Monday, October 25, 2010

resurrection people

Today we had our first noonday Eucharist since the fire on Friday. We worshiped in the chapel down the street, and while it was strange to be in a different place, it was nice to have been offered a place to worship. The dean spoke, and he just has a really great way of putting things. [I'll post his sermon once it appears on the school's website] He reminded us that although we aren't in the same place, we are with the same people, reading familiar words, singing familiar songs, and praying familiar prayers. He said that we won't ever know why this world was created with the need for healing, but we do know that Christ steps in and provides that healing, over and over again. And in our service, we continue to give thanks for all that God does for us.

Bishop Johnston (of VA) spoke to us as well. He said that he mourned with us, and that people all over the world were praying for us. I was once again overwhelmed with the knowledge that so many people in so many places were and have been taking time out of their day to check in on us or to mention us in their prayers. The generosity of the surrounding communities (specifically Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill's Zabriskie Chapel, Episcopal High School, and even Beth El Hebrew Congregation!) has been especially moving. The Bishop called us to be a "Resurrection people," a people continuing the witness of Christ's work in the world despite--no, because of--our loss. He then highlighted the second verse of the song we were about to sing, All My Hope on God is Founded (Hymn 665 in our hymnal, but this British version has slightly different words. Here's the words from our hymnal: "...though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust. But God's power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower"). I can't really expand on that--the words speak for themselves.

Since getting back to campus on Saturday night, I have sensed a change within the community and within me. The briefing by the Dean was followed by Evening Prayer and then community dinner. It made my heart glad to see so many people--even spouses and commuters!--eating together. As my friend Liz said, "We do community really well," and this has only been amplified. There's an intentionality, a richness around everything--especially things that happen in church. At my field ed church yesterday I noticed the loud crack when the celebrant broke the Host at the Eucharist. It was almost as if something inside me had snapped, as if I could sense for the first time what the words "this is my Body, broken for you" really mean. And today at the Eucharist we sang louder and spoke with more conviction than ever before.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are witnessing to the light, that we truly are being "Resurrection people."

Saturday, October 23, 2010


I'm sitting in the living room in my parent's house trying to process all that has happened in the past 18 or so hours. I'm at home because one of my high school friends got married yesterday, and I got to be a bridesmaid. As we were waiting in a back room to take pictures, I saw that one of my friends from school was calling. I didn't answer because we were busy. But then, I saw another friend from school was calling, and I knew something must be up. She was sobbing and told me that our school's chapel was in flames. I didn't know what to say, and as I stood there in shock another friend from school called. I got off the phone with both pretty quickly but I was shaken as we went into the sanctuary. I told the other bridesmaids but not the bride--this was her day. But being in a church and having to put on a happy face while knowing that our church was burning as I stood there was not an easy thing. I felt like I was in the wrong place--I wanted to be at school grieving with my sisters and brothers. I felt almost as if I was betraying our school by celebrating.

The wedding ceremony was beautiful, and the bride and groom were blissfully happy. Their smiles warmed my heart. During the service, I listened closely to what the pastor said. Each word for me held tension but also a deeper meaning than normal--I was hungry for words of comfort, and in a strange way, although the reading had nothing to do with the fire, it somehow was appropriate. The message was one of love; a love that knows no bounds, that outlasts times of hurt and pain and grief.

Throughout the night I was touched by calls from my friends at school and by the people at the wedding who knew about what had happened checking on me. One of my friends actually called because he hadn't seen me all day and wanted to make sure I hadn't burned down with the building! I knew that the VTS community was gathering and praying, and though I wished I could have been there with them, by their reaching out to me, I was.

I got back home late last night. The reception was great and I managed to have a good time--dancing and singing and talking with old friends helped take my mind off of the events for a while. This morning I woke up and trudged downstairs to my computer to finally take a look at pictures. I cried as I watched videos and the pictures people posted. I loved our mismatched little chapel. I loved the windows, the mismatched wood; it had personality. It was eclectic, just like the Episcopal Church. It wasn't fancy, but a humble hodgepodge--a testimony to people who had gone on before us. So many prayers and beautiful music and sermons were lifted up in that space. Like many others before me, I received so much encouragement from looking at the words behind the altar: "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel."

What has really surprised and made me proud is the response of my classmates. Their status messages are largely ones of hope amidst this tragedy. Of treasured memories. We are all reeling, but in the words of the dean, "We're a community that transcends bricks and mortar." Yes, we are hurting. Yes, this has been a tragedy. But like the phoenix, we will rise from the ashes; we will get through this, and we will come out of it stronger. God is present here, and I look to the future with hope.

(Special thanks to Cayce R. for his photos)

Monday, October 18, 2010

a reflection on church leadership

For those of you not in my homiletics class, here is a copy of the sermon I gave last week. Everyone in the class had to preach from the same text, Mark 5:21-43, and it has been interesting to see that even though we all read the same passage, each person has had a different angle or approach. Here's mine:

[please note that my audience was made up of my classmates; I probably wouldn't preach the same sermon to a congregation]

There are some stories in the Bible that immediately resonate with me. At first glance, I hear echoes of my own story within the account of the hemorrhaging woman, and it is tempting to stay in that familiar space. But as seminary continues and our ordinations begin to loom on the horizon, I am finding that it is Jairus' tale that calls out to me particularly strongly these days.

As you all are well aware, Jairus is a spiritual leader. He is respected, a man with authority and someone people can turn to for answers to life's hardest questions. He has been entrusted with helping to guide the people of God, and with that trust comes certain expectations of how he ought to behave.

We, as future clergy, are also expected to behave in certain ways. According to the ordination services found in our Book of Common Prayer, we are to fashion our lives "in a manner...suitable to the exercise of this ministry." We are to be a "wholesome example" of Christian life; model citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, leading the way for our flocks to follow.

Now, I can't speak for you, but I drive myself (and probably others) crazy with trying to be morally upright. I can get so caught up with doing things the 'correct' or 'appropriate' way that I end up missing out on a lot. In this constant--dare I say obsessive?--pursuit of perfection, I alienate myself from others and especially from God. I operate as if I can handle it on my own, as if God needs me and not vice versa. Naturally, this expectation is unrealistic; perfection is unattainable. When the collar goes on, it's not as if we are automatically given super powers to defend ourselves against sin and temptation. Our vocation does not make us a better person or a better leader. If I think that I will have all of the answers once I graduate, then I haven't really learned much at all.

I wonder what went through Jairus' head that day. Jesus was not exactly the most well-liked man among people in Jairus' circle; I am sure that leaders felt threatened by his teachings and actions, not to mention his popularity. And so, when Jairus approaches Jesus, I think it is safe to assume that he does not make this decision lightly. He is probably aware that eyes will be watching him. Aware that there will be whispers and that his authority could come into question. But he is also probably aware that his little girl is fighting for her life and that none of his power or pride or wealth of knowledge will help her. And so he falls before Jesus, publicly admitting that he cannot do it on his own.

I don't know about you, but a lot of the time I feel like collapsing under the weight of all this pressure. I question whether I am pious enough, I am studying enough, and whether I really get it. And, should I get it, am I even able to relate this to the people I am serving? The thing is, I think that most people don't want to have perfect priests. I imagine they want priests who can relate to their struggling, who can admit that they, too, grapple with the hard texts and with trying to follow Jesus. But who, despite or maybe because of their brokenness, think that this wrestling is worth it and are committed to spending their lives doing so.

Jairus lays everything out in front of his peers, in front of the crowd, but most especially in front of Jesus. It must have been scary to be so exposed. Perhaps even humiliating to have to repeat his request multiple times without receiving an answer. And yet, when it seems as if all hope is lost and his begging has been in vain, Jesus turns to him and says "Do not fear, only believe." And what follows is not only the restoration of his daughter but resurrected hope.

We are called to be a forward-looking people, a people of hope, a people living into the promise that the future holds. The good news--and it really is Good News--is that the God who called us will not abandon us. We see throughout our history that God calls people not because they are capable but because they are utterly dependent on God, allowing God to work through them. Turning to God and admitting that we need assistance is not weakness, but a source of strength, for the grace of God makes up for what we lack. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, "Only when we are empty can we be filled again. Only when we admit that we don't know will we create space for God to fill." May we have the humility, like Jairus, to acknowledge our dependence on God alone, trusting that God will fill us and use us for God's purpose and believing that miraculous things can happen with God's help. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

first sermon at St. Mark's

As many of you know, I am the seminarian at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, in Alexandria, VA. Here's a copy of my first sermon there, given on 10/10/10 (couldn't resist). The text was Luke 17:11-19.

May the words of my mouth and the mediation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

"On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"

Leprosy is a horrible disease. Not only can it produce disfiguration, but almost all of the cases result in numbness, the person losing the ability to sense temperature, then touch, pressure and pain. However, I imagine that even more detrimental than the physical effects is the alienation. Lepers in Jesus' time were ostracized since people regarded them as unclean, thought it was a highly contagious disease, and believed it was a sign of God's punishment. If your neighbor got sick it was because he had offended God in some way. And so the lepers, knowing their place in society, call out to Jesus from a distance, at the edges of the crowd--on the periphery.

I don't know about you, but I find it easy to identify with the lepers in this story. We hear on the news--especially recently--that many people feel alone, marginalized by friends, classmates, or even family members because of their sexuality, social or economic status, race, age, gender or religious preference, to name a few. From the taunts on the bleachers, to the whispers of co-workers, to the furtive glances in our direction--it's a dehumanizing feeling. Maybe you have felt it, too. But the thing is, even if we have felt like this, we are not the only ones to have experienced isolation.

Jesus knew what it meant to feel completely and utterly alone. This passage begins with a stark reminder that the Way is not an easy one. We hear that Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, a road that, yes, leads to his triumphant resurrection, but not before he endures suffering and abandonment himself. He is alone in the wilderness, alone in the garden of Gethsemane--alone on the cross. He knew what the road to Jerusalem had in store for him.

And yet, he continued on this journey, intentionally reaching out to those whom society overlooked or ignored. Whom society deemed unworthy and unclean. In Luke's account, especially, we see a picture of Jesus as a champion of the outsiders. He continuously pushes against the accepted boundaries of society to welcome sinners, tax collectors, and even foreigners with different religious beliefs and practices, like the Samaritans. There is no limit to his love, and when Jesus sees the 10 lepers he has compassion for them. 

Now Jesus' command for the lepers to show themselves to the priests is interesting, because the Law stated that this action could only take place after someone had been healed and was therefore clean again. Whether they have responded to this command out of faith--or because they feel that they have nothing to lose--is unclear, but this much is clear: there is something about Jesus that has made them reach out to him. There is something about Jesus that gives them hope, and as they make their way to the temple they are healed of their disease. 

In trying to picture what this must have looked like, I visualize the lepers walking slowly, lost either in their thoughts or in conversation. Suddenly, one of them notices a tingling sensation crawling up his legs, you know, like the tingling that comes after your foot has fallen asleep?  He looks down in confusion and then amazement as he sees that the lesions that peppered his feet have disappeared! He begins jumping and shouting, alerting the others, who then notice that they have been healed as well. They laugh at being able to feel the heat of the sun on their skin again, and weep, embracing and touching their faces over and over to make sure that this is really happening. Whether or not it actually takes place exactly like this, Jesus has given them the chance to rejoin life as respected members of society. Their world, which had seemed so dark and uninviting just a moment before, has suddenly turned into a world filled with light and promise. 

We aren't told what happens to 9 of the lepers. Maybe they followed through and saw the priests; perhaps some of them ran home first to share the good news and to be reunited with their families, friends and neighbors. But we are told that one of them decides to turn around. He recognizes the source of his healing and wants to thank Jesus personally. Jesus is surprised that only one person returned--and that one a foreigner, no less. You see, all 10 lepers were healed, but only one of them was transformed. 

The opportunity for transformation can be found in the simplest of interactions. When I was in high school my youth group went on a mission trip to Nashville, TN. Our task was to serve meals in a shelter for homeless men. When we finished serving we would join the men in the dining room, sharing stories and trading jokes, amazed to discover how much we had in common. At the end of the week one of the men gave us a poem he had written about how much our group had meant to him; how much we had brightened his day and given him hope for the future. He told us that since he'd been there, we were the first youth group to have had conversations with the men; most kids served them and then left to go sightseeing downtown. He appreciated that we saw them as people, and not just as a project. This experience taught us that it doesn't take much to make a difference in someone's life. 

I think that most of us have come to St. Mark's because we are seeking something more from life than our own personal lives. We want to belong somewhere; we are hungry for experiences of God's love. And we come here to get fed by the community and by a shared meal around this table. Communion nourishes our souls and gives us the spiritual strength we need to face the rest of the week. The world outside these doors is filled with lonely, hurting and hungry people. When we reach out to them, we let them know that they are not alone; that we, too, have felt lonely, scared and rejected. When we reach out, we are following in Jesus' footsteps. When we reach out, it is our way of turning around and thanking the source of our healing and nourishment. Who knows? The next time we look into their eyes, we might just see Jesus' reflection looking back at us.