Monday, December 15, 2014


Advent 3, Year B, 2014
St. Thomas' Church, Whitemarsh

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve already made it to the third week of Advent! I don’t know about you, but I’m already starting to feel tired.

This Advent has been a particularly dark one. As the Bishop mentioned yesterday, the last few weeks have brought to light the sin of racism, this week the Senate admitted that the CIA tortured suspects in the wake of 9/11, and today marks the second anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook. Between Isaiah’s warnings and John the Baptist’s call to repentance, our lectionary readings haven’t really been super uplifting, either.

And now here we are on the third Sunday of Advent and we are face-to-face with John the Baptist yet again. Can’t we get a break?

Well, actually, yes we can. The readings in the first two weeks of Advent were focused more on Jesus’ second coming. But this week marks the time when we turn our faces toward Bethlehem and the coming of the Christ-child, God come to dwell with us on earth. The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice.” Today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians (which we read this morning) begins with Paul’s instruction to “rejoice always” (1 Thes 5:16). Paul is writing to encourage this Christian community in their faith. He instructs them to "pray without ceasing"; not just to spend time in personal prayer but to make their whole lives an offering of prayer to God. Paul also tells the Thessalonians that they should find things to be thankful for, no matter what hardships they face.

Now, while Paul is directing us to “rejoice [and] give thanks in all circumstances,” it does not mean that he is handing us a pair of rose-colored glasses to wear so that we can ignore what’s happening around us (1 Thes 5:16). As we know, there are many injustices in this world, and we can get overwhelmed by all the frightening and depressing stories on the news and be tempted to withdraw in order to protect ourselves from the pain of it all. I struggle with this, too. But when we are baptized, we vow to “…strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305). We cannot stay in our little bubble; at some point we have to return to reality.

When Paul is urging the Thessalonians to rejoice, he is not glibly advising them to shake off their cares and “eat, drink, and be merry” (paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 8:15). Paul is speaking from experience; he and the Thessalonians are being persecuted for their faith. But despite the oppression they face and the constant threat to their lives, they respond with an even stronger calling to follow Christ.

If Paul and the Thessalonians can find a way to rejoice while they are undergoing suffering, then we should be able to find reasons for rejoicing in the midst of the difficulties we face. We, too, should be capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. It is possible for us to speak truth to power and demand justice, to lament the pain and suffering present in our country and in the world, and at the same time to celebrate moments of beauty when God breaks through amidst the suffering, to rejoice in moments where we feel God’s presence. We are capable of doing both of these things simultaneously.

In our church we mark Gaudete Sunday and the occasion for rejoicing by lighting the pink candle on the Advent wreath. If the deep blue candles remind us of the sky on a dark winter evening, then the rose-colored candle is the first pink light in the sky, heralding the dawn. It serves as a reminder that while we are doing our part in this broken world to prepare the way of the Lord, we are also called to approach the manger with joyful anticipation of the indwelling of God.

image found here

Monday, December 8, 2014

prepare the way of the Lord

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Advent 2, Year B, 2014

“A voice cries out:
‘"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3).

Prophets have a storied history. These remarkable people, chosen by God to be messengers to the people of Israel, did not lead lives of ease. Rather, they spoke difficult truths to a hard-headed people. Whenever the Israelites strayed and began to worship other gods, a prophet would inform the people of the error of their ways and implore them to turn back to the One, True God. The people would repent, be forgiven, and all would be well until they strayed yet again, beginning the cycle anew. 

Prophets in the Old Testament were not very popular; no one likes to hear that they’re doing things wrong. Several prophets endured much because of the message they were sent to deliver: when Jonah tried to escape his calling, he was swallowed by a whale; Jeremiah was beaten and threatened by his opponents; and Daniel was tossed into a den of lions because of his enemies. Yet, despite the hardships they faced, they were compelled to deliver their message. As Jeremiah said, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). 

Into this tradition of courageous people is born a man named John. Isaiah envisions a voice in the wilderness crying out to the people of God to urge them to prepare for the Lord’s coming. The fulfillment of that voice is found in John the Baptist. Upon his birth, his father Zechariah proclaims that John is called by God to be “the prophet of the Most High…[who] will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, [and] to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76,79). No pressure. 

In today’s Gospel we find John in the wilderness. Now, spending time in the wilderness is an important and common theme within the Bible. The wilderness is where God journeys with the Israelites after their escape from Egypt and decides that they will be God’s chosen people (Exodus). The wilderness is where Jesus goes immediately after his baptism to be tempted and to prepare himself for his ministry (Matthew 4:1). Several times in the Gospels we find Jesus retreating to the wilderness to pray (Luke 5:16). Ultimately, the wilderness is where people go to meet God. 

So what better place for John to begin his ministry than in the wilderness? Like the prophets that have gone before, we find John on the outskirts of the city—on the outskirts of society—and people are coming in droves to hear him speak. Many of them are so inspired by his words that they are baptized by John in the river Jordan. They may have come originally for the spectacle—the guy is wearing camel’s hair and eating bugs for lunch, after all—but what really moves the crowd is his challenge for them to acknowledge their sins and upon being baptized, receiving forgiveness. In this way, they will be prepared for someone even greater than John, someone who will baptize them not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). In this way, they will prepare for Christ. 

In this busy season of Advent we are preparing ourselves for Christ’s birth. We prepare our homes by buying Christmas trees and hanging up the ornaments, putting up nativities, cleaning the house, and decorating with lights, garlands, and wreaths. We prepare by frantically shopping for gifts, and some of us are even able to get-it-together enough to send out Christmas cards or letters (last year Daniel and I got as far as writing and printing the letter, but didn’t get around to putting them into envelopes and mailing them). We put so much energy into preparing for Christmas, but do we take the time to prepare our hearts and minds and souls for the coming of Christ? This is something I really struggle with! How, in the midst of all of our preparations, can we prepare the way of the Lord? 

We prepare by looking to the prophet who came to do exactly that. John’s 2000 year-old message of repentance and forgiveness remains relevant for us to this day. So, in this Advent season John urges us to acknowledge and repent of our sins, both as individuals and as a society. My friends, we have much to repent. War and conflict still rage on in Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Iran. Right now there are people all over the world, including right here in Philadelphia, without food or a place to live. And, as the events of the past few weeks have shown us, racism is alive and well in our country. Regardless of our opinions about the two failed indictments, the aftermath of the decisions has ripped apart the veneer of tranquility and exposed the systemic injustice beneath the surface. We have been living in an Orwellian* society, where we profess that all are equal, but in reality some are more equal than others. As Elijah Anderson, Penn and Yale professor, long-time Philly resident, and speaker at our diocesan clergy conference this past week, explained, our society is still segregated into white spaces and black spaces, and neither group feels comfortable or even completely safe in the other group’s space. We still have a long way to go on this “way of peace” into which John is guiding us (Luke 1:79).

What exactly is meant by peace? "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice” (MLK, Jr., “Stride Toward Freedom” 1958). Peace is not just a state of calmness and composure, or of feeling good; peace is a way, a path that leads us closer to the kingdom of God. We work for peace because together we are the Body of Christ, and when one of our brothers and sisters suffers, the whole Body of Christ suffers. Therefore peace is not passive; it will not allow us to be neutral in the face of injustice. 

Madeleine L’Engle, author of the “Wrinkle in Time” series, described peace in this way:

Peace is the centre of the atom, the core Of quiet within the storm. 
It is not A cessation, a nothingness; 
more The lightning in reverse is what Reveals the light. 
It is the law that binds The atom’s structure, ordering the dance Of proton and electron, and that finds Within the midst of flame and wind, the glance In the still eye of the vast hurricane.
Peace is not placidity: peace is The power to endure the megatron of pain With joy, 
the silent thunder of release, The ordering of Love. 
Peace is the atom’s start,
The primal image: God within the heart. 

Peace does not happen on its own; it requires action. John Mayer may be “Waiting on the World to Change,” but we cannot afford to do the same. There is so much to be done. 

"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). John the Baptist didn’t come to make people comfortable. John came to help people prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord is coming. Are you ready?

Pictures from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C.

"Sonnet, Trinity 18" by Madeleine L'Engle from The Ordering of Love: The New and Collected Poems of Madeleine L'Engle (you can find it here)

Quote by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. found here

You can find the lyrics to the John Mayer song "Waiting on the World to Change" here

For information on Elijah Anderson, visit his website.

*from George Orwell's novel, "Animal Farm": “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

not your typical king

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Christ the King Sunday 2014

“And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matt 25:40).

Last week in the forum Bishop Sauls said something that has stuck with me this week. He said, “We do not help the poor to do good; we help the poor to meet God.” This statement reminded me of my very first mission trip. When I was a senior in high school my youth group went on a mission trip to Nashville, TN. I had never been on one before and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Our task was to serve meals at a homeless men’s shelter. When we pulled up to the shelter we were greeted, given a tour of the facilities, and then shown how to prepare and serve the meals. When we finished serving we joined the men in the dining room, sharing stories and trading jokes, where we were 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. In our lives one of the best things we can do is be fully present with others and acknowledge that each person is a beloved child of God. It doesn't take any more than this to make a difference in someone's life; even after all these years I keep a copy of the poem as a reminder.

Now, I’m going to be honest and confess that not every experience I have had helping the sick or the hungry or those in prison was as moving as that week in Nashville. 

Last night Daniel and I prepared a meal for the families who are staying on our campus this month as part of the Interfaith Housing Alliance. I must admit that neither Daniel nor I have been graced with significant culinary skill, and so I was nervous about how the meal was going to turn out. Was it healthy enough? Would the children like it? Would there be enough food for everyone? All these questions were running through my head when I walked in the doors. 

As I was working on some last-minute food prep, the first family arrived. One of the little girls ran up to me and asked if she could help. So we warmed up the vegetable dish and she helped me pour and stir it. Then her sister joined us. Then her mom. We all took turns stirring it. I consider it a feat that most of the dish stayed in the bowl; as you know, spills are some of the hazards of cooking with young children.

Things got a bit tricky when I brought out the apple slicer; even the boys wanted to help out now. I had to move the operation to the table so that all of the children could see. I’m amazed we got through that experience without someone cutting their fingers on the sharp blades! 

When everyone finally sat down at the table, we said grace and shared the meal. With 7 kids under the age of 9, dinner was a bit…we’ll go with chaotic. But everyone was fed, and there were even leftovers! After dinner one of the girls tugged my arm and took me to the room where the kids were watching “Frozen.” Then after a while we went back to the kitchen and the children helped clean up.

All in all, it was a nice night. But if I was expecting a life-changing experience, this wasn’t it. And if I’m truly honest, I would have rather stayed at home in sweat pants in front of the TV. 

You see, doing the right thing isn’t always rewarding. Following Jesus’ imperatives is not always deeply gratifying, and sometimes we might not even feel like we get much out of it. But the thing is, we don’t do it for us.

A few years ago, the private letters and journals of Mother Teresa were compiled into a book and released to the public. As people read it they were surprised to find that Mother Teresa, considered a saint by most people, experienced what 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross described as a “dark night of the soul.” Except that in Mother Teresa’s case, the night lasted decades. How could such a devout woman undergo such doubt and inner turmoil? And after going through all that, how could she keep doing her work? A New York Times review of the book explained that, “In time, with the aid of the priest who acted as her spiritual director, Mother Teresa concluded that these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor faced daily. In this way she hoped to enter, in her words, the “dark holes” of the lives of the people with whom she worked. Paradoxically, then, Mother Teresa’s doubt may have contributed to the efficacy of one of the more notable faith-based initiatives of the last century.” 

Today is the last day of the church calendar year, also known as Christ the King Sunday. As we all know, Christ was not a typical monarch, born into wealth and with slaves at his beck and call. No, Christ had a humble beginning. His parents struggled to make ends meet. For a little while they were homeless; they could not find a place to birth their child but relied on the hospitality of others. Then the Holy Family became fugitives, fleeing to Egypt to escape genocide (Matt 2:13-23). When he grew up, Christ lived the simple, nomadic life of an itinerant preacher. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and quenched the parched souls with his teachings. Christ did not come riding into Jerusalem on a white steed to free his people from the tyranny of Rome and take his rightful place on the throne. No, Christ entered the gates upon a donkey, toward a path that led to his humiliating death on the cross. Christ showed us what lengths God would go to for the love of God’s people. And three days later Christ rose victorious from the grave, conquering death and sin and making us subjects of the Kingdom of God. Christ is not your typical king, but he is most certainly a king.

As Daniel said in his sermon on Wednesday, it is difficult for Americans to truly understand what it means to be a subject. The closest thing we can compare it to is Presidency, but that’s not quite right; while a president can enact laws and deliver punishments, the president ultimately answers to his or her citizens. In a monarchy, however, the queen or king has the ultimate control, and the people are subject to her or his rule. In the States we pride ourselves on our independence, on our ability to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and make our own way through life. But in a monarchy, subjects are expected to be obedient. 

We don't have a vote in the Kingdom of God. We don’t get to throw God out of office if we dislike God’s commandments. And like any earthly king, God commands something of us and we must respond. 

“And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matt 25:40).

We’re not supposed to help people because it makes us feel good; we’re supposed to help people because that’s what our King commands us to do. 

"Christ enthroned"
(Icon by Father Vladimir found here)

Monday, October 20, 2014

our lives as currency

Proper 24, Year A, 2014
St. Thomas, Whitemarsh

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

Here we are: fall is in full swing, which means that midterm elections are right around the corner. Seems like a great time to talk about taxes! It’s like the people who put together the lectionary planned this or something…

In today’s Gospel we find Jesus in the midst of Holy Week. Jesus has triumphantly processed into Jerusalem riding a donkey, cheered on by a loud, excited crowd (Matt 21:1-11). He makes his way to the temple and becomes enraged, throwing over tables because the temple has become a place of commerce rather than a house of worship (Matt 21:12-13). The religious leaders are less than thrilled at this behavior, because Jesus is making them look bad. From this moment on, they begin plotting to get rid of Jesus. 

Jesus is considered such a threat by leaders that it brings together opposing groups. The two groups of leaders mentioned in the passage are the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees are working-class religious leaders, mostly lay people and scholars. They are unhappy with the leadership of Rome and consider the tax to be unfair and exorbitant. Even more than this, since the emperor considers himself to be a deity, any support, monetary or otherwise, could be seen as deference to someone who isn’t God. But the Pharisees are wary of protesting too loudly, because Rome, powerful and organized, will come sweeping in and put down a rebellion. 

We don’t know too much about the Herodians, but their name suggests that they are okay with Herod, appointed by Rome to be the leader of the Jews. After all, his dad built them a brand new temple, so he can’t be all that bad, right? 

These two groups of leaders have completely opposite goals: one wants to keep the status quo and the other hates being under Roman rule. But the one thing they can agree on is that Jesus has got to go. So they team up together and sidle up to Jesus. Their voices dripping with sarcasm, they approach Jesus with mock flattery. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality” (Matt 22:16). “So, since you’re so smart, answer this question.” Smug, they then pose a question without a right answer, “Should we pay taxes, or not?” The question is a trap: If Jesus says they should pay the tax, it means that Jesus approves of supporting Rome. If Jesus recommends they should refuse to pay the tax, it will be considered subversive, that he is trying to start a rebellion. The Pharisees and the Herodians believe they’ve got Jesus backed into a corner—problem solved! 

But Jesus is onto them. He senses their sarcasm, he recognizes the intent behind their compliment. "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” (v. 18). “Someone show me a coin. Whose head is on it?” They look around at each other, wondering where Jesus is going with this. “Uh, the emperor’s” they respond. “Excellent. So give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God” (v. 21). Boom. Drop the mic. Stunned, the leaders walk away. 

As Jesus points out, on the Roman coin is the image of the emperor. The emperor has the currency made, and the emperor expects a portion of it in return for services like roads and protection from enemies. 

But what bears the image of God? We do. Genesis tells us “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). We are made in the image of God, so therefore we belong to God. 

In this passage Jesus is not actually making an argument about taxes or even wealth. Our lives and our spirituality are about more than what we possess. In just a few verses we see what Jesus considers the priority: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (vv. 37-40). Jesus is most concerned with how we treat one another and how we relate to God. Jesus is not influenced by the amount in people’s bank accounts or the number of employees they are in charge of; wealth and power do not impress him. In the kingdom of God, our lives are the currency, and so everything we do should be for the glory of God. 

Jesus is telling us to put our money where our mouth is—and if our lives are the currency, then we put our money where our mouth is by living our lives following Jesus’ teachings. If we say we are Christians, then we must recognize that we belong to God, and give back to God what belongs to God. How do we do this? By spending time in prayer: thanking God for the many blessings in our lives, asking for healing and guidance for ourselves and others, and listening for God’s direction. Prayer is, after all, a great way to build a relationship with God. Reading devotionals and religious books, and participating in Bible studies can also help us to deepen our faith and our relationship with God. And there are myriad ways to strengthen relationships with others: service comes in many forms, but the best way to help is to spend time getting to know others. Today’s Harvest Fest is a great example of this. Once we have heard someone’s story, they move from feeling like strangers to feeling more like neighbors. 

This weekend our neighborhood of Chestnut Hill was transformed into Hogsmeade, one of the magical towns in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. The local businesses worked together to transform the town, adding to the fun atmosphere by really getting into the spirit with their decorations. There were crafts and games and public readings and delicious magical foods. Local artists used their skills to create magic wands. Local restaurants and bakeries had Harry Potter- themed foods. People of all ages, from babies to older adults, walked the streets in costumes. There were even buses to Chestnut Hill College, where there was a Quidditch tournament, the sport based on the popular sport in the books that involves brooms and dodge balls and volleyballs and three hoops for goals. The best part of the festival was that it brought people of all ages and races and genders and orientation together for a common purpose. In a way, it was a preview of the kingdom. People were using their gifts to bring joy to the people around them. 

If we can come together and do all this for a fictional book, think of how much more we are able to accomplish for our faith! Imagine if, like the Harvest Fest, we were able to come together and serve one another in the name of God each and every day. Jesus is calling us to dedicate our lives to God. May we follow in his footsteps and give to God what belongs to God. 

Waiting for the Hogwarts Express to arrive!

Local artist who made beautiful wands

Delicious Harry Potter-themed foods (look at those golden snitches!)

Quidditch Tournament at Chestnut Hill College

Check out my Harry Potter swag!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

feast of st. francis

Feast of St. Francis, Year A, 2014
St. Thomas' Whitemarsh
preached at the Blessing of the Animals service

"7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
   you sea monsters and all deeps...
Wild animals and all cattle,
   creeping things and flying birds! 
12 Young men and women alike,
   old and young together! 
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for his name alone is exalted;
   his glory is above earth and heaven."
(Psalm 148:7-14)

Welcome to the wonderful chaos that we fondly know as the blessing of the animals! Each year we bring our beloved animals, both stuffed and alive, with us to church. Not only do they receive a blessing, but they share with us in worship, adding their voices to ours to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord" (Psalm 98:4). The joy their presence in our lives bring us is without comparison, and in loving them we experience a microcosm of God's love for us and all creation. 

Daniel and I have enjoyed watching our puppy, Becket, play in our yard. He loves to gnaw on sticks and proudly prances around the yard with them in his mouth. He appreciates the satisfying crunch of leaves--both underfoot as well as in his mouth. As Becket explores the world around him we are made to pause and look around us, which reminds us of the simple joy of this amazing creation we are privileged to be a part of. 

Last Wednesday we brought Becket to the church to introduce him to the Alle*gro & St. Francis choir. We let him loose and the kids chased after him and he chased after them all around campus. The children's squeals of pure, unadulterated glee were beautiful songs of praise to the Lord. 

Some of you might remember that the blessing of the animals always coincides with the feast of St. Francis. Francis is well known for his love of animals and nature. You may have noticed statues of the beloved monk with a bird on his shoulder or arm decorating many people's gardens--in fact we have two on campus: behind Church Hill Hall and in the chapel. Francis was kind of a pied piper of all creatures; the legends surrounding him and animals are pretty bizarre. In one, he notices birds in the trees and begins preaching to them. At his encouragement they begin to flap their wings and sing their praises to God. When he finishes preaching, they fly away. In another tale a bunny comes up to him to be petted. Francis takes him back to the woods and lets him go, but the bunny follows him and climbs into his lap. This is repeated a few times before Francis has one of the brothers take the bunny back. The final story is the wildest. A wolf has been terrorizing a village, eating not only beloved pets but people as well. Several valiant efforts have been made to kill the wolf, but to no avail. St. Francis hears of the village's problem and decides to help them out. He and another brother and some villagers venture into the woods, responding to their warning of danger with the affirmation that God will protect him. After a little while the villagers get freaked out and tell Francis they're not going any closer. So Francis and his companion continue in pursuit of the wolf. Suddenly the wolf jumps out in front of them, snarling. But he can't hurt them because his mouth has been shut by God! St. Francis calmly speaks with the wolf and asks him not to hurt the people anymore. The wolf promises by shaking on it--literally. Then the wolf follows Francis and the brother back to the village, where the wolf again shakes on a deal with the villagers. They agree to help provide food for him and he agrees not to terrorize them. The wolf stays with the villagers for two years, and when he finally dies from old age, the villagers mourn him. 

St. Francis is known for his love of animals, but there is so much more to him than just that. He starts out as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and by all accounts, as a young man he is a spoiled brat. But much like Robin Hood in "The Prince of Thieves," he comes back from war (as well as an illness) a changed man. Sitting in church one day, Francis thinks he hears God telling him to rebuild the Church. He takes this to mean he is supposed to literally repair the church building. So, he goes back home, grabs a huge load of his father's expensive silk, and sells it at the market so he can give the money to the church. Well, his father is not too happy about this, and they get into a public argument. His father disowns him, and Francis is so disgusted that he gets rid of everything his father ever gave him...including the nice clothing he's wearing. Yep, you heard that right; St. Francis walks away from the crowd naked. He takes a vow of poverty and proceeds to work odd jobs in exchange for food and stones so that he can repair the church without his father's help. He also begins to take care of lepers, endangering his life, much as the healthcare workers today taking care of patients with Ebola. Francis becomes well-known for his preaching, and young men begin joining him in living a life of simplicity and poverty. Together they form the order of Franciscans, spreading the love of Christ with their words as well as in the way they treat others. They care for the sick, the outcast, and the animals; they care for those considered the "least of these" in creation. Francis early on makes the same mistake that many of us make when we think of church as a building; over time he comes to realize that church is broader and more far-reaching than just a building--it's people that make up the Church. 

In a letter written by St. Francis to Christians, he said, "O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as the Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Thereofore, [sic] let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind." 

While you and I might not be called to a life of total poverty, I think we can learn a lot from St. Francis about caring for all of God's creation. We are blessed to live in this glorious and dangerous and heartbreakingly beautiful world. May we have the grace to praise God by taking care of the least of these among us, both two-legged and four-legged. 

Becket making friends with the St. Francis & Alle*gro Choir

Monday, September 29, 2014

getting down on our level

Proper 21, Year A, 2014
St. Thomas’, Whitemarsh

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

One of my favorite things about working at St. Thomas is that I get to spend time every weekday morning greeting teachers, parents, and their children at the Nursery School. To be honest, as the weeks have gone by, I’ve done less greeting and more playing. Children are born with incredible imaginations; their worlds are full of new experiences, and playing is how they make sense of what’s happening around them. Now, I’m no expert on children, but I’ve done my fair share of babysitting and even worked at a preschool when I was in college. What I have learned is that in order to successfully engage with them, you have to get down on their level, both literally and figuratively. Even someone my height can appear a giant to a 3 year-old, so it’s important for me to either bend to their height, sit on the floor, or sit at their little table, in order to look at them eye-to-eye. This helps them feel more like equals, like their viewpoint matters to adults. In addition to physically meeting them where they are, it’s good to meet them where they are developmentally, as well. It wouldn’t make sense for me to discuss with them the disagreements between Keynesian economics and proponents of the Laffer Curve. Or describe to them the theories of atonement, theosis, and sanctification. Or enumerate the nuances of third-wave feminism as compared to first and second wave feminism. The idea of introducing those things to children is obviously ridiculous. So instead, I spend a lot of time talking with them about colors and numbers and Thomas the Tank Engine. These are things that are familiar to them and discussions in which they can contribute; these are the kinds of things nursery school children can grasp. 

In the early days of creation, God walks in the Garden of Eden to talk with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8). As the ages pass, people no longer have such an intimate relationship with their Creator. After Moses, with God’s direction, leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, they turn around and beg Moses to speak to and represent them to God, because they are afraid of speaking to God themselves (Exodus 20:19). Each successive generation grows further and further away from God, and they begin to forget the many things God has done for them. At times, the people even turn to other gods for comfort and assistance, breaking their promise to worship God alone. The relationship between God and the chosen people comes to its lowest point during the years of Exile; God has never seemed further away. 

God, ever faithful to the wandering, confused, and fickle people of Earth, longs to repair this broken relationship. In order to get reacquainted with them, however, Paul tells us that God empties God’s self and comes to Earth as one of us (Philippians 2:7). God wants to be more accessible, and so God literally comes down to us on our level. God is born to a human family with human parents. Jesus learns how to crawl, then walk, then talk, then read and write. In the person of Jesus, God walks our dusty roads and worships with people in the temple. In the person of Jesus, God experiences life’s ups and downs, feels joy, pain, loss, confusion, and sadness. In the person of Jesus, God demonstrates God’s faithfulness by laying down his life for the people he loves so desperately. 

How do we respond to this incredible and undeserved show of love? What can we possibly do or say that could demonstrate our desire to be faithful in return? 

Paul suggests we can begin by emptying ourselves of our selfish desires in order to make room for God: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). God, though Jesus, humbled himself and spent his life serving others; we are called to humble ourselves and spend time in service to others. Jesus welcomed the marginalized; we are called to treat everyone we meet with dignity and respect, for they are a beloved child of God. Jesus spent time in prayer and worship; we are called to deepen our faith through communal as well as personal prayer. 

If this seems like an impossible task, Paul reminds us that we are not alone; God is ever-present in our lives: “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13). Psalm 25 reiterates this: “[the LORD] guides the humble in doing right * and teaches his way to the lowly” (Psalm 25:8). The same God who created everything that is, who freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, who emptied God’s self of all power and knowledge and came to us on our level, that same God remains with us today. 

God, in Jesus, came to us when we could no longer relate to God and showed us how to repair our broken relationship. If we follow God’s model and empty ourselves of the things that separate us from others and from God, we leave space for God to work through us. God has poured God’s self out for us; may we also do the same for God. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

drawing circles

Proper 15, Year A, August 17, 2014
St. Thomas, Whitemarsh

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

Good morning/evening! My name is Lara Stroud, and as you might have guessed, I am Fr. Daniel’s shorter half. I am blessed and excited to worship with and become a part of the St. Thomas community. I had a blast going tubing with the newcomers a few weeks ago (despite the sunburn), I’ve started playing pick-up soccer once again (which helped me realize how out of shape I am!), and I absolutely love living in Chestnut Hill. But enough about me. 

The Gospel of Matthew was written approximately 40 or 50 years—that’s more than 2 generations—after the death of Jesus. Because almost half of the Gospel covers Jesus’ teachings, Matthew’s Gospel was used by the first Christians to help teach people new to the faith about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has spent a good chunk of time teaching the disciples and crowds while on top of a mountain (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7). He has performed exorcisms and healed many sick people (4:23-24). He has even calmed a storm and walked on water (8:23-27; 14:22-27). Crowds continue to follow him wherever he goes, their anguish and persistence portrayed in vivid, almost violent imagery: On several occasions Jesus climbs into a boat so that the crowd does not suffocate him (13:2; 14:13, 22). The crowd is constantly bringing their sick to him and some people are so desperate that they even reach out to grab at the fringe of his cloak to capture some of his healing power (14:35-36).

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 gets closer and closer to the ocean and farther and farther away from the crowd, he begins to breathe easier: finally, some peace and quiet at the beach! But it doesn’t take long for the newfound sense of tranquility to be shattered. News of his arrival spreads quickly and a desperate woman, an outsider--a Gentile—meets him on the road, shouting and begging Jesus to heal her daughter. 

This is the last straw. 

What follows is not Jesus’ finest moment. His first action is to ignore the woman completely. When this doesn’t work and his disciples urge him to send her away, his response to the woman comes off as rude, even unfeeling. He makes it clear that the woman and her people are not his priority, and when she kneels before him saying, “Lord, help me,” Jesus calls her a dog (15:24-26). This is not the Jesus we learned about in Sunday School! 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 Canaanite 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. Also, 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 atypical for Matthew's Gospel. This particular Gospel is very inwardly focused; when Jesus sends out his disciples, he commands them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5-6). Yet, in the same Gospel it is Gentiles who are praised for demonstrating great faith. In response to a Roman centurion’s discourse and request for the healing of his servant, Jesus says, “…in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (8:10). A Roman centurion—a leader of the troops occupying and oppressing Israel—is lauded for his faith. And in today’s reading, we have a woman from Canaan, Israel’s ancient enemy, whose faithful words lead Jesus to rethink his mission on earth.  

Once he is rested, Jesus returns to Galilee and gets right back to healing people. Each time Jesus heals someone, the result is not merely physical; the person is reintegrated with their community. The blind can see, the lame can walk, the deaf can hear, and the mute can talk. No longer do they have to live on the fringes, relying on the generosity of others; they become accepted members of society! The community is once again made whole. This is what Communion is all about.

At one point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ mother and brothers come and try to talk to their radical son/brother, perhaps to warn and/or protect him (12:46-50). But he tells the people around him that our relationship to God is more important than our relationship to our family. Our first identity as human beings is as children of God, and everything after that is not as important: family, class, gender, race, orientation, age, ability. 

In today’s highly charged climate, with the ebola outbreak in West Africa and violence in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Ukraine, and even in our own country in St. Louis, it’s easy to get sucked into an “us vs. them” mentality. Some will try to convince us that we have to pick sides, that our differences matter more than being made in the image of God. We are moved to tears by the death of Robin Williams, and rightly so, but do we also mourn the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and John Crawford in Ohio? We get angry about the killing of Palestinian children in Gaza and Christians in Iraq, and rightly so, but what about the innocent lives lost in Syria and South Sudan, what about the kidnapping of the Nigerian school girls, what about the thousands of children crossing the border into our country?  

This “us vs. them” mentality fractures our common life together. We 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 ever-widening circles of inclusion.  

Edwin Markham describes this best in his poem called “Outwitted.”
“He drew a circle that shut me out— 
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”

Jesus is changed by his experience with the Canaanite woman. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, when the resurrected Jesus once again gives his disciples a commission, this time he tells them to “Go…and make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The Good News is for everyone to hear. 

For those familiar with Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer, the story of the Canaanite woman might call to mind the Prayer of Humble Access. The prayer’s words remind 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. We come to the altar recognizing that all of us are desperately in need of God’s grace. The Good News that Jesus brings us is that God’s arms of love are big enough to hold all of us within God’s saving embrace.

image found here

image found here

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

come to me, all you that are weary

Proper 9, Year A, 2014
St. George’s

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). 

As many of you know, my husband and I recently returned from our honeymoon. One of the places we visited was Oxford, England. Daniel studied abroad there in college, and was excited to show me all of his favorite spots. We walked the famous streets, visited the various college campuses, and worshiped in 800 year-old churches, but what Daniel was most eager to show me was Hussain’s food truck. It only appeared at night, after most of the restaurants had closed, and was a popular late-night treat, especially for college students (I won’t say how often Daniel went while he was in school, but I will say that Hussain knew him on a first-name basis). 

Now Daniel had been talking about Hussain’s famous chips & cheese (fries covered in finely grated cheese, brown sauce, and Hussain’s special sauce) he’d been talking about them since we got to England, so we were delighted to see him parked in town one of the nights we were there. As we approached the truck, a student was saying goodbye to Hussain. It was her last night in Oxford, and she wanted to come visit Hussain one last time before she flew back home. He showed her how to make his famous chips & cheese, asked his employee to take a picture of the two of them, and hugged her goodbye. 

When it was our turn, Daniel ordered a special burger and 2 chips & cheese. While we were waiting for the food to be ready, Daniel told Hussain that he used to come there a lot when he had been in school, and he wanted to bring his wife to the food truck so she could taste the chips herself. Hussain congratulated us on our marriage and then proceeded to tell us about his life. He has been married for 26 years, and he and his wife have 6 kids. He studied computer engineering in college. He had then worked as a computer scientist for awhile, a job that paid really well. But Hussain wasn’t happy. He hated sitting inside at a desk all day, staring at a computer screen; he wanted to be able to move around freely, to talk with people face-to-face. So he quit his job with the great salary and started his food truck. He now smiles and jokes every day as he interacts with customers. Joy radiates from him and spreads to others; there is no question that Hussain is living into his calling. 

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

I grew up listening to this passage in the context of the evening service of Compline. I loved the romantic imagery of the weary traveler laying a troublesome burden at the foot of the cross, and then finally experiencing the relief and rest he or she so desperately desired. 

But as I grew older, this passage began to frustrate me. I couldn’t figure out how exactly I should lay down my burdens. And it sure didn’t feel like Jesus’ yolk was easy or his burden light; being a Christian is hard work! Paul says as much in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). 

At our core, we desire to be good and to follow God’s call. But we continually let our selfish desires get in the way. The things that we want are not necessarily things that lead us to Christ. Sometimes we have to give up things we want for the sake of being faithful, of following God’s call. 

I think this is why Hussain’s story is so compelling. The Declaration of Independence states that we have the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The problem is, we often equate happiness with possessing wealth. Our society encourages us to get a job that will make us lots of money so we can buy things which will make us happy. Money and things can make us happy for a time, but they are a shallow kind of happiness. The latest toys and gadgets are fun—believe me, I want them, too—but I think that kids would ultimately rather spend quality time with their parents. 

I believe that God is calling us to a life of developing meaningful relationships with God and our neighbor. God’s currency is love, and the only way to increase it is, paradoxically, to give it away. To love God means to put God first, to make God the priority in our lives. This is not a one-time commitment, but something we have to consciously do every day. 

It’s similar with loving our neighbor. God is not asking us to constantly put others’ needs in front of our own; that not only leads to burnout but ignores the fact that God wants us to be fulfilled, as well. But God is calling us to recognize that our happiness is tied in with the happiness of others. We cannot be completely happy when we know that other children of God suffering. 

When Jesus is saying that our burden will be light, he is not telling us that the work of loving others will be easy. It can often be difficult, thankless work. But at the same time, how many of us, when we volunteer or do some kind of service work, feel that we get much more out of it than what we put in? That the work, though challenging, doesn’t feel much like work at all? We get more out of love than what we put in, and that’s why the burden is light. 

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

At its most basic level, Jesus’ message is simple: love God, love neighbor. All other things boil down to these two commandments. And when we feel overwhelmed, and like our burdens are too much to bear, know that we do not walk this road alone. Jesus is plowing along right beside us, sharing the yoke, helping to carry our burden. 

image found here

Here is a beautiful song by my friend Ginny Wilder called Lay Your Baggage Down. It fit perfectly with today's reading. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

liminal space

Easter 7, Year A, 2014
All Saints’ Church

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

The disciples have had quite a wild ride the past few weeks. First, the triumphal march into Jerusalem, followed by Jesus’ arrest and execution. Then, Jesus is raised and reappears, much to the disciples’ joy and confusion. Jesus has been among them for forty days. Ring any bells? Forty days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry, and then forty days among the disciples at the end of his ministry. Jesus has taught his closest followers as much as he can, and it is time for him to leave. 

"When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, 'Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?' "(Acts 1:1). It cracks me up that even at the end, their last question to Jesus shows that the disciples still don’t get it!! “Guys, don’t worry about the future or when things are gonna happen. I’m leaving, but not for good. I’ll be back, but in the meantime, the Holy Spirit is gonna come down and give you the strength you need to continue where I left off. It’s up to you to tell my story to everyone.” 

Then, in one of the most epic leave-takings in all of history, Jesus is lifted up and whisked away on a cloud. Remember the pillar of cloud protecting the Israelites in the wilderness, or the cloud that came and covered Jesus’ face on the mountain top, making his face glow? I imagine this is event is somewhat similar.

The disciples stare up at the sky until they can’t see Jesus anymore. And then they keep on staring, long after he’s gone. At this point, two “men in white robes” (a.k.a. angels) tell the disciples to snap out of it and get to work (v. 10): “Don’t just stand there all slack-jawed and wide-eyed! Relax; Jesus is gonna come back. Now get to it!”

The disciples have found themselves in in-between times, or as some people like to call it, the liminal space. The promise of the Holy Spirit’s power is in their future, but it has not yet arrived. What do the disciples do in the meantime? First they go back to the upper room, their home base. Then, joined by women and Jesus’ mother and brothers, they pray “constantly” (v. 14). 

We face these liminal spaces in our own lives. How many of us have felt lost or confused during in-between times? In the process of transition, it can be disorienting; we are no longer fully in our current place but haven’t quite reached the new place either. It’s the same already/not yet that is repeated throughout history. God has defeated the forces of evil for good, but we are still feeling the effects of evil now. Jesus came to earth already, but he has not yet returned. The kingdom of God has already come, but it has not yet been fully realized. 

In the face of these contradictory realities, we are given a choice: we can gaze longingly at the sky like the disciples, clinging desperately to the past and the way things have been, or we can turn our faces toward Jerusalem, bravely taking the first tentative steps of the journey ahead. 

The disciples show us that prayer is an entry point for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the giver of life, the one who provides the prophets with their compelling words. Next week we’ll hear how the Holy Spirit empowers the disciples to spread the Gospel “to the ends of the earth” (v. 8).   

The disciples may have to wait, but the Holy Spirit is already among us. At our baptism, we are  baptized into “new life in the Holy Spirit” (BCP 858). We invoke the Holy Spirit during confirmations and ordinations. And it is the Holy Spirit that helps us to discern where God is calling us. 

What the disciples are teaching us in Acts is how to make the most of the time that we’re given. If you think about it, our whole lives are one big liminal space. One author puts it best with this subtitle: “I live in that awkward stage between Birth and Death” (Full Bloom by Mark T. Green). We are given a finite amount of time on this earth, and it’s up to us to make the most of the time we have. It may sound daunting, but remember that we are not alone. Besides each other, we have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Now that doesn’t mean that we will all of a sudden become clairvoyant, knowing all the right answers and predicting the world’s end—we, like Harold Camping (see song about him below), are not privy to that knowledge. But it does mean that God will be with us as we make our way through life. When we are reunited with estranged loved ones, God celebrates with us. When we say our final goodbyes to a dear friend, God mourns with us. The God who loved us so completely that he took on our sin and died for us, conquering death once and for all, did not abandon his disciples. God will not abandon us now. 

image found here

Audio of Nickel Creek's song "21st of May" (about Harold Camping) found here

"21st Of May"
It's time to bid this whole world goodbye.
Oh, glory, time to fly away.
We'll meet our savior in the sky.
Hallelujah, the 21st of May.

Sinner, heed these words of mine
'Bout the coming Judgment Day.
Yes, the end is drawing nigh.
Hallelujah, the 21st of May.

They laughed while Noah built his boat,
Then cried when came the rain.
They mock me now, but I will float
On the 21st of May.

Well, I've never been so sure
And I've never led no one astray.
'Cept in the fall of '94.
But Hallelujah, the 21st of May.

They laughed while Noah built his boat,
Then cried when came the rain.
They mock me now, but I will float
On the 21st of May.
They mock me now, but I will float
On the 21st of May.

Hallelujah, the 21st of May.