Crosses

This is the sermon from yesterday, the Second Sunday in Lent (more or less, because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript) .  I preached on Mark’s Gospel (8:31-38).  You can find the lectionary here.

Today’s Gospel is another one of those in which I think, “poor Peter.”  Peter, who is eager to show that he knows who Jesus is, that he knows that Jesus is the Messiah.  Peter, who seems to believe full on that times have changed, that nothing is or ever will be the same because Jesus has come to fulfill the prophecy, gets it wrong yet again.  And we know that he continues to get it wrong, right up until the time he denies Jesus three times at Calvary.  Is this really the guy, the rock upon which Jesus built his church?

Can you imagine being Peter, sitting with the other disciples, listening to Jesus say that there is a whole lot worse to come?  Being so eager to show Jesus you know who he is, that you get what his being with you means, that you take him aside for a little pep talk?   “Hey, dude, whaddaya mean with all this talk of bad things happening?  Did you forget that you’re the Messiah? No one can mess with you!  You’re just having a bad day.”  Your heart is in the right place, right?  And then to have Jesus call you on your naivete?  And in such a way: “Get behind me, Satan!”…Get behind me… Satan?

I imagine Peter made the mistake so many of us who are followers of Jesus make: he believed the presence of the Messiah would mean no more cares, no more troubles, no more problems.  Everything would be rosy, a road paved with gold kind of life.  Peter’s image of the Messiah was the king with the crown and the fancy vestments, the unlimited resources, and the power and authority to make everyone behave well or else.

But what Jesus was telling Peter and the others is that he was not and is not that kind of king.  The incarnate God whose inbreaking into the world as the son of a laborer and his wife, was not and is not a fancy king focused on making things easy, but rather showing real people -us -how to make things right, to show us that we are the ones to help make it right. He entered the world as it was, full of broken people, willing to be with us as we are, and to teach us what it means to live humbly with one another, focused on God and God’s dream for the world.

And that means holding onto faith, trusting in God through the wilderness times, as we heard in last week’s Gospel. That means carrying whatever crosses we have to bear, as we continue to journey deeper into the heart of God.

The presence of God and crosses are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, it is only by the grace of God that we are able to carry the crosses we collect in this human life.  God really does give us what we need: courage, strength, wisdom, perseverance, good humor, companionship, you-name-it, to handle all that being human throws at us, piles on us.

Some crosses are big, heavy, like the literal cross Jesus carried to his death.  There are still places in the world where being Christian is tantamount to a death sentence. There are crosses of significant illness, of fractured relationships, of lost jobs and money problems.  There are the crosses of injustice and oppression, of othering and exclusion. Last week I talked about the human-made wilderness of gun violence, which means so many families and communities bear the cross of lives lost, of dreams shattered, such as in Parkland, Florida.  The list is probably as long and relentless as the ways in which we make life harder for ourselves and each other, as we live in ways that are contrary to God’s dream and to Jesus’ example.

We all have crosses and, if we are lucky, they are smaller, lighter, easier to bear, but most often we have crosses of various sizes and weights, some harder to bear than others.  As followers of Jesus, as disciples of Christ, we are called to make our way through the wilderness, carrying our crosses, knowing that Jesus is present with us in and through all things, and that we will come through to the other side.  Jesus never promised it would be easy, only that it would be worth it.  And, as Paul reminds us often in his letters, the promise is of the life eternal when the kingdom of God is fully realized, not of a particular, easy life in this day and age.  Sometimes that truth feels a bit like a cross, doesn’t it?

So, here we are, on the second Sunday in Lent some 2000 years after the first Easter.  We are carrying our crosses, whatever they are, as we are reminded that Jesus himself carried the cross of our salvation, however it is we understand that.  In some ways it seems that we have not moved any further along in the journey deeper into the heart of God than Peter and the first disciples.  In some ways it feels like we have gotten further behind.

As disciples today it seems important to remember we have knowledge and experience that Peter and the others did not have: we have the first Easter and the Resurrection. We know that Jesus lives in spite of an execution, in spite of all the ways we continue to deny him, in spite of all the crosses we continue to create.  Today, in this place, we have a visual reminder of the extent to which the incarnate God will go for us and with us: we have the cross with the crucified Jesus on the wall above the pulpit, which is appropriate to the season of Lent.

We also have the visual reminder of the fulfillment of promise from God, made possible through Jesus the Christ: we have the beautiful cross above the altar, above God’s Table, with the Christus Rex.  This is appropriate for an Easter people. We are reminded that Jesus triumphed over the cross and lives.  We are reminded that Jesus is present with us, now and for all time.  May this give us all that we need to continue our Lenten journey of repentance and prayerful reflection as we prepare to meet the Risen Christ again as if for the first time.

The vision to envision

On February 20th, the day the Episcopal Church remembers the prophetic witness of Frederick Douglass, I was with several of my colleagues at a gathering of clergy considered “new” to positions in the diocese, while our bishop and other colleagues were at the cathedral for the “Blessing of the Journalists.”  It was one of those times in which it was hard to focus on where you were and why, because so much of you longed to be in another place.  Being who we are, a few of us named this longing.

The colleague hosting our gathering named it beautifully in our shared prayer.  He read from Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and invited us to share our thoughts.  Being people who regularly speak the things they think, i.e. a group of preachers, the conversation was full and rich with layers of shared understanding and unique experience.  As I listened, I was drawn deeper and deeper into one phrase from Douglass’ writing: ” I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!” (pp. 4-5)

Perhaps because I was still being drawn deeper to that prayerful and reflective place in which my ponderings and wonderings reside, I was not yet ready to to speak to that which I was thinking, at least not in a fully formed kind of way.  And being someone who sometimes thinks out loud, and trusting my colleagues to hold that gently, I gave voice to the pull from Douglass’ words.  Although I don’t remember exactly what I said, I know it began being about the impact of experience on one’s perspective.  And it was then that I knew the musing was about vision and how to envision a shared dream or future.  As I sat looking at my friend and colleague, I heard myself saying,  “We can’t see the same things because when you look at me you see something different than I see when I look at you, and that limits us.  And I think it is more so the more focused we become because then we fail to see the people and things we know are around us.”

Now, this is not, as they say, rocket science.  It is not a groundbreaking insight.  Heck, it is not even something I was learning for the first time!  I know and have known for longer than I can remember that we are shaped by our experiences and that our experiences shape our perspectives.  Yet in that moment, sitting in a chapel, looking a friend and colleague in the eye as we engaged in faith-filled conversation about the grievous sin of slavery while reflecting upon the words of a former slave, something felt different.  It felt as if the holy and sacred work is in the reminder that to envision a future in which God’s dream is realized it is necessary that we stand side-by-side looking in the same direction, allowing our tears to wash away the barriers to understanding that what is behind us and past, as well as what is beside us and now, is not the same.

Middle bits of wilderness

I know I am not alone when I say that the Parkland school shooting feels different. It changed something in me.  Perhaps it is because I have finally had enough – though why the first or the second or the umpteenth school shooting was not enough is a question I take to God in prayer.

Perhaps it is because it occurred on the day of the Hallmark celebration of love and I heard one of the survivors say she initially thought the gunshots were Valentine’s Day balloons popping.  The innocence of that broke my already broken heart.

Perhaps it is because our youngest child and only daughter turned 18 on that day, and as I celebrated her burgeoning adulthood and increasing independence, I was wistful for the days that seem both like yesterday and so long ago when she was a perfectly formed and healthy 3 lb., 9 oz bundle of grace, who taught me for the third time that there are no bounds on love.

Perhaps it is because it was Ash Wednesday, the day Christians like myself enter into the season of solemn reflection and repentance by accepting a mark of our humility on our foreheads.  I know I have been stricken by my need to repent of my complicity in supporting a culture in which previously unspeakable violence is now commonplace. I know this more deeply as I listen to the despicable hubris of people who have the power and position to take meaningful action but who lack the moral authority and gumption to do so.

Perhaps it is for all of these reasons and maybe some I have not yet encountered in my consciousness. Whatever the reasons, the Parkland school shooting feels different and I am changed.

In my sermons this  past weekend, I preached about the Gospel (Mark 1:9-15):

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is a Gospel that at times has reassured me and at other times terrorized me.  (An aside: I took a class in seminary called “Preaching Texts of Terror” and this is the Gospel passage I chose.)

Whenever I hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” or the similar words found in other Gospel stories, I imagine God saying those words to me, and my heart sings.  One of my favorite things to do as priest and pastor, as chaplain, as neighbor and friend, is to remind people that God feels that way about them, too.  You can probably imagine my unfettered joy when an eight-year-old boy told me that God said those words to his four-year-old brother when we baptized the little guy in the late fall.

I almost always, to the extent that I probably could say “always” and have it be true enough to be truthful. hear the final sentence as comforting and an assurance of the hope I feel that God’s dream for God’s creation will come to be.

It is the middle verses, those about Jesus being driven out into the wilderness, that can bring comfort – “Of course I wrestle with temptation.  Even Jesus wrestled with temptation!”- or terror – “How can I ever even begin to think I can resist this temptation when even Jesus had to struggle?”  It is a Gospel passage I come back to time and time again when I am in the midst of a struggle and need to hear the beginning and the end so that I can get through the middle bits.

This week it has touched me in a way I am challenged to articulate clearly, though I felt, and continue to feel, compelled to talk about it.  There is something to be learned, something I need to learn, about the juxtaposition of love and the wilderness as I do the prayerful work of repentance and seek to understand the ways I am called to act. I find that my heart is all bound up in an almost consuming need to do something, anything, so that our young people, our children, never have to wrestle with the middle bits of a terrifying wilderness that is strictly of human making.

I have taken this to God in my prayer.  I have asked and continue to ask for the courage and wisdom to live my faith more boldly in the face of the evil that would place anything above the safety and well-being of children. I am learning that I am willing to venture into the wilderness that is corporate greed and a weapons-strengthened self-centered fear of anyone different, or that same fear of loss of power over another.

I enter this wilderness to repent of my complicity in conveying to my daughter, and to daughters and sons everywhere, that anything is more valuable, more important than their safety or their lives. I am willing to go into the wilderness that is eradicating gun violence to use the privilege I have as a white, middle-class, educated, professional woman to speak to another kind of power, the humble power that I see in Jesus’ example of unconditional love.  My heart is all bound up in a call to ensure that the only message our children hear from those who are responsible to nurture and protect them is “You are beloved. Believe in this good news.”

 

Amazing grace

Tonight, the parish I serve, the faithful and Spirit-filled Grace Church, Oxford, had a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper.  The kitchen was filled to overflowing with the fixings for the meal, which, in true Grace fashion, also included chocolate cake, apple pie, and yogurt and berry parfaits.  There were more griddles than I have ever seen in one place, each seemingly with a team of folks attending to the pouring and the flipping and the plating. We had Mardi Gras beads and beautiful placemats decorated by some of the children in Sunday School the other day.

We had a good crowd of diners, with some of the regulars, as well as some friends of the regulars, and a woman who visited us for the very first time because she was invited by an acquaintance in a yoga class.   We got the usual mix of photos, candid and posed, smiley and goofy.20180213_184612  It was a deliciously fun time.

Once or twice I found myself standing off to the side, just watching and listening, feeling myself smiling, and feeling the smile infuse my heart.  The sense of joy and friendship in the room was almost palpable.  There was lots of laughter  from “children” of all ages and the sounds of the young ones playing together. Young ones who met for the first time today shared the toys and negotiated the rules of games. The not-as-young shared easy conversation at the tables, while those in the smallish kitchen worked together with a rhythm and flow that seemed almost choreographed.

The kids and I blessed holy water. I am in awe of their innocence and reverence, which made the moment seem all the more sacred and holy.  I wish I had a picture of their fingers in the water, faces looking seriously up at me, syrupy breath, beads, and all, as I said the prayers. I know it would be a picture that would forever remind me of how truly blessed I am to be called to do the work that I do, work that almost never feels like work.

There is so much blessing in inviting and welcoming the sacred and holy into the midst of a simple meal, with an origin most people probably have forgotten.  It seems a splendid irony that we gathered to share this meal, made of those things that traditionally needed to be used up because they would spoil over the 40 days of Lent, and were fed with true fellowship, the kind that lives on in changed hearts and lives forever.  This truly is amazing grace.

 

The journey begins

This journey into blogging is beginning in a way that surprises me: with a sermon.  Although I preach a couple of times every week, I think I was expecting to post an article or other writing.  Yet here I am, preparing to share with who knows whom the sermon I preached today (technically, it was yesterday but because I have yet to go to bed, I’ll consider it all of a day) at Grace Church in Oxford, Massachusetts.   In case you are interested in the context, the Gospel for the day was Mark 9:2-9, one of the Transfiguration stories. 

Many years ago – many, many years ago, my grandfather, one of my heroes, shared some wisdom with me.  It is wisdom I have carried with me my whole life since. Before we had the conversation in which he imparted this wisdom, I had two really disturbing experiences, which I remember as happening within weeks of each other, when I was probably nine or ten years old.

I had a friend, a boy named Reggie, who was very dark complected.  He and I and two other girls, both blonde haired and blue/green eyed, as I was at the time, were playing in my yard.  And from a neighbor’s yard we suddenly heard a voice yell something I cannot fully speak out loud.  This guy, an adult neighbor, called the three of us “n***lovers.”  We were dumbstruck.  We stood there in horrified silence as we watched the tears stream down the face of our beloved friend.

The second experience happened at church.  The church was a place that was diverse economically, socially, and racially, and the place in my childhood perhaps most influential in forming my understanding of the diversity of God’s creation, of God’s beloved children.  I spent a lot of time with a friend who was a person of color.  We had a lot in common and participated in a number of activities, in and outside of church, together.  It had never occurred to me that this was unusual because it just was what friends did, what we did.  One day, a woman I had known my whole life and I loved, approached me and told me it was “nice of [me and my friends] to spend so much time with that colored boy.”  “Colored boy” was whispered in a somewhat frightened and conspiratorial tone.  Again, I was dumbstuck, so I did what I always did: I talked to my grandfather about it.  Although I didn’t understand racism at all, I wanted to understand why people were so mean. And that is when he said, “Chicken, no one has a change of heart until they need to.” (His nickname for me was “Chicken,” which I knew to be a term of endearment.) He then went on to tell me a story from his experience, the story about how he learned this himself.

He was born shortly after the turn of the 20th century to hard-working Irish-Catholic parents and grew up in Roxbury and Jamaica Plains.  To say that racial segregation was a part of his life would be an understatement.  It was a part of the community’s DNA.  He took responsibility for his own “bigotry,” something he learned about himself while serving in the Coast Guard.  At 14, he lied about his age to join the Coast Guard, and sometime after that found himself serving in a military capacity because the Coast Guard was conscripted during the war.  I don’t recall the details, but something serious happened and he credited another sailor, a man of color, as saving him, which changed his relationship with this man.  He found that he could no longer blindly believe the things he had been taught overtly or covertly.  He found that his heart was changed because it had to be.

I hadn’t thought about this story for a long time.  Earlier this week, while I was on retreat, Bishop Sutton of Maryland, who was our retreat leader, was talking about how good preaching changes the hearts of people, perhaps preacher included.  It is not something that is done through talking points or the relaying of facts, but rather by helping people to have an experience that speaks to their hearts.  It is not lost on me now, as I preach words to you, that I am saying also it is not the words themselves that result in change, but connecting the words to something truly meaningful.

Listening to Bishop Sutton and being reminded of that time with my grandfather, led me to look at today’s Gospel in a whole new way.  I have heard this Gospel more times in my life than I can possibly count.  We hear it (or the same story from one of the other Gospels) every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  And, if I’m not mistaken, it shows up one other time in the year, at least in some years.  So, I’ve heard it a lot, preached it a few times, and I have always understood it to be about the revelation of Christ’s glory.  And that is what it is about.

Yet, when I read the story this week, a new line jumped out at me.  It was the last line, the one in which Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to remain silent about what they experienced.  Jesus didn’t tell them they could never talk about it, but he told them to keep it to themselves until after his resurrection. I think we can infer this to mean until others have had a chance to have their own experience of his glory, up close and personal.

Why would Jesus order them to be quiet?  I think it is because Jesus knew what my grandfather learned: that changes of heart, whether they be about people who are different from us or about development of faith, are not things that happen because people have been told about them. Sharing one’s experiences, one’s faith journey, is a good thing.  Words and talking are a big part of evangelism.  They are not the only part of evangelism, which I think is about inviting people to come have their own encounter with God, inviting people to develop their own faith, their own relationship with Jesus.  It is about how it is that we share our understanding of God’s glory, how we witness to Jesus in our own lives, how we share with others how the Holy Spirit has changed, and continues to change, our hearts.  And that takes a whole lot more than words.

We’re wrapping up our first full year together, and we’ve been talking a lot about how we go out into God’s world and invite others to experience what we have experienced in this amazing faithful and Spirit-filled community that is Grace Church.  Knowing what we know about how the Holy Spirit works in and through us, about how we encounter the glory of the Risen Christ in our lives and in our life together, how do we do more than just talk about it?  What do we need to do, one-by-each and together, to invite others to experience God at work in and through them?

I’m not standing here suggesting I have all the answers, because I don’t. What I do have is a heart full of hope and optimism because I know who you are and who we are together.  And I know that we are off to a really good start.  Just in this time we spend together in worship, we do more than talk about it. We take it beyond the words to something more meaningful, to something that is real in a way that only God’s grace and Christ’s glory make real.  Sure, we hear the words of Scripture and you hear the words I preach, but we do that with deep intention and in a loving and welcoming community, as preparation for what comes next.  And then we are all invited to God’s table to experience fellowship with Jesus in the sacrament of Communion.  And we know how heart-changing that can be.  We are then sent out into God’s world, hopefully to make it a better place.

So, I stand here inviting you to join me in prayer and reflection about how we go out into the world in ways that invite others to experience the grace and glory, whether we are blessed to welcome them here at Grace or they choose to be in some other place.  How do we do that in ways that remind us that words are only a part of it and that people, ourselves included, need to be able to hear with our hearts?