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.

 

Home

Thanks to my friend Michael for inviting me to share a story at the Tenx9 event at Wild Goose Festival last weekend. This particular story has been mulling around in me, looking to be told for the last 7 years. 

I had just finished exams, may of my junior year of college, and was living in those sweet days when the work is done but no one has left for summer break. We all played, enjoying all the best things of being 19. I was going on lots of late night drives to the mountains for star-gazing and late morning coffees with my best friend, lots of dancing and movie watching and philosophizing over secret beers. And here’s the best part. As part of my major in theology and ministry, studying community and small group models, I was getting ready for a trip to England—solo!—to go stay at a Christian intentional community. I had my passport, a fat reading list, and a marked up train schedule I printed off the national rail website. This cluster of people in the English countryside had some secret to what it meant to live together in Christ, something different and deeper than a Sunday morning church service. And I was going to go over there and see it for myself.

Then I got the call.

Granny, my mother’s mother, had been fighting cancer, making it through the brutality of chemo and radiation with the help of her quirky humor, her faith, and a whole lot of vodka. But just then she suddenly collapsed, and after my grandfather, known as Buddy Bob, got her to the hospital, the doctors told her that it had spread so rapidly—just since that last set of scans!—that her organs were shutting down.

My plans changed. Instead of playing for a month before England, I chose to go with Mom down to Eutawville, South Carolina and help take care of Granny.

That’s right, Eutawville. Population 350. You just drive right up there and get of 95 at Santee and hang a right. You can’t miss it. We bump down off the Old #6 Hwy onto a dirt, no, a sand road into the veil of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks. Hospice had beaten us there, replacing Granny’s pretty four poster with the automatic hospital bed. That smell of home health was there, too, that mix of antiseptic and sick, and it competed with bacon grease and magnolia blossoms and the enduring stale cigarette smoke that had caked into the wallpaper before Granny finally made Buddy Bob quit lighting up at the kitchen table ten years earlier.

So we kept the busy vigil of the dying-but-not-dead, trying not to see how quickly her tiredness was taking over, trying not to wonder about the new bulges we saw on her back and sides, trying not to consider whether the nonsensical talk was from the cancer or the pain meds.

There was also sweetness to it. We gave her pedicures and looked through every photo album. We turned away nosy church ladies and welcomed the true old friends, gatekeepers for the queen. I climbed the most precarious branches of that old magnolia in the side yard to keep the blossoms fresh on her bedside table. Each day I rubbed lotion on her hands and helped her take small sips of cold water.

One day Granny got a craving for pineapple. You’d better believe I was lickety split in two minutes driving down to the Piggly Wiggly for a pineapple. You want a bloody mary for breakfast? You got it! (Although, let’s be honest, that had been a time honored tradition in Eutawville) On another afternoon Buddy Bob got in his head that a good steak might help her energy, give her some strength, so he sent me running off with $100 cash to the steak man, who worked from the back of a convenience store/butcher shop. Four of the best filets you can imagine, grilled rare and served up with tomatoes and corn from the garden and her own pound cake recipe.

But so soon she could no longer manage steak, much less sit at the table for a meal, and would doze off by dinnertime.

One day I sat next to Granny, reading while she napped, when I heard, “Booop. Boop boop boop boop!” I looked over. She was awake, smiling at me, wiggling her fingers overhead. “Hey Granny, what’s that?” She laughed. “These are my antennae.” “Oooooh, you’re antennae. Ok.” She closed her eyes again. Man, those meds… After several minutes of silence Granny said, “Listen.” Ok. I’m listening. “There are so many wonderful, beautiful things in this world. And if you don’t have your antennae up, you just might miss them.”

Granny died only a few weeks after I got the call, and we buried her in the holly hill cemetery, just like she’d wanted. Her church lady friend sang, “I Can Only Imagine,” just like she’d wanted. Back at the house we ate poundcake and strawberries, just like she’d wanted.

And a few days later I went to England. It didn’t occur to me not to. After all, I was 19 years old and I had an adventure to find, the heart of Christian community living to discover. I hopped on a plane for London, then a train for beautiful green Hampshire, to the manor house turned dormitory, down the little road from the quaint village—they say Jane Austen did some writing there. For two weeks I spent my mornings reading Henri Nouwen and drinking PG Tips. I spent my afternoons doing farm chores, cooking simple food for 50 people, and talking about God and life and art with all the other strange stragglers who’d shown up to this community for a few days or a longer sabbatical. England in June has 15 hours of sunlight each day, all the beauty and time you could hope for. I was ready with case study questions, ponderings that had come up during my college studies, and carried them around in a little notebook. With eagerness I attended every lecture in the great hall, morning prayer in the little worn chapel with hay bale pews. I was at every church service and lunch dialogue. I interviewed the full time community members, watched everything and jotted notes obsessively. I soaked in as much as I could, trying to understand, analyze, and qualify: what does it mean to be a person of faith living in community? I watched and listened. I tried to be a part of the common life, but really, I was there to study it. I never really talked to the others all that much about Granny and all that I’d just seen and lived. It didn’t occur to me to.

One evening I went to hear a talk by one of the full time community members. Prior to working in the community, he had worked in palliative care—a hospice doctor. He spoke about Jesus’ incarnation and what it might mean for Christians in community to be God incarnate all over again. He said that the world is full of wonderful, beautiful things-pay attention! They are signs of God at work around us. And doggone. You know what? That doctor said that most of all, we meet Jesus and we are Jesus any time we live into his teaching, any time we practice the beatitudes, any time we give someone so much as a sip of cold water.

The next morning I walked to the village. I went straight to the phone booth around the corner from the pub. I shoveled pence out of my pocket and into the slot, dialed international, and heard myself say, “Mama? I think I have to come back home.”

Talking with kids about Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have the great joy of working part time at St. Augustine’s Chapel in Nashville. It is a beautiful community of people who are actively seeking healing for themselves and the world.

We’re a predominantly white congregation, and in preparation for our participation in Nashville’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day March, I developed this quick sheet for talking with kids about King and the Civil Rights Movement. For well intentioned white folks, it can be a struggle to know what words to use, because many of us were taught that to speak of race at all is a racist thing. The last thing we want to do is mess up and instill harmful ideas in our kids. But studies have shown that not talking about race replicates our white supremacist social structures about as well as outright racist propagation. So however muddy and difficult, white people of faith and goodwill, we’ve got to do our work around race, and we’ve got to start at home. Talk to your kids. Read the books. Head out to local MLK Day events, and for heaven’s sake don’t let that one holiday be the end of it. Keep an eye out for ways to plug in with Black Lives Matter. Pay attention to local legislation that might replicate injustice for people of color and the poor. Patron black owned businesses on purpose. Listen deeply to the world. Take your kids with you, and keep talking about it.

This is written with white families in mind, and I wanted to share on the off chance that it can be useful to your family or faith community.

The Refugee God and the Work of Christmas

New Year’s Day Sermon
Isaiah 63:7–9; P
salm 148; Matthew 2:13–23
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville

Howard Thurman: “The Work of Christmas”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Well, here we are, soaking in the Christmas season and bringing in the new year together in worship, looking ahead to our resolutions and hopes, the return of school calendars and normal work schedules. We don’t get to stay in the stable with the heavenly host and the mind-blown shepherds, the gift bearing magi, and the blissed out new parents. The sweet scene of the nativity that we so love to see enacted by our children in the pageant and maybe adorning our mantles through the holiday season is brought to a sudden stop—no, not by New Year’s Eve parties—but as Matthew’s gospel continues the story with a dark turn. Quick, we move to the next chapter after the magi leave, the angel appears again in a dream.

Pause. Breathe. Hear. Let us listen to these verses in a fresh way. Let us sit and be mindful of how quickly life shifts from birth to death, from joyous to horrifying.

Imagine waking up in the night in a cold sweat, mamas and daddies, from a nightmare that a tyrant was coming for your baby.  Doesn’t it make your chest hurt and your pulse quicken? Imagine that this nightmare is so vivid that you can’t get back to sleep, that you have to get up to look at your boy and see that he’s ok. Imagine that your partner is disturbed by your tears and your restless tossing and turning, and now, both awake and terrified, you stay up talking till morning and finally decide, “We have to go.”

Matthew puts this story in the legacy of the Exodus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” God has always been showing up in the brutal journey of the refugee, the tired eyes of parents leading their children to an unknown future.  And this story is also connected to the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke to the destroyed and occupied Jerusalem. God has always been showing up in the aftermath of human violence.

Over the holidays, I took some time to catch up on books, tv shows, boardgames, and movies with my partner, friends, and family. One thing on my list was the documentary short released on Netflix earlier this year, “The White Helmets,” which portrays the work of civilian rescue workers on the ground in Syria. I watched the film. Then I did some research.

I’ve been hearing about the air raids in Aleppo, the ceasefires that fall apart, the children and civilians who are being targeted, and felt that wave of despair, practically palpable through the radio news. And unfortunately, reading up on the history of the current civil war didn’t bring much political clarity or a sense of how to do my part to change or improve anything. The civil war is a hot mess, with local conflict becoming a proxy for foreign governments, continued destruction of civilian homes and hospitals, and more than 11 million people have been killed or displaced.

Not much has changed about war and empire over two thousand years. King Herod presided over a system that benefited a few elite while depriving many of their daily bread. Wars and empires, then and now, privilege the comfort of a few over the lives and safety of many.

Each morning, the volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense gather at their center, and then suddenly, as they sit chatting over breakfast, the sound of a jet rushes in, slicing through the calm morning, and the men abandon their plates and rush out. They discern the direction of the next bombs, and head to the site in a cargo van. They leap into action, pulling the wounded and incapacitated out of bombed out homes and alleys, before the next overhead pass ends hope of rescue. They carefully remove the dead from piles rubble, treating bodies with the tenderness fitting someone’s child, parent, dear sibling, closest friend. One man said that he tries to rescue every last one when they’re called to a scene, because it truly might be his family one day. There is a deep personal urgency to what is happening—there’s no space to distance themselves from the work.

And there’s not much space to distance yourself as a viewer of this short film. It was hard for me to watch. I could only take it in 5 and 10 minute segments, taking a break to breathe and gaze at my healthy, safe family. But turning it off wasn’t an option. The white helmets, these dedicated, devoutly Muslim, family men, blue collar workers turned everyday heroes, drew me in. They save the vulnerable, clear bombed neighborhoods, bury the dead, comfort the suffering, console the grieving, inviting me to witness as they proclaim gospel: “All lives are precious.”

And this is the gospel, the work of Christmas. We see God born to peasants, lying in a feed trough, recognized by all sorts of folks, and then on the run from a violent system, far from home and familiarity.

Matthew shows “God with us,” God’s saving presence, at the peak of human vulnerability, right in the crosshairs of violent power structures. And Jesus doesn’t affirm what is happening—his very presence as a prince of peace, made known to shepherds and magi alike, is a threat to the powers that be.

We have a working class, unhoused, refugee savior who calls us to notice Emmanuel, God with us, in and among the people we understand to be the “least of these.” We have a story of God made like us, but not all of us—God dwelling in a particular way that signals to us that in a profoundly practical way, brown skinned politically marginalized lives matter.

And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, how do we now live into the work of Christmas and set our eager new-year-resolved hearts to the task? How do we put ourselves in fellowship with the refugee who bears the image of God, with our weeping mother Rachel?

When we think about the refugee, I want to be careful that we don’t over-spiritualize this in a way that turns our attention from the real refugee crisis happening right now.

But it can be overwhelming—Where do we go from here? What can be done a world away?

We lament. We pray. We contribute to global relief and new social enterprise to help the displaced. We make our city and neighborhoods and homes places of sanctuary for those in need of home and safety, whether displaced from Nashville or Aleppo. We keep our eyes peeled for the toxic self-preservation of Herod at work in our communities and in our own hearts. And like our brothers at work in Syria, we keep the faith, keep showing up one day at a time.

In the midst of stories of suffering, the white helmets share the story of Mahmoud, a baby who at one week old, was rescued after 16 hours under the rubble. The men in the film follow up with him, now a chubby, active toddler. He is perfectly clueless of the grace and hope he holds in his life, in his very body. But the white helmets talked about him again and again, the sign that their work is meaningful. The story of this life spared, this possibility of a proper future beyond the death of the civil war, keeps them moving.

So like the prophet Isaiah, may we  keep telling the story, recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord. Keep telling the story of how God brought us into freedom, and stay mindful of those who are still fleeing, still wandering, still in need of safe refuge. May we be transformed from discouragement to resolution, from despair to engagement, from apathy to intentionality, from helplessness to creative courage. And may the strength of the knowledge of the God’s redeeming work and the rise and fall of those beautiful words, telling the story of Word made flesh, become the steady rhythm of the Spirit leading our steps into the work of Christmas:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 Amen.

A prayer for the mother of a white son

God, the loving Mother of all,

Thank you for this little incarnate grace entrusted to my care.

Grant me grace to show my boy deep tenderness, that he might show it to others in turn.

Sustain calmness and radical mindfulness in our home, that he might resist the temptation to prove himself by busyness and accomplishment.

Grant me the discipline and discernment to care for him and grant his desires without catering to his every whim, that he might appropriately deny his more destructive desires of body and power.

Bring clarity in my identity and persistence in my calling, that he would witness and respect the power and personhood of women.

Grant me empathy, that I might remember that he is but one beloved child among millions, all equally precious and deserving, and humility to recognize that even his precarious moments occur in privilege and safety.

Strengthen my resolve and attention in his formation, that we would both grow in the knowledge and practice of justice that takes place in the details.

Remind me that Jesus, your son, a brown skinned refugee child, killed by the state, calls me to divest myself of power and work for change, and raise this white son to do the same.

Amen.

In Passing

I recognized you right away when we passed each other. And there’s your sister; I recognized her too. You glanced at me and away again, no sign of recognition in return.

As a novice chaplain, I held your hand and waited for news, and blessed your baby before they withdrew life support.  I witnessed you and your partner talking so gently and honestly with your other children about what was happening. I heard from the nurses that you chose organ donation and went back to the office to cry about the beauty and horror of that decision.

We passed near the coffee bar at Whole Foods, that mecca for us middle class moms who will buy our organic, free range, grass fed dinners for our families after drinking our fair trade almond milk lattes. S. was strapped to my chest, chubby legs sticking out of the ergo, neck wonky to one side as he slept.

The rules of the trade and general respect for your privacy require that if I was your chaplain, I can’t initiate further contact. If you recognize me and sought conversation, I can engage, but it is not mine to start.

But if I could speak to you, I would say, “I remember and grieve.”

“I think about you and pray for your heart and healing, for your marriage, for your children.”

I would gesture to the perfect little body I carry and say, “I don’t take it for granted. I know that there is no guarantee.”

And, “How are you? How are you really?”

a poem to start

The Hundred Names of Love
by Annie Lighthart

The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.

13603780_10208669395508812_7022945861777694399_oThen the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.

One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.

white angelica: melissa, bergamot, geranium…