On Finding God in Community…

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One of the quirks of being a priest is that my work is often outside of the church.  Whether I am meeting a newcomer for coffee, catching up with a parishioner over lunch, or visiting someone in the hospital, I am more often out in the community than sitting in the church office.  The challenge with that mode of operating is that I sometimes find myself with an extra hour here or there between commitments.  So I often take work with me – catching up on emails, reading for a class or sermon, or doing some writing.

Lately, that pattern has meant having all kinds of interesting encounters.  The other day I met someone who was a former parishioner of my church while buying a cup of coffee.  While responding to emails, someone who recognized me from barre class introduced herself to me, realizing we had never formally introduced ourselves, but that she had seen me around town several times.  While doing some writing while waiting for routine maintenance in the local car dealership, one of the salesmen came over to say he was one of my neighbors and we had not yet met.  Sometimes you even have to leave your home to meet those closest to your home!

Research tells us in order to grow your church community, you need to get off the property.  If you want to get to know the people who are not joining you every Sunday, you need to go where they are on the other days of the week.  Of course, just drinking coffee does not mean you will magically meet people – you do actually have to engage others in conversation – even if it is about car brand loyalty, or your favorite new drink on the coffee menu.  Getting off the property allows us to meet people where they are – and to see God in all the wonderful, myriad places God likes to hang out.  Though there are other ways to do that in reverse – holding a Fiber Festival, welcoming a school to your property – you really have to do both to have those God-moments.

All that being said, I confess, I sometimes have an easier job of talking about God.  The collar is dead giveaway.  But my invitation to you is the same.  Take a moment to get out of your bubble.  Go to an event to which you wouldn’t normally go, linger in a coffee shop you do not regularly frequent, or get even more bold, and take your committee meeting off campus and go public.  If you need some Hickory Neck gear to break the ice, I can help you out.  But my guess is you will find those God moments just by being you.  I cannot wait to hear about who you meet and what you learn!

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On Community, Connection, and Blessing…

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One of the things people say about Williamsburg is that it is a small town in the truest sense.  You cannot go too far without running into someone you know – or someone who knows you through someone else.  I find that reality to be true at church all the time.  Someone will come visit the church looking for a church home, and lo and behold, they realize they work (or worked) with a parishioner without realizing they attended Hickory Neck.  Or I will have coffee with a newcomer, and we realize we have friends and acquaintances in common.  In Williamsburg, there really is about two, if not one, degree of separation between most people.

In some ways, that is very good for a pastor.  One of the many things we learn about in seminary is how important it is for clergy to get out in the community, to get to know the people surrounding them – not with the intention of evangelism; more with the intention of being a leader who can authentically lead within their community.  That was one of the major reasons I applied to be in the LEAD Greater Williamsburg program.  The program is a community immersion program for emerging and existing leaders, who also do a community service project for the wider community.  As I approach graduation this week, I am especially grateful for this aspect of the program.

What LEAD taught me affirmed what I learned in seminary – it is so important to understand, know, and appreciate the community within which you do ministry.  As much as I thought I had gotten to know many people in Williamsburg, the monthly classes and my 28 fellow classmates helped me see that there are so many people, companies, and agencies that I did not know.  Maybe some people are okay with that lack of knowledge, but for me, working on that knowledge gap has not only helped me understand my own ministry better, it has helped me fall in love with the community even more.  I am overwhelmed by the diverse, myriad ways that greater Williamsburg residents work to make our community better.  This community is filled with incredible, inspirational people, and I surmise I have only scratched the surface.

Today, my reflection is two-fold.  One, I am filled with gratitude for the amazing opportunity of being in the LEAD program this past year.  Thanks to my classmates for an incredible year of making WMBGkind!!  The blessings abound – from knowledge, to leadership development, to friendships, to joy!  But two, I find myself wanting to connect more, and I would like to invite you to do the same.  Whether you are here in the Greater Williamsburg area, or even in your own hometown, think about someone you have wondered about or admired from afar, and ask them to coffee.  Get to know the people of your community – really know them:  their work, their home life, their fears, and their joys.  My guess is that the more you expand your connection to people in your community, the more you will see ways in which God is inviting you to bring blessing to your community!

Sermon – John 10.22-30, Psalm 23, E4, YC, May 12, 2019

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One of my good friends is enamored with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  She can describe the chapel of the Good Shepherd at the National Cathedral in minute, passionate detail.  In her office are images of Christ the Good Shepherd.   I suspect that if you asked her who Jesus is to her, she would say he is the Good Shepherd.  And she would not be alone.  The verses of John immediately before the text we heard today about Jesus being the Good Shepherd is a favorite when planning funerals.  The 23rd Psalm, which says “The Lord is my Shepherd,” is perhaps the most well-know scripture passage of all time – known even by people who have not attended church in ages.  The passage from John we hear today talks about the intimacy between Jesus and Jesus’ followers being like sheep who know their shepherd’s voice.  The fourth Sunday of Easter is even called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” in the liturgical year.  We probably should have all worn those awesome sheep hats the Praise Band wears during the Epiphany pageant to show our sheep solidarity.

Despite all that – despite the familiarity, the wide-spread popularity, and the commitment of an entire day in the church calendar to shepherd imagery – I must confess something I have told very few people in life:  I do not really like the imagery of Christ as the Good Shepherd.  Now I know some of you may be shocked – how can a priest not like one of the most popular biblical metaphors?  Some of you may be perplexed – what’s not to like about the image of a good shepherd?  Some of you may be downright offended – how can I not relate to the metaphor that has sustained you countless times?

Let me break my dislike down for us.  I do not like the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd primarily because I do not like the idea of being sheep.  Now I know we have the Fiber Festival coming up this weekend, and I like wool as much as anybody, but sheep are not the brightest animals.  They are easily spooked, they tend to be a little clueless, they seem to lack individual intelligence, and they make a horrible bleating noise that sounds nothing like the “baa” of nursery rhymes.  Sheep are easily corralled – dogs are used to herd them in simply by nudging them all back together.  That rod and staff the 23rd Psalm talks about is used to physically push and prod sheep into uniformity.  And let’s not forget they are notorious for getting lost.  I mean, of all images to conjure up and celebrate on a given Sunday, we get to be sheep?!?

But as you and I both know, the things that make us the most uncomfortable are usually the things that are the most true.  Take for example the question and request of Jesus by those gathered around him in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.  They say to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Jesus responds, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”  I cannot count the number of times we have asked Jesus this same question.  Sometimes the question is the exact same question as the one the people of faith ask today – are you the Messiah?  Can we believe in you?  Should we believe in you?  For anyone who has struggled with their faith – worried like those gathered at the tomb whether any of this Jesus stuff is true – the question and request today are not unfamiliar.  But we often ask this question in other ways.  As one writer confesses, there are countless times that we petition God with, “‘If you are.’  If you are good.  If you are powerful.  If you are loving.  If you are real.  If you are the Messiah, then stop talking in riddles.  Stop hiding when I long for your presence.  Stop awakening in me holy hungers you won’t satisfy.  Show up, speak plainly, act decisively.  Take this world of swirling, dubious gray, and turn it black and white, once and for all.”[i]  To all those questions, to all those longings, the response from Jesus to us is the same response of Jesus to the people of faith in our scripture lesson:  I have, but you do not believe.

Now here is where the text gets even more uncomfortable.  Jesus’ full words are, “I have told you, and you do not believe…because you do not belong to my sheep.”  Now there are all kinds of awful things that have been said historically about this text – the supersessionism of Christians over Jews, predestination, you name it![ii]  But I do not think Jesus was trying to exclude one group, or say, only one group will ever belong and everyone else is out.  I think what Jesus is trying to do is challenge people like me who do not like the idea of being sheep.  Jesus is saying today – I know you do not like being sheep, I know you do not like submitting control to me, I know that you do not like admitting that you do not have things all figured out.  When Jesus says, you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep, I think Jesus is saying, we do not belong because we are unwilling to belong.  In other words, we do not belong not because Jesus excludes – we do not belong because we actively fight belonging.  And because we fight belonging, we also struggle with believing.

One of my favorite church welcome videos features a series of concerns that often keep people away from church:  feeling like they do not lead lives that are good enough, worrying about unfamiliar or even weird cultural practices that might be uncomfortable, concern they might not fit in because of what they wear, or a sense that they could never belong to a group that has shown a history of hypocrisy.  To each concern, the church-goers have response.  Not sure what to wear?  Wear clothes.  Not sure your past sins will make you worthy?  We all have pasts that make us unworthy.  Worried about secret handshakes or stiff worship?  You’ll just find love and affirmation here.  Know the church is full of hypocrites?  Aren’t we all hypocrites?  What I love about the video is that belonging is more natural that belonging seems – and the more you spend time belonging, the more you realize your belonging helps you believe.  Belief does not come first.  It cannot come first.  Belonging comes first.

Author Debie Thomas says knowing belonging comes first is where our hope is today.  “According to this text, whatever belief I arrive at in this life will not come from the ups and downs of my own emotional life. It will not come from a creed, a doctrine, or a cleverly worded sermon.  Rather it will come from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus’s flock — of walking in the footsteps of the Shepherd, living in the company of fellow sheep, and listening in real time for the voice of the one whose classroom is rocky hills, hidden pastures, and deeply shadowed valleys.  If I won’t follow him into those layered places — places of both tranquility and treachery, trust and doubt — I will never belong to him at all.”[iii]

For the longest time, I have resisted the metaphor of Jesus as our Good Shepherd because I did not like what being a sheep implied about my character and intellect.  But what I forgot in my resistance is that there are a whole lot of sheep around when I simply consent to belong.  Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me that I have companions along the journey who are also sometimes resistant to the guidance of Christ.  Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me that I am not alone in the things of life and faith I do not understand.  Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me going solo often leads to peril.  Bumping into fellow sheep really is not all that bad.  Not only do we have a shepherd who loves us unconditionally and irrationally, we also have a community where all our weakness, foibles, and sins are held in common, and forgiven.

Our invitation is to remember what John is actually saying today in his gospel.  As one scholar reminds us, “God is the one who initiates a relationship to us.  God seeks us out long before we seek God.  Christ makes us his sheep; we do not make him our shepherd.”[iv]  That is why we have long said as a people of faith, “The Lord is my shepherd…He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters.”  I mean, if you want to keep fighting the invitation to belong, by all means.  Lord knows, I have tried that route.  But on this Good Shepherd Sunday, your invitation is to consider another way:  to lean into the sheep all around you today, to trust that the Shepherd actually is good; and to know that wherever you are in your belief journey, belonging is the easiest step to get you there.  Amen.

[i] Debie Thomas, “Tell Us Plainly,” May 5, 2019, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2201 on May 8, 2019.

[ii] Thomas H. Troeger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 447.

[iii] Thomas.

[iv] Troeger, 449.

On Resurrection and Race…

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This Sunday at Hickory Neck, we kick of a three-week series on James H. Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  Only a few pages into the book, and I confess this will be a heavy discussion for us as a parish.  You might be wondering why we chose such a book in Eastertide – isn’t race and violence a better topic for Lent?  Or maybe you are wondering why we are talking about race – again – at church.  Surely we can move on to talk about other topics!?

When my family I visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in April, something poignant happened to me as I shepherded our young children through the museum.  There was an exhibit about the Jim Crow era in Mississippi.  As you walked through the exhibit, there were motion detectors that triggered recordings.  The recordings were of white men and women saying or shouting the things that were said or shouted to persons of color – about not belonging, about watching out, about even just existing in a segregated world.  Since I had small, active children, the motion sensors were triggered a lot, meaning these voices were shouting at me constantly.  I found by the time we exited that portion of the museum, my nerves were totally shot.  The exhibit was a powerful reminder of how, even when civil liberties were won, African-Americans were still not treated equally.  In fact, their existence then (and I suspect even today) was one of walking on egg shells – never knowing when someone would say something offensive, physically-threatening, or even life-threatening.  That kind of lifelong anxiety must do things to your psyche and mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

But as a Caucasian, I have the privilege to not experience that egg shell kind of life.  I have the privilege to decide when “we’ve talked about race enough.”  I even have the privilege of deciding when a good season to talk about race is – lest we confuse happy seasons with sad or contemplative ones.  And that is why we try at Hickory Neck to engage in at least one book or film study a year – to remind us of the privilege we hold because of something totally out of our control:  our skin color.  And if we are an Easter people, then celebrating resurrection life means bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth.  One of the ways we advance the kingdom is to live out the gospel – to live out the life of Jesus, instead of one that is counter to the life of Jesus.

I know the reading will be hard, and I know you have hundreds of things to do.  But for the next three weeks, I invite you to join us.  Join us in setting aside the comfort of our privilege in life, and stepping into the shady places of life.  Join us in being open to hearing other experiences, learning new things, and seeing race and reality differently.  Join us in living into the true meaning of Easter – a life where the resurrection means reconciliation and renewal.  Walking into the shady parts of life will allow us to more authentically proclaim the light of parts of life – the light of Christ.

On Giving Voice to Joy…

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Although I was working this past Sunday, my family elected to take a much-needed post-Holy Week/Easter Sunday break.  I explained the details to our younger daughter on Saturday night, and she threw a fit.  “But I’ll miss Sunday School…and the bread and wine…and the Peace…and Children’s Chapel!”  The more she thought about what she would miss, the more upset she got.  Her disappointment was both heart-breaking and heart-warming.  As a priest, I always hope my children will find meaning in church.  But as a PK (preacher’s kid) myself, I also am fully aware that sometimes you sit in church because that’s part of your role.  Hearing our younger child long for the “stuff” of church filled my heart with joy.

Fortunately, that joy is not limited to PKs.  I talked to another parent on Sunday whose family had been traveling the last couple of weeks.  She relayed that when she told her preschooler that today was a church day, he jumped up a down throughout the house singing, “It’s church day!  It’s church day!”  Combine that with the faces of our children that light up when they reach the altar rail to receive communion, and I know that Hickory Neck is doing something right.  Our teachers and worship leaders are making a big impact – but so is each member who makes them feel welcome, included, and invaluable.

The funny thing is, I think the adults at Hickory Neck feel the same way.  I’m not sure most of them are jumping up and down on Sunday mornings (at least not without coffee), but as I have met and talked with members over the last year, there is a common thread in those conversations:  parishioners come to Hickory Neck each week because they long to be there.  For some, the feeling is easily attributable:  the comfort of music or communion, the connection with fellow church members, or the invitation to step into prayer with others.  For others, they may not even understand why they are drawn to church; they just know they want to be there – something intangible draws them in.

Sometimes I think our inability to articulate our joy and fulfillment we find at church is what holds us back from inviting others to join us.  Perhaps we worry about what negative experiences someone has had and we don’t want to deal with wading through the dark side of church.  Perhaps we worry that we will not explain the experience well enough for someone to want to join us.  Or perhaps we are embarrassed, worried that we will seem more like a child filled with joy than an adult with a persuasive invitation.  Today, I invite you to think about what it is at church that brings you joy – what keeps you coming back every week, and then share an invitation (to Hickory Neck, or to your own church home).  I’ll be sharing some of my joy with you at our Rector’s Forum on Sunday.  I would love to hear yours too!

 

Sermon – Luke 24.1-12, ED, YC, April 21, 2019

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Easter is one of my favorite days in the church year.  I love how no matter whether we come to church every Sunday or if we haven’t been to church in ages, something about Easter draws us to the Church.  I love the celebration:  the Easter outfits, the fragrant flowers, the boisterous music, and the family of faith gathered at the communion table.  I love the sweet feeling of having emerged from the penitential season of Lent, and counting how many times we can say, “Alleluia.”  There is a loudness to Easter, an unbridled joy, a sense of victory.

What is funny about our experience today though is very little of the boldness of this day is present in Holy Scripture.  In fact, Luke tells a story that is quite the opposite of our experience today.  While we sing loud alleluias and hosannas, all of the characters in our gospel lesson today are in a totally different place.  They are mired in grief, lost in confusion, unsure about what has happened to them.  In a quiet, almost mechanical, numb way, the women who have been beside Jesus his entire ministry and were the only ones remaining at his death, come to the tomb in the fog of dawn, to do the work of tending to the dead body.  In their haze, no sense of closure comes.  Instead, more confusion comes.  Not only is the tomb empty, the angelic figures tell them Christ is risen.  The angels remind them Jesus had explained this to them, and things start to make sense.  But when the women return to tell the men, the men are so resigned and defeated, they mock the women.  Peter goes to check out the story, but even he does not come back with profound clarity.  He is lost in amazement – in awed confusion.  This story tells us very little about what this all means, what we should do, or how we should respond.  Very little about the gospel today is loud, triumphant, or jubilant.

Though I have been begging our musician for years now for more sound at Easter – a timpani to accompany the brass – the truth is, I kind of like how our gospel lesson today takes us in another direction.  Much of what we boldly proclaim today – that Christ is risen, his resurrection brings eternal life, and everything we know has changed – is pretty difficult stuff to believe.  Any of you who has spent time around an inquisitive child or a doubtful friend knows how difficult explaining the resurrection can be.  For our rational, twenty-first century selves, the theology of Easter is not only difficult to articulate, Easter is almost unbelievable.  And when we are really honest with ourselves, in the quiet of our own homes, we sometimes have moments when we are not really sure why we believe what we believe about Christ.

That’s why I love today’s gospel.  Today’s gospel reminds us of how unbelievable the resurrection of our Lord really was.  Sure, Jesus had said he would be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.  But his words sounded crazy at the time.  Now that Jesus’ words have come true, the women are perplexed, terrified, and rejected when they share their truth.  The men are paralyzed, doubtful, and downright mean.  On this early morning, the followers of Jesus only have their experiences of Jesus, their uncertainty of faith, and their attempts to believe the unbelievable.

To me, that is very good news indeed.  On this day as we sing songs about Jesus’ resurrection, and as we hear Peter preach with certainty in the book of Acts, and as we, with joy, proclaim, “Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!” our gospel story reminds us faith is a journey full of doubt, questions, and confusion.  We come on this festival day not because we are absolutely certain about Jesus.  We come on this festival day because in our foggy dawns, we have had encounters with the risen Lord – even when we did not know how to articulate the encounters.  We come to this festival day because in our pain, suffering, and questioning about life – we have had moments when something from scripture or our faith life suddenly connected and made sense.  We come to this festival day because even in our doubts, there is some small part of us that cannot extinguish hope, that suspects Christ might have actually changed the world.

On this day, the Church does not want our theological explanations of the resurrection.  On this day, the Church invites us to recall those moments, however fleeting or miniscule, where we have encountered, or suspected we encountered, the risen Lord.  Our bold singing of alleluias only needs that small flicker of hope – or maybe our desire for that flicker of hope.  Our celebrating today only needs our presence – our willingness to be here, encouraged by others walking through the fog.  Our proclamation today that the Lord is risen, only needs our willingness to say the words.  The community gathered here today will do the rest.  We will say with you, “The Lord is risen indeed,” until someday we can all claim the astounding love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ ourselves.  Amen.

Sermon – John 18.1-19.42, GF, YC, April 19, 2019

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When I was in college, I would occasionally find myself sitting in the back of the enormous Chapel.  Sometimes I do not even remember actively choosing to go inside the Chapel.  Somehow my body seemed to know I needed something before my brain did.  The cavernous, quiet building rarely had large crowds.  Or maybe my late-night study sessions meant I was there after everyone had left.  Regardless, I would find myself on a hard, wooden pew, just sitting there.  I am not sure I was there praying necessarily.  At least not in the traditional sense.  More often I was sitting there in desperation.  Sometimes I was at the end of a semester, completely overwhelmed and feeling incapable.  Other times, I was feeling a deep sense of loneliness, despite being surround by tons of friends and classmates.  Other times, I simply felt lost, not sure about my purpose or what in the world God was doing with my life – if God was even there at all.  But mostly, when I sat on those pews, surrounded by magnificent beauty and architecture, I felt a profound hole in my heart.  That Chapel was sometimes the only place I could go and be honest about my profoundly weak humanity.

I think worshiping on Good Friday is a little bit like that.  Unlike other times of worship, we do not usually come to this service looking for praise and joyful singing.  Instead, this day is a day where we willingly come to acknowledge and honor those parts of our lives where we feel a profound sense of brokenness, sinfulness, and incompleteness.  We read Scripture that speaks to our deepest pain and suffering.  We say prayers that address the fullness of need for ourselves and the world.  And we venerate the cross – staring at the object that brings into sharp focus our weakness and humanity, and our need for something bigger than ourselves.

On a day like today, I am grateful for John’s Passion Narrative.  All the Passion Narratives from the gospels tell a similar story – the last moments of Jesus’ time with the disciples, his trial and crucifixion, and his death.  And despite the fact that the story in all four gospels is heart-wrenching, something about John’s version digs deeper – shines a light into those dark places we prefer to keep hidden from the light of day.  But in John’s gospel, there is nowhere to hide.  We experience a deep sense of being bereft of our own sinfulness as the sins of those in our narrative mirror our own.  These are not just the common, everyday sins of life.  The sins of the characters today are the sins of denying our very own identity.

Often when we talk about Judas, we think of his failure as a thing he did to Jesus.  But Judas’ sin goes deeper than betrayal of Jesus.  Judas denies his very discipleship.  After all those years of following Jesus, trusting the salvific work of the Christ, believing and proclaiming Jesus’ Messiahship, Judas denies his discipleship by no longer following and instead trying to control the work of God.  You see, Judas follows Jesus because he believes Jesus is starting a political revolution – is becoming the conquering Messiah.  Jesus is not living into that identity as much as Judas wants, so Judas gives Jesus a push.[i]  But when Judas brings all of those soldiers to the intimate place where he discovered his identity as a disciple, we see how deep Judas’ sinfulness goes.  The garden had been a home for the disciples – where they had gathered regularly, in intimate community.  To bring those soldiers there – to the place that defined his own discipleship – is the marker not of an indiscretion, but of a complete denial of who he is.  In John’s gospel, the last appearance of Judas is not of remorse, or suicide, or judgment of Judas.  John simply says, Judas stands “with them.”  With them is not just a physical location; with them is a theological one.  By seeking to control Jesus, by walking away from relationship with Christ, and by standing against Jesus in the very place of intimate identity-making, Judas takes a new identity.  He denies his discipleship, and instead stands with them.[ii]  And as much as we might want to judge Judas, we all know that there have been times when we were fed up with God, and decided to take matters into our own hands.  The more we think we know better, the further we step away from following Christ, denying our own identity in Christ.  The more we seek control, the further we step away from our intimate relationship with Jesus, and instead stand with someone or something else.

Peter denies his identity in a slightly different way.  When we read John’s gospel, we can easily conflate John’s version with the versions from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In those gospels, Peter is asked whether he knows Jesus.  His response is he does not know the man.  But in John’s gospel, the question to Peter is different.  He is not asked if he knows Jesus, but whether he is Jesus’ disciple.  To say, “I am not,” is not just a denial of knowledge.  Peter is denying his very identity.  As Karoline Lewis asserts, “In the Gospel of John…Peter’s denial is not of Jesus but of his own discipleship.  …To deny discipleship is to deny one’s relationship with Jesus and the intimacy that makes Jesus and his followers virtually inseparable.  Peter does not deny Jesus, but denies being a disciple.”[iii]  Because we live in a time when we are rarely asked about our identity as people of God, we think of ourselves as immune to Peter’s temptation or somehow incapable of such identity denial.  And in some ways, we may be right:  our denial of identity is not usually as straightforward as Peter’s.  But that doesn’t mean we do not regularly reject our identity.  In small, everyday ways, we find ourselves making accommodations that fracture our intimacy with Christ – decisions that we can rationalize at the time, but when we look back realize have become of slow pattern of denying whose we really are.  And before long, we get so far from discipleship that no one even knows we are Christ’s disciple.

But the denials of identity are not just limited to Christ’s disciples.  Even the religious authorities lose themselves in their attempt to squash the Jesus movement.  The leaders of the faith community are so convinced that Jesus is wrong, they negotiate with a secular leader to get what they want.  And when Pilate, who knows what they want is wrong, pushes them to recognize they are wrong, the religious authorities say something that seems innocuous enough.  But saying, “We have no king but the emperor,” is the ultimate denial of their identity as a people of God.  The people of faith, who were once freed from a king over them, who journeyed forty years, claiming God as their king, who have an everlasting covenant with God, deny the covenant to get what they want.  By claiming the emperor, they deny their very identity.  The people of God, who are about to prepare the Passover feast – the feast that celebrates their release from Pharaoh, “embrace a latter-day Pharaoh whose overthrow the Passover is intended to celebrate.”[iv]  Although we like to demonize the chief priests, we too have pledged loyalties to things other than God.  Perhaps not as dramatically as the religious authorities, but we have all known those moments when a declaration slipped out of our mouths that we later come to realize was denial of everything we claim to be.

On this most holy of days, we can journey so far into the darkness of humanity, of the ways we deny our very own identity, that we can walk out of this beautiful historic chapel feeling lost – having received no encouragement for our bereft hearts.  But I do not think the point of Good Friday is to walk with us into the darkness without giving us a sliver of light to hold onto in these next hours.  Though our reading ends with the finality of Jesus in a tomb, where we are better left is at the foot of the cross.  At the foot of the cross is where we find identity again.  At the foot of the cross, we find a new community being formed.  Jesus gives his mother to the beloved disciple; and to the beloved disciple, he gives his mother.  In other words, Jesus creates a community of mutual care – a new family, a place of forming identity in Christ, even as Christ is departing.[v]  The very reason we gather in community on Good Friday is because we need this group gathered here – this group gathered at the foot of the cross – to bring us back from the denials of our identity, and help us reclaim whose we are.  Today is certainly a day for claiming how deep our own betrayal of God is, but today is also a day of claiming a community who can help us walk back.

I think that was what I was doing all those years ago in college as I sat on those cold, hard pews of the Chapel.  I knew I was lost, that my angst was not just the anxiety of tests and deadlines, but was a much deeper angst about identity.  And although that Chapel was mostly empty, that Chapel reminded me of all the times I had gathered in sacred spaces with the community of the faithful.  Even when the Chapel was empty, the Chapel was somehow a reminder of the mothers and brothers who gathered with me at the foot of the cross.  The only difference today is you do not have to imagine a community gathered with you at the cross.  We are right here with you.  We are struggling right along with you on this journey called discipleship.  Together, starting at the foot of the cross, we will find our way.  Amen.

[i] Jim Green Somerville, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),300, 302.

[ii] Karoline M. Lewis, John (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 218-219.

[iii] Lewis, 222.

[iv] C. Clifton Black, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),303.

[v][v] Lewis, 229.

The Power of Showing Up…

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Most of you know that Holy Week is my favorite week of the year.  I love the way the week feels like a virtual pilgrimage, walking us from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, to his last meal with the disciples, to his trial and crucifixion, to his death and resurrection.  Each daily liturgy gives us the opportunity to experience that journey in unique, meaningful ways.  Knowing my passion for this week, my family is gracious every year with my absences from family life that week.  But this year, my husband had an evening work conflict he could not miss, and so I had some options for that night’s service.  I could skip the service – I was not serving that night, and was not physically needed.  I could hire a baby sitter, using some date-night reserves.  Or I could take the girls with me to the quiet service with long periods of silence, knowing how difficult it would be for them after a long day of school.

After much waffling, I decided to try bringing the kids with me.  I really wanted to be there for my own spiritual journey, and I hoped the kids might get something out of the experience.  I prepped the kids endlessly so that they would respect the periods of silence and the experience of those attending.  All in all, for their ages, the girls did amazingly well.  There were certainly a few too many wiggles and distracting noises, but for the most part, they were well-behaved.  I, on the other hand, was a ball of nervous energy.  I know how much I have reveled in the silence of that service and I really did not want to ruin that experience for anyone else.  I found myself so anxious about it, that I realized I didn’t get to experience the service in the way I traditionally do.

But here’s what did happen.  In the midst of trying to prevents disagreements, and minimize crinkling of papers, I was still able to sing and pray the words of the songs.  In the midst of desperately trying to keep kids at whisper-levels, I was able to catch snippets of scripture that hung in my ears and mind.  In the midst of impatient children, I was able to hear my children singing along and see my kids embrace participation – whether in lighting candles, handing out bulletins, or praying at the altar.

Here’s the thing about Holy Week services:  there are a lot of them, and you might not think you are mentally or spiritually ready for them.  You might be curious about some of the services, but are not sure your kids could handle them.  Or you might be thinking you are too tired this week to get anything out of the services.  No matter what is going on with you this week, I promise that if you can get yourself to Church, God will find you.  It may not be in the way you expect, you may not be able to be present as fully as you like, and you might not be convinced it is worth it.  But I promise you, if you figure out a way to get to Church this week, God will break through the chaos of life and whisper a word of comfort, and give you a glimpse into God’s grace and beauty.  My guess is that if you open yourself up to the liturgies of this week, you might just figure out how to carry those lessons into the rest of the Church year too.  The community is gathered this week and welcomes you, wherever you are on your journey, and especially when you do not feel like you have much to offer.  Holy Week is a gift the Church offers to you.  Your invitation is to just show up.

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Homily – Luke 22.14-23.56, PS, YC, April 14, 2019

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Several years ago, I was visiting a parishioner on her deathbed in the hospital.  We were talking about the things you talk about at the end of life:  the blessings, the memories, the unexpected turns of life.  Whatever fears about death that had been present were long gone.  All that was left was a sense of peace, and a certainty about the eternal life waiting for her on the other side.  I found myself wistful and a little sad, knowing there was nothing I or the doctors could do at that point.  Death was coming.  In the midst of this sacred, serious moment of inevitability, we heard a tinkling noise in the hallway.  Having had a child in a hospital, I knew what the tinkling noise was:  the tinkling sound was the announcement of a new baby being born.  As I explained the noise, the parishioner and I sat in awe – the closeness of life and death were all around us.  We did not have much to say at that point.  The sound of that tinkling just lingered in the room, long after the sound was gone.

I was thinking this week how similar the experience of Palm Sunday is to that hospital room.  We hold in tension so many things today.  We certainly hold life and death in tension:  the joyful celebration of Jesus with palms, and the wailing sorrow of death at the cross of Jesus.  We hold hope and hopelessness in tension too:  the promise of a new king, entering triumphantly, and the despair and finality of Christ on the cross.  We hold faithfulness and sinfulness in tension today:  the bold proclamation of the king who has come in the Name of the Lord, and the shouts of “crucify, crucify him,” just moments later.  Though we might prefer to claim life, hope, and faithfulness, today we must claim death, hopelessness, and sinfulness too.  They are as intertwined as life and death in a hospital.

In some ways, the tension of this day is just what we need in a culture that might like us to jump from the palms to the risen, triumphant Lord.  I am reading Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead this Lent, and one of the hazards to leadership she articulates is numbing.  Numbing can happen in all kinds of ways – through food, work, social media, shopping, television, video games, or alcohol.  The problem with numbing is that we cannot selectively numb emotions.  As Brown says, “if we numb the dark, we numb the light.  If we take the edge off pain and discomfort, we are, by default, taking the edge off joy, love, belonging, and the other emotions that give meaning to our lives.”[i]  When we numb our way through life, we not only suppress the bad stuff; we never get to fully enjoy the good stuff of life.

Today, the Church refuses to allow us to numb.  The Church has us wave palms and sing loudly and smell the sweet smell of victory, with a grin from ear to ear.  And the Church has us listen to the devastation of betrayal, hear the voices of contempt and hatred, and shout for Christ’s death.  Our hearts feel heavy as our minds try to justify all the times we too have betrayed Christ.  We feast as the disciples did on Christ’s body and blood, and we leave in silence as his disciples did from the cross.  Today we feel everything:  life, death; victory, failure; joy, and devastation.  In letting go of our tendency to numb, we open ourselves to the fullness of all that happens on this day.  Only then can embrace the Easter message of resurrection that is to come.  Only when we are fully broken, fully vulnerable, fully present in the tension of this day can we receive the fullness of joy that comes next week.  Only when we are looking into the doorway to death can we understand the depth of joy that comes from the tinkling sound of new life.  So, stay awake with us for just a little while longer.

[i] Brené Brown, Dare to Lead (New York:  Random House, 2018), 85.

On Race, Lent, and Children…

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This past week, our family traveled to Mississippi to visit friends.  On the trip we were able to see both the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.  While the museums were appropriate for our older child, who has been studying the Civil War and Reconstruction in her Social Studies Class, our younger child was a bit mystified by the museums.  She struggled with understanding the concept of history versus modern day, but she especially struggled with why people were hurting and killing each other.  She clearly made the connection that Caucasians (or “peach-skinned” people as she called them) were being mean to African-Americans (or “brown-skinned” people), but she could not fathom why.  With every video or picture, I was barraged with questions about why people were doing what they were doing, or why someone would kill someone like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Explaining the atrocities of American racial history to a five-year old is one of the most gut-wrenching experiences I have had.  I already struggle with the shame of our history and my participation in racism.  But to expose my child to the sinfulness and brokenness of our country made the shame deeper.  As the museum bombarded me with statistics around racial disparities, as prerecorded voices shouted out awful words that were once shouted out to people of color, and as “Precious Lord,” or “We Shall Overcome,” played overhead, I was reminded of all that we have been through as a country, and how much further we have to go.

In Lent, we do a lot of confessing of our sinfulness and working on repentance.  On Ash Wednesday, we confessed our exploitation of other people, our blindness to human need and suffering, and for “all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.”[i]  In the Great Litany this Lent, we prayed, “From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity, Good Lord, deliver us.”[ii]  In the Exhortation in the Penitential Order, the priest asked us to “Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven.  And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.”[iii]

As we finish these last days of Lent, as we hear the passion narrative on Sunday, and as we walk the days of Holy Week next week, I am reminded of how much work we still have to do.  For me, I will be contemplating the ways in which I participate in the systems and practices of racism in our community, working to not only be better, but to teach my children to be better.  And knowing our work of repentance is on-going, I look forward to our Eastertide book study that will allow us to delve into these issues even more.  This week I pray for the whole human family:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.[iv]

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[i] Book of Common Prayer (BCP), 268.

[ii] BCP, 149.

[iii] BCP, 317.

[iv] BCP, 815.