From humility to grace

This is my sermon from October 23, 2022, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost in Year C. The link for the lectionary is here.

When I was in college, many moons ago, I took a political science course about game theory. To say I struggled with this course is an understatement. I could never quite buy into the “there are absolute winners and there are absolute losers” part of the theory. The idea of a zero sum game, in which when one person wins another must lose the exact same amount never sat well with me. Though I didn’t couch it in theological terms at the time, I realized later that I just didn’t believe that in God’s economy, in God’s vision for the world, that this could be true.

I also realized later that some of my struggle was because I am not a black and white thinker. I love the shades of gray. The gray spaces have always seemed to me to be the fertile places, the places where there is possibility, where there is hope.

In our current political climate, where it seems rudimentary standards of civility have been tossed aside, very many people, including people of faith, proclaim an understanding of what is right that seems so very, very wrong. People who deeply desire to be a part of this amazingly wonderful and sometimes crazy feeling Jesus Movement say things, do things, advocate for things that are totally inconsistent with the way Jesus lived. It makes me wonder how there can be such vastly different understandings of what it means to be Christian, of what defines a Christian value or moral. 

It is a Christianity in which there is an “in crowd” and an “out crowd,” distinctions made based on right behavior or belief, as determined by people who think they have it right. And, if they have it right, anyone who acts or thinks differently must be wrong.

They are Christians, so Muslims must be wrong.

They are white, so people of color…

They’ve been living here for a while, so immigrants…

They are men, so women…

They are wealthy, so those struggling to make ends meet…

They work, so the unemployed…

The list goes on and on…

And that way of thinking, which has nothing to do with Jesus, with the way he lived his life, leads to all sorts of reactions and decisions  an ways of being that underscore difference for all the wrong reasons. This emphasis on the difference that separates results in fear and anxiety and more distancing behavior, and this cycle, too, goes on and on.

Pick up the paper, or listen to a newscast, and you cannot help but come across this. People are talking non-stop about how to control others, about how to get people in line with their way of thinking, of their way of behaving. We encounter people working overtime to erect barriers to inclusion, to unity, to the common good, in order to protect their own positions, their own understanding, their own privilege. This is “in crowd” and “out crowd” writ large.

These are not evil people. These are people like you and me, people who want to do the right thing, who believe they know what it takes,  who believe they have the answers to the questions of what has gone wrong. In big ways and small, we all fall into this way of being sometimes.

Now, you may be thinking that I am reading the Gospel in a particular way – the way I grew up hearing it read, in fact: that the Pharisee and the tax collector are examples of a wrong and a right way to approach God.  It’s the equivalent of a zero sum game. In that reading, the Pharisee is self-righteous and Jesus is saying that he has it all wrong. It is the tax collector, who has it right.

But what if it’s not quite that simple? What if the message for us is that faithfulness is not just a matter of doing the right things v. doing the wrong things? God’s love is not finite. God’s love is more expansive, more generous, more forgiving, more merciful, more just than we can imagine. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is not a zero sum game, and we are not one-dimensional players.

Each of us has a bit of the Pharisee and the tax collector in us. There are ways in which get it right and can offer thanks to God for that, as the Pharisee is doing, albeit gratitude tinged with something of a litany of his righteous behaviors. There are ways in which we realize we fall short and need to ask God’s forgiveness, as the tax collector is doing.

What would happen if we read this Gospel passage keeping in mind that it is part of the larger narrative of God’s love, grace, mercy, justice, and compassion – the source of hope?

Each of us is called to act faithfully and to express our gratitude to God for the opportunity to do so, and each of us has the opportunity to ask God’s forgiveness when we fall short. If we believe in the mind-boggling expansiveness of God’s love, in which there are not winners and losers, but only God’s beloved, humility is key. For it is when we are humble, whether in our faithfulness or when we stray, that we know God is God, and we are not. In our humbleness, just as in those fertile gray areas between black and white, we experience the possibilities, the promise, and the grace of God.

It’s not magic

This is my sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Pentecost, Year C. You can find the lectionary here.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked by one of his disciples to teach them how to pray.  And in what seems like an uncharacteristic response given that Jesus often responds to questions with yet more questions, Jesus teaches a prayer.  And it is a prayer that we pray together every Sunday and which many of us pray daily.

If we were to outline this prayer, it might look something like this:

  1. Praise God’s name.
  2. Pray that everyone gets what they need.
  3. Commit to a way of living in community and discipleship.

As I read this prayer in Luke’s Gospel with the parable, which Dr. Amy-Jill Levine calls, “The Parable of the Pushy Pal,” I realize that, as familiar as this prayer is, as commonly prayed as it is, I am not sure that we always understand what it actually means.   

I also find it somewhat ironic that a parable – parables being known, perhaps being notorious for raising more questions, causing more confusion – acts as a commentary, an explanation, of a prayer that is known and prayed fervently throughout Christendom.

The Lord’s Prayer, as it is commonly known, is far more radical and counter-cultural than we may realize.  It is rooted in the ancient Jewish tradition of praying daily for what you need to shape your so that you are able to live righteously, and that is “faith” as a verb, what we often refer to here as “living our faith.”  It is that kind of faith that we hope to shape. It is something of a roadmap to living our days as God would have us live them to achieve God’s dream on earth.

Jesus is giving this prayer to the disciples, to us, at a time  of political conflict, at a time in which he is working day in and day out to all attention to social, political, and economic injustice, to ensure that everybody gets what they need to thrive. It is offered at a time in which the institutions and religious legalism make it really difficult to reconcile the way people are forced to live with Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.

The prayer starts with a command.  We are to praise God’s name.  We are to ground everything we say and do in an awareness of the sacredness and mystery of God’s holy name, the sacredness and mystery of the Divine.  We are to acknowledge that God is God and we are not.  And that leads to everything we pray after that.

We ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Note that there is an immediacy to this.  In asking that God’s will be done her on earth, we are asking that it be done now, not at some future time when earth is not more.

What we may not understand is that this request is a bit dangerous, at least for those of us who fear the kind of change that is necessary to realizing God’s dream now.  This is a prayer that is all about “us,” all of us, all of God’s children, all of God’s creation, and not about “I.”  Though we pray it personally, we always pray it “give us.”  It’s about building community.

We ask God to give us – all of us – what we need to live each day, no more and no less.  Coupled with the immediacy of asking that God’s will be done on earth, that means that we are praying that all of God’s people get what they need now, as as soon as they need it, not when it’s more comfortable or more convenient for us to do our part. 

This is the choice that the “pushy pal” in the parable is making.  He chooses to disturb his sleeping neighbor because it is the only way he can feed his unexpected and hungry guest.  This man chooses to risk his status as a  good neighbor to ensure that he extends the radical hospitality that Jesus would have him extend.

In doing this, he reminds us that God’s will is not magically achieved.  We are Christ’s Body in the world.  We are Christ’s hands and feet.  We do the work, the on-the-ground work, of ensuring that everyone has what they need.

We then acknowledge that we don’t always get this right.  We ask God to forgive us for our failures and misdeeds.  And we ask this knowing that part of the work God has given us to do is to forgive others for the ways in which they, too, need forgiveness, for the ways they have hurt us and other people. 

Seeking God’s forgiveness while forgiving others is part of the whole.  We need both if we are to be part of the realization of God’s will being done here on earth now.

And then, because we know that in our brokenness we need reassurance that we can praise God’s holy name in all that we are and all that we do, every single day, we ask God to help us stay the course.

This Gospel gives me hope that as people of faith we can make a difference in God’s world now.  I heard this week a description of prayer that brought this home:

Prayer is powerful…Are we living with the understanding that when we pray, God enters into the situation about which we’re praying and uses the work of the Spirit to create real change. [This is my aside:  That is the Spirit who works in and through us.]…

Prayers are aspirational.  They are speaking into existence things that we hope will happen, but do we actually trust that they will?”  (The Rev. Will Ed Green)

I would add to that the question of whether we are willing to risk the kind of change that embodying Jesus’s radical love and hospitality requires.  The Lord’s Prayer is a call to action, which brings with it certain risk that we have to let go of some things we hold dear, some of the ways of living and being with which we are so very comfortable in order to ensure that everyone has what they need.

I am reminded of the adage, “Be careful what you ask for.”  And I pray that God gives each of us the strength and the courage to be a part of changing the world from the nightmare it is for so many, into the dream that God has for it (to paraphrase Presiding Bishop Michael Curry).   Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Wearily working for the good

This is my sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, preached on July 3, 2022. The lectionary is here.

In October of 2020, seven months of living in a deadly global pandemic in a year that also saw an escalation of deadly racial violence and an intensification of truly frightening political maneuvering around such issues as how to care for infants and children caught up in the debate about immigration, I was weary.  I was so weary that I wrote a newsletter message about being weary.  Although it may be the height of hubris to quote one’s own writing, I share that message with you now:

“Beloved Community,

Are you as weary as I am?  Weary of the constant influx of news that reminds you of how broken the world is?  With the seemingly never ending tide of news about war, about conflict? About an almost unimaginable array of ways we fail to love one another as Jesus calls us to do?  About our apparent creative genius in finding new ways to ignore the call to respect the dignity and worth of every human being and the world? 

Even in the midst of a life that is full and rich and good, on this journey deeper into the heart of God with all of you in this amazing community, this week I have been feeling weary.  I have found myself wondering why it is I think I can make any difference at all to address problems that are far beyond my resources and capacity.

And then, as she so often does, the Holy Spirit (“wild and free” as my former bishop says) reminded me that the call to me simply is to be a faithful disciple, to live my life in such a way that whatever I do, small or not, is done with love for God’s people and creation.  It is not up to me to solve the problems, but it is up to me to be a part of the solution.  And that shifted my thinking, lifting the burden of weariness, at least for now.

I hope this message, from the Talmud, speaks to you as it does to me:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

“Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.”

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Peace & Blessings,

Paula+”

You may be wondering why this journey into the newsletter archives. Or perhaps you get it without explanation.  The world seems even more broken today than it did then.  I find myself just as weary, though now often without an awareness of the energy or resources to do the work that needs to be done, even as I understand that work as a call on my discipleship just as strongly as I ever have.

As I’ve rallied for sensible gun laws on the national mall, listened to a man yell, “I’ve got a gun!” and witnessed hundreds of terrified people stampede to escape the threat, I’ve grown weary.

As I’ve watched the January 6th hearings and read the news from the Supreme Court, with decisions that strip the rights of women to control their own bodies; Miranda rights, gun safety laws, and climate change regulations diluted, I’ve grown wearier.

As I’ve talked to my young adult daughter about how scared and despairing she is about the future ahead of her, it’s impossible to believe but I’ve grown even wearier. 

And when I’ve thought about how many times we’ve fought these same fights over the years, I’ve wondered if it is even remotely possible to make the kind of difference that needs to be made. 

I’ve been angry. I’ve been afraid. And I have been wearier, more exhausted than I ever remember being.  There are days I feel as if I am looking up at the bottom of my hope, trying to see a glimmer of light to motivate me to do the work that I’ve been doing since I developed a social consciousness, some 50 years ago, all over again as if for the first time.

And then I read today’s lectionary.  That wily Holy Spirit got me again. This line from Galatians seemed to jump off the page:

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

It was as if the Holy Spirit was speaking directly to the weariness of my heart, reminding me of what I know to be true:  the call to people of faith is to persevere.  Working for the good of all whenever we have the opportunity is an essential element of Christian discipleship.    

It doesn’t matter that the work that needs doing now is work that has already been done.  We work for the good of all.

It doesn’t matter that the resources of a seemingly unstoppable minority of privileged, powerful people can wreak havoc on the lives of a majority of the rest of us.  We work for the good of all.

We advocate for the rights of women and children, immigrants and the poor, people of color and all whose voice is not heard and whose basic humanity is often denied, and for God’s creation.  We grab onto our hope, even if our grasp feels tenuous, less full of hope than it has in the past. 

We do not let the enormity of the world’s grief or our own weariness overtake our faith in the promises that God has made to us and to all people.  Those promises are faithful and true. We follow Jesus, no matter what the rest of the world seems to be doing or not doing. We invite the Holy Spirit to work in and through us, reflecting God’s love and God’s light in all that we are and all that we do. We do this because it is the work we have been given to do. We live our faith.  We persevere. We show God’s love for all people all of the time. Full stop. 

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Baptized into freedom

This is my sermon from June 26, 2022, the Third Sunday after Pentecost. It was a great day at St. Stephen’s. We baptized two of God’s beloved.

The lectionary may be found here. We use Track 1.

In this week in which we are reminded by congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, and a mass shooting targeting LGBTQ+ people in Norway, of these reminders of our brokenness and the ways in which we struggle so often, so consistently with living into God’s commandments, today’s reading from Galatians some much needed clarity, some comfort, and some hope.

We are reminded that God is a liberating God, the God who will free us from all bondage, including that which we inflict and impose on one another and ourselves.  This is the God of love, God human and divine, the God who gave us the command to love one another and lived with us, lived as one of us, to show us what it means to overcome our fears and our brokenness and to incarnate, to embody, the love of God for all people. This is the God of love, who died as one of us and then rose again to show us that even death cannot overcome God’s love.

We are told that living by the flesh – which is a way of saying living according to our will, as opposed to God’s will – that living by the flesh limits our ability to feel and express the love of God in us and for all people. But when live by the fruits of the Spirit we can be free from all that limits our ability to experience the fullness of God’s love.  And that, my friends, is the comfort and the hope.

Wen we live as God created us to live, as Jesus showed us how to live, as God’s Holy Spirit, here alive with us, will guide us in the way of faith, then , and only then, we will know what it means to be truly free.

Br. Luke Ditewig of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastic order, wrote:

What God promises and commands, God also enables.  By the Spirit, we coming more into life, one step at a time.  Jesus keeps telling us that there’s more.  What is Jesus inviting us into?  What might our teachers in our lives and our collective history reflect about Jesus’ invitation into more?  It is not a height to be reached, but a widening embrace of mercy and grace.”

And that brings us to today

Today we are going to baptize Beatrice and Alistair.  Baptism is a Sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” (BCP 857)  “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” (BCP 858)  That’s the teaching of the Catechism in the Episcopal Church.

In Baptism, we are welcomed into the household of God, reminded of God’s promises and God’s commands. It is a step we take together – those being baptized and the community of faith.  It shapes  us and it forms us in ways that are truly a holy mystery. And it reminds us that we are part of a collective history, the story of God’s work in and through creation since the beginning of time. 

Baptism frees us from the limits of our brokenness. It is the foundational way of accepting Jesus’ invitation to be part of something bigger than ourselves, something so much better than ourselves, something that is about the unimaginable, unconditional love of God for all of God’s people.

We are welcomed into the embrace of God’s mercy and grace. We are claimed as Christ’s own forever.

And then to remind us that is real in our lives today in ways that are more tangible, maybe more accessible, we are welcomed into the love and safety, comfort and security, challenge and opportunity of a community of faith that commits to helping us to grow into the fullness of who God created us to be so that we can better reflect the image of God within us.

We become a part of that widening embrace in which all of the fruits of the Spirit are present and in which we are emboldened, enlivened, encouraged, and empowered to live by that Spirit and to love one another as we are loved by Jesus.

We going to welcome Alistair and Beatrice into that embrace, reminding them of a truth that exists whether we do that or not: God’s love for all of God’s people and God’s invitation to all of us to live into that reality with joy and intention in all aspects of our lives.

For those of us who have already been baptized, we’ll affirm our faith using the Baptismal Covenant, as a reminder that the Spirit guides us every single day, not just the day we are baptized, and that this journey of moving deeper into the heart of God is one we can choose to take each and every day of our lives. Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Let us be the good

This is my sermon from June 19, 2022, the Second Sunday after Pentecost. On June 16, 2022, at a potluck dinner, a man welcomed into the community at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, shot and killed three members of that parish. This tragedy hit close to home for us. The parish was founded by The Rev. Douglas Carpenter, whose sister is a long-time member of St. Stephen’s Millburn.

The lectionary for the day may be found here. We use Track 1.

At the start of today’s service, I offered the prayer from our Presiding Bishop for those who were killed and those who survived the shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.  I heard about that shooting when I logged onto the internet after getting a couple of notifications on my phone, one being news of the shooting at St. Stephen’s and the other being an update on the arrests of the 31 men who were heavily armed and in body armor on their way to a Pride event in Idaho. 

Though I’m not sure why, because we’ve had a steady diet of these kinds of violent acts, literally several in any given week, but there’s a part of me that is still surprised. It boggles my mind that in a country that has all of the resources we need to stem this flow of violence and death, we continue to lack the will to do it. And I know that it is because resources without the will to use them for good is the civil equivalent of praying with no intention to change one’s behavior and attitudes.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is continuing his healing ministry, his ministry of radical love and radical hospitality. He’s been journeying by boat and by foot all around the Sea of Galilee.  He’s veered off into the countryside away from the shore and then comes back to where we meet him today.

As they arrive by boat to the southwest shore of the lake, he and his followers encounter the man struggling with demons.  We’re told that the other villagers, the man’s community, have been trying to help him.  No doubt, trying to protect him was also about protecting themselves. Demons are unpredictable and scary, but they do try to help him.  He asks Jesus not to hurt him as Jesus is exorcising the demons, restoring the man and his community to health and wholeness. 

Now the man is thrilled. He begs to be able to follow, to travel with Jesus, but Jesus says “No. What I want you to do is to go back home and to witness the Good News of God’s love working in you. The man does just that.  That really doesn’t come as any surprise.  I’d like to think that all of us would listen to Jesus, who has just healed us, and that all of us would do what Jesus asks.

But there were so many other people.  I would have expected that this man’s community would be thrilled.  Or, if not thrilled, I would expect that they felt some relief. Yet that’s not what happens.  We’re told that some were afraid and then, in verse 37, we’re told, “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear.”  

“Seized with great fear” after witnessing a healing. Why? 

Was it the magnitude of Jesus’ power that overwhelmed them, causing them to feel afraid? 

Was it that Jesus spoke to the demons, giving them what they asked for, only for them to be drowned with the sheep when the sheep flee into the lake?

Was it that the loss of those sheep, their livelihood, meant economic peril? 

We’ll never know. It could have been one of those things. It could have been all of those things. The Scripture doesn’t tell us so I’m going to offer another possibility, and that is:

Even the change we say we want can be scary and overwhelming if we get it, especially if it means we have to give up something important or familiar.  We would rather hang onto to what we know, what we have, even if it is contrary to our wholeness and our wellbeing, and to God’s will. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum and there’s a reason for the phrase “fear of the unknown.” We need something to fill the broken places, something to fill the places where fear resides in us or we choose to hang onto it. 

We don’t like to feel vulnerable.  Vulnerability scares us. Fear makes us feel vulnerable because it reminds us that we are not in control. And, for some people, at least, feeling vulnerable and afraid, out of control, makes them feel angry and leads them to act violently. The anger and the violence mask the fear and fill the place in them where the control they think they should have doesn’t exist.

When I read that all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them,             

when I heard about the shooting at St. Stephen’s and the situation in Idaho, when I heard about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, and the mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Uvalde…, I wondered why it is that we can’t trust in God’s love, why we can’t trust our faith to be what fills those broken places.

Why is it that we sometimes act more like the demons in today’s Gospel, asking for what we need and then still going to a place that is about violence and destruction and our own deaths, both literally and figuratively?

Why is it that we cannot see God’s love, mercy, justice, and compassion, God’s grace, for us and all people? Why is it so hard for us to let God’s Spirit, God’s grace fill the place where fear resides?

I don’t have an answer to these questions.  What I do have hope, though I’ll admit in this moment that if it is possible to feel a bleak hope, I think I do. And yet it is still hope. It is hope rooted in Scripture, which is how we’re help to understand God working in and through us.

In today’s story from Luke’s Gospel, as is true in all of the Gospels, we are shown the unconditional love of God for all of us.   I heard on a podcast this week [Terrell Carter on Pulpit Fiction] that “Jesus always goes to all the wrong places, at all the wrong times, and spends time with all the wrong people.” Obviously, “wrong” is a human understanding because for God there are no “wrong” people. There are only people needing healing and wholeness, compassion and forgiveness, love and grace.

In today’s Gospel we are reminded that Jesus travels a long, hard road, literally and figuratively, to give us what we need to fill the places of vulnerability and fear. And all it takes is one teeny tiny crack in our defenses, in our hardened hearts, for God’s Holy Spirit to make her way in and to do what she does best: to work in and through us to guide us deeper into the heart of God, deeper and deeper into that place where we are a reflection of God’s love, and not our own vulnerability and fears.

God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s compassion, God’s hope can overflow our hearts and fill all of the brokenness in our lives. That is what happened to the man cured of his demons. And then he does what we should do. He does as Jesus asks, as Jesus would have us act.  He goes and he gives witness to God’s love and God’s grace.  And I have to believe that his witness opened at least one heart, changed at least one life in a way that furthered Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.

The man cured of his demons is an example for us of how live our faith, how to live our trust in God, how to invite God’s Spirit to give us what we need, to empower, enliven, and embolden us to act in ways that bring healing and reconciliation.  That is our call as Christians.  We are to shed light on the darkness, to be beacons of God’s light and God’ hope in the world.

I’m going to end with a passage from the book that Alex’s brother Doug wrote in the book, The Story of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church: Birmingham, Alabama 1972-2008:

Yes, it was cozy at St. Stephen’s, and yes a parish is the best place in which to absorb the shocks of brutality. The parish is also the best place to learn how to respond to cruelty near at hand and far away. Jesus responded to the news of the brutal death of John the Baptist by feeding five thousand people and healing the sick later that day. He responded to the brutality that preceded his own death by spreading out his arms that all might come within his saving embrace. Paul sums up this radical teaching of Jesus in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Let us all be the good that God created us to be.  Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Praying with our feet

This is my sermon from today, Trinity Sunday. If you’d like to read the lectionary, you’ll find it here. Near the end there is a reference to rainbow masks. As part of our Pride celebration, which also included having a table at NJ Pride, we wore rainbow masks this week.

Today is Trinity Sunday and we are reminded that the nature of God is unity.  God the transcendent, God the incarnate, God the imminent, all one God.  God the creator, redeemer, and sustainer – not separate but one whole, in relationship with and to God’s self and to us. 

This is so very hard to understand.  This Sunday is often talked about in preaching circles as “heretical” Sunday because it is so easy to move into heresy when talking about the Trinity.  I think the Trinity is one of those truths that might be described “within our reach but beyond our grasp.” (borrowing from Rabbi Heschel) 

We are created in God’s image, though no one of us can ever even begin to come close to what that means, to being a full reflection of the divine.  Together – and that means all of us – we can get ever so incrementally closer, but it still is one of those truths that it beyond comprehension and one that takes focused intention, effort, and energy as we seek understanding.

That brings me to the question I ask myself and you all the time: “If we believe in God, if we trust in God, if want to follow Jesus, how do we live our faith?”

Today’s reading from Proverbs has something to say about that.  The last verse feels like the place we need to start:

              rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.

God delights in the human race.  Not just one of us. Not just some of us.  The whole human race.  All of us.

On this day that we will be at North Jersey Pride, God delights in all of us.

On this day after some of us were at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C, God delights in all of us.

In this week before Juneteenth – and if you’re wondering what is Juneteenth, it is the recognition that it was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation that the enslaved people were told they had been emancipated – that is Juneteenth.  In this week before Juneteenth, God delights in all of us. 

In this time in which it is all to clear that we do not understand what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves, when we let hatred and vitriol and division lead to unspeakable violence and death, God delights in all of us.

No matter who we are or where we’re from, God delights in us.

No matter what we look like or who we love, God delights in us.

No matter the language we speak or the way we know God, God delights in us.

Sometimes that seems as incomprehensible as the Trinity.   How can God delight in us, how can God delight in me, when it is so clear that we repeatedly fail to live into being created in God’s image? When we repeatedly fail to live into the image of a loving, merciful, compassionate, healing, and reconciling God?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he understands how hard it is to understand how to live into this truth.  He says, “I have more things to tell you but you cannot bear them now.”  He also says that the Spirit, the third person of the one God will be among us to lead us into deeper understanding.  And, lest we forget, that is the same Spirit who descended upon the disciples and the crowds on Pentecost, opening God’s Word so that all could hear it in the way they needed to hear it.  That is the same Spirit who abides in and with us, and who works in and through us.

And that brings me right back to the question: “If we believe in God, if we trust in God, if we want to follow Jesus, how do we live our faith?”

And once again, the reading from Proverbs has something to say, this time in the very first verse:

              Does not wisdom call and does not understanding raise her voice?

When we know that God delights in the human race, we listen for the voice of the Spirit.

We trust the Spirit to help us discern how to act.

And then, because we are created in the image of God and followers of Jesus, we raise our voices, literally and figuratively.

First of all, we raise our voices in prayer.  We ask for the guidance and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and we ask for the courage and the strength to follow where we are led.

And then we act, which is sometimes known as “praying with our feet.”

We align our voices with and for those who suffer every day from injustices that are really hard for those of us who don’t experience them to imagine.

We march.  We rally.

We send in letters to the editor, if we’re in a place where such a thing still happens.

We write to and we call our elected officials.

We vote.

We reach out to our siblings who are hurting and suffering and tell them clearly and unequivocally that they are loved by God and that we love them, too.

We give them space to express their sadness and their grief, their frustration and their anger, their hopes and their pride.

We do not claim to be experts but to be allies and people who seek deeper understanding in ways that do not put the burden of our understanding on them.

We recognize and acknowledge, publicly as well as privately, that we do not have to have had the same life experiences to know that these our siblings speak necessary truth.

We love them and we honor them.  We celebrate them and their lives, with a whole lot less of a focus on how they are different from us and whole lot more about how we are all beloved children of God.

We lift our voices, literally and figuratively, always seeking deeper understanding of how to reflect the unity of God.

We do all of these things that people of faith and good conscience do to show in real ways – and those are the ways that matter now and in the future – that we share God’s delight in the human race.

And then we keep doing it.  We do it as often as we have to until “this world becomes the dream God has for it, rather than the nightmare it is for so many.” (The Very Rev. Michael Curry)

I pray for you and with you and for us that we continue the ministry of outreach and social justice that is such a hallmark of this place.  We each have a voice – we’re expressing it nowb in a fun way with rainbow masks, of all things – but let us together lift our voices.  Let us together pray with our feet.  Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

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