On New Year Hope…

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Photo credit: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/hope-and-caution-during-infertility-treatment-2019102818130

I remember when the year 1999 rolled over into 2000.  It was a time a great hubbub.  There was a sense of enormity about the transition.  Prince’s song 1999 experienced a revival, most of the world was worried about the ability of our technology to transition to Y2K, and many feared there would be some sort of cosmological event.  As the minutes rolled down to seconds, there was a collective intake of breath that we held until the clocks moved to midnight.  In the end, the transition was fairly uneventful.  Technology kept functioning, no big events happened, and most of us realized it was just another New Year’s. 

I have felt a similar incongruence this New Year’s.  Having had such a tumultuous year – between the pandemic, civil unrest, and political upheaval – I think many of us had begun to believe that once we turned the calendar from 2020 to 2021, things would be better.  The virus spread would slow as vaccines were promisingly being rolled out and we would finally be able to turn our energy from crisis mode to dealing with long-term issues like race.  And we might even begin to see some political stability.  If we could just get 2020 to close, all would be well. 

But these first days of 2021 have felt a little like the first days of 2000.  Not much has changed.  Instead of feeling like the change in calendar year has made everything better, we are left with the reality that we are still in the same situation.  In fact, things are going to get worse before they get better, which is almost incomprehensible.    

As that reality has sunken in these last few days, I see two invitations before us.  The first invitation is to take a deep, steadying breath.  This is not a loud, exasperated sigh, but a calming, strengthening breath – a breathing in of the Holy Spirit as we face the continuation of this season.  The second invitation is to take a moment to reflect on all the coping mechanisms we have developed in these last ten months – whether it has been operating in a new way (like livestreaming worship, zooming formation, or drive-thru connection events), whether it has been making space for community when we feel isolated (like sending mail, emails, and texts to fellow parishioners, hosting far-flung friends on Zoom calls just for fun, or taking socially distanced walks with others), or whether it has been discovering pleasant surprises (like the new people who have connected to your community even when your doors are closed, the hilarity that can ensue with virtual Epiphany pageants, or the blessings of a property that can lead to things like an outdoor labyrinth).  I know these last months have felt overwhelmingly disastrous at times.  But taking some breaths and looking at the goodness that has happened in the mess is what is giving me hope and fortitude for this next year.  My prayer is that you might find that same hope today too!

Sermon – Luke 2.1-20, CE, YB, December 24, 2020

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This year, Christmas is unlike any other we have experienced.  For starters, we are gathered in homes around the globe, perhaps in pjs, on couches, or even bundled up in our beds, instead of being here together, crammed into seats where we may not normally sit, sitting next to friends and strangers, dressed in our Christmas finery.  Instead of gathering with large groups of extended family and friends, or traveling great distances, many of us are home alone, only able to see beloved faces on screens or hear familiar voices on phones.  Meals may be much smaller, gift exchanging more subdued (if happening at all), and singing is happening in isolation, not in the warmth of this space, where the sound fills not just the room but also our hearts.  Operating in the background of all of this is anxiety – fear for the health of ourselves and our loved ones, concern about financial stability, and dread about how much longer this pandemic may press down upon us.  Christmas this year is an experience in displacement, discomfort, and dissatisfaction.

And yet, here we are – gathered virtually, hearing the achingly familiar Christmas story, singing the soothing, familiar songs, and eventually participating in the ritual of the Eucharistic feast – even if we receive the feast spiritually.  Although this is not at all how I hoped to spend this Christmas, both for us as a community, or even personally with my own family, as I hear the Christmas story again this year, something is different.  The displacement of Mary and Joseph, the strain of a long journey, the collective discomfort of being herded against their will, and the anxiety of giving birth with none of the creature comforts of home or health feels strikingly familiar and contemporary.  The shock of angels is more palpable when we imagine shepherds going about the daily tasks needed for survival, the sheer ordinariness of working the night shift, and the miraculous happening among the least.  Even the experience of intimate conversation between strangers forced together by life is familiar, as we recall the recent conversations we have had with neighbors who, perhaps until this year, we have only spoken to superficially.  And Lord knows we have been doing a lot of pondering in our hearts these days.  Somehow the rawness of these days cracks open this overly familiar story in ways I could have never expected.

This Christmas, as I was preparing for tonight, I stumbled on a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents.  Bonhoeffer was a pastor, theologian, and political activist in World War II Germany.  When word of his anti-Nazi activism spread, he was imprisoned for a year and a half.  Sitting in that jail cell as Christmas approached, Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents, “In times like these we learn as never before what it means to possess a past and a spiritual heritage untrammeled by the changes and chances of the present.  A spiritual heritage reaching back for centuries is a wonderful support and comfort in face of all temporary stresses and strains.”  He goes on to say, “I daresay [Christmas] will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name.  That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to man, that God should come down to the very place which men usually abhor, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn – these are things which a prisoner can understand better than anyone else.  For a prisoner, the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense.”[i]

We may not have wanted any of this:  the discomfort, the dislocation, the anxiety, the suffering, the total upendedness of these days, especially during a holiday that is supposed to be reserved for joy and jubilation.  But perhaps the good news for us this Christmas is we get to know the Christmas story in a different way – not in the shiny, pretty way we normally tell the story, but in the raw, gritty, real way we tell the story tonight.  We hear, smell, and feel the ordinariness of the room with the holy family:  the “sweat; blood; makeshift blankets and diapers; the raw, immediate joy that comes with new life.”  But we also hear the unfathomable news of angels through shepherds intruding into that space, beautifully weaving the ordinary and extraordinary.[ii]  I know this is not the Christmas any of us wanted.  But perhaps in this terrible, awful, beautiful Christmas, we can more profoundly understand the terrible, awful, beautiful thing that happens in the Christ Child this year.  And whether we sing with jubilation with angels and shepherds, or ponder these things in our hearts with Mary, perhaps we see the Christ Child in his magnificence for the first time.  Amen.


[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to his parents, December 17, 1943, as found in A Christmas Sourcebook, Mary Ann Simcoe, ed. (Chicago:  Liturgy Training Publications, 1984), 11.

[ii] Cynthia RL. Rigby, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 116, 118.

Sermon – Isaiah 9.2-7, Blue Christmas, December 21, 2020

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Blue Christmas is a service we offer every year.  This service is not always mainstream.  For many, Christmas is a season of uncomplicated joy.  But for others, Christmas can be a painful experience:  we mourn the memories of those who are no longer with us, the darkness of shorter days weighs on our mental health, or the unbounded exuberance of others creates a chasm between their happiness and our loneliness, sorrow, or pain.  And that does not account for the grief we may be experiencing otherwise – broken relationships, dissatisfaction with or lost employment, an unexpected medical diagnosis, or a dream unfulfilled.  And because Christmas cheer is all around us, we feel even more isolated in our sadness – as if we are alone in our feelings.  Only in services like these do we feel seen.

That is the experience of a “normal” Christmas.  This year, we have added nine months of a pandemic, a tumultuous political year, and civil unrest.  Suddenly, those of us who struggle with finding joy this Christmas find ourselves in a rising majority, not the minority.  I watched this year as hundreds of people decorated for Christmas in mid-November, in an effort to demand the experience of joy from a year that has been short on joy.  I can see the desperate need of a suffering people to find light somewhere, anywhere, during this holiday season.

Fortunately for us, the church is not silent on this experience.  The text we heard from Isaiah earlier says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.”  The prophet says all of this light and joy is possible for one reason:  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”  Scripture tonight honors that there are seasons of darkness.  There are times when we live in deep darkness, devoid of joy.  There are times when burdens feel like weights on our shoulders, where oppressors keep us in positions of suffering.  Sometimes those times of darkness happen around holidays, and sometimes the memory of those dark moments invade our holidays.  To that experience, the prophet says, God brings us light.  God lifts burdens, God helps us recall joy, God strengthens us.  And perhaps, most importantly, God gives us the Christ Child – the only true source of light that can lighten the darkness.

I have always loved that the Christ Child was born in literal darkness.  The delivery of the Christ Child at night reminds us that even in the rustic setting of being outcast, joy comes to Mary and Joseph.  The delivery of the Christ Child at night reminds us that even in the mundane, lonely, and exhausting work of tending sheep through the night, unbounded joy can break forth in the form of angels with heavenly news.  The delivery of the Christ Child at night reminds us that even in the darkness of night, whispered conversations between strangers can bring joy to kindle and ponder in our hearts.

Tonight, by the manager, God sees your darkness, your suffering, your hurt.  The removal of that darkness, suffering, and hurt may not be possible in these next few days.  But in that darkness, God promises you the tiniest sliver of light.  Whether you find that light by seeing you are not alone in the darkness tonight, whether you find that light through the stories of others, or whether you find that light gazing on the miracle of the Christ Child, the light, however faint, is there, waiting for you, warming you ever so slightly, and starting the long, hard work of lifting your heavy burden.  And until you are ready to receive that light, the Church sits with you in the darkness tonight.  Amen.

On Things Ludicrous and Holy…

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My children are preparing for their winter socially distanced holiday recital, and we have been flooded with a flurry of details, items to purchase, things to organize.  One of the flyers that came this week was for a t-shirt they could buy promoting the recital and the cause that will benefit from the proceeds.  The shirt says, “Best Christmas Ever.”

I was glad my children were not around when I saw the flyer because my immediate response was to scoff – out loud, in my house, looking at a piece of paper with indignation.  Best Christmas Ever?!?  Had the dance studio lost their minds?  What about this Christmas could possibly be the “best”?  Families are separated, some of whom have not seen each other in over a year.  The Coronavirus is rapidly spreading, with the death toll in the United States now over 300,000.  And despite a transition in political power, we remain as divided as ever, struggling to find peace among our brothers and sisters. 

After recovering from self-righteous indignation, I began to think about the approaching Christmas season, and what the Church, and I as her priest, have invited people to do.  We are still inviting our parishioners, friends, and neighbors to join the Holy Family on Christmas Eve and sing songs of praise and thanksgiving.  Although we honor grief and suffering at our Blue Christmas service on December 21, we are still making a claim for hope, for light, and for love.  Even with our church buildings closed again, we are still encouraging the church to gather in their cars for a drive-thru, or by their hearths with their devices to join with the shepherds as we go to see this thing that has come to pass.  Perhaps to an outsider, the work of the Church this next week seems as ludicrous as claiming this Christmas is the Best Christmas Ever.

This week, I find myself humbled.  I know the Church is going to ask a lot of you over this next week.  You may not feel like singing carols, or hearing the familiar story, or watching candles flicker as we pray.  And that’s okay.  But, if it is alright with you, we are going to keep doing it anyway.  The Church has always been full of resurrection people.  We cannot help ourselves once we know the Risen Lord.  And so, when the Christ Child comes next week, we will keep holding on to light, to joy, and to love.  We will keep holding on to the promise that Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age.  We will keep shining the light of the Christ Child, reflecting his light to all.  And we will keep believing and trusting for you until you can come to the place where you can believe and trust yourself.  You do not need to rush.  We will keep holding the light until you are ready to take it up yourself.

Sermon – John 1.6-8, 19-28, A3, YB, December 13, 2020

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Yesterday the Edwards family gathered outside the Chapel to baptize eight-month-old Bryson.  When Bryson’s family asked me if Bryson could be baptized this weekend in a small family gathering, I had to think for a moment.  Advent is not one of the normal seasons for baptisms.  But then I remembered two things.  One, this Sunday is Gaudete Sunday – the Sunday in Advent marked for joy, and often marked by shades of pink and rose.  What could be more joyful than a baptism?  Two, I glanced at our lessons and saw John the Baptist was in our Gospel lessons.  Who better to feature in our lessons on a baptism weekend than John the Baptist?!?

Of course, I only needed a few minutes of sermon preparation this past week to realize I had missed something critical about our lessons this Sunday.  Last week, we had John the Baptizer featured in Mark’s gospel.  But this Sunday, when John appears in John’s Gospel, he is not labeled as John the Baptizer, but John the Witness.[i]  John’s role in the Gospel of John does not rest as centrally in his role of baptizer, but more centrally in testifying to the identity of Jesus Christ.  As Lamar Williamson says, “John’s role is to recognize the true light when [the light] appears, and to call attention to [the light] so that others may recognize [the light] and believe – that is, recognize, trust in, and commit themselves to the light.”[ii]  There went my perfectly arranged baptism weekend!  “John the Witness” does not really have quite the same je ne sais quoi as “John the Baptist.” 

So, I started thinking about what we are doing when we baptize people into the community of faith.  Baptism certainly is a rite of initiation into the body of Christ.  Upon baptism, one may receive communion and participate fully in the body.  We make promises on behalf of the baptized, we renew our most fundamental promises on our own lives through the Baptismal Covenant, and we open up a life’s journey of faith, hope, and joy in Jesus. 

But at the end of the day, the thing we are really doing in baptism is witnessing.  We are witnessing to the baptized, and their family, what are the things of ultimate importance to us as Christians.  We are witnessing a commitment to our community – the full responsibility we are willing to take on in the faith journey of the baptized, from infancy to adulthood.  And we are witnessing to the broader community:  that even in the midst of a pandemic (in which Bryson has spent his entire life), even in the midst of divisiveness and unrest, even in the midst of economic uncertainty, we are witnesses to new life, new hope, new joy.

Like John the Witness today, in baptism, we point the way to Jesus.  When Bryson, or our friends, ask the big questions, we will point them toward Jesus.  When Bryson, or our families, question faith and express doubt, we will witness to them about our own faith and doubt stories.  When Bryson, or our community, cannot claim joy or are simply numb to the overwhelming suffering of these days, we will share with them as Steve Garnaas-Holmes says, that “Christ does not come to make us happy, but to stand with us in the pain of life until joy like a seed rises.  All is swallowed up in joy.”[iii]  That is what Gaudete Sunday, a baptism weekend, and John the Witness invite us to do this week:  to be witnesses of joy, not looking at ourselves to be the light, but looking toward the one who is light – the only one who can solidify joy in the darkness of Advent.  Amen.


[i] Karoline M. Lewis, John (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 27

[ii] Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 4, as cited by Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 71.

[iii] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Rejoice Always,” December 10, 2020, as found at https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/b4fws8bsnsjklfkw3ws8823kke9a7t on December 10, 202.

Sermon – Matthew 25.31-46, P29, YA, November 22, 2020

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Once upon a time, “there was a cobbler who lived alone in his shop with one window that looked out on the street.  His wife and children had all died and he asked God, “Holy One why have you so long delayed your coming?  I have almost given up hope in seeing you.  Please come to my humble shop this day and show me your face.”

Outside on the street the cold winter brought snow.  Through his window he saw a beggar who shivered in the cold.  The cobbler invited the beggar into the shop to warm him and offer a meager meal from his shrinking larder.  The beggar thanked him and left.

As the day passed, a few customers came with repairs they needed for their shoes and harnesses.  A young boy sought shelter from the cold and snow.  The child’s feet were wrapped in old dirty rags and stuffed with paper.  Into the shop he invited the boy.  After making him some warm milk and a sandwich from the little food he had he went to his closet and found a pair of shoes that [had] belonged to his son.  He fit the shoes to the boy.  Grateful, the boy left with a promise to return to visit him.

It was approaching dusk and the cobbler despaired of a visit from the Lord.  A woman with her young babe appeared in front of the window.  She was dressed in a thin piece of cloth and she looked as if she might freeze to death.  The cobbler invited her into his shop.  Wary of the old man, she hesitated at the door, but feeling the warmth within she stepped across the threshold.  The cobbler made her some tea and went to his closet to find a heavy woolen cloak that [had] belonged to his wife.  Giving her the cloak the woman thanked him and after he shared the rest of his larder with her, she left with the child.

The sun descended and left the cobbler bereft.  “Why didn’t you come and visit me today,” the cobbler asked?  There was a voice that spoke to him in his humble shop:  “But I did come to you.  When you invited in the beggar, the boy, and the mother and her child, I was there with you.  In each of their faces you looked into my eyes.”[i]

I don’t know about you, but the last eight months have been exhausting.  Every week I look at the lessons and newspaper and hope for some good news – some glimpse of the face of Jesus.  But every week, the news somehow seems worse.  This week has been no different, with suffering hitting us at both the macro and micro levels.  Our country is in an existential crisis about the Presidential election.  Although many commentators seem to think things will work out, at question is the very foundation of democracy – elections where the votes of the people matter and where the peaceful, respectful exchange of power can happen.  We have managed to successfully do this for over two hundred years, and somehow, this year we cannot seem to hold to our founding principles.  Meanwhile, on the micro level, we are approaching a national holiday of Thanksgiving – a holiday characterized by the gathering of peoples around a table, not unlike our own Eucharistic feast.  And yet, flights are being cancelled, car keys are being put down, and painful calls of cancellation are being made.  Once again, this pandemic is crushing our rituals, forcing us to stay apart from one another.

So, when I picked up the Biblical texts for today, remembering this is Christ the King Sunday, I could not have been more relieved.  I am ready for the shepherd of Ezekiel who seeks out the lost, binds up the wounded, and feeds us on the good pasture – all while destroying the fat sheep and feeding them justice!  I am ready for the Psalmist’s invitation to bow down before the Lord our Maker – the king above all gods, the one in whose hands are the caverns of the earth, the heights of the hills, the sea, and the dry lands!  I want to hear the beauty of the song, King of Glory, King of Peace.  I want a god who will take all of this away – the strife, fighting, suffering, weariness, and make everything better.  I want to see Christ the King!

But nothing is ever easy with Jesus.  When we call out for Jesus, Jesus tells us in the gospel today that he is already here – here with us when we feed the hungry, sate the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.  To our wearied selves, who just want a victorious king to fix things, our king reminds us today that relief is not found in power grabs and punishments.  As the founder of The Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin, once explained, the social policy Jesus gives us for the renewal of the world is works of mercy.[ii] 

Our lives right now are upended.  Even doing the literal work of the cobbler from that story may not seem possible in these times of social distancing.  But the good news we hear today is peace will not come from powerful, political overpowering.  Peace and relief in these times will come from loving the vulnerable, tending the weak, serving those suffering more deeply than we can imagine.  Like the cobbler in his grief, we may not be able to see those in need in this pandemic.  But they are there, with us, every day.  And it is there, we will see the face of Jesus.  There, God will soothe our pain.  There, the Holy Spirit will mend our weariness.  There is our peace.  Thanks be to God. 


[i] Leo Tolstoy, “Martin the Cobbler,” as retold by Bob Stuhlmann in “Goat Cheese And Starfish: For November 23, 2014,” posted on November 18, 2014, as found at http://storiesfromapriestlylife.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/goat-cheese-and-starfish-for-november-232014/ on November 20, 2020.

[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew:  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), 212.

On Shifting Sands and Drishtis…

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Photo credit: https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/pillars-of-power-yoga-using-drishti-on-and-off-the-mat

When you are doing balancing postures during yoga, one of the skills you learn early on is developing a drishti, or a focal point.  The idea is the more you focus your gaze on one fixed object, the more your body steadies itself.  I am not entirely sure why or how finding a drishti works, but I know from experience that a very wobbly body in a balancing posture is quickly steadied once focused on a drishti.  It is a strange sensation, but when the drishti is engaged, the gaze of the eyes has complete power over the entire body, creating a sense of self-possession, control, and power.

I was talking to a fellow parent this past week and when we talked about parenting during a pandemic, I told her I felt like I was standing on shifting sand.  Just when I would start to figure out a rhythm or start to feel like I had some modicum of control over family life, things would change – whether the formal arrangement with hybrid learning, the changing of teachers mid-quarter, or even my own child’s changing ability to adapt and thrive.  Just when I feel like our family is finding our balance, something makes us wobbly all over again.  That kind of uncontrolled imbalance, of attempting to stand on shifting sand leaves the body weary and fatigued.

But as I have been thinking about pandemic parenting and my learning in yoga, I’ve begun to wonder if what this wobbly parent might need is a pandemic drishti.  For some parents that might mean focusing on the blessing of your children – so that no matter what tempter tantrum they are throwing today, what argument you are having as a family, or what door they have slammed, you focus not on the anger and frustration of the scene immediately in front of you, but on the love you have for your child (even if it’s only the love you see when they are fast asleep).  For me, my drishti is the love of God surrounding us on every side:  the one who loves me when I fail as a parent, the one who loves my child as they receive another setback in expectations, the one who loves each of us when all we can see is the heat of anger and frustration in one another.  Once I focus on God’s love of us, slowly my demeanor starts to shift, my balance starts to return, and my steadiness strengthens.

This week, I encourage you to claim your pandemic drishtiWhether you focus on God’s lovingkindness, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, or the ever-present blessing of the Holy Spirit, take whatever time you need to shift your gaze on God.  My guess is the more you practice steading your gaze on the goodness of God, the more your wobbling, weary body will feel grounded in goodness too.  We cannot control the shifting sand of these times.  But we can control our steady gaze in the face of a storm.

Sermon – Matthew 25.14-30, P28, YA, November 15, 2020

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This week your Vestry spent some time talking about adaptive leadership in the midst of a pandemic.  In our conversation, we were reminded of what Winston Churchill once said about World War II:  Never let a good crisis go to waste.  The phrase sounds a bit morbid, whether talking about World War II or this pandemic where over 245,000 people have died in the United States alone.  But what Churchill and our lecturer were trying to communicate were simple.  In a time of crisis, we see and do things differently.  A crisis produces clarity about what is important, what is not, and how we can creatively and boldly make changes for the good.  In a crisis, we are able to make changes and be nimble because fear is pushed aside for the sake of survival.  Basically, crisis strips away all the things that hold us back when life is “normal” and opens up new and fresh ways of being.  From Churchill’s point of view, wasting all that powerful insight and activity would be a waste of the crisis. 

That is what Jesus is getting at in our parable today.  We can easily get caught up in the emotional whiplash of this parable.  The master trusts his servants with inconceivable wealth – anywhere from 15 – 75 years’ worth of wages[i] – and gives them unprecedented freedom to manage the wealth.  Upon the master’s return, he is gracious, full of praise, even welcoming two of the servants into his bosom.  But when the final servant comes forward, the master becomes another person.  He is angry, scolding, and harsh.  He strips the servant of his talent and casts him into the outer darkness.  The discomfort we feel with the behavior of this stand-in for God is natural; but our discomfort can distract us from the master’s valid concern that we allow fear[ii] to stop us from realizing our vocation.

So why is the master so harsh about fear?  The problem is fear distorts every good thing about our nature.  Fear cuts off creativity.  When we are overcome with fear, we cannot be imaginative and playful, coming to new solutions and ways of being.  Fear also messes with our sense of trust.  When we are overcome with fear, we forget the goodness of others, our previous examples of how things have gone well, or even the bold support of our God.  Fear messes with our confidence.  When we are overcome with fear, all the good, powerful, and holy parts of us get riddled with self-doubt and inaction.  And fear messes with our willingness to take risks.  When we are overcome with fear, we cannot do the things that will lead to great payoff. 

Fear in the abstract is a normal reaction in life.  There are certainly ways in which fear fosters a sense of carefulness, one we have needed in this pandemic.  But we have to remember what Jesus is talking about in this parable to understand why the landowner is so harsh about fear.  You see, talents are not just metaphors for the thing things we are good at or even for the money we have in life.  Talents are metaphors for the vocations we each have.[iii]  Each person in this room has a calling.  Some of us are called to particular jobs or courses of study.  Some of us are called to particular roles within families or groups.  Some of us are called to use our gifts in particular ways.  We all have a call, a vocation in life.  And our vocation is affirmed by the skills or materials we are given to live out that call.  Even our parish has a vocation in our community – a call to use our unique mission to further the Gospel of Christ.  The problem with the third servant is he is given what he needs in abundance.  The landowner affirms him, trusts him, and gives him space and time to live out his vocation.  But the third servant allows himself to be so overcome with fear that he does not live out his vocation.  He shuts down creativity, trust, confidence, and risk-taking all because he is afraid.  And that is an ultimate sin for God. 

What this parable invites us to do today is not to see God as a mean, cruel, reactive God that punishes.  Quite the opposite, the parable today invites us to remember that our God is trusting, discerning about our gifts, confident in our abilities, and joyful in our obedience.  God gives each person in this room and our parish of Hickory Neck a vocation, a purpose, in this world, gives us the gifts and encouragement we need to fulfill that vocation, and, ultimately, expects us to go out into the world and boldly take the risk of doing what God has already enabled us to do.  God is telling us not to waste the crisis of this pandemic.  God sees us becoming nimbler, doing “church” differently in ways that reach more people in our community, and embracing the creativity and experimentation that has always made us great.  Letting fear overpower our beauty is not what God desires for us – because God knows we can open new paths previously unimagined.  God knows our willingness to live out our vocation means great things for the world.  As one scholar reminds us, this “…parable is the invitation to the adventure of faith:  the high-risk venture of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.”[iv]  Amen.


[i] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 309, 311.

[ii] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 312.

[iii] Idea presented by Matthew Skinner in the podcast, “SB570 – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 33)” November 11, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=948 on November 12, 2020.

[iv] John M. Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 312.

On Rituals, Church, and Candy…

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Photo Credit: https://www.hauntedwisconsin.com/things-to-do/kids-family/trick-or-treat/

Last weekend, I took my younger daughter trick-or-treating.  We spent a long time as parents debating whether we should take our children.  We read scientific articles, talked to other parents, and spent time in long conversations.  Ultimately, we decided to go ahead, making sure we donned our masks, only traveled as a family, and sanitized our hands frequently between houses.  We also talked to our child about how although she may want to greet friends with warm hugs, that night was a night for verbal greetings instead of physical.  Our child did not argue with the restrictions and was simply happy to be going at all.

We embarked at the designated time not knowing what to expect – whether other families with children would be out safely, whether homeowners would respect social distancing and mask wearing, or whether the entire evening would need to be abandoned.  Much to my surprise, the evening went better than I could have hoped.  The number of trick-or-treaters was cut in half, and people mostly respected safe distancing.  Homes distributing candy were also at about fifty percent, and many of those who distributed exhibited tons of creativity:  from baskets of candy lowered from outdoor balconies, to candy “kabobs” planted in yards, to zipline delivery mechanisms, to clotheslines of candy. Many homeowners bagged candy to reduce touching and many seemed to have read the best practices about how to hand out candy.  I was blown away by our neighbors’ thoughtfulness, creativity, and grace.

But what struck me the most was a truth emerging from the whole evening.  If you had asked me or any of my neighbors before Halloween why we were participating in the ritual of trick-or-treating, we probably all would have said we were doing it for the kids:  to give them some sort of normalcy in this crazy, abnormal time.  But as I tucked my child in that night, and thought about all our experiences, I realized a deeper truth.  I think all of us adults participated in the ritual not just because the children needed it; we participated because we needed it.  We needed just one thing to be semi-normal in this super stressful, topsy-turvy world.  And we took our precautions and stretched our creativity, but we participated in a ritual that reminded us of joy, innocence, and community.

In many ways, that is what we are trying to do every week in churches too.  The very essence of Church is incarnational – from how we gather (in large groups), how we worship (using our all our senses, including touch), how we participate in ritual (often kneeling shoulder to shoulder, receiving communion from common dishes, and laying on of hands), to how we interact (from children’s programming and play to Coffee Hours).  With this pandemic, our incarnational essence just is not possible in the same way.  And so, we are worshiping online, we are offering socially distant worship services, and we are gathering on Zoom for pretty much everything – from formation, to fellowship, to learning, and even play.  I know Church right now is not the same, but if Halloween offers any lessons, perhaps it is that participating in the ritual – even an amended and altered ritual – is important for our spiritual, emotional, and physical health.  If you have taken a break from the ritual of Church because it just is not the same (and you are right, it is not), please know that Hickory Neck is here to help you reclaim some of that ritual.  It may be awkward or push your technological abilities.  But I promise, even those unusual connections might just offer the ritual you need to stay healthy and whole!

Sermon – Matthew 5.1-12, ASD, YA, November 1, 2020

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There are certain events in life that when we stop and pay attention, bring into laser-sharp focus the importance of ultimate things:  baptisms, weddings, and funerals probably being the most significant.  For baptisms, we do not just celebrate because babies are cute or because adult baptisms feel empowering.  We celebrate by making promises to journey with the individual in their faith, and by renewing our own baptisms.  Similarly, we make promises to couples getting married.  There is even a prayer for already married couples in our liturgy, asking God to renew their promises to one another.  Of course, funerals can do the same thing.  They are not just sobering in their reminder of our own mortality, but also, they refocus us on the ultimate significance promised in Jesus Christ – eternal life.  All of these events in the life of the church offer us a sobering reminder of the importance of ultimate things.

In some ways, that is what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes – that portion of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s gospel today.  Prior to these verses, Jesus has been healing the sick, proclaiming the gospel, and managing swarms of crowds who are drawn to his message and healing.  But in these verses, Jesus stops.  He sits down, gathers the disciples, and invites them to listen.  Jesus then shares the importance of ultimate things.  The disciples are seeing what he sees – the suffering, the pain, the agony.  Into that overwhelming need, Jesus does not teach them how to heal.  He does not teach them how preach.  He does not set a schedule for where they will go next or how many more they will heal.  Instead he lays out a series of blessings that remind the disciples what is ultimately important.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Jesus is more than willing to heal and soothe suffering.  But Jesus is also saying that our pain and our suffering mean something; our pain and suffering can and will be transformed.

We do something similar in our liturgical actions today as well.  We honor not just the saints who have gone before – those who have performed miracles or lived notable lives.  We honor all the “saints” – the label Saint Paul used for all Christians – the mothers, fathers, siblings, children, friends, lovers, and mentors who taught us about the ultimate things.  Even though the practice looks a little different this year, every year we tie ribbons on our altar rail to remember the ultimate things of this life – the wisdom our loved ones taught us.  In our socially distant worship service today, a couple will renew the wedding vows they made forty years ago because they want to remember the ultimate things of married life.  Even in the midst of pandemic, protests, and political campaigns, the Church today pauses this morning and reminds us of ultimate things. 

On this All Saints Day, the faithful stop, take a deep breath, pulling in the anxiety, the pain, the anger, and the suffering, and breathe out the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are those who hunger, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are persecuted…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are you.”  Our invitation today is to breathe in with the all the saints who have gone before, so that when we breathe out, we are renewed with the breath of ultimate things.  Keep doing the work of our Savior in this crazy time because you are blessed and will continue to be blessed.  Rejoice today and be exceedingly glad – for great is your reward in heaven.  Amen.