Who am I?

Homily prepared for Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

4th Sunday of Easter, Year A

John 10:1-10

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This week’s set of readings, which include this passage from the Gospel according to John as well as the 23rd Psalm which we also just read, are the reasons why we sometimes call this “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  But, it just so happens that about a month ago, we had another week featuring the same psalm where I talked about the way that Jesus shepherds us.  So, I’m not going to repeat that today!  Instead, I’m opening up the gate (something else Jesus refers to himself as in today’s Gospel) to do something very different.  I would like to invite us to do what Jesus has done in this passage: to use the situations common to our lives to help describe what God is for us, so that together we might come to more deeply understand and appreciate God’s presence in our lives.

In this passage, Jesus offers two images and metaphors for God:  a shepherd, who calls the sheep and keeps watch, who knows his sheep so well that they recognize his voice and follow him.  I know that we don’t all do a lot of sheep-herding today…or at least, I don’t…but I do completely relate that that feeling of hearing a familiar voice, knowing that I can have trust in the depth of that relationship.  That voice tells me I am known, and I am loved.  Following that voice is an act of trust, devotion, and a response to love.

Then, Jesus says: “I am the gate.”  This is a switch…from the Good Shepherd who enters the gate, to the gate itself.  Gates may be to keep out, or to let in.  They are a central entry into a particular space which could either protect, or control.  But Jesus is not trying to contain us.  Jesus is specific, “I am the gate for the sheep.”  Jesus, who knows and loves us…the sheep…Jesus aligns with us.  He is our guardian, the one who knows us.  Always, whether Shepherd or gatekeeper, Jesus has his eye on his sheep.

This scripture gives us an invitation to think about we experience that same loving, trusting, present God even in right here as we go about our everyday lives.  I’m going to run with that, and trust the Holy Spirit in what will emerge.  Today, I’ve been asking our Red Door volunteers and guests…including many of you as you came in…to tell me about where you see and how you experience God.  I’ve been writing as people have shared, and your own images of God have created the poetry that I am about to read.  I’ll conclude with some stanzas from a poem that is one of my personal favorites, written by Jane Kenyon, “Briefly It Enters and Briefly Speaks.”  This is an invitation for us to hear where God is in our midst:

I see God…

…in the faces of the people we serve on Fridays.

…in moments of serendipity, in small coincidences.

…in the face of the person that I love.

…in the mountains at Shrine Mont.

…in the renewal of spring, the budding of the plants.

…in the simple trust of nature to supply us what we need.

I see God, and I feel God in the wind brushing against my face.

I see God in my heart, and I know with my heart it is God who sees me.

I see Jesus when I am sick.  I can see the kingdom of God, and righteousness..

I hear God saying, “I am a blessing God, an understanding God.”

I want people to know, and see, and recognize God.

I see God at 3 a.m., in my peaceful and quiet house,
when everyone is asleep and all is safe and calm.

[the next stanzas from Briefly It Enters and Briefly Speaks, by Jane Kenyon]

“I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years…

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper…

When the young girl who starves
sites down to a table
she will sit beside me…

I am food on the prisoner’s plate…

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills…

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge…

I am the heart contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest…

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow…

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit…

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…”

These are holy images of our daily ordinary, in which God meets us. God meets you today…in this space, in the steps that you take as you leave. The Good Shepherd knows you by name, and calls you. Know that the Lord is your shepherd; the gate for the sheep who is present for us in all these images, in the midst of our everyday lives, and in so many more ways remaining for us to see.

 

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The Road Home

Homily prepared for Friday Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. 

Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

 

The seminary where I study and this city where I live are on two different coasts of this country.  So, traveling has become a frequent companion in my life.  There is one thing that I have realized in all my cross-country schlepping around: the trip home often seems like the longest part of the journey.  

So, as I read and prayed with this passage from Luke’s Gospel this week, I kept imagining myself heading back toward home on that road to Emmaus.  The stretch of road that these two disciples of Jesus were walking is a seven-mile stretch from Jerusalem.  What an adventure that Passover trip had been: time in the city where all of the events of Passover had just taken place; all of those narratives unfolding from Palm Sunday through Holy Week and Easter.  This was the road back home, a place they had travelled many times without incident. But, this journey back home felt different.  They likely had set out together for Jerusalem what seemed like a week and a lifetime ago, full of anticipation about promises of redemption and liberation swirling around their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.  The intensity of their emotions surged with the events unfolding that week.  And then, it all changed.  I can feel their disappointment, their confusion, their bewilderment and grief still raw from the death of Jesus, mixed with their dumbfounded amazement and awestruck disbelief at the rumors that Jesus had been seen alive that very morning, as they prepared to depart home.  If they were certain Jesus was alive, if they knew then what we know now then perhaps they would have just stayed in Jerusalem.  But, they headed for home.  As I try to walk that seven miles in their shoes, what I feel is the weight of their persistent and deliberate steps slowly moving toward home after what must have felt like the most surreal, unimaginable week of their lives.  They were reliving it with each other, even as a stranger approached them.  Their world had been so jarred, it was hard to fathom that anyone could not know what had taken place. The way the story is told in this Gospel invites us to speculate about why it is that these two disciples could not recognize this stranger, who we know to be Jesus.  It stirs in us the timeless question: is Jesus also walking beside us when we don’t even recognize him?

But, before I can even ask that question, I have to examine my steps.  Exactly where am I walking toward with such deliberate intention that my eyes cannot be opened to see who is with me on the journey?   Where is my Emmaus and what I am hoping to find there?

That is a harder question, especially when we are taught to be goal-directed, to keep our eyes on the prize.  As someone here at Red Door was talking with me about a few weeks ago, there are so many well-meaning people who set out a path before us: do this, go here, follow this road and you will eventually get home.  I’m here to say to you that there is great truth and purpose in that, because often the services of this world are set up in exactly that way.  The idea of “home” carries with it feelings of security, family, comfort.  But Jesus is both of this world, and of another world.  Even in this Gospel, when Jesus shows up it isn’t to lead or distract the disciples on the road to Emmaus from their journey home.  He shows up just to be with them.

Let that sink it:  Jesus isn’t the one who appears to tell us where to go.  Jesus shows up where we are, just to be present with us.

Our lives are filled with steps, some of which are goal directed or walked in search of home, and others of which are off the beaten path.  Today’s Gospel isn’t a road map about how to get from one place to another in our lives.  Today’s Gospel is here to remind us that even when we don’t realize it, the risen Christ is in our midst, walking with us.  Sometimes our eyes must be opened so that we can see, to respond to the fire burning in our hearts to remind us that God is near, working through the words and lives of others journeying with us.  Our eyes don’t have to constantly search for God; it is God who opens our eyes so that we can see with the clear vision of divine presence by our side.

The disciples eventually do arrive home, and when they do, they invite the stranger to remain with them.  That stranger of the road…who we know to be Jesus…accepts that invitation.  He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples who have welcomed him to the table.  Jesus transforms a simple meal of hospitality into divine communion.  And this is when his disciples truly come home.  They recognize him: they know him in the breaking of the bread.  That recognition revives and transforms them, even when the risen Christ disappears from their midst.  They are not alone; they know they have been in the presence of the Holy One.  Back on the road…seven miles later…they are reunited again with Jesus’ other disciples, sharing the good news and giving thanks.  Maybe the journey home doesn’t always lead to where we think it will.

I happen to think that this is not just a story of something that happened one time, back in those first days after the resurrection.  This happens every time we gather.  This story is church.  We gather and give thanks in the sacramental meal of Holy Communion, a time in which Jesus Christ is made known to us.  In the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of food, Jesus Christ is present in our midst, even here during our Friday Red Door lunch.  Perhaps most especially then.  With the resurrected Christ in our midst, we are home.

The roads we walk in search of home are not the end of journey.  The road to Emmaus is a reminder that no matter what path we are journeying on, Jesus Christ is with us, sometimes taking forms that we may not even recognize.  We have an invitation to the table, to seeing and deeply sharing in Christ’s presence with us, right in the daily ordinariness of our lives.  We have a powerful reminder that our human eyes cannot see all that is divine, but that our God opens our eyes to see what is around us and right here with us.  In that knowledge, we give thanks and we allow ourselves to be transformed…not only in our own lives, but to go back and rejoin those with whom we share the good news.  We go forth together on the roads and pathways of our lives in the knowledge and love of Christ’s presence with us as we journey and break bread together.  Step by step, we begin to realize that home is where the risen Christ is made known to us. 


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Wondrous Love

What wondrous love is this, o my soul, o my soul…
What wondrous love is this, o my soul
What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss
to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul…
to lay aside his crown for my soul.

I notice that I have been singing rather hesitantly today. For those who know me well, you can attest that I am not usually a hesitant singer. But like any voice, mine ebbs and flows with context. My context today has stretched me. On the surface, it shouldn’t be a stretch. It’s a conference and conferences certainly aren’t new to my life as a social worker, or an academic. Admittedly it is a conference with church people, many/most with collars whether or not they are wearing them, so that is something new….but it is with church people who love to do the gritty, real work of missional ministry. If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m all about gritty, real, heart-breaking open work. And, I’m in seminary so I would hope I’ve gotten over (or at least, used to) my church people issues after being two-thirds of the way through an MDiv program following a call to ordained ministry myself. I know some people here already, and everyone that I know here is someone I like and respect. There are people here I have always wanted to meet, or hear, or talk to.  And, I’ve been having great conversations with new acquaintances, too. These should all be points in favor of gustily singing, joining our voices and spirits together.  But, it isn’t coming easily today.

The truth is, my soulful song isn’t one that is (as one of my seminary friends puts it) “happy-clappy” and cheerful. My heart these days is heavy with the world, with the magnitude of mission, with my life intersecting with the lives of people I know and feeling all the feelings that accompany that level of connection. I am joyful and even hopeful…deeply hopeful, actually. But this world in which I live and work and breathe hasn’t been making me smile and laugh a whole lot in the here-and-now. I’m reminded today that grittiness may be real and authentic, but it isn’t always comfortable.  And, it doesn’t always make me want to clap my hands and sing.

So, this afternoon when Thistle Farms’ Becca Stevens walked up on stage in jeans, t-shirt and bare feet and asked us to sing “what wondrous love is this” before she spoke…well, that was unexpectedly the healing balm for my soul. If the song is not familiar to you, there will be a link at the end of this post for you to take a listen. It’s soulful, in a diminished key signature that rises and falls, but doesn’t allow a sinking into minor tones. It is healing…deeply, deeply healing to actually feel what it is that we are feeling. And I know that I do tend to feel the weight of the world.

As my voice found itself lost in the cadence of song, I recognized the flow of my energy changing. The world didn’t change. People are struggling, hurting. Systems are broken…so very badly broken. But love…Love…wondrous love. Love that is greater than I am. Love that binds together people who otherwise have nothing in common. Love that comes through in gestures of unexpected mercy, in the words that are spoken to us when we don’t even have the power to say what it is we are hoping to hear. Love that gives from places where we didn’t even know that there was anything to be given. I think of the story we heard today, of the “scrappy” urban church where, on Maundy Thursday, six people lovingly washed the feet of a homeless man whose socks had grown to his feet and one produced clean shoes and socks…his only extra pair…to grace the now washed feet. That, my friends, is wondrous love.

I listen as Becca told the story of the Sudanese women who grow the geraniums from which oil is extracted and used to make their products…and how the drops of that healing oil moved from the broken earth on which these women had experienced abuse to grow beautiful flowers which were pressed for oil, and how that oil worked through the hands of women recovering from their trauma to produce the product that was spilled over onto the materials that made their way into a women’s prison so that one woman could smell hope. That is wondrous love. It is love forged in brokenness, fermented in vats of messy, gritty human life, brought to fullness with the healing power of mercy and grace which flow from the spirit of divine love, “The Lord of Bliss.” I don’t even know how each person comes to know the fullness of that spirit of the living God but I believe that somehow it happens, from the smallest and tiniest drops of love, hope and grace.

Yes, my voice has found fullness. I sing with body, mind and spirit engaged. I stand on a mat, woven by Syrian refugee women from strips of cloth reconstructed from life vests worn crossing into Greece.  I feel the soulful, broken hope that is the world in which we are immersed, together.   I too am immersed, bathed in the radiant points of light that beckon me to move closer, love deeper, hope unabashedly.

What wondrous love is this, oh my soul…

[reflection written during the creative writing incubator, #MissionalVoices]

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Grace Shows Up

It was supposed to be a very quick trip to the grocery store; a mission of mercy for ranch dressing that we’d neglected to pick up for Red Door lunch.  My goal was to get in, out, and back in time to be sure everything was being prepped with the lunch crew so that I could focus on Good Friday liturgy and not be distracted by menu details.  I quickly grabbed two large bottles, and sped my way through the self-check.  I was headed past the customer service counter when I remembered I was low on bus passes.  On a holiday weekend, people would need and want to travel.  I glanced at my watch and decided I had time to buy a few more.

“Hey, Sarah!” said a cheerful voice, snapping me out of my focused zone marking time and chores on my mental “to do” list.  A parishioner, one of the regular volunteers from Red Door, was moving through the store finishing with her own shopping.  I mentioned that I was getting a few bus passes for those who would inevitably want and need them at lunch.  We started chatting and before I knew it, she was in line with me, tripling our purchase of bus passes, and beginning the day’s litany of giving by passing one along to a man who was waiting in line as well, who was moved and grateful.

Good Friday.  I should have know then that Grace would show up.

Back at church, there was liturgy and there was lunch which needed to be set up and readied.  Both were happening with some unavoidable overlap, and soon my over-attentiveness to which I should be doing when gave way to a cadence of simply being present and freely moving with that.  I prayed; my eyes were moist as I knelt in a pew in the midst of those who had gathered, surrounded by those from Red Door, those from the church, those from the community just passing in.  But, it was praying while kneeling beside those from the Red Door that cracked me open.  We prayed in the solemn collects for the destitute and the homeless, and the gentle soul beside me (who most would easily identify as destitute and homeless) added with intention, “and the disabled” to the litany.  I reached over to touch his hand and nodded, praying the same.  Grace, so much grace.

I slipped out from liturgy before the Stations of the Cross to welcome guests who had gathered for our free community lunch, as they do each Friday.  This day was unbelievably busy (later I would learn, a recent record of 106 people).  I had handed out my original stash of bus passes before I could even greet the gathered lunch crowd; I was reassured and grateful to know there were more.  I paused to welcome everyone and remind them of our Easter services.  Then, heart already full and ready to burst, I saw her waving at me.

It was Grace.  Grace who I have not seen in months, who gave birth to a daughter and gave her for open adoption.  Grace who is barely more than a child herself, who had been living on the streets when the park closed.  Grace who has already experienced more trauma and loss in life than her not-yet-twenty years should ever know.  She reached out to me with both arms, giving me a huge hug, the first of many which would render my glasses unseeable by mid-afternoon.   Grace had something important to convey, “I’ve come home again!  I’m living at Home Again!” she exclaimed to me.  We rejoiced, tears welling up.  Home Again was a group home, with others her age.  It was clean, and stable, and she could visit her daughter.  She was safe, and no one was taking advantage of her.

Grace showed up.  So much grace.

The day continued, with so many faces pressed against my glasses that at some point, I could no longer see.  My glasses and my phone were somewhere in the kitchen when I saw Grace cradling another sobbing woman, giving her own shoulder of strength now to one who was breaking.  I sat beside them, and the sorrow melted into a heartfelt counseling session we took elsewhere.  The vulnerability, the rawness, the sheer honesty of struggle were palpable.  Tears, sobbing…confession, repentance, reconciliation, absolution, grace at the foot of the cross.

Grace.  So much grace.

On this day, divine love and grace have moved through bus passes, spoken psalms, second helpings, the humanness of hugs, the vulnerability of repentance and reconciliation, the power of deep and authentic connection that brings us to our knees.  None of us are better, none deserving, none without the flaws of our humanness showing, whether we like it or not.  Instead all are loved, lavished with love and grace beyond measure, brought to our knees and lifted, enfolded in the embrace of grace.

Good Friday.  Grace.  So much grace…

Living_Cross_by_Sarah_Hall

Living Cross, Stained Glass Window by Sarah Hall

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Hosanna

A homily prepared for Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Friday, April 7 2017

Gospel Text: Palm Sunday/Liturgy of the Palms, Year A

Matthew 21:1-11

When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

 

Blessed in the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

As we read this Gospel, I can practically see this scene playing out. Before we even get to this road on the outskirts of Jerusalem the crowds have been growing. They have been fed, miraculously. They have seen healing, they have been taught lessons that suggest something beautiful lies beyond the political rule by foreign powers that can feel repressive and overbearing. These crowds have heard that the poor are blessed; that the meek shall inherit the earth. They have followed this man, hearing stories of this prophet as he has moved through the Judean country-side, on the shores of Galilee, from town to town and village to village. And now, as word travels, it’s looking like today will be the big day. This Prophet who brings a new vision of hope, of the power of God available to all of God’s people and not just a select few powerful leaders…this prophet is making his way into Jerusalem.  And this crowd…and all of us in it…are going to have a prime view for his triumphal entry.

I can imagine the news spreading, the crowd growing. I can imagine them thinking: we need to honor this prophet and his entrance. This prophet who has been foretold as Messiah, who will ride triumphantly into town. The crowds, we are told, went on ahead of him. They spread their cloaks and cut branches from trees and spread them out on the road, making a path constructed by what was available from nature, and their own resources, to welcome this arrival to a longed-for future reign of one who was coming in the name of the Lord.

If I was going to put a modern-day spin on this scene, this would be a crowd gathered in solidarity, holding their experiences of oppression mixed with the sweet taste of hope to sing “We Shall Overcome!” as their social justice hero came to town to challenge the ruling, oppressive authorities. It wasn’t a parade to celebrate how good things were; it was hope-filled gathering of discipleship, triumphantly welcoming a change in the tide that could liberate the oppressed and set in motion a new kind of justice that would change the world.

Hosanna! Blessed in the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

We have the gift and challenge of hearing this story without blinders on. We know history. We know Palm Sunday inaugurates Holy Week. We know that the triumphal entry will soon move to a different procession where Jesus leads not on a donkey, but bearing the wood of the cross on which he is to be crucified.

But those events have not yet unfolded for the crowds we read about today. On this day, their hopes are with this prophet who some are proclaiming as the Messiah, who others are whispering is not only the messianic Son of Man but also the Son of God, a prophet, priest and king who is both wholly us and wholly divine. There is hope, and there is mystery. There is proclamation, and there are questions. There is a loud cry of Hosanna! and hushed whispers of what might come next. On this day, as palms and branches are strewn in the street, and our cloaks come from off our own shoulders to make the way for the one who comes in the name of the Lord, we are filled with hope and wonder. Even here, even in the shadow of the cross, even with the hope of resurrection peeking over the Easter horizon: we are left standing together, in the midst of an abundant crowd looking for Him, hoping to catch a glimpse, filled with hope and wonder.

What do we remove from our lives to lay down before the triumphant messiah who is coming to bring justice? What branches do we cut down and lay before the Lord? Who is standing with us? What freedom songs are we singing as we wait for Jesus to come in glory? Do we hear the voices of other prophets…old and new? What are the changes we are seeking, in our lives and in the world? Will we be surprised by the donkey on which he arrives, or will we smile and nod, knowing that power and glory sometimes arrive in the most humble of the beasts of burden. This messiah is our messiah; this crowd is our community, the people of God, us.  This day is filled with our hope, as we journey together, linking arms and lifting our voices:

Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

Palm Green Leaves Palm Leaf Plant Palm Tree Leaf

 

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Band-Aids

There were only a few people left lingering in the church that afternoon.  I had taken off my alb after preaching and was readying myself to head out with my daughter for some lunch.  I saw one of the few parishioners remaining talking with a man who had wandered in post-service; he was looking for one of the ministers to pray with him.  But, the clergy were in a meeting and the nervous yet kind-hearted person to whom he was speaking made eye contact with me, non-verbally communicating, “Can you help?”

I don’t always know whether I’m being helpful.  If I am honest, most of what I’m asked for I know I can’t provide: money, work, housing.  But I can provide proximity, and listening, and prayer.  So, I smiled and moved to talk with him.  I explained that I was the seminarian, not one of the actual clergy.  That meant nothing to him, I realized.  I was starting to explain it when he just looked at me and said, “but do you minister to people here, you know, do you pray with people?” and I said yes.  “Then you’re who I need!” he said with enthusiasm.  I appreciated his confidence, although I wasn’t quite as convinced.

Billy and I walked from the parish hall to the church, and sat in the back of the nave.  He told me his story, and I listened.  Like many stories, his was filled with hope and with struggle; strengths mixed in with serious challenges to his daily functioning.  Once his words started to come out, he was a stream of consciousness of his hopes and his dreams; his disappointments and failures.  At the heart of his story was the question that so many of us face, “what do I do now?”

We spoke of his options, of those who he could trust to help, of service and people that I know.  There weren’t any easy fixes.  He knew that already.  I held his hands, and we prayed together for wisdom and discernment.  I offered what I had, a bus pass.  He was grateful but added, “this will help and I’m so grateful; but honestly your prayers mean the most.”

I knew he meant it.

I had just seen him off, and went to find my daughter who was intently examining the patterns in a stained glass mosaic, having been in ear-shot of the whole conversation.  We were standing in the alcove when a woman came in through the Red Doors, not hesitating for a second.  She was older, with a big pink hat that covered all of her matted hair.  She carried a large pocket book which contained the bulk of her personal belongings.  She had very few teeth, but a very large smile.  She looked like the church had been her destination, although service had been over for quite some time already.

When she held out her hand to greet me, the twisted and arthritic state of her extremities was more evident.  She immediately said, “ma’am, I’m hoping that you might have some soap, and a band-aid.”  I smiled, “I can help with that” I said, and motioned to her to follow me.  As we walked together, she explained her condition: scleroderma.  I looked at her hands, and was immediately transported back to memories of my Great Aunt Marcella who spent the part of her life when I knew her suffering from the same disease.  I saw the calcium deposits against her skin.  I felt some of her pain, involuntarily.  I showed her to a sink, where there was warm water, and soap, and towels.  She ran her hands under the water, gratefully.  I made sure she had towels, and left her to find some band-aids.

When I came back, I brought band-aids and some gentle cleansing wipes for her to put in her purse, along with a small hand lotion.  She smiled, “that will be enough!” she said.  We also prayed: for courage, for strength, for healing.

I walked her to the doors as well, sending her on her way with a bit more comfort than when she left.  I realized my daughter had been waiting for me for quite a while at this point.  When I found her she said, “So is this what it’s like, Mom?”  I was puzzled.  “You know, healing.  Like you preached about.  This is what it’s really like, isn’t it?”

I think sometimes we need fresh eyes to see what is really taking place in the ordinary moments of our everyday lives.

What if the real miracle isn’t in the disappearance of our human hurting, but in the sharing of human pain and divine grace?  Who am I to say that the warm waters of a bathroom sink aren’t the healing streams of mercy?  Why can’t healing be hand-lotion and band-aids, which appear right when we need them most?  Who am I to diminish the proximal gift of presence? Neither Sunday guest left feeling worse than  in their walking through the doors; each one left refreshed, enfolded in prayer.

I thought about the Gospel lesson that I had walked through in my sermon.  Healing wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t without messiness, wandering, cleansing, returning, believing.  It rarely is. Healing is a process of our lifetimes, whether we are the one coming in through the Red Doors, or the one discerning their steps and offering what we can of our humanness to touch another soul.  There is healing in the action, in the faithful asking and seeking and receiving.  There is healing in the prayers of proximity, for all of us.

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My Shepherd

My well intended daily lenten blog writing has taken a back-seat to several weeks where it seemed a perfect storm of stress, health, and existential challenges were making it difficult to remain upright, let alone find public words to share.  But, I’ve returned to health and happiness and circled back to the fold of friends and family.

As I prepared to preach this week, I realized that my sermon writing was preaching to me, from the refrains that seemed to be ever-present in my mind these recent weeks to the unfolding of the Gospel message through these images.  I hope this homily prepared for today speaks to your own soul; now that I’m back in the fold of my blog space, I also hope to resume my lenten writing.  I’m fairly sure that having been shepherded back, words will find me.

Love and peace….

Sarah

A homily for Lent 4, Year A:  Prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Lectionary Readings

“The King of Love, my shepherd is…whose goodness faileth never…

I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.”

This first stanza from this hymn setting of Psalm 23, appointed for today, has been in my mind constantly this week.  It’s repeating refrain has given me pause, and has made me think about this idea of a shepherd.  Sometimes, in our contemporary 21st Century lives, we lose sight of what it means to be a shepherd. Shepherds live close to the earth and often sleep upon it; they are up close and personal not only about their sheep but also about dirt, and water, and where the grass grows green. They work long hours, with one mission: keep the flock well, make sure everyone remains intact, protect them from harm, ensure that no lone sheep gets lost. Shepherds know that sheep are gregarious, group-minded creatures who can be trusted to remain together…well, for the most part. But if one sheep gets separated, the shepherd knows it cannot make its way back on its own. That is not part of sheep-nature. A lost sheep needs the shepherd’s attentive and familiar presence to locate it, to coax it back, to reassure both the sheep and the flock that they belong together.

It’s a challenge, living in our smartphone attached, multi-tasking, technologically savvy world, to imagine being a simple, focused shepherd. But imagine with me, if you will, what it might be like to have a shepherd. Not a boss, a supervisor, a mentor, a peer, a friend, a colleague…not even a dearly beloved spouse: a real, actual shepherd. Someone who knows where we belong, whose we are, and without ever losing confidence in the flock to protect each other will go to all lengths to be sure that if we wander away, we will be brought back safely home, reconnected with our flock.

The Lord is my Shepherd.

In today’s Psalm, the Lord is our Shepherd. In today’s Gospel, we may be initially tempted to hear a story of healing. But, what I hear given to us in John’s Gospel is the image of Jesus in the midst of shepherding. In the past two Sundays, we heard stories of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, and of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well by day. But today, we hear the story of Jesus, the shepherd, who starts out with his flock and ends up recognizing, loving, liberating and returning one of his own fold to goodness and mercy. This Gospel message finds us in the midst of our Lenten wandering, for good reason.

The Gospel story begins somewhere familiar for most of us: a group is gathered together, walking from place to place and…upon encountering someone in need…wonders what someone did wrong to deserve the unhappy fate they have just observed. The conversation the disciples were having wasn’t a nuanced question of theodicy…why do bad things happen to good people. It was a straightforward question of who was to blame: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” While its temping to blame the disciples for their short-sightedness, I think that we are also part of that flock. It seems like whenever something bad happens, our human reaction is to try to pin-point a quick, unilateral cause: Was the person with a cancer diagnosis a smoker? Was there a family history of depression? Who had someone crossed in order to be treated so badly? Having someone or something to blame for another’s bad situation gives our rational brain something to hang onto so that our emotional heart doesn’t have to break a bit more standing in the raw empathy of another person’s pain which could just as easily be our own. When we’re with the herd, it’s hard to imagine that we could be the one who gets lost.

Jesus, our shepherd, knows this.

If we listen to the Gospel story unfolding as the sheep that we are, we notice a few things about our shepherd:

  • Our shepherd isn’t willing to lose any one of us to blame and isolation. Jesus responds to the question raised quickly, and directly: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This partiular sheep, like all sheep, has a place and a purpose for the flock. Not only did Jesus insure this sheep didn’t get written off as lost, both then and now, God’s works are revealed through even this one sheep.
  • Our shepherd has no problem getting dirty. In fact, Jesus’ immediate response is to reach for the most basic of natural elements: dirt. And, wasting no resources, he moistens it with his own saliva and spreads it on the eyes of the blind person. Sit with that last image for a moment. Jesus…fully human and fully divine…uses the most basic elements of this world and his own earthy humanness as the instruments which deliver divine healing. Our shepherd is our healer and guide, providing the direction we need to experience transformation of the ordinary into lavish, healing love.
  • Our shepherd does not leave us, even when others do. Even after he was healed, the man born blind wasn’t recognized by his community; wasn’t trusted by those in authority; wasn’t supported by his family. Healing doesn’t guarantee acceptance on the world’s terms. It is Jesus, our shepherd who pursues the man who is cast out of community, not just to restore his sight but to restore him to love and fullness of community. The story doesn’t stop at healing; divine love and grace pursues us.
  • Our shepherd is persistent in seeking us out, and finding us. In the 23rd Psalm, the way we often recite it, we say “surely, goodness, and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” but that Hebrew word we translate “follow” is not passive; it’s more like the active word, “pursue.” Our shepherd seeks us out, and pursues us with love and mercy as the goal, earnestly desiring our safe return to the flock, to the plentiful green pastures where we belong.

In today’s psalm, we…the people of God…are the sheep of God’s pasture. In today’s Gospel, Jesus who is the Good Shepherd lives into this identity towards one, unnamed, socially outcast child of God who has been lost on the outskirts of his community, his family, and perhaps even his own sense of worth. In the earth-bearing hands of the Good Shepherd, healing is offered. In the hearing, going, cleansing, seeing there is renewal. In the sharing of that healing grace and mercy, there is transformation. In Jesus going back and seeking out the person who has been healed, there is recognition, belief and belonging.

But a question still lingers at the end of this story: “Surely, we are not blind are we?”

If we think we don’t need a shepherd, perhaps we are blind.

If we see like sheep, our eyes are opened.

There is another paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm that I particularly love. Some of you may have heard it; it’s by a composer named Marty Haugan. I won’t sing the whole paraphrase for you, but the refrain he offers of this psalm appointed for today, which is so familiar to us, turns it from a pastoral image into a prayer:

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my needs, from death into life.

In today’s Good News, we are given the images and stories of Jesus, our shepherd. We wander this valley of life not as millions and billions of individual sheep going in our own directions, making even our divinely gifted, multi-tasking Shepherd’s head spin. Although… as an aside…I’m pretty sure, sometimes we do seem that way! We are a flock, caring for each other. We use music and meals and mission work and ministry to keep each other near, to remind each other of the Good Shepherd’s presence. You see, from the sheep’s perspective we have each had our moment where we were brought from darkness into light; from isolation into community; from the valley of the shadow of death into the verdant pastures of abundant life. As we wander through the hills and valleys of this earth we call home, we look for our flock. When find them, we do what we are called to do and care for each other. And always, because we are prone to wander, we rely on our shepherd whose goodness never fails us, whose tender love and mercy will pursue us, enfold us, and bring us home.

Shepherd us, O God, beyond our wants, beyond our needs, from death into life.

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Collegial Community

I am reflecting tonight on how grateful I am to have scholarly, artistic, musical community in my life.  I wish I had the capacity to attend every concert, every recital, every performance by the amazing musicians that are a part of my circle of community.  I wish I could get to every lecture, every research sharing, and every interdisciplinary talk.  I do what I can, but often wish for a clone.  Even in my own social science corner of university life, I have the joy of working with creative colleagues who span the gamut of interests from kinetic design to music to medicine to public policy and everything in between.  Today was a day that brought these collegial community relationships to home.

First, a colleague with whom I’ve recently met about a possible collaboration was featured on my University’s front page for her really innovative work with virtual words, kinetic imaging, and the quality of life of older adults.  Take a look; it’s fascinating: Virtual puppets developed by kinetic imaging professor help older adults feel more comfortable telling their stories

Later in the day, I had the chance to give a research talk with faculty and students from around the university, all studying interesting and compelling things in their disciplines of public policy, education. social work, rehabilitation medicine…and probably a few others I am forgetting.  I had a chance to talk about one of my favorite things: research as social change.  As we talked, and shared, and I heard their insights I was struck by how much proximity there is in my daily life to people whose interests and intellectual curiosity are diverse, nuanced, and beautifully inspiring.  My own research is stronger for my collaborations both in community and on campus, and I was happy to be able to talk about that.

Then, as I was rushing across campus this afternoon, I bumped into a faculty colleague who is Director of the Jazz Studies program.  We spent some time in a faculty learning collaborative together around Community Engaged Research a few years back which is where I learned about his cross-cultural jazz collaboration with the jazz studies department at the University of Kwazulu-Natal.  I play the album they partnered to record often in my office as part of my own “writing music” so even though it isn’t my own collaboration…I feel that link to work that is part of a common commitment to deep and authentic community partnership.

As I think about these seemingly random, serendipitous encounters of my work day, I am struck by the amazing quality of my seemingly ordinary days.  Today’s proximity reflection is gratitude for the people who are part of the circles of our life who we encounter by chance and circumstance.  My life is enriched by interconnections that build on our circles on influence, our cultural experiences, our “one reach further out” into a world more diverse and interesting than is contained just in our own line of vision.  I feel grateful for this privilege of daily proximity that I cannot take for granted.

Closing, for tonight’s reflection, by sharing a track from the 2013 collaborative jazz album from VCU Jazz and the University of Kwazulu-Natal Jazz quartet:  Leap of Faith

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Listen to: ♫ A Little Soul Never Hurt Nobody – Vcu Jazz Studies/Ukzn Jazz. Listen @cdbaby

 

 

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By night…

This is the homily I offered up today for Red Door Healing Service at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.  It is all about proximity, though (as everything seems to be this Lent…my intention is doing what it was intended to do!).  So, I offer it up today as my daily reflection….

John 3:1-17 

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

Sometimes, the stories that pull us in are about the characters: rich description of those who are heroes or villains where we love to love them, or love to see them get their just rewards. Sometimes, the stories that pull us in are about the plot, the adventures, the interesting twists and turns that happen along the way. But sometimes, the stories that pull us in are because we have stood in the very same place in which the story takes place. The reason why the story of Nicodemus and Jesus sticks with me is because I have stood in the same place as Nicodemus,…well, at least metaphorically speaking…searching for truth in the night. Maybe it’s a familiar place for you, too.

I think what might help us really hear the words that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through this Gospel today is to try to stand in the same place as this story begins, standing in the shoes of Nicodemus.

Now, Nicodemus is a good guy, respected among his peers. He’s been elevated to a position of authority as a Temple leader among the Jewish community. That means he has been educated, and that he has talked the talk, and walked the walk. The Pharisees were a group who intentionally lived out the teachings of the temple in the world in which they lived and worked. By day, Nicodemus was doing everything that was asked of him to live into his calling and vocation. I respect that in a person, and clearly the other temple leaders respected him, too.

But what we read between the lines is that something else was gnawing at Nicodemus’ heart and soul. He was moved by the teachings of Jesus, and in spite of his understandable doubts about what it might mean for his life and work he wanted to know more. So, Nicodemus did what many of us do. He decided to follow the lead of his questioning, searching soul and sought out proximity to Jesus. But (also like many of us), he did so in the most stealthy way possible, by night. This had to do with his real soul-searching, and his real fears. I imagine Nicodemus thinking: I want to know more; I want to know this person Jesus. But I do not want to rock the boat. I have to be cautious. Maybe, I can go at night when no one else can see me…

Like I said, I understand exactly what it feels like to be Nicodemus.  I also can imagine how eager he was to have his fears assuaged, to be told that yes he could follow in deep discipleship and still remain safe and certain of his day job. That would be great, wouldn’t it?! But, Jesus offers up language that is challenging and mysterious. He uses the analogy of birth, of the entry into the openness of new beginnings in order to teach Nicodemus about the power of living openly and authentically into where his soul was leading him. Jesus doesn’t tell him that the way will be easy, or that he will be safe and secure. Jesus invites him to an experience of new life in spirit, fraught with all of the potential for growth and all of the potential for pain. This life, from above, is the life of spirit.

We often hear the end of this story quoted without its context: John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But it takes on the life of the spirit, as Jesus invites Nicodemus…and us…to embrace, when we hear it in the footsteps of this story of Nicodemus and in the lovingly imparted gift of God echoing in the next passage:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In our cloak of darkness where we try to protect our own safety even though our heart is longing to be transformed by God, Jesus meets us. Jesus reminds us that the whole reason that we are drawn to Christ isn’t because we are being condemned or convicted, but because we are drawn to the light of salvation, of new life in this world in which we are living. Like every kind of growth and development, it requires something of us. What is required, as we hear Jesus speak to Nicodemus, is for us to receive open-heartedly and know that we will begin to change, to transform, to be a part of God’s movement in the world. We can’t do that sneaking around in the cloak of darkness. We do that by living in the transformed light of Christ.

The Gospel of John is the only one of the four Gospels with this story of Nicodemus. Although we don’t know exactly what Nicodemus does after this encounter with Jesus, it isn’t the last time we will hear of him in the Gospel according to John. He will resurface, along with Joseph of Arimethea, to take the body of the crucified Jesus to the freshly-hewn tomb. Nicodemus will bring a wealth of myrrh and spices to the tomb, befitting a king.  The poetry and images of John often speak of the light in the darkness, the Word made flesh, dwelling with us. We are invited, through this story of Nicodemus, to share in a journey where we don’t start out powerful and safe. We begin small, new, in an infancy of potential becoming where the light of God’s love invites us to move step by step into our full stature. That is what it means to be born of the Spirit, to follow Christ deeply in the open light of possibility. I wonder what thoughts of light and darkness, of safety and spirit remained with Nicodemus after that late-night conversation. I wonder how those thoughts formed in his mind when he laid Jesus in the tomb. I wonder what his response was when that night of crucifixion and death was broken by the eternal light of resurrection.

Like Nicodemus, we are invited to follow our hearts that have brought us to this place of proximity with Christ so that we can learn to become fully who we are, living in the light as we grow together more fully into our eternal life in Christ.

 

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Proximity to Nature

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Today, on the pier, I made friends with some fish.
They felt my presence, the pier buoyant with each step,
I worried I would let them down because I had no bread to toss,
But for some reason, they stayed.

The turtles were sunning themselves,
Basking in the sudden springtime which may change any day.
But on this day, there was warmth on the rocks,
A fleeting solar charge at unhurried pace.

Trumpeting jonquils announced an early spring,
Stray tulips bloomed brightly before their time.
Cherry blossoms bursting forth, streaming down.
Nature cannot hear that a freeze may be coming.

I am drawn to these late winter days masquerading as spring.
Fish, turtles, and flowers have no ulterior motive;
Their facade is accidental, responding to nature’s cues
Rather than the empirical predictions of meteorology.

Today, I wanted to eschew the science, and be with the turtles.
I wanted to simply be present, without worry
and without regard for the work piling up while I strolled.
I managed to be present for an hour; even that was noteworthy.

Nature gives me a lesson today; she schools my soul in stillness.
She offers me companions in fish, and turtles, and blossoms.
She gives me shade and sunshine, water to drink and air to breathe.
In the middle of this Lenten fast, nature offers a feast.

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