Preached at Church of the Ascension in Knoxville, Tennessee
This week as I read and studied, preparing to be with you today on theological education Sunday, I thought a lot about a particular moment in my discernment process. The path to ordination is a long one, full of prayerful meetings and questions and conversations that help make a community decision about a call. In the fall of 2015, my husband, Austin, and I were having a particularly busy and full season of life. We were each writing a master’s thesis, taking graduate classes and working three jobs between us. We had been invited to and were nervously anticipating the Commission on Ministry Retreat, where Brett and Bart, Bishop George, and other kind and wise folks in the diocese would talk with us both and make a decision of whether I’d be moved forward as a postulant. And to top it off, I had that thrilling and terrifying inkling I was pregnant. (I was)
But in those three weeks before meeting with the commission, and week before I could get results from a pregnancy test, amidst the writing and editing and studying, distracted and pulled in all directions by my community, work, family, call–I ended up going on my first silent retreat. To be perfectly honest? I kind of hated it. It was hard. It was just so quiet. I had this huge project I was supposed to be working on, and two huge life circumstances unfolding, and I was keeping my lips zipped, working puzzles and walking in the woods with the passionist nuns.
Of course, you know, this was exactly what I needed. The pause in busyness took some adjusting, but after a while peace overtook me. I came back from the woods clear-headed, well-rested, and ready to do the work at hand.
Our gospel reading today is about this very thing, the dance between work, community, and that quiet space with God.
We hear today from the gospel of Mark, the most action-packed of the four gospels. This is the story for jumping in and getting going. The miracles described in Mark, these quick snapshots of divinely empowered, radical actions, show us that Jesus’ ministry is all about God’s kingdom come. Mark is not alone in its attention to the Kingdom of God. But while Matthew and Luke focus more on parables and illustrations and teaching of what the kingdom of God is like, Mark has more doing than talking, more showing than telling what God’s kingdom is about. The writer of this gospel uses words like “quickly” and “immediately,” moving from one scene cut straight to the next. It’s the comic book version of the gospels. More than dialogue and teaching, focused on Jesus’ dramatic, miraculous acts—healing and feeding and casting out demons. Mark shows us Jesus, man of action, challenging and confronting and healing. Christ is on the move!
But when we wonder about the work of “thy kingdom come,” we can remember that it comes “on earth.” Those almost otherworldly miracles are balanced out by the Mark’s ordinary earthiness. Mark writes about local politics. Mark writes about squabbles between friends, about sickness and health, and road trips, and snooty church people, and mothers in law. It is a book full of ordinary details that put Jesus in his context. And like all truly good stories, the particularity of this gospel connects, somehow, to us in a universal way. This gospel begs us to put ourselves into the story.
Last week we read that Jesus brought healing to the man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, and his fame began to spread around the area. That healing leads us into the scene today. Jesus and his friends head to Simon’s house, a home base, where there is both rest and need for work. The matriarch is sick and needs help. That night Jesus is back to work in the larger community, healing sickness and rebuking demons. And then, the next morning, before the sunrise, he disappeared alone to pray and be, before he and his friends set out on their mission in Galilee. Mark shows us a 24 hour birds eye view of Jesus’ life and work: God in Christ is at the synagogue, home, community, in the wilderness, and on the road. We see God at work in crowds, family, community, and the individual. His body, attention, and spirit shift from one focus to the next, fluid through these ten verses.
All that movement, trying to follow with our eyes, then our hearts and whole selves, reminds me of dancing. But not professional dancing, not the pros on tv. It reminds me of the kind of wholehearted, attentive, and thoroughly amateur contra dancing I’ve seen at community centers. Contra dancing is a form of dancing that originated in Western Europe in the 1700’s. It’s a group and partner dance, more fluid and circular than a square dance, and led by a “caller” who gives directions for the steps and movement of the group. My dad, sister, and I went once, years ago, to a contra dance in an old school gym in Chattanooga. It was stunning and confusing and graceful and fast. The dancers move their limbs and rotate, change partners, and spin in circles, the small one with their partner, and the larger shape of the whole room in motion. We watched for a long time before joining in, and it was a long time still before we began to get the hang of the thing.
When we see this action-packed, miracle working Jesus, turning this way and that, working and moving, teaching and healing, and remember that as disciples we are called to be part of this, too, we wonder how this story fits with the work that lies ahead of us. We know the church is God’s body in the world. We are meant to be the sign of hope, the enactment of incarnation and resurrection, the doers of justice and lovers of mercy. The psalm today tells us what’s entailed in this enormous call to participate in the kingdom: the work of God is building up Jerusalem, gathering outcasts, healing the brokenhearted, and lifting up the downtrodden. When we wonder how it fits with our lives and work we might feel exhilarated, hopeful, or maybe confused, overwhelmed. How can we live into our call and join in this dance of mission, when there is just so much on the to-do list this week?
But the good, good news of today’s gospel reading is that the powerful kingdom of God at hand and the regular old to-do list aren’t as far apart as they seem. The snapshot of Jesus’ day reminds us that it is good and right to tend to first things first. We have to rest and pray and get centered for the day’s work. We have to take care of our homes and families. We have to tend the nearest communities. The whole city gathered outside of Simon’s house, waiting for the Healer to come. The whole city of Knoxville is there, waiting for the church to do her work. But we pause, rest, nurture, prioritize. We care for our community, our home base, in time of transition or need. And we do this not for the sake of the community, for the sake of the church itself. One pair of contra dancers refusing to move, turn, and exchange for a new hand is a boring and lonely dance indeed. As the late archbishop William Temple noted, “ “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” The kingdom of God is in the meal planning and the carpools, the errands and banking and newsletters. The kingdom of God is in the vestry meeting and the Bible study, growing and building in and among us, so that when the right moment comes, we can turn and swing out and offer a ready hand to others.
Best of all, the proclamation of Isaiah reassures us that this work really isn’t ours. After all, we will grow tired and weary. The kingdom is God’s. And as we seek to be a part of that, living members of God, we will be human and limited. We must love our families and take care of the first things first. We practice tenderness to ourselves, through the spiritual disciplines to sustain this work and remain open to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We must not grow tired of doing good, but continue, in ways large and small, to building up the community, gathering outcasts, healing the brokenhearted, and lifting up the downtrodden.
Today I want to leave with you a prayer given at the funeral of Fr. Oscar Romero, composed by Fr. Ken Utener. Oscar A. Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador was assassinated while celebrating Mass for his life of prophetic witness and commitment to justice in El Salvador. This prayer honors his life, and reminds us of our own small work to do: at home, at church, in the city and the world.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Can we chat for just a sec about the mama/minister struggle? (If you aren’t up for a struggle ramble this morning, move along and peace be with you: I’ll post a sermon tomorrow!)
I was scheduled to preach at my sponsoring parish yesterday, something that is always equal parts joy and challenge. I love preaching, and I love going home, and I love that St. Luke’s welcomes me to the pulpit a few times a year, but getting to Cleveland is hard sometimes — either to take S solo, or for the organizer hubs to make space in his hectic work to solo parent at home or come along with us.
Then, on Saturday, S woke up from his afternoon nap sick. Like, grouchy, feverish, and not his normal self. I called the pediatrician, but they couldn’t get us in until Sunday morning. Thank God for a weekend appointment at all! I took the appointment, Austin came home early from a community event, and I loaded up and got on the road to my parents’ house to stay over before getting up bright and early to make to the 8:00 Rite I.
Y’all. Sunday was so great.
It was a sermon that was a “good enough” sermon, a sermon written with intention and prayer, but also a lot of time constraints and without the benefit of the Saturday afternoon polish.
But! But! The service was one of those when you get to a peaceful Spirit place right before the processional; when your body actually lets go of the shaky tight nervousness; when the presiding priest just casually reminds everyone that we’re here and Jesus is here and so it’s all good, really, and you believe it; when God is speaking in you and through your work but also in spite of you. I even had a meaningful conversation about theology and discipleship during coffee hour — basically the bigfoot sighting of parish ministry.
Afterward, I got in the car and checked my phone, called my partner to see how things were going.
Y’all. Sunday was so bad. Double-ear-infection-hundred-degree-fever-crying-all-night bad. I broke the speed limit so, so hard all the way back up I-24. My poor boys, one so sick and helpless, and the other handling the hardest kind of solo parenting and not calling to tell me, so that I could have that good ministry morning.
Sometimes it feels like you can’t win — and I know this is all working mamas, not just the pastor ones. Usually the ache of time away isn’t so obvious: so guilt ridden, so geographically separated, so feverish.
I was finishing up my MDiv at Vanderbilt when I was pregnant, and met weekly for a seminar group to debrief our field placements. Bless those folks, they got a much bigger dose of pregnancy angst than ministerial reflection from me. I remember saying something about knowing that I would have to protect my child from my vocation–saying no to a work that will sometimes take everything you offer and more–and protect my vocation from my child–in a culture that still has many voices denouncing my call as a woman and is more comfortable with a mama than a lady priest (much less a combo of the two).
I had no idea. No idea.
I didn’t realize how distressing and complicated that would be, what it would mean to do that dual protecting.
Thankfully, I also didn’t realize what an ally I have in my partner, and how quickly I’d learn grace for myself when I can’t nail it.
So, readers — especially my priests, pastors, preachers, parents — when has this happened to you? What mantra and faith got you through? How do you have grace for yourself when you get the balance wrong? Who are your allies who get you through intact?
P.S. Baby is on the mend. Our pediatrician is great. Coffee is great. So is Elmo’s World in a time of trial.
P.P.S. In case this needs saying, I use essential oils on my kid to support his health. Sometimes I also use antibiotics and ibuprofen. Plants are good. Science is good. You do you, mamas.
Last year I had the joy of hearing Rowan Williams speak at my seminary. My partner had introduced me to his work years ago, and it was incredible to hear him in person, lecturing on Bonhoeffer’s Christology. After the first lecture, a listener posed a question to Williams about the sadism of the incarnation, God sending God’s child to pain, and how we can contend with the portrayal of divine willingness to suffer. Williams owned that this was a weak place in his theology, and moved on to address other questions. I was sitting with S slung on my chest, next to a friend and mentor who is a priest and mama. I grabbed her arm tight and whispered, “A mother can answer that question!”
What else could I do but split my mind, spirit, and body wide open and send him out into the world? What else could I do but feed him, again and again, sometimes easily and sometimes painfully? What else could I have done? And I would–and God willing, hope to–do it again in an instant.
How much more must our Mother in Heaven know that nothing else could be done but to send a piece of herself out into the world, to nourish and watch him grow, to then feed us, her people, in Christ, again and again?
The oils used at the very end of pregnancy to support healthy labor and delivery are the same ones that can be used to slow milk supply. Over the last couple of months I would lay on my side at night, soaked in peppermint and clary sage. Drifting off to sleep I would remember the discomfort of those last heavy pregnancy days and feel empty and light as the herbs slowly work to untether our last bodily lifeline.
We were lucky. Nursing was good for us. After a rough first few weeks and a tongue-tie procedure we were on track. S was a good eater and I had good supply. I nourished him and we bonded easily, deeply. I was only apart from him one or two days a week in his first year. The connection was the same and different each time. It changed from the early weeks where I did so much of the work, to the end where the toothy toddler would crawl over and sign for milk, pulling on the hem of my shirt, practically helping himself. First every two hours, then three, then four, then morning and evening, then once in the afternoon when we reunited from work and daycare.
We were lucky, too, that weaning was good for us. We were both ready. He wasn’t distressed, and I wasn’t engorged or infected. Nursing just faded away.
I’m a firm believer that some knowledge is embodied–cellular, behavioral, and elusively unspeakable. Those wild pregnancy cravings that were supplying nuanced nutrients to grow a body; the milk coming in and letting down on its own accord when it was time for S to eat; and those first days, nursing through lingering contractions as my womb worked to resume its size and place in the pelvis; my body waking up, feet hitting the floor and moving to his crib before he had finished the first cry. All unconscious, unarticulated. A growing and refining but fundamentally innate knowing.
What have I been knowing in my body about the heart of God, about incarnation, about Eucharist, that is now unknown?
When I neared the end of my pregnancy with S., I had this horrible thing called prodromal labor. Basically this means that for the last three weeks of pregnancy, I would have contractions off an on, ten minutes apart and lasting for hours (even a day or two) that would suddenly… stop. Nothing.
If you haven’t had this, there is absolutely no way to explain how maddening and exhausting it is.
The midwives cheerfully told me that my body was hard at work and the baby would come in time. Yeah yeah yeah. They said, “If you think you’re in labor, go for a walk. Then drink a big glass of water and eat a snack. Take a bath. Take a nap. Then wait. And then, if things are still happening, you might be in labor.”
This was the most annoyingly simple, obvious, and profound advice. And as much as I spiraled through emotions, bouncing myself silly on a labor ball, absolutely willing that baby out, this list of fundamental mind-body caretaking never failed in revealing what was happening. And of course, eventually I did all these things, the contractions continued on, and I had a baby the next morning.
Aside from the temporary plague of prodromal labor, I also contend with a more long-standing struggle with anxiety and Really Big Emotions. When things are a little out of balance and I’m not caring for myself, anxious thoughts and Big Emotions can feel like reality (when they’re usually just, well, thoughts and emotions). Over the last several months when I feel this coming, I return to the midwives’ advice, and in these small acts of bodily nurture, I can listen to my spirit, hone back in on wise mind, and see what is really happening.
So, how are you doing? Is it too much to manage? Does it feel like things are out of control or changing too fast?
Go for a walk.
Drink a big glass of water.
Eat a snack.
Take a bath.
Take a nap.
Nurture your flesh. Listen to your spirit, the Spirit.
Diffusing some Grounding essential oil blend: white fir, spruce, ylang ylang, pine, cedarwood, angelica, juniper
Sermon—The Third Sunday in Pentecost
1 Kings 17:8–24; Psalm 30; Luke 7:11–17
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville
5 June 2016
This winter I got a fresh perspective on Ash Wednesday. As an intern at St. Augustine’s Chapel, I helped behind the scenes for two of the three services and I walked through the holy seasons of Lent and Easter immersed in the workings of the church and liturgy more than ever before. Not to be too melancholy, but Ash Wednesday is actually one of my favorite holy days in our liturgical calendar. When our priests put the ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday palms on our foreheads and remind us “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I find it consoling. It’s very healthy. It re-centers me in my smallness and humanity, and gently reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect. The psalmist says, “God remembers that we are only dust.” We are the ones who forget and need this reminder. The Ash Wednesday liturgy allows me to see myself truly in my humanness,and allows me go on to receive the resurrection of Easter with all its overwhelming glory and strangeness.
But this year, five months pregnant at Ash Wednesday, terrible thought occurred to me—my son is also dust, and to dust he shall return. That, I cannot accept. That thought does not free me or bring me peace. I can face the spiritual practice of reckoning with my finitude, but not with his. I need him to be perfect and healthy and strong and live forever, right? So this year, as A. and I prepare to watch our hearts wander out in the world in this boy, Ash Wednesday did not feel centering, and Easter didn’t offer the final consolation that I wanted.
And as I find myself called upon to preach texts of two women, widows, with dead sons, and I can’t help but think about Ash Wednesday and the son I’m carrying, no matter how much I really don’t want to. I have to and I hate to entertain empathy with these women, to put myself in their position. No matter how the story ends—and it ends really well—that’s not quite good enough, is it? When I begin to meditate on and enter imaginatively into these tales, I enter into every new parent’s new greatest nightmare.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “Preaching is not something a minister does for fifteen minutes on Sundays, but what the whole congregation does all week long; it is a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.” Now that’s a lovely idea. I like that preaching happens in the world, and is something we all do together—but I don’t know what we might do with it here. When I think about these stories of death and resurrection, first in the Hebrew Bible, and then echoed throughout the gospel passage, it is surprisingly difficult for me to glean God from the text. I can connect to fear and grief, but it’s difficult for me to translate the good news when these miracles are so far removed from our lived experience, so different from what I’ve seen—painless and miraculous bodily healing is scarce, and such an instance of bodily resurrection is unknown to me. How do these narratives fit into our lives, and how can we make sense of them in a way that doesn’t cheapen either the truth of the gospel or the suffering of our bodies and the suffering of our grief? It’s hard to walk into these texts, but we must. They are part of our community story and I think this strange, sufficient insufficiency of this gospel, of a perfect, eternal life that is already here, but not quite, and waiting for us in fullness farther along—that is the heart of the Gospel. It is what we mean when we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
These two stories—the widows, the sons, the resurrection from death—are more than just a coincidence of our lectionary. They’ve been paired together on purpose, as scholars of the New Testament see a thread of Elijah in Luke’s descriptions of Jesus—Luke’s early audience would have seen the set up of this story and thought of the prophet immediately. So in reading the two stories together, we know that Luke wants to show that there’s something about Jesus that’s different than what past prophets and bearers of God have shown us.
To start with the Hebrew Bible, and keeping this in mind, I feel pretty bad for Elijah. Do you think he was bluffing? I’m not so sure that Elijah knew what was going to happen in this situation, that he had any certainty that this was going to turn out alright. (We do, of course. We read the bible with subheadings, and we can see the formulas unfolding in the story) He seems like someone who is desperate, haunted by the weight of his past suffering.
The poor guy keeps getting out of bad situations by the skin of his teeth. He finds refuge with the widow and her son. Seeing the miracle of replenishing oil and flour—but oh, you know they worried every single day whether it would be there, who wouldn’t?—maybe he is finally getting a sense of God’s presence and provision when it all comes crashing down with an untimely death and the widow’s accusation: You brought this! She is falling apart, rightly so, at the death of her son. Elijah isn’t doing much better. He takes the body of her boy away into the other room and is praying frantically. I’m struck by the word calamity. “My God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow?” There is so much overwhelm and anxiety in his speech. He stretches his own body against the son, crying out, and to me this seems less like some kind of formula or conjure, some form of healing prayer, and more the desperation of encountering untimely death, wanting against all odds for it not too be true.
And we’ve been there, right? When you get that phone call that knocks the breath out of you and crumbles you to your knees? When you feel so broken and grieved that you would lay your own body down if it would make any difference? We hope against hope, like our desperate prophet here, and fling ourselves into the grace and power of God.
Then we move to Luke and see that Elijah’s desperation, his need for something bigger in that moment, points us to Christ. In the gospel reading, we see a different posture from Jesus. Elijah comes into the story solitary and depleted, perhaps anxiously anticipating a different sort of reception and provision from God, perhaps disappointed that his provision comes from a poor woman with barely enough oil and flour for breakfast. But Jesus has just healed the centurion’s boy and comes upon the grieving widow as part of a joyful crowd.
Just as he weeps at the death of his friend Lazarus, he is moved by the broken hearts. He is human with us, has compassion on this woman and suffers with her. And in confidence, rather than distress, Jesus addresses her boy: “Young man, I say to you, rise!” then gives the son to his mother, gives both of them back to the land of the living.
Can you even imagine what these mothers and sons might have talked about over breakfast the next morning? How long would it take to wrap their minds around what had happened, if they ever could? People would line up outside to peek in the windows and see whether the rumors were true! And one day, these widows’ sons’ funerals would happen again, another afternoon years later, and the mourners would tell this wild story of a young boy and his grieved mother, given a new lease on life by the prophet, by the strange Galilean.
And that’s just the thing—there will be another funeral. These stories don’t show us an impartation of immortality or magic. They show us perfectly imperfect resurrections. Both of these boys and their mothers go on to die and grieve another day, and we aren’t told what joys and sorrows wait for these families over the rest of their lives. This miracle doesn’t show us a squeaky clean resolution to all suffering. It is both overwhelmingly enough, abundance and life, and it is also a delay of the inevitable. It’s an imperfect resurrection that points us back to Christ, whose resurrection from the dead shines in ten thousand places, giving hope for life eternal, both after death and in the present moments of life.
Rowan Williams writes that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ “is the abiding sign of God’s presence in the world. The empty grave, that strange and ambivalent sign, stands as our reminder that the life of Jesus is not over, not limited and defined and tidied up. He is with us. In every extremity, every horror and pain, Jesus is accessible as the one who continued to make God’s loving presence wholly present in the depth of his own anguish and abandonment…This is the Lord, God in flesh, God made known in history, God fearing, struggling and suffering; the only God we know or can know, the glory of God in the face of Christ, love and healing in human hands and eyes—how else could we grasp it?”
How else can we gasp the resurrection but in these imperfect and fleeting ways? We find God’s loving presence wholly present in the creation of new songs that Becca called us to last week. In those Easter wildflowers in front of the A-Frame, taking root and taking over those garden beds. There is a small, imperfect resurrection in asking the forgiveness of our partners and children when we’ve failed, and starting over again the next moment or the next morning. And there are cruel, serious resurrections: the family I worked with as a pediatric chaplain who, after losing their little girl, courageously chose organ donation—a small spot of resurrection in the midst of grief and death. There is an imperfect resurrection in the work of an amazing cellist, Vedran Smailovic of the Sarajevo orchestra. He sets up his music stand at the scenes of terrorism and bombing in his community and plays beautiful music in tribute and grief—a small but powerful act of resurrection resistance to suffering and death. All of these small resurrections, incomplete moments of hope in the the midst of our human condition remind us that against all odds, God’s grace is sufficient. The imperfect resurrections point us back to this larger story: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.