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.

 

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.

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.

God made known in generosity and courage

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Harriman, TN
15th February
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38–48

Epiphany is that season of the liturgical year when we crane our necks and peel our eyes for all the ways that God is showing up around us. We are invited to see the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, to wonder at the proclamation of God’s glory written on creation, and today, we are asked to consider how God could show up in the way we treat one another.

Now, I know a lot about good behavior. I grew up in North Georgia, just a couple of hours from here, and was raised to have good manners and be a good girl, a nice young lady. In my little Georgia city, when we were about 12 years old or so, those of us from certain families found ourselves stuffed into our Sunday best and shuttled off to the gym of the United Methodist Church for afternoons of what they called “Junior Cotillion.” Do you all have this in Harriman? Did some of you poor souls undergo the same trial as children? It was excruciating! I can think of twenty things I would have rather done on a Saturday afternoon. And while we were beginning to like the idea of liking boys, to our horror, when we got up close, the girls realized that by and large, they didn’t know what they were doing any more than we did. They were all a head shorter than us and had terrible sweaty palms. And while the abilities to do a basic waltz, write a thank you note, and know my dinner utensils have served me well, being a nice girl has not.

Here’s the thing about being a nice girl, about niceness in general. Nice is too often a poor replacement for loving. Nice is too often silent in the face of injustice. Nice is so accommodating that it begins to fear any confrontation. Nice keeps to itself. Nice cannot discern when, for the love of God and neighbor, we can no longer afford to be nice, and our love needs to be fierce and creative and courageous, rippling out from us to impact the world.

Today’s scriptures are about so much more than nice. This gospel passage is God’s invitation to a holiness that is huge, a move toward making ourselves and our world whole. In Leviticus, the law tells us not to hate anyone in our heart, but then situates this inner love is in our culture, society, and economy. This is a love far beyond nice. God’s love and justice are about setting our relationships and community right, and God is calling us now to gather courage and participate in this work. The Old Testament reading offers us first a vision of proactive love, courage, and generosity. The Gospel reading gives us a way to think about responsive love and courage in the face of oppression or hurt.

Stay with me this morning. This is hard and demanding and runs counter to most of the values of United States culture in our time. But it is also more creative and fun and satisfying and joyful than any other vision of ethics I’ve seen.

So first we have this call to proactively care for the vulnerable.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”

Do you remember Ruth? Hers is the story behind this commandment. She was a widow and a foreigner in need, who went out gleaning in the fields, taking the bits of grain and produce left behind from the harvesters. Her story is a story of hope because Boaz, her late husband’s relative, kept this law of Israel and recognized that what was seconds to him could be more than enough for someone in need.

Leviticus is reminding us that there something more important than maximizing the profit margin. God’s telling us that our fields and our harvest are not really ours. We don’t possess any of this. Let the anxiety of owning nothing wash over you. Feel the precariousness of all we think we have sit for just a moment, and then notice if there is an inkling of relief along with the nervousness.  We are called to build in a margin, a gap between what we need and what we could take.

This generosity takes foresight and thoughtfulness. It sees that the laborer, the one living check to check, needs their wage sooner than later. This generosity takes the disabled person into consideration, seeking to make the community accessible.

And so we see that love, the creative, courageous love that God is inviting us to practice, moves from the state of our hearts outward and back again. We tend to our inner circle of a loving heart, then move from there to just work in the world. Then we come back to home base, think about what we have seen, what we have been doing. We meditate, consider, cultivate deeper thoughtfulness and compassion.

The laws go on to say, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” and this brings us to the Gospel reading.

We know from Jesus’ teachings on the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is rarely someone easy for us to love as ourself. Neighbor ends up being all kinds of people we’d rather not deal with. And here, Jesus is talking about how to respond to acts of aggression and violence in the context of Roman occupation. The way that we face unjust leaders and laws, the way that we respond in the face of vitriol is the response to a neighbor. More than ever, separated by partisan politics and the cloak of facebook comments, we need the reminder that we are connected, that our responses to one another aren’t just a bomb we get to set and walk away from, that the conclusive mic drop doesn’t exist.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

These instructions deserve a look at their cultural and historical context. First, turning the other cheek. Most people are right handed. A blow to your right cheek from a right handed assailant isn’t a punch in the face. This is a backhand slap of humiliation. If I’m hit like this, to turn the other cheek doesn’t mean that I’m being a doormat—saying, “Ok, hit me twice.” It means I’ve turned to look them in the eye. If they hit you again on the other cheek it will be after seeing your face, your humanity, and to hit you on the left side, your assailant would have to hit you as an equal.

If someone is suing you for your coat, that means that they are pressing you in court for resources you don’t have. You don’t sue someone for clothing, you sue them for money, for payment to right the wrong. Jesus is condemning the exploitation of taking someone to court when all they have is the clothes on their back. To give not only the coat but the cloak is to strip yourself naked, right there in the court. You are saying, “See me! See that I’m a human like you! See what your injustice is doing, stripping me of everything!”

Under the rule of the Roman Empire, a soldier could force a subject to carry his gear for one mile. It didn’t matter what you were doing, going about your day. If a soldier wanted your help, he could command it, no questions ask. You can imagine that this experience would range from an aggravating inconvenience to a humiliation that drains the last of your time and strength when you’re just trying to hold things together. But imagine, won’t you, the soldier who’s conscripted you to walk his gear. He stops and says, “Ok, that’s your mile.” But you don’t stop. You grimace under the weight of the work and keep trudging along. “Wait a second! Stop! That’s your mile!” Now he’s jogging to keep up with you. Maybe other travelers on the way have stopped to watch, surprised and laughing. By continuing on, you are confronting the soldier and the unjust practices. You have forced him think twice about his behavior and the harmful system without moving toward violence or detraction in your confrontation.

I recently heard a story about Martin Luther King Jr., when he was marching in peaceful protest alongside the community in Chicago. This was during the same time that he was hit with a brick. As they were marching, they passed one of many angry counter-protestors, a white man there to harass the marchers, screaming profanity at them. Dr. King looked at him and said, “You’re too smart and too good looking to be filled with so much hate.” The Civil Rights protestors saw that the hatred and racism was eroding the souls of white antagonists who were so bent on racial segregation and oppression. Calling for a more just world meant calling out the humanity even of the most hateful and harmful people.

And this is how we go, in the path of a Christ who drove the moneychangers out of the temple, but put his whip not to the human beings, but to the tools of oppression. We follow his footsteps, with our eyes on the grace and goodness of the Father, accepting the invitation of the Holy Spirit to deeply notice ourselves and one another, the invitation to move beyond nice, to take the sacred risk of generosity, love, and courage.

I want to leave us this morning with a few questions.

What is your field and harvest?

Are you stripping it bare, keeping the plenty and resources all for yourself?

Who is the neighbor who could be nourished by your abundance?

How are you experiencing that backhanded slap?

Where do you see the abuse of empire at work in your community?

Who is looking you in the eye, inviting you to see their humanness?

Whose eye must you look into, to commit that brave act of vulnerability and asking that your humanness be seen?

May the God who created us, lived among us, and breathes in us now, be made known through our treatment of one another, glorified in our generosity and courage. Amen.

Children of the Resurrection

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Sermon — All Saints’ Sunday (and baby S’s baptism!)
Haggai 1:15 – 2:9; P
salm 145; Luke 20:27 – 38
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville
6 November 2016

Dearest saints,

Today we enact the work of the creed that we say together each week, that“we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead…”

Today, on this Sunday after All Saint’s Day, we gather for Eucharist, worship, prayer, baptism of young saints, and the remembrance of those saints who have died—as the gospel reading calls them so beautifully, the children of God and children of resurrection.

Today we bear witness to the baptism of these young ones, stand with them as they receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, as we receive the grace of their new life and vitality in the community—also children of God and children of resurrection.

Do you hear? This is amazing—a day of God shaking things up, as the prophet said. We have death and new life and everything in between, caught up into our morning worship. This is a day of our hearts being split right open, broken in the best possible way, so that the Holy Spirit might illuminate what really matters.

Today we are in what the Celtic mystics called a thin place, where the distance between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is somehow a little bit smaller.

I recently learned about a community of people who know and practice the mysterious thin places of life and death in a particularly beautiful and horrible way, the residents of Otsuchi, a small coastal village in northern Japan. When the 2011 tsunami hit Japan, this coastal community was devastated. Over 400 people are still missing, presumed dead. Can you even imagine? Not one single household was untouched. Knowing that life and death are just a hairs width apart, the people of Otsuchi attend to the thin place through the Wind Telephone. What is the wind telephone? you ask. Well, the wind telephone is a strange outdoor art installation—an antique phone booth in a garden. After the death of his cousin, not long before the tsunami hit, Itaru Sasaki placed this old phone booth in his garden. on a windy hill overlooking the ocean. As he grieved the loss of his cousin, Itaru wanted a quiet, special place to speak with his dead loved one. He would go into this phone booth as a prayerful space, and speak to his cousin about life, about missing him. After the tsunami, though, Itaru was not the sole mourner in the village—his entire community was overwhelmed by grief, by sudden, unexplainable death.

Recall again the reading from Haggai, a prophet who spoke of hope and future to the people of Judah straggling home after being exiled under a brutal conqueror. The Lord said through the prophet to the people: “take courage!” But how could they even begin to take courage in the face of such a tragedy?

The people of Otsuchi began to take courage in a small and beautiful way. People from the village began to show up in Itaru’s garden, stepping into the phone booth to speak to their lost loves. In a beautiful recording of these phone calls, some of the speakers express ordinary care for their loved ones, asking “are you warm enough? do you have food?” Others dial the old rotary, turning numbers of phones that were washed away with their houses and homeowners. Some pick up the phone and listen in silence and tears. And in the private simple space of a phone booth in a garden, people are connected in a grace that defies our logic and control. This is the communion of saints.

Today we gather here as children of God, children of the resurrection, children of grace. We humans are notoriously poor at receiving this grace, which is why we have to make habits of prayer and asking for one another’s forgiveness, why we need to come to the Eucharist week after week, and will be encouraged to remember our baptisms later this morning. Whether in the sacraments or in our relationships, there is a vulnerability about giving and receiving grace, and my goodness we don’t like vulnerability.

In our gospel reading today, as Jesus was talking with the Saducees, we see the human struggle against vulnerability confronted with the challenging, mind-bending grace of God.

The Saducees were members of a Jewish sect in the time of Jesus. They didn’t believe in a spiritual realm or the resurrection of the dead. When they bring this question to Jesus, about marriage in heaven, they’re nit-picking. They are just looking to trick and trap the rabbi with a false question. They’re asking about a resurrection they don’t even believe in. How annoying is that? They foreclose on the possibility of any meaningful encounter with resurrection by focusing on the quotidian. They come to the conversation as an opportunity to show how right and clever they are.

Jesus starts by responding to the question in the terms it was offered—“no, in the age to come marriage isn’t like that…” And then—I can imagine him shaking his head, frustrated and sad, “You know what, you’re worrying about the wrong thing… In God, all are alive. They are children of the resurrection—how did you get hung up on these unimportant details!” He changes the question.

How many times have we shown up like the Sadducees? We spend so much time deflecting from grace we don’t understand, because it’s more comfortable to be certain. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves bickering with a partner just to be right? Who hasn’t defended a political party or an organization, even when we might not fully agree with its positions, to be justified to our neighbors? We don’t want our hearts split open! But when we come to life on the defensive, guarding our soft underbellies from attack, we might miss out on grace.

The resurrection relationships Jesus describes to them are a kind of belonging, a community, that is an expansive, inclusive grace. The fellowship of God’s people stretches the limits of our imaginations and challenges our assumptions about who is in, who is out. It challenges our assumptions about who gets to receive the grace of Jesus Christ that only comes to us, beautiful and faulty, through one sharing life with another.

On All Saints, though, we push our imaginations to remember that the communion of saints goes beyond what we can understand about the limits of life and death. Those of us who said goodbye to our everyday saints this year, or in years past, know that the experience of loss, suffering, and death pushes on the limits of our understanding, because in the mysterious ways of God, we stay connected to those who have gone. In the resurrection, we receive the grace of connection to one another that goes beyond death. With our prayers made of pictures, stories, and memory, we call our loved departed saints children of the resurrection, and we have communion with them today.

Today we also baptize young saints. Baptism is all about being a child of the resurrection, being profoundly alive in Christ. It is a sacrament of community belonging, a belonging that cannot be earned through the work and wisdom of age, but is given without merit. And as we bless these little ones and are blessed by them, they offer a reminder of our call to be resurrection people—for our own sake and theirs.

But listen, I don’t want to romanticize this shaking up of heaven and earth or pitch a vision of community and sainthood that’s all happy harps and halos. it’s all well and good to love the poetry of the prophet, but the lived reality looks a lot more like the frustrating conversation we read in the gospel. Even with resurrection hope, the death of beloved saints is deeply painful and confusing. Even with new life in Christ, these little saints are baptized into a community of struggle and a life full of questions.

That is precisely why this is the grace that means something.  God invites us into a grace that is gritty enough for planning funeral visitations and flower arrangements and closing accounts. This is a grace for the moment when we think the next contraction or the next home study will be the one to break us. It is a vulnerable grace that will not be tidied up, a grace that refuses to toe a party line, create parameters for membership, or be defined, sold, controlled, doled out only to the deserving.

No. In this expansive resurrection grace, this astounding community and holy belonging, we remember, celebrate, and claim our place, all of us, as children of God, children of the resurrection.

Amen.

grapefruit and peppermint

Imperfect Resurrections

Sermon—The Third Sunday in Pentecost

1 Kings 17:8–24; Psalm 30; Luke 7:11–17
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville
5 June 2016

This winter I got a fresh perspective on Ash Wednesday. As an intern at St. Augustine’s Chapel, I helped behind the scenes for two of the three services and I walked through the holy seasons of Lent and Easter immersed in the workings of the church and liturgy more than ever before. Not to be too melancholy, but Ash Wednesday is actually one of my favorite holy days in our liturgical calendar. When our priests put the ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday palms on our foreheads and remind us “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I find it consoling. It’s very healthy. It re-centers me in my smallness and humanity, and gently reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect. The psalmist says, “God remembers that we are only dust.” We are the ones who forget and need this reminder. The Ash Wednesday liturgy allows me to see myself truly in my humanness,and allows me go on to receive the resurrection of Easter with all its overwhelming glory and strangeness.

But this year, five months pregnant at Ash Wednesday, terrible thought occurred to me—my son is also dust, and to dust he shall return. That, I cannot accept. That thought does not free me or bring me peace. I can face the spiritual practice of reckoning with my finitude, but not with his. I need him to be perfect and healthy and strong and live forever, right? So this year, as A. and I prepare to watch our hearts wander out in the world in this boy, Ash Wednesday did not feel centering, and Easter didn’t offer the final consolation that I wanted.

And as I find myself called upon to preach texts of two women, widows, with dead sons, and I can’t help but think about Ash Wednesday and the son I’m carrying, no matter how much I really don’t want to. I have to and I hate to entertain empathy with these women, to put myself in their position. No matter how the story ends—and it ends really well—that’s not quite good enough, is it? When I begin to meditate on and enter imaginatively into these tales, I enter into every new parent’s new greatest nightmare.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “Preaching is not something a minister does for fifteen minutes on Sundays, but what the whole congregation does all week long; it is a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.” Now that’s a lovely idea. I like that preaching happens in the world, and is something we all do together—but I don’t know what we might do with it here. When I think about these stories of death and resurrection, first in the Hebrew Bible, and then echoed throughout the gospel passage, it is surprisingly difficult for me to glean God from the text. I can connect to fear and grief, but it’s difficult for me to translate the good news when these miracles are so far removed from our lived experience, so different from what I’ve seen—painless and miraculous bodily healing is scarce, and such an instance of bodily resurrection is unknown to me. How do these narratives fit into our lives, and how can we make sense of them in a way that doesn’t cheapen either the truth of the gospel or the suffering of our bodies and the suffering of our grief? It’s hard to walk into these texts, but we must. They are part of our community story and I think this strange, sufficient insufficiency of this gospel, of a perfect, eternal life that is already here, but not quite, and waiting for us in fullness farther along—that is the heart of the Gospel. It is what we mean when we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

These two stories—the widows, the sons, the resurrection from death—are more than just a coincidence of our lectionary. They’ve been paired together on purpose, as scholars of the New Testament see a thread of Elijah in Luke’s descriptions of Jesus—Luke’s early audience would have seen the set up of this story and thought of the prophet immediately. So in reading the two stories together, we know that Luke wants to show that there’s something about Jesus that’s different than what past prophets and bearers of God have shown us.

To start with the Hebrew Bible, and keeping this in mind, I feel pretty bad for Elijah. Do you think he was bluffing? I’m not so sure that Elijah knew what was going to happen in this situation, that he had any certainty that this was going to turn out alright. (We do, of course. We read the bible with subheadings, and we can see the formulas unfolding in the story) He seems like someone who is desperate, haunted by the weight of his past suffering.

The poor guy keeps getting out of bad situations by the skin of his teeth. He finds refuge with the widow and her son. Seeing the miracle of replenishing oil and flour—but oh, you know they worried every single day whether it would be there, who wouldn’t?—maybe he is finally getting a sense of God’s presence and provision when it all comes crashing down with an untimely death and the widow’s accusation: You brought this! She is falling apart, rightly so, at the death of her son. Elijah isn’t doing much better. He takes the body of her boy away into the other room and is praying frantically. I’m struck by the word calamity. “My God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow?” There is so much overwhelm and anxiety in his speech. He stretches his own body against the son, crying out, and to me this seems less like some kind of formula or conjure, some form of healing prayer, and more the desperation of encountering untimely death, wanting against all odds for it not too be true.

And we’ve been there, right? When you get that phone call that knocks the breath out of you and crumbles you to your knees? When you feel so broken and grieved that you would lay your own body down if it would make any difference? We hope against hope, like our desperate prophet here, and fling ourselves into the grace and power of God.

Then we move to Luke and see that Elijah’s desperation, his need for something bigger in that moment, points us to Christ. In the gospel reading, we see a different posture from Jesus. Elijah comes into the story solitary and depleted, perhaps anxiously anticipating a different sort of reception and provision from God, perhaps disappointed that his provision comes from a poor woman with barely enough oil and flour for breakfast. But Jesus has just healed the centurion’s boy and comes upon the grieving widow as part of a joyful crowd.

Just as he weeps at the death of his friend Lazarus, he is moved by the broken hearts. He is human with us, has compassion on this woman and suffers with her. And in confidence, rather than distress, Jesus addresses her boy: “Young man, I say to you, rise!” then gives the son to his mother, gives both of them back to the land of the living.

Can you even imagine what these mothers and sons might have talked about over breakfast the next morning? How long would it take to wrap their minds around what had happened, if they ever could? People would line up outside to peek in the windows and see whether the rumors were true! And one day, these widows’ sons’ funerals would happen again, another afternoon years later, and the mourners would tell this wild story of a young boy and his grieved mother, given a new lease on life by the prophet, by the strange Galilean.

And that’s just the thing—there will be another funeral. These stories don’t show us an impartation of immortality or magic. They show us perfectly imperfect resurrections. Both of these boys and their mothers go on to die and grieve another day, and we aren’t told what joys and sorrows wait for these families over the rest of their lives. This miracle doesn’t show us a squeaky clean resolution to all suffering. It is both overwhelmingly enough, abundance and life, and it is also a delay of the inevitable. It’s an imperfect resurrection that points us back to Christ, whose resurrection from the dead shines in ten thousand places, giving hope for life eternal, both after death and in the present moments of life.

Rowan Williams writes that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ “is the abiding sign of God’s presence in the world. The empty grave, that strange and ambivalent sign, stands as our reminder that the life of Jesus is not over, not limited and defined and tidied up. He is with us. In every extremity, every horror and pain, Jesus is accessible as the one who continued to make God’s loving presence wholly present in the depth of his own anguish and abandonment…This is the Lord, God in flesh, God made known in history, God fearing, struggling and suffering; the only God we know or can know, the glory of God in the face of Christ, love and healing in human hands and eyes—how else could we grasp it?”

How else can we gasp the resurrection but in these imperfect and fleeting ways? We find God’s loving presence wholly present in the creation of new songs that Becca called us to last week. In those Easter wildflowers in front of the A-Frame, taking root and taking over those garden beds. There is a small, imperfect resurrection in asking the forgiveness of our partners and children when we’ve failed, and starting over again the next moment or the next morning. And there are cruel, serious resurrections: the family I worked with as a pediatric chaplain who, after losing their little girl, courageously chose organ donation—a small spot of resurrection in the midst of grief and death. There is an imperfect resurrection in the work of an amazing cellist, Vedran Smailovic of the Sarajevo orchestra. He sets up his music stand at the scenes of terrorism and bombing in his community and plays beautiful music in tribute and grief—a small but powerful act of resurrection resistance to suffering and death. All of these small resurrections, incomplete moments of hope in the the midst of our human condition remind us that against all odds, God’s grace is sufficient. The imperfect resurrections point us back to this larger story: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Amen.

gentle baby and myrrh