this group of believers, inwardly filling and outwardly displaying the same signs and wonders of the Spirit’s presence as Peter and the other disciples had experienced at Pentecost.  You see, rather like the Ethiopian who already believed and ran to the waters of Baptism, those gathered in the household of Cornelius were already believers.  They were known to and beloved by God.  God was speaking to them, and loving them, and giving them divine instructions.  And in Peter’s presence, the Holy Spirit poured out into their midst, an outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual truth.  Peter’s challenge at that moment was to move from sermon to sacrament: from sharing the Good News to those he thought had not heard it, to recognizing a household of believers that he didn’t expect and that didn’t look like he thought they should look.  Peter had an instantaneous confrontation with the recognition that the Holy Spirit of God is active, alive, filling and abiding with people we simply haven’t encountered yet.  In that instantaneous expansion of his faith he responds lovingly and sacramentally, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  

In the household of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit moved through all those gathered, uniting them across the dividing lines of this world and making them recognize what God already knew:  they were all part of one beloved community, Children of God redeemed by the Risen Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.  God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer does not “belong” to any person or group.  God is present, God’s salvation is made known and God who is Love abides physically and spiritually with everyone who believes.  Everyone.  No exceptions.

This short passage from the Acts of the Apostles offers us a very profound lesson for the ways in which we, the Christian church, encounter people today.  

Many of us, myself included, have been wounded when individuals who purport to represent Christ inform us by word or action that they consider us to be in the “out” group.  It’s a trap that followers of Christ have fallen into since the earliest days of the church, and it’s often some of the most zealous and well-meaning people who become colluded by this idea that we can somehow own or possess the Love of Christ within our own group.  The error in our judgement comes when we have a list of things we think people need in order to be “in” our group: believe like us, behave like us, look like us, think like us, have education like us, have money like us, have homes like us, have jobs like us…the list goes on.  Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit will upstage and unsettle those assumptions by making known that God is already present in the lives of all the people we are tempted to “other.”  The error is in our misconception in claiming that the power of the Risen Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit belong only where we think they should be.  Oh no, my friends.  The Holy Spirit will upstage that every, single time we start to preach.  Thanks be to God!

Instead, as our Gospel text reminds us, the way in which we are exhorted to move through this world is to abide…truly live…in the Love of Christ and to keep the commandment that Christ offers his disciples again, and again, and again: Love one another, as I have loved you.  Love is the sermon, and the sacrament.  Love that is of God can never be contained in one group, one nation, one time, one place, one race, one doctrine, one community, one culture…no, not one single dividing line in this world can stand up to the Holy, Loving Spirit of God.  

What a lesson for us all in these few short sentences.  How will the rushing winds of the Holy Spirit break us open?  How will the tongues of fire burn away our doubt and shame?  What will enliven in us when the inner grace transforms to outward actions of divine Love made known to the world in which we live?  That, my friends, is the work of the Church.  And may the Holy Spirit continue to upstage us, every single time.


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Sheep of the Good Shepherd

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Texts:


This is a perilous and high-stakes week to be preaching about shepherds and sheep.  

On this Fourth Sunday of Easter…which we often call Good Shepherd Sunday…our yearly readings invoke comforting, pastoral images of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  Jesus, who embodies the rich imagery of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” where we are guided, comforted, and restored.  Jesus, with a lost sheep separated from the fold lifted up on his shoulders with the rest of the flock following dutifully behind. We are reminded, lesson after lesson, that our Good Shepherd lays down his own life for his sheep.  

Our Holy Scriptures were written for a cultural context that was agrarian, and these metaphors of shepherds and sheep were instructional and intuitive to hearers of the Good News.  The many, many biblical references to sheep aren’t there to suggest a divine preference for cute, fluffy animals.  Sheep were livelihood…their survival was necessary and valuable for clothing, food, trade, sacrifice.  Sheep were not always easy to manage, terrain was not always easy to navigate, and shepherds often had an exhausting, smelly, dirty job keeping the flock safe and protected.

A good shepherd values each and every smelly, ornery, valuable, beloved sheep.  

This week, I found myself wishing that we had the capacity to value beloved, human lives the same way that a good shepherd values the lives of their sheep. In a high-stakes and perilous week such as this, we have watched a trial unfold for a murder that never should have happened and awaited a jury’s verdict knowing all too well how rare it has been for an on-duty police officer to be convicted.  Our collective tension was palpable, and even though there was great relief in the verdict, the ugly truth of racial injustice and state-sanctioned violence remains exposed. 

I turned my thoughts this week to this valuable flock that our Good Shepherd is tending.  There are so many other sheep of the fold who are on this journey, who by their very presence as valuable members of the flock are reminding me of the continued precariousness for some of the sheep of the fold.  We all have the same loving shepherd, but we are not all residing in lush, green pastures.  Just as Jesus reminds us, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own and my own know me” Jesus also says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, loves and values the other sheep.  At the cultural time and location of John’s Gospel, “other sheep” may have referred to those to whom the Gospel had not yet spread fully…to the Gentiles, the Greeks, the Romans…or like our evangelist namesake St. Mark’s to Alexandria and eventually spreading around the world.  At the writing of this Gospel, I’m fairly certain no one imagined the sheep of 2021 following the Good Shepherd the way we are doing now.  We have been the other sheep, and we, too, can fail to imagine that there are other sheep that our Good Shepherd knows and calls by name.  There are always more sheep than we can see from our vantage point within the flock, and with those sheep there is always the watchful eye and heart of our Good Shepherd.  The temptation that we get sucked into is thinking only of ourselves as the poor, lost sheep being picked up, cradled and supported on Jesus’ shoulders.  We need to remind ourselves that we are all the sheep of a flock, and that flock is more vast and diverse than we could ever imagine.  And yet, our Good Shepherd loved us profoundly, and knows us all by name.  All of us.

As I was trying to keep myself centered this week, I took a little “Good Shepherd Tour” through the artwork of Henry Ossawa Tanner.  Tanner, one of the first notable African-American artists of the early 20th Century, experienced a sort of religious intensification in his early life after which turned his career focus to religious art.  I learned this week that he had a particular pull to the image of The Good Shepherd.  In fact, I managed to uncover several very different paintings of this biblical reference. Let me show you one that is perhaps a typical, familiar “Jesus the Good Shepherd” scene from the mid-point of Tanner’s artistic career:

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The painted scene is pastoral, and given the serene quality of his art, one might assume the artist felt this tranquility in his own life.  But continuing to read on, I realize more about the cultural context of his experiences in the post civil war United States and later in his travels and residence in France.  Later in his life, Tanner offered up reflections on the continued, pervasive racism that he experienced from the years he lived in Philadelphia and which he experienced throughout the rest of his life and artistic career.  In his autobiography, he states, 

I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.

Tanner’s son Jesse later reflected on his father’s fondness for the Good Shepherd image and his father’s reflection that ​“God needs us to help fight with him against evil and we need God to guide us” (Jesse Tanner in Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, 1969).  

After leaving Philadelphia Henry Ossawa Tanner traveled to Morocco and spent time in the Atlas Mountains which also became thematic in some of his works.  I want to take a moment and show you a very different painting of the Good Shepherd from the 1930’s.  As a later life work, it reflects a different facet of Tanner’s faith and perhaps also offers us a retrospective image of the perilous and high-stakes experiences of his own life and context, too.  

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd (Atlas Mountains, Morocco), ca. 1930, oil on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Robbins.

I think it holds something for us to consider about shepherding other than green pastures and quiet waters.  How long did it take you to even notice the Good Shepherd?

These are high-stakes and perilous times, friends.  I believe Henry Ossawa Tanner, Black American artist and beloved follower of Christ, knew a great deal about that.

Imagine following the Good Shepherd through Tanner’s depiction of such a precarious domain.  If there are plentiful other members of the fold around us, tending each other and helping to keep us together and navigate the high and rocky cliffs without harm then perhaps what we see isn’t the vast chasm but the presence of other sheep.  But what if we are separated, or the world tells us we don’t belong in the same fold, or we are singled out and marginalized.  The vulnerability of the precious, valuable sheep is the focus of the Good Shepherd’s gaze.  It is the Good Shepherd whose eyes are on the terrain, and the perils, and who is directing the course of our journey.  It is the Good Shepherd whose eyes are on the sheep, who brings those who might be in danger of being lost back into the fold.  We cannot all be lost sheep, wandering off in our own directions oblivious to the peril to ourselves and others or there won’t be a flock and our Good Shepherd will be running after us all.  We are a flock…a community…who care for each other as we are guided, together, by our loving Good Shepherd.  As we hear in our Epistle reading, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

Those words have echoed for me this week, as I watched the trial of Derek Chauvin and listened to testimonies of people whose only way to help was to stand by and film what was happening AND YET that visual testimony served as a catalyst for one of only seven convictions since 2005 for the death of a person at the hands of a police officer. Help can look like steadfast witness; tangible support; solidarity of spirit with those who are oppressed; laying down our power and privilege to advance equity of those whose way is more perilous than our own.

Like Tanner’s picture of the gaping chasms of the Atlas mountains, the context of the world in which we live is perilous and dangerous for too many people in the beloved community that we share.  And yet, our Good Shepherd is leading us with love, not fear.  And if we are paying attention to and care for each other, then even as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we will fear no evil.  We will realize that those who lose their footing are the ones most likely to be pushed to the outside, or disregarded by the many.  Those who find themselves at risk in the perils of this world are the beloved sheep of the flock iover which the Good Shepherd is keeping the most diligent watch.  

How can we abide in the love that has been lavished upon us unless we are willing to help the Good Shepherd keep the flock together?  When we abide in God’s love, sharing that love is our desire, not just our mandate.  Loving is a way of being, not a chore of doing.  We go beyond seeing ourselves as the lost sheep that need to get rescued and lifted onto the shoulders of the shepherd, and instead find our sure footing by helping each other navigate the path that has been set for us amid the changes and chances of this world.  The Good Shepherd has us all. 

And all means all.

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Succulent Wild Love

Homily for Maundy Thursday
April 1, 2021
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church — Virtual Worship in the Time of Pandemic

Lectionary Texts:

Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Psalm 116:1, 10-17

As I began writing this sermon earlier this week, I had just finished posting some words of love on the CaringBridge site for a friend of mine who has begun her Hospice journey after a decade long struggle with chronic health issues. I met Arlene 20 years ago when she was a later-in-life seminary student at Eden Theological Seminary and I was a social work grad student at Washington University in St. Louis. We serendipitously met as part of a group of other so called “Succulent Wild Women” who had come together after reading the work of writer/poet Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, better known by her pen name “Sark” whose inspirational books creatively drawn in bold colors with handwritten words and illustrations were popular among some free-spirited women like us at that time. While I had other work friends, and school friends…this group of succulent wild women friends didn’t share any tangible career goals or contrived common interests. We just celebrated the spirit of each other and were there to mutually support, encourage, and lift each other up.

It was kind of like Church.

Many of my friends in that group, like me, were at life junctures. I was always fascinated by Arlene’s seminary journey…mind you, never giving a thought that I might embark on one of those myself in the future. And so it was that after I met my husband Michael and when we decided to elope, we asked my friend Arlene if she would perform our wedding ceremony. Ironically perfect for two nerdy graduate students living and loving on a budget, our wedding vows in Forest Park also became one of Arlene’s final seminary projects. We worked it all out together at our favorite restaurant. We broke bread together and celebrated love, in the name of God who creates, redeems and sustains us all.

Again, kind of like Church.

Now, many miles separate us and Arlene lives in a residential setting with limited visitation due to COVID-19. So, her Caring Bridge journal is the best way for us to communicate with our friend who is living out her brave and beautiful decision to discontinue treatments that are no longer working for her. Her choice to live boldly into the days that remain feels both courageous and heartbreaking. She said to her friends the other day that she has always lived her life out loud, and now she is living her death out loud, too. Time feels precious. I want to learn all that I can from her through her beautiful writing, and she wants to connect with all the people that she loves in all the ways that she is able to. I love reading what she is writing, and I laugh and cry and remember. I am reminded through this loving, caring exchange with my friend: this is the way that it is. The centrality of love and relationships is all that really matters when life as we know it is drawing to a close.

This is the way it is with Jesus, too. We can hear it in the first refrains of this Gospel lesson that we read on Maundy Thursday:

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

Maundy Thursday is a Love Story: it is filled with love between Jesus and his friends, between God and the world. The narrative of John’s Gospel draws us close into the heart of Jesus. So close, in fact, that we have no choice but to confront the overwhelming power of his love. Those who had followed Jesus had seen the miracles, heard the teaching, kept busy with the details of the living and the travelling and the doing of ministry. Now, those days were drawing to a close.

Jesus knew this. His friends, the disciples, weren’t quite ready to believe it.

Through the eyes of love, the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples becomes a visceral illustration of lavish love that knows no hierarchy. That kind of messy, intentional, lavish to the point of ridiculous love is reflected in the actions of Jesus whose vision had shortened and intensified; who was compelled to show the depth of his love to those who were everything to him in this world, whether they were struggling with their futures or their faith. We are drawn to the very heart of Jesus so that we can see and feel Jesus manifesting human and divine love toward his very own own beloved community. He knew where they were struggling. He knew what he needed to do. He endearingly called them his children. And he was unabashedly and unhesitantly willing to be their servant. All because of Love.

The voluntary and counter-cultural offering of the service of footwashing…in a role normally relegated to an involuntary slave…was a plot twist too stunning for the disciples in the moment. They were still focused on the work, the ministry, the needs of the others. On that night when they broke bread together for the last time, Jesus’ Love broke into that space in a powerful and lavish way. Being in the presence of such an outpouring of Love compels response and also requires profound trust: we instantly are in touch with the part of us that asks, “am I worthy of this?” That’s what I hear when Peter refuses to have his feet washed: the vulnerable fear of being truly loved. To love, and to be loved, is to see one’s value in the eyes of the other and to risk the pain of loss. When the days of one’s life are a scarce quantity, the abundant and generative power of love is palpable. It’s all that really matters.

And Love is all that matters to Jesus, too. Bearing the towel and choosing the role of a servant, Jesus defies hierarchy and blurs every line of assumed superiority for one and only one reason: and that reason is Love. Like the scent of the lavish perfume that Mary had poured over Jesus’ feet a few days before, the power of this loving act truly sinks in. It washes over Simon Peter and melts away his vulnerability. Once he gets it, his trust melts into belovedness. And at that moment, he becomes exuberantly part of this beautiful, overwhelming lavish love story, telling Jesus: not my feet only but also my hands and my head!

Jesus is a quintessential teacher, and he knows how to seize a teachable moment. So, he steps fully into the exuberance to offer a lesson, to explain that which he has done by radically reversing the roles of this world and redefining love as radical service. Not only does he help his friends understand what they are personally experiencing in this outpouring of love; he gives the knowledge to them as a new commandment: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

I hear Jesus saying to his friends: you finally opened your hearts, and now you are experiencing the overwhelming love I have for you. Let it transform you. Embody it. Then look at each other: see that same belovedness in the eyes of every single person in this place. Let my love transform all of you. Now look out into the world and see my love in the eyes of every single person that you meet. Let that transform you, too. Embrace it and embody it. Not only will it change you: it will change the world.

So here we are, two thousand years later, looking at each other on this holy night of Holy Week with Love connecting our Zoom boxes. We ache…I know we do…for the way in which Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. As we get closer to regathering, we may begin to feel that longing even more. Jesus knows our longing and meets us in it. In that very longing of our souls and in our community is the Presence of Christ who has always been here with us, and is still here with us now, persistently loving us through distance and Zoom boxes so that we can show that love to the world in the actions of mercy and justice that flow from the heart of this parish to the world. So don’t turn away from the longing that the images and readings for Maundy Thursday stir up in us. Allow the longing of love to transform you. Spend some quiet time tonight as we move deeply into Holy Week truly taking in and embodying the great Love that Jesus offers to his disciples, to the world, to all of us. Then, as we close our time together in that silence, take up the new commandment to show that love to the world and each other in lavish and counter-cultural ways through your loving, your giving, your caring.

May your response to Jesus’ invitation be: Not just my feet, but my hands and my head, too.

These days of Holy Week are reminders to us of Jesus’ last days and his greatest gift: Love. Jesus is living his life and his death out loud in this story of Love he speaks to his disciples, and to us. Cling to his words. Cherish them. Learn them so you can live this new commandment out loud in succulent wild and beautiful ways, too:

Love one another, as I have loved you.

Amen

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Revealing

Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic

Texts:

Media Reference: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/02/20/691298594/the-power-of-martin-luther-king-jr-s-anger

Sometimes, when I’m working with a group and we encounter something uncomfortable together I like to pause and do a check in. So before I go too deep into my homily, I want to check in with you: how are you feeling about this Gospel image of a very angry Jesus? You can think about that and if you feel inclined, put a word or two in the chat. This Gospel lesson is very emotionally evocative. I’ve heard some people say it is liberating while I recognize that for other people it can feel very disruptive and even downright disturbing. I want to name and honor all of those reactions before we lunge ahead.

Wherever you are, its OK: let’s enter into this passage together for what it offers us today.

Scholars consider this account of Jesus’ public display of anger at the money-changers in the temple to be historically accurate. It appears in all four Gospel accounts of our Holy Scriptures. In the synoptic Gospels…Matthew, Mark, and Luke…it is placed toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, suggesting that this action was a catalyst for the events that lead to Jesus’ arrest. But here in John’s Gospel, this portrayal of Jesus driving out the cattle and pouring out the coins of the money-changers appears early in the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The later placement of the story seems logical and might even be more plausible historically. But John’s Gospel invites us into viewing this particular image of Jesus as a visible and foundational aspect of the arc of Jesus’ ministry. So let’s ponder that prospect. I’m going to ask us this morning to consider that this story, in this place, at this time in Jesus’ ministry is a message of Good News. It invites us to take a journey together into exploring the role of anger in God’s economy of Love.

There are three important things to remember about anger: anger is a passionate emotion; anger makes us vulnerable; and anger often reveals deeper truths.

Anger, the passionate emotion, leads to unpredictability: at its most effective, anger is jarring when we encounter it and makes us pay attention. At its most damaging, anger inflicts hurt and pain.

Anger, the vulnerable emotion, tells people something about us and where our hidden and precious breaking points are. At its most effective, it shows where our heart most wants to protect us. At its most damaging, it lashes out where we have been hurt the most.

Anger, the revealing emotion, tells people where we stand and situates us in opposition to what we cannot tolerate. At its most effective, it shines a high-beam light on hidden injustice and systems of oppression. At its most damaging, it showcases our own biases, prejudices and brokenness.

With these attributes of anger in mind, perhaps we can revisit the depiction of Jesus in today’s Gospel and ask: what is this image of an angry Jesus revealing to us?

I’ve been sitting with that lesson this week. While doing so, I listened to a very powerful episode of NPR’s “Code Switch” about the power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s anger. The episode includes an interview with King’s speechwriter Clarence Jones who asserts that from Dr. King’s standpoint, anger is part of a larger process that encompasses anger, forgiveness, redemption and love. Think about that: passionate, vulnerable, revealing anger. This is not the anger of hatred, power, privilege and destruction. This is anger that shatters assumptions and breaks open the possibility of transforming Love.

Jesus’ anger disrupts business as usual in the temple marketplace, that is clear. This story also breaks us open during this Lenten season and makes us pay attention. It fills us with profound emotions, like the ones we carry with us into this narrative. We use another emotional term during this season,“Passion,” when we relate the story of Holy Week. In our annual retelling, we are emotionally broken open to take in the poignant magnitude of gut-wrenching love evident in Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and death. Jesus’ anger at the Temple and Jesus’ eventual willing submission to an unjust and brutal death disrupts our belief system that good things happen to good people; that following the rules of the authorities always leads to justice; that society’s marking of something as acceptable means that it’s right and good. In this story as in Jesus’ Passion, it isn’t the violence and brutality that prevails; it is God’s transforming love.

Jesus’ jarring actions in this narrative disrupt a scene which in that time and context was socially acceptable and seemingly benign: temple activity aimed to make it easier for people coming into town to offer required sacrifices. People needed to exchange local money for Roman coins, to buy the livestock that were required under the law for sacrifice which would have been burdensome to bring with them. At first glance, all that activity seems rather ordinary: but had the status quo taken away the meaning of these actions in the hearts of those making the pilgrimage? Had convenience morphed into profiting off the needy? Were the activities taking place benefitting the Empire in Rome, as much or even more so than the purported piety of these activities? Did the public face of the temple begin to resemble a facade of cheap and easy grace, rather than the holy house of God?

Jesus’ disruption of the status quo placed him dangerously in opposition to both Temple and Roman authority. It publicly marked him as oppositional to what was socially acceptable. It also allowed him to make known a powerful truth about what God sees in the actions that society is blindly following, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Jesus’ vulnerable anger placed him at risk, tangibly. His actions revealed his alignment, and that alignment wasn’t with structures of power in this world’s terms. It was with the vulnerable, the oppressed and the outcast. Jesus’ revealing anger enacted in that space poignantly placed God’s reign above human convenience. It revealed rifts between the heart of ministry and the clutches of Empire. It shone a light on the commercial aspects of purported piety and forced those present to question the intention of their own hearts.

Seen in these ways, Jesus’ anger is a jarring, vulnerable and revealing revelation of God’s abundant and freely given grace to all of humanity. I allowed it to jar me this week into asking hard questions and thinking differently about the choices we make in our Christian lives. When we shake up the status quo…and this year has certainly done that…where and how is Jesus speaking to us in new and transformational ways?

I was reminded this week that Jesus speaks to us through angry outcries against injustice, and that injustice can too easily remain hidden beneath a conflict-avoidant status quo. Lest we forget, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written as an outcry against a group of seemingly well-intentioned white clergy people…including two Episcopal Bishops…who had signed a statement asking King to moderate his protests and leave Birmingham to end the violence erupting there. In pointing a finger at protestors, the clergy leaders had missed the whole point. They failed to see and acknowledge that racial injustice was the real heart of the issue. You see, when the silence of the status quo perpetuates oppression, it leads us all away from the vision of God’s transforming love. At those points, we need to be shaken up to our common identity and mission. Or, better stated in the eloquence of Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I was also reminded this week that Jesus speaks to us through our own anger. What is it that ignites us with anger? How does our anger make us vulnerable, or break us open in new ways? What does that anger reveal in us that is in need of healing and transformation? In our own anger, where do we see Jesus? And if we don’t, perhaps we can ask Jesus to help make known to us whether our anger is pointing us toward or away from the knowledge and love of God. God wants to love us, and does love us: fiercely and unconditionally. If anger gets in the way of experiencing that, God’s desire is that we seek healing and wholeness so that we can experience the enormity of divine love and grace which always enfolds us.

This is what Jesus’ anger reveals to us: a vision of Jesus where justice and love are so inextricably linked that no human places, practices, or prejudices can stand in the way of that love. Jesus tells us this in sermons, in parables, in healings, in conversations, in miracles, and yes, in anger. Jesus tells us this with his whole life and in his death. And in resurrection we are given the ultimately divine reassurance: Love always wins.

Anger, forgiveness, redemption, and love: this is the unfolding story we are given in the Good News of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Perhaps John’s Gospel places this story exactly where it needs to be.

Revealing God, open our eyes to see and grant us the inspiration to transform this world in which we live. Amen

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Ἰησοῦς κυκλόθεν (Jesus, circling)

Food Pantry, Saturday February 27

I have no icon engraved for this siting of you, Beloved.  But my heart has been stirred.


The day was gray and we skirted raindrops by huddling beneath the patch of roof
covering the doorway we once used when we could enter our house of worship safely.

Now we serve those who hunger outside our doors, while a pandemic rages
and we huddle together and make community in virtual boxes and empty parking lots.

Our offerings had been brought the day before, now packed up in well-supplied bags of
plentiful sandwiches and homemade chocolate chip cookie-perfect love.

An abundance of food and groceries were piled on tables, and bags for fur-babies, too.
The rain kept the multitudes away, but those who came empty-handed left with plenty.

There at the threshold of world and church, you made your presence known in song.
I had not known Pharrell Williams to be a hymn writer until Happy pierced the gloom.

Triumphant as you arrived by bike: yellow rain slicker radiating with celestial light.
You looked at us, dark skin covered with mandatory mask and yet, we saw your smile.

Angel choirs and heavenly trumpets can sound like R&B played on a bike-rack radio.
Our arms were up, hands clapping and voices raised as you nodded along in time.

Circling, like a labyrinth that only you could see, around that rain-soaked asphalt.
Around and around, circles growing smaller and larger, near and away and near again.

You came close as I was singing and met my eyes. “No brakes” you said, still circling.
“No breaks” is what I heard and wondered if you meant that for you, or for me.

You heard my silent questioning; circling once again my way, you put your foot down.
You spoke words of truth: “See, that’s how you stop without falling down.”

All the cares of this world were tied up in the bags you had strapped to that bike.
You didn’t need groceries, or any more baggage. But you accepted our love offerings.

I asked if you needed anything else: “A cool drink of water” was your only reply.
With that provided, we broke bread and gave thanks. Dreary transformed to delight.

Circling again, you turned up your tunes. We lifted our voices and you nodded in time.
Your work here was done so onward you moved: next town, next healing, next call.

We kept singing, joy burning within us. We lingered, and listened, and hoped.
No longer longing for what things once were, our eyes saw what is and ever shall be.

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Lent within Lent within

My home altar, Lent 2021

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the church year calendar. For this blog, though, it is an anniversary, since it was Ash Wednesday 2013 when I wrote my first post. The liturgical date that year fell even earlier on the calendar: February 13 the archives tell me. I had burning within me to convey the story of the first time I participated in an Ash Wednesday service, including the ritual of imposing ashes. Eight years later, now an Episcopal priest, I find deep joy in reading the story of My First Ashes which poured from me before I had any inklings that I would be discerning a call to ordained life. It is, for me, a reminder that God is always working in us and in the world even (and perhaps especially) when we aren’t aware of it.

This morning, one particular thing that I wrote in that first blog post stands out to me, “I just headed down the dark stairwell to the basement where no one ever went.”

I had to stop right there and ponder that. If you read the whole post, you’ll note that the service I participated in happened to take place in a chapel in the basement of a dorm where I lived. I was even attending a religiously affiliated school, but we never went there. Even now, when I draw my mind to remember the space, it is mysterious. I still see those dimly lit stairs leading to a room which was dark and sparse. I can’t draw up details of what it looked like, except for a few chairs in a circle, and then kneeling at a small altar rail to receive ashes. But in that space, my spirit was stirred. It ignited something that has been burning in my soul ever since.

This year, that is how Lent feels to me. As some of my friends and colleagues have said, it feels like we’ve been living in a year-long lent as we’ve navigated this global pandemic, and struggled for racial justice, and began reckoning with things we have too long ignored. On many levels, that feeling rings absolutely true. There has been such a pattern of giving up, doing without, setting aside, calling ourselves in and wandering through an emotional desert that is has begun to feel familiar. Like living in a dorm, we know it’s not home. It isn’t normal, but we fall into a pattern of normalcy. And if we aren’t careful it all goes back to a pattern that circles around and repeats.

So, shaking ourselves up from the way we’ve accepted things to be right now, we are invited to keep a holy lent. What does that even mean? We are starting in a different place, now. We are invited to go somewhere that is already right here with us, but into which we’ve never gone. We are invited, if we choose, to descend into spaces of our lives we know are there but from which the busy comings and goings of our lives keep us from knowing, or seeing, or experiencing.

Perhaps lent this year is less about what we do outwardly, than where we allow ourselves to go within. We have to do that work so we can do what we are truly called to do.

I am still priesting in pandemic, so I extend an invitation to you as readers of this priest’s blog. From my home alter in my makeshift pandemic office, I invite you to keep a holy lent within your own self and your own space. Where are you being led, in the deep thoughts of your soul? What are the places and spaces of your life where you haven’t gone which perhaps are waiting to be transformed to the holy? Where does prayer carry you when your own steps feel uncertain?

What I learned that first Ash Wednesday, and continue to learn every day since, is that what awaits in the silence is the familiar embrace of God. Not answers. God. God has us, and is working in us and inspiring us to do what is most needed in the world step by step and day by day. We come to God most genuinely not with the belief that we have all the answers, but with open hearts that listen. We find our holy lent not in the actions of the busy, but in the quiet of divine presence. Sometimes we need to be broken open to do that. Or simply invited.

So, I invite you: may this “lent within lent” truly be a holy lent within.

Grace and Peace,

Sarah+

Resources for keeping a Holy Lent:

Post your prayer requests, which we will pray for every day in the Virtual Chapel of St. Phoebe

The Episcopal Church:  Life Transformed: The Way of Love in Lent (2021)

Episcopal Relief and Development: Lenten Meditations 2021

Ignatian Solidarity Network  Steadfast: A Call to Love for Lent 2021

Cathedral Church of St. Peter: God Brings New Beauty: A Lenten Guide for 2021

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