The Face I See

A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year A  (Christ the King)

Lectionary Readings

Sometimes the Reign of Christ looks like a short, hunched-over women with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last bite of cake while mumbling and singing to herself.

At least, that is how Christ the King, in whose presence we gather today in worship and thanksgiving, has been made known to me this week.

Perhaps I should explain a bit more…

In the Fall of 1989, I began the first of many internships that would be a part of my preparation to be a practicing social worker. I had just transferred between schools and so, I was a little late to the registration process. And as sometimes happens, I didn’t get my first pick of internships. I didn’t even get my second or third pick. It seemed to me that the powers that be had gotten things mixed up: I planned to be an administrator and community organizer who was hoping for a high power, influential internship that would land me a great, lucrative post-graduation job. Instead, they placed me in a community board and care home which offered long-term shelter to deinstitutionalized adults with mental health challenges who had spent most of their lives in the local psychiatric hospital. This shelter, a transitional housing facility operated by the YWCA, sprang into being when there was no safe space for people with long-term psychiatric disabilities to live. The place was run-down, with peeling paint and dirty old carpet and very minimal staffing. My first day on the job I thought: I don’t know if I can do this. But, I paused. And even though I wasn’t that active in church at that time, I prayed. I heard a voice in my soul saying, “People live here; You can work here.” That became my motto.

After a few weeks of required training and accompanying staff and volunteers through psychiatric rehabilitation, support groups, and recreational group outings I was given a choice. I could remain a part of this general, residential staff team, or become an individual counselor to some of the more challenging residents. My supervisor hinted that they had plenty of students helping with the groups, but what they really needed were individual counseling volunteers. I heard my lips saying yes while my brain was shouting “No, what are you doing!” But my yes had been said, and so it was that I was on my own. Very quickly, I was handed a name and room number. “Your job,” said my supervisor, “is to get Ruthie out of her room. She hasn’t left it in weeks, except when we tell her she has to bathe.” Great, I thought, a very promising first client. As I headed down the hall toward the residential corridor, she added, “Oh, and don’t take it personally if she swears at you!”

My first visit with Ruthie lasted exactly 10 seconds. I knocked on her door. She uttered several non-sermon-appropriate words followed by “Go Away!” I lingered long enough to tell her my name, that I was a social work intern, and that I would come back to visit next week. I heard her shuffling toward the door and promptly locking it. She yelled, “Go away!” then in a quieter voice said, “Come back next week.” And so, I did. The next visit was largely the same, and the visit after that. After a few more tries and frankly, as I was about to give up, I knocked on her door one more time and heard her shuffling. This time, Ruthie cracked her door open and looked me up and down. “You can come back tomorrow” she said, “Bring fifty cents and we’ll have coffee.”

The next day I came back with a few of my saved-up laundry quarters in my pocket. Even fifty cents was a challenge to my own budget in those meager days of student living. When I knocked this time, she shuffled to the door and opened it. A tiny, bent over woman emerged wearing a coat and two hats tied onto her head with a scarf. “We’lll go now” she said, “I’ll teach you.”

Against my better judgement, I followed her down the hallway, through the main living area and past the front desk. I looked up at the receptionist with eyes that probably looked like a deer in headlights. She was admittedly surprised to see us but waved us through, asking me to sign the register book with the time we were leaving and where we were going. “Coffee” said Ruthie. “We are going for coffee.” I had no idea how much learning I was in for.

What I was in for was week after week of walking with Ruthie through the back streets of downtown Buffalo, hearing about the people who used to live there: her family, her neighbors, the unheard history of a city I thought I knew. She knew every place to get a cheap cup of coffee to warm her tired hands. She would mutter and curse and tell me about growing up during the Great Depression, about her best memories and her worst ones, too. I grew fond of her stories, even though she often repeated herself. Her life had been a very, very hard one. She knew first hand about feeling cast-out. I marveled at her great faith to live each day, and to be willing to invest her trust in me…a stranger she did not know…with the wealth of her stories. She taught me more about the power of listening and being present than any textbook could ever convey.

A few weeks later, during one of our walks, Ruthie told me the next day was her birthday. “I wish I could have a cake” she said, “a white cake, with white icing.” She paused. “And sweet tea, with lemon. Very sweet. With sugar. But not too much lemon.”

I scrounged up enough money that night to buy a cake mix, white frosting, two lemons, and some birthday candles. With what I had in my apartment, I made a two-tier round cake and frosted it. I brewed tea and added much more sugar than I thought should be in it, and sliced up lemons to float in it for flavor. I also found a sweater in my closet that I hadn’t worn all that much but that I thought she would like, and I wrapped it up.

I showed up the next day, and found Ruthie sitting in the lounge. She was wearing a her usual attire, topped by a birthday crown from a local fast-food restaurant. “Free coffee today” she said, with a mischievous smile. Of course. Then she saw the cake, and the tea, and the present. “My Birthday?!” she exclaimed. And I said, “Yes, it’s your day!”

Recluse Ruthie stood up and shuffled around, gathering up all her friends in the lounge and scooting everyone to the sun porch. She was singing, “It’s my party; come to my party!” In the hour that followed, I watched her move from a reclusive outcast to the beloved guest at the center of this birthday feast.

“I myself will search for my sheep” says the Lord God. “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture. I will feed them with justice.”

It can be so easy for us to assume we know the difference between the sheep and the goats. Of course, we want to think of ourselves as the sheep of the Good Shepherd, so it’s natural to look around and see God in faces of those who are familiar to us. But what about the unfamlliar, the muttering and swearing, triple-hat wearing people whose stories force us to see the familiar through different eyes? What about the times when seeking and serving Christ in the other brings us into full awareness of all that we would rather ignore about this world in which we live: poverty, mental illness, addiction, confinement. Like me, the skeptical student, we become blinded to joy hidden in unlikely places and hardened by all the places and faces in this world that don’t look like we expect them to.

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

But when did we see you, Lord?

“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ “

The Good News that I stand here today to deliver to you is that this Kingdom of which we read is not just some future realm of possibility following this end of times parable of judgement, but is also right here, and right now. Christ the King and our Good Shepherd feeds us, clothes us, nurtures us, sustains us whenever we reach out to do the same to those in this world who come to us hungry, thirsty, wounded, and vulnerable. We are all sheep in the pasture of the Good Shepherd, and citizens of Realm of God. The taste of that heavenly banquet is not just a fabled story of some far-away dream. It can taste like warm coffee on a cold day, or birthday cake joyfully shared in community. Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of a meal with those we least expect.

Each and every time that I close my eyes to pray with this Gospel this week, it is Ruthie’s face that I see.  That is how Christ is made known to me.

“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

Sometimes the Reign of Christ looks like a short, hunched-over women with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last morsels of birthday cake while mumbling and singing to herself, “It’s my party…come to my party.”

Be known to us, Lord Jesus, as we meet you in each face that we see.

Be known to us, Lord Jesus, as we come to your table today.


Prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Sunday, November 26, 2017


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The Least of These…

The first of many weekly posts from my newly launching project, Faith from the Margins to the Web. This week, Mary Ann and Lisa talk about what it means in their lives when God is present with “the least of these.”  Follow us for weekly Gospel commentaries from people who are paired across social margins: those who are experiencing homelessness, poverty, food insecurity and those from parish, campus and community who share openly.  God is revealed in every person that we meet….

Faith from the Margins to the Web

Beginning the first Sunday of Advent, Faith from the Margins to the Web reflections will be posted weekly on Tuesdays, in preparation for preaching, bible study and other reflection on the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Be sure to follow and share Faith from the Margins to the Web so you can receive a new reflection each week of the liturgical year.

This week, participants Lisa and Mary Ann met to reflect together on the Gospel lesson from Matthew for the Last Sunday of Pentecost, Christ the King.  As you will hear from their words and their lives, Christ sets our example for beloved and compassionate presence even with “the least of these…”

A Faith from the Margins to the Web Reflection
Last Sunday of Pentecost, Year A (Christ the King)

The Least of These

Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors: Lisa Myers and Mary Ann Blankenship

Almighty and…

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[Not] Impostors

Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond Virginia
Proper 23, Year A
October 15, 2017

Lectionary Readings

If it was up to me to write a list of, “things I think the Kingdom of Heaven is like,” I can assure you that nothing involving “weeping and gnashing of teeth” would make the cut for me. I prefer metaphors that are a bit easier to digest, perhaps something like a shepherd gathering sheep or a vine with many branches. But, in today’s Gospel, we find ourselves tossed into the midst of a challenging parable, set in the context of Jesus challenging the status quo of the temple leaders. Jesus’ challenge…even in the linguistics of the Greek used to convey it…is indirect and subtly subversive. This parable is conveyed through a story, relayed in the passive voice in Greek ( Ὡμοιώθη = “has become like…”) which is meant to shed light on how things have become (and thus, may continue to be) rather than actively stating how they will be. Or, put another way, “if you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, here’s what that ‘kingdom of heaven’ you talk about it going to end up looking like!”

Jesus’ parables are intended to challenge us, especially parables like this one. Encountering today’s Gospel, our first challenge is not to limit our understanding of God’s providence based on our human experiences. We know only what we can see…but God’s perspective is broader and wider than the confines of our human lives and limitations. So, in presenting the temple leaders with an improbable and frustrating scenario that magnifies their own biases and injustice, Jesus breaks open their assumptions about who gets invited, and who is welcome. The questions and conundrums raised by Jesus’ parables have a timeless quality, though. So, we are also invited into this same conversation with our own questions, our own pondering, and our own doubts about what this Kingdom of Heaven is really all about as we consider how it applies to our lives.

Both in Jesus’ day and in our own, the structures of power in this world send many people the message that they don’t belong. It’s a challenge to accept an invitation when we’ve been barred from the banquet because we’re not the right gender, or we don’t earn enough money, or we don’t have the right amount of education from the right places, or because of the color of our skin, the orientation of our attraction, or the limitations we face from our physical, mental or emotional health. The list of things that cast people out into the social margins of this world goes on and on and on. There are so many ways to be rejected, and so many situations that make us second guess whether or not we truly belong, even when we receive an invitation.

I wonder how many of us, when we hear this parable, instantly identify with the person who gets found out, and tossed out. I know I do. I begin to feel a little frustrated and more than a little defensive. I want to ask Jesus, “but what if the person didn’t know the dress code? Or couldn’t afford the wedding attire? Or there was nothing the right size? Or, what if the guest took the invitation at face value and just came on in?” What I’m really wrestling with in all these questions, though, is the same fear: What if this is me…what if I am the impostor…will I get thrown out, too?” We ask these questions, I believe, because our human minds are incessantly focused on the worry that we are the impostor, the one who may be cast out for not belonging.

It turns out that this fear of being “found out” as an impostor is very deeply human. In spite of earned degrees, titles, experience…research into human behavior suggests that many of us have an implicit tendency to believe we’re not worthy, so much so that we may even convince ourselves we have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. This inward second-guessing of our impostor status is so common that several decades ago, psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “impostor phenomenon.” In their 1978 paper that has been cited well over 1,000 times Clance and Imes apply this term to their study of high-performing but inwardly anxious female professionals that have been seeking therapy to address this debilitating self-doubt. To quote Clance: “…they fail to experience an internal sense of success; they consider themselves to be ‘impostors’ ” despite scoring well on standardized tests, earning advanced degrees, and receiving professional awards.” The article goes on to say, “Self-declared impostors fear that [in spite of all of evidence to the contrary] eventually some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors.” (Clance & Imes, 1978).

Once again, we find ourselves wrestling with this parable through the lens of our human experience.

If we stand staring at the guest who doesn’t belong…whether it is because of social marginalization or the imposter phenomenon that makes us second-guess ourselves…we entirely miss the beauty of this wedding banquet and our place in it. People from all walks of life are gathered together, mixing across social margins, joyfully celebrating across all our human boundaries of difference. This scene is filled with people of God, dressed in the garments of that heavenly realm who otherwise may never have come together. People off the streets are dining at the King’s table, celebrating and feasting together as one big family. All are welcomed. This is a crazy beautiful scene, if we keep our focus on the heavenly realm.

Throughout Jesus’ teachings, we are repeatedly offered reminders to set aside the things of this world, including the social marginalization and the self-deprecation that get in the way of understanding our identity as members of God’s beloved family. That, my friends, is what the this realm of God is really all about. We speak this reality each time we hear and repeat the words of our Baptismal Covenant. We renounce all that keeps us from the knowledge and love of God, and commit to seeking and serving Christ in each other.  Perhaps it sinks in a little more deeply each time we say it together.

In the realm of God…as we are reminded in the Epistle to the Philippians…we are invited through grace and bound together through our mutual belovedness by God. I invite you to hear the exhortations of this letter, directed to two female leaders of the early church, as the remedy for the impostor phenomenon that keeps us second-guessing rather than accepting the invitation of grace:

-Rejoice in the Lord always;
-Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
-Do not worry about anything,
-Let your requests be made known to God.
-Think about what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise.
-Be of one mind, doing these things that you have learned, and seen, and heard and received.

Once the imposter of our human second-guessing is cast out, we can finally see the Kingdom of God with open eyes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

This vision of the Kingdom of God is palpable to me on Fridays. When our Red Door congregation is gathered here for the 12:30 Healing Prayer Service, it is a most interesting and diverse group of God’s people. I wish I could convey the wonder in the eyes of people as they are greeted at the door and welcomed into this space. When we say, “Come in! Welcome! Sit wherever you want!” people are overwhelmed in the best possible way. It may take them weeks to move from the back pew into the center of the nave. That’s OK. Sometimes, they find a window whose colors and radiance offers them a view of the world that is otherwise inaccessible in their lives on the streets. Sometimes, they fall asleep from the sheer gift of being safe, and comfortable. For all, this is Church. There is a lavish generosity given by this parish in the support of the Red Door Healing Service and Lunch, a ministry that is so much more than just addressing physical hunger. The generosity of this parish through the hospitality of Red Door allows God to move through us, speaking directly to the souls of people desperately craving to feel belonging in what can be a cruel and harsh world. And every Friday, God meets us here in profound and amazing ways, to remind us that we…all of us…are beloved people of God.

Perhaps this parable breaks us open and helps us to see the ways in which we have been blinded to our own yearning for belonging. The structures that oppress God’s people in this world…as well as our own pride and our own impostor syndrome…these are human limitations that keep us from the knowledge and love of God. These are what need to be cast into darkness. We are invited and welcomed by a generous and gracious God, called and chosen if we have ears to hear. The waters of baptism invite us to put on the garment of salvation and to be welcomed to this banquet of thanksgiving at God’s table not because of our own merits, but simply because we are invited. We aren’t impostors; we aren’t outcasts; we are, all of us, beloved and welcomed guests.

Now, with gracious and grateful hearts, we can accept that invitation and celebrate together today.

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Faith from the Margins

Hello friends,

If you are a follower of Small Points of Light, my personal blog, you know that my journey is continuing to evolve and expand as I continue my life as an academic social work professor as well as pursue seminary studies toward ordination in The Episcopal Church.  You have seen me produce virtual faith formation activities, and you may have even seen some of the social justice blogging that I’ve gotten my students involved in.  You have undoubtedly observed that my pace of project impacts how often I write and publish on this site (a situation that I hope will be rectified in time, when I can resume my personal, reflective writing with more frequency!)

So, I invite you to take a look at (and consider following) my latest endeavor, Faith from the Margins to the Web.  This will be a weekly blog, supported through a grant from the Episcopal Evangelism Society, which pairs people across social margins together to reflect on the Gospel lesson for the coming week.  It is a project of deep dignity and justice: bringing us together, providing fair compensation to all authors and contributors, equally proclaiming voices of divine presence that are not hindered by the social marginalization of the world in which we live.  It is a project of deep spirituality and vulnerability where I let go control and allow Spirit to move through the words and experiences of others to the world wide webs of our virtual connection.

This is not replacing my personal blog, but it is an extension of the work and ministry that I am humbled and grateful to be able to do.  Please continue to follow me here, and consider seeing what emerges with Faith from the Margins to the Web, too!

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Follow Faith from the Margins to the Web on Facebook and Twitter, too!

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Being Called In

A reflection for Proper 18, Year A

Prepared for Red Door healing service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)

Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

A few weeks ago, classes started back up again at VCU. Now, this probably comes as no surprise to any of you, because the streets and sidewalks around campus have gone from occasional strolling visitors to (literally) thousands of people who move en masse from class to class, turning every corner of this city campus into their second home. It’s definitely interesting immersed in an urban campus where when school is back in session, it feels like an entirely different world.

I have a whole new cohort of students that I’m teaching…some graduate students, and some undergraduates. My undergraduate students are sometimes barely more than teenagers…and some of them actually still are! They are trying to figure out everything from how to get up on time for an 8 a.m. class, to how to balance the need to study with the desire to have fun, to how to not use up their entire food budget in the first few weeks of the semester. But, VCU being what it is, the students in my classroom are also really diverse. My students are of various races and ethnicities and blends thereof; they are from different backgrounds and cultures; they have a vast array of identities that help define who they are.  Some of my students come from families with generations of college graduates and professionals who have long encouraged and coached them up to this point, while others are first generation college students who are trying this all out on their own, sometimes without any help…or even support…from their families.

The undergraduate class that I teach is called, “Social Work with Oppressed Groups.” It is a class that helps my students understand from all of these diverse perspectives that in this society in which we live, there are groups of people who are not given equal access to experiences and opportunities. I am helping them confront and grieve the fact that the idealism with which many of them were raised is going to be constantly confronted by injustices that they have to see and name. For some of my students, those injustices are a very real and present part of their every day lives. We learn to call that unfairness what it is: social injustice. We learn to call the ability to turn a blind eye to that injustice what it is: privilege. Sometimes, those are hard lessons.  But they are lessons we have to learn so that we can then strategize how to deal with these issues, individually and collectively.

In my classroom, I spend the first few weeks moving us from a group of distinct individuals who happened to sign up for the same class at the same time, into a community where we can deeply confront, reflect, and together learn and practice ways to make the world a more socially just place. We engage in a number of learning activities to get us there.  And, one of the things that I do is to teach my students a process I like to call “calling in.”  While it might sound familiar, “calling in” is different from that other thing that people often do when confronting injustice: calling out.

Calling in…like it’s cousin “calling out”…is a way to address oppression and injustice when we see it. But, unlike calling out which points out bad behavior in order to set it apart, calling someone “in” means that we pause to point out how something that was said or done doesn’t fit with the norms of justice, equity, and respect that we have agreed to share together. When we pause to call someone “in” it is about offering an opportunity for the person engaging in the problematic behavior to come back into community, for the community to voice their experience of what they heard and what they think happened from their diverse perspectives, and ultimately offering up the opportunity for the person to make amends, with support of the community, so that we can be whole again.

Lo and behold, it would seem that when I read our Gospel lesson for this week, I realized that Jesus was instructing his followers about “calling in” long before any of our modern social justice advocates ever thought of applying the term. In fact, Jesus offers an example so clear and so profound that it is a gift to his followers back then, and to the Church today. Jesus invites us to continually invite each other back into community. First, by having a one-to-one conversation with people who are our church family when something happens that rubs us the wrong way. Jesus doesn’t say, “shout at them and tell them how rotten they are!” Jesus invites us to share with them privately how their behavior impacts us and offer the possibility of reconciliation. Reconciliation is beautiful; Jesus knows that and we know that. In fact, this whole instruction in today’s Gospel is really about getting to that place of reconciliation…of calling each other back in to relationship as people of God…as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus’ invitation to us includes that powerful reminder of what happens when we are reconciled: we recognize God’s presence in our midst.

Think about that. In fact, think about a time when you have experienced reconciliation with someone you love: family, friends, children, parents, partners. We have all been in a place where a relationship that is filled with the love that comes from God becomes disjointed by our human failings: broken trust, dishonesty, slander, hurt, silence…the list goes on. But there are times that with the loving support of a loving God, those human hurts are transformed through healing and reconciliation. Maybe it is reconnecting with a family member who has been outcast, or making things right with a friend. Maybe it is someone extending you another chance, offering up reconnection.  Maybe it is passing the peace with someone who has once wronged us. I guarantee you, when that happens, when two or three are gathered…God is in the the midst.

So, I pose to you this possibility as I ponder of this week’s Gospel: maybe Jesus is calling us in.  Perhaps Jesus is pointing out to us in the still, small voice in our soul the areas where we are in need of growth, and healing, and reconciliation.  Maybe we listen, maybe we don’t.  We are still not lost.  Jesus uses the people around us as second chances to keep practicing how to come back into community.  Perhaps Jesus calls us in to spaces like Red Door where we are met with love, exactly as we are, and reminded of the transforming grace of reconciliation which exceeds our human imagination.  Perhaps Jesus is calling us in, and the way in which we reconcile is by seeing Christ in each other.

This place…right here…where we are gathered in the name of God bringing our prayers for hope, healing and reconciliation…God is here, with us, in our midst.  Offer up that good news to someone today.  God’s grace is calling us in.





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Cleanliness and Godliness

A Reflection for Proper 15, Year A.

Homily prepared for Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church August 18, 2017

Matthew 15: 10-28

Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


One of the first classes that I took in seminary assigned us to read a book, Unclean, by Richard Beck.  This was a really fascinating read for me because it brought together psychological research about our cognition and behavior…what we think, and what we do…and considered this through the lens of faith.  One of the studies Beck talks about is an experiment conducted by psychologists Zhong and Liljenquist around our associations between physical cleanliness and moral purity.* In the study, the experimental group and the control group were both asked to recall a time when they experienced a moral failure.  To put it more bluntly, they were basically asked to think of some time they felt guilty about what they did or as we might say…to think of some sin they had committed, or a time they fell short of their own moral code.  Then, both groups were asked to voluntarily assist one of the graduate assistants with some tasks.  In other words, they first had to think of a bad thing that they felt defiled them, then they were asked to engage in a good thing, voluntary helping, presumably acting with greater morality.  Now, if you know how behavioral experiments work, one group is usually given some condition which is different than the other.  So, in the experimental group, the participants were given hand wipes.  That’s it.  In between thinking of their moral failure and being invited into positive moral action, they could physically cleanse their hands.  Any guesses as to what happened?

Well, it turns out that those who cleaned their hands physically were much less likely to agree to voluntarily help others.  Only 41% of those who used a wipe to cleanse their hands were likely to volunteer, whereas 74% of those in the control condition volunteered to help.   This held true in multiple repetitions and across groups of people.  It seems that we human beings psychologically associate our physical actions to make ourselves clean as having some moral value, protecting us from our failures and giving us a sense that we are morally cleansed just from the physical act of cleaning our hands.

OK, all this is fascinating, but you may be wondering, what does this have to do with our Gospel reading for today?  I think if we understand this very human association we make between physical behaviors and moral virtue, we can understand Jesus’ teachings…and even his own actions in this portion of the Gospel…a bit better.

When we enter into this portion of scripture, Jesus is in the midst of challenging some very common assumptions among the crowds, wrapped in with their religious and customary practices of the day.  There are many purity codes within religions…in this case, the Jewish religion as this was Jesus’ own context.  These codes and behavioral prohibitions existed for important reasons…to keep the community healthy, strong, and working smoothly.  There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about these codes of conduct.  The lists of behaviors and requirements of action were a part of the culture of this particular people at this particular time.  And it’s no different for us…our personal beliefs, our families, our communities, our religious faith, our culture often give us rules that in a particular context and time may be helpful to keeping the community well.  Jesus didn’t approach the crowd to say, “do whatever you want and toss the rules out the window!” Instead, Jesus was teaching within this rule-following crowd that it isn’t the specific lists of actions and behaviors which defile us…for example, eating the wrong thing, not washing one’s hands or being physically contaminated by something considered impure…but, instead, it is the intentions of the heart from which our actions emerge, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that is what defiles.”

How much easier is it to cleanse our hands than it is to cleanse our hearts?

Think about that from the perspective of that psychology study.  We all hold onto thoughts and experiences where we know we weren’t exactly pure.  Let’s just be real about that.  Do we really think that a handi-wipe is going to assuage our guilt?  While it isn’t logical, apparently, we do.  It gives us a superficial sense of our worthiness and moral superiority to engage in an action that makes us feel physically clean.  Does this cleanse our hearts?  Of course not.  It just makes us feel better about ourselves.  But the inner intention of the heart…which in the face of actions we regret is often our own selfishness…is allowed to thrive.  Those who conducted that study also asked the two groups follow up questions about their feelings and found that the act of physical cleansing was associated with people feeling less guilty and ended up with people who were generally unhelpful feeling morally justified for not helping.   The moral guilt of the control group, on the other hand, prompted them to reconsider their motives and act in more helpful and altruistic ways.  The state of the heart (in this case, helpfulness and altruism toward another person) had a direct impact on people’s desire to actually help.  But, for some, their self-assurance through physical self-cleansing got in the way.

This, I think, is what Jesus is teaching: sometimes our self-assurance in our own attempts at cleanliness can keep us from experiencing Godliness…what is truly holy.

What follows in this Gospel is a chunk of scripture that I wrestle with, as do many others.  I want to think of Jesus as perfect; I want his divinity to suggest perfection and blamelessness in the face of all that this human life offers.  This story reminds us that Jesus is fully divine and fully a human being, living in a society that like ours where some classes and people are privileged over others.  His encounter is with someone who is socially outcast not on her own merits, but because she is a Canaanite.  And, let’s just call it: she is also a woman.  There were strict codes about how much contact and of what kind someone could have with those who were considered outsiders…defiled…impure.  Both Jesus and his disciples were just going along with the social norms: keeping distance, even reminding the woman of her lesser social standing.  This section really is just as awful as it sounds.  I’ve wondered, as I’ve sat with it this week, if its there because it is so embarrassingly human that we feel the need to minimize and dehumanize other groups of people.  Do I even need to draw the inference that this mirrors plenty of the hate-speak and oppressive talk that we hear today?  Perhaps its inclusion in the canon of the scriptures serves as an awakening moment that none of us…not even Jesus…are immune to the effects of minimizing others in an attempt to reinforce our own goodness.

But in today’s Gospel, something different happens.  This human being…a Canaanite woman…recognizes Jesus as “Son of David” which is shorthand for her acknowledgement of Jesus as Messiah.  She sees the holy within, not the collusion with the social sin that defiles.  When holy meets holy, healing happens.

Healing, it turns out, is inner grace.  Healing rests with God: to heal our brokenness, to realign ourselves with an inner design in the image and likeness of God.  God’s grace is not a handi-wipe offering superficial physical self-cleaning.  God’s grace purifies the soul, and changes all of what comes out of us to reflect actions of healing love.

No matter where you find yourselves in this story…attempting to get all the behaviors just right so that you can feel clean; moving in circles minimizing others to make yourself feel better; socially outcast; reaching out for healing; eating the crumbs of the table others have left for the dogs…it is the inner core of divine healing and grace which presents another way entirely. That holiness can reside in the hearts of people in all of those social spaces, from the high and mighty to those living at the margins.  Holy recognizes holy, and it is in that space that true healing happens.

*Beck, Richard (2011).  Unclean: Meditations on purity, hospitality, and morality.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.


Photo by Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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Jonathan Myrick Daniels

August 14th is the feast day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.  This day is especially poignant this year for me, as a seminarian caught in the midst of the resurgence of civil rights advocacy required to confront the evils of racism and white supremacy which have resurfaced from the places where they have been festering for years.  This weekend reminded me how real the struggle for hope in the midst of oppression is.

On August 14th, 2017 I felt the pull to call together other seminarians of The Episcopal Church in prayer, in the commemoration of Jonathan Myrick Daniels.  It was a beautiful day of curating liturgical resources along with seminarian friends and together, composing this Evening Prayer which was prayed collectively with over 35 seminarians from six different seminaries spanning from coast to coast across the United States. Please feel free to use it in your own places and locations.

Jonathan Daniels Commemoration
This is an archive page of a virtual call to prayer among seminarians of The Episcopal Church

August 14, 2017

Jonathan Daniels

Today the Church remembers Jonathan Myrick Daniels

Evening Prayer
Rite II

Opening Sentences:

It is not ourselves that we proclaim; we proclaim Christ
Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus’ sake.
For the same God who said, “Out of darkness let light shine,”
has caused light to shine within us, to give the light of
revelation—the revelation of the glory of God in the face of
Jesus Christ.    2 Corinthians 4:5-6

Prayers of Confession and Reconciliation:   (1)

In the beginning, you created humanity and declared us very good
We were made in Africa, came out of Egypt.
Our beginnings, all of our beginnings, are rooted in dark skin.
We are all siblings. We are all related.
We are all your children.

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all your children.

Violence entered creation through Cain and Abel.
Born of jealousy, rooted in fear of scarcity,
Brother turned against brother
The soil soaked with blood, Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are our brothers keeper.

When your people cried out in slavery,
You heard them. You did not ignore their suffering.
You raised up leaders who would speak truth to power
And lead your people into freedom.
Let us hear your voice; grant us the courage to answer your call.
Guide us towards justice and freedom for all people.

We are all siblings, we are all related, we all deserve to be free.

Through the prophets you told us the worship you want is for us
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke;
Yet we continue to serve our own interest,
To oppress our workers,
to crush our siblings by the neck because we are afraid.
Because they don’t look like us, act like us, talk like us.
Yet, they are us. And we are them.

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are not free unless all are free

In great love you sent to us Jesus, your Son,
Born in poverty, living under the rule of a foreign empire,
Brown-skinned, dark-haired, middle-Eastern.
They called him Yeshua, your Son,
Who welcomed the unwelcome, accepted the unacceptable—
The foreigners, the radicals, the illiterate, the poor,
The agents of empire and the ones who sought to overthrow it,
The men and women who were deemed unclean because of their maladies.

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all disciples.

The faith of Christ spread from region to region, culture to culture.
You delight in the many voices, many languages, raised to you.
You teach us that in Christ, “There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female.”
In Christ, we are all one.
Not in spite of our differences, but in them.
Black, brown, and white; female, non-binary, and male; citizen and immigrant,
In Christ we are all one.

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all one in Christ.

Each week, we confess our sin to you and to one another.
We know that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
We are captive to the sin of white supremacy,
Which values some lives more than others,
Which believes some skin tones are more perfect than others,
Which commits violence against those who are different.

We confess our complicity in this sin.
We humbly repent.

We ask for the strength to face our sin, to dismantle it, and to be made anew.

We trust in your compassion and rely on your mercy

Praying that you will give us your wisdom and guide us in your way of peace,

That you will renew us as you renew all of creation
In accordance with your will.

We ask this, we pray this, as your children, all siblings, all related, all beloved children of God.


God of compassion, you have reconciled us in Jesus Christ who is our peace: Enable us to live as Jesus lived, breaking down walls of hostility and healing enmity. Give us grace to make peace with those from whom we are divided, that, forgiven and forgiving, we may ever be one in Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever, one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.

The Invitatory and Psalter

O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
     as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Candle-lighting and Reflection:

Hymn: O Gracious Light Phos Hilaron
1982 Hymnal, #25

O gracious Light, Lord Jesus Christ,
in you the Father’s glory shone,
Immortal, holy, blest is he
and blest are you, his holy Son.

Now sunset come, but light shines forth
the lamps are lit to pierce the night.
Praise Father, Son, and Spirit; God
who dwells in the eternal light.

Worthy are you of endless praise,
O Son of God, Life giving Lord;
wherefore you are through all the earth
and in the highest heaven adored.

[Silence will be held; please feel free to light a candle in your prayer space or Light a Virtual Prayer Candle.]

Psalm (s) Appointed

Psalm 85: 7-13

7 Show us your mercy, O Lord, *
and grant us your salvation.

8 I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.

9 Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.

10 Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

11 Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

12 The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.

13 Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

First Reading: A reading from Proverbs:=

Proverbs 4:20-27

My child, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Do not let them escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forwards,
and your gaze be straight before you.
Keep straight the path of your feet,
and all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.

Here ends the lesson.

Canticle: A Prayer from the Streets of Charlottsville   (2)
written and read by Lauren Grubaugh

To the God whom we have forgotten;
To the God who is not male and is not white;

To the God who takes no pleasure in violence;
To the God who is Love;
To the God who is tender-hearted and warm embrace;
To the God who is not deaf to Her children’s cries
and is moved to tears by their suffering;
To the God whose law is love of neighbor, hospitality for the stranger,
care for the weak;
To the God whose touch is healing, whose gaze is compassion;
whose way is lovingkindness;
To the God who is Justice;
To the God who tramples fear and hatred under Her feet;
To the God who convicts our hearts, stirs our spirits,
transforms our minds;
To the God who revels in the joyful dance of community
and invites us to do the same;
To the God whose own child’s lynched body hung limp on a tree,
not by Her own hand,
but because of the fear and hatred of those human beings
who feared the kind of world they were promised would be ushered in
and hated the changes they would have to undergo to get there;

Our memory is so short:
Our failure to remember the sins of our parents,
Our aversion to repentance,
Our refusal to make reparations,
Is killing us.

Our souls are wasting away.
And black, brown, female, queer, trans, Muslim, differently abled bodies
Are dying.
Every day, so many.

O God whom we have forgotten,
We do not even know how to call on your name.
We have not seen you in the faces of our sisters and brothers.
We have not felt you in the pain of our neighbors, strangers, friends and enemies;

O God whom we have forgotten,
Do not let our imaginations be infiltrated by war-mongering forces of violence.
Do not let our spirits be colonized by the depressing fear of our oppressors.

Transform our minds that do not know how to think of you
Existing without these heavy chains we have placed on ourselves
and on each other.


Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
     as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Second Reading: A Reading from the Epistle to the Galatians

Galatians 3:22-28

But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 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.

Here ends the lesson.

Third Reading and Canticle: Luke 1: 46-55
Gospel Reflection: from the diary of Jonathan Daniels

Luke 1: 46-55:

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

An excerpt from the diary of Jonathan Daniels:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. “He hath showed strength with his arm.” As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment” that would, in retrospect, remind me of others–particularly one at Easter three years ago. Then it came. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.”

In this spirit, we offer together the words of the Magnificat as the prayer of Mary and of our own hearts, asking where and how God calls us for service at this time and in our formation for ministry:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in you, O God my Savior, *
for you have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your name.
You have mercy on those who fear you *
from generation to generation.
You have shown strength with your arm *
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones *
and lifting up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things *
and sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the help of your servant Israel, *
for you have remembered your promise of mercy,
The promise made to our forebears, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
     as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth;
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.


The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.


Show us your mercy, O Lord;
And grant us your salvation.

Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
Let your people sing with joy.

Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
For only in you can we live in safety.

Lord, keep this nation under your care;
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.

Let your way be known upon earth;
Your saving health among all nations.

Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

Create in us clean hearts, O God;
And sustain us with your Holy Spirit.


O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Almighty God, whose prophets taught us righteousness in the care of your poor: By the guidance of your Holy Spirit, grant that we may do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your sight; through Jesus Christ, our Judge and Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

A Litany of Confession and Forgiveness:   (3)

Gracious God, we thank you for making one human family of all the peoples of the earth and for creating all the wonderful diversity of cultures.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship and show us your presence in those who differ most from us.

From the bondage of racism that denies the humanity of every human being and the prejudices within us that deny the dignity of those who are oppressed:

Lord set us free.

From racism that blinds oppressors to the destruction caused by the spirit and practice of racial injustice:

Christ set us free.

From the racism that will not recognize the work of your Spirit in our own communities or in other cultures:

Lord set us free.

Forgive those of us who have been silent and apathetic in the face of racial intolerance and bigotry, both overt and subtle, public and private.

Lord, have mercy.

Take away the arrogance and hatred that infect our hearts.
Break down the walls that separate us.

Lord, have mercy.

Help us to find that unity that is the fruit of righteousness and will enable us to become your beloved community.

Lord, have mercy.

Empower us to speak boldly for justice and truth and help us to deal with one another without hatred or bitterness, working together with mutual forbearance and respect.

Lord, have mercy.

Work through our struggles and confusion to accomplish your purposes

[Silent Prayer}

A Prayer of St. Chrysostom

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one
accord to make our common supplication to you; and you
have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two
or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the
midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions
as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of
your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in
believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Romans 15:13


1. litany by Revs. Elizabeth Rawlings and Jennifer Chrien from:

2. A Prayer from the streets of Charlottsville:

3. litany of confession and forgiveness adapted from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America:

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We must do better

I acknowledge up-front that I have the privilege of stepping into a bubble when I want to.  I’m a white woman, of the kind-and-round-faced variety who generally speaking doesn’t make waves when I walk into unfamiliar spaces.  I often remind someone who doesn’t know me of someone they’ve met before.  People tend to talk to me; apparently, I don’t seem threatening or unapproachable.  My exterior presentation makes it easy for me to slip into places and seem like I belong, so people tend to open up to me.  That, added to my social worker sensibilities, means that I end up having many conversations with many people in spite of my inner longing to introversion.

So, it has been that way this summer in my visits to churches where I haven’t worshipped before: always talking with people, always a sense of welcome, always some new information shared with me, always something to learn.  During these summer months, I am taking some time to visit churches that I haven’t been to before, paying attention to the ways in which people gather and how they worship together.  It’s very relaxed; I have no agenda because I’m not church-shopping or checking out someone who may be looking for a new call, nor am I looking for a call myself.  I will be happily rejoining the parish I serve as seminarian in the Fall, and I am prayerfully aware of my ongoing connection to the parish sponsoring me as I prepare for ordained ministry.  There are beautiful, wonderful people in both those spaces who pray for me, as I pray for them every week.  It will be good to see all of them again soon, since both places feel like home.  But for now, I am intentionally wandering, learning, being church with people in different spaces and different ways and appreciating what I learn.

I expect the good in people, especially in a space of radical love.  Even though that hasn’t always been my experience with organized religion, it is nevertheless what I expect churches to be.

Today, I was at a church that I won’t name.  The space was beautiful, inviting and signs of welcome were everywhere.  The clergy were kind, the people were friendly.  Everyone was well dressed, but not so much that those coming in felt put off.  There were hymns and prayers, and talk of recent mission trips for the youth.  It could be any well-respected church in a suburb near you, working hard at being a place that regular members love to come to and where newcomers feel welcomed.  And, to their credit, I did feel welcomed.

I was standing in the aisle after the service, waiting to say hello to the clergy and making small talk with the friendly older couple I had been sitting with (I had taken “their pew” but instead of being fussy or moving they introduced themselves by saying, “how nice to meet you…I’m glad you’ll be sharing our pew with us!”)  This honesty endeared me, so I was sharing a little bit about myself and making general small talk with them.  A woman just behind us was chatting with someone else about her grand-children and I overheard her mentioning that her grand-son was going to be a senior at a particular high school, which happens to be the school my daughter is about to attend in the Fall.  I was very excited to hear this, especially in a suburban church about a public, city school.  I turned and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, I’m just visiting and happened to overhear you, but my daughter is going to be starting as a freshman at that school in the Fall.  How has your grand-son enjoyed it?!”

Let me interrupt with the fact that I’m really excited about this school, as is my daughter. We happily live in the city by choice, and the school being discussed is a public, specialty school which is both highly rated and located in what many people would call, “a sketchy neighborhood.”  It has a 99% college acceptance rate and students graduate with millions of dollars in scholarships, collectively.  Its published admission policy is to hold 70% of spaces for students from socio-economic and racial minority backgrounds.  Every student enrolled has been tested, interviewed, and has agreed to academic rigor mixed with extensive community service requirements.  Incidentally, I live very close to this “sketchy neighborhood” and I am thrilled that my daughter was accepted to this school.

What happened next seems small, but it is huge because it is so pervasively ever-present.  The woman who had never met me took my arm, pulled close to me and said, “He’s done well considering the circumstances but, you know dear, our kind is outnumbered there.”

My heart sank.  No, it didn’t sink.  It broke.  Again, and again, and again like it breaks every time I realize for the thousandth time that racism is alive and real, and that in our perpetuated privilege of separating ourselves from the “other,” we are encouraging it to thrive.

In retrospect, I wish I would have been bolder.  I’m kicking myself for a hundred really good come-backs that I only thought about after the fact.  But as a complete stranger, I opted for what seemed like a safe middle ground.  As if I didn’t hear the intent of her remark I said, “Well, what I love about it so far is that the principal seems to be an exceptional leader who sets a priority on building an inclusive community that appreciates every student’s strengths.”  I thought maybe that would be a hint about my value alignment, since the principal is a highly regarded community leader who is a person of color.  But no, she went on; “Well, I will say that he keeps all those kids under control, which likely keeps them out of jail.”

I felt like I might throw up.  At this point I was just relieved to be nearing the exit.  I shook the clergy’s hand and did a quick introduction of myself as a visiting seminarian, then headed out the nearest door as quickly as I could.  I passed the lemonade and cookies and all the middle-class, white children playing on the pretty church playground while their families chatted together.  The safety of the protective layer of whiteness felt overwhelming.  I sat in my car with tear-filled eyes, not just at the blatant racism but at my own privilege and lack of courage.  I looked at the clock and wished I still had time to get to one of the incredible, vibrant parishes I have attended recently where, when I was the person who looked different than everyone else, all I received was love and welcome.  Real welcome, not conditional.  I’m fairly sure I would not have been so lovingly treated at my visit today if my pale face were of a different hue.

I am embarrassed by the injustice and hypocrisy that are painted on me, a layer of privileged whiteness that I cannot scrub off.  “I don’t want to be one of you!” I yelled as I drove out the tree-lined driveway and headed back into the city.  And I know, not every person in that space may have felt the same way.  But somehow, it was perfectly fine to express to a perfect stranger the seemingly sacred space of being in the ethnic “in crowd.”  Truthfully, I am broken-hearted because racial distrust and disrespect are as much engrained in that woman’s life as it is in my own blindness to the privilege I have to easily walk in to somewhere and be perceived immediately as “one of us” whether I want to be or not.  I should have said more.  I should be a better advocate than I am.  I shouldn’t have run away without addressing the elephant in the room.  I am pitifully, painfully human.

White friends, we have to do better.

Why on earth, in 2017, are we still unable to recognize the pain we create by depersonalization of people of color?  Today it was one woman’s racist, classist assumptions spoken to me as “one of us” that rose the ugly head of racism at the end of a service of Holy Eucharist, the coming together of the Body of Christ…which, in case anyone is confused about it, is not white and privileged.  It is broken, reconstituted and comprised of all of us.  All of us.  Racial exclusion is the exact opposite of how Christ lived and taught.

And let me not seem to be pointing a finger at any one person or parish…that is not the point here.  Is it any less racist when people move to suburbs for “better schools” or we fight changes in school zoning to keep “our kids” in the best location?  Or when we selectively choose spaces to worship, play, or socialize that are filled with people who look just like us?  And for me…I am really excited for my daughter’s high school but what would I have done if she wasn’t accepted there and was heading to our zoned high school?  And why would I feel the way that I feel about that?  From where do my assumptions emerge?  How much privilege am I willing to give up to be sure that every person has an equal playing field?  I have to own that and all of the layers of privilege and guilt that come along with it.  Children…human beings who deserve to learn well and be loved…are in every school.  Human beings are in every neighborhood.  The racism, depersonalization and oppression of human beings in the United States has led to structures of perpetuated poverty, class conflict, and couched (as well as blatant) racism that keep us from having to honestly check our assumptions and our privilege.  What do we gain from this?  What are we willing to give up to break this cycle?

These are hard questions, friends.  They are guilt-inducing and we avoid them like the plague and tune in to Netflix and binge-watch something else instead.  But these questions and our white privilege and guilt are not the same as having to fear for our lives, having to fear arrest by profiling, having to face dehumanization and discrimination that people of color in the United States experience every day.

Every. Single. Day.

Today was a wake up call for me.  Friends, it’s not OK to be racist.  Not in church, not in “polite society” and not hiding in the bubble of our own privilege.  Oppression includes these subtle (but no less real) incidents of passive racism and white protectionism.  If I call you out (or “in”) on it, it is because I need to hear it myself and not because I’m making an example of you.  I need to feel it, say it, confront it, change it.  We all do.

Repentance has to come before there is any hope of reconciliation.

Forgive me.  Forgive us.  We have missed the mark, again.  So, we commit, again:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
I will, with God’s help.

–from the Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer (1979)

Yes, I will, with God’s help.


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Now, but not yet…

A reflection for Proper 12, Year A
Prepared for Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Today in this one, short section of the Gospel of Matthew we hear Jesus speak this phrase six different times. Not once; not twice: six.  When someone explains something to me six different times in six different ways, I have to assume that what is being talked about is really important. So, before we can even get to a place where we can talk about the comparisons offered in Jesus’ teachings, I think it might be important to pause and ask ourselves: why is it that explaining the kingdom of heaven is so important to Jesus?

Some of you know that in my seminary studies, I’ve been taking a summer intensive in Biblical Greek. I know you know, because you’ve been checking up on me to be sure that I’m learning…and I appreciate your encouragement! So, you can give me a gold star for applying my learning this week.   As I pondered this Gospel lesson, one of the things I did was to spend some quality time with my Greek New Testament around this phrase, βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, which yes, is literally, the “kingdom of heaven.” But the words come together in a way that doesn’t speak to a particular place set apart; it’s an expression that compares how things are done as we know them here on earth, and how things are done as God knows them to be.  We might paraphrase it today, “the way things get done in the place where God is.” This kingdom of heaven that Jesus is talking about is the rule of life of the realm of God.

One reason why this teaching may be so important to Jesus is because he is living in two worlds. We understand Jesus to be both fully human, and fully divine.  Fully human Jesus is living in and among the culture and people of this world; he sees and experiences every day how the rule of earthly powers plays out. Simultaneously, fully divine Jesus has knowledge to impart to his followers about the lavish, incomprehensible beauty of God’s love in ways that defy our logic. Consider the way we hear this same phrase spoken of earlier in Matthew’s Gospel in my favorite part of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The extravagant love of God is quite unlike anything in this world. But occasionally, we do catch a glimpse of that unconditional, lavish love. When Jesus talks to his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, he is speaking of something which is both now…and not yet. This finite, temporal world that Jesus knows is filled with sickness, imperfection, selfishness and death. But God’s presence is not absent in the experience of this world. God was, and is, present.  God is with us, even now, even in this context of our own city filled with its poverty of spirit and scarcity of resources. God’s love isn’t just “out there” or “later on.” God’s reign cuts through the heavens and reaches into our earthly lives, helping us to know there is something larger, greater, and more powerful than only what we can see right now in the limited scope of our individual, human existence. We are moving together toward that hope-filled vision that we pray whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer together: that God’s reign may come on earth, as it is in heaven.

So, Jesus…who holds this tension between the now and the not yet in his very person…tells his followers a sequence of parables. He does this using the understanding of the context in which they are living, using the ordinary examples of the lives of people around him who garden, who fish, who cook for their families. One of those parables seems to build on those weeds we talked about last week…the tiniest mustard seed (which is, actually, a weed) growing in its fullness to become a shade-giving bird sanctuary. Another reveals how the tiniest amount of yeast is all that is needed to rise bread for baking. There is a comparison with hidden treasure, with the pearl of great price, and with an abundance of fish. But all of these parables are also counter-cultural. They are also the upside-down kingdom, fundamentally altering our understanding of what is good and right and sensible: weeds become life-giving, unclean leaven feeding the multitudes, hidden treasures of unknown value worth selling all one has. Instead of catching only the best fish, all are gathered up in the net together. This isn’t how things usually happen. But, these are examples of how different things are…and a hint about how things will be…when the rule of life becomes the reign of God.

My favorite part of this lesson, though, is the end. After Jesus shares these thought-provoking examples designed to challenge all the normal assumptions of life, he asks his disciples: “Have you understood all this?” and their answer is “Yes.”

I can imagine Jesus smiling a knowing smile. Even smirking or chuckling, perhaps. I can also imagine saying “Yes” because I thought I understood.  Or, perhaps, I understood just enough to know that the answer was supposed to be “Yes.”   And I can imagine saying yes, because it’s always hard to be the one to say, “Actually, I’m not sure that I understand…” That would take courage, authenticity, and a belief that I am actually capable of receiving lavish and unconditional love even when I have no clue why things are happening the way that they are.

I think the better and more truthful answer might have been, “not yet.”

The Gospel writer was scribing these stories after-the-fact, probably 80 or 90 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seems, then, especially appropriate for us to hear one last parable of Good News from Jesus about the kingdom of heaven: “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

I think that is a parable meant for us.

We sometimes think of the stories of our scriptures as something old, written thousands of years ago. True enough. But what if, like the kingdom of heaven, they are also now…but not yet. We receive glimpses of the reign of God cutting through the unfairness and uncertainty of the world. In the scriptures, we find treasures for our soul which far out-value anything of human wealth. Those treasures emerge now, and continue to emerge until they are fully known to all people. We catch a glimpse in a moment of connection, in a weed, in the breaking of bread, in small glimpses of divine abundance reminding us that there is something more, something greater which is both here, and beyond…now, and not yet.

That tiny grain of God’s truth is perhaps all that we need to grow into our fullness. Where is that truth speaking to you? How are you a scribe for the kingdom of heaven?

I happen to think your stories and God-experiences hold every bit as much truth as these parables. God is still speaking, telling stories of the now and not yet which build our lives of faith. It is a hope-filled tension in which we live, in glimpses of profound beauty our human eyes can see and the hope that fills the eyes of our souls awaiting to see the Kingdom of Heaven.

There are many times in this life when the kingdom of heaven seems very far away.  But there are moments at Red Door when I can palpably feel God breaking into our midst, the “now” glimpse of the kingdom of heaven where all that divides us in this world falls away to reveal our connection together with the God who loves us lavishly.  Together, we hold those moments of God’s nearness in the now, awaiting with hope and prayer the “now but not yet” of God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.


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The Patient Gardner

A Reflection for Proper 11, Year A
Prepared for the Red Door Healing Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

When I was young, we lived in a very rural part of upstate New York. First we lived on a farm…it belonged to my grandparents…and then when I started school, we moved to the nearby town, population 1,500 people and probably as many cows. My extended family still lived on or near the farm, the lands and fields around which were part of my family’s property.

My grandfather, before he died, gave each of his children an acre of land on which to build a home. Many of my relatives did this, but my parents moved to town closer to where my mother worked and thus, they had an acre of land sitting unused. My mother…the frugal daughter of a farmer and an elementary school teacher who had summers unscheduled…decided that we would use our acre to plant a garden. There was a well and a pump on the property, so buckets of water could be carried from yards away to water the rows of vegetables even though the garden was miles from our actual house.

At first, I loved this idea of a big, bountiful garden. My uncle plowed up the soil with his farm-sized cultivator and we went to the seed store where there were bins and bins of bulk seeds for peas, beans, and corn. We had onion sets, and potato starters as well as teeny, tiny seeds for carrots, lettuce, swiss chard, and beets. Then there were summer squash, zucchini, and cucumbers which were planted in big mounds instead of rows. Tomatoes were the only things we started from small, seedling plants to give them a head-start in our northern climate. Last, but not least, were the seeds I was going to plant in my own corner of the garden: watermelon seeds, pumpkin seeds and a little package of “Peppermint Patty’s Parsley” that I had gotten as a free surprise inside a bag of wonder bread.

Planting was so much fun. The soil was loose from the cultivator, and plopping the little seeds in their rows and furrows filled me with images of perfect little plants yet to emerge. Better yet was when the seeds started to grow! Tiny seedlings of all these different shapes and sizes. My Mom taught me how to recognize the plants by the shape of their tiny leaves, and the color of their sprouts. This gardening thing was great, I thought.

And then came the weeds.

This acre of garden had been, until that summer, an uncultivated field of wild grasses and weeds. Those weeds, it turns out, also had seeds that had naturally scattered into the garden and some weeds had roots that went further down into the soil than even my Uncle’s cultivator could break up. From the joy and potential of planting in late spring came the arduous summer of the weed. My mother’s morning declaration of, “get dressed, we’re going to work in the garden!” turned from a fun outing to a dreaded task. I’m sure I probably didn’t hide my feelings well, but I knew better than to protest outright. My mother made a deal with me: as soon as I finished taking care of my garden chores, I could walk across the back-lots to get to my Aunt Joyce’s house and go for a dip in the pool. That was a deal I could live with. And it worked, for a few days.

But, kids being kids, I began to think that maybe I could do my chores really fast, thus getting to the pool more quickly. So, one day I started the correct way, by tending to my rows and mounds by hand, carefully avoiding the tiny plants and second plantings of seeds as I removed things that didn’t belong, and watering the plants they were growing. I did this for about fifteen minutes, which probably seemed like half a day. Then, I got a bit more careless and started occasionally ripping away a seeding or two as I removed handfuls of weeds. I justified this, “Mom said some of the new plants might need to be thinned!” This still seemed to be taking too long. So, I found a rake, and started dragging it through the weeds (especially the ones that were prickly), ruthlessly ripping up the soil around them, which included both freshly planted vegetables and their weedy neighbors. My Mom came running when she saw this, and took away my rake. She showed me the little plants that had been cut off at the roots from my overzealous and careless gardening. She didn’t let me go to the pool that day. And, I didn’t feel much like it anyhow. I saw the little plants that we had worked so hard to grow, lying there and withering up in the sun. I felt bad for them, especially my Peppermint Patty Parsley. I tried to stick it back in the soil, but as we know, without roots nothing can continue to grow.

I never did learn to like weeding, but I did learn something about the value of patience.

This week’s Gospel lesson is a parable Jesus uses to teach his followers. It reminds me an awful lot of that story from my childhood. At first read, we might be thrown by some of the language: the furnace of fire and the weeping and gnashing of teeth…but frankly, that part of the passage isn’t really the point Jesus was conveying.  That final destruction of discarded weeds is what happens at a whole different time, after there has been so much tending from the gardener and all of the good fruits of the lovingly planted seeds have been gathered to nourish the family of God. The soil is good, the seeds are filled with potential, and they are lovingly planted, taking root in rich soil that continues to provide nourishment. Our Gardner…the Son of Man…Jesus is diligent and knows the identity and potential of every seed that he planted. He also knows that, like the garden of my childhood, no place on this earth is free from weeds. But it isn’t up to the plants to attack the weeds around them, and it isn’t up to those who work in the gardens to rip out ruthlessly everything that might be a weed, either. Jesus knows all of the potential of each and every good seed planted in that garden and how to help nurture their growth to the fullness of harvest. There is water…like our waters of baptism. There is sunshine, the radiance and energy of resurrection. There is air, the cool wind of spirit. There is support in the firmly planted roots of community and among the rows and mounds of other plants who are also growing together. There is, for all of us plants, the tender attention of the patient and loving gardener to see what fruit is emerging and to know which fruits are ready, exactly when they are needed most in the world.

The workers may get impatient; I know I did and often, I still do. But it is the watchful care of the gardener that keeps us from doing damage to others who are still growing. Jesus does not convey this parable suggesting there is something we should do to fix the garden.  This parable is about the Kingdom of God, which doesn’t need our interference.  It’s as if Jesus is saying to his followers: Listen to me: I’ve got this.  I am in the world, and I know what is here.  I know the plants, and I know the weeds.  In the end, all will be set right.  But right now, your job is to grow.

Our lesson today reminds us that we are plants, who are growing under the care of an attentive and loving God. We are being tended, good seed sown in good soil which is being nurtured into fullness. God never promises us there won’t be weeds growing along beside us. We live on this earth: we see the weeds along with the wheat and worry, perhaps, that the weeds will overpower us. But that is not the story of the Kingdom of God. The patient and loving gardner has a much better plan in mind, and knows all that he has planted. Not to mention the other possibility: what looks like a weed to us may be a plant bearing an entirely different kind of fruit. Their leaves may be bitter, but they have roots filled with the potential to nourish. Our job is to grow, and our reassurance is that in God’s Kingdom, all of the seed that God has sown is loved and cared for. God is the patient gardener of the dry and weedy garden of this world. God revives us with holy waters of new birth in Christ, and cools us with the consolation of the Holy Spirit.

Today, in the fullness of summer, take time to be still, and know that God cares for you. God’s love is tending each one of us, who are growing together into our fullness through the loving attention of our patient gardener, Jesus Christ, who knows all of our potential for growth.


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