Sunday, December 30, 2012

light shines in the darkness

All Saints Episcopal Church
December 29-30, 2012
First Sunday after Christmas, Year C
Here are the readings for today.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). 

May only God’s word be spoken, and may only God’s word be heard. Amen.

photo of light on Bald Head Island by Daniel Stroud, December 2012

I’m just going to go ahead and put this out there: I am afraid of the dark. There, I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of the dark; always have been. And not in the, “Oh, the dark’s a little bit creepy” kind of way. I’m talking hair-raising, quake-in-my-snow boots kind of scared. I’m not afraid when there are other people around, but when it’s just me and the dark, I’m terrified. Case in point: my housemates have been gone this week, and while I have enjoyed having plenty of introvert time, when night comes I have to dash from each room as soon as I turn off the light. It’s ridiculous.

I bet some of you (whether or not you admit it) are afraid of the dark, too. But what exactly are we afraid of? What is it about the darkness that scares us? The dean of my seminary shared an interesting story in one of his classes. He had had the opportunity to travel to Africa, and in one of the conversations with the people there he asked them if they had doubts about God. “Of course!” they exclaimed. But when the Dean probed further, he discovered that what they questioned was not the existence of God, but rather whether or not God was strong enough to overcome the darkness in the world. 

We are constantly being reminded that we are surrounded by darkness, that we live in a broken world: violence, hunger, poverty, crime, war, disease, genocide. 

But Scripture is full of instances of where the light is not overcome by the darkness. Let’s start in the beginning. 1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). But also “[i]n the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). And the Word that God spoke brought forth light and “separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4). The very first creation is light! God was overcoming the darkness from the beginning of time! 

And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). We heard about this just a few days ago, but perhaps, if you’re like me, you got distracted by the image of the cute little baby and forgot to take in what this birth really meant. In a dirty stable, surrounded by smelly animals and rotting hay, when the teenage Mary lovingly peered down into her son’s face she was, in fact, looking upon the face of God. God, the Creator of the universe, the one who separated the light from the darkness, chose to demonstrate God’s love for creation by living within human limitations. The child Jesus grew up to be a man whose teaching and healing “made [God] known,” helped us to better understand this God who is so enigmatic (John 1:18). Jesus, the “true light,” referred to himself as “the light of the world” several times in John’s version of the Gospel (John 1:9; 8:12, 9:5). At one point he even explains, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness” (John 12:46). Up until Jesus, the only way we knew how to relate to God was through a complex system of rules and rituals. But when Jesus was born, God went from being way beyond our grasp to being made of the same atoms and molecules, having flesh and feelings just like us, able to fully understand and appreciate what it means to be human. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we learned more about what God was really like and how we could better relate to God and to each other. God in Jesus pulled us away from the barrier we had created between us, pulled us away from the darkness. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4). 

God is not finished with us, just yet. In the final chapter of the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, Jesus describes himself as the “bright morning star,” foreshadowing things to come (Revelation 22:16). The morning star appears just before the sun rises; it heralds the dawn. A new day lies on the horizon, waiting to break forth and scatter the darkness. The light that was at the beginning of creation, that was born on earth over 2,000 years ago, will return to us! “[T]he home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). “5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). God will, once and for all, overcome the darkness.

In the meantime, darkness still remains. Yet we are not powerless against it. One of the most moving scenes in all of the Harry Potter films comes in the sixth movie, right after one of the main characters dies. As the students and teachers gather around his broken body, the group responsible for his death places a symbol in the sky known as the Dark Mark. The Dark Mark consists of a skull with a snake slithering through it, a terrifying reminder of the power of the forces of evil and darkness. However, rather than cower or remain incapacitated by fear and anguish, a single teacher raises her wand, projecting a small beam of light onto the Mark. One by one other teachers and students raise their wands, filling the Dark Mark with such light that it is turned into vapor. The light shines in the darkness. 

Lights shone in the darkness when people held candlelight vigils after the recent tragedy in Connecticut. Light shines in the darkness whenever we take a stand against poverty, violence, disease, and injustice. Light shines in the darkness whenever we move from exclusion and hate to inclusion and love.

Throughout the ages, this reading from John has provided a sense of comfort when tragedy strikes and we begin to fear that the darkness will win. It reminds us that the God who created us, who came to earth and “lived among us,” who “destroyed death,” rose again, and promised to return, will defeat the darkness (John 1:14, BCP 374). Indeed; God already has. 

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5; italics my own emphasis).

Scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Sunday, December 16, 2012

o come o come emmanuel

All Saints Episcopal Church
Advent 3, Year C
Today's readings

“O come thou Dayspring from on high
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Amen.
("O Come O come Emmanuel," H 56)

Rejoice! Rejoice! Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is nicknamed Gaudete Sunday. Now "gaudete" is the Latin word for "rejoice." Three out of the four readings for today call us to rejoice. Traditionally, this Sunday is meant to be a pick-me-up during the season of waiting and preparation, a foretaste of what the future holds, a little bit of light and comfort as the days grow shorter and the temperature drops. But this weekend hasn’t really lent itself to much rejoicing.

Friday morning a man walked into an elementary school and killed 26 people, then himself. As the day went on, I sat in horror as I discovered the details of what had happened. My heart broke as I saw pictures of panicked children and hysterical parents broadcast on TV and across the internet. Among the dead were the principal, the school psychologist, teachers, and 20 kids. I cannot even begin to imagine how terrified the children must have been as gunshots interrupted their morning lessons. Or what their parents felt like as they desperately tried to find out if their children had survived. Or the grief upon learning that their kid hadn't.

This is supposed to be a happy time of preparation to welcome the Christ-child, of carols and decorating and making travel arrangements, not funeral arrangements.

Whenever tragedies like this happen we can go through a host of emotions: shock, fear, sadness, anger, distrust, and perhaps even numbness. These are all perfectly normal and appropriate feelings; a school is supposed to be a safe place, not the site of a mass shooting. But, unfortunately, cases like these are becoming increasingly common in this country. There have now been ten mass shootings in the U.S. --just in this year, alone: 7 killed in Oakland, CA, in April. 3 African American men killed and 2 wounded in a racially motivated killing in Tulsa, OK, also in April. 5 plus the shooter killed in Seattle in May. 12 dead and 58 wounded in an Aurora, CO, movie theater in July. 6 members of the Sikh community killed as they prepared a community meal in Wisconsin last August. 5 plus the shooter killed in Minneapolis in September. 2 plus the shooter killed in Oregon just this past Tuesday. The shooting in Connecticut Friday. And one more yesterday morning in Alabama, in the hospital where I was born. There have been 65 mass shootings since January of last year ( And it’s not just happening somewhere else; it’s in our backyard. Many of you will remember the shooting 5 years ago that resulted in the deaths of 8 people plus the shooter, just a mile and a half from here at the Von Maur department store. When gun violence claims the lives of 86 people each day in the states (, there is no denying that we live in a broken world.

Times like these bring up many questions: Why did this happen? How could a loving God let innocent children die? Why didn't God intervene? Where was God, anyway?

Many theologians have struggled with these questions over the years. There are a myriad of responses, but what nearly all of them have in common is that they believe that evil is a consequence of free will. Evil exists because we can choose whether or not to act out of love, and as we see all too clearly, some choose not to act out of love.

I’m not convinced that we can ever really know the answers to these difficult questions. But I firmly believe that God does not wish tragedies like this to happen. God does not enjoy the suffering of God's people. God does not want parents left staring at unopened Christmas presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

We were not created to live lives filled with pain and sorrow.

I believe this because we worship a God who knows first-hand the meaning of pain, loss, and death. In just over a week we will celebrate Jesus' birth. But the quaint, familiar image of God's Son lying in a humble feeding trough is not the whole story. We tend to forget that shortly after Jesus’s birth, an angel came to Joseph, warning the Holy Family that Herod was not too pleased with all the attention the baby was getting. Mary and Joseph took Jesus and fled to Egypt. While they were gone, in a move reminiscent of that of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Herod had every boy age 2 and under killed (Exodus 1:15-22; Matthew 2:16).

Jesus was born into a culture of violence, and eventually suffered a violent death at the hands of the Romans. At the end, stripped of his clothes and abandoned by his closest friends, he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, a reference to Psalm 22). Christ knows what it means to be scared, helpless, and alone.

We remember Christ’s brokenness each time we celebrate the Eucharist: “do this for the remembrance of me” (BCP 362). We memorialize Christ broken on the cross. But Christ crucified is not the end of the story; death does not have the final word. Christ has conquered death and triumphed over the grave.

We live in the hope that Emmanuel, God with us, will return again someday. "On that day," Zephaniah tells us, "you shall fear disaster no more,"--it will be a time of celebration, homecoming, and rejoicing (Zephaniah 3:15). During times of pain, suffering, anger, and death, we remember the hope we have in Christ. We remember that death is not the end. And we remember that Christ will come again.

Until that day, we pray, O come, o come, Emmanuel.

Huffington Post article
PolitiFact article 
photo of Nebraska sunrise

Sunday, November 18, 2012

how can we keep from singing?

All Saints Episcopal Church
Proper 28, Year B
November 18, 2012

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.

We’ve come to the time of year when darkness is more prevalent than light. The days are shorter, the air is colder, and each morning it becomes more difficult to get out of our warm beds. The recent Superstorm Sandy and nor’easter have plunged many on the East Coast into darkness, thousands of whom remain without power to this day. This summer we experienced the worst drought in half a century. And on the horizon, there are “wars and rumors of wars”: Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Sudan, Iran (Mark 13:7). We might feel as if we are experiencing the “birthpangs” mentioned in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 13:8).

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews are experiencing darkness as well. The letter is addressed to a community of Jewish and Gentile believers undergoing hardships, possibly even persecution. Written 30 to 60 years after Jesus’ death, it takes place in an era where to be a Christian means risking one’s life. Just think about what some of the earliest apostles go through: Paul and Peter travel all over, delivering the good news of Jesus Christ. In return, Paul is beheaded by the Romans and Peter is crucified--upside down. Before Christianity is made the official religion of Rome in the 300s, Christians are forced to choose between their faith or their lives. Surprisingly, many choose their faith.

Understandably, the community of believers receiving the letter is weary and disheartened, and many have stopped gathering or participating in worship. In response, the author of Hebrews is trying to lift up his audience’s spirits, to encourage them to persevere in the midst of tribulation. The author stresses that although it may appear that the darkness is taking over and hope is but a distant memory, actually the opposite is true. What we are experiencing is the in-between times: Christ has conquered sin and death, but the final victory remains to be seen.

Christ has conquered sin. Instead of sin clinging to us like a reappearing stain that must be scrubbed out again and again, we have been washed clean through the “single offering” of the incarnate Lord (v. 14). This does not mean that we shouldn’t own up to things that we’ve done wrong; it means that we don’t let our past mistakes take control of our life. Our hearts are “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water” (v. 22). Purified, we are now able to approach the world in a “new and living way” (v. 20).

Christ has conquered death. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we escape adversity. We know this. But whatever struggles we go through, whatever hardships we face on earth, we know that this life is not the end. Because of Christ, death has “no dominion” over us (Romans 6:9). Our stories are not finished when we take our final breath; the epilogue will contain wonders too glorious for us to even imagine!

With this knowledge of our salvation, we are able to face even the darkest nights of the soul. This is exactly what the first Christians did. They could not keep this Good News of Jesus Christ to themselves; they were compelled to share it with the world, no matter the cost. Through adversity they found strength. They knew that they were not alone; their God had come down from heaven to “share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to [God]” (BCP 362). Christ walked the same dusty roads, he shared meals with friends and strangers, he experienced disappointment, failure, loneliness, heartbreak, and a violent death. And he did all this for us! With such a demonstration of love, in the words of a Christian hymn, “How can [we] keep from singing?” In one of Paul’s final letters, as he was sitting in jail, contemplating his imminent death, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

So how do we respond to Christ’s amazing act of love? The author of the letter to the Hebrews suggests that since Christ has sanctified us, made us holy, we are therefore called to live a life that is holy. But what is a holy life?

A holy life is a life of confidence. Christ, in his death, defeated death. In the water of baptism “we are buried with Christ in his death...share in his resurrection...[and] are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (BCP 306). When we are baptized, our sins are forgiven (BCP 858). Rather than come to worship with our heads bowed and brow furrowed, the author of the letter invites us to let go of our fear and guilt, and live confidently with the knowledge of our salvation through Christ.

A holy life is a life of community: we encourage, excite, and sometimes nudge one another. In the baptismal covenant, we promise to break bread together, to repent when we “fall into sin...proclaim...the Good News of God in Christ...” love our neighbors, “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 304-305). We are able to do this with God’s help, and by helping each other. Sometimes that means speaking against the existing conditions: think Martin Luther King, Jr., writing to fellow Christian leaders in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Sometimes it means sharing successes. In a world where it seems like mostly bad things are happening and where Christianity seems to be growing obsolete, we come together as a community to recount tales of hope that inspire us to continue to love and do “good deeds” (v. 24).

A holy life is a life of hope. Living in in-between times is not easy. But the God who formed the earth and all creation, who brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt to the promised land, who healed the sick and calmed the stormy seas, who hung upon the cross to once and forever free us from sin and death--that same God will not abandon us. We are an Easter people; we live with the hope of resurrection, we know that death does not have the final word. Despite what is going on outside or what difficulties we face, we “hold fast” because we know that the one “who has promised is faithful” (v. 23).

Finally, a holy life is a life of anticipation. Although the stores may have gotten a jumpstart on Christmas music, in two weeks we begin the season of Advent, preparing for the arrival of the incarnate Lord in our midst. The light of Christ coming into the world pierces the darkness that threatens to consume us. But the birthpangs of a young Jewish girl in a crude stable are also a foreshadowing of the birthpangs announcing his return. We “see the Day approaching” when “Christ will come again,” and “we await his coming in glory” (v. 25, BCP 363, 368). In this in-between time, we face whatever comes our way, “approach[ing] with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (v. 22).

Until that Day comes,

“[Our] life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
[We] hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
[We] hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in [our] soul[s]—
How can [we] keep from singing?

(How Can I Keep From Singing? by Robert Wadsworth Lowry)

My Goddaughter and her twin brother making music

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

it's a matter of trust

Sermon from October 14, 2012 (my first attempt at a stewardship sermon!) Here is a link to a recording of my sermon (only up temporarily).

Here are the readings (I chose Amos). I preached on Mark 10:17-31.


“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Amen.

Last week in Genesis we learned about how God made us stewards of creation. This week in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us about being stewards of wealth. 

Now, even back then, money was not a comfortable topic, and you can practically see the disciples grimacing and groaning as Jesus broaches it. The whole discussion begins, as most of them do, while they are traveling on the road. A man comes running up and throws himself on the ground in front of Jesus. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17). Jesus replies with a summary of the commandments that deal with relationships between people. The man replies that he’s a faithful Jew; he’s kept the commandments his whole life. Jesus searches the man’s face and smiles, loving him. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor...then come, follow me” (v. 21). At this point the man leaves dejected, “shocked...and grieving, for he ha[s] many possessions” (v. 22). 

Over the years, it seems the man in this passage has been painted as a miserly, Scrooge-esque character. After all, when Jesus lists the commandments, he changes “You shall not covet” to “You shall not defraud.” Apparently, the man has been stingy with his wealth. The man believes that he has followed the commandments, but perhaps not as closely as he thinks. It’s not that the man is rich that’s keeping him from eternal life. It’s that his wealth gets in the way of how he treats others, and therefore gets in the way of his relationship with God. “Jesus...discerns in the rich man’s wealth an obstruction to his participation in the dominion of God and calls him, for his own good, to abandon it and follow him” (Marcus* 723). As singer Billy Joel would say, “It’s a matter of trust.” 

Back in Jesus’ time, wealth was thought to be a reward from God for being faithful (this is why it is so shocking to his disciples when Jesus says that the wealthy have a hard time entering the kingdom of God). This idea of wealth as a reward has resurfaced recently in what is known as the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel claims that God wants us to be happy, so if we are truly faithful, then we will receive economic prosperity. But joy is not found in material wealth. True happiness is found by being in right relationship with others and with God. In today’s world, the idea of giving away all one’s possessions is counterintuitive. The whole concept of money and possessions is that they keep you wanting more. Bored with your wardrobe? Get the latest fashions! Missing the latest technology? Update to a newer model! Have a bad day? Fix it with retail therapy! I succumb to this over and over again. But the problem is that accumulating more things or more money does not replace the emptiness. Only God can fill that void. We are called to trust that God will provide for us, that God really will fill that void. 

“You lack one thing,” Jesus tells the man. What is the one thing you lack? What is the one thing that gets in your way of trusting God completely? For some of us, like the man in the story, it could be money or possessions. Or it could be holding grudges. Or maybe it’s guilt, busyness, self-consciousness, or pride. Whatever it is, Jesus is inviting us to let it go, to release its hold over us, and to follow him. 

“What must I do?” the man in the story asks. But the thing is, his question misses the point. There is nothing we can do. We cannot inherit eternal life on our own; the very word inherit implies this. Just as inheritances are given, so eternal life is given to us. It is God’s to give, not ours to earn. We trust that God will save a place for us. 

I’ve always felt a little sorry for the man in this passage. He seems to be genuine in his attempt to live a life of faith, to follow the commandments. And Jesus loves him for it, as a father loves his child. This is the only time Jesus is said to love anyone in Mark’s Gospel; it should give us hope! Jesus loves us when we try, even though we fall short--and we all fall short. None of us can follow all the rules, none of us can enter the kingdom. It’s impossible. But not for God. “[F]or God all things are possible" (v. 27). 

Most people think that the man walks away grieving because he realizes he is unable to give up his many possessions. But we actually don’t know what happens to him; the passage leaves his fate open-ended. Here again we find hope. There’s a chance that the man grieves for a while, then ultimately realizes that his possessions really aren’t making him happy. There’s a chance that he decides to let things go, trusting in the mercy and love that Jesus demonstrates time and time again. 

It is this trust that Jesus refers to in the section just before this passage, when he says that we can only enter the kingdom as little children. Children cannot provide for themselves; they must rely on their parents in order to survive. The man in this passage’s “ in delusive security afforded by his wealth prevents him from becoming a ‘child’ who relies exclusively on the [generosity] of the heavenly Father” (Marcus* 724). If he can only let go of his need to control his fate and trust that God will take care of him, then he will have removed his obstacle to eternal life. 

We are invited to examine our lives and see what is lacking. We are invited to explore what our priorities are and what we are able to let go of. We are fallen, but--in Jesus--God has torn down the barriers separating us from God. Listen: Jesus is reaching his hand out to us, calling us to follow him! Trust in him and enter the kingdom.  

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, ca. 1890

*Marcus, Joel. Mark 8-16. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2009. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

all creatures great and small

Sermonette from last Sunday (Oct 7, 2012). Here are the readings.

“The LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:18-19). 

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

We are gathered together today on this crisp fall morning to celebrate God’s glorious creation by sharing in the blessing of the animals. I’m guessing that many of you know that this tradition is a way we honor the memory of St. Francis of Assisi, the man who began the order that came to be known as the Franciscans. He was born a wealthy man, but gave up his wealth to embrace “Lady Poverty” and her life of simplicity. Francis might be most well known for his love of animals. He is said to have organized the first Christmas manger scene, so the next time you see a nativity set or play, you can thank him for the inclusion of camels, donkey, sheep, and other animals. In fact, Francis loved animals so much that some legends say he preached to flocks of birds and even blessed a wolf that had been terrorizing a village (don’t worry; he only blessed the wolf after he set up an arrangement between the wolf and the villagers). As silly as some of these stories sound, the point is that St. Francis recognized the true gift animals are in our lives. Not only do they bring us joy, they are some of life’s best teachers.

Growing up, my first pets were a pair of goldfish named Jack and Jill. Now, the two of them were pretty and all, but all they did was swim in circles; I couldn’t teach them tricks. What I really wanted was a dog. Being the oldest of four, I took it upon myself to make this petition to our parents. We had been begging them for years, but when I was 15 or 16 I decided to show them that I really meant it this time. I went to the library to research what breeds were good with children and what were the best methods of caring for and training them. When I presented my parents with what I had researched, they finally agreed to start looking for a dog. When we finally chose a dog, I, as the oldest, became in charge of taking care of him. Caring for Muddles taught me about responsibility and sacrifice. I woke up 30 minutes early every morning to feed and then play with him. Granted, it was more difficult in the winter months when it was bitterly cold outside, but it was worth it to spend time with him, watching him grow from a puppy to a full grown dog. 

Muddles also taught me about selfless love, forgiveness, and pure, unadulterated joy; he was always happy and excited to see me when I got home from school. I used to chase him or get him to chase me. Then I would fall down exhausted and play dead, which would cause him to come sniff my face and ears, which--of course--would tickle and cause me to laugh, which would make him bounce around gleefully, which would cause me to laugh harder. I treasure these happy memories. 

Another thing Muddles taught me about was the value of life. Unfortunately, our pets do not have the same life span as we do, and when that sad day comes, it is if we have lost a family member. One morning we woke up to find that Muddles had died in his little house, facing the back door. We went out back by the creek, dug a hole, and buried him in his blanket. Then each of us stood around his grave and shared our favorite memories of him. He had lived life to the fullest, and our lives were fuller because of him. 

In today’s reading from Genesis, we hear from the second creation story. In this account, God creates Adam first, and then all the other creatures. Did you notice that when Adam needed a helper as his partner, God did not immediately jump to Eve? Instead, God “formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air” (Gen. 2:18). I think that God realized how much we get from their companionship, how much we can learn from them. You see, when we care for animals, we learn how to care for each other better. St. Francis said it best: “If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”* The love we show our pets is a model for the love we have for one another, and a window into the love Christ has for us.

On this day of animal blessings, pause for a moment and think about the animals that are or have been a part of your life. Think about their sloppy greetings, the gifts they leave on the back porch, the joy they bring you. Even if you’ve never had a pet, you can still marvel at the beauty of God’s creatures: the graceful flight of the cranes at sunset, the adorable baby giraffe and sea lion at the zoo, the cows grazing peacefully in the pastures. God knew that we needed animals in our lives. Our world would be incomplete without them and our lives are richer because of them. And for that, we give thanks. 

My dad and Muddles

*You can find the St. Francis quote here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

experiencing eternity

On a day when I will have visited both someone leaving this world and someone who just entered it, I found today's meditation particularly relevant:

     "Eternity is not endless time or the opposite of time. It is the essence of time.
     If you spin a pinwheel fast enough, then all its colors blend into a single color--white--which is the essence of all the colors of the spectrum combined.
     If you spin time fast enough, then time-past, time-present, and time-to-come all blend into a single timelessness or eternity, which is the essence of all times combined.
     As human beings we know time as a passing of unrepeatable events in the course of which everything passes away including ourselves. As human beings, we also know occasions when we stand outside the passing of events and glimpse their meaning. Sometimes an event occurs in our lives (a birth, a death, a marriage--some event of unusual beauty, pain, joy) through which we catch a glimpse of what our lives are all about and maybe even what life itself is all about, and this glimpse of what 'it's all about' involves not just the present but the past and future too.
     Inhabitants of time that we are, we stand on such occasions with one foot in eternity. God, as Isaiah says (57:15) 'inhabiteth eternity' but stands with one foot in time. The part of time where he stands most particularly is Christ, and thus in Christ we catch a glimpse of what eternity is all about, what God is all about, and what we ourselves are all about too."

~Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner

 Image of pinwheel galaxy found here.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

called to respond

Sermon from September 22-23
Proper 20, Year B
Here are the readings for today (I preached on Mark 9:30-37).

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

In last week’s reading from Mark’s Gospel we heard Jesus’ first prediction of his death and resurrection. It started with Jesus asking the disciples who people thought he was, followed by who the disciples thought he was. Peter answered “You are the Messiah” (8:29). When Jesus began to describe what being the Messiah actually meant, Peter pulled him away from the group and rebuked him. Jesus, in turn, rebuked Peter, just as he rebuked evil spirits and the winds of the stormy Galilean sea: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (8:33).  

In today’s reading from Mark, when Jesus predicts his death and resurrection a second time, there is absolutely no reaction from the disciples. No protest, no questions, nothing. Based on how Jesus reacts to Peter before, it is understandable that the disciples are a little gun shy. The disciples do not respond to Jesus’ second death prediction at all, even though they don’t understand what he’s telling them. And they clearly don’t understand, because the very next thing that happens is that they argue among themselves. 

For the second time, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to be killed and rise again, and they begin to argue over who is the greatest. Are they trying to figure out who will replace Jesus after he dies? Do they just not get it?

If we think about it, Jesus’ death and resurrection is not an easy thing to understand, even in this post-Easter world. It’s tempting for us to look back and criticize the disciples for being clueless, to be impatient with their lack of understanding. But Jesus is patient, and explains what it means to follow him. You see, Jesus is not the Messiah the disciples expect him to be. His plan is not to lead the chosen people to overthrow the Roman government. No, his idea of leading--of power--is very different. Following Jesus is risky. After the first prediction of his death, Jesus says that anyone who follows him will have to “deny themselves and take up their cross,” which might lead to their deaths (8:34; 35). It’s as if he is saying, “Don’t follow me half-heartedly; be prepared to die for what you believe in.” 

After the second death prediction and the subsequent arguing of the disciples, Jesus attempts to describe the upside-down hierarchy of the Kingdom of God. When following Jesus, what makes you great is not how much power you obtain, but rather how much you give away. Your status in the heavenly kingdom improves when you lower your earthly status to that of a servant.  

As he is saying this, Jesus takes a little child into his lap. We might get distracted by the image of Jesus hugging an adorable kid, but Jesus is not just trying to be cutesy. You see, in those days children were considered the property of their parents, without freedom or rights until they reached adulthood. In fact, the Greek word for child can also mean slave.* To “welcome one such child” means to welcome someone who has no rights, who has to depend on the generosity of others for their sustenance. And in welcoming the weak, the poor, the oppressed, we welcome God. This goes beyond even the Southern hospitality that I grew up with; Jesus is describing intentional and radical hospitality.

This idea of radical hospitality might remind us of the stories in the Old Testament of people like Abraham and Lot entertaining angels in their midst. Or perhaps our thoughts turn to Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40). 

But what does it mean to be a “servant of all” (Mark 9:35)? What does radical hospitality look like in our world? Does it even exist today? The best example I have found is when I visited the country of Myanmar, also known as Burma. 

In a land bordering India, China, Thailand, and even Bangladesh, live the most hospitable people I have ever met. Almost everywhere you look there is a bowl of water outside buildings and homes for passers-by, in case a stranger is thirsty. At the Myanmar Beauty Hotel in the town of Taungoo, every effort was made to ensure that my group and I enjoyed our stay, including offering American dishes at every meal, in case we didn’t like the local options. Our hosts, the Bishop of Toungoo and his staff, went above and beyond to provide us with a good experience, from lending us the diocesan translator, to exchanging money, to driving us around town in his truck. Also, and this is a great example, at the Winner Inn in the former capital, Yangon, one of the hotel clerks spent the night going all over town searching for a missing camera that one of our group had accidentally dropped in a taxi. My friend had given up hope that she would ever see it again, but, lo and behold, the next morning the clerk was waiting for her in the lobby; he’d found the camera! 

At one point on my trip I wondered if my group and I had received such good treatment because we were foreigners, because they wanted to make a good impression on us. I soon found out that this radical hospitality was not just reserved for special guests; it permeated everyday life in Myanmar. When visiting the tiny village of Maw Bvi, children would run from house to house, and when neighbors saw that something was going on in another’s house, they simply walked in. There did not seem to be as much emphasis on something being strictly “mine” but, rather, a sense of “this belongs to my family” or “this is ours.” Therefore, people worked more readily together to make a living that would sustain them all. In the town of Bagan, when one of the pony-cart drivers was having difficulty with his horse, several people in the area came over to help him out. At a stand on the side of the road, the people selling crafts encouraged us to support one of their friends whose skill was climbing a very tall tree to fetch leaves, nuts, and fruit. And, again in Bagan, the pony-cart drivers recommended restaurants, stores, pagodas, and places for boat rides: people in the community helped one another out. Similarly, carpooling was a necessity. It was rare to find a vehicle with fewer than three people in it. In fact, there were often up to fifteen (or more!) people riding in a truck, crammed in the truck bed like sardines and then spilling out to hang from the outside or sit on the roof. In short, the way the people of Myanmar treated both strangers and each other was one of the many reasons I fell in love with the people there.

More than anything, from observing the way of life in Myanmar, I came away humbled. I had considered myself a “good” Christian (whatever that means) but in a mere month of my living there, the people I met in Myanmar demonstrated more genuine faith than I felt I had known in my lifetime. The best illustration of this would be when we went to Maw Bvi and visited the homes of local villagers. Two students from the local Anglican seminary, Holy Cross, went with me, and we took turns praying for the families we visited. In each of the three homes, we were presented with something to eat and drink. The first two families, at great personal cost, had purchased sweets and other wrapped food items that were safe for me to eat. I ate and drank a little at each one to be polite, so by the time we made it to the third one, I was stuffed! In the last home lived a brother and sister in their 50s or 60s. The brother had been in the army and his sister had worked in a shoe factory. Decorating the thatched walls of their simple home were old calendars and a couple pictures; they were the least well-off of the people we had visited. Despite this, the seminarians and I were each proudly presented with a cup of tea and a small bowl of beans. I had already decided to risk being ungracious by not eating anything because I was full and also unsure if the food had been properly cooked or how long it had been sitting out. At one point in the conversation, I looked down to see that there were ants in my bowl. This caught me by surprise and I had difficulty tearing my eyes away. The seminarians must have seen me looking down intently because when our hosts were not looking, one of them quietly switched bowls with me, and then began to eat around the ants. Not wanting to offend our hosts or embarrass them by pointing out the ants, my fellow seminarians ate enthusiastically, making lively conversation. I sat there feeling both humbled and humiliated, unable to convince myself to take a bite despite my feelings of guilt. What made me feel the worst was realizing that the beans had been their supper. 

When faced with such examples of radical hospitality, how should we respond? My friends in Myanmar helped me realize that regardless of scarcity or abundance, we are called to respond to the world with grace, humility, generosity, hospitality, and love. We respond by welcoming the person who smells a little funny. And by making a point to occasionally sit beside the person who knows how to push our buttons. By introducing ourselves to a new person at work, school, or church. By inviting our Muslim co-worker and her family to dinner. By offering an elderly parishioner a ride to church or our refugee neighbor a ride to the grocery store. By writing get-well-soon cards to a classmate in the hospital. Responses will vary depending on the person, but all of us are called to respond in some way. How are you called to respond?

If we open our eyes, opportunities for hospitality are all around. Jesus tells his disciples (and us!) to embrace a servant’s heart and to welcome all children of God, regardless of status. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).  

Joseph and Joseph, my seminarian friends 
(behind them is the local Anglican church in Maw Bvi)

*Marcus, Joel. Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries). Yale University Press, 2009. p. 675.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

crumbs under the table

September 9, 2012
Proper 18

"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock, and our Redeemer." Amen.

The Gospel of Mark is a gospel written with urgency. It’s almost as if the author is attempting to write down the words as fast as possible, trying to inform people of the Gospel message before Jesus’ imminent return. It is concise, yet action-packed.

At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has performed exorcisms and healed many sick people. Crowds continue to follow him wherever he goes, their desperation and persistence portrayed with almost violent imagery: While he is visiting his hometown, the house where he is teaching is overflowing with people. In order to get Jesus’ attention, some people dig a hole through the roof (2:1-12). On several occasions Jesus climbs into a boat so that the crowd does not “crush” him (3:9; 4:1). His family tries “to restrain him” because they think “he has gone out of his mind” (3:21). The crowd “rushe[s]” to bring their sick to him (6:55) and people are constantly trying to grab at the fringe of his cloak to capture some of his healing power (6:56). 

Jesus can’t get a break. Every time he tries to go somewhere to pray and rest, the crowd follows closely behind, even when he travels by boat. Finally, Jesus decides to take his disciples on a retreat far enough away where people won’t have heard of him. I imagine that as he closes the door and sits down after the long journey, he breathes a sigh of relief: finally, some peace and quiet! But it doesn’t take long for the newfound tranquility to be shattered. News of his arrival spreads quickly and a desperate woman, an outsider--a Gentile--comes to the house, begging Jesus to heal her daughter. 

This is the last straw. 

What follows is not Jesus’ finest moment. His response to the woman comes off as rude, even unfeeling. He makes it clear that the woman is not his priority, even going so far as to call her a dog. This is not the Jesus we are used to! Have the old prejudices between Jews and Gentiles been so ingrained into him that he cannot see beyond them? Or is he simply tired and frustrated that his work is never-ending? I’m not sure, but it appears we are witnessing a very human moment for Jesus.  

The Syrophoenician woman lets his slur slide right off her shoulders and counters, “Look, I may not share your customs or be part of God’s chosen people, but I am still a person, created by God, and should be treated as such.” 

Woah. That takes some guts. But she has a point, and Jesus recognizes the truth in her response: there is no limit to God’s love. God is not going to run out of love; there is enough love to go around. God’s love has no borders; it spreads beyond the chosen people to include all of the children of God. In response to the woman’s courageous words, Jesus heals her daughter. 

The fact that a Gentile woman demonstrates courage and faith is not atypical for Mark’s Gospel. Throughout the Gospel, there is a stark contrast between insiders and outsiders. The disciples, the people closest to Jesus, repeatedly get confused. They don’t understand his parables, and they don’t fully comprehend who Jesus is. Ironically, it’s the people on the margins, the outsiders rejected by society, who most often recognize Jesus as the Son of God. In this case, a Gentile woman’s words lead Jesus to rethink his mission on earth.  

When it is time for Jesus to return from his retreat, he does not go straight back to Galilee, but travels out of his way through more Gentile territory. On his journey he heals a deaf man with a speech impediment. There are some interesting parallels between the two healing stories. What I find to be most compelling is that the people being healed are not the ones asking for help. The people in need of healing are unable to speak for themselves, and rely on others to champion their cause. 

Each time Jesus heals someone, the result is not merely physical; the person is reintegrated with their community, making the community whole again. This is what Communion is all about.

In this highly charged political climate, it’s easy to get sucked into an us vs. them mentality, which can potentially fracture our life together. We tend to draw circles around ourselves to shut out the people we disagree with, placing them on the margins. Each group sees the other as dogs, as unworthy of attention. But in the kingdom of God, none of these distinctions are made; God brings all of us in by drawing a larger circle around the circles we make. We draw circles of exclusion, but God draws circles of inclusion.  

For those familiar with Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer, the story of the Syrophoenician woman might call to mind the Prayer of Humble Access. The prayer’s words reminds us that, “[w]e are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs underneath thy Table” (BCP 337). None of us are worthy of God’s love. Yet all of us are desperately in need of God’s grace. The Good News is that God’s love is big enough to hold all of us within God’s saving embrace.

If you want to hear an audio clip of my sermon, you can do so here.

This is what I listened to while I was writing.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

facing spiritual forces of evil

Proper 16, Year B

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

The letter to the Ephesians is written in the midst of captivity by the Romans. Times are tough for new Christians, who are being persecuted by their captors for their faith. Did you notice that the armor described in the passage is the same armor a Roman soldier would wear: belt, breastplate, shield, helmet, and sword? The author is encouraging new Christians, both Jew and Gentile, to work toward unity and not to let their differences get in the way. They are already being oppressed by the ruling government; why add to their difficulties by arguing and hurting each other? 

The portrayal of Christians preparing for battle and the metaphor of spiritual forces of evil might seem outdated or antiquated. Just listen to the descriptions from the passage: The “wiles of the devil,” “cosmic powers of darkness,” “flaming arrows of the evil one.” It sounds like we have moved from the image of a man in a red jumpsuit and pitchfork to a description of a Star Wars villain. But regardless of what mental pictures these descriptions evoke, the idea of evil personified probably doesn’t enter our minds too often. “That’s old stuff. Fairy tales. It’s not relevant for us today,” we might think. 

And yet. 

And yet, there are countless examples throughout history of unexplained hatred and evil. Think of Hitler and the NAZIs. Of slavery, both in the past as well as today. Of bullying, racism, apartheid, genocide. And it doesn’t stop there. Evil is not just found in foreign countries or in the past; we don’t have to look far to see evidence of it in this country today. Remember the shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and recently Omaha? It’s in our backyard. These instances of evil are so much bigger than just one person. There’s something else at work here. We are dealing with spiritual forces of evil. 

Before we get too discouraged, keep in mind that the letter gives us armor, ways to cope with the evil surrounding us. The first item is a belt made of truth. Truth is more than just not lying. Truth brings a sense of trust, of safety, but it also challenges people to speak up when they know that the truth has been altered or broken. Then there’s the capital ‘t’ Truth. We know that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Every Sunday we acknowledge that Jesus, True God from True God (Nicene Creed), came down from heaven to be with us and to show us how much God loves us. It is this Truth that, like a belt, holds everything together. 

Next is a breastplate made of righteousness. As the name indicates, a breastplate covers the heart and internal organs. Righteousness means rightness with God, living a morally upright life. When we stand up for what is right and just, we strengthen our hearts. It doesn’t meant that our hearts can’t get broken, but it will deepen our relationship with Christ and one another. 

“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” With the passage’s imagery of spiritual warfare, what first comes to my mind is a picture of combat boots: tough, durable, with full protection. But spiritual warfare is juxtaposed with a gospel of peace. Jesus and his followers (as well as the Romans) wear sandals. They provide some form of protection, but they do not fully cover; your feet still get dirty. Think of how many miles Jesus and his disciples walk on dusty roads. To think of all those dirty feet makes Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet all the more meaningful. This is the gospel of peace the author is talking about.

Next up is a shield of faith. I don’t know about you, but faith doesn’t always come easily to me. As soon as I think I have everything figured out, something happens that throws it all up in the air and makes me question, makes me doubt. But, as former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, once said, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Think about that for a minute: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” When we are certain about everything, when we know all the answers, then we have no need of God. Faith is trusting that in the midst of fear, joy, pain, and love, God is right there, mourning and celebrating with us. Faith is trusting that despite our doubts and fears and uncertainty, God’s love for us is unchanging. Faith is trusting that the God who “stretched out...arms of love on the hard wood of the cross” (BCP*, 101) will not abandon us in times of spiritual darkness. 

Now we come to the helmet of salvation. What covers our head is the knowledge of God’s saving grace. We live in a world of already/not-yet. We know that God has already won the war against the forces of evil. Yet, we also know that we have a few more battles to face. Knowing that God has already won can give us the strength to endure trying times. 

The final piece of armor is the sword of the Spirit. Did you notice that this is the only offensive equipment mentioned? Every other one is meant to protect and preserve, but a sword is a weapon; it is meant to strike. But this weapon is not what we would expect. The sword of the Spirit is the Word of God, what we listen to every Sunday. In the ordination service for deacons, priests, and bishops, the ordinand must declare that the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God, “contain all things necessary for salvation” (BCP, 513, 526, 538). Yes, a lot of time has passed since the Bible was put together, but the Word of God is not dead, it is very much alive! Every Sunday we stand up here and try to show you how we can still relate to the Word of God today. In studying the Scriptures we learn more about God, ourselves, and our relationship with God. We learn ways to deal with whatever is thrown our way, good or evil.

We’ve come to the end of the armor, but our list of tools is not yet complete; the most important thing any of us can do is pray. Our catechism defines prayer as “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words” (BCP, 856). Prayer is not just kneeling at the foot of your bed; it can take many forms: squeezing a loved one’s hand when they are in the hospital, thinking of a good friend you haven’t seen in a while, taking a moment to look around the faces at the dinner table and thank God for the people in your life. And each week we come together as a community of prayer, “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven” (BCP, 362). We come from many walks of life and have different opinions, experiences, and goals. Sometimes we can let our differences prevent us from seeing Christ in each other. The letter to the Ephesians encourages us to pray for and with one other, recognizing that we have so much to learn from each other. Each one of us has a unique way of looking at the world and relating to God, but we all come here to be spiritually nourished. Life can sometimes feel too difficult, like there is just too much darkness to face, but we know that we are not alone. The Holy Spirit is right there with us, guiding us, inspiring us, strengthening us. Joining together and praying in the Spirit, we can "declare...boldly"(Ephesians 6:20) that even in the darkest times there is absolutely nothing we can’t face.  

Obi-Wan faces Darth Vader (Star Wars)

*For those who are not Episcopalians, BCP is our Book of Common Prayer.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

called to magnify the Lord

Sermon from our Wednesday night outdoor service (therefore, preached in a sundress and sun hat, like a proper Southern lady).

Celebrating the Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels (you can find the readings here)

icon of Jonathan Myrick Daniels
by Mark Friesland

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” 

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

Growing up in Alabama, one of the field trips our class went on in fourth or fifth grade was to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. One of the main exhibits is a replica of a bus from the freedom rides that had been firebombed by an angry mob. Now, up to this point in my life I had never experienced true hate or violence, and it came as a shock to my 9 or 10 year-old self. I remember sitting down across from the bus and weeping, staring at the broken glass and burned roof, imagining the people inside and how frightened they must have been. I could not comprehend what on earth would make people so angry that they would want to hurt people like that. 

Tonight we are celebrating the feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a Christian witness during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, Jonathan was a seminarian at the Episcopal seminary in Massachusetts. That spring, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appeal for people, especially clergy, to come down to the south to work for voter equality. While listening to Mary’s Song in church one day, he realized he felt called to go to the south. He joined fellow seminarians in a weekend trip to Selma, Alabama. Moved by their experience there, he and a female classmate returned to seminary only long enough to get permission to come back to Selma. They continued their work for justice while doing their seminary studies by correspondence. Jonathan became an important part of the community he lived and worked in, respected by both African Americans and white moderates.

On August 14th, Jonathan and members of the community participated in a demonstration that led to their arrest. The group was held for 6 days, agreeing that none of them would leave until all of them had gotten bail. Despite awful conditions (no air conditioning, no bathing facilities, and the women were threatened with rape), their spirits were high, in part because Jonathan led them in hymns, songs, and prayers. On day 6 the protesters were unexpectedly released without bail, without notifying their lawyers, and without being allowed to make phone calls to get rides. They were thirsty, so four of them (Jonathan, a Roman Catholic priest, and two young African-American women) went to a nearby convenience store to get drinks for everyone. When they got there, a man with a shotgun threatened one of the young women, Ruby Sales. Jonathan pushed 16 year-old Ruby to the ground, taking the shotgun blast that was meant for her and dying instantly. His sacrificial act was a window into the love of Christ; his soul magnified the Lord.   

Jonathan’s death and his killer’s acquittal by an all-white jury served as a wake-up call to the Episcopal Church. It could no longer stand by while injustice was happening; it could no longer remain neutral on the issue of civil rights. In 1991, Jonathan Daniels was declared a martyr by the Episcopal Church. In 1994, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, my church in Birmingham, had a big celebration of his martyrdom. We were hosting this celebration because our priest, Father Walter, had visited Jonathan and the others in jail. Following the martyrdom, Father Walter was sent to Selma to continue Jonathan’s ministry. Ruby Sales delivered the sermon for the service. 

I don’t remember much about the service or the celebration, except that I was excited because Ruby Sales stayed in my bedroom and used my scissors. But Ruby’s sermon left a mark on my parents. Inspired by her words, two years later my parents moved our family out of our comfortable lifestyle in a gated community with nice schools to a poor, rural town in the mountains of East Tennessee that was in desperate need of doctors. Ruby’s words changed our lives. 

Whenever I read about the saints and martyrs of the Church, I am always struck by their devotion, their courage, their self-determination. I think to myself, “There is no way I could ever be that brave or faithful. I can’t possibly live up to those standards!” Relieved that I have--up to this point--not been called to follow a similar path, I move on with my life, brushing off their amazing stories almost immediately.  

But what if we did hold ourselves to a higher standard? What if we recognized that, while some of the saints faced incredibly trying circumstances that most of us (God willing) will never have to face, that ultimately they are ordinary people like you and me? That instead of putting them on a pedestal out of eyeshot, we took a good look at our lives to see where we could push ourselves to be better? 

Each day is a unique opportunity to live into witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It might be on a smaller scale than the saints, but that doesn’t matter. When bullies are picking on a classmate in school or at work, will we do the right thing and step in? When a decision is made that reduces aid to the poor, will we fight against it? When a new family comes to church, will we pull ourselves away from the friends we already know and go try to make new ones? 

The witness of Jonathan Daniels continues to serve as a wake-up call to us today. We can’t afford to sit by and watch as life happens around us. We are called to step out of our comfort zones into this wonderful, messy world we call home. We, like Jonathan Daniels, Mary, and all of the saints, are called to magnify the Lord. 

photo of Jonathan and a child

probably the most well-known photo of Jonathan

picture from the 2012 Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage in Hayneville, AL
[For the past 14 years there has been a yearly pilgrimage commemorating Jonathan Daniels 
and other people who lost their lives during the Civil Rights Movement. The pilgrimage retraces 
the events of that fateful afternoon: the procession begins at the courthouse, then goes to the jail, 
the convenience store, and finally back to the courthouse. It ends with a Eucharist in the courthouse, 
the same building where Thomas Coleman was acquitted.]

digital exhibit of photos from the South, 
including photos of Jonathan and his fellow seminarian, Judith Upham


An interview with Ruby Sales

Monday, August 13, 2012

taste, and see that God is good!

First sermon back at All Saints! Here are the readings for yesterday (I used the second set, with 1 Kings). Here is the Gospel I preached on.

May only God’s Word be spoken, and may only God’s Word be heard. Amen.

Did anyone else’s stomach grumble while listening to today’s readings? If I were to guess, I would wager that the lessons were put together shortly before lunch, because it seems like the people responsible for today’s lectionary were a little hungry. For example, in the Old Testament reading we see that Elijah is fed cake by an angel (1 Kings 19:5)Twice (1 Kings 19:7). In today’s Psalm we read, “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). And in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells people that he is the “bread of life” (John 6:35).

The bread of life. Let me set the stage for you: It is early on in Jesus’ ministry. He has turned water into wine, healed some sick people, and his fame is just beginning to spread. The day before this passage takes place, he feeds 5,000 people with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, and, later that evening, he walks on water. 

Despite his attempt to get away from them, the 5,000 he fed yesterday have followed Jesus and his disciples across the lake to the town of Capernaum. They are hungry for the bread he gave them, and they are hungry for more miracles. Jesus tells them that he is not just some magician, that their hunger is misplaced. I imagine it went something like this: 

“You know that hunger and thirst deep inside of you, the one you can’t satiate, even after you’ve had your fill? I’m here to satisfy that hunger. I’m here to quench that thirst. I have come down from heaven to be with you, to teach you, to fill you up, to show you the way. The way is not easy, and before the journey is over, I, myself, will be broken. But out of my brokenness you will know the Love I have for you. It is that Love that formed creation. It is that Love that mends relationships. And it is that Love that holds the promise of eternal life.” 

In response to Jesus’ discourse, some of the people look at each other, confused: “Wait a minute, what does he mean he ‘came down from heaven’? Isn’t this guy Mary and Joseph’s son? We know them! They’re just regular people, like you and me. This guy is crazy.”

Jesus’ self-proclaimed identity as the Son of God does not match up with who they know Jesus to be. And if you think about it, what Jesus is claiming does sound crazy! But you and I, we have the gift of hindsight--we know that this Gospel begins with Jesus as the Word made flesh, God dwelling among us (John 1:14).

We also know how the story continues: Jesus goes on to teach more about Love. He heals the sick, shares meals with outcasts, and raises people from the dead. Then he is arrested, beaten, and hung on a cross. But that doesn’t stop him! He is resurrected, and after appearing a few times he shares a breakfast of--what else?--fish and bread on the beach with his disciples. 

Each week we, too, come together to share a meal with friends. We approach this table with joy and celebration. We also approach this table broken by illness, sorrow, bitterness, doubt, and anger. This simple meal may look like bread and wine, but we know it’s much more than that. We approach this table to remember the One who came from heaven to live among us. We approach this table to be re-membered, knit together in this pattern of pain, joy, sorrow, and love that is the Body of Christ. And we approach this table to be forgiven, our souls rejuvenated for life outside these walls. 

We gather together and approach this table to be made whole. Taste, and see that God is good!

This is in the Episcopal Cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador

Monday, August 6, 2012

welcome (back) to the real world

This past Wednesday was my first day at All Saints. The rector is currently on a sabbatical, so I'm being temporarily supervised by the associate rector, Liz (which is awesome!). I'm so fortunate to have as a mentor someone about my age who knows what I'm going through.

Here are a few pictures from getting settled into my office:

Name plate--fancy!

Notes from 3 years of seminary classes--invaluable resources!

Actually hung up my diploma :o)

My Episcopowl, wearing a green deacon's stole because it's ordinary time.

Also, I'm listed on the clergy page of the church website

Today was my first Sunday back at All Saints. Last night I slept horribly, complete with a nightmare that in retrospect was pretty hilarious: 
         I was serving in the church and there were a lot of young pierced and tattooed visitors there who weren't typically church-going people. They were all sitting to one side of the altar. During the service I received a phone call from a friend I hadn't heard from in a while, so I went to the side of the church where I couldn't be seen and answered the call (yes, in the middle of the service--give me a break, it was a dream). I lost track of time and came back from the phone call as they were processing for the Gospel (which I was supposed to read). However, the young visitors hid the Gospel book from me so I wasn't able to read it, and so the whole service after that was a train wreck. And then my alarm went off. [side note: When I told Liz about it, she said, "Oh, you had your first Saturday dream!" What?! They didn't warn me about this in seminary...]

Clearly (and fortunately), this is not what ended up happening this morning. I attempted to keep the 8 o'clockers on their feet (as in, I read the wrong Gospel) and I left out a prayer for the departed (a tradition for this parish) right before the dismissal, but other than that I don't think I messed up too badly. In between the 8 and 10:30 services I went with another Deacon to visit someone in the hospital and give her Communion, and we ended up giving Communion to the nurse and tech who were in the room as well, so that was awesome.  

The best part of the morning was seeing so many new and familiar faces. It was so good to catch up on what had been going on the past three years (the youth who were 8th graders when I left are now going to be seniors!!!). I felt warmly welcomed and very much loved. It's good to be back.