Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

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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.

 

MLK Monday

Good morning! This is a real quick one, because my organizer husband is due on Jefferson St. in Nashville in an hour, representing his work on housing and transit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day events and march, and I’ve got to get this toddler dressed and bundled up and down there as well.

I wanted to share again this resource I developed last year for families and churches to talk with children about Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., and why we march today. Talk to your kids! It’s more important than ever for us to cultivate tools and intelligence around racial equality. Have more hope for their capacity to build a better world, than  fear for them in the one we’ve got. If you have questions or want reflect back on your experience today, comments are open!

What's a spiritual practice?

In the Keep Watch With Me Advent Reader, a project I’m co-curating with my friend Michael, I’ve been creating a unique spiritual practice to accompany each contributor’s reflection. And I’ve heard the question, “What is spiritual practice?”

Spiritual practice, spiritual discipline, and prayer practice are all phrases I use interchangeably to talk about ways we connect to God.

Wiser saints who’ve come before me use that language of practice or discipline because a life of faith and prayer, and for that matter, a relationship, are not things that are mastered or completed as a one-off. We practice like a musician or an athlete, growing more at ease with the task yet never reaching a place of completion or arrival.

In her book, The Spiritual Activist, Claudia Horwitz says that a spiritual practice has three characteristics: 1) It connects us to the presence of the sacred, 2) It is something we do regularly, and 3) It grounds us in the present moment.

Spiritual practice is not a one-size-fits-all affair. It’s not even one-size-fits-you-forever. Different personalities and seasons of life call for different forms of connecting to God, and a practice might have different patterns or duration. The long walks I took with my son when he was a newborn, cradled in a wrap on my chest, don’t fly for a busy toddler who wants to get out of the stroller after 10 minutes. The appeal of daily scripture reading fades for the seminarian taking multiple biblical studies classes. Silence and solitude may be draining, not refreshing, for those who work alone, when you might be better nourished by meaningful conversation.

If you decide to try a new practice, but feels too uncomfortable or simply doesn’t resonate for you, you can feel free to let it go. It may not be for you, or you might revisit it later with surprising connection. Creative spiritual practice can be approached with confidence in the presence of God’s spirit and openness to the myriad ways that God loves and leads us to peace, as well as a good sense of humor and openness about the ways that we may or may not encounter God in a particular way.

Hopefully that’s a helpful intro, or offers you some new language and ideas to consider prayer and spirituality.

What kinds of things are you practicing these days? What regularly connects you to God and keeps you present and grounded?

If you’ve been enjoying the spiritual practices included in Keep Watch With Me or are looking for new opportunities to grow, experiment, and seek God in community, I invite you to join An Epiphany in the World, a Facebook-based book club and spiritual practice group I’ll be facilitating in this upcoming liturgical season of Epiphany. You can join the group and learn more here.

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.

Keep Watch with Me: Advent 1

This is the third offering from “Keep Watch With Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers” written by the #seminarymama. Sign up for this free daily resource here.

Psalm 80:1-7
Shepherd of Israel, listen!
You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
Wake up your power!
Come to save us!
Restore us, God!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
Lord God of heavenly forces,
how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
our enemies make fun of us.
Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!

Aside from writing and ministry, I’m actively engaged in the non-professional peacemaking of raising a toddler with my partner. Our child has unbounded curiosity and unbounded feelings. Massive dramas of disappointment, frustration, failure, and grief play out each day, and I must practice presence and compassion. Sitting with those big toddler feelings has been shown to better develop resilience, empathy, peace and calm in children over the long haul.

Practicing this with my child takes time, slows me down, and reminds me to practice it with myself. I feel disappointment, frustration, failure, and grief: with national politics and inequitable development, the church’s anxious idolatry of institution, with my own inner struggles as the days shorten and demands of seminary, work, and parenthood feel endless, with the 24 hour news cycle of suffering.

Today’s psalm is the prayer of a suffering people, who look at their lives and see only God’s absence. “How long will you be angry? Restore us!” They are abandoned, shamed, alone, hopeless. They are carrying more than anyone can bear.

But we know that the prayer of a moment, a song of emotion, is rarely the whole picture.

Year after year, we go through the season of Advent before Christmas, a liturgical season of penitence and preparation to celebrate that God always intervenes. We sit with the already and not-yet of Jesus come and coming, and we read lamentations and prophecies of judgment with knowledge of coming peace. For Christians, silence, waiting, and death are not the end of the story, but we must sit with them nonetheless.

Our sorrows are here and now. Our worries are life and death for ourselves and for the people we love. They need holy attention. And they are not the whole picture.

This Advent, we keep watch together so that we might grow a gritty, holy hope. We encourage one another to active peace building. We are choosing to do the hard inner work of being still, grieving, hoping, noticing, and becoming a little more peaceful within, so that as the apostle writes, we would be strengthened and faithful, in fellowship with Christ’s work of peace incarnate.

Crash and Burn (or: Stop and Listen)

Well, it’s been crickets here at #seminarymama for a good long while.

Do you remember that post last summer when I talked about hitting my limit and letting go of some stuff, saying no to say yes?

That was cute.

Turns out I needed to learn that some more, and then some more again. Here’s the short story: I left my job as a children and family minister, missed a whole bunch of deadlines for school, got sick a bunch of times, and questioned just about everything in my life. I’m an achiever, and have been going turbo with graduate school, seminary, multiple jobs, internships, clinical chaplaincy, pregnancy and new motherhood, always working more than full time on emotionally intense, serious responsibility for about 8 years. No surprise, really. Turbo overachieving plate spinning works…until it doesn’t any more.

You know what I’m talking about? In recovery circles, this is what you call “unmanageable.”

I’m hoping to be done with the crash and burn for now, and am finding a lot more space for enjoying my son and partner, getting caught up on seminary work, and discerning what might be ahead next year. I got a Passion Planner for some organization, and I block out time for nothing.

And you know what’s just astonishing? There are all these things I had been missing and didn’t even know it. I have not been able to say “yes” to so many things that I love and value, and it’s like the minute I let the crash happen, I was reminded of what I hadn’t been making space for.

There’s space to make a lot more pancakes with S., even on weekdays sometimes, and read all the board books 15 times in a row without worrying about the other stuff I’m not getting done. There’s space to tell an overwhelmed mama friend to just come on over and have a tea and let the babies play while we talk. There’s space to journal and walk, to catch up with friends who live far away on the phone, to worship and pray in new ways. There’s space to rest as well as to stretch my soul and skills in ways I hadn’t considered.

To my surprise, an opportunity to say yes emerged in the fall and has sprung up in surprising ways. A series of conversations with my friend Michael led to the creation of Keep Watch with Me, the advent reader for watching and waiting and peacemaking. We decided to make the devotional that we had been waiting for on themes pertinent to the liturgical season and key in the struggles of our lives in the last while. We’ve been humbled and thrilled and freaked out to be joined in this endeavor by two dozen incredible contributing peacemakers and 5000 readers worldwide.

I’ll be posting today’s advent reflection, by yours truly, in a second post here, but in the meantime, if this piques your interest, you can sign up to receive daily reflections here, and join the “Keeping Watch Together” online community of folks reflecting and connecting here.

Weaned

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?