Hey, Boo…

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

Lectionary Readings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice when this fear happens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Wells, priest and ethicist, describes it powerfully:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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In the picture

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

Lectionary Readings:

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

 

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My Red Balloon

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come Holy Spirit.

Amen.

doves

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Jesus Prays for Us

A Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after the Ascension), Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
June 2, 2019

Lectionary Readings:

One week ago today, I was wrapping up my time at seminary…this time, my seminary graduation…attending Sunday Holy Eucharist at my “home away from home” parish of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. At the close of the service, that community gathered around me and offered a communal sung blessing on my graduation, ordination and journey and into new ministry. In that holy space filled with color and light, I felt such a depth of love and connection with these people, some of whom I know well and others of whom I didn’t know well at all. But there we were, being Church, lifted together in voice and prayer into the presence of God. We were one, and we were One in Christ. I felt that. It was a holy moment and a palpable reminder that prayer is that which connects us with God and each other.

But, standing here this week, I hold that joyful memory along with a heavy heart. We worship today disquieted by the violence of this world, and we would not be true to the Gospel and the vows of our Baptism without pausing to feel and name the grief and anger and hurt we share with our neighbors in Virginia Beach, grieving the friends and family who were civic employees gunned down at the close of their work week. We also hold in our hearts Markiya Dickson, third grader gunned down at a family picnic in a park in southside Richmond last weekend, a standby victim of gun violence. We mourn the deaths of two transgender women of color, Muhlaysia Booker and Michelle Washington, also targeted and killed this past weekend. Our hearts still ache for our siblings in Christ gathered for Easter worship in Sri Lanka, our Jewish siblings praying in synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh, and our Muslim siblings attending Mosque in New Zealand who were attacked within their places of worship. And we grieve with our family of Christ who worship in historic black churches, set on fire and targeted by racial hate crimes which go against everything we are taught in the Gospel. These aren’t even all of the unjust and violent acts which break our hearts. There is much to grieve, and obviously much to do. And there is, I believe, an incredibly important lesson in this week’s Gospel for us about the fervent and persistent power of prayer during times such as these when we feel the most comfortless.

I think that it is fitting as we commemorate Christ’s Ascension this Sunday that the reading from John’s Gospel is not focused on the leave-taking of Jesus from among his friends, but instead on the prayer that Jesus offers to all those who follow him. Jesus’ final action…yes, action…is to pray. Jesus prays for the disciples who were present and those who were not; Jesus prays for the disciples of the age in which he lived and of the age to come. The prayer Jesus prays, in fact, is every bit as much for us today as it was for those who were gathered at that particular time and place. And it is the continual working of that prayer which Jesus offers, and the way it calls us to action, that I would draw our attention to today.

Rather than offering a fleeting platitude of “thoughts and prayers” for those who grieve, I will assert that using the depths of our Christian thought and responding actively with prayer, as Jesus models for us, will lead us down pathways of change and hopefulness. Distancing ourselves from the pain and discomfort of our world flies in the face of everything we hear uttered by Jesus Christ in today’s Gospel lesson. It leaves us numb and isolated, with hearts that are unmoved by injustice. We are called to more than that. We are called to transform the world through the love of Christ.

In our fervent prayer and worship we genuinely come to know and hear how to respond to that love, as individuals and as a community. From the very core of our tradition we are taught this. Episcopalians are unquestionably and unapologetically a people of prayer. The Anglican tradition we embrace was forged at a time when people were being put to death over their conflicting religious expressions. Common prayer was then, and is now that which holds us together. Every time we gather, our unity is in our prayer. We pray together, whether we agree with each other or not and whether we know each other well or not. Like my moment at St. Gregory’s last week reminded me: our common prayer is what solidifies our communal identity in Christ. Our Book of Common Prayer emphasizes a broad and transformative understanding of this form and nature of prayer which we embrace: (see p. 856), “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” Responding to God requires action on our part. The act of prayer presumes our openness to be transformed to action by God.

While I am obviously responding to the immediate events of our world, I am not preaching some new or transient theology. Throughout history, prayer as action has been the core of Christian life. The story of Paul and Silas in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows them jailed, out of spite and malice, singing their praises to God. Their prayer wasn’t for their personal release or retribution; their prayer was praise to the living God. In that worship, Christ was made known to those imprisoned with them and even to the jailor whose belief releases him to freedom and new life in the love of Christ and through the waters of Baptism.

The transforming power of Christian thought and worship through common prayer in our Anglican identity is also expressed eloquently by theologian F.D. Maurice in his sermon on the prayer book, delivered in 1893:

Thought and prayer both come from a hidden source; they go forth to fight with foes and gain victory in the external world; they return to rest in Him who inspire them. Oh! how fresh and original will each of our lives become, what flatness will pass from society, what barrenness from conversation, what excitement and restlessness from our religious acts, when we understand the morning prayer is really a prayer for grace, to one whose service is perfect freedom, in knowledge of whom is eternal life; when at evening we really ask the One from whom all good thoughts, and holy desires, and just works proceed, for the peace which the world cannot give.[1]

Let me repeat that, from 1893 to 2019: The peace which the world cannot give.

This peace is the prayer that we hear Jesus offering up in our Gospel lesson: “Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus prays for us. Jesus intercedes and petitions for us. Jesus’ prayer is specific and purposive, embodying both his divine intention and his human longing. Jesus prays for us…and by that I mean ALL OF US…that we may be one, even as Jesus and the Father, Source of all Being, are One. Jesus was praying not only for his disciples gathered around him but for all who would believe on his name. That means Jesus was praying for Paul and Silas, for the jailer and his family, for the enslaved young girl who would be freed from spiritual bondage even if held by human captors. Jesus was praying for John, exiled on the Island of Patmos and for those disciples after the Ascension who would gather in fear, eagerly awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was praying for the early church, those at the first church Councils, and for the saints, martyrs and everyday folk of our Great Cloud of Witnesses over the ages. Jesus prays for the quiet followers, and the public figures; the spiritual leaders and the prophetic voices. Jesus prays for those who are born with voice and privilege, and for those at the social margins of this world. Jesus prays that we come to know that we are all one, and that we are also One with Christ just as Christ and the Father are One.

Jesus’ prayer is powerful and counter-cultural. It enfolds us, as community, and lifts us into the divine presence of God. It fundamentally changes our understanding of who we are as followers of Christ. Jesus’ intercession for us is that we become completely one, so that through us, the world might know the depth of God’s transforming love for all of God’s people. And, if we go back to that core understanding of prayer as a response to God with thoughts and deeds, with or without words, we can see the opportunity for everything we do to become an action of prayer. When we welcome as God would welcome; when we feed those who hunger not out of pity but out of love; when we hurt with the grieving rather than distancing ourselves; when we respond to our convictions by thoughtful and prayerful action; when we set aside our need for human recognition and set our sights instead on letting the Love of God be known through our words, actions and intentions then we are living out the prayerful life which Jesus intended for us, and prayed into being for us. That was true in those moments where Jesus’ disciples were gathered around him, and it’s true for us today as we continue to gather in the name of Christ and come to this table together as one Body, united in common prayer.

As we commemorate the Ascension we come to know that even as Jesus is lifted into glory, we are not left comfortless. The worst thing we can do is grow numb and distance ourselves from the children of God who are hurting in this world, which is a false comfort. Instead, Jesus’ prayer invites us into the fullness of God as experienced in each other through the Holy Spirit who unites us and makes us one. All of us. And the wider we allow that circle to grow, the more we will experience and liberate the expansive, transforming love of Christ for all the world to see.

So, on this day where Christ is lifted up, we have more reason than ever to lift up our hearts and give our thanks and praise for the great gift we have been given: the resonant blessing, the gift of Jesus’ prayer which continues to make us one with each other, and one with God. In this is our comfort. In this is our hope. In this, we are made one.

Amen.

 

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[1] F.D. Maurice (1893) Sermons on The Prayer Book and the Lord’s Prayer. London:Macmillan and Co.

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New and Good

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
May 19, 2019

Some of you may know that I’m a part of CirclesRVA, which is a poverty-alleviation program that was recently formed here in the City of Richmond by a collection of downtown congregations and social service partners. Every Tuesday evening, 50+ Circles leaders, allies and their families gather for dinner, mutual support, and learning about each other’s lives, circumstances, and the characteristics of our common life in Richmond which we can be begin to change in order to alleviate poverty and break down barriers of income inequality. The first activity that we do together in the Circles model is to share something “new” and something “good.” Sometimes, people have something to share which is both new AND good. Often, though, I hear someone acknowledge a “new” thing, reserving judgement as to whether or not it will turn out to be a “good” thing. To put it into context, I was working with the youth last week and someone shared, “Something new is that I finished my SOL test. I’m not sure if that’s something good yet or not, though…” I suspect there are a few of you who might relate to that!

All joking aside, I think that most of us can relate completely. We look with anticipation toward something new, but hold our reservations because something new is also something different where the outcome is still uncertain. In fact that’s the point of CirclesRVA. It isn’t a bunch of people who have it all figured out telling others what to do. It is a coming together to understand each other; to see life through each other’s eyes and to work together to re-imagine and re-make the communities in which we live and work. It’s hard work, framed in trust and respect. The whole program is echoed in that opening exercise: it is all about the new and good we come to see in each other.

Today’s lectionary lessons also speak to us of all things new and good. In these post-resurrection weeks of Eastertide we are confronted with stories of that which has become new, and these stories also give us insight into our human reservations about how we struggle to learn that these new things are indeed good: this is true of our kindred spirit Apostle Thomas who needs to touch the nail-pierced hands of the risen Christ; it is true of the disciples casting their fishing nets again into waters that haven’t yet yielded any catch. And in today’s first lesson it is profoundly illustrated by Peter who in the early days of ministry has been given both new vision and new mission about the expansive reach of God’s intention for the Church and yet is confronted by the current community of believers about whether or not this extension of God’s belovedness to those on the margins can possibly be a good thing. It takes time and persistence for them to recognize this something “new” as something good and holy.

All of this new which we hear about in today’s lessons emerges from that that which has been: it does not suddenly appear but has been made, is being made and will continue to be made new by the active resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That which is being made new is now imbued with God’s fullness; its inherent goodness comes not from a fascination with something new and shiny, but with a deep and permeating presence of God’s creative and transforming energy which is made known to us in the resurrection. People who once were considered outcast are now the newest members of the Body of Christ; the flawed and broken earth becomes the new Jerusalem when touched and transformed by God. The potential of the new is revealed: it holds the infinite nature of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

And so it is that we reach our Gospel lesson. This “new” commandment of which Jesus speaks does not mean that there has been no prior commandment to love God, or to love one another. It is actually an ancient and great commandment: the greatest commandment of the Jewish people, Sh’ma Yisra’el, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  What is new and good about this commandment is its enlivening in the risen Christ, which allows the resurrection to be seen and known and experienced through the ways in which we show Christian love toward one another. Behold, God is making all things new in us, even in the new way in which our love for God, lived out through our love for one another, reveals resurrection.

So, back to this idea of “new and good”…

With all our emphasis on what is new, how do we grapple with our ambivalence and fear about whether this “something new” is “something good”? Because, like my group of honest youth, we too often hold out reservations about whether the new workings of God in our lives are going to turn out to be something good. But our Christian life is not an SOL test. This new life in Christ is a new life with God, with God dwelling in us and with us. Perhaps we cling onto some comfortable things about the way things have always been which we are afraid to let go and place into the hands of God. Perhaps our fear of the unknown gets in the way of the hope and belief of what is to come. But we are reassured of the Good News in Christ, that God has come to dwell with us. The Greek words of the Revelation to St. John are more literally saying, God has tabernacled with us and is making all things new. (1)

This isn’t a prophecy that suggests God will make all things new sometime, in an unknown future yet to come. This is the active presence of God in our lives and in the Church, making and remaking of all things new, and all things good. Even our tears and our sorrows are transformed. Or perhaps, as we assert together in our funeral liturgy, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” (2) This becoming new, the emergence of the Good brought into being by the transforming love of God in Christ is that in which we have confidence.

Some of you may have read the poem and blessing from John O’Donohue which I posted on the morning of my ordination. It has been a guidepost on this journey and was the reminder I needed on that beautiful day of the new and good that God has been, is, and continues to work in my own life and ministry.  It is a poem of new beginnings: not the shiny, sparkly uncertain kind but the deep, God-laden new beginnings in which our work in the world is revealed.

So, I want to close today with this prayer and ask you to allow it to soak into your heart. Open your heart to see that which God is making new: the creation of a widening and diverse array of the family of God; the ways in which we learn to love and serve one another; the transformation of that which is broken by pain and death into that which is alive in Christ. These are the new beginnings in which we come to know the risen Christ. And as we love each other, it is through that love that the world comes to know Christ in us. See, God is making all things new, even in our lives and community:

In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

 

(1) Revelation 21:3, σκηνώσει from σκηνὴ, “tabernacle” (noun and verb forms present)

(2) Book of Common Prayer, p. 499

(3) “For a New Beginning” by John O’Donohue, from To Bless the Space Between Us (2008, Doubleday)

 

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Ordination

For over five years now, I’ve been posting on small points of light about the ordinary and extraordinary moments of divine presence on this journey of life.  I didn’t realize when I began that this blog would be a catalyst for helping me enter fully into my discernment, then formation for ordained ministry.  I was just writing here for whomever might read, starting this blog on a whim one Ash Wednesday.   Then I kept writing, and noticing, and reflecting. Gradually this journey began to fall into a pattern which others begin to recognize and name, and eventually I did, too.  It’s powerful now to look back on that journey in words, images, memories and flashes of insight.  I am so grateful for every single small point of light.

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One beautiful week ago, I was ordained to the Sacred Order of Priests in The Episcopal Church in the midst of a loving, supportive community who gathered in the church where I first began to hear and respond to this call.  Those who gathered around me were from the parishes I have served, from my seminary cohort, from my family; there were friends from my childhood, beloved colleagues and friends, students from my classes, social workers from among my colleagues and communities.  It was truly remarkable, and utterly transforming.

This blog entry contains some of my favorite pictures, as well as links to the sermon and the Worship Bulletin with the ordination liturgy  There is so much here to continue to ponder and allow to sink in, deeply.  As the choral anthem reminded us: God has work for us to do!

 

And a few more…

 

 

I was honored and grateful that my dear friend, the Rev. Susan Daughtry, travelled across the country to deliver a prophetic and spirit-stirring homily to send me on this journey as a priest.  I knew when I asked her that there were words she needed to speak, and that I needed to hear.  We ALL needed to hear and truly take in what she had to say.  Here is a link to her own blog post, complete with her sermon text:

Ordination Homily by the Rev. Susan Daughtry

 

 

All of this ordination joy…and indeed, it was true joy…reminds me deeply of the power of the resurrection.  Being ordained in Eastertide is a particularly joyful and moving experience.  We are, in this Easter season, constantly reminded that resurrection is not a static event of a historical past or a nebulous theological construct which we chalk up to mystery, but it was and is and will continue to be the way in which our lives are deeply infused with the transforming love of God.  I had the powerful experience of that immersion during ordination, but that is only the beginning of a new journey lived out day by day and step by step.

So now, the work continues.

I am, gratefully,

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Kye Price

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Shepherd Me…

A homily for Good Shepherd Sunday (Easter 4)
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
May 12, 2019

*Note: Homily preached on my first Sunday following ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests in the The Episcopal Church

Texts:

 

I have to admit, even for someone who tends to keep her schedule quite full: this has been a very eventful week. On Friday, I was wearing academic regalia and applauding my graduating students as they marched to Pomp and Circumstance. On Saturday, I was wearing white and humbly kneeling surrounded by loving community chanting Veni Sancte Spiritus.

Commencement. Ordination. Celebratory moments on the journey of our lives.

I find it lovely on this Good Shepherd Sunday that our Gospel situates us on a journey beside Jesus, who is walking in the temple, specifically the Portico of Solomon. This was in the outer portion of the temple, on the eastern side in what would have been the women’s court. So, imagine Jesus walking in Jerusalem winter, not in a place of hierarchical authority but in a place where those least likely to be considered leaders in that cultural context would have been found. Yet, people noticed him, and attempted to coax him into sharing his “elevator speech” about what kind of leader he would be…specifically, if he could clearly and plainly convince them he was the Messiah. Instead, Jesus spoke to them about following: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

In one simple reply, Jesus conveys all they need to know about leaders and followers. Jesus leads as a shepherd, through relationship. Jesus invariably encounters people, comes to know them by name and then invites them to follow, enfolding them in community. The same invitation is offered to us in the name of Christ, through our Baptism and in our own lives and ministries as well. This Eastertide is filled with opportunities to listen to the Good Shepherd and to live into the depth of that call. Not just true for the new priest. It’s true for all of us.

When I think about the voice of the Good Shepherd, I realize in ways simple and extraordinary that the most important lessons that I have learned on this journey haven’t been about leading. They have been about listening, and following. In these recent weeks, while preparing for my ordination, I re-read my journals and the four-times per year Ember Day letters that I’ve written to the Bishop as we do when we are in formation for ordained ministry. I have realized through revisiting the stories of my own journey that the voice of the Good Shepherd has been strong, and clear, and guiding. It is, like our preachers Mark Biddle and Melissa Jackson have been preaching in our Easter series, a voice that had been, is, and will be. It’s made me appreciate our faithful 23rd Psalm in a whole new way. And so, I am going to ask you to revisit it with me, too. Turn to the readings in your bulletin. We will read the psalm one verse at a verse at a time together. In response to each verse, I want to share back with you a little excerpt from my journey. It seems like a fitting thing for us to share together on this day when I will have the humble honor of fully living into the call that has been placed upon me, and calling us all together to this table where Holy Eucharist makes us one with Christ, our Good Shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

Discernment Retreat at Richmond Hill, 2013: A prayer while walking the labyrinth:
“I want to give you these, Lord. They are gifts and skills I use to serve the world and I have taken that seriously, my whole career. These became my vocation when I stepped into the world, even when I struggled with the church. But you didn’t leave me. And I finally drew near enough again to experience that. But, now, I want to work for you. I want to identify as ministering, as sharing the Good News in Christ, not merely doing good things. Then my human, worried thoughts interrupted my meditation (“but what if the church doesn’t want me?” the voices in my head began to say). And without reproach, in full acknowledgement of my humanity, Jesus seemed to answer “Don’t worry. First of all, they probably will. But even if they don’t, does it really matter? If you want to work for me, then just follow me.”

He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.

August 2014: ShrineMont. After dinner, I thought about walking the labyrinth. I stepped on the entrance stone, but paused and turned around. I hiked to the cross instead, solo, this time actually stopping at each station of the cross to pray. It was an amazing, contemplative hike on a hot and humid evening which made me sweat and pant and simply long to reach the cross as a respite. When I had that thought, I paused to take in the irony. Not the cross of atonement. Respite. Rest. When I reach the top, the sun is starting to sink toward the horizon at mountain level. I rest…literally…against the cross, drink some water, and allow it all to sink in: my journey, my lessons, my relationships, my divine longing and yes…even my divine wanted-ness. I am sobbing again. I have only one thing to say: I am yours. The answer is already Yes.

He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

June 2015: My head is spinning with seminary details, and reading and scheduling cross-country visits in sync with my new four year life calendar. I am so overwhelmed. I think: Just stop, Sarah. Just stop, I wonder if it’s all just too much. And then, a calm comes over me and I feel myself stop. I stopped begging for a sign that this was the right path. I just noticed that the palpable presence of God was still unshakably with me, even with all my human worries of the unknown and uncertain parts of this new adventure. All shall be well.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Ember Letter, Lent 2017: As the weeks have passed since John Bishop’s death, there has been shock, sadness and anger: sometimes at him, more often at the addiction, or at the availability of street drugs powerful enough to kill a grown man in seconds; really, we are angry at our own human brokenness. I am reminded that this is why we are held in the enormity of divine love and grace, because we cannot make all of this right in our own limited power. I often think of Bryan Stevenson’s quote from Just Mercy, “we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I prayed those words as I moved closer toward those who were grieving, shocked, angry, convicted, terrified. John’s death has been transforming for many, many people in our congregations and to leaders of feeding and support programs in this city. I can only speak, as I reflect in this letter, how deeply it has transformed me and invited me even more deeply to seek and serve Christ in ways that can only be profoundly experienced by proximity.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,and my cup is running over.

Monday, November 19 2018: I began this chapter of my life as a deacon one week and two days ago. It has been such a hard semester for me at VCU and yet something shifted last week. Even the people and situations that have weighed so heavily on me seem somehow more bearable. Honestly, I have never felt such profound joy and peace as I did in the moments of time where I knelt between the candles, surrounded by the choir, feeling the depth of prayer and invocation of the Spirit around me. It was profoundly humbling, and utterly transformative. It was as if joy rushed in to fill the spaces left as the residual bits of the non-essential parts of my life fell away.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Sunday, May 12 2019: Here I stand today after one of the most grace-filled and moving experiences of my life surrounded and supported by community. And it is goodness and mercy which surround me on this first Sunday as a priest. I am grateful to be here with you; grateful for the places and contexts in which I will serve. There is grace in the coming together of vocation in my life as new opportunities are on the verge of unfolding and to know that the journey continues with community to accompany me, and prayer to enfold me.

Jesus, who is our Good Shepherd: the sheep of your fold hear your voice. You have been, are now, and will continue to lead us, guide us and call us by name. We know you. We follow you. We love you.

Amen.

 

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Everything

Homily for Maundy Thursday
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
April 18, 2019

Readings for Maundy Thursday

Last year during lent, I met my colleague and friend Saba for coffee over at Panera on West Grace Street. Saba was one of the first people who took me under her wing as a new, junior faculty member at VCU. Over the years, she became my colleague, collaborator and friend. A physician trained in Ethiopia, she faced countless structural barriers moving her medical credentials to the United States when she immigrated. Rather than despairing, she earned a PhD in Public Health and joined the Family Medicine faculty at VCU. Saba was one of the hardest working and most conscientious research academics I have ever known. She was also a devoted mother, so we often shared snippets of our lives and chatted about our kids while planning our latest research projects together. But on this particular day last year, she had no interest in the collaborative research updates; she just wanted to talk with me: about her faith, and her fears, and especially about her children. Her eldest, a senior in high school, was struggling with a decision around college. The younger, a sophomore, was having a crisis of faith. “I don’t really care about anything else right now” my friend told me. “I love them, and they are all that matters to me with the time I have left. They are everything.”

You see, my friend Saba was dying. She and I both knew that. Stoic and hard-working as she was, she rarely even acknowledged the severity of her illness in our professional realm. But in that moment, she knew and conveyed to me without hesitation the essence of what was important to her. Of course, she had always loved her children and her family. But it was clear to both of us, in that very poignant moment, that her whole life was now being lived in service to that love. It was everything.

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

The grief and the love that I feel even now when I remember that conversation with my friend breaks my heart open to hear the poignancy of the Maundy Thursday Gospel lesson in a whole new way. The narrative of John’s Gospel draws us close to heart of Jesus. So close, in fact, that we have no choice but to confront the overwhelming power of love. Those who had followed Jesus had seen the miracles, heard the teaching, kept busy with the details of the living and the travelling and the doing of ministry. But now, seated together, Jesus and his disciples were looking at each other across the table with new eyes. Jesus, fully aware of his limited time left with them, could only see them through the eyes of love. It was everything.

Through the eyes of love, the story of footwashing that we’ve taken on as a holy week custom becomes a visceral illustration of lavish love that knows no hierarchy. It is the action of Jesus whose vision has shortened and intensified; who is compelled to show the depth of his love to those who are everything to him in this world, whether they are struggling with their futures or their faith. Jesus who for so long and in so many ways had demonstrated to them how to love the “others” of this world now looked through eyes of love at them: his very own own beloved community. He saw what was needed. He knew where they are struggling. He endearingly called them his children. And he was unabashedly and unhesitantly willing to be their servant.
That voluntary and counter-cultural offering of the service of footwashing…in a role normally relegated to an involuntary slave…was a plot twist too stunning for the disciples in the moment; they were still focused on the work, the ministry, the needs of the others who were “out there.” Being in the presence of love compels us to open our hearts to receive what is right here; but that requires trust. I hear this when Peter refuses to have his feet washed: the vulnerable fear of being loved. To love, and to be loved, is to risk the pain of loss. When the days of one’s life are a scarce quantity, the abundant and generative power of love is palpable. It is everything.

And Jesus loves them through it all. Bearing the towel and choosing the role of a servant, Jesus defies hierarchy and blurs every line of assumed superiority for one and only one reason: that reason is love. And like the scent of the lavish perfume that they had breathed in when Mary poured her life over Jesus’ feet, the power of this act of love truly sinks in. It washes over Simon Peter and melts away his vulnerability. Once he gets it, he becomes part of this beautiful, overwhelming lavishness: not my feet only but also my hands and my head!

Jesus isn’t just speaking to their sentimentality, though. And thus, Maundy Thursday for all its dramatic and poignant moments shouldn’t be solely sentimental for us, either. Jesus took on the role of servant not for the dramatic effect, but because it was the only way to convey to those he loved the last and most important lesson of his lifetime:

Little children, I am with you only a little longer…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

At that moment, in that community, it was to say: open your hearts and experience this overwhelming love I have for you. Let it transform you. Embody it. Then see it in the eyes of every single person in this place. Not only will it change you: it will change the world.

This love is everything.

Last year, when I asked my friend Saba what I could do for her, she asked only one thing: pray for me. Not “submit my grants” or “finish my manuscripts.” She said, pray for me. At the end, it becomes all about love. And so I prayed, and I pray, and I strive to show others the love she showed to me as my sister in Christ. It’s part of the long-term nature of grief, to find a way to give back and pay tribute for the way people we love have touched our lives. Grief theorist Therese Rando calls it, “emotional re-investment.” We are changed by those we love, so we want to take action and change the world for the better in their honor. It isn’t superficial or sentimental. It’s a reflection of how we are fundamentally transformed by love.

So, I have to ask myself: why would I do any less for Jesus?

Death is never the end of love. It wasn’t for my friend, and it isn’t for those whom we all have loved and lost, and it certainly isn’t that way for Jesus. In these days of Holy Week, we face the harshness of life head-on: longing, betrayal, agony, loss, despair, grief. And yet, as seen through the eyes of Jesus, it is all about love.

So, tonight, I invite you to draw near to the heart of Jesus, and focus on the love. Take the role of a servant. Commit to an action of service not because it feels good, or because it alleviates a sense of guilt, or even because you enjoy it. Voluntarily put on a servant’s towel as an act of love, in remembrance of Jesus who loves and serves us. Wash a foot or scrub someone’s shoes. Come to Good Friday liturgy tomorrow and stay to sit at the table and talk with our Red Door congregants, or come back another Friday to sweep the floor, or wash and dry the dishes. When someone in your community is in need and you have the money, don’t ask a litany of controlling questions; just pay the bill. Buy the groceries for someone in your neighborhood store. Tell someone that frustrates you that not only do you love them, but you actually want to learn how to love and understand them better. Make a point to talk to the person in the room that you are least inclined to have a conversation with and when you do, open your heart to see God in their eyes. Recognize your own broken pieces, and allow someone in this community to see you in your vulnerability by asking them for help, or to pray for you. Tell someone thank you for the unseen work they do that goes unnoticed. Speak out for someone that others are putting down to show the world the belovedness of Christ that you see in them. This is what we are called to do. This is how we practice the everyday art of footwashing in the age in which we live. It is how we will learn to be the kind of beloved community that Jesus wants us to be. It is how the world will know Christ.

When we realize that life is short, the precious gift of love is everything.

Let all the rest be stripped away on this holy night.

Jesus’ gift of love is everything we need.

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Right Neighborhood, Wrong Tree…

Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Texts:

Spring is starting to come into full bloom after some very chilly winter days. In addition to the blooming daffodils and the budding trees, I’ve been greeted every morning by our front-yard woodpecker…bless its heart…who seems to have mistaken our chimney cap for a tree trunk. If my alarm isn’t enough to wake me, the jack-hammer like insistence of its morning quest for food will surely get me out of bed. There are probably brighter and more savvy woodpeckers on our street who are happily feasting on the insects in actual trees. Our feathered friend at least has persistence, and perhaps some extra iron and minerals in its diet along with a well-polished beak. I found myself standing out in my yard the other morning, trying to coax the little creature towards a tree. But, to no avail. I don’t speak woodpecker, and it doesn’t speak English. And so it continues, day after day…

There are days when I feel a bit like that woodpecker: I’m doing the best I can, and doing it with persistence. But, it just isn’t feeding me. I’m reminded, in the world of metaphor, that sometimes I’m in the right neighborhood but perhaps not quite the right tree.

In today’s passage from the Gospel according to Luke, we are presented with two metaphors. Jesus has been making his way toward Jerusalem, teaching through parables which are intended to bring a deeper glimpse of the kingdom of God to all those who will hear. Before we even reach the passage of Luke’s Gospel we hear today, Jesus has been using metaphors of their daily lives…like yeast, and fig trees…in order to bring the words of this good news very near their lives, and their hearts. As we enter today’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus entering Jerusalem to preach and teach and heal. Just as Jesus himself is teaching, his colleagues the temple teachers…the Pharisees…come to him with their own message: Herod wants to kill him.

One’s status as a marked person is never a joy to hear. But, this warning really wasn’t news to Jesus. The ruler to which they were referring was Herod Antipas… the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great…you’ll recall from the Christmas and Epiphany narratives…is the one who ordered the deaths of thousands of innocent children in an attempt to ensure that the infant Jesus caused him no earthly threat. Herod Antipas, who took authority after his father’s death, had already issued the order for John the Baptist’s beheading. So, Jesus has already had his own life threatened and his cousin’s life ended by the figureheads for this system of political and social oppression. Jesus has felt the weight of thousands of lives being cut short, all for fear of losing power.

That was true at the time of this Gospel lesson, and it’s still true today.

So, when Jesus says, “go and tell that fox for me…” he isn’t posing a metaphor about Herod’s cleverness. Right neighborhood…wrong tree. That’s a more western, European meaning, derived from Grimm’s fairy tales and Aesop’s fables. Scholars of Hebrew language and culture suggest that Jesus’ words are intended to deliberately point out the complete lack of authority and integrity of Herod with this turn of phrase, diminishing his leadership as one possessing neither majesty, nor honor. Foxes, your see, are the metaphorical diminutive to lions in this particular cultural metaphor. Lions represent authentic and honorable authority. The linguistic turn of phrase which is uttered by Jesus suggests that he is calling out Herod Antipas as the exact opposite of honorable, both in lineage and in action: Herod is a fox, son of a fox.

Strong words. Prophets are like that.

This passage is one of the times that we are called to recognize that Jesus…fully human, fully divine…is also fully prophet. Prophets see people for what they are but more importantly, they see structures for what they are: power, which corrupts; hatred, which destroys; fear, which builds false walls of protection for some and sends others fleeing. Prophets do the dangerous job of forcing us to look at hard truths, rather than scapegoat an oppressive system by focusing solely on the image of its figurehead.

Right neighborhood, wrong tree.

Jesus speaks a truth about the systems of power in this world which stand in the way of God’s nurturing and protecting providence. Siding up with the fox…even out of fear…doesn’t get the chicks any closer to genuine safety. Jesus, God-made-flesh who nurtures and provides for us, desires to enfold us, to gather us together as God’s children “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” That nurturing, divine love is right here, so close. And yet, the structures of this world can too easily distract us, collude us, pull us into repeating cycles that are unhelpful and ultimately, destructive.

Jesus, prophet and Son of God, has come to break that cycle.

Jesus also knows that people cannot kill prophets…not really…and not even people who are a fox. Prophets speak beyond their lives, and beyond their deaths, because they are conveyors of divine and resonant truths. The point of the prophetic is for us to see beyond what we think we see; to find the deeper truths instead of focusing on superficial distractions. Jesus’ exhortation as prophet is to see beyond the individual where we want to place blame, and instead to look long and hard at the systems which are keeping people imprisoned. It’s easy enough to blame Herod, the fox. It’s harder to blame the structure of false security that you’ve come to call home. And yet, Jesus does that too as he laments Jerusalem’s unwillingness and hardness of heart.

Like Jerusalem, we still struggle with those systems of power, oppression, hatred, and fear. And you can fill in the blank for whomever that fox looks like for you. Jesus the prophet calls us to see what is really happening and not to be pulled into its systemic cycle of hopelessness and fear. We do not need to be lured away from the work we are called to do because we fear for our safety. We do not need run away in despair. We have been enfolded, and are being cared for as children of God. God who loves and nurtures us has already and is still taking on those systems of evil and oppression on our behalf. We are not on our own, scrambling for safety through the might of our own merits and security. We don’t need to give up on God, either.

It’s a struggle as relentless and futile as the woodpecker in my front yard. But there is a voice calling to us, inviting us home.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection offer us the nurturing wings of God’s providence to enfold us. In this Lenten season, think about giving up collusion with systems of oppression and fear and allowing yourself to be fully loved and enfolded. Take on, instead, the words of the psalm appointed for today:

“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; *
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock.”

Jesus utters prophetic wisdom that helps us see the systems of this world for what they are, and know that the powerful and personal love of God for all God’s children overshadows the conniving foxes of this world who would keep us blinded by fear, hopelessly pecking away at what can’t even feed us. Our home…our citizenship, as we hear in the Epistle to the Philippians…is in heaven where God dwells. And if we are enfolded together as children of our loving God, then our attention turns away from the world’s wants and towards each other’s needs: “my siblings, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

In this metaphor, we…the fledgling chicks…are also each other’s siblings. We need God. We need each other. And we need to be reminded that we’re already in the right neighborhood, listening to the voice of God who enfolds us, loves us, and instructs us.

So, let’s not get our beaks bent out of shape on the fake trees or get our feathers ruffled by the foxes of this world. Allow yourself to hear the voice of the prophet, to be enfolded, loved, and nurtured by the God who calls us together and makes us one.

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Remember that you are dust

Homily for Ash Wednesday
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Richmond, VA

That particular winter afternoon in upstate New York started out pretty much like most others: I trudged through the snow, making my way from my East Hall women’s dorm room to the John and Charles Wesley chapel auditorium. I was a freshman at this rural, Christian college where life, in many ways, felt more like the 1950’s than the 1980’s. It was a Wednesday, so I knew predictably that we would have a guest speaker for chapel, although I hadn’t bothered to check on who it was. Until this point, I’d been a pretty faithful and obedient kind of kid, moreso from fear than from choice. There was something about being at this particular college, though, which was draining me. It was what I called, “J Crew Christianity” where everyone looked the same, dressed the same, thought the same, sang the same praise songs, used the same evangelical buzz words. Personally, I was more focused on grades than godliness. I entered as a pre-med major, so my studying and lab time was my priority. I was scientifically minded, drawn to questions, not platitudes. Lately, those questions tended to focus on the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized and what our ethical response as Christians should be. As my roommate told me on her way to a popular campus prayer meeting that I declined to attend: I was starting to behave like the fringe people who sat in back of the cafeteria squishing up their chickpeas into make-shift hummus as they plotted to form an amnesty international chapter under a cloak of secrecy. I knew this was true, by the way, because I sometimes sat near them when I was late getting to the dining hall and my friends had already eaten.

I was thinking about those supposedly dangerous vegetarians and pacifists when I entered the chapel and heard some huge hullabaloo going on just inside the chapel doors, whispering and pointing, “who is that?” and “do they dress like that all the time?” and “I can’t believe that they let someone like THAT come to chapel HERE!” My curiosity had been engaged. So, I slipped in to my assigned seat to see a person wearing a monastic robe calmly sitting on the chapel stage, smiling quietly. My next door seat-mate said something sarcastic like, “This is ridiculous…are there even any Catholics here?” I hushed her from her chatter and decided to listen.

It turned out to be a really interesting lecture on the history of Ash Wednesday in the early Church. It’s been quite a few years since then, and the details of that lecture are fuzzy, but it was the first time I had heard of Ash Wednesday referred to as something in which the Church invited people to participate. I had always seen it as some action of individual piety and, in fact, had been taught to look down at the people who walked around with ashes because we…the “real Christians” were people of the resurrection who didn’t need to think of Jesus still hanging on a cross. My thoughts began drifting to the people I’d seen with smudged ashes on their foreheads, and my Catholic friends who went to Mass before school with their families and came in late, rubbing ashes off their foreheads so as not to stand out. I was pulled out of my meandering thoughts by the voice of the young-ish monk who…just before being upstaged by the praise song leader…announced, “Oh, if you are a closet Roman Catholic or even just curious, I will lead an Ash Wednesday liturgy tonight at 7:30 in the East Hall basement chapel.”

I heard a few audible gasps. And I felt a deep calmness settle in my soul as I realized with a profound and ironic joy that there were going to be ashes imposed in the basement of my dorm. It was almost scandalous. It was, actually, irresistible. God’s grace always is.

That evening at 7:25, I closed my textbook and told my room-mate I was going for a walk. “It’s late and it’s dark.” she said. “I’ll be back in an hour” I told her. I snuck down the back stairwell at the end of our fourth floor dorm hallway and began my descent to the basement. The lights seemed dimmer and every footstep echoed. I finally reached the basement and saw the chapel door ajar. I cautiously peeked in. The youngish, smiling monk motioned for me to come in and sit with the few other brave souls who had also made the Ash Wednesday journey. We didn’t make eye contact, but I was pretty sure I’d seen at least one by the chickpeas at the salad bar.

I sat down and closed my eyes. The musty, unused chapel now had a scent of melted beeswax from several lit candles. It was calm, and I felt apart from time and place. We read scripture, and we prayed. We were invited to come to the altar and kneel which, in my evangelical life at that time, felt pretty much like the altar call most every service ended with. Except this was silent, and bigger than me. I felt the cross of ash imposed on my forehead like sandpaper infused with healing balm.

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

I remembered my Great Aunt Edna the prayer warrior; my Uncle Bud, tragically killed too young by a drunk driver; my high school history teacher who died suddenly in my senior year, a few days after telling me that he thought I could be a professor someday.

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

I thought about the conversations I had with my residents at the nursing home where I worked on weekends and over my breaks. Agnes, who couldn’t speak but looked at me with eyes that said she was just ready and waiting to leave this world so she could see the next. Tom, who just said it outright, “Hope to see God tomorrow but if not, I’ll see you instead.” The Smiths, who loved and doted on each other…and now widowed Mrs. Smith who grieved her husband’s death and would tell me as I helped her get ready for bed how she prayed every night to see him again in heaven. “Soon” she would say, “soon.”

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

The candle wax was melting low, and the young-ish monk put his hand on my shoulder. As I rose, I smiled and said thank you. I meant it.

Sara Miles, in her book City of God which details an Ash Wednesday lived out on the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District, gives words to the shocking yet resonant truth of this day:

The good news of Ash Wednesday, the blessing so many people seek so fervently, comes from acknowledging the truth: that we are all going to die. That these busy lives, full of eating and drinking and buying and talking on our cell phones, are going down to the dust. That despite the lies of the culture, the fantasy that money or objects will keep us alive, we mortals are just mortal and connected to one another through that raw, fleshy fact. And Christian evangelism, what we’re doing out there on the street, proclaims publicly that we are all also connected to God, past death. (pp. 139-140)

Those first ashes…imposed on my forehead over 30 years ago…offered me something that the world in which I was moving through listlessly could not. There is a depth and a yearning in our lives for that which is imperishable, that which belongs to God. We can’t grasp it all at once. We cycle through our liturgical year, coming back year after year to this day where we kneel, and rend our hearts, and open just a little more deeply each time so that the profound truth of God’s love can reach us through all the fortified layers of self-protection that we build. God’s earth shattering love sometimes comes to meet us in the gritty, ashen lines of what remains of the perishable.

But the imperishable is where our hope resides, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The mystery and meaning of Ash Wednesday…this day to which the Church calls us…is that we are thankful and grateful for a confrontation with a truth that we don’t want to acknowledge. And yet, when we are confronted with the reality of death, we are confronted with the greater truth of resurrection. We see it here, in the Church…over 2,000 years later and here we are, connected with God and each other.

“Ashes,” says Sara Miles, “are what a fire cannot burn; what’s leftover from a fire, or from a life.”  We wear the ashes of the perishable to remind us of that truth; but it is the imperishable truth of divine love, redemption and reconciliation which remains with us, urging us onward in this journey together through death into life. The Church calls us to Ash Wednesday not just because we need to be reminded of that truth as individuals, but because the Church needs that reminder, too. Our differences, our divisions, our wrestling with the perishable…these are not the end. They will also fade away, leaving us to know the deeper truth of the reconciling grace and redemptive love of Christ, who has made and continues to make us One.

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