reflections & sermons

Loving God in the natural world

This is my sermon for September 3rd, the first Sunday of the Season of Creation, which fell on the Fourteenth Sunday after the Pentecost. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. The readings for today were 1 Samuel 25:14-19, 23-25, 32-34, 42-43; Psalm 25:4-12; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; and Matthew 5:38-42.

There is a theme in today’s readings.  It is justice, specifically how we as flawed and broken people live our lives in ways that embody and enact justice.  There is a focus in today’s readings.  It is about relationships, specifically about how we as flawed and broken people treat each other, especially when we are inclined to treat each other poorly.  And, because this is Scripture, the story of God at work in the world in and throughout all time, we know that these readings are also about relationship with God, specifically how we embody and enact justice for and with all of God’s beloved children, always trusting God that God’s dream for the world is the way it should be, even if that way is not always easy to see or understand.

Today is the first Sunday of The Season of Creation, the approximately five weeks the Episcopal Church and others designate as a period to focus intentionally on the earth and its resources.  The theme for this year is “Let Justice and Peace Flow.” says this about this season:

The Season of Creation, September 1st through October 4th, is celebrated by Christians around the world as a time for renewing, repairing and restoring our relationship to God, one another, and all of creation. The Episcopal Church joins this international effort for prayer and action for climate justice and an end to environmental racism and ecological destruction. The 2023 theme is Let Justice and Peace Flow. In celebrating the Season, we are invited to consider anew our ecological, economic, and political ways of living.  (

It seems one of those coincidences that Squire Rushnell called “God winks” that today we welcome our siblings from Christ Church in Short Hills to celebrate our recovery from the Hurricane Ida flooding and their loving hospitality when they invited us to join them in worship and fellowship for the five weeks we were displaced when we couldn’t worship here in this beautiful space.  I know I am not alone when I say that the invitation we received from Rev. Bowie on behalf of the Christ Church community was a much needed reminder that we were not alone then, nor are we alone now, no matter how it might have felt in the moment.  And I believe those moments, when we show up for each other in the ways that are needed, are part of how God sees and dreams we would be in the world.

I know there is debate in some circles about the impact of climate change on the extreme weather events that seem to be happening more and more frequently and intensely, though the question is pretty well settled in the relevant scientific communities.  As we enter this Season of Creation, wildfires are raging on each and every continent, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying their homes and livelihoods, disrupting food, water, and health care supply lines, and injuring, sometimes fatally, thousands.  No one is immune from either the destruction or its aftermath.  Every day we continue to get updates about the ongoing struggles in Maui as people mourn the more than 100 dead and continue to hope for word that the just as many missing have been found.  And they are doing this in a tourism-dependent economy that has been decimated and knowing that it will take literal years to recover.

Now, you may be thinking that the connection between climate change and today’s lectionary is pretty tenuous, though I submit to you that it is not.  How we treat God’s Creation – the earth and each other – is inextricably linked to matters of justice and relationship.  As bad as things were in Millburn two years ago, they could have been worse on so many levels.  We are a wealthy community in a well-resourced part of the world and, though not enough to prevent the damage we sustained, attention had been paid to flood mitigation in the years before Hurricane Ida.  The community came together to clean up the mess and to support each other in our recovery efforts.  The majority of us had the resources through insurance, savings, income, or family to rebuild or, in some cases, to relocate, either temporarily or permanently.  Walking through town only two years later, you only know there was a flood if you lived through it or someone told you about it.  In contrast, here are still parts of New Orleans, almost exclusively poor and non-White neighborhoods, that are essentially uninhabited since Hurricane Katrina almost 20 years ago.

Being good stewards of the earth and its resources is one of the most critical ways we demonstrate our love for one another and our commitment to Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope.  It is directly related to how we understand who God is and how we express our gratitude for all that we have and all that we are, especially when we are inclined to try to go it alone.  It is about living fully into relationship with God and trusting the promises that God has made to, well, be God.

I leave you with these words of wisdom from Br. Geoffry at the Society of St. John the Evangelist:

Jesus was intimately involved with the natural world. When he spoke of God and God’s Kingdom, he almost always pointed to the natural world:  seeds, the harvest, the clouds, vines, weeds, sheep, fire, water, lilies, bread, wine. Walk out into God’s wonderful creation – and be touched by the very hand of God.

Imperfectly perfect

This is my sermon from the Eleventh Sunday after the Pentecost, preached on August 13, 2023. We use Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A. The lectionary was 1 Samuel 17:1-7, 12-16, 24-27; Psalm 108:1-6, 11-13; Ephesians 6:10-17; and Matthew 5:43-48.

Perfection is a funny thing.  It seems like something we should strive for if we are to be all that we can be. Yet one who does, a perfectionist, often is treated with suspicion, perhaps even with disdain.  We seem to know that setting the bar that high is not always all it is meant to be.  So much of what makes us human – a diversity of gifts and perspectives, a need for sabbath (or at least less pressure all the time) – gets lost when we are held accountable to standards  that are unachievable for most of us, regardless of our gifts or resources or education.  It sets up a kind of competition between us as we continually grade ourselves and others against some standard that may or may not be completely subjective and is certainly unattainable. And in the quest to be something other than we truly are, we set each other apart, which is contrary to who we were created to be.  In the process, we give each other and ourselves false ideas of who we are and who we are not.   

Being perfect is hard work.  Being perfect can be lonely.  Being perfect distracts us from enjoying so much of life.  And the kicker?  Being perfect isn’t possible.  

Today’s Gospel – at least as translated in the English – doesn’t do a whole lot to help us understand how to be our best selves when it comes to perfection.  It also equates who we are and what we can do with God and who God is and what God can do.  

I’d venture a guess that the directive to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Sovereign is perfect” has contributed to lots of doubts about God’s unconditional love for all of God’s people and set so many of us up to feel like we have failed.  If it says it in Scripture – our holy text – then it must be the bar we are to reach, right?  But what if I were to tell you that in the original Greek it does not mean “perfect” as we have come to understand the word?  

The word in the original Greek is telos, which means, essentially, to be or become who it is God created you to be, whether you are a puppy, a piece of fruit (remember the parable about the fig tree?), or a person.  Puppies are perfect in that they become dogs.  A fig tree is perfect when it bears fruit.  People are perfect when they are who they are with authenticity and integrity, nurturing the gifts God has given them in ways that are honest, true, and build up the beloved community.  It’s interesting because I think so many of us know that, even as we sometimes struggle to live it.   

How many times have you heard – or maybe you’ve even said – something along the lines of “My parents wanted me to be [fill in the blank]. And I tried but it just wasn’t for me. I am a good [fill in this blank]. I know this is the path I was meant to take.”  And if you’re really lucky, you also can say, “I know the work I do makes a difference in my community [or to someone else].”  

We put so much pressure on ourselves and each other when we seek a perfection that is defined by some human standard of success or worth.  It is hard, sometimes devastatingly hard, to live that way.  We doubt ourselves or we punish ourselves, when we can’t achieve what it is we think we are supposed to achieve. We worry that we can’t keep up with our neighbors or colleagues, even as we try harder and harder to do so.  We look down on or distance ourselves from other people when they don’t meet similar standards.   

And, worst of all, we start to doubt God – “If God wants me to be perfect, why isn’t God helping me more? If it’s really true that we are created in the image of God and God is perfection, how do I reconcile that with the reality that I am far from perfect, no matter how hard I try?  And what does that say about God’s love? Surely God must love those people more than me because look how blessed they are.”  

The unconditional love of God should never be a question for anyone.  It’s the kind of love we strive to give our children, that love that says, “no matter what, I love you and believe in you.”  It’s the kind of love I know I hoped to convey when I would tell the each of the kids, “You are the perfect one for me.”  Admittedly, that became something of a joke as they figured out I was saying it to each of them, so I tweaked it a bit.  “You are the perfect 9-year-old (or middle child or…)”  We even got Christmas ornaments that said, “Favorite first born,” “Favorite middle child,” and “Favorite youngest child.”  The point is that this was one way of letting the kids know that they are loved unconditionally, no matter what.   

The perfection in today’s Gospel is about living into the fullness of who God created us to be, trusting in God’s truly perfect love – and I mean that in both the sense of “perfection” as we have come to understand it and in the telos way, in that God cannot be or do anything other than love us unconditionally because that is precisely what it means for God to be God.  God’s love for us is an invitation into more than we could ever ask or imagine on our own.  It is a love that challenges us in only the best, most inspiring ways, to live to grow into our best selves, that image of God in us.   

I will leave you with a quote, something I read this week, which helps to understand the importance of some of the things Jesus tells us to do, like loving our neighbor and praying for those who persecute us because they, too, were created in the image of God:  

“Jesus’ words are less command than promise. God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you. God intends to use you to achieve something spectacular. And that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be and, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the logic of Jesus’ kingdom well when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”   ( 

And when we see God’s perfect love as being all that we need or ever will need, and we trust that God will help us to be who it is that God intended us to be, perfect in that telos kind of way, we get to be a part of making the kingdom what God intended it to be in its perfection. 

God in, through, and with the Eleven

This is my sermon from July 30, 2023. It is not based on the lectionary we heard because July 29th was the 49th anniversary of the Ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, newly observed in The Episcopal Church.  July 29, 1974 changed the Church in ways we are still discerning and should be talking about. For our service, ee added the Collect of the Day and amended the Prayers of the People using the resources from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

I think we probably all have had the experience of remembering exactly where we were when something momentous happened.  As I was growing up, and I think most of you will remember this reference, the question always was, “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?”  Younger generations now have the memory of where they were on September 11th.  We also sometimes have these memories of where we were when something beautiful happened.  For Ron and me, I think we will always remember the weekend of May 19, 2023, when Kevin had us open a box and in it were Grandma Bear and Grandpa Bear mugs, which was when we found out we are expecting our first grandchild.   

I have another of those days that I know I share with more people than I can count, probably more women than men, but certainly some men.  And that was July 30, 1974.  That was the day I learned that the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia on July 29th.  I remember because I was with my two best friends.  Mischelle and I were literally doing cartwheels on the lawn at church, and there was Jamie, just standing back saying, “there’s my best friend and she’s nuts.”  That was the day I remember hearing that some really brave men, bishops in the Church, chose to do something that was extra-canonical, was deemed to be “irregular,” and to ordain eleven women, all of whom were fully trained and fully educated, meeting all of the requirements for ordination in the Episcopal Church except for one: they were women, not men.  

I can’t even describe what that felt like.  I am going to do my best now because I think when we have those experiences of the grace of God, part of what we’re to do is to share them with each other. So that day, when we overhead some guys (They were on the Vestry and at that point there were no women on vestries in the Episcopal Church.) talking about this thing that had happened the day before.  While listening to them talk, I felt -it occurred to me in that way that is a fiery feeling head-to-toe – that finally the Church that I had loved my whole life, that Church that I chose over the Roman Catholic Church that I also attended until I was twelve, that Church had finally taken a step toward recognizing something that I had known about myself from the time I was six years old was possible.  

I know some of you have heard my story, it’s a big part of my faith story.  I was sitting in St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church on Lincoln Street in Worcester, Massachusetts on Good Friday, when I was six, and we were sitting in the side chapel looking at the Reserve Sacrament, which you did for three hours, even when you were six.  We were sitting there and off to my left, facing the altar wall not the people, a male priest was doing whatever priests did, in Latin.  I had no idea understanding of what it meant other than that’s what happened when you came to church.  And I remember hearing this and looking at the Reserve and at a beautiful statue of the Blessed Mother, and I heard, again in that way that feels like a whole-body experience – I heard God say, “You’re going to do that someday.”  

Now, I didn’t know what “that” was.  What I did know was that it made no sense because I was a girl.  It wouldn’t be possible.  And I went on to wonder do I become a nun, is that what is was?  But I knew I never felt drawn to the nunnery, as we would say back then. I never felt drawn, called to the religious life in that way.  I just trusted in God enough to know that eventually it would make some sense.  

Well, the eventually became July 29th, 1974, where at 13 ½ years old, this calling I had known for more than half of my young life, had been affirmed in eleven other women.  And when I think about what that says about the God that we worship, the God that we trust and have faith in, it is more than just the somewhat distant, “With God all things are possible.” It is about recognizing that when we are faithful and true to the call of God on our lives, our lives become for us what God intended that they be.  They don’t happen perfectly, we don’t become perfect people, we don’t necessarily become different people, but we have the blessing to live into who it is that God already ordained us to be, whether that’s ordained as a priest or as a preschool teacher.  Whoever we are at our core, we have the possibility of becoming.  

We work alongside God in that.  I was thinking, and Bruce had no way of knowing, but we had a little chat before church about something completely unrelated, and I said, “I have confidence in God.”  And Bruce said, “Yes.  And we need to show that God can have confidence in us.”  It is something that we do with God, but it is by God, and in God, and through God that we are given the opportunity to be who we are, and then for some of us – though I dare say everyone of you could join me in this – we share our story because people expect us to witness to God in that way.  

I had the huge blessing to meet a number of the Philadelphia Eleven around the time and through seminary.  Two of them: one I did not get to meet, Suzanne Hiatt, who died in 2006, and Carter Heyward were part of the EDS community, where we had the Hiatt Heyward lecture series.  They accepted their ordination as not an end in a process, but as an inflection point in the middle – no doubt a mountain top, pinnacle experience – from which they went on to share their wisdom and experience about how we include people in the Body of Christ in ways that are not bound by our very limited experience of who can do what when, but are based in our trust that God’s grace in the gifts that we have received needs to be fully lived in the world.   

Another one of these amazing women, Alison Cheek, was on the faculty of EDS as well, and had retired by the time I arrived and was auditing classes.  I had two courses with Allison, who must have been at least in her 80’s at that time.  She sat next to me in these classes and this expression of unity, this expression of possibility, of God’s possibility was palpable.  It’s like she vibrated with God’s Spirit.  

I share this with you because I think it is so important for all of us to share the ways God has worked in and through us in our lives, and also to say that the ordination of the Eleven was truly church-shattering.  We continue to struggle in some places, in the Anglican Communion for sure, and also in the Episcopal Church, with what are the roles that certain people can play in the Church.  In the Diocese of Newark we’re a little insulated from it because it tends to be one of the more progressives dioceses in the Episcopal Church.  Women have had rectorates in cardinal parishes, cardinal parishes being the big parishes with endowments and large staffs.  We have women as rectors in some of those parishes but there are still parts of the country where that doesn’t happen.

In addition to women, the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven, which was then deemed okay by General Convention in 1976, though it continued to be more okay in theory than in practice for a couple decades, opened up possibilities for more people.  We had The Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris from the Diocese of Massachusetts who was the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion.  Bishop Barbara broke the gender barrier and, as a Black woman, she opened things even a little bit further.   

And that, my friends, is how God works.  When we open hearts to the movement of the Spirit, when we gather with others who are brave and bold in their faith, as were the bishops who ordained and consecrated the Eleven forty-nine years ago yesterday, we understand God more fully.  When we are not constrained by the way we’ve always done it, we become a part of creating the truly radically welcoming, inviting community of God’s beloved.  When we allow ourselves to take those steps, even when it means risking a lot – because make no mistake, the women risked a lot, the bishops who ordained and consecrated them, risked a lot – but when we’re willing to take those chances, we become a part of something bigger and better, something more inclusively loving, than the Church as we know it in any given point in time.  

That witness is, perhaps, one of the most awesome ways we get to thank God for being God, to thank God for being who God is in our lives in the mountain-top experiences, like ordinations, and in the day-to-day experiences, like mopping the floors.  We get to acknowledge that who we are directly relates to, it flows from who God is, and our experience of God’s love becomes more unconditional (if you can have something become more unconditional), more expansive, more grace-filled, than if we play by our own rules.  These eleven women broke ground in God’s kingdom to create more space for other women, more space for people of color, more space for our LGBTQ+ siblings, more space for all of us to discern how it is that by God’s grace that we get to live as authentically and with as much integrity as God would have us live.

To live a just life fairly

This is my sermon from July 23, 2023, the Eighth Sunday after the Pentecost. We use Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. These are the readings: 1 Samuel 8:1, 4-18, Psalm 99, Revelation 19:5-9, and Matthew 20:1-16.

This Gospel is often interpreted as being about the end times, known in theological terms as eschatology.  It often is interpreted as being about salvation through Jesus Christ, known in theological terms as soteriology.  I would venture to say it is about both. It is about the end times, when all is perfected by God.  It is also about how we live the promise of salvation in this time, when we can do our best to live into the Gospel imperative of loving God with our full selves and loving our neighbors as God loves us.  Either way, as familiar as it may be, this is a parable that challenges us to consider what it means when we hear things like, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” and my new favorite opportunity for reflection, “Or are your eyes envious because I am generous?”  

I can’t remember exactly how we got there, but several of us had a conversation about the first being last and the last being first during supper one night when I was at Yale.  (I know, your envious of the riveting mealtime conversation, aren’t you?)  One of my fellow fellows said, “Life isn’t fair. It’s just.”  And that got me to thinking that a case could be made that the laborers in this story are justified in making their complaint based on who did what, but I’m pretty certain that God’s view, which related to stories like these, is sometimes called “God’s economy,” is radically different than ours.  We equate fairness with justice, when in fact they are related but not the same.  

According to, fairness is” the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias or injustice, evenhandedness.”  The definition of fair is:

  1. “1. free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice; 
  2. 2. legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules.” 

Justice is “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness or moral righteousness.” Just is “guided by truth, reason, justice, and fairness; done or made according to principle; equitable, proper.”  

Fairness is linked to judgment in particular situations.  It is not an overly general principle to be applied in the same ways in every situation.  Justice links to morality and ethics.  In likely is an oversimplification, fairness is about how we human respond given a specific set of conditions or circumstances.  Justice is the lens through which we live most faithfully answering the question that the late Peter Gomes would have us ask, “What would Jesus have us do?”  

Though certainly not in response to anything Jesus would have said or done because he lived about 400 years before Jesus was born, Aristotle said that justice means “equals should be treated equally, unequals unequally.”  And this is where we get stuck sometimes.  We tend to look at equality in terms of status or resources or education or any number of criteria that we humans have decided matter in this equation.  We have used those criteria to decide who gets what when and who does not.  For instance, we decide that certain jobs are worth more than others and tell ourselves this is empirically true, even when our live experience tells us this is not quite as empirical or objective as it is conditional and subjective.  An example of this is the seemingly ever-widening gap between the wages of the heads of corporations and the rest of the employees.  Is it empirically true that top are executives are doing 400x more work than their employees? We do it, too, when we allocate resources to public schools where those who live in certain zip codes, even within the same city, have access to higher quality education than those in other zip codes. Depending upon your interpretation of fairness, this can be justified.  

And now I’m back to with its two definitions of justified:

  1. having been shown to be just or right;
  2. warranted or well-grounded.

 Justification that something is warranted or well-grounded does not necessarily make it ethically or morally correct.  Justice is inclusive of “moral righteousness,” which is a principle that enables, empowers, and emboldens us to live in relationship with others in ways that are justified as if we were the world and all people as God does, which circles back to good old Aristotle and his idea that justice is about equality.  God does not look at us and judge us by what we have or how successful we’ve been.  God sees us as God created us, in her image, nothing more and nothing less.  And that is a universal truth.  

Looking at this Gospel eschatologically, it is about judgment on the last day, as it were.  Looking at it soteriologically, it is about grace of our salvation through Jesus, which is something that is both now and yet to be.  Robert Farrar Capon, who wrote three wonderful books about the parables said this story is “about a grace that works by raising the dead, not rewarding the rewardable, and it is a judgment that falls hard only upon those who object to the indiscriminate catholicity [universality] of the arrangement.” (The Parables of Grace, p. 54)  

May we accept the grace of God for us and for all, and do our very best to live our faith justly.  Amen.

Blessed to be a blessing

This is my sermon from July 9, 2023, the Sixth Sunday after the Pentecost in Year A. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. The readings were 1 Samuel 2:18-21, 26; Psalm 111; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8; and Matthew 18:23-35

Last week, when the Gospel reading was Matthew’s feeding of the four thousand (15:29-39), Rev. Jane talked about Jesus feeding the peoples’ physical hunger, need to know God, and their need for each other, for community – a need they may or may not have known they had.  She also said that Jesus listened to the people.  And she went on to say it is a story about hospitality.  I would go so far as to call it an act of radical hospitality.  Rev. Jane also mentioned that she had read about existence as being the need for conversation with each other and as a response to God.  

So…between that story about the feeding of the four thousand and today’s story, a lot has happened in Matthew’s Gospel.  There’s been the Transfiguration, a healing, a few parables, and Jesus’ foretelling of his death and resurrection.  Jesus has talked about how to avoid the temptation of sin and how to deal with conflict in the community.  To say the least, Jesus and the disciples have been very busy.  

And now, three chapters later, we have today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about forgiveness, which seems something of an organic part of the arc of the narrative about our need to know God and be a part of a community.  Jesus talks about what I would think could be called, “radical forgiveness.”  

I think we probably already know that forgiveness is not easy.  Whether we’re the one in need of forgiveness or the one being asked to forgive, it can be a real challenge.  There’s so much of who we are – or think we are – and how we see the world and our place in it that comes into play when we need to ask for or extend forgiveness.  And, for some reason, we tend to think it’s a one-and-done kind of thing, perhaps especially when where the ones being asked to extend forgiveness to another.  

It’s reasonable, isn’t it, to step up onto that high road once, but more than that?… Come on!  And yet, to hear Jesus talk about it, we should just move on to that high road and take up residence there.  Why bother to move from it at all if we’re going to have to extend forgiveness over and over again?  It makes me want to say, “Really, Jesus?  Not just seven times seven, but seventy times seven times?  Who do you think we are?”  

And I can imagine Jesus saying, “I know exactly who you are.  More than that, I know who you were created to be and how you can live into the promise of becoming your best self.  Pay attention to what I have to say.  Listen.  Listen deeply with your whole self.  Listen as I have listened to you.  And remember, forgiving more than seventy times seven is what God has done, does, and will always do for you.”  

The late – and dare I say, great – Archbishop Desmond Tutu talked a lot about forgiveness.  His understanding of forgiveness was shaped in part by growing up with a violently abusive alcoholic father and his work in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.  He defined forgiveness as “the capacity to make a new start.”  He said, “Forgiveness is the grace by which we enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.  In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrong doer to change.”   

Archbishop Tutu was clear that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting.  “Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done.  Forgiveness does not erase accountability.  It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek.  It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous.  Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed.  Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”  

When we hold onto our anger and resentment, we make life, including forgiveness, harder than it needs to be.  Our relationships with each other suffer above and beyond whatever offense has been experienced. Our relationships with God suffer because we fail to truly know what it means to love as we have been loved, so we can’t truly know what it means to be loved unconditionally.  Another consequence of carrying our anger is that we fail to open space for healing, for ourselves and for others.  Our hopes and dreams for a better world are dashed.  

There is a saying rooted in Jewish theology, “may you be blessed to be a blessing” that summarizes this idea and the teaching about forgiveness in today’s Gospel.  What God gives us we are asked to share with others.  This is part of how our needs to know God and to have a life-giving community are met.  God knows we are not perfect, nor will we ever be.  And I believe that’s okay with God, even as I believe with my whole being that embodying our faith means that we do our best to do better each and every day.  And that means recognizing the blessing God’s love for us and living it forward every day. 

To know what we don’t know

This is my sermon April 23, 2023, the Third Sunday of Easter in Year A. We are using Wilda Gafney’s, A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A. The readings for this Sunday were Sirach 4:11-16, Psalm 34:1-14, Hebrews 5:7-14, and John 5:25-29.

We have in the reading from Hebrews a line I find really delightful, but then I have that sense of humor that, when I realize God seems to be saying, “ha, ha,” I laugh out loud.

“About this we have more than a word and it is hard to explain because you all have become slow in understanding.”

What a nice way of saying, “Hey fools, you don’t get it.” We have that line in the letter from Hebrews about our understanding, specifically our lack of understanding, which is followed by, “at this point in time you should know enough to teach all of this.”  And I realized that one of the reasons that I found that line so amusing is, and you’ve heard me say this before, that in my own life I’m now never surprised when I realize, “Oh, you’ve had that wrong for decades.”  I especially enjoy it when one of our kids will ask us a question and, before I can even respond, they give me the answer and I think, “Wow! You are the theologian in this conversation.”

We all have those times when we think we know and then assume that’s the end of it.  Sadly, I think that is how often we approach relationship with God and how we approach an understanding of God.  And I think that is one of the reasons, if not the only reason, that so often people who believe that they are good Christian people, do things in the name of God that are so incredibly hurtful to others of God’s beloved children.  It is about believing that what you know or think you know is the fullness of what is to be known.  You learn something and think that is it for all time.  I learned things in the Episcopal Church 55 years ago that we know, or think we know– perhaps believe is the better term – were likely to be wrong because we have been open to discerning, to inviting the Spirit into our lives.  A glaring example is that 55 years ago I could not be standing here, either as priest or lay preacher.  Fifty-five years ago, women could not serve on vestries.  Women couldn’t do those things because we just knew it wouldn’t be pleasing to God.

We all have these kinds of awakenings.  We have this beautiful reading from Sirach today that basically says, “open yourself to the Wisdom of the Divine.  The Wisdom of God will bring you to where you need to be, where you want to be, to where God desires you to be.”  It’s about always being in the conversation, always being open to the Wisdom, and that, I think, is one of the reasons the readings Dr. Gafney chose for the lectionary today, the Third Sunday of Easter, are such beautifully relevant readings for the Eastertide.  They are not what we’ve grown up with in the Episcopal Church but they are beautifully relevant, compelling even, because when we realize what we know, what we think we know, isn’t the end-all-and-be-all and maybe we’ve been wrong about it, we get the chance to wake up and have a new understanding.  We get the chance to wake up and have newness in our life with each other and newness in our life with God.  And if newness and life is not an Easter message, then we’ve all got this wrong.

This is about knowing that as much as you think you know about God and relationship with God, it pales in comparison to who God is, how God is, and what God would have you learn about yourself, about being in relationship with other people, and about being in relationship with God.  When we are doing this right, we know that we are changed, that our lives are transformed, and that is not because God is any different today than she was yesterday, but because we’ve woken up to a new understanding, we’ve woken up to something new.

That is perhaps the only reason to have hope for our world today because if we continue to think that the way that we’ve lived for the past couple years, for the past decade, for the past century, is the way God would have us live, we are dying.  We are killing ourselves and each other.  I trust God enough to believe in the eternal life with God, but how we live today is not the life God would have us live as we seek better understanding. 

In the reading from Hebrews we have this line about how we not getting it and then we have the line that we should already know it well enough that we should be able to teach someone else.  I’ll admit that line tripped me up.  I thought “Uh?  What is it I not getting?”  And then I realized if this is an ongoing life of new understanding and deeper understanding of who God is, how God is present in our lives, and how we’re supposed to live, then what we are supposed to be teaching is not what we know absolutely, certainly that God would have us do, today, tomorrow, and for all time.  What we’re supposed to be teaching is this way of opening our hearts and our minds and our lives to whatever it is God will show us next.  And what ever it is, God will teach us how to be more the people God created us to be, and how to live with each other in ways that bring us deeper into the heart of God and invite to participate in the realization of God’s dream for God’s people on God’s earth. 

It’s ongoing – more than just a day-by-day – it’s a minute-by-minute decision to be open to the Spirit moving in us, to be constantly inviting the Wisdom of God to be a part of who are in our decisions, in our behaviors, and in our thinking.  The hope, the incredible hope we can have that this new life in Christ is ours, is right there.  We don’t create the new life in Christ.  We don’t make it happen.  We choose to walk with Christ as we follow God’s Spirit.  It’s all about God’s invitation to the new life and our willingness to say, “Thank you, and I’m happy to be along on this incredible ride.”

It’s Easter each and every day when we make that kind of choice.  Amen.

Easter 2023: To see and be seen

This is my sermon from Easter Day. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Easter was Isaiah 49:1-13, Psalm 18:2-11, 16-19, Hebrews 11:1-2, 23-24, 28-39, and Matthew 28:1-10.

In my family, we have one of those quirky habits that is both annoying and endearing.  My father, my brother, and a couple of uncles and cousins sometimes will respond to “Good to see you,” with “It’s good to be seen.”  Though I don’t see them often since I moved to New Jersey so haven’t heard this in years, it popped into my head when I first read today’s Gospel and then on Tuesday at the clergy Renewal of Vows service when I heard Bishop Hughes preach about people wanting to see Jesus.  Though my family members respond this way to tease, there is some truth, or perhaps there is an expression of desire, in what they say. There is something really life-affirming about seeing and being seen.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, people traveled sometimes considerable distances, across terrain that was not necessarily easy to travel, to see Jesus. It took a real commitment to get from one place to another. Yet people did this because they wanted to see Jesus. They wanted to be in his presence.  When they were seen by Jesus, they were seen for the fullness of who they were. 

I can imagine that at least some of them felt the way I imagine I would feel if I were to meet Jesus –  both really grateful and excited, and also a little bit wary and concerned, because Jesus saw the fullness of who they were.  Jesus saw all of their best traits, their strengths, and their gifts. Jesus also saw all of those things that they might want to keep hidden, from him,  from their family and friends, perhaps even from themselves.

Jesus saw it all. And, yet, Jesus saw beyond their human frailties, beyond their afflictions, beyond their brokenness.  What was more important to Jesus was the image of God in them. And when Jesus saw that, and they were present with him, they were brought to wholeness.

To see and be seen by Jesus meant healing and redemption.  And it didn’t matter how big or small the need, how relatively benign or malignant the sin.  From providing wine to all the guests at a wedding in Cana, to forgiving those who betrayed and denied him,  as well as those who sent him to the Cross, Jesus saw what was needed and offered grace, that gift which is freely given and undeserved.

In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, go to the tomb to see Jesus.  Their need to see Jesus transcends his death, which they have witnessed.  So they go.

The emotion in this story is almost palpable.  As read it, I can feel my stomach kind of in knots, as I imagine I would feel if I went to the tomb to see Jesus. I imagine the fluttering of my heart thinking about what I would do if I saw him, and then looking behind me in great surprise as the messenger of God comes down in this flashy white and says, “He’s not here.” I can imagine all of it from a place of needing to see Jesus.

These women who have followed and supported Jesus in his ministry know first-hand what it means to see and be seen by him.  They understand Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope in a way that may be hard for us over two millennia later to comprehend. 

And yet that does not stop us from seeking to see and be seen by Jesus.  Even though our relationship with him is as post-Resurrection Easter people, their need resonates deep within our souls.

We come together as a community of faith to hear the biblical stories, because they’re our stories.

We come together to receive the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Eucharist to be closer to Jesus, to acknowledge our need for redemption and healing, to be part of the communion of saints,  members of the household of God. 

And then we go into the world to share the Good News of God’s love for all people, in ways that are similar to those who journeyed with Jesus in Palestine and shared in his earthly ministry. 

We do this with the sometimes discomforting knowledge that we are seen by Jesus even before we see him, even when we don’t.

There is something incredibly and beautifully humbling about being seen and known so completely, perhaps in ways that we cannot see or know ourselves, to know that God come to live as one of us and then allowed us to take him to the Cross to die as one of us so that we might be saved healed of our brokenness and saved from our sinfulness.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus greets Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, after they leave the tomb to go in search of him. His greeting to them is “Shalom, “which in Hebrew means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. It is blessing as well as greeting.

It is a greeting and a blessing that encompasses all that he knows that they need, and that we need today.

It is a greeting and a blessing that encompasses the reason for his life, his death, and his resurrection.

It is a greeting and a blessing that expresses the fullness of God’s love for them and for us,and embodies that grace that is freely given and undeserved.

It is a greeting and a blessing that tells us that the Easter promise is being fulfilled.

Amen!  Alleluia!

Triduum 2023, Day 3: Holy Saturday

This is my sermon from Holy Saturday. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Holy Saturday was Job 14:1-14, Psalm 31, Philippians 2:1-8, and Matthew 27:57-66.

This is what I think is the bleakest day in the whole liturgical year.  I venture to say the original Holy Saturday may well be the bleakest day in all of history.  I do believe, as you know, that as liturgical people, people who go with the rhythm of seasons, that even though this is the day before the most glorious day in the calendar and we are all tied up in preparations for tomorrow, it is so important for us to sit and notice where we are on this Holy Saturday.

As I was doing some of that thinking about the rhythm of this week and what today means, it occurred to me that my years as a chaplain, specifically as a hospice chaplain, taught me a lot, and that I knew, but one of the things I learned from that time is that for a great number of people, perhaps the majority of the people with whom I worked, the hardest day was not the day a loved one died.  The hardest day was after you slept and you woke up realizing that life as you knew it was forever changed.  This was the day you needed to start living your life without a person who was important to you, whether you loved and were loved well and joyfully, or whether it was a challenging and fraught relationship.  This was the day you woke up and had to live the changed life.

When I think about Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimithea (and others depending upon the Gospel you read) who go to bed on the Good Friday and wake up the next morning and this man for whom they risked their safety, this man about whom it has become crystal clear that his message of hope and salvation and love and inclusion and all of things Jesus was and stood for was dangerous, exceedingly dangerous.  It was as dangerous as being an insurrectionist and murder, as was Barrabas, who was supposed to hang on a cross but doesn’t, who was freed just before Jesus went to the cross.  They have devoted part of their lives at least, the fullness of their lives I would guess, to be pretty public about their belief in Jesus, who he is, and what his life and his ministry means to the world, or at least their little corner of the world.

Wow!  What a day today must have been.  He’s gone.  You’ve lost this person that you’ve loved.  Your mentor.  Your rabbi.  Your friend.  You’ve lost the person you believed was the Messiah, the one who was going come and bring to fulfillment the promises and covenants with God.  And you have to live this day also knowing that it was dangerous to be Jesus and by extension it is dangerous to live your life as a follower of Jesus, and yet they do.

We have the benefit of these many years of knowing that this statement that Jesus made that he was going to rise again on the third day was more than just bravado, was more than just a way of saying, “You think you can kill me.  You think you can quash these dreams.  You think that this rebellion and this revolution can be stopped, but I’m going to tell you that’s not true.”  We know it was more than that.  We know that this tomb they were envisioning, that perhaps they were visiting on this day, would be empty.  But they didn’t know it.  They had to plan for what life would be like without him.  And given their devotion to him, I imagine that they were having to think about living without him as they tried to their best to live their lives as he would have them to live.

And that’s what I think is to important for us on this Holy Saturday.  For us to envision our life as followers of Jesus, the one whom we believe, we believe in, and, hopefully, have all had at least some little experience of face-to-face.  But the reality is that we are not the people with whom he roamed the Judean and Galilean countryside.  We are not the people with whom he shared an actual meal.  We are not the people who got to sit at his feet, anointing them.  We are not the man who said, “Hey, I just bought a new tomb.  Let’s use it for this man.”  We are not the women who went to prepare the oils and the spices for his burial. 

But that doesn’t make our heart’s desire to be followers of Jesus any different or for us to think about, on this day in particular, what that looks like.  What does it look like for us as we walk from the cross to the tomb and then away from the tomb?  The questions his friends would have had on that first Holy Saturday – that day when they woke up and knew without a shadow of a doubt that life was forever changed because they had lost somebody they loved, the person they committed to follow – those questions are part of our story. And those are questions each of us should be taking a look at, praying with, ruminating on, and figuring out does it look like without the man, beside us, the flesh and blood man.  What does it mean to love Jesus, to be loved by Jesus, and to live our lives as an expression of the phenomenally good news that that is?  Amen.

Triduum 2023, Day 2: Good Friday

This is my sermon from Good Friday. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Good Friday was Judges 11:29-40, Psalm 22, Hebrews 12:1-4, Luke 22:14-23:16, 18-56.

Several years ago, shortly before Holy Week, I listened to an interview on NPR with Nick Hughes, a photojournalist who directed and co-produced 100 Days, a feature film about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  There was immense sorrow in Hughes’ story and also a touch of hopefulness about a future in which such things as genocide will cease to be.  Perhaps because we were about to enter into Holy Week, this interview touched my heart in a way few others have done.

Hughes talked about how UN soldiers, aid workers, ex-pats, and others who were there on the ground witnessing the horror did little or nothing to help the people. He said “All of them betrayed the Rwandan people.” He talked about how, when push came to shove, these people put themselves and even their dogs first and left the Rwandan people – people with whom they had been living and working – to be slaughtered.  It clearly was a story of immense fear in the face of political power and authority willing to sacrifice innocent people to make a point – their point. He talked honestly, with the still raw emotions he carried evident, about his part in doing nothing or little to help the people. 

What he did do was his job, which was to capture what was happening on film.  His job as a journalist was not to interfere or change history, even a history as horrific as genocide. 

He struggled to see how what he did as he attempted to bring to the world the reality of what was happening to millions of people made any difference at all.  He agonized over what he didn’t do, which would have been to step outside his job to try to intervene. He conceded there is some hope if, and I quote, “there’s some belief that Rwandans are human beings amongst an international audience.”

In that interview, Nick Hughes was struggling to forgive himself and to believe he is worthy of forgiveness.  He acknowledged he could not go back and change what happened.  He said, “There is no redemption.  You can’t go back.  Those people are dead, and it will happen again.”

I was struck by how his story of genocide resonated with the Passion of Christ.  As we hear the Passion story and put it in the context of what we know about people then and people now, it seems some things have not changed all that much. 

We continue to struggle with how to do what is good, what is right in the face of evil and political power. 

We continue to put our own plans or needs first, even when faced with almost unimaginable crisis, even when others are literally dying.

We continue to act or, in some cases, not act in ways that ensure the status quo, from which we benefit, is not overturned.

We let our comfort and our fear inform and shape our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in ways that are contrary to the Gospel.

And we continue to wrestle with what that means for us as a people.

In today’s Gospel, Judas and Peter – the one who betrayed Jesus and the one who denied him – don’t sound all that different from the UN soldiers, aid workers, ex-pats, and journalists Hughes talked about.   Afraid of what it would mean to them and how it would change their lives if they spoke up for what is right, one betrayed the one person who could truly make a difference, and the other denied even knowing him.

And then there’s Pilate. He clearly did not agree with what was happening but kind of threw his hands up in the air as if helpless, rather than stand up to the crowds.

And then there are the crowds. It hardly seems possible that no one felt or thought what was happening to Jesus was wrong, and yet we see that kind of behavior all the time in this country. How many acts of violence against our black and brown-skinned siblings, our LGBTQ+ siblings, or our children sitting in schools must we witness before we do what is necessary to stop the violence, to save a life?

Even Joseph of Arimathea, who stepped in to care for Jesus after the crucifixion, sounds a little bit like Hughes and the others who told the story after millions had been slaughtered.  Well-intentioned, perhaps, but in no way did their witness make a difference to the men, women, and children who lost their lives.  And yet, the willingness to do these things is not insignificant.  It says something profound about how we see ourselves, perhaps who we hope we could be all the time.

Nick Hughes said there is no redemption in the story of the Rwandan genocide.  What has been done is done; period, end of story.  And that is where the stories of the genocide and the Passion move in such different directions.  That’s the difference between how we see and respond to things and how God is and does.

With Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, there is no “period, end of story.” It’s a story that continues for all time. The hope we hold is that we will be able to experience the promise of the love of God, who would willingly sacrifice himself upon the cross so that we might experience that love and God’s presence in our lives in new ways.  It is through Jesus’ offering of himself that we are able to better understand the immense love of God for each and every one of us. It is through Jesus’ offering of himself that we are forgiven and redeemed.

So today we remember the crucifixion of Jesus. We sit in the sorrow, the emptiness, the bleakness. In the starkness of the prayers and the depth of the silences, we are mindful, perhaps painfully so, of the choice Jesus made to let himself be crucified.  In this we see our worst selves.  This can be hard to bear, yet sit with it we must if we are to fully experience Easter and the opportunity to see ourselves as God sees us, worthy of a love beyond our capacity to fully imagine.    

In the gift of this striking contrast is the hope that we might all make the choices that would enliven, empower, and embolden us to be people who would actively work to prevent harm from coming to any of God’s people at any time, in any place, for any reason. 

And in this gift is the hope that we will all come to know ourselves deserving of forgiveness and redemption.  Amen.

Triduum 2023 Day 1: Maundy Thursday

This is my sermon from Maundy Thursday, We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year A. The lectionary for Maundy Thursday was Exodus 15:11-21, Psalm 136:1-16, Hebrews 11:23-28, and Matthew 26:17-56.

Maundy Thursday is one of those heartbreakingly hopeful days. We have Jesus’ betrayal by one of his friends. We have Peter saying, “Oh, yeah. I’ll stay awake. I won’t deny you.” And we know that doesn’t happen to be true. And we have all the others, the other ten disciples, who are there, and Jesus is saying, “My friends, this is such a hard night. Would you please just be with me? Stay awake with me in my torment.” Even those who knew Jesus best, who loved him, who had given up so much to be with him in a time in which, clearly, it was dangerous to be with Jesus, even those who had made that kind of commitment, couldn’t stay true to it when “the rubber hit the road.” Their own needs, their own brokenness, their own fatigue, all of their own stuff overpowered what it was that they wanted, what they needed, what they knew they had with Jesus.

I think about that because it’s such a great allegory about what it means to be a disciple in 2023. It’s really easy to say, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus. I love my church community. I love God’s people.” And for each of us there’s that point at which something about who we are and what we need prevents us from going that one step closer, that one step deeper into the heart of God, because that’s just who we are. We are not perfect people. We are not perfect disciples. As faithful as we are, it is always an ongoing journey, it’s a work in progress, if you will. I think that actually is more than just okay because it is when we choose to continue to be the work in progress, each time we make that choice we’re choosing to follow Jesus, we’re choosing to be faithful.

But it’s still sad. I’m sure it’s the same for some of you: I keep wishing I could wake up one day and be the perfect follower of Christ, and have all the stuff I have to pray that God forgives me for to go “Poof,” to be gone, because my heart’s desire is to be the perfect follower of Christ. But, alas, humanly made, it is what it is. That’s the heartbreaking part of it.

The hopeful part of it for me, as told in this story from Matthew, is the breaking of the bread. Maundy Thursday is the day we in the church believe Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist. This is the day that Sacrament – which is one of two we have in the Episcopal Church, the other being Baptism – this Sacrament that reminds us that we are a part of Jesus and Jesus is a part of us in a way we can’t fully understand because it is a holy mystery of what it is that we are actually doing when we say prayers over bread and over wine, when we come together and a priest says, “The Body of Christ, the bread of salvation” or similar words. It’s something we can’t understand, yet we know to be true.

As we move through the Triduum, the days between now and Easter morning, let’s us be mindful that there is something truly holy about paying attention to the rhythms of this week, paying attention to the fact that on Maundy Thursday Jesus gave us two incredible gifts: one being the Eucharist, the Table fellowship with Jesus; the other being the footwashing, when Jesus kneels at the feet of his friends and tends to their bodies. We have these two gifts of grace, which we get at the same time as our human brokenness is flashing like neon lights. The cock crows three times and just as Jesus said, Peter betrays him. Jesus says, “One of you is going to betray me,” and Judas says, “It isn’t going to be me,” and then, lo and behold, in comes the betrayer and it’s Judas.

The great hope – it’s the hope we carry through Good Friday and Holy Saturday and into Easter – is that this promise that God has given us to be with us always, to redeem us from our sin, to transform our lives so we become more the disciples of Christ that we would want to be, that promise is right there with us, even as we’re doing some pretty awful things. That doesn’t give us a bye on the pretty awful things, but it does remind us that God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. God loves us because God is perfect. And that is one of the things that is said in this Gospel, “No what I want but what you do.” All of this is, as much as we might want it, is possible for us because God is who God is and God does what God does. These three days remind us of that in a that reminds us of that in a way no others in our history have or ever will. Amen.