reflections & sermons

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.

Untitled, because Covid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today:

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

I get it, I really do.

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

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

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

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

So I seek the stillness.

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

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.

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.

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.            

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? 

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.

Seek the dream of God

This is the planned text of a speech I gave at the Millburn Rally for Black Lives on June 7, 2020. It was an honor to be asked to lift my voice alongside those who live the injustice everyday, not as an expert but as an ally striving to do better. If you’d like to hear the actual speech, slightly different as happens often when one speaks without notes, you may do so here.

I am here, not as an expert but as an ally, and an ally with a heart to learn how to be a bigger and better and more vocal ally.

My faith in Jesus is what grounds me.  I believe in – I follow –  a man who would not be welcomed in this country, who would be risking his life for no other reason than inhabiting his own body, living in his own skin.  Jesus was not the blonde-haired blue-eyed guy we see on posters in churches in this country.  Jesus was a man of color. 

Jesus was executed by the state for proclaiming his radical message of who matters. And make no mistake – given who he was and where he lived, Jesus was talking about black and brown lives. 

I have no idea and can’t even imagine what it is like to live as a person of color in this country:

  • What it’s like to be seen one-dimensionally.
  • What it’s like to be denied opportunities that I take for granted.
  • What it’s like to be defined by others, rather than live my life on my own terms.

I come with some understand of this problem because for decades I have spent time in conversation with friends and colleagues who don’t have to imagine it because they live it EVERY.SINGLE.DAY.

  • They live with the sideways glances.
  • They live with strangers crossing streets to avoid them.
  • They live with others thinking they know all about them because they see their skin.
  • They live with the fear of what could happen to them or their children.
  • They live knowing their fears are not unreasonable.
  • They live a reality that people like me can never know.
  • What is most astounding?
  • They live with hope that this world can be a better place.

I come as an angry, frustrated, and still hopeful ally, not to talk to those who live this reality every day but to those who look like me.

Friends and neighbors who look like me – those who live in white skin by some accident of birth. We have got to do better!  We have got to do better now – not tomorrow or someday. Now!

We have to use our voices and our privilege and our resources to speak loudly and clearly, as often and for as long as it takes to rid this country of the evil of racism that is the bedrock of the original sin, of the injustice in this country

We have to accept the responsibility for creatingthe systems and the ways of thinking that mean some live with danger and fear we will never know

We need to ask forgiveness from all who have been harmed and continue to be harmed and the we have to LISTEN to what is need for reconciliation as a FIRST STEP to achieving racial justice and equality for

We need to know that this is only a FIRST STEP and that OUR work is LONG OVERDUE and ONGOING:

  • We need to stop looking for explanations to excuse our horrific behavior.
  • We need to hold accountable those who engage in this kind of violence against other human beings, whether it is expressed in thoughts, words or in deeds.

We need to look long and hard at the choices we make each and every day, asking ourselves:

  • How am I perpetuating this gross injustice?
  • By my words and the way I live my life, am I moving this conversation along in a helpful, positive way?
  • Am I complicit by my lack of action or because I remain silent?

We need to lift our voices NOW, we need to use our resources NOW, we need to live our lives – our  full lives – now,  in ways that show our black and brown neighbors that their hope of a better world is not unfounded  and it is something they deserve, not something they have to earn

In the words of the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry:

Let us work to “become the dream of god, rather than the nightmare of man.”

Seek the heart faith

This is my sermon from April 19, 2020, The Second Sunday of Easter. The lectionary may be found here.

My friend, Sue, of blessed memory, preached one sermon in her whole life.  I will not forget that sermon, even though it was probably 20 years ago. She said something that changed things for me.  She talked about how she had journeyed from a “head faith” to a “heart faith.”  Sue was born and raised in the Episcopal Church.  She spent a lot of time in the church. She went to Sunday School and Episcopal Church camp.  She was a member of Daughters of the King.  She did all those things good Episcopal girls and young women did. She and her husband were raising their children in the Church, which is where I met her. They were faithful. She lived her faith with a heart that you could almost see beating in her chest.  That is how I had known her – as the woman with faith so visible to the world. 

In her sermon, when Sue talked about her journey from a head faith to a heart faith, she talked about the real difference between having faith in what you have been taught and have no reason to doubt because people you love and trust tell you that it’s true and having the adult experience of this kind of maturation in her faith in which she was able to say, as Thomas said in this Gospel, “My Lord and my God.”  She had had a number of experiences in her life, some the write-home-to-mama types of experiences and some the kind you think back later and say, “Huh!  I guess that was a God moment.”  She had had those experiences in her life when she could move from a belief based on what she had been taught, what she read, and what she heard in sermons to a trust in God because she’d had some experiences of God up close and personal. 

I was thinking about her earlier this week when I was praying with today’s Gospel because we have Thomas, who is out, not with the disciples when Jesus comes back to them the first time after Easter Day.  The next time he sees them, they say, “Look! We’ve seen him.  He’s back!”  Thomas doesn’t say to them, “I don’t believe you.”  What Thomas says is, “I need to see him.  I need to experience this for myself.”  And Jesus, being Jesus, gives him that opportunity. 

Thomas gets a bad rap.  In today’s Gospel he’s called “The Twin”, though in other contexts he’s called “Doubting Thomas”, as if having the need to experience Jesus at work in one’s own life is a sign of a lack of faith.  My friends, it’s not.  Having questions, having doubts, speaks, in fact, to a trust in the relationship with God that transcends this I-believe-because-somebody-told-me-I-have-to-believe-and- this-is-what-I-have-to-believe-and-how-I-have-to-believe. Thomas’ vulnerability, his honesty in say, “I need this.  I need Jesus to be present to me in the same way that Jesus was present to the rest of you a few days ago”, is a sign that Thomas has a willingness, a desire, a longing for the kind of transformative relationship that Jesus offers us.

What’s really interesting to me about this Gospel is that we hear “those who believe”, because that’s the way it was translated for us.  But if you go back to the original Greek, the word is pistos, and pistos means “trust”.  It’s an active trust.  It’s the trust that develops because something has happened in a relationship.  So Thomas is saying, “Jesus, help me to trust.  Help me to know you so that my faith can be a heart faith, a lived faith, not a faith I carry and claim because somebody else told me I should, told me it was true.”

This is one of the most faithful ways to be a follower of Jesus, to seek the opportunities in one’s own life to know Jesus invites each of us to know him.  Sure, Jesus extends the invitation to all of us, but it’s not like the shepherd ringing the bell to call of the nameless sheep to come home.  Jesus invites each of us uniquely, personally, individually to relationship, the kind of relationship where we don’t have to take it on the word of somebody else. We don’t have to take it on a blind trust,  if you will, but the kind of trust that says, “help me understand”, “help me to know you”, “help me to hold up my half of this relationship you are inviting me into.”  This is the kind of invitation that is extended to each of us all of the time. And, yet, it is not expected by anybody – and I’ll go out on a limb and say Jesus himself – that we always have the same level of trust that we develop at any given time in all of our life. 

One of the greatest gifts my friend gave me when she preached was that she talked about how at specifics time in her life she experiences and knew Jesus better, more intimately than she ever had before, and then sometime later she looked back with longing for those times when she knew Jesus more intimately than she ever had before.  Jesus would be present to her in a new way, and she invite him to be with her through the next wave of doubt and of question so he could bring her back to the place where she would say, “Wow! Jesus, I know you more intimately than I ever have before!”  This kind of lived faith, this kind of trusting relationship in which we feel safe to say, “God, I believe. Help my unbelief”, which is also in the Gospels, is the kind of faith, is the kind of relationship that Thomas models for us in today’s Gospel. 

As we continue this Easter celebration through Eastertide, the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, I invite you to think about Thomas.  And, if it helps you, to use the image my dear friend gave to me as such a gift and blessing some 20 years ago. It is okay to have the head faith, the faith that you carry because it is about the things you have been told or have been taught. But what Jesus really, truly desires for us and with us is a heart faith, the kind of faith we seek to see in God’s world in all that we do, with and in all we encounter, including the everyday places.

The not-so-empty tomb

This is my 2020 Easter sermon. We heard the Gospel of John 20:1-18.

Easter is the most sacred of days, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ – a day that changed the world like no other before, nor since.  Although we in the church revel in the return of the “Alleluias,” the Gospel story of the resurrection is quite different.  The story as told in John’s Gospel starts as one of emptiness, disbelief, and tears.  It is a story of not immediately seeing what is happening, who is right there in front of you.  It is a story that unfolds slowly, deliberately, rather than with the heightened energy and excitement that seems to surround other stories – Christmas, for instance, with its heralding star, angels proclaiming the news, and magi with gifts.  It is a story of expectation and longing.  Then it becomes the story of the promise fulfilled.

The theologian, Frederick Buechner writes:

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. 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. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face.

 (http://frederickbuechner.com/content/easter)

In today’s Gospel,  Mary Magdalene rises early and quietly returns to the tomb to pay her respects to her beloved friend and teacher.  It is easy to believe she expected to be alone with Jesus, in a time of quiet sorrow that the hopes she shared with so many others for a different kind of life, a life that had been summarily taken from them with Jesus’ execution.  Imagine how she must have felt, to have even this ritual of mourning taken from her.  Imagine her disbelief that anyone would have taken his body.  Imagine her longing to be able to be with Jesus, even for just one more day.  She runs to Peter and the Beloved Disciple to share her grief and disbelief.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple cannot believe it either.  They have to see for themselves, so they accompany Mary Magdalene back to the tomb.  When they see that what she told them is true, they turn and walk away.  They believe it is over, that there is nothing left to expect.  They return to their homes, leaving Mary Magdalene there, alone at the empty tomb.

But wait!  The tomb isn’t empty.  There are angels but not the loudly, joyfully proclaiming angels who heralded Jesus’ birth.  These angels are sitting quietly, as if waiting for Mary to notice them, waiting for her to make the first move.    When she looks in, they ask her a question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She answers them and then turns away to leave.  And then she has the experience of meeting the risen Christ face-to-face We might wonder how it is she did not recognize the man she dearly loved and respected, the man she knew could change the world.  How could she mistake Jesus for the gardener?  Wouldn’t it, shouldn’t it, have been obvious to her who he was?

Imagine Mary Magdalene, there with Jesus through his ministry, his crucifixion, and now at the empty tomb, without the benefit of the 2000+ years of history and experience we have today.  She is there at the empty tomb with no other plausible explanation for what happened to the body of the man she saw die than that the authorities moved it or someone, for some reason, stole it.  It is little wonder, really, that she mistook Jesus for a gardener.  She does not know what to think, what to believe, but as much as she longs for it she does not expect to ever see Jesus again.

Mary Magdalene’s experience of the risen Christ is as true an experience as can possibly be.  Jesus does not push his way into our lives.  He does not insist we recognize him.  Jesus invites us into relationship.  He invites us to open our hearts and our minds to him.  Jesus gently holds the full promise of forgiveness and redemption, of eternal life, which is our Easter joy.  He literally died on the cross so that we might come to know him in this way, yet he does not insist that we accept this gift.  Jesus desires that we seek to see his face in the times and places, circumstances and people in which we’d least expect to see it, even, as happened to Mary Magdalene, at the empty tomb.

Jesus is everything we’d expect from the incarnate God and so completely unlike our expectations.  Jesus comes to us in our brokenness, our emptiness, and invites us to believe, even in the face of the impossible.  Jesus is there to answer our deepest yearnings, the most intimate longings of our hearts.  Jesus continues to be present to us in the most intimate and the most public of ways to save us from ourselves and all the brokenness of this world.  Jesus is here for us wherever it is, however it is, we long to find him, even in the times that seems unlikely or impossible.  That is the promise of Easter, the promise we as Easter people long to receive.

The empty tomb is not really empty. It is full of the love of God for all people.  It is full of the promise from God to all people.  It is full of the life given for and to us. It is full of the Easter message that with God, all things are possible.