Walking with Mary Magdalen

This Eastertide, I am doing something I have not done before: preaching a sermon series on the Acts of the Apostles. This is the sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter, Year C, April 24, 2022. The lectionary can be found here.

Open our minds that we might hear your truth.  
Open our hearts that we might know your love. 
Open our lives that we might share your Gospel to the ends of the earth.

At the end of my sermon last week, Easter Sunday, I shared an image I have of Mary Magdalen looking back as she leaves the tomb.  She realizes that the tomb is not empty but full of God’s promise, God’s love for all people, and hope for a transformed world.  Jesus has sent her on a mission to share this good news, a mission that we are called to join.  Like Mary Magdalen and all who walked this earth with Jesus before his death and resurrection, we are invited to figure out what it is we do, how we are to be, as people who share God’s love with the world.  It can be a daunting task, this calling to follow God’s Holy Spirit wherever she will lead.  It can be daunting as we undertake our personal faith journeys.  It can be daunting as we discern how to live our faith together, in community.  Daunting as it may be, we know from the Incarnation and the Resurrection that life with Jesus is transformed life, with blessings and grace beyond our wildest imaginings.

Part of the rhythm of our shared faith is that each Easter season, from the Second Sunday of Easter through the Seventh Sunday of Easter, our lectionary omits a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures in favor of a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  Although not historical in the way we understand that word today, Acts is a history of the origins of Christianity and the Church.   Through the stories of many apostles (those who were in Jesus’ inner circle) and many more disciples, we hear about the trials and tribulations, successes and celebrations of those who responded to the call to share the Good News with as many as possible.  It is a beautifully compelling story about people from all walks of life coming to believe in Jesus and choosing to allow that belief to shape their lives, changing them forever.

Early in this story, in the second chapter of Acts, is a passage that is an integral part of our faith tradition:

“The devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it may be because it is the first promise we make in the Baptismal Covenant, the covenant we renew each time we baptize someone.  The four promises that follow flow from it.  The five are intended to help us to better understand how to live our lives in ways consistent with our faith, to live as Jesus would have us live.

For the past several years, since at least the start of the search almost five years ago, you (and then we) have been discerning how God is working in this parish and what it is we are being called to do. This is something your Vestry and Finance Committee talk about all the time.  It is a frequent theme of other conversations, such as in Adult Formation and less formally.  It is conversation we all can engage in, together and in our personal prayer. 

The pandemic and then the flood added layers of complexity and, in some ways, distraction that we had no choice but to accept.  Now we are at the place in which we are not quite as unsure or reactive as we’ve had to be since March of 2020, even as we know we need to remain nimble and flexible, which is always a good thing when one is committed to following the Holy Spirit.   So, we are now ramping up a conversation we thought we would be having in early 2020, after we’d spent a year getting to know each other.

This Eastertide, as we pray and break bread together, we will explore what it means to be Church in a sermon series focused on the readings from Acts.  We’ll hear about Peter, Paul, and Silas, Tabitha and Lydia, as well as some unnamed people. We’ll ask ourselves how their stories, which we know are part of our story, can help us to better understand what it is God is calling us to do now. In other words, what does it look like for us to accept the invitation to walk alongside Mary Magdalen?

Today’s reading from Acts picks up in the early middle of the story with Peter blatantly defying the high priests’ orders not to teach in Jesus’ name, i.e. tell the good news of the Resurrection.  He clearly states that as “witnesses along with the Holy Spirit,” they “must obey God rather than any human authority.”  What happened before this point in the story might help us to better understand how the ministry of Peter and those he encountered connects to where we find ourselves today in ways that may be surprising.

From before the beginning of Acts, which is something of a continuation of Luke’s Gospel because they were written by the same person, Peter and others are on a mission that includes the Scriptures that formed Jesus and some of them, praying for and following God’s guidance, gathering, preaching, and testifying to their experiences of God.  In the telling and re-telling of Jesus’ story, they make following Jesus central to everything they do. 

Their mission is not just about telling the stories that connect the past and history with the present and future – they take action.  They actively participate in many “signs and wonders,” for which they give God the credit.  They commit to doing all things for the common good and to helping their neighbors in whatever ways are needed.  They praise and worship God every day.  There are highpoints, such as the many times thousands of people heard or overheard their stories about Jesus, believed, were baptized, and committed to living differently.  There are low points, such as when they are imprisoned or when a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, try to work both ends against the middle with horrible results.

They are doing all of this in times that sound a lot like the times in which we live today.  It seems as if little has changed in the past 2000 years. There is conflict and violence, devasting illness and oppression. There is so much chaos in the world and in the developing Church.  It seems that since the last supper, the apostles and disciples are being constantly surprised and that life with Jesus is not what they signed for, or at least not what they thought they were signing up for.  So, in some ways, little has changed.  What has not changed is God’s love for God’s people, Jesus’ presence with us, or the Holy Spirit’s desire to guide us to new life. Their stories illustrate how the Spirit works in or, maybe, despite the chaos to bring new life.

What the stories of the earliest Church tell us is that remaining grounded in the faith: relying on Scripture, prayer and worship, good works, and active love of neighbor can change the world in good and life-giving ways.  Holding the usual trappings of success loosely, taking risks and acting courageously in the face of deep fear and even threats, opens our hearts, minds, and lives to deeper experience of the abundance of God’s grace in ways that continually surprise and transform.

Though the specifics of the story in 2022 will be significantly different than those of the story from the first century, the basic premise is the same: 

God is God. God’s love is unconditional and unequivocal. 
We are Easter people. We believe in new life each and every day. 
We are people of faith. We believe in the power of prayerful discernment. 
We are people of the Word. We believe in the wisdom of our holy Scriptures. 
We are Episcopalians. We believe in the ministry of the baptized. 
We are St. Stephen’s. We believe in the power of love to transform us and the world.

Won’t you join your leadership and me as we walk with Mary Magdalen out of the Easter tomb?

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Leaving the tomb

This is my sermon for today, Easter Day 2022. This is the link to the lectionary. We read Isaiah and Acts, along with the Psalm and the Gospel. This was something of a first for me; it is the “kick off” to a sermon series I am doing in Eastertide, based on the readings from Acts. We will be exploring what it means to be church, maybe even a new church, in these much changed times.

The theologian, Frederick Buechner, wrote:

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb…

He rose… If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is  nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again…

What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like magdalen, will never stop searching it until they find his face. (frederick buechner. com/content/easter)

In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalen has gone to the tomb, expecting, no doubt, to see Jesus’ body, to pay her respects, to say a final goodbye to her friend, her teacher, a man she loves so much. She is doing what we know is an important part of saying goodbye when someone we love dies. We need to go. We need to pay our respects. Some­times we sit by the body, saying those things we wished we had said while our loved one was still with us. It’s all a part of what we need to do to be able to let go of a past and what was just so recently our present, and to move on into a future that is full of lots of unknowns. It’s a future, that quite frankly, we may not welcome. And yet we do it because we have to do it. We cannot move forward unless we do it.

We don’t know all that much about Mary Magdalen. We do know that she was a devoted follower of Jesus, that she believed fully in Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope. In Luke’s Gospel we are told that Mary was been cured of seven demons. We’re kind of given to believe that this is when she got fully on board with Jesus’ mission, with who Jesus is, and what he can be for the world. All four Gospels tell us that Mary Magdalen was with Jesus and at the tomb. For Mary Magdalen, the relationship with Jesus was truly life changing. Not only was she cured of her demons, she was given the promise of a life and a future that she couldn’t otherwise dream possible.

And then Jesus is killed.

And then his body is missing.

And then she mistakes him for the gardener.

And then he speaks to her and tells her what it is the is to do next.

Can you even begin to imagine what it would have been like to be Mary Magdalen on that first Easter morning? I can only imagine, as the young people used to say, she felt “all the feels.” She felt the grief. She felt the sorrow. She felt the anger. She felt the frustration. She felt the fear. She felt the loss of hope. And I have to believe because the body is missing, Jesus is standing there, Jesus is speaking to her, she had to have felt some confusion. Maybe a different kind of fear. Shock. Relief, perhaps? More confusion? Excitement. Disbelief. Hope.

It is this hope that I want us to focus on. It is this hope that I hope is the feeling, the emotion, that she held onto most tightly on that first Easter morn. Because it is that hope that is the promise of a future in which God’s love would change the world and God’s promises would be fulfilled. It is the hope that in the words of our Presiding Bishop would “change the world from the nightmare it is for so many, to the dream God has for it.”

Hope that inequity, inequality, and injustice would be overcome once and for all.

Hope that all people would have equal rights regardless of those accidents of birth, such as race and gender and tribe and sexual identity, and all of those things that are a part of who God created us to be.

Hope that the natural resources that God has given to the world in abundance would be treasured and nurtured, and used to build up all people, to feed and nurture all people. And not to be held as resources to make a profit by a relative few.

Hope that violence and wars would cease to be. And that conflict would be resolved peaceably and with care for all.

Hope for a world in which god’s dream for God’s people is fully realized.

It is that hope, and only that hope, that can give us what it is we know we need, what each of us is seeking when, like Mary Magdalen, we keep looking and looking to see Jesus’ face in the people all around us.

And is that hope that I can imagine is the only way that Mary Magdalen could have been motivated to follow Jesus further after all that had happened in the past days, weeks, and months. It is the hope that motivated her to follow him in the first place.

It is the hope of the Incarnation, the in-breaking of God’s love into the world to live as one of us, to show us what it means to live as God created us to be, loving and caring for other people and for God’s creation over all.

It is the hope of the Resurrection, the promise that was given to all of us, believers and unbelievers alike, that there is nothing that God’s love cannot, will not do for us, including overcoming evil and death.

It is that hope that is only possible, again, we know we have had both the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and that those stories are not just stories from the past. They are our stories today.

The in-breaking of love into the world is a constant. It is not something we can change. It is not something we can give away, although sometimes it feels like we try really hard to do both. And, yet, God says, “Sorry, my children, my choice, not yours.” And when we can’t hear that, we’re brought into the story of new life, of life after death, of resurrection, of the triumph of love over all else.

That is the celebration of today. It is a celebration we do differently today, but it is a celebration that is ours each and every day because there is always new life. There is always resurrection if we are Easter people, which means if we believe that it is possible even when, perhaps especially when, we’re not clear how or, in my, case sometimes, why God would bother.

It’s a truth. It is THE truth. It is the truth that literally changed the world in ways that we cannot fully fathom. It changed the world for people who don’t profess to be followers of Christ. Resurrection is real. New life is ours.

Jesus was born to show us how to live with that truth.

Jesus died and was resurrected to remind us of that truth. Jesus died because we could not let go of some of the things that keep us from recognizing that truth.

Jesus rose to remind us that God will do the unimaginable to show us how deeply, completely, and uncondi­tionally we are loved.

Now, I have this image in my heart of Magdalen leaving the tomb, still feeling all the feels. She’s walking out to do what a good follower of Jesus would do, to do what Jesus told her to do, to tell the people that she has seen him and that he is not yet ascended, but soon will be, that the promise he made to them is coming true.

I have this image of her leaving the tomb, it’s a cave, and it’s in a rocky hill. As she’s coming out of it, she looks back and realizes then that what she is leaving is not an empty tomb. It is a tomb full of God’s promise. It is a tomb full of the love of God for all people. It is full of hope for a transformed world. And the steps she is taking to tell the people what Jesus said, are the steps we are invited to take as we figure out what it is we do, how we are to be, as people who share the good news of God’s perfect love through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and who follow in his footsteps to wherever the Holy Spirit will take us. Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

The Feast of Absalom Jones

Today, though technically the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, we observed the Feast of Absalom Jones. The lectionary is found here. This decision was made as part of our commitment to a larger observation: Black History Month. St. Stephen’s, Millburn is humbled and grateful to take part in the diocesan-wide observation of this month, which we understand is to nourish our year-round calling to share the Good News in word and liturgy, as well as in how we live our faith each and every day.

I’ve had a recurring dream this week, and it’s one of those that feels so real that I wake up and I have to remind myself that it was a dream. And, if I happen to wake up for a few minutes and then fall back to sleep, the dream picks up right where it left off. 

I’m an engineer or a contractor or someone who builds massive structures I’m working on a bridge

I see myself at the side of a wide river, looking up at the start of what looks like a beautiful bridge.

And I’m stumped. I’m frustrated.

I know I’m having a conversation with someone about finishing this necessary project. Apparently, if this bridge doesn’t get finished a whole community will suffer, in ways I can’t begin to imagine. And I can’t get what I need to complete it.

I keep thinking I’ve got a handle on the next bit and then my hopes are dashed. I know what is needed.

I know it is possible. I know that all it would take is the good will and commitment of people who have the goods. My frustration grows as I hear over and over again, “You need to be patient.”

And I realize in that moment, in that way that feels like an internal explosion,  that patient is the last thing I need to be.  What I need to be is faithful and diligent in doing the work I’ve been given to do. Peoples’ lives depend on it.

Today we celebrate the life and ministry of Absalom Jones, commemorated as a saint in the Episcopal Church. Jones was ordained to the diaconate in 1795 and to the priesthood in 1802. He was the first African-American whose calling was formally recognized by the Church. That, in and of itself, would be remarkable. It seems even more remarkable when you remember that he was born enslaved in 1746,

making the usually arduous road to ordination even more challenging.

His life was a life full of the kinds of obstacles to freedom that none of us here can know firsthand.

While still enslaved, he had to pay another slaveholder in order to be able to marry his wife. He received manumission in 1784, and went on to establish the Free Africa Society, be a part of the African-American community that raised money to expand St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia,

before being segregated to the gallery their fundraising made possible. He then went on to cofound the African Church of Philadelphia, and successfully petition the Diocese of Pennsylvania to admit the African Church of Philadelphia into the Episcopal Church, and become the first African-American licensed lay reader. Admitted as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 1794, that parish remains a vibrant and vital congregation in Philadelphia.

Absalom Jones trusted in a liberating God, seeing himself as one of those to whom the prophet Isaiah declared,

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, 
I have taken you by the hand and kept you; 
I have given you as a covenant to the people, 
a light to the nations, 
to open the eyes that are blind, 
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, 
from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

Absalom Jones believed the Church is an instrument of God’s love, called to be a beacon of hope and justice in a broken world.

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

Absalom Jones lived his life following Jesus’ commandment, as if it depended on it, because it did. And he did it not just for himself, but for all who are seen as less than because of the color of their skin. 

February is Black History Month and our Bishop has said that the whole diocese will observe it in some way. This service is one of the ways we at St. Stephen’s are doing that. Celebrating the saints of the Church, calling out the contributions of gifted artists, as we do with Carl Haywood, who wrote the Gloria and arranged the gathering hymn we are singing today, and using a litany written by a White man for a group of clergy gathering to discuss the sin of white supremacy as the Prayers of the People are other ways that can participate in this observation.

And that is good. But it is not good enough.

Jesus’ words about loving one another are not meant just for special occasions or for how we relate to our African-American or Black siblings whose contributions to the Church and the world rise to the level of Absalom Jones or Martin Luther King or Pauli Murray, the first Black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. Jesus’ words are meant to inform our lives in such a way that the lives of people who are perhaps not so extraordinary are honored and respected. Jesus’s words tell us that we are to want for every person that they know they are beloved by God and loved and cared for by us because we know that to love someone means you want for them everything and all that you want for yourself and your family and friends. Jesus’ words are meant to remind us that all people are created in the image of God, not just those who have a certain outward appearance.

Jesus’ words mean that we should live our lives in ways that contribute to eradicating the evils of white supremacy and racial injustice.

Jesus’ words mean that we should never accept the physical and social violence that targets our Black siblings.

Jesus’s words mean that we should acknowledge the ways that our country and the world elevate and celebrate the contributions of some people, usually people who look like us, over the contributions of others.

Jesus’ words mean that we should acknowledge the ways in which those of us who are White continue to benefit from systems that are designed to see us as more important, more valuable, better than, whether or not we believe those things to be true.

Jesus’ words mean that we should do all that we can, with all that we have, in whatever way that we can, to be the Church that Absalom Jones believed us to be.

We are called to celebrate and share the Good News that all people are created in the image of God.

We are called to be bold and disruptive.

We are called to be brave and daring.

We are called to be radically welcoming.

We are called to justice and reconciliation.

We are called to transformation.

We are called to bridge the gap between what we say we believe and how we live our lives every day.

We are called to Love.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Answering God’s call

This is the sermon I preached today, the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 30, 2022. The lectionary is found here.

Some of you have heard the story of my 46-year discernment for the priesthood. I knew very young, at about age six, long before women were ordained in the Episcopal Church, that I was called to be a priest.  It is an odd thing, really, to know deep down in the very core of your being that God is speaking to you, especially when what God is inviting you to is not considered by those around you to be the “right” thing or, as in my case, an invitation you are allowed to accept.  And yet there it is: a profound sense of understanding who God created you to be  and how God intends for you to live. 

These invitations from God are rarely straightforward or easy.  I know I am not alone in the years of discernment about whether, and then how, to respond.  A part of the discernment, a necessary part I truly believe, is the doubt, the questions, the “are-you-sure-you-are-talking-to-me, God?” moments.  Part of the discernment about the call, whether months or years or decades, is coming to the awareness that God’s call is to you in your full self, complete with the questions and the doubts and whatever messiness is a part of who you are.  God calls the one God created, and nothing of who we are is a surprise to God.  The surprise in the receiving and responding to the invitation is wholly and solely ours. 

The reading from the Book of Jeremiah is about this very thing:  knowing God is calling you to live your life in a specific way and responding from the very depths and fullness of one’s humanity, complete with all the doubts and questions.  

I love Jeremiah’s honesty with God. He knows it is God who is speaking to him. In the first few lines of the passage, he recounts God’s assurances that he is known – that he has always been known – by God. Furthermore, he knows it is God saying that he has been “consecrated,” meaning dedicated to service to God, since before he was born.  The God who created him, who knows him more deeply and intimately than he can know himself, created him to be a prophet, to go out into the world speaking God’s truth to power and all manner of human misbehavior.

Even knowing it is God who is speaking to him, Jeremiah balks.  His response to God is along the lines of, “Are you sure you have the right guy?  I’m only a boy.  No way can I be qualified to do this. Surely you must be thinking of someone else.” And this is where we hear loudly and clearly that God is fully confident in what God is doing, that God wasn’t having a lazy or confused day when Jeremiah was “appointed a prophet to the nations.”  God reprimands Jeremiah, saying essentially that Jeremiah is to do as he is told, to speak God’s truth to the people. God even puts it on the table that this will not be easy. God gets ahead of what I can imagine is one of Jeremiah’s next objections: his fear and lack of “back-up” when he faces what will undoubtedly be, at best, some less than enthusiastic folks; at worst, folks who respond to him with outright anger and derision, or with threats and bodily harm. All of these responses would have been expected and, I imagine, more than a little daunting to Jeremiah.

In what I experience as a movingly tender moment in today’s reading, God reaches out to touch Jeremiah, to reassure him that he can do what he is called to do, what he was created to do. This is a reminder that God has given us all that we need to live as God intends. The challenge, as with so many other aspects of active, embodied faith, is to let go of whatever it is that holds us back from responding to God. At their core, these calls from God are invitations to remember who and whose we are. God knows us best – better than our closest family and friends, better even than we know ourselves. God accepts us fully as we are: both in the ways we are created in God’s image and in the ways we have moved away from that image. 

What God wants from us is what God wanted from Jeremiah and Noah and Moses and Sarah and Mary and countless others named and unnamed in our Scriptures: that we bring our full selves as we respond to the call, whatever it may be. God wants us to trust that God will not let us down, that God will be the God who loved us into being and will love us beyond the end of time. 

The 20th Century German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, wrote a collection of poems called The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, one of which I share with you now.  Called, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” it is a poem that I first discovered during a period of doubt during my discernment:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us, 
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like a flame 
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. 
Just keep going. 
No feeling is final. 
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. 
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.

My hope and prayer is that all of you, each of you, will feel encouraged by the knowledge that you are known fully and completely by God, especially as you pay attention to the ways God is working in and through you. 

My hope and prayer is that all of you, each of you, will remember the stories of Jeremiah and the many, many others who listen for the voice of God speaking to them about ongoing conversion into deeper relationship with God. 

My hope and prayer is that all of you, each of you, will find the courage to respond with the faith and trust that is yours by God’s grace. 

Finally, my hope and prayer is that as a parish, as a community known deeply and fully by God, we will feel the same encouragement, be equally as mindful of the stories as we listen for God’s voice in our ongoing discernment and in our ministries, and that we have the courage to respond with the faith and trust we, too, have received by the grace of God. 

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Choosing grace, finding blessing

This is my sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, preached at St. Stephen’s in Millburn on October 10, 2021. The lectionary is found here. We read the reading from Job, Psalm 22, and the Gospel.

When I read today’s Gospel, I can almost hear the “rich young man,” as we have come to identify the man in this story, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”  It wouldn’t surprise me if these words, the first verse of today’s psalm, are not some of, if not the, most prayed words these past many months.  In times of upheaval and fear, such as during a global pandemic, they are as honest a reflection of how many feel as can be. In times of hopelessness and despair, such as the ongoing reality of violent racial injustice in this country, they are as apt a description of the extraordinary fatigue and frustration experienced by so many as can be.  In times of destruction and distress, such as when we are faced with the reality of climate change and extreme weather events such as floods, they describe our feelings of helplessness. In times of worry and awareness of anticipated loss, such as that which I imagine the man who approached Jesus felt, they can be an almost reflexive reaction to hearing a truth we do not want to hear. 

This man, presumably a good and faithful Jew, based on Jesus’ initial response of reiterating the Ten Commandments, comes to Jesus with a question for which I would guess many of us would want the answer:  How can I be sure that I am living my life in a way that pleases God?  Another way of asking is: Am I living in the right way to have God’s eternal blessing? 

Jesus tells the man quite clearly that what he is doing is not all that God would have him do.  On the one hand, the man knows and is following the letter of the law, abiding by the Ten Commandments. But that is not enough.  To live as God would have us live, we must understand that the Ten Commandments are to be understood as the basic criteria for how we live in community. To live into that spirit of the law, we must love with all that we are and all that we have, living as Jesus lives, loving as Jesus does.

Imagine hearing Jesus give this answer in response to your question about you and your life.  How would it feel to hear that your good intentions and consistency in following the rules, doing the right thing, is not quite enough?  Would you be surprised?  Would you feel frustrated? Would you wonder where you’d gone wrong or why you’d even bothered?  Would you question if the rules had been changed in the middle of the game? Would you feel as if God let you down, left you hanging, stopped listening to you? 

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’re in good company. If you close your eyes, can you see the multitudes of God’s beloved who are right there with you?  This Gospel reminds us that our human inclination to confuse material blessings and earthly success with God’s blessing is not getting us to where we deeply desire to be, to who we deeply desire to be.  God’s blessing is not in our material riches because God’s love is not transactional.  God’s blessing is not in our earthly success but in our relationships.  The problem isn’t the riches or the earthly success.  The problem is when those things become more important to us than relationship with God.  When material riches and earthly successes are what we aspire to most, they obscure our ability to see the abundance of grace and blessing that is ours no matter our riches or abundance.  We move deeper into the heart of God when we use the gifts we are given, including those that enable us to gather riches and to have earthly success to live into God’s dream for the world. 

When we hold material riches and earthly successes less tightly, we open ourselves to listening more deeply to Jesus.  We invite God’s Holy Spirit to live and more within us in ways that use what we have let go of to expand our awareness of the abundance of God’s blessing. We learn that this has absolutely nothing to do with money or big houses or fancy cars and everything to do with the simple, yet profound grace that is only found in remembering who and whose we are. 

The parable in this Gospel is not about a camel and a needle and heaven is not a heavily guarded place with a very small door, though it is an eternal way of being which our attachment to earthly riches and understandings of success prevent us from living. When we remember that, the parable begins to make sense as a response to the man’s question and confusion. We experience the fullness of God’s blessing when we give in to God’s grace, remember that grace is not in things or traditional ideas of success, but in the relationships we cultivate with each other, nourished by our relationship with God.  Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon described it this way:

…just as you can’t stuff a camel through an opening designed to take only a thread, so you can’t get someone who has a great, fat successful life to volunteer to go through the narrow eye of lastness and death…Jesus’ plan of salvation works only with the last, the least, the little, and the dead; the living, the great, the success, the found, and the first imply will not consent to the radical slimming down that Jesus, the Needle of God, calls for if he is to pull them through into the kingdom.  (The Parables of Judgement, p.47)

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? said it a bit more  succinctly:

            The richer we have become spiritually, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually…We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. (p.181)

God has not abandoned or forsaken the young man, just has God has not forsaken or abandon us.  Global pandemic, violent racial injustice, climate change and flood do nothing to change the nature of God, which is love for all of us through all time and through all things.  It is our humanness, which includes that tricky gift of free will, that brings us to places in which we very well may feel abandoned or forsaken. We work too hard to attain earthly riches and achieve our own vision of success. We use too much of our energy trying to hold onto those things, so that they become the end all and be all. We become so worried that we will lose these things that we cannot look beyond them.  We lose sight of Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.

There good news, the best news, is that we get to choose to live differently, to love differently.  We get to choose to put people and their needs, our call to live in loving, caring community, ahead of our needs to achieve and to hold on to earthly riches and our own ideas of success.  We get to choose to be a part of creating the beloved community that ensures that all people have what they need to not survive, but to thrive, to live fully into who God created them to be. We get to choose, I’d go so far as to say we should choose – and “should” is not a word I use often or lightly – to ask the kind of hard questions the man asks Jesus and to listen for the answers, as hard as they may be to hear.  It is then that we will be able to see grace and experience the blessing which is found in the simplest and most basic of places: in loving relationship with each other and with God.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Reimagining the story

This is my sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21 Year B. The lectionary is found here. I preached this at Christ Church in Short Hills, where the reading from Numbers, Psalm 19, and the Gospel were read.

Many years ago, when I was working on my first Master’s, we did an exercise in class that I think I will remember always.  It was called “Cinderella Revisited.”  In case you are not familiar with the Cinderella story here’s a quick recap:

A young girl is left in the care of her stepmother after her father’s death and her circumstances change significantly.  Previously loved and well cared for, she is relegated to the role of servant, forced to cook and clean for her stepmother and stepsisters, who seem to relish treating her harshly, all the while they enjoy the benefits of her father’s social standing.  This includes accepting an invitation to the king’s ball where the prince is to choose his bride.  With the help of her fairy godmother, Cinderella attends the ball and, this being a fairy tale, she is the one the prince falls in love with at first sight.  Of course, there are some twists and turns in which a glass slipper plays a prominent role, but ultimately Cinderella and the prince marry and live happily ever after.

In the exercise we did in class, we were asked to tell the story in our own words from the perspective of one of the characters.   It was a challenging assignment because all of us knew the story as it had been written in children’s books and portrayed in movies.  Each of us entered into the assignment believing we knew the story well.  All of us had accepted, to some extent or the other, the tropes about poor Cinderella, the wicked stepmother, and the mean stepsisters.  It was surprisingly difficult to put aside the conclusions we had drawn about what the story was and what it meant.

Cinderella Revisited contained many lessons relevant to the courses of study of the students in that class and I have found myself thinking of it at different times and in different contexts in the years since.  If I were asked to summarize the most important lesson from the exercise in ten words or fewer, it would be:  The stories we tell are not THE story.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching the disciples a lesson that is similar to the lessons of Cinderella Revisited.  The disciples have been traveling with him, witnessing his ministry, listening to his stories.  Jesus has been teaching them about discipleship, which in Mark’s Gospel can seem a particularly hard road.  He has been trying to prepare them for what is to come.  He has been presenting to them a different narrative of his life, of their lives, and of what it means to be his followers. He’s been talking to them about his death and what it will mean for the world.  He’s been helping them to connect the dots between the choices they must make if they want to be faithful to his teaching, and the costs of such choices.  He’s been challenging their assumptions and understandings about what it means to be faithful and righteous people.   

In today’s Gospel, using language and imagery that is shockingly harsh, Jesus is saying that the disciples must be willing to give up some of what they “know” to be true, what they consider consider valuable, and that they think is necessary in order to experience more deeply what it means to live more fully into his mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope. In other words, they must make significant changes in order to move more deeply into the heart of God. 

Jesus is telling them they must re-imagine the narrative of what it means to live life grounded in his love and his truth. And they must be willing to do this sacrificially and with a longer, wider view than just their own. 

Jesus’ message to his first followers is entirely relevant to us and the Church today.  Going back to that graduate school exercise, all of us somehow connected our character’s story to that character’s relationship with Cinderella’s father, who though no longer with them, remained the central figure in all of their lives.  The last instruction we were given, which was by far the hardest to follow, was that we had to rewrite the narrative together, finding a way to tell the story so that this central relationship motivated and supported us to be his family in ways that would benefit each of us, all of us, and those around us.

Imagine the Church and the world today if we truly understood how to embody and incarnate Jesus’ love to the world.  What would the Church and the world look like if we did the hard work of challenging our assumptions? Of letting go of comfortable or familiar ideas? Of revisiting the ways we do things, not from the perspective of how valuable they are to us and our identity as Episcopalians, but as the ways and means by which Jesus’ love is shared with others?  What would it look like, who would be here, if we let go of even a little bit of our quintessentially Episcopalian “but we’ve always done it that way” habits?  How much are we willing to do, how far are we willing to go, to ensure that what we do and how we do it is more about God and God’s dream than our own understanding of how the story plays out?

I am not saying that we should eradicate all that helps us to know who we are as people or as The Episcopal Church.  I know, in that way that is difficult to articulate but seems to permeate one’s very being, that we have so very much to offer the world in our prayer and liturgy, in our music and our fellowship, in our expansive understanding of what it means to be beloved of God and how that is not limited just to people who look like us and love like us, who live like us and pray like us.  To paraphrase Madeline L’Engle, I may have been born into the Episcopal Church but that’s not why I stayed.  I choose to be an Episcopalian every single day. 

And yet I worry sometimes that we can get so caught up in the beauty and the tradition, in our comfort and our customs, that we fail to actively remember that belovedness is both a state of being and becoming (to draw on the wisdom of Henri Nouwen).  As hard as it is to hear, not to mention how challenging it is to preach, Jesus’ starkly forthright message in today’s Gospel is one I know we need to take to heart.  

As a people and a Church, faithfully following Jesus means always being open to letting go of ideas and assumptions, of ways of being.  It’s about visiting and revisiting the questions and the answers that shape our story, and looking at them from new, different, and differing perspectives.  It means actively exploring new ways of being and doing, of inhabiting or embodying our discipleship in ways that transform, that heal our brokenness and bring peace to the world.  It means trusting the promise that if we center ourselves in Jesus and his mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope, we will move deeper into the heart of God. 

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Falling back…

This is my sermon from July 25, 2021, the Ninth Sunday after the Pentecost. You can read the lectionary here.

This gospel is chockfull of nuggets to preach It’s one of those weeks when you read it and think, “Oh! That’s a good idea.” And then you think, “Oh, but maybe this is a better idea,” and then it just keeps going on and on. I have to say, usually those gospels kind of drive me nuts. Nuttier than I am on any other given day. But this week, I realized as I was sitting with a number of pretty heavy emotions, how grateful I was for the multiple messages that we have. And I’m going to share just a little bit of where my head and heart space are because perhaps some of it will resonate with you.

One is, I feel like I came crashing down, in terms of COVID. I don’t know that I was fully aware I of the depth or the scope of the toll the long-term nature of the pandemic and resulting restrictions have had taken on me. I don’t think so much in my daily life apart from the church, if a priest can ever have a life apart from the church, because I got to tell you, I’ve been enjoying my time and my study with my knitting and my books. There have been some parts of COVID that have been liberating. But mostly, I have felt the absence of community, or at least the absence of all of you in-person. I have felt deeply the absence of all of you and the way I had come to know us as a faith community in the 14 months I was here before we went into a lockdown.

I also had an experience this week that kind of crept up on me. And I was sitting on Zoom, yet again, in Spiritual Direction, which in some ways feels really bizarre. I was kind of in a little bit of a funk and my spiritual director -as a wise man -and I noticed something felt off. And I happened to look down and there on the date on my computer, I realized that today is the fourth anniversary of my brother’s sudden death. Which means tomorrow is the second anniversary of the death of my dear friend, Hank. Some of you have heard about Hank. I used to travel to Massachusetts every 10 days to take care of him. So there’s kind of let down of thinking we were moving forward in COVID with some very real, though unconnected, grief attached to it.

And as I sat after Spiritual Direction, looking again at this gospel, I was so much more aware of the abundance of grace and love that I have experienced in my life. The loaves and the fishes – just when you think life is as hard as it’s going to get, something happens and you realize there’s always a next thing, which then reminds me that with God, all things are new. So there’s always a next thing. And for me, being in Spiritual Direction yesterday, two days after saying we can’t have communion, we can’t sing together, we can’t have coffee hour, all of those things that help us to know who we are. I was reminded of the community of faithful that I’m a part of, and that is such an abundant blessing.

Then there’s the second part of this gospel: Jesus needs to go and spend some time and be in prayer. And the disciples, they get in the boat and they go across the sea and there’s Jesus.They realize that even in the midst of this crossing, which is dangerous, Jesus is with them. They know this. And he says, “It is I, do not be afraid.” If you look back to the language and translation that is more in keeping with the original Greek, it would be, “I am.” The great, “I am,” hearkening back to the Hebrew scriptures. And once they realize that they have only to open their hearts and have faith and trust, they’re at the other side.

And this message today for me, in the context of us, this beautiful, faithful community of St. Stephen’s, is that we have had so many blessings during this time. Even though we’re an older congregation than some, we have not had a single death resulting from COVID. We have not had a single extended ICU stay resulting from COVID. I’m not aware that we have had any ICU stays. I know we’ve had a couple of hospitalizations. We have been able to gather, whether online or in person, literally with one week of no worship, since COVID began. We have continued to have music, not the congregational singing we love, but we have had music, which in our parish is such an important part of who we are. We have had a preschool that has been open and loud and joyful for most of this time. (We closed for a little over a month.) We have been so blessed.

And so as we think about this, it really feels like a step backwards to be officiating a worship service that is a Liturgy of the Word with no Communion and no congregational singing. Some of us had this conversation, we’ll know we’re getting through it when we celebrate the Eucharist and share Communion again. We’ll really know we’re getting through it when we can sing together again. We had this idea of what it would take for us to feel like the people we know ourselves to be, beloved of God and loving God. It now feels like we are stepping backwards.

But the image I have in this moment is that we are on the sea. We are right there in the boat with the disciples. Now look up. This is called the nave because what does the ceiling look like? The keel of a boat, right? We’re kind of upside down. We’re in the boat. And as we take this step back, we are not falling off into the abyss. We’re stepping back into the presence of Jesus, who loves us and who is with us and will carry us along in this time of uncertainty, in the time of ups and downs and the craziness of COVID. We are stepping back into those loving arms, that grace-filled presence, to be held with all the hope and all the promise that has always been ours. Hope and promise that has been ours in God, through the love and relationship with Jesus, felt by us through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Entering in…

I came across this sermon from last year. One of the realities for me is that Covid has disrupted so many of my routines, such as they are. It’s from the Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020). The county I live in: Essex County, NJ, is experiencing losing ground in the management of Covid, which is so immensely discouraging. I found this reminder of how and what I truly believe to be helpful to me as I sit with the disappointment and frustration of these days. Perhaps it will be helpful to you, too.

Today’s Gospel is, I think, as confusing perhaps as the disciples originally heard it when Jesus was with them. He’s talking to them about being the shepherd who sends them out, then gets ahead of them, then brings them home, and is their safe place to be. And they’re not getting it. Jesus then says, “Okay. I’m the gate. If you come in with my love, through my love, by my love, you will be okay. And I am the only one who can offer that love. It’s not the other people who say, ‘Come and follow me.’ It’s me. My love is different than all love.” And, as far as we can tell, because of the way the Gospel passage ends, they then understand what Jesus has been saying.

So, this week, it’s an interesting Gospel in that if you were to call most people who are familiar with the Christian scriptures and say, “Tell me some of the ways we describe Jesus,” I’m willing to bet not too many of them would say, “The gate.” It’s an odd kind of image. And yet, it’s an image that can make complete sense. I came to that realization just the other day, actually. I went out for quite a long walk and I was praying with, and thinking about, this Gospel. On my way back, I came up the Church Street side of the building, so came around onto Main Street. And right at my side is the beautiful, tall wrought iron gate that surrounds most of our campus. Then there was a big double gate that opens onto the driveway. Next to those gates, we have a rainbow flag that says, in huge white letters, “Welcome.” It also says, “These doors are open to all.”

In that second, I realized that this image of the gate as a place where we can enter and be welcomed regardless of who we are or where we come from, what we’ve done, is an apt image for how we’re invited into this love of Christ. This image of walking through and into it gave me goosebumps in that moment. Then, as I was walking further and I’m going over to the rectory and happen to look back at the gate, because now this image of the gate suddenly made sense to me, I realized that sometimes we close those two huge swinging gates. This is an image of the gate as a defense, an image of protection. We do that usually to keep the preschool children safe when they’re out running around or on their bikes. I realized that that is also a part of what Jesus offers. That when we accept the invitation to enter into this love that is unconditional and beyond our wildest dreams, it is a love that will protect us.

It’s funny, it’s as if the gates close behind us and then immediately open up for the next person. When we wander off, as sheep are wont to do, the gate opens again and we’re welcomed back. This sense of being present and protected, to be safe, with Jesus, in Jesus, because of Jesus, strikes me as image that we desperately need in this time. We need it for ourselves, because we need to know, as topsy-turvy as our life is these days, as frightened as we are because this virus is dangerous, that even with all of that, the love Jesus has for us is unconditional, and it will comfort and protect us, even if it’s not in the ways that we can imagine in any given moment. It isn’t a guarantee that bad things won’t happen. It isn’t a guarantee that we won’t get sick or die from COVID-19. It isn’t a guarantee that the financial implications won’t hit us hard at home, maybe even in our refrigerators.

It’s not that kind of safety. But it’s the safety and comfort of knowing that if we can still our minds, if we can look for a moment of grace, if we can seek an awareness of the presence of God with us, that does change things. It brings us to a place where, even in the midst of whatever is happening, good, bad, or indifferent, quite we can feel okay some place deep inside, knowing that when all is said and done, it’s God’s love for us, it’s Jesus’ willingness to live with us and die by us, that will give us whatever it is we need to deal with whatever it is we face. There’s safety, there’s security in that. It’s like the security of a toddler who knows the safest place to be the most annoying kind of tantrumming and demanding, why, why, why, why, why kind of toddler, is with the people who love you most. Kids know that.

I can remember when my kids were young, people would say, “Your kids, they’re so well-behaved. We love having them around.” I’m like, “You know my kids are Sean, Kevin, and Kathleen, right?” Because my experience of them wasn’t always the same as others’. I love them to death, you know that, and they know that too, thankfully. But the reality is home was the place to bring the fear. Home was the place to bring the confusion. Home was the place to bring the frustration and the bad behavior. Because home was always the place where love would trump everything else.

That is the love God has for us. It is the love that will trump everything. There always comes a time when the nastiness and the anxieties and the frustrations of life settle down a bit and you can look back and say, “Huh. Either it wasn’t so bad, or I had more to get through it with that than I thought.” That is part of what Jesus gives up as the gatekeeper. When we step into this love, when we step into this security, when we step into this safety, we’re stepping into a way of living that gives us the freedom to fight, to wrestle, to be frustrated, to misbehave, to be terrified, and not have that change anything about the love and the abiding presence of God, with us, in, and through all things.

Jesus as gatekeeper, may be my favorite image of him. Before it probably had been Prince of Peace. But now it may be the gatekeeper. I hope that, for you, this image can make some sense, can give you some comfort, that you can visualize Jesus’s arms wide open saying, “Come here. Come be with me. Because wherever you are, I am going with you, I am behind you, and I am ahead of you.” Wherever we go, whichever direction we turn, Jesus is always there for us and with us.

Copyright 2020 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Untitled, because Covid

Just a few moments ago, when I logged on to upload my Easter sermons, I came across this post in my drafts. I began the post last April, and had a working title of “Injustices grow like this virus”. For some reason I don’t recall, I didn’t finish it then. I’m guessing from this incomplete sentence : “As I read or hear about the assaults on people who either are or are presumed to be Chinese” that I wrote in response to one of the stories I heard about Asian people being targeted or something then-President Trump said about the “Chinese virus.” I’ll never know. I’m publishing it today because some of the underlying message seems to hold true still, though where I find myself in terms of any kind of conclusion is a bit different. If you read on, you’ll see where I land today and perhaps it will resonate with you.

April 16, 2020: This morning as I was online praying with my parish and others, it occurred to me that one of the worst things about the corona virus is that it is more than just a breeding ground for Covid-19. As if that disease were not bad enough, this virus has shown itself to be wily, with the capacity to ensnare all manner of things in its path.

It has built into its DNA its own injustices. People fall ill. Many suffer horribly. Many die. This happens alone for so many because it is no longer safe or allowed to attend to a loved one in their illness or as they breathe their last. Relationships end with more loss than any one person should be expected to bear.

Even the still healthy struggle. Health care workers must choose between the patients they care for and their own families. Others have lost or will lose jobs and needed income. Basic necessities like food and toilet paper are scarce, if one can even get to the store. Children are stuck at home without the time with other children they need to grow and thrive.

This dastardly virus causes havoc in everyday life with the wherewithal to continue to do so for God knows how long, seemingly always at least a step ahead of the brilliant minds that study it and the courageous minds that enact the numerous and often changing responses to it. There is no justice in this. No one deserves it.

All of that is bad enough. But it doesn’t stop there.

This virus has a seemingly unmatched in our lifetime ability to sow fear and anxiety across the globe, dismissive of the boundaries of geography and resource that often protect some of us from having to live in these conditions, with these choices. That kind of privilege (which I admittedly hold because of all that accidents of birth and subsequent opportunities that make me who I am today) coupled with all of the fear and anxiety this virus feeds breeds more injustice even as we lament the sadness and loss we face, regardless of those accidents of birth.

Although typically an optimist who believes that given the chance we will do our best to be our best selves – the selves God created us to be – the news of how we behaving in this time gives me pause. I realize daily, it seems, that the anxiety and fear, the separation and loneliness, shed new light on the weaknesses of believing that we are entitled to live our own individual lives as we choose, without regard to the truth that is based in science or any care and consideration for others.


I am struck by how willing we seem to be to defer to our very real feelings of impatience, frustration, and emotional and spiritual exhaustion as we seek to find ways to return to life pre-pandemic. Even though in places such as New Jersey, where I now live and serve God’s people, the rates of infection, hospitalization, and intubation continue to rise to fourth spike levels from a plateau that was at about the same levels as the second major spike (over the summer), there is tremendous pressure from all parts of the community (though not medical professionals, as far as I know) to get back to “normal.” Restaurants, gyms, comedy clubs, and retail stores are opening up. Some churches – though not the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and my favorite, St. Stephen’s in Millburn – are open for business as usual, sometimes with smaller numbers and common sense safety precautions in place, sometimes not so much. This is happening when there is so little, if any, science to support these decisions and a good number of experts saying we need to be patient for a while longer.

I get it, I really do.

I feel cheated every day that I don’t get to gather in-person with the people I have come to love so much at St. Stephen’s. I question every day if I have what it takes to be a pastor in this physically distant, online way, while constantly wondering if any of it feels truly meaningful to those same people. All this while expressing my very real gratitude to those same people for their patience and faithfulness and to the Holy Spirit for those glimpses of grace that I experience when suddenly a new drop of creative juice seems to magically appear just when I need it most. This is a kind of emotional multi-tasking that drains energy at a rate that is hard to fathom.

I miss being able to hop on the train to NYC to see show or just hang out. I miss being able to hop in the car to go see my parents in RI or to my favorite yarn store in MA. These are things I didn’t just think about doing but was doing before March 2020. My plans with my husband about how we would take day trips to get to know NJ, our home for only a little more than a year before Covid, were wiped out. It is so unsettling to not know one’s home after 2 1/2 years.

I worry about traveling to NM in June to officiate my son Kevin’s wedding and then worry some more that Covid will wreak havoc we don’t see coming on the already smaller-than-they-would-have-liked festivities and that my worry about these things could possibly interfere with the joy I feel at officially welcoming my soon-to-be daughter-in-law Alex into the family. This worry is exhausting in and of itself because I’m not usually a chronic worrier. Do I dare hope that I will revert back to my less worried self soon or has this gone on so long that worry is now a familiar state, one of the ways in which I know myself day to day?

I get angry that this dastardly virus already has taken away so much and, more than a year in, insists that we live with uncertainty about what life will look like next week or month or year. Sadness and loss are almost constant companions, threatening to usurp the contentment that has been baseline for more years than I can remember. I find myself having to be more intentional than ever before in tapping into the underlying joy and gratitude that has grounded me for more years than I can remember, perhaps even longer than contentment has been my baseline. I long for the days when I was more aware of joy and gratitude than I was of sadness and loss or anger and frustration or worry.

So I seek the stillness.

I seek the stillness because I know that to be the place in which I best understand who and whose I am, which is the reason for the joy and gratitude in the first place. My awareness that this is also the place that nourishes my faith so that I can invite the Spirit to open me to the grace of God that is so contant and true that not even a global pandemic that feels like it has completely messed with my life cannot mess with my heart. This is the place I find hope. Hope that there will be enough of us willing to remain in this seemingly interminal in-between space of needing to find ways to regain our equilibrium and something that resembles our pre-pandemic lives, while being patient enough to let the science catch up with the ever-changing realities of this virus so that we don’t make foolish and potentially lethal choices out of our exhaustion and need. Hope in the presence of God and the companionship of the Holy Spirit.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Called to change

This is my sermon from the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in Year B, January 24, 2021. It is the Sunday following the Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The lectionary is found here.

After John the Baptist is arrested, so after he has proclaimed Jesus’ coming and baptized him in the Jordan, and after Jesus has spent 40 days in the desert tempted by Satan, then Jesus begins his public ministry with these words:

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Personally, I prefer this slightly different translation:

“This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News!”[1]

In any case, it is only after his cousin and friend, the infant who leaped in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb, when Mary announced her own pregnancy, only after John is arrested, and then he himself spends time with the devil, that Jesus makes this proclamation.  Then he follows up by going around the countryside and inviting others to join his cause – to believe that now is the time that God has promised would come, the extraordinary good news that God’s vision of peace, justice, mercy, and hope would be the norm.

As I sat glued to my screen on Wednesday, a day that for so many in this country and the world, signified a new day, a new hope, I thought about Simon and Andrew, James and John, and the choice they made to believe that there was a way to be a part of something bigger than themselves, larger and farther reaching than their familiar way of life, something that could hold and fulfill the promises God made to all people.  As I listened to the speeches and heard the vision, however imperfect, of a more compassionate way of living together rooted in a deep faith, I heard a call to act together for the fulfillment of the dreams of God for all people.  I imagined this is the same call Simon and Andrew, James and John heard when they walked away from their nets and their boats, from the family and their security to follow Jesus on what had to sound as unlikely or impossible as the call to unity we heard on Wednesday. 

Covid is still very much a part of our lives, emboldened white supremacy makes me wonder if we will ever be able to unravel racial injustice from the fabric of our society, and I know the pain of relationships forever changed because of the harsh and often traumatic discourse of the past many years.  Still, on Wednesday, listening to a vision that is rooted in deep faith, I thought about Jesus’ call to change our hearts and minds, and believe that there is good news.

I thought, too, about the reality that becoming the people God created us to be – people who actively participate in changing the world from the nightmare it is for so many to the dream God has for it – is not all hearts and roses.  It takes effort and requires sacrifice. 

We tend to read today’s Gospel as a story of Jesus inviting all people to be a part of God’s dream,  which is, of course, true.  God wants all of us to know we are loved, to have what we need to thrive, and to grow into the best us God created us to be. God wants all of us to take part in making the world the place God envisions.  We feel good when assume that Simon and Andrew, James and John, were poor, that they had only Jesus to give them a leg up.  Of course they would want to follow Jesus because that was the way for them to have a better life, to have the basic necessities assured. 

What we don’t pay attention to is what is written about who these men actually were, or at least James and John.  James and John were the sons of Zebedee, Zebedee who was left in the boat with the hired men.  Zebedee had employees, meaning he had higher status and more resources than many.  Zebedee, and by extension his sons, were not impoverished.  They were at a minimum what we would consider working class, though, given the economy of the Galilee at the time, they likely had enough wealth to be higher placed than that.

So what does that little detail tell us about the Good News today?  What does it mean that Jesus called the bosses’ kids to follow him, to be a part of re-shaping the society in the way we know he did?  What are we supposed to make of the news that James and John left their more comfortable lives to follow an itinerant preacher whose sole purpose was to see God’s vision enacted for all people, including the poor and the outcast, aware that this would mean angering the authorities and those in power?  How can we do our part today, in 2021, to believe in the Good News in ways that are transformative, that change us even as we do our part to change the world?

These are quasi-rhetorical questions because there are not hard and fast answers, at least not in terms of the specifics.  We make promises in our baptismal covenant that we will be a part of realizing God’s dream “with God’s help.”  We each have gifts: those talents and resources and passions that enable us to be a part of overcoming the ugliness and inequities we encounter every day. Those gifts are not the same, they are not one-size-fits-all.  Each of us gets to choose how we will live our faith in ways that make a positive difference in the world.    Each of us gets to choose how to use our talents and resources and passions to lift up the well-being of all people while moving deeper into the heart of God.

We have everything we need to be willing to let go of those things that prevent us from accepting Jesus’ call to us.  We have everything we need to walk away from our nets and our boats, to turn toward Jesus and follow we he leads.  We have faith – though perhaps it is not always as constant as we would like – that God not only can, but God will be with us in and through all of it. 

I leave you now with these beautiful words of wisdom from Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, the beginning and the end of her poem, “The Hill We Climb” (which I commend to you in its entirety):

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We've braved the belly of the beast,
We've learned that quiet isn't always peace,
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn't always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.

[1] Mark 1:15, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Roman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland