On homes, humanity, and our hands…

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Yesterday, I attended the dedication of a Habitat for Humanity house for which our church had been a financial and volunteer sponsor.  As I watched the family celebrate, it struck me how everyone has a story.  Before becoming a priest, I worked at a Habitat affiliate in Delaware, and I remember that each homeowner’s story varied.  Some had grown up in poverty, and were the first to buy homes in their extended families; some had a health crisis that led to financial and housing problems; some were living in substandard conditions, while others had squeezed their entire families into a friend’s living room.  I do not know the full story of the Fletcher family, except that the matriarch has been working as a nurse for years, has three children, and could not afford to buy a home without Habitat.

What struck me about the Habitat event is how strong our common humanity is.  Get a new Habitat homeowner in the room with a wealthy, privileged person, and I suspect within ten minutes they will be sharing stories of their common humanity.  But get either of them outside of that room, and either person could be seen as an enemy:  someone who oppresses others and does not share their wealth or someone who does not work hard enough and relies too much on outside assistance.  Neither of these characterizations are fair – but we make them all the time.  We forget the story of each individual, and instead create categories that we can then use to generalize – to dehumanize.

I do not usually talk about politics on my blog, but our President’s recent characterization of other countries and their citizens, whom I love, has broken my heart.  The incident itself was not all that surprising.  What put me over the edge was how the comment was so brazenly said and affirmed by others, and how the comment highlighted the ways our country seems to have embraced the practice of dehumanizing others enough that they are able to say things that they would not otherwise say to another human if they were face-to-face.

Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, advocated for a preferential option for the poor.  Time and again, Jesus took the stranger, the outcast, the downtrodden, and healed them, helped them, and loved them.  In fact, “the other,” is a recurring theme in scripture that invites us to examine our own modern designations of “insiders” and “outsiders.”  Our country’s current practice of demonizing and subjugating the “other” is an action in direct conflict with Holy Scripture and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We are not living into our baptismal covenant promises of respecting the dignity of every human being, and seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

This week, I invite you to examine our current treatment of the “other” – those for whom Jesus had a particular preference and priority.  Whether you need to spend some time in prayer, have a conversation with someone unlike you, volunteer some time with a charitable organization, write to your governmental representatives, or donate your money to an agency that can affect change – do something.  Do not let your light be hidden under a bushel.  And then share your story with me here, or with a friend on the journey.  I cannot wait to hear how the Holy Spirit uses you.

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Sermon – 1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51, EP2, YB, January 14, 2018

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As we celebrate our Annual Meeting and another year of ministry in Jesus Christ through Hickory Neck, we could not have received a better set of lessons.  Today’s lessons are all about discipleship – what being a disciple of Jesus means for us today.  Our lessons tell us discipleship involves relation, revelation, and reaction.

What we first learn about discipleship is relation – that our work as disciples cannot happen without being related to one another.  In Samuel’s almost comical call story, inexperienced Samuel would never have understood that God was trying to speak to him unless he had been in relationship with Eli – his mentor and guide in the life of faith.  Similarly, skeptical Nathaniel would have likely never believed that Jesus could be the Messiah had enthusiastic Philip not said to him, “Come and see.”  Even our lesson from first Corinthians, which perhaps embarrassingly talks about fornication and prositution, shows us that how we relate to others matters – how we use our marvelously made bodies with others matters.

This past year of discipleship at Hickory Neck has similarly and importantly been about relation.  Whether we were talking about race through film, books, or testimony; whether we were sharing a festive meal or taking the holy meal to our homebound members; whether we sharing our stories of giving at Stewardship parties or sharing our faith journeys in confirmation class; whether we were discerning how to modify worship at Hickory Neck or talking with community leaders about how Hickory Neck could address wider needs of our community; whether we were preparing for a quiet day of reflection in Lent or whether we were preparing to welcome a new community onto our property – whatever we did this year, we did so in relation to others.  At Hickory Neck, long-timers and newcomers alike are needed when we are discerning the call of God on our common life.  At Hickory Neck, when changes big and small are being made, we do so with the input of others – both inside and outside of the community – to ensure our discernment is reflective of our related nature through Christ.  At Hickory Neck, we experience God most when we relate to one another through deep, meaningful, vulnerable relationships that rely on trust in one another and on our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  We are Samuels who cannot discern God’s voice without Elis, and we are Nathaniels, who cannot believe what we are hearing without Philips.  Our discipleship is impossible without relation.

After relation, the second thing we learn from our lessons today about discipleship is revelation.  When skeptical Nathaniel responds to Philip’s invitation to come and see, and he meets Jesus, he asks Jesus how Jesus knows him.  Jesus responds, “I saw you.”  Likewise, upon the third interruption of Eli’s sleep, Eli finally realizes that Samuel is not sleepily confused; Eli realizes God is trying to speak to Samuel.  Furthermore, when Eli sees Samuel the next morning, his insistence on knowing what God said to Samuel reveals his own sin and his own coming punishment.  Even Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reveals to them how important their bodies are.  When the psalmist says God created us, knit us together, and we are marvelously made, Paul understands that those wonderful bodies God made are meant to be used for the glory of God.

The more we committed to our relationships at Hickory Neck over this past year, the more we began to experience revelation through those relationships.  When our Tuesday night seekers group invited our brothers and sisters from New Zion Baptist Church to a joint Bible Study, all sorts of beautiful, hard revelations were experienced that night.  When our liturgical task forces worked to define and discern what God was doing at Hickory Neck through worship, we discovered new and beautiful ways we could honor the abundant liturgical variety found in these walls.  When an outstanding mortgage was weighing on our budget or when longtime givers moved on from Hickory Neck, we realized how our giving could impact change at Hickory Neck.  And our budding relationship with the Kensington School has been full of revelation by the Holy Spirit – from sensing within the Vestry that the time had come to think again about a school, to discerning with community leaders that a school was indeed needed, to responding immediately when Charlie got word that Kensington was looking in our neighborhood, to developing a relationship so strong that Kensington would choose to come to Hickory Neck as opposed to another location, God used our relationships to reveal new, different possibilities for ministry.

In some ways, relation and revelation might be the easy parts of discipleship.  The harder part is that third part of discipleship:  reaction.  When Paul writes that letter to the Corinthians, Paul is able to say some hard things about the ways his friends are using their bodies.  The Corinthians could have used that revelation to linger in shame or guilt.  But Paul has a different idea. “Glorify God in your body,” Paul says.  Paul calls the community to change.  When Philip shares his experience with Jesus with Nathaniel, Philip’s story is not an idle tale.  “Come and see,” Philip says.  Philip issues an invitation to action.  And when Eli counsels Samuel what to do about the voice he keeps hearing, Samuel needs to say the words, “Speak for your servant is listening.”  In each of these stories, when something dramatic is revealed through relationship, true discipleship means answering with reaction – doing something in response.

This past year, Hickory Neck has embraced this last part of discipleship with vigor.  When our neighbors needed shelter this past winter, even when our community would have preferred to keep our treasured tradition of a Mardi Gras party, we opened our doors and found new ways to celebrate and care for one another and the wider community.  When we realized that our neighbors were longing for relationship with Christ and our welcome on Sunday mornings was not enough, we developed new ways to invite others to church, and new ways to help newcomers feel more connected once they found their way to Hickory Neck.  When we realized how deep and wide the stain of slavery on our nation was, we welcomed a stranger from Ghana into our home, and found a new friend and a deeper commitment to dealing with our own demons.  When we found new ways to use our property – either through new worship experiences, creating space for community leaders to offer healing yoga to our neighbors in need, or agreeing to step into a rapidly moving process of welcoming a school – we prayed, pondered, and wondered – but eventually said yes.

As I looked back on this year in preparation for our Annual Meeting, I was overwhelmed by the faithful discipleship of Hickory Neck.  We have taken to heart the steps of relation, revelation, and reaction, and said yes time and again.  Being in relation to one another is not easy – look at how hard our country is struggling to stay in relationship with one another.  And yet, the Hickory Neck community takes the uncomfortable and is unwavering.  Welcoming revelation is also not easy – holding up a mirror to our behavior can be scary.  And yet, the Hickory Neck community embraces that vulnerability with boldness.  Being willing to react is not easy either – answering the call to come and see, or saying, “Here I am,” involves strength and commitment.  And yet, the Hickory Neck community trustingly takes on the challenge, and acts with passion and vigor.  I cannot fully express to you how incredibly proud I am of you for all that you have done this year for the sake of the Gospel.  Your discipleship has been an inspiration to me, as I seek each day to faithfully serve Christ as his disciple too.  Of course, the work of discipleship is never done – we will continue to need to commit to the work of relation, revelation, and reaction.  But for today, in this moment of reflection and celebration, know that you are doing good work in the name Christ, glorifying God in your bodies.  Well done, good and faithful servants.  I feel privileged to work alongside you!

Getting on the Ride…

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On our family vacation last week, we visited an amusement park.  My eight-year old was finally at the age where she could try some more ambitious, if not scary, rides.  Watching her experiment with her fear and curiosity was fascinating.  Before most rides, she was completely enthusiastic and daring.  But waiting in line seemed to rattle her confidence.  Several times, we almost bailed completely.  In fact, one of my favorite pictures of her was taken right before she boarded a particularly scary ride (one even I was too scared to try!).  In the picture, her eyes are like saucers and her eyebrows are raised as she clutches her father’s hand.  But for the rest of the trip, she raved about that particular ride and almost cried when she realized she could not ride the rollercoaster one more time.

I was thinking this week that adults are not that dissimilar from my daughter when it comes to something new and exciting.  There is a part of us that cannot wait to try something new, and there is a part of us that is terrified about the experience, imagining in our minds the countless things that could go wrong or that might happen.  As with any change, we have the option to get on the ride and experience the thrill of something new, or we have the option to play things safe, and step out of line.  I suspect there are times when getting out of the line is the best option.  But more often, I suspect we miss out on adventure and new life when we don’t just step onto the ride.  Too often we forget that we can get on the ride and still say, “I am glad I tried it.  And now I will never do that again!”

Last night, the James City County Board of Supervisors approved a special use permit for the Kensington School to put a second location on the property of Hickory Neck Episcopal Church.  Hickory Neck has been dreaming about creating a school on our property for about ten years.  We kept deferring the dream because we were not sure we could both build and run a school.  But this past year, the Holy Spirit intervened, and we discovered that the Kensington School was looking to open a second location in our neighborhood.  God seemed to be inviting us to finally step onto a thrilling, albeit a bit scary, ride.  We have been standing in line for a while, getting more and more excited about what God can do through Hickory Neck.  Last night, the Board’s approval was our last step before boarding the ride.

Like with any change, this new phase of ministry will be full of exciting, wonderful things we never expected, and some challenging, hard things we never expected.  Part of our work is trusting the same Holy Spirit that has been guiding us thus far will continue to guide and lighten our path.  Some of us may be wide-eyed, with eyebrows raised about what is coming next.  But I suspect in a year or so, most of us will be thrilled that we said yes to the Holy Spirit, and agreed to try to be a force for change for our community.  I am here, with you, Hickory Neck – holding your hand and ready for the adventure!

Sermon – Luke 2.8-20, CD, YB, December 25, 2017

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Eight years ago, while serving as a curate in my first position out of seminary, I experienced Christmas Day worship for the first time.  Though I had often gone to Christmas Eve services before ordination, I suppose it never occurred to me to go to church on Christmas Day.  I was probably still in my pajamas or on the road to see family.  So imagine my surprise when the Rector told me there would be no music at the Christmas Day service.  I was shocked!  After all this time, patiently waiting through Advent music, on the actual day of Christmas, we were not going to hear any music?!?  I threw what some might consider a bit of a temper tantrum, and was told I should talk to the people who normally go to Christmas Day services.

Of course, my Rector knew what she was talking about.  As I talked to Christmas Day attendees, I discovered one universal truth:  they loved the spoken Christmas Day service.  First, they all went to a Christmas Eve service, so they got their carols fix the night before.  Second, they loved the quiet respite in an otherwise chaotic day.  A quiet service on Christmas Day was a godsend.  And third, they loved the Christmas Day service because it was a small, intimate service of what they called the “faithful;” much like what happens when you throw a party at your home and everyone but your close friends go home at the end of the night.  You kick off your shoes, find a warm beverage, and enter into quiet, meaningful conversation with your friends.  Music, in those parishioners’ minds, would have hindered the intimate, contemplative, peaceful vibe they loved.

In a lot of ways, having a quiet Christmas Day service is like taking a cue from Mary in our gospel lesson today.  After the chaos of travel and birthing a child in less than ideal accommodations, after shepherds have seen blinding lights and hear the triumphant chorus of the multitude of heavenly host, when everything quietens down, all that is left is a mother, father, and child, and some shepherds who seem like old friends.  I have always imagined the shepherds bursting through the doors, talking on top of each other to tell the story of the angels.  But I wonder if perhaps the scene was a little different.  Knowing full well the baby has arrived in less than ideal circumstances, and that babies are notorious for crying when disturbed, maybe the shepherds were whispering their intimate tale to the holy family.  Maybe they were those gathered at the end of the party, sharing in quiet, meaningful conversation.

I wonder if this might be true because we get one short line about Mary at the end of our text today, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  Exhausted, fatigued, weary Mary takes the enormity of what has happened:  to her, when Gabriel came to her; with Elizabeth, who further revealed the angel’s proclamation; with Joseph, as he shared his own angelic story; and now with the shepherds who tell of yet another angelic encounter.  Mary takes all the bits of information – all the encounters she is privy to – and ponders them.  She takes a personal moment to sit quietly in the enormity of it all to ponder.  In some ways, she is a mother like anyone else – one who has carried a child in her womb with all the normal doubts and concerns that come from every ache, pain, and discomfort.  But in other ways, she is nothing like other mothers.  She is an instrument – pregnant without her own doing, carrying a child who will be bigger than anything before, and mothering someone who will never fully belong to her, but to the greater world he will soon save.

The funny thing is, pondering is an activity that would hardly ever make an appearance on our Christmas to-do lists.  We have been scurrying about this past month:  decorating homes, sending cards, attending parties, planning liturgies, hosting guests or finding hostess gifts.  We have either been caught up in the joy of the season, reveling in the 24-7 Christmas radio stations, or maybe we have been lost in our grief of all that is not this Christmas season.  Regardless of whether you are off to a Christmas celebration with twenty or more people, or having a quiet day alone or with one other, there is likely to be little true quiet:  our minds are way too noisy for quiet today.

And yet, quiet pondering is exactly what Mary does today.  She takes all the noise and chaos – both outward and inward – and she pauses for pondering.  She hits the pause button on the movie called life, takes a deep breath, and drinks in the miracle of Christ’s birth.  She stops talking, turns off her internal conversation, and listens.  She makes room for God in that rustic, foreign room, with people who are not her own, letting her body and soul contemplate the enormity of the nativity:  God incarnate; Messiah arrived; Eternal life made possible.  The wonder of that moment is enough to silence Mary, giving her much to ponder.

That is our invitation today too.  I know today is the least likely day for a moment of wonder, pondering, and contemplation.  But you are here.  You took a moment away from whatever today will be to sit at the manger with Mary and ponder.  Drink in the miracle of Christ’s birth, the gift of God incarnate.  Stand before our God in holy quiet and reverence as we pray and eat a different meal.  Remember “how God became one of us, remember how Christ still joins us at the Table, remember how we are fed by him in order that we might live as his body in the world.”[i]  These kinds of sacred moments are so rare in life.  Receive the gift of pondering at the manger with Mary today, and take that quiet out into the world with you, giving your heart the gift of true celebration and joy.  Amen.

[i] Kimberly Bracken Long, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 121.

Sermon – Luke 2.1-14, CE, YB, December 24, 2017

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Sometimes arriving at the manger on Christmas Eve feels a bit like just barely sliding into home plate.  When little ones are around, you have scurried about, making sure their tights and bowties are on, while trying to squeeze in one last family picture while everyone still looks nice.  By now, you have probably served or been served a meal, purchased and wrapped gifts, prepped or cooked food for tomorrow, sent out cards, decorated the house, and run countless errands.  And none of that includes the four hundred things that will be done in the next twenty-four hours.  Arriving here and semi-put together is a minor victory, with the promise of a peaceful, beautiful hour of worship, before preparing for the chaos to resume tomorrow.

The unfortunate thing is that the story of tonight is not all that much less chaotic.  Though we sing songs like Silent Night or Away in a Manger, or though we exchange cards with pastoral, peaceful settings, nothing about that night is silent.  And I am pretty sure the little Lord Jesus makes lots of cries.  The chaos of the holy family is not unlike the chaos in which we sometimes find ourselves.  Remembering how scandalous Mary’s pregnancy and relationship with Joseph are, the chaos continues as Emperor Augustus sends out a decree that forces a very pregnant, uncomfortable Mary away from her hometown to the crowded city of Bethlehem.  Before they can secure housing, Mary goes into labor.  Not only is she dealing with the drama of delivering a child for the first time ever, she is delivering without so much as the comfort of a home.  And then, just as they are trying to figure out nursing, and soothing, and the fear and wonder of parenting, along come some rowdy, likely filthy, shepherds, who have also not had a silent night.  In fact, they have heard the terrifying chorus of the heavenly host and been told a most preposterous story – so much so, they gather up their livestock and come to see.

With all the chaos of our own lives, and with all the mayhem of that holy night, why do we do it?  Why do we come to church at all?  Maybe we come to church on this night specifically because on this night, more than perhaps any night ever, we find the wonderful revelation that God can take the messy chaos of life and make our mess holy.  You see, as much as we love tonight’s beautiful story, what happens this night is beyond the chaos of registrations, no vacancies, angelic revelations, and messy encounters with strangers.  In order to understand the enormity of what is happening tonight, we broaden our scope.  Tonight’s event – the nativity of our Lord –  is the culmination of a much larger story.  The story started when there was no earth or humankind, when God formed the earth from the formless void.  When we first sinned against God and were cast out of the garden, to when we kept sinning and God flooded the world, to our deliverance from the hands of pharaoh and our arrival in the promised land, to our sinful desires for a king that led to the eventual confiscation of our land.  We are a people who have been oppressed so many times and rescued so many times we can barely count.  And in that rollercoaster of a relationship with our God, as we failed time and again, God, who never gives up and never cedes love, does something unheard of:  takes on human flesh, comes to us in the form of a vulnerable child, with the plan of redeeming us forever and granting us eternal life.

Maybe we come to church tonight because tonight is about God’s unending, undying, unfailing, uncompromising love for us.  Despite centuries of chaos, disobedience, and failures, God shows up tonight in a mighty way.  Despite the chaos of the times and of this night, God shows up among the outcast.  Despite the chaos of our own times, in our seeming inability to tend to those most outcast, God comes once more to redeem us.  We come to church tonight because we long to grasp the enormity of God’s love for us, the extents to which God will go for us, and the hope which only God can give to us.

But the news is even better than that.  I do not believe the beauty of tonight is in trying to find a holy moment, where God’s love speaks to us in an otherwise chaotic life.  In fact, you might not find that moment tonight because despite the fact that you were physically able to get here, your mind may still be somewhere else.  The good news is that is okay.  The deep, lasting peace of this night is not found in a single church service (though I must say, the service certainly helps).  The deep, lasting peace we are looking for comes from the reality that we do not find God’s love and peace in spite of the chaos of life.  Tonight teaches us that God hallows the chaos of life.

Based on our standards, God should have placed this precious child – the God incarnate – in the wealthiest, most well-guarded palace, where a person of great wealth could have given the baby everything the baby needed.  A person of power could have protected the child, brought honor to the child, raised the child up to assume the power of a Messiah.  If we had something so precious, we certainly would have worked to find the best of what we have to protect that preciousness.  And yet, God takes on flesh in an unmarried, inconsequential woman of little means.  God takes on flesh amidst the common people, being born in the lowliest of estates.  God takes on flesh and announces the news not to kings and rulers, but to shepherds – those disregarded by society as being of little import.  From the very beginning, the extraordinary thing God does is done in the midst of the ordinary – worse yet, among the marginalized and outcast.

God takes the mess of life:  our divisions, our stratifications by class, gender, and race, our subjugation of the poor, our inability to refrain from sin, our messes and chaos – and God makes our mess holy.  God sanctifies our chaos, reminding us that in the midst of chaos, God is present.   In the midst of chaos, God is doing a new thing through us.  In the midst of chaos, God is love and makes us agents of love.  I cannot promise that the chaos will not try to overtake you when you walk out the church door tonight.  But just like you will find small glimpses tonight of the overwhelming love God has for you, you can find God present in the chaos of life too.  God is continually breaking through, birthing in you Christ’s light and love, using you to make room in the world for the Christ child, using you to announce good news of great joy for all people.  If that doesn’t break though the chaos, I don’t know what will!  Amen.

On Finding a Hand…

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Tomorrow night is the longest night of the calendar year in the northern hemisphere – the winter solstice, when the earth reminds us how little light these days have.  We mark the longest night at our church with a service called Blue Christmas, acknowledging the ways in which Christmas can also be devoid of light for many of us.  For some, the reasons are obvious:  grief over the loss of a loved one, broken marriages or other relationships, illness, or loneliness.  For others, the reasons are a bit more ambiguous:  a recognition that the world around you seems filled with happiness, and yet, there is a dull sadness or pain aching inside that is oddly out of place.

What is interesting about the Blue Christmas service is that there are years when I feel like I really need the service, and there are years that I do not realize how much I needed it until I am there.  I think that is because there is a way in which our culture romanticizes Christmas, creating inevitable shortcomings.  Even when you are happy, have created the perfect meal, are enjoying a long-held tradition, there is someone who is not there, some hurt that is not addressed, some bit of life that is unresolved.  All of that is true most days – but the expectations of Christmas are unrealistic that cannot be met fully.

I think that is why I cling to Mary so much this time of year.  Mary always lived in a world of joy and sorrow, of blessings and curses.  The news of her pregnancy made her shout for joy, but also reminded her of how broken the world was to need such a savior.  The joy she experienced of new birth was matched by the promise of sacrificial death.  Mary lived in the “both-and;” the ambiguity always present in life.  I like to suppose she cherished the joys as much as she could:  the joys of a baby kicking in her womb, even as the neighbors stared and judged her unwedded state; the thrill of holding a new baby, even in the most rustic of accommodations; the miracle of new life, even if the miracle can only really happen in his death.  It is in times like this time of year I long to hold Mary’s hand and walk with her for a while.

If you need a place to put your messy feelings this year, or you need a Mary to walk with you, I invite you to join us for our Blue Christmas service.  But if you cannot make it tomorrow, know that Hickory Neck is a place that always has an open hand, ready to walk with you whatever the time of year is, and whatever you are facing.  You are not alone.

Sermon – John 1.6-8, 19-28, A3, YB, December 17, 2017

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I have been thinking a lot this week about the faith witnesses in my life.  There have been dozens of them: some who were in my life for a short while, and some who still serve as a witness to me today; some who flipped my world upside down by a single observation; and some whose entire life journey has served as a witness.  One who stands out for me was a mentor I met as I came into adulthood.  She was not particularly flashy or dramatic, but her entire life became a living witness to me.  Her witness started in the context of talking about Jesus.  There were things she said that had never occurred to me, and yet made a great deal of sense.  She slowly awakened in me a passion for justice:  teaching me about our country’s impact on the world’s poor; asking hard questions, such as where my clothes were made and what my clothing said about my concern for the least of these; helping me see how incredibly privileged I was even when I did not feel privileged compared to others.  I watched her risk arrest through political protest.  I saw her offer up the spare room in her house time and again to those in transition and trying to find their way.  She even revealed to me at some point that instead of accepting an engagement ring from her husband, they had agreed a more appropriate sign of their commitment to one another would be exchanging rocking chairs – so that they could grow old together in them.

What was telling about my experience with her witness was I knew she would never have wanted me to say, “I want to be just like her.”  In fact, with all my revelatory interactions with her, I was not in awe of her; I was in awe of her attempt to live a life in line with the gospel – to live a life that reflected the light of Jesus.  Her words, our conversations, her decisions were ways of pointing me back to a living relationship with Christ.  Her witness to me was not unlike John’s witness in our gospel lesson today.  Now, if you were here last week, you may be wondering, “Didn’t we just hear this story about John the Baptist last week?”  The answer is yes; and no.  Last week we read Mark’s account of John the Baptist.  Typical of Mark, the text we heard was short, and jam-packed with action.  John the Baptist is preaching a baptism of repentance, people are flocking to him, he wears weird clothes, and he tells everyone someone more powerful is coming.  But that is pretty much all Mark gives us.

This week, we read the gospel of John’s account of John.  We know right away John’s gospel is different because he does not call John, “John the Baptist.”  In fact, some scholars say John’s version of John the Baptist would be called, “John the Witness,” or “John the Voice.”  John’s gospel tells us that John the Witness is just that:  a living witness to the light of Christ.  John’s gospel slows us down so we can talk about who this John the Witness really is.  Temple leaders come to John asking him all sorts of questions:  who he is, whether he is a prophet, under what authority he is baptizing people.  John’s gospel slows us down because the gospeller wants to be very clear who John the Witness is and who he is not.  In these thirteen verses, John the Witness uses ten negatives to distinguish himself from Jesus; ten “nots,” “neithers,” and “noes.”[i]  You see, the religious leaders come to John the Witness because he is showing himself to be a compelling leader.[ii]  But what the religious leaders have missed is John is not trying to attract people to himself; hence all the “not me” language.  John is simply preparing the way – pointing people toward someone even more compelling.

I do not know about you, but there is some small part of me that has always been a tad annoyed that the majority of Advent is spent talking about John.  Even though I am on board with not singing Christmas carols or hearing the birth narratives until Christmas Eve, I have often secretly wanted more of a preview in the weeks preceding Christmas than we get.  I have wondered why we cannot spend all four weeks on the more dramatic pregnancy stories:  Mary’s annunciation, Joseph’s interaction with the angel, the Elizabeth and Mary encounter, and the Magnificat.  Spending two weeks on the crazy cousin who eats locusts and wild honey feels tangential to what is coming, and hardly gets me in the mood for singing Away in a Manger.

But this year, something shifted for me.  John the Baptist, or the Witness, or the Voice, or whatever we are going to call him became more compelling for me this Advent.  If you remember, John had a miracle beginning too.  His mother had been long barren, and when the news came to his father that his wife would bear a son, his disbelief meant that he was struck with the inability to speak for nine months until the baby came.  Then, while John was still in the womb, he leapt inside Elizabeth’s womb when Elizabeth came near Jesus in Mary’s womb.  He clearly had the gift of discernment from before birth.  But what strikes me most is his clarity in identity and purpose.  Despite his miraculous and impressive beginnings, he always understands his giftedness is not about him.  His giftedness is in pointing people to God.  He is not lured in by fame or followers; he is not caught up in the hype; he is not even tempted to claim the authority of someone like Elijah.  He is single-minded in his purpose and vocation, and longs to help people find their way to God.  His delight is in helping people find their delight in Christ.

That is one of our invitations today:  to recall someone who has helped you find your delight in Jesus.  Maybe you will adopt someone new like John the witness today.  Maybe his story and his single-mindedness about purpose and vocation is an inspiration.  But maybe you are recalling someone else in your life who did that for you.  Maybe the person was a relative, a mentor, a friend, or a historical figure.  Recall how that person pointed you to Jesus time and again; how he or she awakened in you a longing for a similar single-mindedness about Jesus.  Remember his or her words or actions, giving thanks today for their inspiration and witness in your life.  Meditate with the baptizer, witness, or voice in your life as we journey in these last days of Advent.

But do not stop there.  John’s witness today is not just for you, meant to help you center your own life.[iii]  John’s witness today offers you a second invitation:   to be a baptizer, a witness, a voice for others.  For some of you, the invitation to be a witness may sound overwhelming.  How can we possibly inspire others in the powerful ways others have witnessed to us?  The main way we serve as witnesses is to listen.  David Gortner talks about evangelism not as being about preaching from a street corner, but as being about meeting people where they are – in the grocery store line, at the coffee shop, at a community event – and listening to their story.  The first step in witnessing is not about telling someone how to live their life, but listening to their life stories.  The next step is where witnessing happens.  After hearing someone’s life story – whether a friend, an acquaintance, or even a stranger – we prayerfully reflect back where we hear the Holy Spirit in their story.  We name where we hear and see God in their daily journey.  We point to Jesus in the conversation.[iv]

One of my favorite stories of Habitat for Humanity founder Miller Fuller was a story of a retiree who was busy volunteering on a roof.  He was the kind of person who liked to work alone, mostly so that he could monitor and maintain quality control.  But on this particular day, a kid kept bothering the volunteer.  He wanted to help, and the man kept suggesting he find someone else.  The kid kept appearing throughout the day, bringing tools, bringing snacks, or just hanging nearby to talk.  Despite his efforts to shoo away the boy, he kept finding him underfoot.  By the afternoon, the volunteer gave up and allowed the boy to help him – under strictest supervision, of course.  Much to his surprise, the boy was quite good.  By the end of the day, they were laughing and finishing most of the work.  As they were leaving, the volunteer apologized for his brusqueness and asked the boy his name.  “My name is Jesus,” said the boy.

Jesus is all around us, all the time.  But most of us struggle to see him or name him because we either do not have a witness nearby or we have not honed our witnessing skills.  John the witness invites us to reclaim our witness today; to listen for the movement of Jesus in others’ lives and to be the witness who points to Jesus.  We are not the light; we are not the Messiah; we are not the prophet.  But we do come to testify to the light – to point others toward the goodness, the holy, the Jesus in their life, and invite them to the light.  God has given you witnesses to shape your journey.   And God enables you to share the gift of witness with others.  Our job is to simply listen and point.  Amen.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 71.

[ii] David Lose, “Advent 3 B:  Sacred Leadership,” December 15, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/12/advent-3-b-sacred-leadership/ on December 15, 2017.

[iii] David L. Bartlett, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 68, 70.

[iv] David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism (New York:  Church Publishing, 2008).

On Keeping Watch…

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One of the themes we find in Advent is keeping watch.  Throughout the four weeks leading up to the birth of the Christ Child, we are to keep watch, preparing our hearts for the nativity of our Lord.  Traditionally, I have kept watch by using an Advent calendar or a special devotional book.  But this year, I am trying something new.  I have joined the Anglican Communion in a participatory Advent devotional called “Advent Word.”  Each day of Advent has an assigned word, and participants are invited to post a picture on social media that captures that word.

When I decided to join the Advent Word community, I was a bit nervous.  I worried what I would do if I could not figure out a picture to take or use that went with the daily word.  I have found my initial anxiety has not disappeared, but has created a sense of anticipatory tension.  Each day, I open up my email, and find a word and picture, with an invitation to prayer.  Then, throughout the day, I am keeping watch – for inspiration, for insight, for the Holy Spirit speaking to me anew through the images of everyday life.  By praying the word throughout the day, I am finding myself much more aware throughout the day, and much more attuned to God speaking to me in fresh ways.

In some ways, the anticipatory tension of participating in Advent Word has helped me accomplish the bigger goal of keeping watch during Advent.  Instead of having Advent slip by in the bustle of the season, each day has a poignancy and sense of meaning.  Instead of wishing away the days until Christmas comes, my Advent has become much more intentional and meaningful.

I wonder how your Advent is going?  Are you finding ways to keep watch?  If the days are slipping away, I invite you to find ways to slow down, and listen for the Holy Spirit who longs to prepare your heart for the Christ Child.  If you have found other ways to keep watch this Advent, I would love to hear about your experience.  If nothing else, I have learned this year that Christian community can be a wonderful partner in helping us keep watch.  If you are looking for such a community, Hickory Neck is full of everyday people who are happy to keep watch with you.

Sermon – Isaiah 40.1-11, Mark 1.1-8, A2, YB, December 10, 2017

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This Advent, I have been sensing in myself a need to prepare for the Christ Child a little differently.  The busyness of life has me longing for a season of quiet reflection, of anti-consumerism, of less…well…busyness.  In some ways, the church has made accommodations for that desire.  The music in Advent is a bit more muted and quietly beautiful.  The offerings of yoga or even the Blue Christmas service make room for quiet meditation and reflection.  Even my Advent devotion this year of taking daily photos based on a provided word has forced me to look around more intentionally at life.  When I heard Isaiah’s words this week, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” my spirit had been hoping Isaiah’s preparation meant slowing down and creating an inner openness to the Holy Spirit.

Although I am sure Jesus would be all too happy to have me slow down a bit, my Advent longings may be a bit too passive for what Isaiah and John the Baptist are trying to accomplish.[i]  Of course, you can see where I may have gone astray.  Isaiah is speaking to a people in exile:  far from their homeland, oppressed by a foreign power, being forced to assume a foreign culture, God finally speaks a word of comfort to God’s people.  “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” says the Lord to Isaiah.  They are soothing words to a downtrodden people.  They are words of affection to an affection-starved nation.  They are healing words to a broken group of followers.  But those words of comfort are not followed by a cozy bed of meditation and contemplation.  Instead, those comforting words are followed by a call to action, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  God is about to do a new thing, but in order to do that new thing, the people of God must prepare the way through repentance.  Now I know we usually reserve repentance talk for Lent, but in this season of preparing for a new thing – of preparing for the Christ Child – the prophet tells the people of God they need repentant hearts.

One of the courses of study for parish priests and counselors is called family systems.  The study of family systems looks at human behavior through the lens of behavior within families, looking at ways families handle conflict, how they engage one another, and how they solve problems.  Patterns we learn in our families are taken into other systems.  One of the main lessons we learn from family systems is that you cannot change the behavior of others; you can only change your own behavior.  But changing your own behavior is not as easy as the change sounds.  Any of us who saw our mother behave like her mother, only to one day see that same behavior in ourselves realizes how hard changing our patterns can be.

When we talk about repentance, that is the kind of deep change we are talking about.  Repentance is not wallowing in guilt, feeling badly about something we said or did (or keep saying or doing).  Repentance is acknowledging our sinfulness and working to change our behavior.  The word “repent,” actually means to turn around; to turn away from sinful behavior and walk another way.  So when John the Baptist recalls Isaiah’s words, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s not saying, unpack your creches, put up the greens, and buy some presents.  Prepare the way of the Lord means making sure your heart is ready for the coming of the Christ Child – a feat you cannot accomplish if your heart is heavy with sin and regret.[ii]

Now do not get me wrong – I have pulled down the boxes of Christmas decorations, hung a wreath, and have purchased some gifts.  Those are honored traditions that bring us great joy, and I believe God wants us to be a people of joy.  But I suspect that if your heart is heavy-laden with the sins of life, or if you are so busy with the busyness of life that you have disconnected from God, your joy this year at the arrival of the Holy Child will not be as deep as your joy could be.

I have met many a church member who loathes the season of Lent for the focus on repentance.  I am sure they would be cringing today by the ways I am squashing Advent too.  But here is the reason why we have to talk about repentance today.  The gospel lesson we read from Mark contains the very first eight verses of Mark.  Mark introduces his gospel with these words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The reason John the Baptist is so excited, and is quoting Isaiah in our text today is that he knows what is coming is good news.  And so, when John quotes Isaiah with the words, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he really means two things.  First, he means do the active work of preparing your heart for the Lord.  Not just the awesome, touchy-feely stuff of centering yourself or finding a quiet space, but the hard stuff of repentance.  And second, John means do the work of sharing the good news.  The work of Advent and the joy of Christmas is not just for us.  When your heart is bursting on Christmas Eve with joy because you did the tough work or repenting and returning to the Lord, don’t you want someone with which to share your joy?   One of the ways we prepare the way of the Lord is to share the good news of God in Christ with others.[iii]

Now I know what you are going to say, “Here she goes again, talking about inviting people to church.”  Or maybe you are thinking, “Yeah, but people who come on Christmas Eve usually only come once a year, so why bother?”  The good news about spreading the good news is that you are likely going to spread that good news in spite of yourself.  You see, when we do the work of repentance, of changing our hearts, minds, and hands to doing the work of God, a renewed spirit is kindled in us, and a deep joy burns in us.  The work of repentance creates in us a clean heart, and renews a right spirit within us.  And when we feel the love of God overwhelming us, we cannot help but let slip to our neighbor, “I know you have a church home, but I just want to share how awesome my experience at church has been lately.  If you ever want to come with me, I would be happy to bring you.”  Or when your friend is expressing his deep sadness and sense of loneliness, you find yourself saying, “I have been there.  But I have to tell you, every time I leave church, something about my encounter with God and community makes me feel less alone.”  Or when a stranger is ranting about how awful the church and Christians have been lately (which, we know some awful things are happening in the name of Christ lately), you find yourself saying, “I totally agree.  That is why I love my church so much – because they show me another way of witnessing to Christ.  I would love to show you sometime!”

I realize you may have been hoping for a word of comfort and permission to quietly prepare your heart for the Christ Child today.  Lord knows I have been longing for that this week too.  But turning my busyness into purposeful preparation:  for repentance and sharing the good news sounds much more fulfilling and life-giving.  The coming of the Christ Child, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, is a life-altering event.  Today, the church prepares us for not arriving at the manger with check-lists done, gifts in hand, and arms full of stuff.  Instead, the church prepares us for arrive at the manger with open arms, free of the burdens that are weighing our spirits down, surrounded by others who have similarly prepared, and those who heard a good word from you, and wanted to drop their baggage at the manger too.  Come, prepare the way of the Lord.  Amen.

[i] Karoline Lewis, “Wilderness Preaching,” December 3, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5018 on December 6, 2017.

[ii] Martin B. Copenhaver, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 47.

[iii] Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 31.

On Repentance, Joy, and Journey…

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Photo by Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly

One of the long-standing debates among clergy and scholars is whether or not Advent is a penitential season or not – a mini-Lent, if you will.[i]  There are arguments both ways, some saying absolutely yes; to prepare our hearts for the birth of Christ, our job is certainly to repent of our sinfulness.  Others who disagree with Advent being a season of penitence argue the season is more about joyful expectation and anticipation, and is distinct from the penitential season of Lent.  Meanwhile others argue that the both Lent and Advent are for both penitence and joy.

I am not sure I have made up my mind about these debates.  What I can tell you is that in the decluttering of my heart in preparation for the Christ Child, and in listening to the lesson appointed each Sunday, I know I am, and the world around me is, in need of some repentance.  As case after case pours in of sexual harassment and abuse, I am aware of how far we have drifted from the ways in which Christ longs for us to treat one another.  From the ways that we eviscerate one another online, or talk behind our neighbor’s backs, I know that we have lost a groundedness in Christ Jesus’ message of love.  From the ways in which we have stormed away from the communion table, I feel how deeply broken we are as a world.  I play a part in not correcting those sins, and sometimes actively participating in them.

And so, this Advent, my preparation feels a bit like a journey.  The first step is going to involve a bit of grief – for every woman or man who felt shamed or silenced by a society who would not affirm that they are created in the image of God, and should never suffer bodily violation; for the loss of an ability to see shades of gray instead of seeing black and white; for the hateful things we say and do to one another.  The second step is going to be some real repentance – not just naming the grief, but claiming my role in the degradation of others.  And then, hopefully, by the time we get to Christmas Eve, I expect to arrive at the manger, not with an armful of gifts, but the open arms of humility, repentance, and renewal.  I may not have words, but I long for the evening when I can bow in front of the Christ Child, rejoicing in the gift of love, forgiveness, and transformation that Jesus is for all of us.  Whether that means this Advent is a season of penitence or not, I am not sure.  All I know is this year, I am grateful for the journey.

[i] https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/11/29/is-advent-a-penitential-season/