Believing Thomas

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Virtual Liturgy during COVID-19 Pandemic
Richmond, VA

Whenever the liturgical calendar flips to the 2nd Sunday of Easter, I feel like I need to come to the defense of one of my patron saints, Thomas the Apostle. A lot of my formative years as an adult Episcopalian were spent in a parish named for the central character of today’s Gospel lesson. And every year, I feel a renewed conviction that Thomas the Apostle is the source of a lot of undeserved criticism. We get called a “Doubting Thomas” when we ask questions about something we’re supposed to just take at face value. Even at our best, we tend to think of St. Thomas as a sort of early church, “show me” guy, or as the patron saint of doubt. But I am here this Sunday to assert that I think we’ve been the ones giving Thomas a bad reputation. In fact, I happen to think we’ve been getting this story entirely wrong.

If I’m being entirely honest, I think perhaps we’re quick to label Thomas because it feels good to scapegoat doubt as something “out there” that those other people have. Maybe the “faithful disciples” and scribes were doing a bit of that, too. Let’s be real: for most of us, Thomas’ response in the Gospel according to John is like a mirror showing us the inner dialogue of our own lives. A lot of the reflections I’ve read on this week’s Gospel text start with titles like, “Doubt Not!” But I’m not so sure that doubt and believe are all that separate from each other. And doubt isn’t really the central theme of this story.
Maybe this year…behind our own locked doors, filled with questions and doubts of our own…we can hear this Gospel lesson for what it offers us on a different and deeper level. There are gifts within this challenging time of physical distancing: having to change our routines gives us new insight into even the most familiar things.

So, let’s step into this scene with fresh eyes. This story begins on Easter evening. Grief and wonder were fresh, bewildering and overwhelming for the disciples who had watched their friend Jesus die an excruciating and painful death just three days earlier. In the midst of their profound grief and fear, there was this morning’s news of their friend’s body missing…some saying he had risen from the dead. Some had seen the empty tomb; some were simply bewildered. Mary Magdalene, after her personal encounter with the risen Christ, had come to the house of the grieving disciples to announce and proclaim Jesus’ resurrection.

Now, one might think there would have been great rejoicing and ecstatic relief in that household when they heard that news. But, what we’re presented with isn’t a scene of Easter joy. Instead John’s Gospel draws us into this Easter evening scene where the gathered disciples…some having themselves been to the tomb, and others having just heard Mary’s proclamation…were gathered together behind closed, locked doors in fear for their lives. Into their midst, Jesus appears. Seeing the fearful, locked-in disciples, Jesus greets them with reassurance, “Peace be with you” and shows them his hands and his side. Then, John tells us, they rejoiced and believed. Jesus again offers peace, sends them forth in his name and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, exhorting them to forgive the sins of others.

As it happens, Thomas, wasn’t with that group of gathered disciples that Easter evening. His friends found him, though, and told the story of what they themselves had seen and experienced first hand. Thomas has what I believe is the most human reaction of all: he wants to have that personal experience of joy and belief that the other disciples have had! Seeing his friends rejoice at having themselves seen the risen Lord, I’m think that what Thomas expresses is probably not doubt at all, but perhaps deep disappointment at having missed out. How can I experience the same joy you’re having unless I get to experience it, too?

Let me pause there. I think most of us have a version of this story in our minds where Thomas expresses doubt in the face of Jesus. That’s influenced more by some famous artists than what we read in the Gospel text. I think it might be more accurate to say that Thomas is reacting to his friends. His retort to his friends is that he wants to believe, and he wants what they have already been given: unless I see and touch, I will not believe.
Let’s think about that in our own lives. How often do we want and crave the experience of Christ that we hear other people are having? When it seems others have joy…and instead, we are feeling confused, bewildered, and sad…we feel out of place. We begin to think something is wrong with us, or that we are missing out. We might even wonder…like we hear in so many of the Psalms…why God has abandoned us while being present for others. I’m going to readily admit that I can relate to prayers that begin, “why them and not me, God?”

Maybe some of you can relate to that, too.

It’s part of our humanness to crave and to yearn for experiences of God’s presence. It’s part of our humanness to want to participate in the wonderful experiences that we see others having. It’s part of our humanness to react to that longing with a bit of jealousy or resentment. And so, in that spirit, perhaps we hear our friend Thomas telling his excited and rejoicing friends, essentially, “well, I’m not going to believe until I get to have the experience you had.”

If Thomas has a failing here, it isn’t doubt. Maybe in our current vernacular, we’d call it FoMo: Fear of Missing Out. It’s his human desire for that personal 1:1 with Jesus that his friends have already experienced. It’s completely understandable…I venture to say, we can all relate. But it also means that he isn’t able to see Christ reflected in the face of his friends.

I don’t know what Thomas’ spiritual life was like during that post-Easter week. I imagine there were lots of thoughts going through his mind. Maybe some of the psalms and prayers of his faith expressed his frustration, and maybe familiar beliefs and practices sustained him. But what I do know is that the following week, on the first day of the next week, he was gathered with the other disciples together in the house, again with the doors shut.

And what happens next is the heart of this story: On that Sunday after Easter, Jesus meets Thomas exactly where he is.

Jesus appears and reassuringly greets all the disciples again, “Peace be with you.” And then, John’s Gospel tells us, he speaks directly to Thomas in his own place of human longing. Jesus says to Thomas, without any hesitation, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

And Thomas responds, “My Lord, and my God.”

What this Gospel lesson gives us is yet another reminder of the profound, intimate, loving presence of Christ entering into the most human places of our lives. The Good News of this Gospel lesson rests in the knowledge that the conditions we impose on ourselves in our humanness are no match for the boundless love of God, expressed in Jesus Christ. Jesus knows us, and comes to us, and invites us into belief.

Jesus the teacher then offers a lesson for Thomas, for the gathered disciples and by extension for all of us, a teachable moment in the midst of our collective fear and doubt: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

This portion of John’s account of Good News changes perspective at this point, from recounting the story in what we might call a “3rd person omniscient” voice, to narrating directly to the reader, in the second person, in the way that teachers instruct: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Blessings abound not only for those who see with their eyes, but those who believe in their hearts.

Yes, blessed are we. Like Thomas, we are met by this Gospel text right where we are. We don’t all have a direct and physical encounter with Jesus. But we are blessed, continually, by Christ’s presence. We have the experience of seeing the workings of Jesus Christ in the faces of those who believe. We have the Holy Spirit working in and among us to make us the hands and heart of Christ in this world. Blessed are we when someone calls to say that they are praying for us at a time when we are feeling alone. Blessed are we when someone shows up with exactly what we need, or when we show up to worship even if we don’t feel like it, and we hear exactly what we need to hear. Blessed are we when we volunteer to help our neighbors and someone sees Christ in our actions of outreach and love. And blessed are we when we see Christ in our neighbors. Blessed are we in the quiet moments of prayer when we suddenly knew, even in the midst of our human doubts and fears and loneliness, that we are not alone; that we are seen, and loved, and held even in our darkest hours. We are met and blessed continually with Christ’s presence in the faces of our community. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ, the Church.

The Good News, my friends, is that the Risen Christ loves us, and meets us exactly where we are, exactly as we are. Even…and perhaps especially…now in this time of our bewilderment and uncertainty. We are blessed by love that shows up at unexpected moments, in unexpected ways. We are loved, and seen, behind our closed doors, in the midst of our fears and in whatever human experiences make us yearn to see and know Christ. And, like Thomas, we are met by a loving Jesus, holding out His hands of love and breathing the power of the Holy Spirit into His Church so that we can see and know the presence of Christ.

When that happens may we, like Thomas the believer, be bold to say: “My Lord, and my God.”

St. Thomas Apostle

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I wonder…

Palm Green Leaves Palm Leaf Plant Palm Tree Leaf

Homily for Palm Sunday, Year A

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA (Virtual Palm Sunday Worship)

Lectionary Readings for Palm Sunday

 

A few years ago as part of my Faith from the Margins to the Web project, we  engaged in a thought exercise called, “I Wonder…” After reading the Gospel text, we sat for a few minutes with the vivid images of Palm Sunday: the donkey, the crowd, people waving branches and spreading their cloaks on the ground, shouts of “Hosanna!” filling the air.  I recorded that conversation and it went something like this:

  • I wonder if Jesus knew that the disciples would obey him?
  • I wonder what the people who were watching were thinking?
  • I wonder what the disciples thought Jesus was going to do with the donkey?
  • I wonder if the donkey thought, “Why does this man want me?   Is it because no one has ever ridden on me? Is it because I’m pure of heart?
  • I wonder what the rest of that donkey’s life was like?  
  • I wonder what happened after that day, all those palm branches and all of those crowds…what happened after that?
  • I wonder if everyone in the crowd really knew who Jesus was, or were they just following along?
  • I wonder what I would have done, if I really didn’t know Jesus as Lord, but this man Jesus came up to me, or paraded by me?

Sometimes we turn to our holy scriptures thinking we are supposed to find all the answers.  But exercises like this remind me that the Holy Spirit is alive and moving in our questions and our wondering, too.

This week, I have found myself wondering how our physical distancing invites us to see this Palm Sunday story differently right now.  How I would love to gather with that crowd to welcome Jesus in our midst! I would love to rush head-long into that scene and pick up the refrain, “Hosanna in the highest!” waving branches high above our heads. And, I would love to speak those words together with you just as we have said Sunday after Sunday, wrapped within our Eucharistic prayers.  I wonder when we will be able to celebrate Holy Eucharist together again, and I wonder when I can embrace you all in what will inevitably be the longest passing of the peace we’ve ever experienced…and that is saying a LOT here at St. Mark’s! I wonder these things, and I long for these things. And I don’t have any easy answers.

But this week, I have felt the nearness of God’s presence in that wondering.  I find myself filled with wonder and an awareness that the crowd gathered at the entry point to Jerusalem didn’t know what was to come, either.  The donkey didn’t know the destiny of the one riding on its back. The disciples didn’t fully take in the message of how short the time was with the friend they loved.  No one waving their branches knew what would follow as the tide turned from triumphal entry to betrayal, denial and walking the way of the cross. In the course of that week, everything would change day by day, and hour by hour.  The crowds, the disciples, the animals and even Jesus had to walk the rest of the journey as it unfolded, step by step.  

I think we all feel that scene and that reality differently this year.  We know something very deeply about what it means for everything to change on a dime, and to move from being caught up in the midst of a joyous crowd to following a different, solitary road. 

I invite our shared wonder on this Palm Sunday, as we enter into the journey of accompanying Jesus on a different road than the crowded one strewn with cloaks and branches. I wonder how this time of containment offers us an opportunity to experience transforming grace and to receive Jesus’ gift of love differently?  This path we walk right now is a narrower path that asks us to confront our fears, that rends our hearts, that removes us from the way we have come to expect things to be. But I wonder what we are learning, and how we are seeing God in our midst in ways we never noticed before. I wonder at the joy I see each time we catch glimpses of one another in these little boxes and hear each other’s voices even when we crackle and falter from time to time.  I wonder at the ways our common prayer unites us, in a profound way that we cannot take for granted. I wonder about how our very choice to refrain from beloved worship practices in person for the greater good of the body helps us better understand the ways that our sacramental worship has formed us to be the Body of Christ. In that metaphor, I wonder whether we have thought about our lives as the church dispersed throughout our communities serving as the defense system for the most vulnerable in our midst, acting collectively so that those most at risk can survive and thrive.  

I wonder at our resilience, at the ways in which our love for one another takes the form of phone calls, and notes, and Zoom, and chats, and texts in ways we had overlooked before.  We are realizing every day how powerful the love of community is, and that physical distance may challenge us, but it does not remove us from God or from each other. And in all these things I wonder: was it also like this for Jesus, his mind flooding with memories, people, moments of realization as he walked a road of soul-wrenching injustice for the greater good of the whole world.  Jesus walked though that week with wonder and belief propelling him forward step-by-step in the assurance that death and sin…even the sin and injustice of the whole world…would be overcome and transformed by the unbounded love of God. 

I wonder if this time offers us something new and unexpected in our spiritual journey as we walk together into Holy Week, seeing with new eyes God’s vision of divine mercy and grace. 

This year, we understand something more about how much harder it is when the crowds disperse.  But our wonder about how we will be church together is a gift through which our hearts have opened to the new movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, individually and as the Church in the world.  The assurance of our faith tells us that God is with us, and the reassurance of our communication and even our technology reminds us this is indeed still a community emanating Christ’s real presence.  This is a community that has seen and known Christ in our midst; that has been fed and nourished in body, mind, and spirit. This is a community that has fed and still feeds others. We are no longer in the crowd but we are not alone: the liberating and transformative nature of divine mercy and grace accompanies us with every step.  Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to understand our very nature as the Body of Christ in the world. In our prayers, God meets our fears, our hopes and our wonder and helps us to know more fully who…and whose…we really are.  

The journey of Holy Week is filled with opportunities to wonder.  So, I invite you to wonder as we walk together through this week. I invite you to walk the way of the cross virtually with our Stations of the Cross and leave each other electronic notes along the path.  I invite you to join together for Holy Week prayer, including Wednesday Compline and the liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday through this video conference connection we’ve established. I invite you to reach out to someone you haven’t heard from in a while and remind them they are not alone.  We have been prepared for this journey through the waters of our baptism and nourished at the table of the Lord; we are enfolded in the great grace of salvation, and the gift of knowledge that the cross was not the end, but in fact, was the very beginning. Our participation in this Holy Week is invited not so that we are inflicted with sorrow, but so that our pain can be borne by the One who loves us more than life itself.  Even in the darkest days, we can be filled with wonder.  

In the dark of unknowing, wonder is the first glimmer of resurrection.  

May your Holy Week be filled with wonder.

 

 

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Virtual Stations of the Cross

For your Holy Week journey, take some time to reflect on the Stations of the Cross:

 

Blessings as you walk the Way of the Cross this Holy Week.

Sarah+

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At Night

Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Lent
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia

Lectionary Readings:

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Sometimes, things need to happen at night.  

Take, for example, the date that the Bishop proposed for my ordination as a transitional deacon.  November 10, 2018 was a perfectly fine date. It was such a fine date that it was also selected by the Richmond Marathon for their big annual race AND by the Altria Theatre for a matinee production featuring Peppa Pig.  That would all be fine…I’m perfectly willing to share…except that both of those events were happening all day on the same block as the parish where I had been appointed to serve and where my ordination would be held.  A logical solution soon emerged: we kept the date, but planned the ordination that evening, after dark.

But, after dark was a harder time for some of the people in my life to be present.  This was true especially for those whose days were spent on the streets and whose nights were spent in shelters.  Shelters have rules about when one must be in, and exceptions are not made for ordinations. For others, the night was just too dangerous; I welcomed them in spirit but knew better than to expect them in person.  But, one of the unhoused people who found their way to my ordination that evening was a true character and friend, W.B. Braxton-Bantu, aka Scoutleader Bat, the self-described grim guardian of the poor and down-trodden.  He slipped in just after the processional and sat on the back row in his characteristic suit, tie, leather jacket and round wire-rimmed glasses. W.B. and I both referred to each other as “Professor” and spent many hours together talking about policies and practices related to poverty, eviction and homelessness, drafting letters to representatives and discussing everything from theology to movies to time travel.   I was glad to see him there. But after a long day on foot and on bike, in the quiet safety of sanctuary, W.B. did what many people do when they find rest in their restless days: he drifted to sleep. I noticed this during communion when I didn’t see him come forward. Along with my friend Amy, who was chalicing, we walked from the chancel to the back of the nave to serve communion to those for whom walking was difficult, and then I went all the way in the back to W.B.  I touched his arm…he awakened instantly and his eyes met mine. We both greeted each other with a smile and our greeting: “Professor.” And in what I can only describe as a pure and holy moment, we both encountered the presence of Christ palpably together in that sharing of Holy Communion.  

My friend and photographer Patience happened to catch that iconic moment on her camera.  She gave it to me in the album that was my ordination present. Every time I look at that picture now, I go back to that moment, and all I can see is Christ.  It is my icon of ministry, and it grounds me into doing the work that I was called to do. We were in that place, on that night, both of us seeking an encounter with Christ.  And Christ met us there.

I’ve been living that encounter over and over again in my mind this week, because I learned that my friend W.B. died unexpectedly last week.  WB’s death makes me deeply sad, for personal as well as pastoral reasons. But when I look at that picture, I realize it isn’t just a fond memory: it’s a reminder of a shared encounter with Christ.  And it reminds me that sometimes the most important encounters begin in the dark: whether that is the darkness of grief, or the darkness of night. Always, in that encounter with Christ, there is the first hope of resurrection.

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.  New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”  

And so it is that today in our Gospel lesson, we meet Nicodemus who also finds himself encountering Jesus in the dark of night.  We make a lot of assumptions about why that might be. Maybe he was afraid, or sneaking around, or didn’t want to be spotted. Our mind goes there, but actually, we don’t really know.  We do know that he was a leader among the Jewish people, a respected member of scholarly Jewish legal counsel and temple authority. And we know something was stirring in Nicodemus or he wouldn’t have sought out Jesus for a conversation.  

Sometimes, things need to happen at night.  And always, Jesus is there to meet us.

When Nicodemus encounters Jesus, he is given more food for thought than answers to his specific questions.  Jesus speaks to him through the metaphor of birth: that other very human experience where darkness is essential and necessary in order for the transformation of new life to occur. In many ways, Nicodemus approaches Jesus exactly as we might: with the smallest actions of faith, filled with questions, hoping for a glimpse of the possible.

You see, hope and possibility thrive in the dark:  gestation, the energizing of bulbs, the necessary germination of seeds until they can withstand the light of day.  Jesus speaks to Nicodemus through this context of possibility, addressing his questions not with answers (“helping him see the light”) but with a fitting analogy for the darkness: birth and the gestation of new beginnings.  

Jesus, as the incarnate word made flesh, makes God known to Nicodemus in the dark of night.  The revelation isn’t in the answers given; it is in the encounter itself.  

Something really interesting happens in the text of John’s Gospel after this encounter.  No longer are Jesus and Nicodemus in conversation with each other, as it might be if we were just nosy eavesdroppers on their night-time chat.  The grammatical structure of the whole narrative shifts, and the “you” to whom Jesus refers becomes not singular you Nicodemus, but second person plural…YOU…as in, all of you.  Now we, the readers, are standing together with Nicodemus in our shared encounter with Christ. And it just keeps getting better when you dig more deeply into the Greek of the text.  That Sunday School verse of John 3:16 means so much more: “For God so loved the world…” isn’t spoken in dialogue solely to Nicodemus the night visitor but is proclaimed to all of us: πᾶς (pas) “all”, as in all of the parts of a whole, and in this case the whole moral κόσμον (kosmon), all of the orderly creation.  We…us…”all y’all”…are brought into this encounter with Jesus who reveals to us that God so profoundly loves us that Jesus has been sent from heaven to earth…birthed into being in human form…so that all parts of the whole of creation may be σωθῇ (sōthē): saved, healed, and reconciled.  

Sometimes, things need to happen at night.  

We stand today, brought into this narrative through John’s Gospel to stand with Nicodemus in this profound encounter with Jesus’ revelation of his nature, and desire to rebirth the world as we know it.  It is the dark of night, and the light of salvation is speaking.  

Perhaps Nicodemus seems to disappear from the centrality of this story because he, like us, is germinating in this new revelation of faith.  You see, nothing about this story aligns darkness with fear or negativity…we need to check some of our own assumptions about that. Darkness is filled with the unknown and the unknowing, but that is inextricably necessary to the growing.  

Nicodemus re-appears two other times in John’s Gospel.  In chapter 7, he is named among the temple authorities debating with the temple police over whether Jesus should be arrested for proclaiming himself as Messiah. Nicodemus advocates for Jesus to be given a hearing, so that people may learn what he is doing. But, he is silenced. Perhaps there was still a need for more time in the dark.  We are introduced to Nicodemus one final time near the end of John’s Gospel. Now, he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, carrying a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus is referenced again as the one who had come to Jesus by night. And now, again, it is night. A night darker than any other night.  And I can’t help but wonder what thoughts were running through Nicodemus’ mind, remembering his first encounter with Jesus in the night, pondering the faith which has undoubtedly been germinating in his soul, running these powerful encounters through his mind all the while preparing Jesus’ physical body for burial. That encounter with Jesus had changed everything for Nicodemus, or he wouldn’t be there.  Just like our encounter with Jesus changes everything for us, or we wouldn’t be here, either. I want to believe that his soul stirred, and mixed in with the heavy perfume of aloes and myrrh was the glimmer of resurrected hope.

We also stand in that hope, even in nights of unknowing.  As we pray in our burial liturgy: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Sometimes things need to happen at night.  So, in closing, I offer you this Night Prayer from the New Zealand prayer book.  This is a prayer not just for the setting of the sun, but also as we move together through the nights of unknowing in this lenten season, encountering Christ who is in our midst:

Lord, it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done; 
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night is dark.

Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.

The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.

In your name we pray.
Amen.

WBicon

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Ashes and Chalk

Homily for Ash Wednesday

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Richmond, VA

Last year, Ash Wednesday happened to coincide with my Spring Break at VCU.  It was a transitional time for me, literally: I was in the midst of serving as transitional deacon and Missioner to Monroe Park, while at the same time exploring options for what might follow my priestly ordination later that spring.  My situation was a familiar refrain to many of you, I’m sure: just when it seemed like the perfect opportunity was coming together…appropriate for the story I’m about to tell…my best laid plans went up in flames. I decided to take some much needed time away during that week away from academic classes to think and to pray.  But, there was also a practical reality to attend to: we had a day full of services, but we didn’t have quite the supply of ashes that we thought we did. Thankfully, there was still a retained supply of dried palm crosses and fronds from the prior Palm Sunday…and for those of you who don’t know, that is the source of these ashes that we use to mark the beginning of Lent.  

Not to de-glamorize the process, but I think it’s important to give a little context to my story.  Mid-afternoon on one of those transitional spring break days, I found myself in the midst of the holy work of ash making.  Let me set the scene: a Priest, a Deacon, a Property Manager and a Sexton gathered in a parking lot around an oversized aluminum mixing bowl that had been borrowed from the parish kitchen…a bowl, incidentally, that I often used to mix huge quantities of salad for those seeking food and shelter during the weekly hot lunch meal we served every Friday at that parish.  It was windy, so it took four of us acting as a human wind-break around this make-shift firepit, kindling up a palm fire which we were hoping would neither overtake the bowl nor get blown out. We were successful, in case you were wondering: no-one was singed and there were plenty of ashes to go around. But that isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is that after tending that fire and breaking down of the carbon remnants of the palms into a fine ash then preparing them for imposition: I knew where they came from.  I held those ashes the following day, praying with my lips the words which call the Church to repentance, while imposing the ashy remnants of palms waved with shouts of hosanna, stripped down to their essence by purging flames contained in a bowl of hospitality, protected and tended by the caretakers of the Church’s spiritual, physical and material well-being.

Sometimes we need to be reminded where we come from.  

Ash Wednesday offers us that opportunity.  It breaks us away from our patterns of life as usual.  It requires us to interrupt our best laid plans, our normal routines, and to rend our hearts open.  We impose ashen crosses on our physical form and pray words collectively and individually that remind us of our non-glamorous origins.  Ash Wednesday doesn’t placate us and it doesn’t absolve us: it calls us to prayers of repentance, and ushers us into a whole season of opening our hearts to meet God in new and palpable ways.  With our hearts open and humble, we can’t rely on our outward displays of piety, or our shouts of loud hosannas, or treasures stored up on this earth. Those aren’t going to save us. Like the ashes imposed on us today, we are purged and refined; we are reminded that all of us are of the same essence, formed of the same dust.  

It is also a day where we are reminded that God, the Source of All, knows us and loves us all, profoundly. We are sometimes reduced to our essence in this world.  But we, too, are held in a bowl of hospitality and tended by the One who knows what we are really made of. So, into that purging fire we are invited to toss away the human-induced hurts that weary our bodies and consume our thoughts: our afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.  Because, even reduced to our essence, we are beloved.

As we are reminded in our Epistle reading, it is through the purifying power of God that we can then open ourselves to freely receiving the gifts that belong to God: knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, truthful speech, and genuine love.  We store up these heavenly treasures, opening to God’s work through us. Nothing goes to waste; purging that which distracts us from God frees us to do the work that God calls us to do.

But, even though it is Ash Wednesday, I want to talk a bit about another substance today, too: chalk.  Chalk in its original form is a naturally occurring sedimentary rock, a form of soft limestone extracted from sea water as it evaporates.  We’ve developed easier ways to manufacture the white (or even colorful) blackboard and sidewalk chalk we use today. But chalk, scientifically, is naturally composed of calcium carbonate formed underwater by slow accumulation and compression of the calcite shells from microscopic, single-celled organisms.  And when chalk is manufactured today, its close chemical cousin calcium sulfate, also known as gypsum, is used as a base. Both of these minerals are water soluble; they will wash away with water and eventually return to the sea where their molecules will be added to layers of marine calcium. Over millions of years, these will again become compressed through time and gravity, forming layers of hardened calcium carbonate chalk or beds of gypsum.  The calcium cycle repeats. Chalk, even when it seems to be washed away, is never destroyed.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are part of something greater than we are.

So, I’m inviting us to think about the lessons of ashes and chalk as we begin a holy lent.  When you leave today, take a piece of chalk with you. This is a reminder to love and to pray.  Find a place…or several places…in need of love. Maybe it’s in your neighborhood, or where you work.  Perhaps its a place that is abandoned or somewhere that reminds you of healing that is yet to happen. I invite you to take your chalk and make your mark on or near that place…draw a heart, write an encouraging word, let people know that place is loved because there is no corner of this world where God’s love cannot reach.  Then, I invite you to pray. Pray for that place. Enfold that place with love, sourced in God. Revisit it when you can. Not for piety’s sake. But because you are a caretaker of God’s love this Lenten season, right where you are standing. Leave more chalky love there if the rain washes it away. Nurture and tend that place God has called you to love this lenten season, and open your heart to what God has to tell you.  

This is the good news, my friends:  we are dust, and to dust we will return.  We are of the essence and form of this world that God created, and nothing goes to waste.  Purging our pain, our worries, our fears and our woes opens us to new forms of love and grace.  God tends us so that we may open our hearts to the greater gifts and allow God’s patience, kindness, holiness, and love to work through us.  We are the dusty, beloved people of God who don’t need to beat ourselves up or tear our clothes or fast until we faint to prove a point…we just need to be open to the work God is doing in us: to fully immerse into the cycle of giving and receiving love, just as we were created to do.

And so today, we have ashes and we have chalk.  Both are dusty reminders, each in their own way, of where we come from and the greater work of which we are a part.   

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

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“Yes” is Enough

Homily for Epiphany 6 Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia

Lectionary Readings:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

I realize this is probably a dangerous way to begin a homily, but I want to invite you to take a moment and bring into your mind the most memorable sermon or inspiring speech you have ever heard. Perhaps it was the heartfelt charisma of Bishop Michael Curry, or the justice-on-fire of Dr. William Barber; maybe it was the theological wisdom of Richard Rohr, the saintly sarcasm of Nadia Bolz-Weber, the vulnerable inspiration of Brené Brown or the celtic spirituality of John Philip Newell. Or perhaps it was not a famous preacher at all, but a beloved pastor or teacher who seemed to be speaking words directly to your soul.

Go ahead: hold that moment in your mind. Right there, in that inspired moment: Where is God for you?

….OK, When you’re ready, you can open your eyes and come join with this preacher in this pulpit again now…

No matter whose lips spoke the words that inspired your spirit, I hope that the answer to that last question brought an undeniable recognition of God’s presence in that encounter, in that palpable and memorable moment in time.

Today’s Scripture lessons place us in the middle of three inspiring dialogues between people and their spiritual leaders. First we hear a portion of the speech given by Moses to the Israelites who are about to enter the promised land. Moses’ dialogue famously includes the imperative, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…”

In the Epistle lesson, we hear Paul’s exhortation to the churches in Corinth to come together across their growing divisions. Paul, with love, is also pointedly calling his people out for fracturing off into comfortable enclaves identified with their human leaders. He yearns to speak with them of spiritual things, but instead finds himself having to speak to the human divisions that are getting in the way of spiritual growth.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus pushes those listening to the Sermon on the Mount into tougher terrain than they have been before, moving them from the comfortable structure of thinking about themselves as law abiding followers to the unsettling lesson that there’s no place for an “us vs. them” mentality in the realm of God. We all share the lustful thoughts, anger, and failure to communicate our genuine intentions which are enough to keep up from experiencing the transformative love God has for all of God’s people.

Our lessons today are all examples of tough love, spoken by Godly leaders. And I’m pretty sure they were memorable for all who heard them.

You see, lessons like these are gifts of growth. They aren’t glossed over with beautiful illustrations and empty platitudes. The wise words of the spirit passing from each leader to the people in their care are challenging, disquieting, and yet spoken with a depth of truth and love sourced in God. Today’s scriptures tell us about how God is present in the lessons that need to be conveyed to people in every age and context, in order to invite our participation in the work God calls for us to do. Sometimes that requires some strong words, tough love and deep faith.

Take, for example, the wilderness-wandering Hebrew people who showed great faith and perseverance but who also had not always been dutiful and grateful followers. And Moses had not always been the willing leader and spokesperson for God, either. In fact, if we go back to the 4th Chapter of Exodus, we hear Moses campaigning and trying to convince God to find someone else for the position of inspirational leader: “Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” But Moses said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”

This frightened, trying-to-escape-the-call human being is not the Moses we tend to remember but surely he is someone with whom we can relate. We also tend to set aside what comes after this inspired speech, where Moses is indeed shown the promised land which will be given to his descendants, but into which he himself will never go.

And in our Epistle, we hear a very confident St. Paul the leader and inspirer of many churches, who was also once the barely-recovering his sight Saul-transformed-to-Paul who must let go of and then remake all that he once believed, having now seen the glory of God and experienced the blinding power of the Spirit.

And yet, each of these spiritual leaders speaks the truth needed at that precise moment of time within the context in which the people God has entrusted to their care reside. The Israelites on the cusp of arriving at the promised land when the darkest hour seems to be upon them are reminded of God’s life-giving presence throughout their journey, their exodus, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night who has led them, and still leads them. Choosing not to give in to human fear and to reject the allure of false gods and idols gave God’s chosen people the opportunity to remain in the presence of God: choosing God was choosing life; choosing life was choosing God.

The people of the churches of Corinth were about to splinter apart, focusing so much on the qualities and distinctions of their human leaders that they were losing sight of their common, spiritual worship. Paul calls out their humanity, and in doing so helps them see the desire God has for their spiritual growth.

Jesus, knowing the ways in which human beings can so quickly default to sorting the unworthy from the worthy, is able to go so deeply inside the law that it transforms the law and transforms us into seeing that without God, none of us are worthy. Yet with God, we are enough.

Indeed, each of these leaders learns that with God, they are enough. Moses, at the end of his ministry, has learned that God has put the words in his mouth and had already set in motion all that was needed for him to do the work he was called to do. Paul speaks to the churches in Corinth of what he has come to know, that God works through us as one body. God gives the growth for all that we are meant to be as beloved community: “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Jesus reminds the crowd gathered for the sermon on the mount…and in doing so, reminds us…that God does not ask us for our perfection, but for our consent: let our yes be a yes to the work that God has called us to do.

And this is our Good News: With God, we are enough.

Taken together today, these passages from our Holy Scriptures remind us that at whatever places and points we are at in our ministries, God gives us all that we need. We are enough: in our newness and vulnerability, in the intense and frustrating depths of ministry when we are at risk of cynicism and division, in the parting words of wisdom that allow us to hand our work to those who will come after. In all these, God is with us and the Holy Spirit of God is equipping us to do and to be all that is needed for God’s work in the world. And God is still working, speaking and moving today with essential lessons for our time and context, too.

So, go back with me, if you will, to that memory of inspired preaching. See God in that place, with that person, filling them with the inspiration to speak the words and the wisdom that you, the listener, needed to hear. If you can, take a moment to recall and take in that lesson again, the lesson that God had…and still has…for you.

And now, see God in that very same place, equipping you. Giving you the words, the inspiration, the awareness of the call God has placed on you and the divine presence that is with you to make that same palpable presence of God known to the world in which you live.

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Open yourself to God. When someone is in need of a glimpse of the divine in a broken world, you will be that beacon. When there are words that need to be spoken, God will provide. God is in the midst of us, reminding us that we are enough, asking us to be who we are, inviting us to say an honest and authentic “yes” to what we are called to do, working through each of us so that we are, all of us, the many parts of the Body of Christ working to make God’s transforming love known to this world in which we live.

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Called to Community

Homily for Epiphany 3, Year A (January 26, 2020)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

Lectionary Texts

I was at an academic conference last weekend and had the opportunity to hear a talk by Stacey Abrams focused on her deeply passionate political advocacy to end voter disenfranchisement.  She chose to begin her talk with us…an audience of social workers…by giving us a sense of her identity within her family. This included her parents…both of whom are now ordained Methodist clergy…as well as her five siblings who each had a very different life trajectory, from neuroscience, to law, to working diligently every day at being a person in recovery.  She loved and honored every one of them in that speech. I know you weren’t there to hear the whole thing and I cannot even attempt to recall it all with the eloquence she did…but there were a few things about that talk that have lingered with me as I’ve been working with the texts of today’s scripture lessons.

First, there was a predictable outbreak of applause at the mention of her brother, the social worker.  Those of us present might not have known him, but we had an instant recognition of shared vocation and call whether or not we knew anything else about each other as individuals; the connection made us family.

The other lingering thought was how deeply and personally she was inspired to action by her youngest brother who exemplified the persistence and hard work it takes to move through patterns of incarceration and treatment to navigate a complex history of mental health and addiction.  She didn’t have to tell us all the details of his story: she knew she was speaking to a crowd full of people who also knew how easily people fall through the cracks of a broken system; how people self-medicate when there is no access or means to pay for essential medication; how much concerted work and resolute faith it takes for people to get up every day and walk the step-by-step journey through addiction. We were right there, walking with her as she told her story, taking in the narrative she told about the people who raised her, who inspired her and the policies and institutional barriers that frustrate her and injure the people she loves.

As I sat there listening to her story in that shoulder-to-shoulder packed room, I was reminded about the way in which call manifests in our lives.  We might be tempted to think of “call” as a mountaintop moment of personal clarity. But walking along the sea of Galilee with Jesus, we begin to see that call resides in ordinary, everyday relationship.  God speaks and the common threads of our lives begin to weave together in ways we never before realized were possible.

In the Epiphany stories of Jesus’ baptism, we were given a glimpse of the divine call made manifest in Jesus’ own life.  But in today’s Gospel, we get a glimpse of Jesus’ call on a more human and relatable level. The baptism of Jesus was a moment of divine recognition but it also inaugurated a deeply human story between John and Jesus, whose lives intersected profoundly when each entrusted the other with an intimate knowledge of meaning and purpose and identity.  John, whose call was to baptize Jesus whose sandals he did not even feel worthy to untie; and Jesus, prophetically stepping into the waters of baptism with his wild, living-on-the-margins, zealous older cousin John, a prophet who spoke hard truths, called for repentance and lived off the grid…as we might say now…in direct and defiant opposition to empire.  

As the narrative unfolds, Jesus relocates his life from Nazareth to Galilee and settles in Capernaum, on the northwest Galilean shore.  This was Roman-occupied territory, the seat of the empire that his cousin so often spoke out against. But, John had been arrested; his resistance to empire had been recognized as a threat and he had been taken away.  Jesus’ change of location was likely practical…we know from accounts in the Gospel of Luke that he was effectively chased out of the temple for his teachings in his hometown of Nazareth. But, it was also prophetic and poetic, as echoed in Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus left his Hebrew home to settle in the land held by the Roman empire that had imprisoned John. And he went there knowing full well what happened. Jesus goes into the heart of the empire to shatter the empire, taking up the cry of his cousin but this time, speaking with his own unique, clear and compelling voice:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  

I’m struck by this intertwining of the ministries of John and Jesus where today’s Gospel lesson begins.  There are so many unanswered questions: what compelled Jesus to that particular place? How did the news of John’s imprisonment inspire Jesus’ actions?  While we don’t have clear answers, we have all the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry that follow, reminding us not only that John was pointing the way to Jesus, but that the character and qualities we see John the Baptist living were woven inextricably into this narrative of Jesus’ own ministry: Jesus who met people at the margins, withdrew to spaces set aside, lived in juxtaposition to empire even within empire; Jesus who preached the need to turn and change and reclaim a vision of the kingdom of heaven in our midst and who showed through story and example the reign of God which has come near.  Jesus, moved to action by the darkness of injustice, now moves deeply and deliberately into the light of call. Only then could Jesus recognize and call others.

You see, I’ve always focused more on the second part of this story than the first.  How was it that the disciples of Jesus would just leave everything and follow? But I am beginning to realize that the calling of the disciples may not have felt like a singular moment or a solitary choice but perhaps, instead, like the next faithful step forward into a community that saw them as they were, asked them to come as they were with the skills of their human lives, and saw the divine spark of purpose and call in the midst of their ordinary lives fishing, and building, and repairing.  Maybe we could see it another way: Jesus and the disciples on the shores of Galilee saw the need to feed those who hungered, make shelter those who needed rest, and mend the lives and structures that were broken. And so it was that a community emerged; God’s justice flowed like water and the kingdom of heaven came near.

I’m reminded of the intersecting lives of a few modern day prophets and justice bringers, too.  I listened recently to an interview with Ruby Sales, a civil rights veteran and (by her own admission) unexpected public theologian.  She, like many of our black siblings, felt the weight of oppression during the civil rights era in the tightening of Jim Crow laws and state sanctioned discrimination.  She felt a need to stand up and do something. During one of her first protests…in 1965 when she had just turned 17…it was Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels who, freshly arrested and then unexpectedly released from jail earlier that afternoon, took a bullet fired directly at them by the town’s police deputy.  Jonathan died; Ruby survived. Her subsequent life of faith, of civil activism, and of public witness has been constantly intermingled with oppression by the empire. And yet she does not stop. Even more, she asserts that the central question of our public theology must be to turn to one another and ask: “Where does it hurt?”

In that interview, Ruby Sales explains “…love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that moves you to transformation and human up-building.”

Jesus’ move into the heart of an empire that had imprisoned his cousin John was likely not one of gentle peace.  When structures of oppression hurt those you love, you get angry. Jesus steps into that place of human anger and fills it with divine redemption.  In today’s Gospel he took up the call to ministry vacated by an imprisoned John, and allowed the free slowing of the Spirit which rested on him in Baptism to call into ministry those who were needed in God’s vision exactly as they were, to do the work of replacing the empire of human oppression with the divine imagination of what can be, with God’s help.  Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were invited to participate in the reign of God. Today we hear their resounding “yes” as an embrace of this ministry of heavenly redemption from the structures of bondage in this world. We are amazed, and we are terrified, and we too are invited to participate in this reign of God’s redemptive love for all of humankind. The kingdom of heaven has come near.

Not just our Gospel, but all of today’s lessons point to this universality of the Good News: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and on those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined; our baptism, like that of Jesus, is of God; being baptized in Christ unites us in the same mind and the same purpose. Jesus reminds us that the Good News is as present and relevant at the margins of this world as it is at the center of the empire.  God calls us as we are, with the gifts and the strengths that we bring, living within the particularities of our time and place, to live into the fullness of the mission and ministry God has for us in the places where it hurts the most.

Where does it hurt?  Where we see hurt, we are called to go because that is the very place where God will meet us.  In the darkness of our hurt and the hurt of this world in which we live, the profound piercing of the good news of the light of Christ will be the most needed, and the most evident.

Love where it hurts; immerse into a community where we feed and shelter and bind up one another’s wounds.  See Christ in our midst, calling us to be that light for the world in which we live. Say yes, not because you feel you must but because you realize that God has put you in exactly the place you need to be, in this community which Christ has called into discipleship.  The steps will emerge, the story will unfold, and the kingdom of heaven will be near.

 

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[re]opening my eyes

Friends and Readers, I will not lie.  This has been a year of beautiful moments and new paths unfolding (which I do tend to take time to write about, or work into my sermons at the very least) but it has also brought the incessant pounding of grief on the door of my heart, overwhelming workloads that have decimated any semblance of self-care I had previously carved out, and it has been accompanied by the inevitable second guessing of myself that accompanies a whole pile of “new” entering my life.  Mostly, my life is amazing.  But, at one point this week, I found myself in my kitchen chopping carrots with such a vengeance that I’m shocked I still have all my fingers.  Emotional overload is real y’all.  Sometimes it’s a fine thread that keeps all our pieces strung together.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in this world and any time I’ve asked for help and encouragement this week (and even when I haven’t asked, to be honest) my people have been there for me, and points of light have found me.  One friend and mentor directly reminded me to not overlook the points of light that can be readily seen on my social media posts and the glimpses of my life that I share out loud with those who care about me.  I was deeply grateful for that reminder, and I needed to hear it above the din of clutter in my own mind.

All this took me back to thinking about when I started this blog.  Unbelievably, it will be seven years in February.  It was Ash Wednesday; it started as kind of a whim, a lenten intention to notice the small points of light on the journey I had been walking.  I wasn’t a priest then.  I wasn’t even discerning openly about my vocation and call, although to repurpose a therapeutic note from the transtheoretical model, “prediscernment” was certainly in action in the inner recesses of my mind.  Back then, I did a thing.  I made an intention to write something down every day during that lenten season and I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing it for quite some time.  I did it for myself, really, and I discovered so much about my life, past and present.  I kept doing it…not every day…but I persisted and seven years (and four more blog projects) later, I can sit here at a time where life is heavy and my string is ready to snap, and now I have this huge pile of stories to remind me to see all the light, especially at times where it wasn’t so evident.

I spent time this morning with people attending the food pantry at the parish where I now serve.  I gave blessings and prayed with those who asked.  Others received food, backpacks, duffle bags, toiletries, bus passes…whatever we had available.  I heard (and held) stories of people who are hard-working, proud, determined, and kind-hearted and have ended up at the short end of social and economic inequality from health conditions that were accompanied by massive debt; strings of industrial lay-offs without benefits; evictions from overpriced and undermaintained rental properties which damaged their credit.  Over two short hours, I also met advocates, musicians, encouragers, creative theologians, devout believers, unwarranted optimists, new faces with new stories and some old friends who have walked this journey with me for so long now that they consider themselves (rightly so) among my teachers and tell me, “I remember you back when you first started out.”  Paul told me he was proud of me today, and that was a gift like gold.

This group of people that bad circumstances bring together for a hot meal and hospitality is the flock that nurtures my spirit.  We don’t have to pretend: we know the system is rigged, that bad things happen to good people, that hard work doesn’t always get you to the top, that people don’t always get what they deserve, and people don’t always deserve what they get.  Our unspoken motto is: don’t panic.  Our spiritual practice is to believe that even when there feels like nothing, there is Something; to claim our identity as Beloved even when we don’t feel that way or others try to convince us differently; to open our hands and hearts to what comes to us, instead of clinging to everything we encounter, knowing we are merely travelers through this world.

I highly recommend this.  I acknowledge that it gets harder (because our hearts get harder) when reality starts to become defined by work, wealth, or influence.  Those things are the great temptations of the world in which we live and they will pull us off course at every opportunity.  Do meaningful work; be generous; share relationship.  That is what is real.

Let me close by telling the brief story of a few things that knocked me back into doing what is real this week (again, thankfully, not a chopped off finger!).

Last year, I met Earl when I was serving as Deacon and Missioner to Monroe Park.  Earl was sleeping in the ally next to the parish across from the park, which is where my ministry was tethered.  When I opened the chapel doors one cold winter morning, his tall and lurching presence startled me at first.  I invited him in to the chapel, and we talked.  I won’t relate his whole story but its relevant to say he was just out of the hospital; currently homeless and ineligible for many traditional shelter programs.  Long story short, over a few days Earl and I worked out a plan to get him connected to health care and housing options and back on his feet, and I bought a tracphone which I called the “Deacon Phone” and lent it to him so he could call various rental places we’d uncovered.  I didn’t see Earl again, and after a while where he’d call me to check in or vice versa, he didn’t answer the phone anymore.  These things happen; I know that.  I continued to pray for him every day at morning prayer in the chapel nevertheless, whether he was among the living or among the dead.  Frankly, I assumed the latter.

Fast forward, yesterday I was at that parish where I’d previously served working with some social work students and my former colleague in ministry there came in and said, “Someone came in last week and wanted to return this to you.”  She handed me the aforementioned Deacon Phone.  I confirmed that it was Earl, who I learned had been hospitalized for some time but now was indeed back on his feet.  Here it was a year later, and a person on death’s door (and sleeping on church doorstep) came back to find me and return a phone.  The moral of this story isn’t about a phone.  It’s about relationship.  And in that small, cell-phone shaped point of light God also dwells.

I tell this story, because it’s too easy to write off people like Earl.  “The homeless” become one dehumanized entity, rather than a whole range of individual people with complex identities and life stories.  I am honored to know some of Earl’s story, for the gift of his presence and the reminder of how our lives interconnect and create meaning mutually. Even the most well-intentioned among us can become hardened by fear and avoid stepping out of the bubbles of presumption and self-protection which shelter distrust.  God is just waiting at the margins, inviting us all into relationship.

So thank you, Earl.  And thank you to the woman today who sang me a Gospel hymn while I hugged her and we prayed for her dentist to finish her upper plate so she could smile again.  And thank you to the resident theologian who told me, “I have a Master of Divinity from the Master Himself!” then went over to the piano to exercise his wrists and serenaded us with several minutes of heartfelt melodies.  And thank you to the quiet young man who I remembered to locate a duffle bag for after he asked for one two weeks ago who, as he was leaving, looked me in the eyes and quietly said, “I’m glad you remembered.”

We have to remember that we are not in this world alone, or in our bubbles.  We’re in this together with God in our midst.  And that, my friends, is the real point of light.

 

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But what about…

Homily for Advent 4, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

Gospel Text: Matthew 1:18-25

When I moved from being a practicing social worker to being trained as an academic researcher, I was told that I needed to develop a one-sentence elevator speech anyone could hear and understand. After a decade of working with the complexities of people’s lives, I needed to confine my intellectual curiosity to one sentence. Just one. I think it took me most of that first year of my doctoral studies to do it, but finally I landed on the description I have used for the past fifteen: “I study ways to improve women’s health and mental health during and around the time of pregnancy.”

At one of the first professional conferences I attended, I gave a talk where I used my elevator speech to define my area of study. As I concluded my presentation, a hand went up in the crowd. It was the first of many times that my well-defined area of scholarship would be immediately challenged by the question, “But what about the dads?”

Given today’s Gospel lesson, I can’t help but feel a bit like I always do when asked that question. On one hand, it’s a completely legitimate consideration: birth experiences are always more complex than just the person birthing the baby. On the other hand, I readily acknowledge that I might indeed have a bias: I have a particular interest in understanding the experience of mothers because of their role as physical bearers of life into this world in all the ways that happens, and all the emotional and psychological complexity that accompanies that. My experience also suggests that there’s someone in every situation who has the most to lose, and in my field of study, that vulnerable person is often the mother.

When I give research talks now, I’m quick to point out…early and often…that I actually care about all partners and participants in a birth experience. But, I am especially drawn in and moved by the experiences of mothers. Mothers may often be the most vulnerable and least powerful people in the story; but understanding and responding to their needs changes everyone’s story.

So, it’s probably not surprising that I’ve always felt drawn to Mary, whose informed yes-saying to God’s call upon her life put her almost immediately in an incredibly precarious position within her personal, social and cultural context. And I will also admit that this maternal and child health researcher loves Advent for the very particular and specific reason that each season we, like Mary, must confront our vulnerability and step faithfully into a fuller understanding of what exactly it means not to be afraid, to trust the Holy Spirit with wild abandon, and to make room to birth Christ anew in our own lives, and in the world.

Sometimes, I hear people wonder why Advent matters, or even whether we should bother holding open this space of expectant waiting anymore when culturally, it’s been Christmas all around us since Thanksgiving. And sometimes, people still ask, “what about the dads?”

And to both questions, today I say: I’m glad you asked.

And so it is that the birth of Jesus, in the Gospel according to Matthew, happened like this. Mary, betrothed to Joseph and living with her family of origin, was pregnant. In an assertion of faith which then and 2,000 years later we still profess in our creeds, she proclaimed that the child she carried was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The practical partner in this birth story, though, was Joseph whom we are told was a righteous man. As was the right and privilege of any man in his social position at that time, he could have chosen to publicly end their betrothal on grounds of infidelity and in doing so, sealed Mary’s fate as an unfaithful and therefore, effectively unmarriageable woman. That action on his part would likely have relegated her to poverty, living either as a forced dependent of her birth family or as an outcast. Mary was vulnerable in her pregnancy, vulnerable in her person, vulnerable in her social status, and vulnerable in her relationship.

But Joseph was a righteous man. While he knew the social conventions of his time and was likely encouraged to follow them, he had thought things through and determined a way to privately and quietly send Mary away so that her pregnancy wasn’t exposed. It was quite a progressive and open-minded thing for him to do, actually. As the Gospel writer attests: this was the plan he had thought through and decided to follow, because he was righteous. Human, virtuous, law-abiding righteousness.

Let me just pause here and say: rest assured that Matthew’s version of the nativity of Jesus is probably not going to be portrayed in a children’s Christmas pageant any time soon!

Back to the story, though. Joseph, having settled on his righteous plan, settled himself down to sleep. Once his mind was at rest, a messenger (ἄγγελος) of God, visited him in a dream and told him not to be afraid. The message was not only to fearlessly embrace Mary as his wife, but to accept this child and name…and therefore claim…this child as his own, with full recognition not of his own paternity, but of God’s intention for this child’s life. The name to be given was Jesus, derived from the name of the patriarch we in English translation call Joshua. Joseph, like Mary, had received the same divine message of a life-altering truth: this child coming into your life is Immanuel: God with us.

I have always wanted to know more about the thoughts in Mary’s mind throughout her pregnancy and as she cared for the infant Jesus. But like the hand waving in the audience, I find myself wishing we knew more about this dad, too. Maybe if we heard some of Joseph’s words, or could get inside his thoughts we could hear and see a bit of what the Good News felt like in his own expression and experience. I wish we knew how the angelic interruption bearing God’s invitation challenged his sense of safety. I wish we could hear the words of justice and advocacy that Joseph used to describe to his family the new course of action that his faith in God emboldened him to embark upon. What we do have in this story, though, is a knowledge of what Joseph does. Righteous, practical, and faithful Joseph enacted without hesitation not his own plan, but what he was called upon by God to do.

We know through his actions that Joseph also gave his full consent to participate in this life-altering and counter-cultural narrative, to move from security to vulnerability and in doing so, to become a true partner in the revealing of God’s incarnate love for all of God’s people.

The profound faith and courage of these human parents, Mary and Joseph, transform our understanding of what it means to live in faithful expectation of the divine. In our Christian journey through Advent, we are living the story of God’s incarnate love for humanity retrospectively: we’ve already travelled the road to Bethlehem; we’ve seen the star; we’ve heard the chorus of the heavenly host and we are circling back around to retell the holy story to each other as we do so beautifully, year after year. But the very human parents in this very human story do not have our experience. They simply have their call.

Mary and Joseph each had a dream; a choice; a reconciliation of their own human desires with God’s plan. In this narrative of the incarnation, they each independently say yes to God’s plan, and with God’s help they enter the uncertain journey unfolding before their feet, step by step.

Whether we see this story through the eyes of Mary or the eyes of Joseph, today’s Gospel lesson gives us a reason to pause in our lives of faith and ponder God’s call upon our own lives, a call to which we have also responded repeatedly this Advent that we will pursue, with God’s help:

  • Do we find ourselves making plans out of our own human, law-abiding righteousness?
  • Are we awake and attuned to hearing the messengers who offer up what God asks of us, even if it makes us vulnerable and causes us to challenge our fears?
  • Are we willing to name and claim what God has given us to do as the work of our lives?

You see, both the Mom and the Dad in today’s Gospel lesson are holding out to us the story of their lives, their trust, their vulnerability, their head-on encounter with their human fears and their willingness to defy the prevailing social norms of their time in order to embody the work God has called them to do. When I read the stories of these young parents, it activates the social worker and the pastor in me: I yearn to accompany their vulnerability, to console them with the knowledge that all shall be well, to remind them that God is with them.

But then I realize, they knew. They already knew. By the time the story of Jesus’ birth unfolded and revealed God’s love for the world in the form of a tiny child, Mary and Joseph held in the flesh what they already knew in their souls. In spite of all social and cultural evidence to the contrary, they had come to know the transforming and life-altering intention of the God of Love to join with and be with God’s people. That is the Good News that Mary and Joseph hold out for us today by word and example. No other elevator speech needed. Joseph, like Mary, had been given all he needed to know to act and move with faith through the journey of his life, to the glory of God:

Immanuel. God is with us.

In these final expectant days as we await the Christ Child, may our hearts like those of Mary and Joseph be open to welcome the incarnate love of God, who dwells and abides with us, forever. Amen.

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Reflection on the Eve of Christ the King

I awoke with a chant running through my mind on this chilly autumn morning, the Saturday before Christ the King.  Prayer is embodied for me, so rehearsing the cadence of the liturgy plants those words in my soul so they can sprout.  Waking today singing a chant that I had rehearsed yesterday was a visceral sign of germination, emergence taking shape even as my body was at rest.

Tomorrow at Sunday Eucharist, we will celebrate the Reign of Christ as we transition from the many weeks of Ordinary Time and into our preparations for Advent.  I will be chanting the Eucharist, and blessing the waters of baptism for the first time.  These new gifts of prayer and presence in my first year of priesthood are to be cherished and savored.

But this morning, there was Food Pantry and a hot meal being served in the parish hall, and that demanded my attention.  I put on my collar thinking about the Reign of Christ.  Leading the liturgy and pastoring at feeding ministries are the two times that I assuredly can be found wearing clericals; they are both extensions of the Great Thanksgiving and in my own mind, practically inseparable.  I stuffed several bus passes in my pocket, packed up a basket full of winter gloves, and went to the basement where the volunteers at church had cooked two delicious homemade soups with toasted cheese sandwiches.  They were trying out a new thing, too: in addition to bags of groceries, a table had been set with donated extras including toiletries, backpacks and other necessities that become quickly unaffordable when one is living on small amounts of cash.  I placed my basket of gloves there as well.  It’s a trust exercise, this communal sharing, holding the balance between parts of us that wish to ration quantities of donated items and choosing instead to simply put out what we have, in the belief that there will be enough.  Today, we chose trust, which at its base is love.  It was, I believe, the perfect invocation.

As our lay leader said a prayer on the fly, the doors of the church opened and God came rushing in.  I know, it sounds trite.  But this, I believe, is actually the case.  God is with us, at all times and in all places.  Sometimes when we notice the tangible presence of the divine, we get the directionality of the experience wrong.  We think, perhaps, that we go to church to meet God.  Or, we think of those in need are coming into the church to encounter God in the generosity of people of faith they encounter.   Those are very nice things, but they are actually about the reign of human-kindness.   In the Reign of Christ, we are reminded that it is God who is incarnate in the corners and social margins of this world who comes in to pummel us out of our comfort zone.  This in-rushing of God on a chilly autumn day reminds us that there is not one corner of this world; not one set of eyes; not one pair of calloused hands; not one hungry body or soul where God fails to be immanently present.  And God is aching for us to open the doors of our hearts; to enter in and bring us all into relationship.

I had just finished praying with a few people when Terrence came over to ask me if I would step aside with him, as he wanted to ask me something privately.  I hadn’t met Terrence before; he was thin and wiry and wore two thin coats which he explained equated to one really warm one.  I stepped to one side with him as he moved closer to a bulletin board where there was a picture of the nave of the parish, taken from the street-facing doors where the baptismal font was front and center and the camera angle pointed toward the altar.  “Now, I’ve never been here before so I’m not judging” he began, “But, what I want to know is this: what would happen if I came back tomorrow into THAT space, instead of this space?”

It was a fair question, and I acknowledged his earnest need to know.  He continued, “See, it’s sometimes when I come into churches that look like this, all beautiful inside, that I wonder what will happen when I’m there, just as I am.  I think about that a lot.  See, I pray every week about where God wants me to go to worship.  Sometimes, I have been to a church during the week and get a hot meal and everyone is kind because they have their roles planned:  they are the ones helping, and I’m the one being helped.  But then I can step into the same place on a Sunday, and see the same people, but it’s like I become invisible.  Or worse, people think I am coming in to meet Jesus for the first time, as if I don’t already have that relationship.  My whole life depends on that relationship; it’s the most important thing in my life that gets me through.  Sometimes I sit there and I think to myself: I wonder what Jesus looked like to the people in the temple.  Would people know Jesus if He showed up?  Or would they ignore him, too?”

I couldn’t argue with Terrence.  His words were prophetic, and important.  I realize that I’ve even felt a hint of that myself in churches I’ve been in, when I’m just a visitor and everyone is so busy talking with everyone they already know that there isn’t a real space for others to experience welcome.  And even saying that, I don’t know the added pain of experiencing that as a person living in this world without adequate shelter, food, or access to personal hygiene.  And, I really don’t know what its like to combine all that with being a person of color in a sea of mostly white faces.   But Terrence did.  And, I believe, so does Christ who draws us together.

Terrence’s words were a gift on this Eve of the Reign of Christ:  The face Christ reflected in Terrence, looking me in the eyes with one plea: will you love me as I yearn to love you? 

I did promise Terrence one thing: if I saw him walk through our doors on Sunday, or any day for that matter, I would recognize Christ in him, just as I did at that moment.  He offered me a hug, because that is what God does.

Just then, another tall and reserved man entered the room.  He was rugged and handsome, dark-skinned, tattooed, and walked with a deliberate pace as he took in his surroundings with an air of caution and determination.  Suddenly, an older, white woman…a regular to this feeding program…who walked stooped over with a cane and carried the weight of the world on shoulders looked over at him and her face lit up.  The two said, virtually at the same time, “My Angel!”  I watched as she stood and hugged him, her head barely reaching his chest and his reserve melting into deep compassion.

This unlikely pairing of people went on to tell me their story: two strangers, who found themselves together on two different occasions in life.  In each circumstance, the other would be dead if not for the other.  Each time, actions were taken that were selfless.  Each time, they unquestionably saw God in each other.  And today, months having passed, they recognized Christ in each other again.  I put a hand on each of them and blessed this space of God’s presence.  Suddenly, they both folded me in their embrace.  And there we stood, a misfit yet magnificent icon of the Holy Trinity in which every theological discussion of the ontological and economic manifestation of divine mystery was revealed in a space that needed no words.

The rush of divine presence remained with us, lingering over bowls of soup and the sorting through of needed hygiene products; the exchange of prayers and blessings along with the safety of a space where stories could be shared and held as sacred.  The revelation wasn’t just the presence of Christ in our midst; that was an unequivocal fact.  The revelation was the powerful, interrupting Reign of Christ breaking through our social structures, manifesting in the shared space and divine dance of interrelationship which defied all the lines of “us” and “them” which separate us in the world.

This is the Reign of Christ that I will carry with me into liturgy tomorrow; the embodied prayer will be in the words I chant over the waters of baptism; in the gifts we present as they are transformed along with each one of us to the Body of Christ who does reign in our lives and communities.  The Reign of Christ is now, and is yet to come.  And when it comes rushing in the doors where we worship and serve, then may we be waiting with open arms to be caught up in the embrace of incarnate love.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

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