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.

 

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.

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.