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The portrayal of Christians preparing for battle and the metaphor of spiritual forces of evil might seem outdated or antiquated.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.