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!

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.

Catching up

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated the blog or carved out space to write. Seminary mama has been hard at work on finals, life transitions, and new projects. Don’t be fooled by a nice blog template—there have been a lot of hot mess mama moments and half-developed term papers, and I’m trying to find the grace in good enough parenting and good enough theology.

Shoot. S. just woke up from his nap…

Alright. We’re settled with an iced coffee for me and a dumptruck full of cheerios for him. No, really, this is how we snack.

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To start, I’m now three weeks into a new position as the Director of Youth and Children’s Ministries at a great little parish in Nashville. This position came as a major answer to prayer, providing financial stability, career development, and more structure for our family in just the right season. St. Ann’s is a beautiful bunch and I’m honored to join and serve their community.

Some of my blogging energy has been redirected to developing a regular content feed for the parents, providing some conversation starters and lectionary tie ins that families can use through the week. Feel free to subscribe and let me know how the conversations unfold!

 And finally, right now I’m transcribing an interview for my friend Michael, whose next book will explore conversations of power and justice and reconciliation. It’s such an honor to contribute to his work and get to hear the first draft conversations with some amazing peace and justice workers. This guy is a great interviewer picking great minds—keep an eye out for the book!

As things settle out I’ll be getting back in a groove with making space and quiet where the reflections can grow. But of course, baby is about to start walking, so we shall see how the writing schedule goes.

Good Friday

We’ve moved into Easter season, but I only just had time to edit and organize these jotted thoughts from Good Friday. Please excuse my disconnect from the liturgical calendar! 

During the last two seasons of Advent and Christmas, I felt connected to Jesus in a profound way. Not too surprising that I could meet Jesus as son—I was pregnant along with Mary through Advent, and the following year, supplied my own baby to be Jesus in the manger. What I didn’t expect was to see Jesus as my son this week, Holy Week. In church I sat with S. listened to the trial, the beating, the execution, the burial. An astounding sermon by a friend colleague who also did chaplaincy work in the pediatric ICU, bravely speaking about the dying children.

The beloved child is being killed. He didn’t outlive his mother the way he was supposed to.

The precious roly-poly manger baby grew up. He listened to your lessons and corrections, he paid attention in synagogue. All grown up. He took all the law and the prophets to heart, listened more than you anticipated, and gave up everything to go around, healing and loving and listening and preaching. You spent the last few years loving his loving heart, sending your prayers, shaking your head at his strange ways, worrying that he might be stirring up trouble with his strange friends.
The stakes were high. Too high. If it weren’t all so horrifying, you’d be proud, so proud and astonished that the little speck of cells in your womb, the toddler you spanked, the teen you grounded, is this grown, beautiful, brave man.

There is no resurrection today. No hope. There is only the echoes of pain in your own body as you watch his broken. That pulling knot deep in your belly—you haven’t felt that since those first days after you birthed your last baby, that painful jerk of womb and breasts at their little cries—it’s back and stronger and bringing you to your knees.

Spirit is a She

Last weekend, I preached 3 back-to-back services in a congregation where I’d never preached before. S. and I had gone to stay with my parents in Georgia and he refused to sleep more than 45 minutes at a time for two nights in a row.

On Saturday night I had a weepy meltdown—maybe the system is just too hard. It would be easier not to do this work, not to keep fighting over and over for space for myself as a mother, to justify the beauty of my embodied roles that weave into my priestly roles.

Sunday morning after the first round of my sermon (Father Óscar Romero as one who, like the man born blind in John 9, had his physical and spiritual vision transformed and followed a risk taking God into costly grace—Amen?), I stood dutifully by the door of the church between the priest and deacon, shaking hands. “Thank you, beautiful day, happy to be here.” A woman, probably in her 70’s, grasped my shoulders and leaned to my ear. My stomach plummeted in the half second of waiting. What on earth had I said to warrant this? Am I in trouble?

“Did I hear you say that the Holy Spirit is a ‘she'”? she asked in a loud whisper. “Yes ma’am you did,” I whispered back. And she hugged me tight then let me go again to clap her hands and exclaim, now loudly, “I always thought so too!”

We chatted a bit more and I told her what I’ll tell you: This isn’t some shock value contribution, a sneaky added pronoun to ruffle feathers. The female Spirit is part of the Christian tradition, moving from Lady Wisdom in Proverbs to a God experiencing labor pains in bringing new life in and from the world in Galatians. It matters that Spirit is comforter and counselor, roles of feminized association. That which is debased as women’s work is the divine person and work of God. And that matters a lot.

While God is beyond the social construction of gender, we have so far to go on our anthropologies and theologies of gender before that can be practically  meaningful. As long as I have to retreat to my car to pump breastmilk between services, separated from my breast baby for hours in order to preach the gospel, we need to name and highlight the “she-ness” of God. As long as a guest can still assume that the two full-time women priests on staff at the chapel must be filling in for their part-time male counterpart like some sort of spiritual understudies, we need to name and highlight the “she-ness” of God. My little nieces and nephews and my son need Her, comforting and counseling. The seventy-some-year-old church ladies need Her, seeing themselves made in God’s image in their particularity. God knows, when I’m crying because I don’t know how to shoulder through one more sleepless night, doing the work that my female body must do, I need Her, nourishing and tirelessly keeping watch with me.

Yes ma’am, Spirit is a She!

What has the she-ness of God meant for you? When do you need Her?

Rolling on clary sage, fennel, and ylang ylang for all the embodied woman support.