Christ the what?

Colossians 1:15-20
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:36–37
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

Did we read the right gospel? Isn’t today Christ the KING?

Isn’t today a baptism? We’ve got two little sweet peas over here and we’re reading about the crucifixion?

Today is the day of the liturgical year when we particularly recognize the reign of Jesus Christ, the power of God among us in and through all things.

But the image of Jesus that we are given in the gospel to understand that he is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation,
in him all things were created,
he is before all things,
in him all things hold together,
he is the head of the church,
he is the beginning,
the firstborn in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…

And the gospel tells us that we see and know and understand Jesus Christ in the moment of his suffering, his dying, his humiliation.

We might feel angst at the distance between Colossians and Luke, the beautifully poetic proclamation of Christ’s greatness on one hand and the ugliness of cruelty, pain, mocking, and death on the other. But that tension is the deepest and hardest truth of our baptism. We join Jesus through the story of his suffering and we join him in resurrection life.

So today’s proclamation of the power and glory of Christ Jesus is not power and glory as we might expect it. It’s not celebrity or wealth or unquestioned control. Power and glory, success, flourishing, all take on a different meaning in the gospel, in this baptismal life. And we see that most of all, the reign of Christ is over the hearts and minds and lives of those who commit to follow in his radical way of love. 

In baptism, we make vows to move away from evil and harm, from power over others, and commit to trust in and proclaim God’s grace and love as we have known it through Jesus. We promise to seek out that divine presence in other people and celebrate it in one another, to make God among us the defining feature of our common life.  In a culture that preaches louder and more, that cajoles us to buy and upgrade into happiness, to only look out for ourselves or those nearest to us, these promises of baptism make about as much sense as a criminal king, an executed god.

These families choose to baptize their children and commit them to this strange, counterintuitive life. They are promising to do everything you can to raise their children to give themselves away, to live lives of loving and peacemaking.  They are handing them over to die and rise with Christ. They give them to this community and acknowledge that they are not theirs alone, and that can be a frightening thing.

It is certainly a solemn thing, as it is for all of us who will make these promises again this morning, to hear these frightening words from the gospel and give ourselves to this story, this discipleship.

But take one hand, if you are able, and put it on your heart.
Take another hand, if you are able, and put it on your belly.
Breathe a little bit deeper.
Hear the Holy Spirit breathing and speaking her peace and power to you.
Hear the Spirit affirming that this hard road of love,
this upside down way of Christ our King,
this path is the only one that leads to resurrection.
This is the way of love.

When we put this baptism into practice, and allow the Spirit, as the old hymn says, to tune our hearts to sing God’s grace, we might begin to have the courage to live fully in Christ, and see that his reign is in the most surprising and ordinary places.

The reign of Christ, the Kingdom of God, doesn’t look like the biggest crowd. It’s not the most money, the most likes and follows and retweets, it’s not the loudest voice or the most self-justifying logic. The kingdom of God, so the saying goes, belongs to the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, those who face trouble for doing the right thing.

The reign of Christ is here in the sock and button teddy bear our family received for our baby, a gift from an acquaintance and former classmate of mine serving a sentence in the maximum security prison outside Nashville, supplies bought at commissary mark up, then stitched and stuffed with so much love and attention for a baby he’ll never meet.

The reign of Christ is here in the dozens of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made each afternoon at the downtown library, when the librarians realized that their after school tutoring programs couldn’t help teenagers who are too hungry to learn.

The reign of Christ is here when you show up for a funeral.

It’s here when you’re wiping kids’ bottoms and mouths.

It’s here when you’re being a listening ear for someone going through difficulty.

The reign of Christ is here in the kernel of courage it takes to stand up to bullies. It’s here when you decide that the racist or transphobic joke stops here and now, and speak truth and love even when it’s hard.

The reign of Christ is here in 30 Thanksgiving dinners given by this parish to families through the Orchard Knob schools.

There are so many images and stories in the gospel accounts about this reign of Christ, and most of them are surprising. In one, you might remember Jesus’ disciples were wanting to sit at his left and right hands. They are jockeying for power positions with their teacher and friend. “Ahem, did you mention a Kingdom?” They want to make sure they have the most prestigious positions in it. In the gospel of Matthew, it’s the mother of James and John who asks Jesus to promote her sons. Now that’s embarrassing.

But what does Jesus tell them? Well, in Matthew and Mark he warns them of how hard this thing is, that they might not understand the strangeness of this kingdom. But in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus perceives that the guys are bickering over who’s the greatest, who gets to be the most powerful alongside King Jesus, you know what he does? Jesus puts his arm around a little child, and drawing the disciples’ attention to her, says, welcome this child in my name and you welcome me. The least is the greatest. This is the reign of Christ.

So as we receive these little ones today into the household of God, let us also receive them as icons of Christ to us. They are witnesses to the paradox of power and weakness, they are all the wonder of God in flesh among us, glory and power in the smallest and most unexpected places.

And as we celebrate the rule of Jesus Christ, and honor his everlasting power in and through all things, let’s follow the example of our littlest brother and sister at the font, and worship God in the rededication our lives to this baptism, to this way of love.

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today we start our annual journey into the wilderness of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. We fast and pray for forty days in his example of his desert wanderings and temptation. This is our season of ashes and covered crosses, of abstaining from alleluias and chocolate and baptisms and booze. This is a somber time when we accept the Christian tradition’s invitation to serious reflection and repentance, to mind-body-spirit preparation for death and life that we will experience in Holy Week. The Lenten preparation, this deep soul work of putting reflection into practice day after day, is especially important to deepening our faith and connection to the heart of the gospel, to the life and death of Jesus because, unlike the story of gospels, which leads one chapter to the next, from Gethsemane to the empty garden tomb, our lives, our journeys of suffering and death and resurrection, aren’t linear. Our liturgical observance captures a bit of this winding road. Throughout lent, throughout the season of repentance, of reckoning with our limits and mortality and failure, each Sunday is still a celebration of Easter, still our resurrection feast each week. And of course, we all know the days of reckoning with our limits and mortality, of hitting bottom and coming to deep repentance, don’t just happen during the appropriate season of lent, and we acknowledge this  in the church, too, when we repent and grieve and reflect together all year round.

Days of hurt and loneliness, those terrible Good Fridays, come when we least expect them. Days of emptiness and uncertainty, Holy Saturdays, pop up in our lives. But those Easters! The Easters come, too, don’t they? Sometimes they’re small, like the same old narcissus coming up in the yard again this year. And sometimes the Easters are glorious, life-changing: reconciliations and births and prison releases and remissions and falling in love. Not only is there no rhythm to them, but the Good Fridays and the Holy Saturdays and the Easter Sundays will sneak up on us all at the same time.

Like when you’re holding the newest baby in your family, and even though he’s been gone for years, you see your dad. His eyes have skipped generations and shown up on this little girl’s face, and you are so full of gladness for her and missing him terribly at the same time so that you can’t breathe? Or the feeling when you’re in the rubble of an ended relationship, figuring out what the new normal looks like, and one day realize with bittersweet satisfaction that your own solitary company is very good company. Or all those triumphs and setbacks of the journey of recovery, that slow healing of all tangled up pain and victory and knowing, practicing, that the key is in holding it all much more loosely than you want to.

We gather today and enter together into this season of honoring these good and hard things, life’s frightening and vulnerable things, of repenting, of doing our inner work with God. We do this so that we can be strengthened and grounded, more able to recognize that in the ordinary and extraordinary jumbled moments of death and resurrection, God is present with us. God is at work, and calling us to God’s work. We enter into the suffering and the death and in the resurrection with Christ himself.
Our experiences of death and the resurrection are always all together. And God knows this about us. God made these lives of jumbled up death and resurrection. The ashes are for us, not for God. We’re the ones who need the reminder. The Gospel reading makes clear that Jesus isn’t asking us to disfigure ourselves in prayer. God doesn’t need us here, kneeling and marked with the grave. Psalm 134 says it so tenderly: “God knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust.” But we need to remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We need to remember that on our own we are small, we are frail and failing.

This reminder, this mark of our dustiness, is something for us to pat ourselves on the back for, be proud of having been in church today. And it’s not so that we go about feeling terrible for ourselves. It’s not a sign of pride, but it’s also not meant to get us stuck in shame. Because remember? The Easters are all tangled up in the Lents and the Good Fridays.

When we know that resurrection life and death are always tied together, our practice of remembering our death, remembering our failures in repentance, can be, more than anything, a practice of trust. By taking this step of remembering we are dust, we are calling on God’s mercy with confidence, the psalmist says, in God’s steadfast love. We can take on the daunting work of the fast, entrusting our treasure and our hearts to God, because God is our understanding creator, our loving parent. We can bravely accept Isaiah’s call to loose the bonds of injustice because we know that the task of breaking yokes of oppression happens only with the guidance and strength of God’s Spirit, our constant companion. We can venture into the unspeakably vulnerable territory of speaking our sin and shortcomings because love divine is waiting for us in the wilderness, and that love divine wants us to be free, healed, and whole.

We don’t face our sin and stare down our death for the sake of sin and death. Sure, the ashes represent this, but they also point us to so much more. The poet Jan Richardson nudges us to thinking differently about our ashes. In an Ash Wednesday poem, she asks her readers, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”

“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The psalmist knew. When we remember we are dust, when we repent of our wrongdoing and turn to God to make us whole, God will teach us wisdom, restore us to joy, and make us living declarations of praise, of love and mercy.

“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The prophet knew. When we remember we are dust, when we let go our ambitious grasping to make space for neighbors in need, God will satisfy all our needs and rebuild us, and our light shall rise in the darkness.

Richardson’s poem goes on to say,

let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not by false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust.

Today, let us be marked by repentance, a repentance full of trust and hope. Yes, come and be marked by death, but a death that’s always, always pointing to resurrection. Let us be marked by what God can do with the dust.

FullSizeRender.jpeg

“Go in peace”

The stories of Mark 5:21-43 may be familiar to you. The dying girl and the hemorrhaging woman are two profound examples of God’s love, mashed together in one powerful chapter of God’s attention to healing and to the plight of women and children.

First I want to acknowledge that while they end in miraculous restoration, these stories are difficult. They are painful. They are painful and they are familiar.

If we pause for even one moment, offer the text one smidge of empathy, we can see ourselves here. We know these stories.

Our community has lost children too soon. Our community struggles with and cares for those who struggle with chronic illness. We have felt the desperation of Jairus,  advocating for his child. Like the woman, we know what it is to be sick and tired of being sick and tired.

And we have also seen that death and disease, grief and exhaustion, the depletion of our financial and emotional stores, is not the end of the story. They are not the end of our stories. We have seen that God doesn’t ration out God’s power and love, but that it is surprisingly abundant, plenty for us all.

I want us to focus this morning on the hemorrhaging woman who interrupts Jesus. This woman had suffered from ongoing menstruation for twelve years. Twelve years! We know that women’s reproductive health concerns aren’t always taken seriously in our own day and age, particularly for poor women and women of color. We can only imagine the struggle to be heard and treated with the limited medical knowledge and access of her time, no sonograms or blood tests to give clarity. When the problem first began, maybe she went to her local healer, but his treatment didn’t work. She was referred to another, and then another, and another physician. Their remedies ranged from harmlessly ineffective to miserable, some gave her other symptoms, worse than the sickness in the first place. We know that story. And without proper treatment, what would become any dream she might have had of a baby? We know that story, too.

In the culture and time of this gospel, there were guidelines for cleanliness and purity that pertained to women’s cycles. With bleeding that never stopped, she would have been continuously restricted in her religious participation with her community. She would have had to maintain a stringent hygiene regimen, going above and beyond with every interaction, every household chore, to avoid sharing her impure state with others. Modern medicine tells us that side effects of this type of condition would include dizziness and fainting, irregular heart rate, low energy, and, likely, continual physical pain. For 12 years.

We can’t know exactly how her community has responded to her sickness. People may have been offering her all the support and compassion they could, making meal trains and going to appointments. Or people may have been tired of offering her support, and offer only resentment or avoidance — the text doesn’t say. We do know that she had hit her limit. In spite of her overwhelming fear, in spite of all the social boundaries that said she should not, she was going to advocate for her healing, go straight to the best option for freedom.

She is sick and tired, and she’s had enough.

Now, the gospel of Mark is a rapid fire story, the comic book equivalent of the gospels. Everything happens quickly, and Jesus is on the move, the man of action. But in this portion of the text, he takes a passive and objective role as the bleeding woman takes center stage as our protagonist. This is her story. She is the one on the move, and this reversal of the script, so different than what we expect, fits with the way that she crosses boundaries and our expectations of what a Jesus-healing looks like.

She thinks, “If I can just get close enough, if I can just touch him, I’ll be ok.”

Can you see it? Close your eyes with me and imagine.

Imagine being tired, more tired than you’ve ever been in your life, and walking out into a bunch of people in the street. It’s a big crowd of people. You spot him in the center, but you’re on the edge of the group. You duck and move and squeeze between bodies, some of them strangers and some of them folks you’ve known your whole life, trying not to lose sight of him, trying not to lose your pace with the group. Your toes got stepped on, now you’re practically in this guys armpit over here, someone notices you and says hello, tries to draw you into conversation — but no, you won’t be distracted.

And then, just like that, he’s right in front of you. You grab the hem of his clothes, just a little brush, a moment, one finger skimming over fabric, and. . . .relief. You feel blood pressure stabilize, fuzzy thoughts clear and focus, strength surging through legs and trunk. Can you imagine it?

She went where she wasn’t supposed to go. She broke the rules. She crossed all kinds of boundaries to claim healing and flourishing. And when Jesus realizes what has happened, realizes that his power has gone, his boundary crossed…. he greets her with love.
He knows his own abundance — he goes on to raise the little girl, after all — he knew the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth, that “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
From the abundance of his own power and resources, Christ affirms her transgression, and greets her with love.

She broke the rules for the sake of safety and healing, to claim a future for herself, a connection to her family and community. Her self-advocacy and faith for her wholeness was the right thing! And Jesus honors her courage. “Your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

———–

Our church has the tradition of reading the letters of apostles, such as Paul, in worship. This morning I would like to conclude with a letter from one of our modern-day apostles, Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, published last week.

Right now our church and country has a chance to model ourselves after Jesus in this story. We have thousands of people crossing boundaries at great risk in hope of flourishing, safety, healing. As you listen, I invite you to hold in your heart and mind, our sister, the hemorrhaging woman, and her courage to seek a better life. I invite you to you to hold in your heart and mind, the assurance that the power of God, the compassion of God, the family of God, is far bigger and more abundant than we could imagine, more than enough for any human need.

From Bishop Michael:
“The screams of children being taken from their mothers and fathers at our border, under our flag, haunts the nation. Across political and religious divides, the nation – and the world – is aghast and Americans are refusing complicity in all the ways they can. Millions of people are crying, protesting and praying in our houses of worship and in the public square. In a moment of national shame, huge swaths of people are acting in love.

The families making treacherous and often dangerous journeys to seek refuge in the US are desperate. They face extreme violence, persecution and poverty in their home countries. You cannot deter people who are fleeing for their lives, even with policies as cruel as taking children away from their parents. People who come to our borders only hope to give their children a chance. We should be meeting these people with compassion.

Christians have recoiled against the notion that ripping children from their parents – euphemistically called “family separation” – in any way comports with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, his mother, Mary, and Joseph were refugees who fled persecution and emigrated to Egypt. Love thy neighbor is the Christian way. There is no biblical mandate or warrant for what is occurring on our borders. Christianity must never be confused with cruelty.
While the president has rightly declared families will no longer be separated at the border, he wrongly continues to promote a hurtful immigration policy greatly devoid of human compassion. Even with the new executive order, immigration officers will keep families who are legally seeking asylum in detention.

The agony of migrant parents at our border is immense. Every parent has feared the unthinkable: my child is gone. For me, it was a flash of dread in an everyday experience while shopping with my two young children in a department store. My oldest daughter wandered away and for the 10 seconds before I found her nestled between hanging clothes I felt a panic I had never before imagined.

Those remain the longest 10 seconds of my life and are seared in my memory. I can still taste the fear and I relive that sick feeling in my body remembering what it was like to be physically shaken by the fear that I had lost my daughter and would not be able to find her. Imagine those seconds multiplied by days and weeks and months.
Today, there remain thousands of children scattered in foster homes and child prison camps with no system in place for reunification. Each of these children needs our prayers, our voices of outrage and our help to reunite them with their families and heal from this terror. And the children who came before them, those who have crossed the border as children alone and some who were remanded to youth prisons that are under scrutiny for abusive practices – these children also need our intervention.

The rhetoric from our government leaders, which casts “the other” – in this case, families seeking refuge – as dangerous, inhumanely violates the Christian tradition. Selfishness is a sin. We cannot live up to our country’s ideals if we embrace only our own desires and put our needs above all others – even above God. Being a US citizen does not make us more human than people on the other side of our border.
We are in the midst of a global migration crisis, where millions of families have been separated after fleeing their homelands due to violence, conflict and persecution.

This crisis touches almost every continent in the world. The US is on track to resettle the fewest refugees since the refugee resettlement programme began in 1980. God does not condone our attack on immigrants. Jesus says: “Love your neighbour.” Jesus says: “Love your enemy.” Jesus says: “Welcome the stranger.”

What is the Christian way to manage borders? Strength does not require cruelty. Indeed, cruelty is a response rooted in weakness. Jesus was clear about what true strength is and it always is driven by love. There may be many policy prescriptions, but the prism through which we view them should be the same: does the policy treat people with love, acknowledging our common humanity? If the answer is no, it is not a Christian solution. Detaining and separating families – children and their parents – is not just happening at the border. Some immigrant parents and care-givers who have lived in the US for decades – and have children who are US citizens – are being rounded up and deported, leaving a trail of countless children in this country without their parents.

President Trump’s executive order has not quieted the cries of the children still separated from their parents. It has not comforted the parents still panicked because they cannot see their babies. It does nothing to stop the heartless deportations of immigrants who are longtime neighbors and members of our communities.

All of those families weep. And so we must respond to the weeping by working to help America to live out one of its core ideals, enshrined in words on the Statue of Liberty.
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Abundance and Surprise

This sermon was preached on June 17th at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga.
The Kingdom of God, the love of God at work, is like a great many different things and stories. It’s like a treasure in a field, it’s like a man searching for a sheep, it’s like a fishing net, it’s like baking bread. And today it’s like a plant that grows whether we tend it or not, and it’s an little bitty teensy weensy seed that stakes over the garden. There are so many parables, and they can be confusing. We know that Jesus had to explain them to his disciples again and again. Parables are meant to confound and challenge us with their rich images.
The Bible as a whole can be confusing. It’s full of contradictions and mixed metaphors. It’s a book with a complicated and ancient context that we try, each week and each day, to fit into life as we know it. We certainly may find ourselves in these parables, but Jesus gave us so many different stories and images because we cannot reduce and simplify God to one tidy approach. The reformed pastor and theologian Karl Barth wrote that trying to pin down God’s kingdom is like trying to capture a bird in flight. The moment we point it out, we’re already behind — that bird is soaring away, on the move, and we can only trace its path.
But I have to say this morning: there is one important thing we can count on when we come to the Bible. There is a crucial guiding question for making sense of what the Bible is saying to us in our time. It’s how we go about determining what exactly is “biblical.” And that question is this: “Am I understanding and applying the Bible in a way that leads me to better love God, and love my neighbor?” Are we growing in love of God and love of neighbor?
Do we read and apply the Bible as people transformed by the love of God? This love so abundant and unexpected and giving that it does not make sense in this world? The kingdom of God is among us, certainly in our personal spirituality, but also in the ways that we live together.
So, are we reading the Bible and applying it to our lives in a way that upholds violence, or brings peace? Do we use the Bible to tear families apart, or hold them together? Do we use the Bible to exclude others or welcome them? Are we reading the Bible with love?
The apostle Paul, one of our earliest companions in wrestling with and living by the Bible, wrote that love is the fulfillment of the law, love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is the fulfillment of God’s word, so as we wrestle with the meaning of today’s parables, we keep our eyes out for love.
God, have mercy on us and give us the ears to hear your word of love:
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…
It is like a mustard seed, sown upon the ground.”
What does planting seeds tell us about God’s transforming love?
Back in May our family went down to the beach in South Carolina, near Charleston, and while we were there, we got to visit with my aunt Lisa. She and my uncle live on a few acres near the marsh and grow a garden every year. It’s a massive plot, all this rich, dark, sandy earth, and they eat from the garden all summer and fall, and pickle and can jars so that they eat from their land all year. They’ve had a big, wild, experimental garden as long ago as I can remember, and every single year of gardening is different.
“So Lisa,” I say, “What’s in the garden this year?”
“Well, we’ve got okra and tomatoes, of course, and onions and radishes and carrots, and all the herbs and flowers. We’ve got some new corn varieties we’re going to try, and squash and zucchini, even though the zucchini wasn’t great last year. And we’re going to try garlic to keep the deer out. And you know, we’re going to do peanuts! We tried that years ago and it didn’t do a thing, but last year I did just one little half row of peanuts just for fun and they took over! We had boiled peanuts and boiled peanuts and boiled peanuts til we couldn’t eat any more. You know those peanuts just took over.”
Lisa’s been growing a garden on that same patch of earth on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina for twenty plus years. There are a few things she can count on, like the tomatoes will work, and so will the deer, but there are parts of her garden that are always a surprise.
Those seeds and starts will sprout and grow, and she does not know how. Much to her surprise, that little old half a row of peanuts suddenly flourish and take over half the garden!
This morning, the Gospel call our attention to this mysterious promise of small things. The kingdom of God, the transforming love and grace of God, is like a tiny seed that grows without our work or attention, it is the smallest thing grown large and lush and offering welcome.
Do you know that there are a lot of little seeds being planted around here at St. Paul’s?
For the last two weeks, Hope and her amazing team of volunteers have been sowing seeds of God’s kingdom in the children of this community. I’ve been listening to art and fun camp down the hall from my office, and I’m in awe of what a few small moments, a morning of crafts or creative writing, a silly game with pool noodles or funny voices, what mustard seeds of faith and love might be sown in these kids over just a few hours.
There are 8 perennials, plants that come back again and again, growing downstairs in St. Catherine’s shelter. There are 8 little rooms with 8 beds to provide sanctuary for women who need help getting off the street or the strength to take their first steps toward addiction recovery.
There are the financial seeds of small grants administered by the outreach committee each year, small grants that might not seem like much, but these little grants become meals at the community kitchen. They support our Latino neighbors through the work of La Paz. They break into cycles of trauma and poverty. They start small, and grow to affirm the dignity of all our community members as children of God.
Another thing about these little seeds is that they yield abundance. The little seeds of our parable become an entire harvest, feed a household or a community. When we look for God in our lives and the world, we can discern Kingdom by looking for that abundance that only comes by grace, and by looking for what is inviting and connecting and providing hospitality. The branches of that mustard seed kingdom make space for all the birds of the air. We recognize that God’s love is present and at work when our lives, our homes and families, our church, our work places all take on the quality of hospitality and welcome, making space for the ones who need it.
When I first started dating my husband, he was living in a big house with a group of friends. Each one was in some way serving the Nashville community, whether through churches or nonprofit work, and they wanted to live together in a meaningful way and open their home to their neighbors. So every single Sunday afternoon, they held a community potluck lunch. Many folks came from the little church around the corner, some from the public housing in the neighborhood, and a few students from the universities nearby. And every single week, whether they had ten people or thirty, there was enough for everybody to have something to eat.
Don’t believe the lie of scarcity. Our culture runs on the myth that there isn’t enough to go around, that the answer is more stuff, that we need to grasp tightly after our safety and our resources. But that is a false gospel. We don’t have to live in that scarcity, that fear, that grasping and controlling. We don’t have to believe the lie that our flourishing depends on excluding, punishing, withholding, or deporting any one else. The mustard seed, that itty bitty thing, shows itself to be more food and shade and shelter than we ever could have imagined.
We like to know what we’re going to get, we like things in good order, according to plan. But what is unmistakable in these parables is that we are not in control. We must be surprised by God! At those community potluck lunches? Well, everyone would have food to eat, but sometimes it would be weird. Some weeks might just have three different noodle dishes and some ice cream, or just pancakes and fried fish, or beans and rice and fruit salad. There was always enough, but we couldn’t count on the menu, and it might not be what you’d necessarily choose for your Sunday lunch.
From our phone apps to our financial plans to our vision for our children and our country, we like to have it all mapped out and for things to go according to our plan. But the kingdom of God is so often, by our standards, counter intuitive, inconvenient, and weird. The our best laid plans fail, but then the most surprising graces show up out of the blue. Gardeners know this, perhaps, better than most of us. A farmer friend of mine would say of gardening and life, “A weed is just a plant where you didn’t want it to be.” We might have liked our mustard to stay small and orderly. Or maybe we wanted a nice big apple tree in that spot. Maybe we didn’t want all the birds to come and roost — we only wanted robins, but here they are, we got them all.
Look around your life — what surprises have shown up? Haven’t they beengood?
In our planned out, scheduled, controlled lives, surprises can make us nervous. Change and difference brings fear. But 1 John reminds us that ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” God is inviting us to be surprised not by fear, but by God’s own love. God is inviting us to be surprised by the expansive abundance of God’s kingdom.
We can be mad that there are peanuts in the garden, or we can plant more rows.
We’re all here today because we want to encounter the love of God in our lives, because we want to follow Jesus in giving that radical love of God away to the world. But these parables caution that there isn’t one perfect formula for how to do that. God’s love, God’s kingdom comes from small and unexpected places. God’s love, God’s kingdom, is more abundant than we can imagine. God’s love, God’s kingdom, surprises us and thwarts our expectations. We can start to keep an eye out for seedlings, and we can keep on planting them. We go into the world with a prayerful attitude attention and a God-transformed heart. We receive the incredible harvest of God’s grace and presence around us, and keep on sowing our little seeds of love and justice, to sprout and grow, we do not know how.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

pexels-photo-382418 (1).jpeg

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.

 

Struggle, balance, vocation, etc.

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.

Transfiguration, Perfectionism, and Practicing the Presence of God

Here’s the sermon I preached yesterday at my sponsoring parish. Please excuse the jump-in start—I began with a brief introduction of myself to new parishioners that’s not needed here. 

Things were intense for our family about this time last year, when I was just beginning at Sewanee with a five week old baby. In case you haven’t heard, new motherhood is not for the faint of heart. Your body is wrecked, you don’t get more than an hour or two of sleep at a time, and you’re doing this incredibly high stakes work with no previous experience. It’s complete bliss, complete terror, and complete exhaustion.

And there we went, heading up the mountain. While everyone at the School of Theology was incredibly kind, I was so spent and frazzled. I didn’t really know what I was doing—neither as a mom nor as a seminarian, bringing my newborn to new student orientation. I had the distinct feeling that my brain got misplaced somewhere in that last month of pregnancy. It seemed that I’d made a tremendous mistake.


So on my first day of class we’d gotten up at 5 to make it there with plenty of time for morning prayer in the Chapel of the Apostles. There are all my new classmates, other new seminarians that are distinctly more bright eyed than I am. I have my son in a sling carrier on my chest, a book of common prayer in one hand and an Anglican chant psalter in the other. Of course, halfway the scripture lessons, Sylvan starts to fuss. I’m not talking about chatting or whining. He was gearing up for the big one. And let me tell you—the only thing louder than a screaming baby in a church are the voices of shame and inadequacy shouting in a new mom’s head.

We swayed in the back row, and I desperately tried to calm and comfort him.

Oh, but then, the organist begins to play that refrain and just like that my tiny son goes calm and bright eyed. We felt the music from the organ and voices ring through our bodies, and the wind of pipes and throats was like the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing away my anxiety fear. There was enough stillness that for a moment, I noticed the way the morning light was coming through walls of windows in the Chapel, noticed the hint of incense and the feel of stone under my feet, notice that maybe my neighbors don’t mind the fuss as much as I think. Maybe we can do this! Maybe there is space for us here!  Maybe I can just show up and be present to God in this space. It was a little revelation of the presence of God, up on the mountain.

This morning we heard the good, good news of Jesus transfigured on another holy mountain, shining the divine glory and affirmed of God’s presence. We see the law and the prophets, represented in Moses and Elijah, all come together in the perfect revelation of God’s heart, Jesus Christ. With the disciples we see the fire and cloud and hear the voice of the Father proclaiming that God is with us in Jesus Christ.

And this divine revelation is seen in the midst of messy, faithful work. In the surrounding stories of Luke, we can read about Jesus’ healing of the little girl and the hemorrhaging woman, taking time for everyone from the social elite to the desperate and destitute. Then he’s sending out the disciples to heal and preach, with that terrifying instruction to go without money, provisions, not even a change of clothes. And after their apprenticeship, the disciples return, the crowds congregate, and we have the feeding of 5,000 people from 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. What exhausting work! Then Jesus is having the toughest conversations with the disciples, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” and telling them that faithfulness will mean carrying a cross.

To see the bigger picture of who God is, we have to take the story of the Transfiguration in its context. To know Jesus as fully God and fully human, we have to see the glory and the struggle, we have to see the toil and valleys on either side of this sacred mountain. If we want to journey on with Christ, we have to remember that even in the middle of the glory, Jesus talks to the prophet and the liberator about the hard road ahead. We have to remember what Peter, in his enthusiasm to put up a shrine, forgot—that the retreat to prayer and glory is only for a moment.

When the organ stops playing, the baby will fuss again.

When the cloud dissipates and the heavenly voice quiets, the disciples have to walk back down the mountain, and they walk toward Jerusalem, where Jesus will be arrested and abused.

It is hard to leave the mountain and show up for the messy, faithful work.

Brene Brown, a professor and researcher of social work, has done incredible work on courage, shame, and vulnerability. In her research, she identified a category of people who seem to be resilient, present, open, honest. A good Episcopalian, Brown calls them the “whole-hearted,” pulling  this concept from our prayer of confession: “We have not loved you with our whole heart,” and turning it on its head to ask what a life of whole-heartedness might look like.

Brene Brown’s research identifies one main thing as a whole-heartedness killer, a shame trigger that will keep us from fully loving God. It’s perfectionism, the desire to get things right, or appear as if we have gotten things right. Perfectionism is wanting not just a change of clothes and a walking stick for our mission, but also maybe some decent hotel reservations, a game plan, and a buddy system, and Siri. Perfectionism is sending the hungry crowd away, because we can’t try the hard new thing if we think we might fail. Perfectionism, God help us, is trying to interrupt the epiphany and put a shrine around it so that we can control what’s happening or document it to show our friends later.

Think about the last really brave thing you did. Think about the last time you prayed, “God help me!” and really put yourself out there. I hate to tell you, and you might already know, that courage and openness usually feels excruciating, exposed, anything but brave. It might feel like showing up in a strange town doing strange things, like preaching and healing, when you don’t know how you’ll be received. Wholehearted may in fact be like stopping on your way, like Jesus did, to say, “Who touched me?” “Who needs help?” when you aren’t sure what will be asked of you. What looks like glory, fire, and Spirit on the outside, might have felt very different to Jesus, who stood in a place of reckoning with the hard choices and suffering that lay ahead of him. If we want to be in a place to experience transfiguration, we have to embrace the difficult daily work and deny our impulse to control. We have to receive the good and maybe uncomfortable news that we don’t have be perfect, just present.

The transfiguration is an important moment, but only one moment in a lot of work, work that took a lot of risks and a lot of guts.

In the revelation of the Transfiguration, and in the ministries surrounding it, Jesus invites the disciples into a moment of pure presence—to God, showing up in the world in all its need and beauty, in the magnificent moments of epiphany, in the interior prayers and the serious conversations, in the hard every day work of dying to the self. To be present to God and to our lives, in both the glory and the work, takes a lot of courage. When asked to be present to our lives, we might be overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, or so busy that we miss the opportunity for miracles. When asked to be present to God, we might fear that glory and intimacy, and like the disciples, try to build a shrine, a box for God.

But God knows we are only dust, God knows we struggle with this. And so Spirit offers invitations to be present, again and again, invitations  to take notice of all kinds of epiphanies taking place all around us. Every invitation is a chance for our faces to blaze with the light of God. Every invitation is a chance to let that blaze of glory light a fire underneath us to go forth into the hard and beautiful work of proclaiming love, feeding the hungry, taking up crosses, and being present to the presence of God.

 So, what is the last brave, hard thing you did? What’s the next brave, hard thing on your horizon? How can you find the glory of God’s presence in the middle of it?

Diffusing Release all day every day.