The Star and The Dove

Homily for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face. 

Epiphany blessings to you all!  Those of us who gathered for Compline Thursday evening had the opportunity to hear that collect as we celebrated the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus on the Feast of the Epiphany.  We even sang “We Three Kings” in glorious harmony…or maybe cacophony…in our own homes.  I’ve always loved singing the verses with their rich imagery and symbolic gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh offered to the infant Jesus by those who traveled over “field and fountain, moor and mountain” to offer tidings to one whose birth resonated through heaven and earth.  The story of the magi following the star is only conveyed in Matthew’s Gospel; there have been explanations astronomical and astrological; literal and literary for the radiant Star of Bethlehem. Whether you source this portion of the Christmas and Epiphany narrative as literal truth or holy symbolism, it adds richness to our understanding of the infant Jesus not only as Messiah of the Jewish people, but as Savior of the whole world.  

I admit, I’m not a skeptic on this issue. I am totally drawn in by the Epiphany star.  

The lavish images of the Magi arriving come after what I can only envision as a miracle of heavenly proportions.  This astronomical event drew in wise and educated people across culture and context.  There was a disruption in the cosmos; and from this disruption, people who had no connection to the lineage of the house of David took notice. This star signaled so much hope for these learned leaders that they set out on a journey of months and potentially, years, using the directionality of the star as their guide to reach an unknown child in an unknown place.  They also outwitted the nefarious King Herod after leaving their richly symbolic gifts, the meaning and significance of which which Mary also pondered deeply in her heart while the magi went home by another road.

The Epiphany star emerged first as a disruption; it compelled people to set out on a long journey into the unknown; and it led, ultimately, to rest over the infant Jesus whom they worshiped with rejoicing.  The brilliance of that star may have been their inspiration and their guide but it wasn’t their destination.  Disruption and journey led them to the place where eventually they rejoiced and worshiped the savior of the world.  

On this First Sunday after the Epiphany, our lectionary lessons through the Gospel according to Luke move us on past the visit of the magi and beyond the story of young Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem as we heard last week. The narrative guides us from the temple to the banks of the River Jordan.  The story of the Baptism of Christ is another rich with imagery: we re-encounter John the fiery preacher and baptizer, the one who has been preparing the way for one who is to come, calling out the Brood of Vipers, and preaching a baptism of repentance.  The story begins as if we’re in Advent again.

The people gathered around John at the opening of our Gospel lesson have been traveling in the wilderness together for a while.  It’s left them wondering to each other whether maybe this was the destination: perhaps John was the Messiah.  John tells them that he is not the messiah; that the messiah is coming after him. Like children asking “are we there yet?” on a long road trip, I think they likely realized the answer was no.  Often it is our restlessness, not our wisdom, that leads us to wonder whether we’ve reached our destination. And then, suddenly, more disruption.  This time, it becomes evident that the messiah is with them there: not in gold and finery, but among all the others approaching John for the baptism of repentance.  John baptizes Jesus, along with all the others who have followed.  And it is at that point in Luke’s Gospel that we hear the Baptism of Jesus described: when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

Again, the heavens are disrupted to show the world what we might fail to recognize on our own: this person of Jesus is also known, beloved and of one being with God.  God is present in the voice of the Father.  God is present in Jesus, the savior and redeemer of the world.  God is present in the Spirit who is seen in the form of a Dove.  God’s own self is made manifest to our human ears, and eyes and tangible revelation in the person of Jesus.  Our siblings in the Greek Orthodox tradition mark this day and this season by this moment: the Theophany, the revelation of God made human.  And on the Feast of the Theophany, this prayer is offered:

Lord, when You were baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father gave witness to You, calling You Beloved; and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the certainty of those words. Glory to You, Christ our God, who appeared and enlightened the world. (Apolytikion for the Feast of the Theophany)

In this season of the Epiphany, Jesus the Christ is made manifest: the Light of Salvation for the whole world is proclaimed.  The star shines light on our journey to worship the beloved, and the heavenly dove rests upon the recognized, claimed and beloved God-made-human.  

These Epiphany events are for us, all of us.  They disrupt our status quo and upset the order of how we think things should be.  They challenge us with signs, wonders and miracles that our logical brains want to minimize or reject.  They enlighten and inspire us to wonder.  They make us aware and then invite us to explore the mystery, not just about events that unfolded long ago but of God who is with us, one of us.  Human, Savior and Beloved in the person of Christ.  Human, Savior and Beloved with whom we are reunited in our sacrament of Holy Eucharist.

The Star and The Dove: these symbols of our Epiphany season are doorways to hope.

While the message of the Epiphany is transcendent and universal, the presence of Christ in our midst is also immanent and contextual: God with us.  The star and dove are also symbols for us, as we walk together through this Epiphany season as well.  I’m not going to ignore how bittersweet it is for me to have responded to a beautiful new opportunity on another coast that disrupts my ability to be present here at St. Mark’s.  I’m on a journey and you, the people of St. Mark’s, are also on a journey through our own times of transition.  But we’re also part of something larger because God is With Us.  Whether we have recognized it or not, we’ve been preparing one another for this journey.  We have been strengthened and fortified because we have been journeying together and learning from each other.  Our relationship with each other has helped us know who we are.  More importantly, we know more deeply whose we are.  We have journeyed through Zoom church and regathering, and we have been woven together in worship and through the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, fed and nourished with the Body of Christ to be the presence of Christ in this world.  And we have good work that God has called us to do.

The Star reminds us of the guiding light that leads us on the journey.  That light is sourced in God and leads us to God.  We need the star to brighten our path, to help us follow the course that leads us to worship the savior who is in our midst and who invites us to share in being the Love of Christ in the world.  And the Dove: that dove lands on us as the Body of Christ and reminds us that we are the Beloved, united with God and each other through Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism.  The dove is our reminder of our own belovedness to God and each other, no matter where our journey may lead.

So, beloveds, this is the journey that we are making, step by step.  The star and the dove with us as reminders that God is in our midst, even as we come to see our own belovedness time and time again in the face of each other.

Image: The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), as captured by Hubble Space Telescope
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2022: Making Room

I typically step aside from the artificial pressure of proclaiming New Year’s resolutions. That said, my planning-focused mind inclines to reflection and its wise companion, foresight. Wisdom persistently beckons when it’s time for change. And this is such a time, so I resolve to listen with attention.

Retrospectively: during the past two years of my personal “work-demic” in the midst of a global pandemic, I have been fully engaged in nurturing my three strands of vocation, weaving them together in ways that a mostly virtual environment allowed me to do. Commuting between laptops and Zoom accounts has its advantages when it comes to making the most of time. Even as we began emerging and re-gathering in 2021, I was making it work as much as I could. If you know me in any one of those spheres, you probably know something about the other two. I’ve tried to be transparent about my commitments, and I have tried to make each aspect of my vocational work the center of my priority while I am there. So, I hope however you know me, you felt like you were getting the best of me (that’s what I’ve been going for, at any rate). My family and a few close friends have had to live with me simultaneously engaged in all three, and their heads spin. I understand. My head began to spin, too. Wisdom began persistently beckoning me to pay attention to how much longer I could keep doing this, at least a full year ago. I kept going. I kept thinking it would work its way out. Then, a few months ago I lost my ability to be still. I couldn’t be present and attentive to my full self at any one point in time without the rush of an ever-expanding to do list taking over any break or respite I chose to create.

So I closed 2021, the year that has been, by listening to wisdom and choosing to make room.

So, on this New Year’s Day, I begin not with a resolution but with a public acknowledgement of change. I’m taking this year as one to be present to my life; I will listen and discern and in order to do that, I will lighten the workload I’ve been carrying. I am stepping away, even from situations and people and places that I love, in favor of making room to be present to the persistent beckoning of wisdom. As my Orthodox siblings in Christ say in their divine liturgy:

Wisdom, attend!

Here’s a few of the things that will be taking shape over the next few months, attending to wisdom:

I will be lavishing love on the parish that I currently serve, St. Mark’s Richmond, throughout January. Then, I will conclude my time serving with them on February 6.

In mid-February, I will be heading west to Berkeley, CA for an amazing (and unexpected) opportunity to serve as the St. Margaret’s Visiting Professor for Women in Ministry at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. I’ll be there for several weeks during the spring term, then return to campus for June Intensive to teach a course I’ve designed just for the occasion: Social Work and Spiritual Care. As I live into this short-term and beautiful new call, I will be exploring how my own vocational identities as social worker, priest and professor blend together. I expect it will be transformative, and I will allow it to transform me.

This means that I’ll also be taking some leave at VCU (a sort of “mini-sabbatical”) during my time on the West Coast. I’m visiting…not moving…so when I’m back at home in Virginia, I’ll be living into the “professor” part of my call finishing out a modified academic year at VCU and living into the “priest” portion of my call as the formation director for the St. Phoebe School for Deacons in ways that the pandemic hasn’t allowed me to do. I will enjoy time on Sundays as the “traveling priest of St. Phoebe” visiting parishes throughout the dioceses we serve to talk about St. Phoebe School, to speak with people inquiring and discerning about the diaconate and to seek out partnership and internship opportunities in parish and community settings to strengthen the work we are called to do in the church and in the world.

So yes, 2022 will be a different kind of year for me. I’m making room, and sometimes that even means stepping back from what I love for a while. I love parish ministry and have been transformed by it; but I will not be working in a parish this year. I love my work as a professor but the spheres in which I am engaging that work will be different. I am deeply called to the work of vocational development and in order to engage that work authentically with others, I need to spend this year focusing on my own vocational discernment and formation and the unique blending that it will take on in the next iterations of my journey. It is an essential and ongoing process. Wisdom beckons, and she is persistent.

So much has yet to emerge. Those of you who have specific questions about what the future might look like: you’re not alone. I wonder, too, trust me. But first things first, I am making room and being present. Listening deeply. Attending to wisdom.

And so this is my wish for you all in 2022: wisdom, attend! It’s high time to shake up business as usual, and to listen to the persistent beckoning of wisdom so we don’t keep doing things just like we always have been. I hope to hear what that looks like for you. I look forward to paying attention, being still and writing about all the small points of light I encounter along the journey. I’ve missed this place of free and open reflection, and I am looking forward to letting my muse speak again.

Grace and Peace for this New Year 2022.


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Students of Hope

Homily for Christmas Eve, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
December 24, 2021

O Come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.

For as long as I can remember, Christmas Eve has felt like the unfolding of a magnificent mystery. My earliest memories involve tinsel garland wreaths bobby-pinned to my hair and singing “Angels we have heard on high” with the other wide-eyed cherubs, all the while thinking about what might be waiting under the Christmas tree. As an adult, I spent almost every year singing the mystery into being from my place in the alto section…or last year, as we all did, over Zoom. I’ve learned to hold the mystery of this night wrapped in song and immersed in worship. But here we are on this particular night, and I am standing in this particular place, and I am filled with an overwhelming awe at the very idea of breaking open the word on the very night that we celebrate the mystery of the Word coming to be present with us. And here we are: God with us.

It’s easy enough to feel like we know the Christmas story…it’s a good and beautiful one, the stuff of pageants and poetry. But what if we choose to move beyond the imagery and step into the mystery? What happens to us when we enter this story standing in this world filled with doubt and fear and allow ourselves to have a radical encounter with lavish love and outrageous hope? That’s the invitation before us as we set out on this journey together tonight.

First I need to introduce you to a friend of mine, who is also a traveler on this road of hope. Patience is a photographer and a doula and a self-proclaimed kindness revolutionary. She and I met for the first time at a food pantry, and then we kept running into each other while our kids were both applying to high schools. We ended up sitting next to each other one afternoon in a high school gymnasium. I had been dreaming about this wild idea for what eventually became the Faith from the Margins to the Web project and serendipitously, I shared my musings on this bible study that centered the voices of people who are often marginalized, and wondered if she might be willing to bring her photographic gifts and experience to the project. It was, in that moment, like we both had an encounter with hope incarnate: an idea taking on a spark of life. I still see that spark every time I look at the photographs and wisdom shared by participants in that project. Engaging that project changed me: I started to see people’s souls in a more radiant way than I ever had before. I began to truly see Christ incarnate in each and every face.

Recently, Patience shared with me about a new project called the Lens of Hope, in which she and another photographer friend are choosing to literally focus on hope as it emerges in every corner of this world, even where we least expect to find it. While bringing this project into being, they worked together to write something they call their “hope manifesto” where they give words and language to their inspiration. That manifesto ends with this statement:

We believe we are students of hope, curious and open to each experience teaching us more about humanity and ourselves.

That ending statement is where I invite us to begin our journey on this most holy night.

Whenever the Christmas Gospel is proclaimed, hope permeates the narrative. Perhaps your hope is found standing in the fields with the shepherds, first trembling with fear then filled with amazement at the hopeful and glorious refrain of angelic messengers, proclaiming the good news of the messiah who had been born in the form of a tiny child.

Perhaps your hope makes its way across mountains and deserts with the magi who follow the brilliance of a star marking the way slowly and steadily towards Bethlehem.

Perhaps your hope resides in the wonder and amazement of a child born under the most unthinkable and undesirable of ways: no lodging, no supports, no place to push through the pains of labor except the straw of a barn with a feeding trough as a crib and bands of whatever cloth could be found to wrap around a tiny, wriggling body for protection and warmth

Perhaps your hope is more of the theological or philosophical sort: that this whole scenario of the nativity of Jesus, playing out at one particular time in the midst of a chaotic world actually served a divine purpose, in spite of how ridiculous everything seemed on the surface.

In all of these ways, there is hope in the story that God was present: immanent and transcendent, breaking into the time and space of this world to become intimately present with humankind. Which means, in all of these things, perhaps there is the hope that God is present, immanent and transcendent, breaking into the time and space of this world to be with us. Even now. Even in the midst of all our fear and doubt. All because of love.

Hope feels crazy and illogical, friends, because it is. Hope is the opposite of certainty, of control, of pragmatic proof; hope stands in opposition to the despair that comes when we see things the way they are and think they might never change. Hope invites us into astonishment, amazement, possibility, and the unknown. Hope requires trust: indeed, hope and trust are inextricably linked. As we dare to place our hope in God with us, we are placing our trust in a vision of what is possible beyond anything that we can currently see. That might be the best understanding I have of what it means to truly follow God.

And so, we are called to be students of hope. Let me remind you of that hope manifesto again:

We believe we are students of hope, curious and open to each experience teaching us more about humanity and ourselves.

On this holy night, the whole tableau of the nativity reminds us that God’s hope for humanity looks nothing like the way we would script it for ourselves. God comes to us in the most vulnerable and unexpected ways, tearing down our assumptions and breaking through our expectations of how we think things should be. This scene…this nativity…is beautiful for us because we never would have done this on our own. We probably would have scripted the scene with all the best amenities for the tiny babe, born of God. We would have done it out of love, of course, but our love still gets caught up in the way our society and culture teach us to love: with possessions and power. God has a wilder vision of love, and a wider view of hope.

God crafts a scene that has nothing of the world’s treasure and is lavish only in love. This scene is beautiful because all we can see is the overwhelming love of God for humanity. God’s action on this night of holy mystery is to invest trust and hope in humanity in our most vulnerable and stripped down state. The invitation is simply that we do the same: trust and hope through each moment of our lives immersed in the knowledge that the love of God surrounds us. God, after all, has come to us. We are the students of hope: filled with curiosity, openness and learning for the one who created us.

If I had a camera right now, I would set my lens of hope not on the glorious angels or the adoring shepherds or the landscape of Bethlehem under a bright and shining star. I would take a cue from my friend Patience the photographer, doula and kindness revolutionary and focus in on Mary who has this night labored, and waited, and pushed and panted and finally brought into this world God’s gift of Hope Incarnate. Mary is the quiet one in this scene, steadfast amid all the glorious chaos, a mother enfolded in love and caught in the absolutely overwhelming beauty and mystery of new life: and Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

This picture of Mary is an image of us as students of hope. Having a face to face encounter with divine love. Pausing to take it all in; to hear and see and know from being face to face with each other what it really, truly means to be human. To experience it all: joy and grief; love and loss; delight and despair and through it all to know that this experience we are having is one in which God is with us. All of it. We’ve barely scratched the surface of all that God has for us to learn about love, about life, about each other. That’s why we are students, each and every day of this life that God gives us. The more we truly see, and know and live into love for each other, the more we see and know and love God. We are here to be with each other, to learn from each other. To see God in each other. Students of Hope.

Eventually on this holy night, the shepherds return to the fields, and angelic choirs softly fade. Animals return to their chewing and eventually they sleep. Mary treasures, ponders, loves.

And Hope remains. Hope in God’s willingness to come to us in total vulnerability; to experience all of humanity; to live and die as one of us. Hope not for a world that has it all figured out, but for a world where the least among us are the greatest, and those who seem to have nothing have everything. Hope that we will walk together and see and experience God in each other. Hope that we will have a face to face encounter where we recognize that God-with-Us means Us-with-God. Always. Forever. Without Exception. Hope transforms. Hope sustains. Hope remains.

Then, and now, on this most holy night and in these very present and teachable moments:

Hope remains.

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What then should we do?

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)

Lectionary Texts:

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Do you have a friend in your life who is close enough to you that they can tell you the truth that you need to hear, even if it’s not the truth you want to hear? You all know what I mean: that person who is willing to pull us aside when we have toilet paper hanging off our shoe, or spinach from our lunch-time salad caught in our teeth. Perhaps we are even fortunate enough to have people who go beyond the superficial: who are willing to take the risk and let us know when our words or actions may have been hurtful, or when the impact of what we did doesn’t match our intentions. These kind of friends are the minor prophets of our lives: their truth-telling happens out of love and their honesty realigns us from being lost in our messy mistakes to becoming our best selves.

This morning, we are offered a glimpse into that unabashed and prophetic truth telling. In a move that no homiletics instructor has ever recommended nor endorsed repeating, John the Baptist prophetically begins his sermon to the faithful gathered around him by calling them out: “You brood of vipers!”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have thought the crowd would have dispersed following that vivid in-your-face truth-telling. The amazing part of today’s Gospel lesson in my view isn’t the John’s poignant exhortation: he was, after all, a prophet. What I am drawn to is that the crowd didn’t flee. They stayed.

Consider for a moment that there isn’t anything in the Gospel lesson that suggests anyone became angry, or tried to run John off of a cliff. There isn’t even a suggestion of shock or confusion. The followers weren’t looking around at each other wondering, “Vipers?? What vipers?” No one voiced the merits of holding onto the barren branches of apathy and the bitter fruits of injustice, either. I invite you to consider that they already knew what John had to say. And this prophet sent to prepare the way loved them enough to tell hard truths. What John spoke, this crowd knew.

We know, too. We know what the barren tree looks like when our best efforts yield little to no response. We know a snake pit when we see it. We know who loves us, and speaks hard truths for own growth and we know when we have paid attention that that wisdom, and when we have not. We usually only have regrets about the exhortations offered in love which we chose to ignore until it was too late. Standing with the crowd, we can hear them receive John’s tough honesty because it was rooted in a deep love. So, they didn’t recoil but instead asked a question that pointed the way to a better path. They model faithful integrity for us when they ask: “What, then, should we do?”

Because this was an exhortation rooted in love, John responds lovingly and concretely. His call, after all, was to prepare them. And so, he gave the crowd crystal clear advice on paving the way for the One who was and is to come. John’s prophetic exhortation to make way for the divine involved stepping away from the selfishness, greed, and pride…the arrogance that comes by thinking that anything we seem to have or anything we have the power to do is of our own merit and creation. He invited his followers to follow a pathway which would bear fruits worthy of repentance: when you find you have what you need in this world, give the rest away. If you have been given authority over others, don’t use that to your advantage. Just because you live or work in the snake-pit, don’t give in to the threats and lies in an effort to save yourself. Give what power and possession you are clinging to away so that your heart will be open, and in doing these things, you will make room for God.

It’s an act of faith to sit in hard truths like these which continue to resonate over time. But that is exactly what we are asked to do today on this Third Sunday of Advent, too.

God shakes us up, and God loves us. As the Epistle reminds us: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

You see, John wasn’t a random voice calling out in the wilderness because he happened to be wandering there. John was called to his wilderness. The reason he could call the people to repentance is that he had already stood in that place himself. He knew the peace which surpasses all understanding which is not human-sourced; it can only come from God. The call God had placed on him sent him to the wilderness, and took him away from the comforts of his life. His vocation, as he pointed out repeatedly, was to prepare people for the Messiah coming after him, when it would no longer matter who you were, or into what lineage you were born, or whether you were wealthy or poor, or what you did for a living. The Messiah was coming for everyone, to change everything. Then and now, in the best and worst of times in this world which we inhabit, the immensity of this divine love invites and desires and beckons our participation. But first, as John knew, we need to make room.

Our contemporary saints, our Great Cloud of Witnesses, also offer us prophetic wisdom for our Advent preparations to welcome Christ incarnate. Dorothy offered words from Howard Thurman last week, and I want to offer words from Óscar Romero today. Oscar Romero was Archbishop of San Salvadore in the Roman Catholic Church and an outspoken advocate for the poor and marginalized. He was murdered in 1980, a prophet speaking in his own wilderness, while celebrating mass the chapel of the hospital of the divine providence. Shortly before his death, he offered these Advent exhortations that invite us to deeper reflection:

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God- for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”

Let me say that last line one more time: Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

God speaks to each of us when we stop giving into the vipers of greed and hatred and instead open our hearts to God. God answers as we earnestly ask the question “what then shall I do?” God loves us so much that sometimes we will be told exactly what we need to do, even when it isn’t what we want to hear. The prophets who tell us what to do may be in the wilderness, or the streets of our city, or in the neighborhoods or around the world. If you ask, God will answer, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. We don’t always hear what we want to hear. But God-with-us is always telling us, in love, exactly what we need to do.

This Advent, don’t worry about anything, but ask God for everything. Allow yourself to be loved so fully that you can be vulnerable, opening to see your own poverty of spirit where God desires to dwell. Go forth to be uncomfortable, to be convicted by the needs of this world, to evaluate your life not for how good it makes you feel to do kind things, but for what it speaks to the world about God-with-us when our acts of true, selfless charity are wrapped in deep, present and persistent love just as God loves us. Then, just as John invited people to the waters of Baptism, we can allow the love of God incarnate to fill us anew with the joyful and life-giving potential to liberate love in all the corners of this world, including this very place we find ourselves, right here and right now.

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In the world but not of the world

Homily for Christ the King, Year B
November 21, 2021
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Some of you know that I’ve been away most of this past week, helping my Mom move from her house and into a retirement community. I grew up in the house where she has still been living, in a tiny town in Western New York by the name of Holland. By all accounts of history, the town was founded in the early 1800’s and was named for the Holland Land Company, a syndicate of Dutch investors who purchased the land from wealthy financier Robert Moses who had negotiated the cessation of tribal rights to that land from the Seneca nation of what we now call the Iroquois confederacy in the Treaty of Big Tree. I learned these facts growing up, but as an adult these acknowledgements of land and local history also take on a poignancy of what that experience might have been like, depending on whose perspective is considered. It’s like the importance of acknowledging that not only are we sitting here in Richmond, in the Commonwealth of Virginia but we also live, work and worship on unceded ancestral lands of the Powhatan, Chickahominy, Pamunkey, and Arrohatec people. Acknowledging the history of the places where we live, work and worship makes us aware of the ways in which money, power, and authority of rule have shaped so much of human history.

My Mom’s relocation has shifted her address northwest, into a bit more suburban area than the rural town where I was raised. The roads have route numbers, but also retain local names. So, during the past week, we’ve navigated several trips with boxes filled with clothes, pictures, and all the mementos of a life beautifully lived via route 20A, also known as Big Tree Road. You can make the historical connection there. The more we acknowledge history, the more we see it everywhere. We know that from living in Richmond. So on this trip, I began to pay close attention to the history not only of where I had lived, but where my Mom was moving.

My Mom’s new home town of Orchard Park is notable for two things. There are a few of you who know one of them: that’s right…it’s the home of the stadium where the Buffalo Bills play…and that stadium is right down the road from her new retirement community. But, on a more historic note, Orchard Park was founded as one of the early Quaker settlements in the United States. When Quaker pioneers from Vermont visited the area in the early 1800’s, they noted it was an “uncultivated part of nature’s garden.” The Holland Land Company sold it to them at a discount. The area soon became a destination for a tide of migrating Quaker families, who preferred life in quiet communities which were detached from the “corrupting influences” of the larger world. The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends as they are formally known, were and are a community that emphasizes egalitarian living, and the discovery of God in everyday life and in each and every person. Driving through this area, I have taken note of the original Quaker Meeting House where members shared responsibilities for Sunday Meetings, and the original schoolhouse founded to help those who could not afford private education, the only form of education available at that time. The Quakers of Orchard Park founded the first public lending library in the area, and dedicated their mission to serving women friends whose access to books was otherwise scarce. Historic markers and signs all tell a story of how this group of people engaged their beliefs and religious practices together: communally, with deep respect, and in a manner in which all were welcomed without hierarchy or unnecessary ritual. This little patch of wilderness, within a bigger struggle for earthly power, became their community, and they lived into their own understanding of God’s Reign on Earth, as it is in Heaven.

This experience of re-engaging history and especially the Quaker roots of this region where I was raised seems particularly apropos this week, as I was thinking about the two intersecting themes of our Sunday worship together: the liturgical calendar’s recognition of Christ the King Sunday, and our gathered community’s remembrance of one of our beloved friends, Don Kutteroff, whose own faith made its home in the Quaker tradition.

This week, I’ve come to appreciate the ways in which religious traditions can serve in counter-oppressive ways, if we choose to do so. Thinking about the land grabs of the 18th and 19th centuries is a sharp contrast to the ways in which the Religious Society of Friends maintained worship and governance in a way that reflected egalitarianism over hierarchy. At a parallel time in history when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were living into their Presidency early in the history of the United States, King George III was still the ruling monarch in England and Napoleon Bonaparte had assumed power as the Emperor of France, the Religious Society of Friends had a very different view of the Realm of God in contrast to the Kingdoms of this world. It’s one of the reasons that Quakers practice pacifism and welcome the simplicity of sharing among friends rather than religious rituals or sacramental worship. God is in the everyday, and the common experiences of our lives. We all have a role to play in the community of life that we share, and in seeking and serving the light of God in each other. I know that those of you who knew Don can see this foundation of faith speaking through all the ways in which he moved through the world and chose to be gathered in common worship with this community, not for the power of sacrament nor for the presence of clergy but because of his deep…and divine…love for community which reflects the Love of God.

Liturgically speaking, this particular Sunday…Christ the King…is also a counter-oppressive statement. This isn’t a feast of the early church; Christ the King emerged in Roman Catholic tradition in 1925, via Papal Encyclical Quas Primus, issued by Pope Pius XI. This proclamation asserting the Kingship of Christ was written as a stand against rising nationalism and secularism, particularly evident in the Facist leaders rising up in Europe. That is also important history to acknowledge and remember; significant enough that we choose to honor this designation on our Episcopal Church calendars at the culmination of the liturgical year, on this final Sunday before we begin to make our way into the new liturgical year beginning in Advent.

The readings today remind us that the realm of Christ in which we, the People of Christ reside isn’t about the kingdoms of this world at all. Our appointed Gospel lesson invites us to step away from our worldly obsession with rulers and monarchs as self-protected and entitled entities of power and prestige. Instead, our Gospel lesson draws our attention to an arrested, beaten, mocked Jesus on trial who when asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.” There is such truth in that statement, truth that is vital to helping us move back full circle to receive the Holy who comes to join us in this uncultivated world as a tiny, vulnerable infant. Jesus, Christ the King, does not have a kingdom of this world that builds up temporal power and might. Jesus, Christ the King, sees the humble, the egalitarian, the need to raise up the lowly and send the rich away empty in a way which doesn’t demean or diminish but helps us to see that all of us: yes, each and every one of us are loved, valued, and respected in the Realm of Christ who comes to make all things new.

It is a divine serendipity today that our liturgical and our community remembrances come together in our readings, in our remembering of our friend Don, in our own choice to be together and remain together as this parish moves through this time of transition. We have much to consider and to think about in terms of history, and meaning, and place and intention in this community of St. Mark’s that is part of the Diocese of Virginia, that is part of The Episcopal Church, and above all else part of the Body of Christ that we become, together. Our communities of being together are in this world, but do not need to be of this world. We can choose to model ways of being that embrace the egalitarian, that see the belovedness of Christ in all people, that welcome each and every one of us into roles of caring for and about each and every one of us and tending to the community beyond our doors, too. The way of being that we are taught in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a reign of love, peace, beloved community. If we can live into that here, in this place, we can live into that beyond these doors, in the larger world in which we live, too.

How can we act as counter-oppressive agents in the world in which we live? We can welcome those who are marginalized and made vulnerable by the abuses of power in this world in the midst of our beloved community. We can recognize fuller views of history, and hear hard truths when we need to so that history doesn’t repeat harmful actions but embraces a more egalitarian way of being and moving through the world. We can take a stand against oppression, pride, and the self-serving policies and practices of those whose authority in this world undermines others, rather than lifting them up. We can choose to learn from the gifts of those in our midst, like the lessons of humility and community that we learned from the way Don lived and served among us, and the continual joy that Ethel brings us with her presence and her smile that shows love to one and all. We can be the people of the realm of Christ’s love in this place and in this community so that we live into the Love that is our tradition at St. Mark’s, because we source that love in Jesus Christ, who reigns in our hearts and in our lives.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Holy Days

Homily for October 31, 2021: Proper 26, Year B

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA

Lectionary Readings Referenced:

Ruth 1:1-18

Mark 12:28-34

It’s not every Sunday that your priest shows up wearing tights with ghosts on them (note: the color is liturgically correct!) so you know I’m not going to let this collision of days pass us by in a homily, either.  I know that some of you, like me, may have been brought up in ways that polarized and separated secular Halloween and sacred Christianity.  But these two days are inextricably linked in ways that are all about culture, folklore, tradition, and ritual.  And they are all about life and death, grief and hope, and love.  So we’re going to walk this holy ground of holy days together today.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in around the year 800, it didn’t mean that everyone stopped participating in all the cultural and spiritual practices that gave meaning and shape to their lives and communities.  In the indigineous cultures of Europe, now occupied by the Romans, this particular season of the year was a high, holy time.  It was the turning of the seasons, a “thin place” where the invisible separation between the physical world and the spiritual world began to fade away.  In that thin place, people remembered those who had died, honored them, and welcomed their continuing presence in a way that felt as if it transcended time and place.  When encountering mystery, especially the mysterious line between life and death, we struggle to find words to express the inexpressible.  And so it was that customs and traditions evolved that could speak beyond words: lighting fires or burning candles for those who had died to be able to find the way back home; leaving food and candy, pictures and gifts to honor the dead; finding ways to communicate to those who had gone before about the lives that were still being lived on this earth.  This season was, and is, a thin space in time where bittersweet grief can be expressed, honored and recognized in ways that aren’t always acknowledged as socially acceptable at other times of the year.  

The Romanized Christian Church strategically placed a day each year on the liturgical calendar to remember the Christian Saints and Martyrs who it was believed still similarly guided the faithful even after their departure from this world.  And so it was that All Saints Day came to be placed on November 1, coinciding with the indigineous traditions of local cultures and communities honoring their beloved dead at the same time.  The Eve of All Saint’s Day…All Hallow’s Eve…what we now call Halloween….fell on a particular night  that was already considered a thin place in the lives and cultures of folk traditions who were now under the rule of a Christianized Empire. People still wanted to honor their beloved dead and experience the mystery.  Now, I’m under no illusion that this was done out of respect; it was clearly an attempt to colonize the old expressions with the “new” religion.  That is the history of Western Civilization.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  God is present in all things.  So on this particular Halloween Sunday, I would remind us both in our festivities and our mystery that the source of these secular and sacred holidays is found at the intersection of life and death, grief and hope, and love.

Let’s walk back even further, to generations before Christ…about a thousand years, give or take.  Our first lesson today from the book of Ruth also involves the intersection of two cultures through a story wrapped in these themes of life, death, grief, hope and love.  We hear about a Hebrew family, from Bethlehem in Judah, who took up residence in a neighboring country, Moab, during a severe famine.  The family patriarch died, and the two sons married within the local culture.  Then, both of the sons died.  The heart of this story we read today takes place among the Hebrew widow Naomi with two daughters-in-law from Moab, all of whom are in a precarious position.  Unmarried women had no rights, no ability to earn a living, no safety.  Naomi is grieving her spouse and her two only sons; she is isolated from her kin, and she has two young women at her side depending on her who are themselves in a precarious state. Starving, bereft and vulnerable in every way, Naomi casts what hope she has on the benevolence she has heard: the Lord considers his people.  So, she turns toward home.  And she imparts practical guidance to her daughters-in-law: Go, Leave Me.  Find Husbands.  

This wasn’t an idealized gesture; it was a necessity rooted in the desperation of a precarious situation. One daughter in law, Orpah, heeds her advice and returns to Moab, while the other, Ruth, clings to her.  Ruth is eloquent in her expression of devotion.  Naomi is bitter and silent.  

Over the next few Sundays, the story of Ruth and Naomi will continue to unfold but today we have what we have.  And what we have in that story is also all about  life and death, grief and hope…all wrapped up in love.  

Just the right passage, perhaps, for this All Hallow’s Eve Sunday

You see, the story of Naomi, Orpah and Ruth is timeless.  In this short little narrative, this undeniably human story, we all see ourselves when grief pierces our lives.  Perhaps we are bitter or angry and those emotions offer us an outward mask for our inner vulnerability.  Perhaps we heed logic and make a decision to move on, not because we don’t care but because we need to preserve our well being.  Perhaps we cling, and find meaning in our need to remain near and stay in proximity to other living, caring souls where we cannot let go..  In this story, we hear all of these responses as purely and wholly human.  And, there is Good News here: God is present in all of them.

Let me repeat that: God is present in all of them.  

God’s movement throughout the story of Ruth reveals God’s movement throughout human history. When we are grieving, God is there.  When we are bitter, God is there.  When we are desperately searching for security when life in this world is precarious, God is there. We acknowledge God’s presence with us in the living out of the two great commandments: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength AND loving our neighbor as ourselves.  When we recognize God with us in all things, we can live in that love.  When we live in that love, we pass that to others.  Our lives become a liturgy of living into Divine love..  

The boundless love of God isn’t subject to the limitations of time and place.  Ruth and Naomi embody that in their story.  Our communion of saints…the Great Cloud of Witnesses… inspire us through their stories.  And those who are beloved to us in our own lives continue to fill us with the knowledge that the love of God never ceases, that love is strong as death.  At this time of year, we remember them and honor them.  

Halloween, All Saints Day, All Soul’s Day:  these are the next three days on the calendar of our lives.  How will we choose to live into the customs and the traditions for what they offer us?  What form is our grief taking?  Where are our hopes?  Who and what are illuminating the path for us, in this world and beyond?  Where is God in all of this?

If we feel bitter, like Naomi: God is there to show us that our lives still have meaning.

If we follow our logic and turn back, like Orpah: God goes with us.

If we cling, like Ruth: God reminds us that what we are seeking is always and already with us.

When we find meaning, truth, and wisdom in pondering all of these things: God is with us, too.

These days are filled with life and death, grief and hope.  And with us, enfolding us, through all our days is the abiding and eternal love of God.

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Salvific Servanthood

Homily for Proper 24, Year B

October 17, 2021

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Lectionary Readings Referenced:

Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

For several weeks now, I have made a little note to myself to set aside time to watch the documentary My Name is Pauli Murray. My own knowledge of and appreciation for this contemporary saint among our Great Cloud of Witnesses came about several years ago. In seminary, we were learning about the commemorations of saints, and I pulled up the newest additions to the Episcopal Church’s calendar. In doing so, I read the General Convention 2015 additions which included this person named Pauli Murray whom I had never heard of before. I was instantly drawn into the narrative. For those of you who may not be familiar with this American Civil Rights activist, Pauli Murray was born in November 1910 and is noted historically to be the first black woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. That was in 1977, at the age of 67. I need to insert here that Pauli journaled about the struggle with and rejection of a solely female identification, and even while professing love for a long-time companion they were never able to socially acknowledge sexual orientation or gender identity in an affirming way. I’m deliberate in choosing my pronouns today for that reason, out of respect. Pauli was first a writer and poet, then when direct encounters with discrimination became too much to bear, a civil rights lawyer and eventually organizational leader and professor of law. Pauli was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women and then held academic positions at the Ghana School of Law, Benedict College, and finally a tenured professorship at Brandeis University. And then, in 1973, Pauli left academia to attend seminary, following the call to become an Episcopal priest. I suppose that if you know me, you can imagine why I was intrigued!

So, I was excited to carve out time in the midst of a busy weekend to watch this newly released documentary of Pauli Murray’s life. I was grateful that this saint so worthy of commemoration was finally getting some public air time. I didn’t think of it as a spiritual practice. The Holy Spirit had other plans for my experience, as often happens, even with movie watching it would seem!

Early in the film, Pauli’s niece receives a call during their final days of life. She remembers Pauli saying, “You’ve got things here you’re going to need to do for me.”  What follows in the film is the unfolding of Pauli’s life….some of which I just related…but all of which is filled with the poignancy and gut-wrenching realities of what it was like for Pauli to be Black, to be socially identified and marginalized as a woman, to experience a lifetime of misgendering, to confront the depths of one’s own understanding of gender and relationship in a world unprepared with the language or openness to honor and bless diversity and complexity. Pauli’s whole life was a yearning to be seen, known, heard, and respected, woven together with intellect, compassion, wisdom and vision for a different world. What I realized watching that film (spoiler alert…but I still want you all to watch it!) is that it was all of those built up layers of wrestling with oppression, discrimination, denial of access, disenfranchisement and misidentified assumptions and othering: it was all of that marginalization that gave Pauli a doorway to serve all of humanity as a priest in God’s church. I have an indelible image in my mind from that film of a Holy Eucharist in which I watch Pauli Murray transformed into the very image of Christ’s presence.

Pauli Murray would later say of their call to priesthood: “Whatever future ministry I might have as a priest, it was given to me that day to be a symbol of healing. All the strands of my life had come together. Descendant of slave and of slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher, and friend. Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or while, no male or female—only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”[i] 

Pauli Murray: civil rights activist, lawyer, teacher, priest. One of our great cloud of witnesses.

Today’s Epistle also speaks to us of priesthood…and of Jesus Christ, our great high priest. And today’s Gospel invites us into a beautiful and challenging reversal of what all that means for us in our lives of faith in relation to each other. Our great, high priest tells us: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  Jesus, throughout his life and ministry, serves from the margins of this world, ministering to those whom society has set to one side and discarded. God’s entry into our humanness was through powerlessness: the entire story of Christ’s birth is about being turned away, rejected, sidelined. Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing happens on seashores and mountain sides, healing those whose ailments have left them unclean or socially sanctioned. Even in the two encounters leading up to today’s Gospel, which we’ve heard over the last two Sundays: Jesus invites us into the kingdom of God as children who hold no social power; and dissolves the presumed relationship between wealth and worth by inviting the rich, young man to sell all his possessions and only then, to come and follow as a disciple.

In our Gospel lesson, James and John fall into a common trap where our human grasping for wealth and power gets in the way of truly seeing God’s plan for us. They approach Jesus for a favor, because they want a guarantee, on the world’s terms, that their discipleship will have a payoff. Jesus sees this for what it is: their fear, their confusion, their collusion with temporal greatness. And let’s be honest: Jesus sees and knows our fear, our confusion, and our quest for greatness, too. But Jesus keeps pushing for the teachable moment. Jesus keeps opening their hearts further to understand God’s will for God’s people in the very actions of his own life and ministry:  Jesus didn’t come into the world to die and create a future pathway for salvation. Jesus, incarnate son of God, has come into the world to BE salvation.

Service…discipleship…this is not something we do now in order to earn a reward later. To live as Jesus teaches us, to be a disciple, is to be a servant to others. To be a servant to others is experience God’s presence: right here and right now. That is the true gift of discipleship.

There is a whole different image of God’s reign on earth, as is it in heaven, coming into focus when we stand in the life and perspective of Jesus. Power doesn’t belong to the rulers or the oppressors. Power belongs to those who are humble, who have been marginalized, who are raised up through the life giving actions of Jesus. True power is sourced in God, and that power fills us when we are emptied of the world’s relentless quest for “success.”

And so I go back to Pauli Murray:

As I watched Pauli’s life unfolding in the footage, I couldn’t help but notice that so many people marveled at why their achievements, accomplishments, and accolades hadn’t made more news. Pauli’s story isn’t the story of someone wronged by the world who gets vindicated at the end by fame and fortune. No, quite the opposite. In the end, Pauli hears the still, small voice of the Spirit speaking at the darkest time of life and says yes to God. Pauli chooses discipleship and service as the greater path.

The film offers this description, coming from Pauli’s own lips: “It seemed to me, as I looked back on my life, that all of these problems of human rights in which I had been involved were moral and spiritual problems. And I saw that the profession to which I had devoted my life–law–could not give us the answers. And I asked myself, ‘what do you want to do with the time you have left?’ I was being pointed in the direction of priesthood, or service to the church.” 

Everyone in the world around Pauli was stunned…colleagues, family, friends. The interviews in the film depict a total bewilderment about this aspect of vocation and identity.  To some, it was almost embarassing. But I think if we are reading today’s Gospel with an open heart, we shouldn’t be shocked at all.

Pauli reflects, after ordination followed by a historic celebration of Holy Eucharist in the Chapel of the Cross in Durham where Pauli’s own grandmother had been baptized as a slave:

“What I was trying to communicate as I administered the bread was a lovingness for each individual. I think reconciliation is taking place between individuals groping out, reaching toward one another. It was not I as an individual, it was that historic moment in time when I represented a symbol of the past, of the suffering, of the conflict, reaching out my hand symbolically and all of those behind me, and they were responding.”

I hope some of you will watch the movie. And I hope it will be your spiritual gift, too.

Whatever it takes for each one of us to hear the still, small voice of God speaking to us through the cacophony of our days: that voice is speaking and will keep on speaking. The Holy Spirit is persistent, and there is work for us to do. We don’t all have the same call, or the same gifts, or the same doors through which we will be invited to walk. The specific path that we follow isn’t the issue, really. It’s the steps we take as the servants of God through the example provided by Jesus, our great high priest and humble servant. In emptying ourselves, we are filled with God. And that, my friends, is the greatest gift.

[i] Pauli Murray. Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, reprinted as The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987, p. 435.

Mural of Pauli Murray, Durham NC

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Mothers and Mercy

Homily for Proper 18, Year B

Lectionary Reference: Mark 7:24-37

First, a story…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I am the bread…

Homily for Proper 14, Year B

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Lectionary Texts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interdependence Day

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

Scripture reference: Mark 6:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is worthy of celebration. 

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