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

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

Called for this time

This is my sermon from the Second Sunday after the Epiphany in Year B, January 17, 2021. You will find the lectionary here.

This past week I was at a preaching conference. The conference was for experienced preachers and focused on preaching during the pandemic and the resurgence of white supremacy resulting in the violence we have witnessed time and time again.  I signed up for this conference because it has been increasing difficult to find a fresh message each week, one with both relevance and the hope of the Good News we have in Jesus.  As is the case with so many of you, I am tired.  Covid, racial injustice, and violence have worn me down, have disrupted my sense of how to navigate my life in ways big and small.  I went to this conference because I needed to be fed, to be renewed and refreshed.  I went because I needed to be reminded somehow of how to do what it is that I am to do, here, each and every week, with and for you.

One of the plenary speakers said something that our Bishop has been saying for over a year, quoting the Book of Esther: “We are ‘called for a time such as this’”.  Though it isn’t always to clear to me why – or perhaps “Why me?” – I believe that.  I know it to be true.  Another speaker quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. (who may have been quoting someone else): “You can no more preach what you don’t know than you can come back from somewhere you’ve never been.” It occurred to me after reading the story from the Hebrew Scriptures that we heard this morning, the wonderful and familiar story of young Samuel’s call, that it might help to go back to the beginning, or, at least, the beginning of this part of my life.

Until I was 12, I went to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church.  At that time, my mother was Roman Catholic and my father Episcopal so I went to Mass and Catechism classes at St. Bernard’s Church, and the “service” and Sunday School at All Saints’.  I remember clearly Good Friday when I was seven years old, just before my First Communion.  I was sitting with my Catechism class mates in front of the tabernacle in St. Bernard’s, sitting vigil.  I remember the soft blue and cream of the walls and ceiling, the blonde wood of the side altar and the pews, and the shiny gold of the monstrance that held the host, the Body of Christ, set into an alcove with vividly colored scenes of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.  I remember being transfixed by the experience of all it, even though I had no idea what it meant.  I knew I was there for a reason and that reason was not that the nuns told me I had to be if I wanted to receive First Communion.

At some point, Monsignor O’Brien started praying out loud.  I have a somewhat hazy memory of seeing him off to my left, seated in the chancel, though not at his usual place behind the altar.  I glanced at him when I heard him begin to pray and he was kneeling, closer to us than he had been and focused on the tabernacle.  I have no idea what he was saying because he was praying in Latin.  I remember his somewhat ruddy complexion, his piercing blue eyes, and his thick, wavy white hair.  I remember knowing – in that way you do when you know something from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, with every fiber of your being – that God wanted me to do what he was doing, even though, as I said, I didn’t know exactly what he was doing and I knew that I was not a boy and girls didn’t do what he was doing. Monsignor O’Brien was my accidental Eli, the priest who helped me to hear God’s voice.

I mentioned – didn’t I?- that this happened in the Roman Catholic Church, not exactly a place where women are allowed to answer a call from God in the same way that men do.  What I didn’t mention, perhaps because it’s a reminder of just how not young I am, this happened a good seven years before the first women were ordained in the Episcopal Church, and more years than that before the ordination of women was not an unwelcome exception to the rule.  At the time that God first called me to be more fully who I am, it was not even possible for me to answer.  And, had I been able to answer, I had absolutely no idea what the invitation was about.

Calls from God are not all the same, though we all are called to something.  Some hear God’s voice distinctly, as Samuel did, while others just feel different in a moment or over time.  Some are called as children, like Samuel.  Some are called when they doubt, such as Nathaneal was in today’s Gospel. What I knew when I was a child and know even more so now, is that a call from God is both about the one being called and not at all about that one.  God calls us to be a part of something bigger than we are, to use the gifts that we have been given to make a positive difference in this world, wherever we find ourselves, in whatever time it is.

Calls from God are about God and how God works in and through us, with a persistence and with a vision of the world that we cannot know in advance.  Sure, we can have some idea of what it means to live faithfully, perhaps even some of the responsibilities and tasks of the call, but we can not know exactly how it will unfold, any more than I could have predicted a global pandemic in 2020 and living my faith here in Millburn with all of you, any more than Samuel could have known that he would become a king maker, eventually anointing Saul and then David; David from whose lineage Jesus would be born.

What we can know – what I hope all of us do know- is that God calls each of us to a life of faith, a life that will continue to unfold. When God calls, it is never to just what we know or think we know.  It is always to more, sometimes in ways that are clear and make sense to us, sometimes in ways that leave us wondering what on earth God was thinking. God promises to be with us always and will remind us of why we are called as we are, bringing us to places and to be with people who remind us, too. God calls us to live our best selves in ways that are always meaningful and sometimes confusing or challenging.  God calls us in ways that will transform us, with the promise that one day the whole world will be united in God’s perfect love.

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Who shall we be?

This is my sermon from the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, 2021. The lectionary is found here. On Epiphany, the Wednesday before this Sunday, an angry, violent mob stormed the US Capitol.

Wednesday afternoon was one of those times that felt surreal.  One minute I was musing about John the Baptist’s fashion and cuisine choices:  Why are we told in today’s Gospel that he was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey?  What did that matter to the story of Jesus’ baptism?  The next I was standing in my kitchen saying to Kathleen, “What? The Capitol was stormed?  The US Capitol? In Washington, D.C.?  It was stormed?”  I’d been in the office all day and hadn’t listened to NPR or checked in on Facebook or opened one of the newspaper apps on my phone.  After a quick run to the Post Office to mail the Children’s Chapel packets I’d been working on just a few minutes before I’d realized I was curious about John’s attire and appetite, I opened my computer to watch and read the news.  And there I stayed, stuck in one of those it’s-a-train-wreck-why-can’t-I-avert-my-eyes kind of moments, but for (literally) hours, with all of the fears and concerns, all of the anger and frustrations, all of the sadness and grief that I have been carrying for several years, even before that fateful day in November 2016 – all of it right there, inhabiting what felt like every fiber of my being and spilling out onto my lap in wave after wave. 

It was too much and though I knew to pray – I knew I needed to pray- I had absolutely no idea what to pray, what words to use because I lacked the capacity to form clear thoughts.  So, being the good Episcopalian that I am, I turned to the Book of Common Prayer, and let some of the familiar words hold me up, surround me with reminders of what I believe and in whom I believe.  I remembered the sermon I preached on November 13, 2016, the Sunday after Election Day.  I remembered talking about how the words we use matter.   We use language to communicate.  Words are part of how we relate to one another, they are part of being in relationship.  Words mean what they mean to us as we utter them and to others as they hear them.  What we say, when we say it, where we say it, all of these things lend meaning to the words we choose. The things we say have an impact on people and, whether we intend them to land as they do or not, we have to accept and acknowledge that they do.

So, long into the night on Wednesday and then again for a good deal of Thursday, I listened, hoping to find words somewhere, from someone, that would help me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.  I listened to reporters and journalists.  I listened to government officials and law enforcement experts.  I watched videos of the President and of the President-elect. I watched videos of prayer services and Episcopal bishops.  It actually wasn’t until Friday that I heard something that helped.  On Friday, I heard Presiding Bishop Curry say: “In the moment of a national crisis, a moment of great danger, … a people must decide, ‘Who shall we be?’” 

In that moment, I felt something shift, not to a place of finding sense in what had happened on Wednesday or what has been happening for years in this country, but a modicum of sense nonetheless.  I was drawn back to today’s Gospel, that familiar story of Jesus’ baptism with that seemingly superfluous line about John in camel hair, eating honey.  I was drawn back to words that have always made my heart sing, to words that touch the deepest longings within me: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  I knew that there was nothing I wouldn’t do to have “the heavens torn apart” and to hear God speaking those words specifically to me because they answer the question “Who shall I be?” and not just in times of crisis or danger, but all of the time.  And suddenly the inclusion of John’s clothing and food choices made sense. 

“Who shall we be?” is the question people have been wrestling with for all time.  From Adam and Eve and their choice to be people with the knowledge of good and evil to Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac to Esther entering into a marriage and alliance to save her people, we are on a quest to answer that question.  The prophet, Elijah, whom we are told in 2 Kings is either a “hairy man” or wearing camel’s hair, depending upon the translation, points people to a new way of life that is grounded in the one God.  Elijah prophesies the coming of the Lord, the hope for an end to war and conflict, famine and need.  The Lord, whom we Christians know as the Messiah, the Christ, will come to save us from ourselves, to forgive us from our sins, and to bring us to new life, to a new way of being in the world and with God.

Bishop Curry’s reminder that the storming of the Capitol is yet another opportunity for us to ask ourselves “Who shall we be?” as a people, as a nation, as beloved children of God is both a comforting reminder and a challenge. We, unlike Elijah, know that the Messiah has come and has shown us what it is that we need to do to be the people God created us to be, to be a part of realizing God’s dream here on earth.  You know that is a sermon I can preach. It is a sermon I do preach… a lot.  And as our nation struggles to face the racial and other social justice issues that are part of the fabric of its founding and institutions, it is a sermon we need to hear.  All of us must do our part to ensure that all of God’s children are treated with respect, their innate dignity affirmed, their basic rights affirmed and upheld.  There is no way to be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah, and not commit to that way of life. 

Today, however, in this week of such immense fear and anxiety, we need to hear the fullness of the message.  We need to hear God saying to us, “YOU are my Beloved; with YOU I am well pleased.”  Whatever our part in creating and nurturing the circumstances that culminated in the storming of the Capitol, whatever our politics or voting choices, we need to know that the way of the Lord prophesied by Elijah and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as proclaimed by John the Baptist is a way of life that is for us, each and every one of us.  This is our comfort and our joy.  This is our solace and our hope. This is our challenge and our motivation. This is who we were created to be and who we get to choose to be, with every decision we make and every word we speak. 

The Word of God broke into the world in the birth of a vulnerable infant in Nazareth.  The Word of God lived among us, teaching us how to be our best selves, how to show our love for God in our relationships with God’s people.  The Word of God died at our hands because God’s love defies even the most horrific aspects of our human nature.  The Word of God lives among us still, working in and through us, giving us all that we need to live the Way of Love.  And that is the Word that matters above all else.            

Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Jesus acting far too human

Today’s Gospel is a tough one.  Jesus spends time with his disciples, telling them more about how God’s law has been misunderstood and misconstrued.  He explains to them that if what they do is not rooted in love, but rather in evil or any violation of God’s commandments, it defiles.  He’s telling them that so much of what they have learned and have come to understand as good and righteous, is, in fact, bad and sinful. He then goes on to Tyre and Sidon, where he encounters the Caananite woman.  This is where it gets really hard.

The Caananite woman is desperate for help.  She approaches Jesus crying out for him to cure her daughter.  I can only imagine what it must have taken for this woman, by birth considered by the Jews to be impure, to approach this Jewish rabbi for help.  My heart breaks when Jesus does not even acknowledge her.  It breaks a bit more when he tells her he was not sent to help her people.  It crumbles when he calls her a dog.  I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking there is no way, no way possible, that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the World, would or could treat anyone this way.  Surely there must be some other explanation.  Maybe Jesus is using this encounter with the Canaanite woman to teach his disciples a lesson?  But would that be any better?  Perhaps this story isn’t even real.  Surely it can’t be true that Jesus acted this way.

And yet it is.  Jesus’ humanity is on full display in this encounter with the Canaanite woman.  He seems to have completely forgotten the lesson he’d just taught the disciples.  His behavior with the woman suggests he doesn’t remember saying, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart”, which means, essentially, if it is not about God’s love, it defiles.  In other words, what is life-giving and pure is what is spoken with a heart full of love, mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.  Clearly, this was not Jesus’ best day.

In this story, Jesus is acting in a way that makes so many of us uncomfortable because it is far too imperfect to be consistent with our idea of who Jesus is.  We are seeing Jesus the man and product of his culture.  We are seeing the Incarnate One born to live and die among us acting far too like us than we want to believe is possible.  We are seeing in Jesus, the one who came to save us from ourselves and all the ways we step away from the ongoing invitation to grow more and more into the likeness of God, one of the most terrible ways we turn away from God’s likeness.

When I read this story now, in 2020 with the ongoing protests for racial justice and the reverberations of the #Me,Too movement, I am hear both the voices of those who cry for justice and the push back from those who want to hang onto  the culture and ways of being that are comfortable and familiar to them, even at the expense of the dignity – the very humanity- of others. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If Jesus could act this callously, this meanly, what chance do I have? What chance does society have to further the dream of God in which all people are recognized, honored, and celebrated for being created in the image of God?

In the persistent cries of the unnamed woman, one of only two people in Matthew’s Gospel to be characterized as having “great” faith (the other being the centurion in Chapter 8), I hear echoes of our Black and Brown siblings crying to be seen as fully human and deserving of all the same privilege, power, and opportunity we with White skin enjoy.  In the woman’s cries, I hear the echoes of every woman who objects to being sexually objectified or demeaned by labels such as “nasty woman” or held to a different standard of behavior than her male counterparts.  In her cries, I hear echoes of the First Nations peoples as they struggle to survive as outcasts in the land they occupied before any White man “discovered” it.  In the woman’s cries, I hear the echoes of our LGBTQ siblings who want nothing more than to be recognized and embraced as beloved children of God created in that same divine image.

In Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman’s persistence, I see hope.  I see the hope for us to listen to the pleas of our siblings to challenge the status quo, to dismantle the cultures and structures that are used to demean, degrade, demoralize, or in any other way say to any person or any peoples that they are somehow less than because we see some difference in them.  Certainly we can listen to the pleas of our siblings with hearts full of the love of God and for God and take action to transform this world, even if that means going against the grain and challenging both the culture and the ways we hang onto it? If the Son of David, the Chosen One, the Incarnate God can be changed by the cries of one woman, certainly those of us who follow him can do the same, especially when confronted by the cries of millions? 

Copyright 2020 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Questioning through the fear

This is my sermon for August 9, 2020 the 10th Sunday after the Pentecost in Year A. The lectionary is found here.

Several years ago, at the Barbara C. Harris Camp, I met an adorable nine-year-old boy named Manny. Manny is one of those old souls in a child’s body.  He’s also someone who looks life straight in the eye and then jumps right in.  I got to know Manny pretty well by the middle of the week.  I was the chaplain for his age group so sat in on a Bible study and spent time with his group on a couple of activities.  He was happy to be at camp, with a confidence most of his peers didn’t show most of the time.   I imagine Manny would be the one to challenge Jesus as Peter does in today’s Gospel “Ok, big guy.  You say I can do this, huh?  How about you tell me how to start and then I’m game.  I’ll give it a try.” 

That Wednesday evening, I got to know Manny even better.  Another chaplain and I were asked to take him to the local ER because he’d fallen while playing a game and injured his elbow.  We were a bit taken aback when we first saw him in the health lodge because it was obvious he was in pain, just as it was obvious his elbow was pretty badly injured.  But Manny didn’t talk about the pain, although he talked pretty much the whole way to the hospital.  Manny talked about his family and this, his second week at camp.  He told us about school and that he loves to read.  He told us he was having a hard time staying awake because he usually goes to bed at 7:00 and it was already almost 8:00. He told us in delightful detail what had happened, how he hurt his arm.  And he asked lots of questions, lots and lots of questions.

It is in those questions that I think about Manny in connection with today’s Gospel.  In his questions Manny voiced the fears he had about what was going on.  He worried that his parents would be angry with him for getting hurt.  He asked if he would have to get a new arm.  He was afraid that he would have to be awake and feel whatever it was the doctor would do to fix his arm.  He was terrified he would have to leave camp, after successfully begging his parents to allow him to come again for a second week.  He worried about what fun he was missing out on because he was on the way to the hospital.  Would his friends think about him?  Would they worry so much they didn’t have fun?  Question after question after question.  Fear after fear after fear.   All of them distracting him from what was so clear to my friend and me in the car and then to the staff at the hospital:  Manny had to have been in tremendous pain yet he barely seemed to notice. 

His fears were bigger in some ways than the physical reality of what was happening .  When asked, he had a hard time telling the nurses and doctors about his pain and how he was feeling physically.  Although visibly exhausted, he couldn’t lie down until his questions were answered fully and completely.  Needing to ask the questions over and over as if to make sure the answers did not change.  Once satisfied he promptly fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.  His fears were allayed, and he could do what he needed to do, what his body needed him to do. 

In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Peter and the disciples are clearly afraid.  It is night after an intense day of working with Jesus.  No doubt they are aware of how some consider their ministry with Jesus foolhardy.  They might even be aware of what Jesus has recently learned: the John the Baptist has been killed, beheaded, by some who are threatened by Jesus’ radical thinking and willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of his followers and maintain the status quo.    They might even wonder – somewhere deep within, or maybe more visibly – whether what they have witnessed with Jesus: the feeding of the 5000, turning water into wine, some healings – is real or if they been fooled.

Imagine what it would have been like to be there in a small wooden boat, completely subject to the power of the wind and the rain and the waves, in the kind of complete darkness we don’t know so well these days.  The stars – essentially the only source of light in a night sky -obliterated by the storm clouds.  No way to see the villages on the shore on either side of the lake.  Left alone by the teacher you have been following as you have been caught up in the wonder and the promise of his message.  In that small boat, on the turbulent water under a pitch-dark stormy sky, your fears keep you from recognizing Jesus as he walks toward you.  You think he is a ghost and are not even sure what to believe when he tells you it is okay, he is real.

As you sit in that boat are you grateful to Peter for having the gumption to challenge Jesus, to make Jesus prove he is who he says he is?  Or are you saying a silent, or perhaps not-so-silent, prayer that Peter just sit down and be quiet?  Are you envious that Peter has the courage to ask the question that is on your mind when he gets to walk on water?  What do you think and feel when his doubts take over and he starts to sink?  Can you feel his gratitude when Jesus reaches out a hand to save him or do you say to yourself, “I would have believed better, longer, stronger, and would have been able to walk all the way to Jesus”?

As you listen to this Gospel does this message of fear and faith and trust resonate with you?  Can you think of one example from your own life of when your fears got in the way of something just as real?  Perhaps your fear of what the doctor might say keeps you from making an appointment to check out some discomfort or pain.  Maybe you don’t risk talking to your spouse or your partner or your friend about something in your relationship that is upsetting you because you worry it will spiral out of control.  Maybe you commit less than 100% to your church or your prayer life because a full commitment would mean making some changes in how you live your life and that is too much to contemplate. 

Do you hesitate to talk openly and honestly to God, with God, because there is a part of you that knows you may not hear what you want to hear?  Or do you take the leap of faith, kind of like Peter, and put your whole self – including the parts that have trouble recognizing Jesus right there in the middle of your less than perfect self – into asking the questions and then trusting that God will get you when you fall?

My young friend Manny, scared though he was, did not stop asking the questions, voicing his fears, until he was satisfied with the answers.  And when the doctors woke him up to tell him it was time to fix his dislocated elbow and asked him how he felt, Manny didn’t miss a beat when he told them his arm hurt “really, really, REALLY bad” and he wanted them to fix it.  And when it was fixed and we were on our way back to the camp, he talked and talked some more about how good it felt to “get fixed up” and how he knew he was going to have to wait until later in the morning to find out if he got to stay at camp or if he’d have to go home early.  He said, “I know my friends at camp prayed for me [we’d told him they included him in their bedtime prayers] and that was nice.  And you two are priests, right?” Then the simplest, most profound, and faithful statement: “Right before I fell asleep I said, ‘God, I know you got this’ and I figured I’d be all right.”  Amen.

Copyright 2020 The Rev. Paula J. Toland