On Church, Community, and Crying…

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Photo credit:  Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; use with permission only.

I had seen the pictures and videos in my news feed of teachers and schools “parading” in neighborhoods, saying hello to their students from their cars (keeping safe social distances).  The idea seemed nice enough, but I did not really think too much about the concept.  But when my children found out their elementary school would be doing the same, they jumped right in, making signs for their teachers.  We rearranged our daily schedule, and headed up to the now-unused bus stop in our neighborhood, and waited.

But it was not until I saw familiar face after familiar face – the principal, my fifth grader’s first, third, and current grade teachers; the art, computer, music, orchestra, librarian, and gym teachers; even the custodian – that I lost it.  Tears burst into my eyes, and although I could not stop smiling, I also could not stop crying.  The previous week, we had found out that due to the Coronavirus, our schools would be out for the remainder of the school year.  My fifth grader would not get to say goodbye to friends and one of the best teachers she has ever had, nor the community that has shaped her for the last four years.  My kindergartner would get no closure on her first year of school.  But here was that amazing community, coming to our neighborhood to say goodbye.

I think I burst into tears because I realized how very deeply important community is in our lives.  For the schools, our children are there five days a week, nine months of the year.  The school is a major part of the village that raises our children, teaches them, forms them into amazing citizens, and helps them find their sense of identity and purpose.  The staff and teachers at our school love our children and are a part of our family.  What this virus did was expose a huge part of our children’s lives and take it away from them.  The tears I could not stop that day were tears of gratitude, tears of blessing, tears of humility for the community I had not fully appreciated until that moment.

That is what has been so hard about having our church closed too.  We are making inroads for connection, surely.  But part of the reason we are doing that is because we know that Church is a vital community in our lives too.  Certainly, we are there because of our faith – or our desire to have faith.  But we are also at Church because the community feeds us, sustains us, and gives our lives a sense of purpose and identity.  When we cannot gather, we lose a huge part of our lives.  This week, it is my prayer that for those of you missing your church community, you will take advantage of the ways we are trying to maintain virtual connection during this time of disconnection.  We may not be able to exchange signs of the peace, offer hugs or high fives of affirmation, or kneel at the altar together.  But we can laugh at Virtual Coffee Hour, sing during livestream worship, and even cry during daily pop-up prayers.  Your community is still here, loving you and supporting you.  And we cannot wait to see you again!!

Sermon – Ezekiel 37.1-14, John 11.1-45, L5, YA, March 29, 2020

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Today would be an easy day to skim the lessons and declare a victory.  We come to these texts today with cases of Coronavirus rising, deaths increasing, schools closing, jobs ending, and life stopping.  A simple drive down Richmond Road, and the restaurants and tourist stops whose parking lots are usually filled reveal a ghost town.  Even when we do venture out to grab necessities, the faces of people in stores are filled with anxiety, and bodies tense when spacing gets a little too close with others.  In this bizarre reality, we want nothing more than a breath of fresh air, a promise of hope and resurrection.

In many ways, that is exactly what we get in our lessons today.  Ezekiel shares a vision of resurrection and restoration.  The valley full of dry bones – presumably representing the people of Israel in exile in Babylon[i] – are brought back to life.  Through Ezekiel’s prophesying, God’s breath is breathed into the bones.  Bones reassemble, sinews and flesh come upon them, and even breath fills their lungs.  Reassembled, the bodies feel bereft in a strange land, but the Lord our God promises them they will be returned to Israel – to their land.  The same can be said of John’s gospel.  Lazarus is dead.  Four days dead.  The common Jewish understanding of the time was that the soul hovered near the body for three days, hoping to return; but after those three days, the soul departed for good.[ii]  There is no hope for Lazarus.  And yet, in Jesus’ deep love for this man, he weeps.  And then he raises Lazarus from the dead.  Into the next chapter, we even find Lazarus reclining on Jesus – not just alive, but living a life of abundance.

These are texts we want to hear today.  We want Holy Scripture to say, “Everything will be okay.  Everything will go back to normal.  You’re okay.”  And in some ways, that is what the texts seem to say.  The exiled people of Israel will be returned to their land.  The lost brother of Martha and Mary is returned to them in health and vigor.  Suffering is ended for both.  Life is restored for both.  We get to go back to normal.

And yet, I am not sure our texts today are saying things quite that simply.  For the people of God in exile, Ezekiel’s words are a bit more complex.  The breath God breathes into them helps them remember that even in exile, God is with them.  God is animating them in a foreign land.  Yes, there is a promise to return to the Promised Land.  But we know that any great journey into suffering means that even when we return to “normal,” we are not “normal.”  We are changed.  Health may be restored, land may be restored; but we are forever changed.  The news for Lazarus is a bit more complex too.  Although Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead, to live an abundant life in the here and now, Lazarus’ resurrection is not forever.  Someday, Lazarus will return to the ground.  We know, like the people in exile, Lazarus’ life after the tomb will not be like his life before.  And we also see in Jesus’ conversation with Martha that Lazarus’ death not just about Lazarus.  Lazarus’ death is merely a foretaste of the resurrection of Jesus.  This return to life is limited to one person.  Jesus’ return to life will change a people.

All of this is to say that today’s good news is good news indeed.  There will be life after this virus.  There will be restored health and community after this virus.  There will be renewed strength and vitality after this virus.  But we will also be forever changed by this virus.  We will see life and the gift of life differently than before.  We will come back to our life rhythms and routines a changed people.  We will understand the gift of resurrection in new and deeply moving ways.  The promise of these passages in not simply a return to normal.  The promise of these passages is a journey that will change us all – of valleys with dry bones, of weeping by bedsides, of crying out to Jesus.  The promise of these passages is the destination of Easter.  Not a return to normal, but a new, profound understanding of resurrection in Christ.  In the meantime, Jesus weeps with us.  God is breathing life into us.  And soon, we will know the depths of resurrection life like never before.  Amen.

[i] Kelton Cobb, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 122.

[ii] Leander E. Keck, ed., The New Interpreters Bible, vol. ix (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 687.

On Singing in a Strange Land…

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Paul Raskin, “On the rivers of Babylon.”  Photo credit:  http://www.artnet.com/artists/saul-raskin/on-the-rivers-of-babylon-CQj4JGZtS9eQctXb-beJg2

In some ways, I suppose I could have predicted it.  We spent hours luxuriously debating how to safely distribute communion, being able to consider every detail:  imagining how hard this new reality would be for our parish, who is a loving, “touchy-feely” parish; researching burgeoning new practices in other parishes and dioceses; and prayerfully considering how to model safe behavior.  And in the end, our parish engaged beautifully, the pain of their sacrifices obvious on their faces, but also the determination to protect and care for one another equally obvious on their faces.

But then the bottom dropped out.  It was two weeks ago, and I was in the family surgical waiting room, already letting my wardens know I would have to miss a Vestry meeting because my daughter’s surgery had been more complicated than expected, and I had yet to see her.  But just as the nurse was telling us our daughter had been moved to recovery and we could go back soon, our Bishop sent out a communication, cancelling all church campus activities, including worship – including that Vestry Meeting we had planned to hold.  The next several days were a blur – sleep in three-hour bursts as I tended my daughter; texts, emails, and calls to figure out how to still hold worship virtually; pastoral letters to be written to the parish explaining what was happening and how this would all work; and the reality of this even newer normal sinking in slowly.

I have never had a long conversation with a refugee, but I have watched enough news coverage, read enough human-interest stories, and seen enough movies about refugees to have a tiny inkling of how upending, world-changing, and scary it must be to be a refugee.  I would never argue my life in the midst of the Coronavirus is as brutal or devastating as a refugee, but there do seem to be some parallels.  Within moments, our world has been upended.  We went from being totally free to do whatever we desire, to being confined to our homes, having our jobs be totally changed (or sometimes ended), having the schooling of our children and the social support system schooling represents stripped away, worrying about the scarcity of necessities and the wisdom of going out to obtain what we could find, feeling the anxiety of financial insecurity, and losing the comfort of physical touch and community.  As a parent and priest, it has meant taking on the impossibility of two full-time jobs, knowing everyday you could do more, and yet being limited to the constraints of 24 hours a day.  And none of that even touches the emotional, psychological, and spiritual weight of upheaval that our bodies are processing, whether we try to stifle it or not.

Unlike most refugees, I know this new normal for us is relatively temporary.  Someday, we will be able to go back to some modification of the old normal.  But for now, this new reality is foreign, disorienting, and unnerving.  I was just yesterday reminded of that song “Rivers of Babylon,” which pulls from Psalm 137 and 19.  The echo of the verse, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” has been lingering with me.  And yet, that seems to be the only thing holding me together these days – singing the Lord’s song in a strange land.  For all the upheaval, all the disorder, all the anxiety and confusion, rooting myself in daily prayer – having people join in watching on Facebook Live, leaving their comments or greetings, or just seeing their names pop up, has felt like a balm to my heart.  I have not been able to bless or consume the holy meal, I have not been able to embrace my beloved parishioners, and I have not been able exchange physical signs of the peace.  But I have been able to hear the prayers of not only our parish’s heart, but also the hearts of our neighbors, friends, and even strangers.  I have not been able to gather physically with our community, but I have felt the connection of virtual community so palpably, I thought I would cry.  I do not know how long this new reality will last, but I am grateful for the opportunity to sing the Lord’s song in this strange land.  You are most welcome to join me in this singing.  And if you do not know the song, I’m happy to teach you or sing it for you for a while.  May God bless you all, and I’ll see you sometime today as we gather virtually to sing the Lord’s song!

Sermon – John 9.1-41, L4, YA, March 22, 2020

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I must confess to you:  I have been dreading talking to you about this text all week.  The presence of cause and effect in this text is overwhelming.  The text says multiple times that the reason the blind man is blind from birth is because he sinned (and since it was from birth, there is the implication his parents sinned, and the blind man is being doubly punished and exists in double sin).  Those gathered insist that Jesus must be sinful too because he does not follow the law – he heals on the Sabbath, and he cannot possibly speak for or act for God as a sinner.  Jesus also says those gathered are sinners for they cannot see God.  Even at the beginning of John’s story, even Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

I have not wanted to preach this text today because I do not at feel comfortable with the cause and effect nature of this text, especially what that cause and effect nature seems to imply about suffering.  Can Jesus really be saying this man was made blind so that God could be revealed?  Is this text saying God causes suffering – pain, disability, ostracizing from community, poverty so deep that only begging will ensure survival?  That concept is a huge hurdle for me because that is not at all my theology of suffering.  And I especially do not like hearing that theology of suffering this week – a week when we are watching the cases of Coronavirus creep up in our country and double in our county and have begun asking the same sorts of questions the people in this passage are asking:  Where is God in this?  Why is God allowing not only this terrible virus to happen, but the accompanying societal upheaval?  Is God causing this suffering for some greater good?  This kind of health crisis pulls at all of us and in our innermost, private places, and makes us wonder, even if we cannot say the words aloud, “Did God have something to do with this virus?”  Or sometimes we find ourselves not embarrassingly asking the question, but boldly shouting at God, “What in the world are you doing?  Why aren’t you here fixing this?  How could you do this?!?”  The absolute LAST passage I want to hear when we are asking these bone-deep theological, desperate questions is a text that seems to imply God causes suffering for God’s own glory.

That is why I am especially grateful for biblical scholars who can journey with us in interpreting scripture.  Biblical Scholar Rolf Jacobson took a look at that same verse that has been nagging me all week, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Luckily Jacobson is better at Greek than me.  He explains that the writers of the New Revised Standard Version inserted text into the English translation that simply is just not there.  In the original Greek, the words “he was born blind,” are not there.  Instead of the text saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” the text actually says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned [period].  In order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me…”  According to Jacobson, Jesus is not saying the man was blind so God could be revealed.  Jesus is saying no one sinned.  But given the situation, God has given his disciples the opportunity to do something good to reveal God’s goodness.[i]  In other words, God does not cause suffering.  But God can use us in the midst of suffering for good.

I don’t know about you, but that has shifted my understanding of this text completely.  All of the arguing about who sinned, what laws you must follow to be holy, and who should be in or out are a distraction.  The same can be true of us.  When we start trying to logic our way through fault, or sin, or blame – even blame on God, we lose our way; we become blind like those gathered and arguing in our text today.  Instead, this text is inviting us to ask different questions.  Instead of whose sin caused this virus, we can ask, “How can I be a force for good in the midst of this virus?”  Instead of why God is doing this or allowing this to happen, we can ask, “Where are the opportunities to see God acting for good in the midst of suffering?”  Instead of where is God in this, we can ask, “Where am I finding moments of God’s grace in this?”  I am not arguing our questions and demands of God are not valid at this time.  In fact, I think our quiet doubt of and our raging anger at God are perfectly normal – and maybe even necessary for honest relationship with God.  What I am arguing is this text is not a reinforcement of our sense of darkness, but instead an invitation into light – an invitation to seeing when we may feel blinded.  My prayer this week is that we stumble into those moments of light this week – that we find those moments of grace upon grace that give us renewed comfort, hope, and faith.  May God bless you in the journey toward the light.  Amen.

[i] Rolf Jacobson, “Sermon Brainwave #713 – Fourth Sunday in Lent,” March 14, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1240, on March 19, 2020.

On Suffering, Strangers, Jesus, and Viruses…

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This week, I was scheduled to gather with my ecumenical brothers and sisters and preach about Simon of Cyrene.  I had initially been very excited about the assignment.  During Lent, we were all assigned people to preach about who are associated with the Stations of the Cross, and Simon has always fascinated me.  But it was not until I started preparing to preach that I realized why I had found his story so intriguing.  After having looked and looked, each of the synoptic gospels gives Simon of Cyrene one verse of text.  One verse.  That is all.  We have this dramatic event that occurs as Jesus struggles to carry his cross, so dramatic that a whole station of the cross is dedicated to him.  And yet, everything we know about him is encapsulated in one verse.

Now, we do know some details.  He is from Cyrene, which means he was likely in Jerusalem on a trip there for religious devotion.  We know he is a father.  And we know he did not volunteer or chose to help Jesus.  He was made to help Jesus.  That is all we know.  Anything else we want to know – whether he connected with Jesus powerfully in that moment; whether he helped Jesus begrudgingly, out of fear, or with compassion; whether his life was changed by the moment or he never thought of the moment again.  We simply do not know.

Instead, what we really learn about in this moment is not about the psyche or spiritual development of Simon.  Instead, what we really learn about is Jesus.  This past Sunday, I talked in my homily about how what is most powerful about the story of Jesus and the woman at the well is not the scandalous, but the ordinariness of Jesus – the fleshiness of the incarnation.  That is what I think Simon does for us in this one verse.  Simon reminds us of how very human Jesus was – so physically exhausted, he needed help.  So very abandoned, his own loved ones or disciples did not step forward to help him.  So very humiliated, a stranger was forced to see his humiliation up close.

As we are in the midst of a pandemic that affects the body, I am feeling very grateful this week of the reminders of Jesus’ fleshiness on this earth.  I am reminded that no matter how alone we feel, no matter how exhausted we are, no matter how much we hate to ask for help (especially from a stranger), our neediness right now is akin to the experiences Jesus had in his life.  In essence, Christ is in our suffering because he suffered too.  Of course, that does not solve this virus or change our reality much.  But I am deeply comforted knowing that Jesus is standing with us as we work our way through this virus.  I hope you can feel that same hope too.

Sermon – John 4.5-42, L3, YA, March 15, 2020

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Today’s gospel lesson is one of those lessons that can be so full of intrigue that we miss what is happening in the text.  Most of us have heard this lesson hundreds of times, and have probably lingered on the part of the conversation where Jesus calls out the woman for living with someone who is not her husband, after already having had five husbands.  The conversation sounds straight out of Jerry Springer or Dr. Phil, where in the next scene we expect the other husbands to arrive, and a fight to break loose.

The problem with that kind of reading is we have the tone all wrong.  By narrowing in on what sounds like a “gotcha!” statement from Jesus right in the middle of about 40 verses, we forget all of the words and actions surrounding this event in the middle.  We have clues all along in the reading:  Jesus going through Samaria (when most Jews avoid Samaria); a woman appearing at a well at noon (when most of the woman have come and gone); Jesus (a Jew) talking to a Samaritan woman in broad daylight (a triple no-no); disciples appearing and engaging in conversation that sounds like The Three Stooges; talk of prophets, messiahs, disciples, and evangelism.

When we step back and take the broad view of this lesson, we are able to not be distracted by the sweep of the narrative, the scandalous and the absurd details, and the confusing stream of thought.  When seen broadly, we find a story that illuminates what having an incarnate God really looks like.  Too often, when we talk of the incarnation, we think of the baby Jesus, or the bodily, gruesome crucifixion.  But we sometimes forget the everydayness of the incarnation:  the fact that Jesus is thirsty and needs something from another, namely this Samaritan woman; the fact that Jesus initiates an intimate relationship, where two people can talk about the pain, suffering, and societal rejection of a widow and/or divorcee, who is simply trying to get by in a community that ostracizes her, even from drawing water from the well in the cool of morning; the fact that Jesus understands barrenness and empowers her to instead birth new believers.[i]  As Karoline Lewis says, says, “To take the incarnation seriously, to give it the fullest extent and expression, demands that no aspect of what it means to be human be overlooked.  To do so would truncate the principal theological claim of [John’s] Gospel.  At stake for the fourth evangelist is that Jesus is truly God in the flesh and every aspect of what humanity entails God now knows.”[ii]

I find this reading immensely meaningful today, because we are living in a moment when being flesh and bone is particularly precarious and unnerving.  A pandemic has gone all over the world and landed in our schools, our churches, our gathering places, and our homes.  Our lives have been upended by the threat of the Coronavirus, knowing the vulnerability of some in our community, and understanding suddenly how intricately intwined our lives are, even at a time when we have opined about how socially distanced we are.  This is a time when we feel very fleshy and vulnerable and here is Jesus talking to a vulnerable woman about his own fleshiness.

I don’t know about you, but I find this strange, circuitous conversation very comforting today.  In a time of anxiety, fear, and upheaval, Jesus is right there, in the midst of everyday messiness, and saying, “I feel you.  I understand.  I, your God, am incarnate, and I see and know you.”  And in response, the woman who is seen, known, and heard in turn goes to her community and becomes Jesus for others.  As Lewis says, “The woman at the well is not only a witness.  She is Jesus, the ‘I AM’ in the world, for her people.”[iii]

This is our invitation today too.  In the midst of upheaval, of disorientation, of anxiety, we are invited to be fully enfleshed Jesuses for others – to see their pain, their suffering, their uncertainty, and offer solidarity, comfort, and encouragement.  Even in a time of physical separation, we are invited into intimate relationship with one another, into relationships that honor the holy in one another, and help us all move forward.  This is what the Messiah does for us.  This is what we can do for one another.  Amen.

[i] Karoline M. Lewis, John:  Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 64.

[ii] Lewis, 55.

[iii] Lewis, 65.

On the Blessings of Interdependence…

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This past Sunday was my first attempt to start using my voice professionally after a bout of laryngitis.  My voice was feeling strained after the second service, so I wandered away from coffee hour and back in the nave to reorder my sermon and rest my voice.  As I was there, I noticed the volunteers at the healing altar tidying up their station.  I have never visited the station in my almost four years of ministry here because I am usually administering or assisting with communion at the time they are working.  But as my gaze settled on them, I realized there might be no better time to get some healing prayers.

In receiving the parishioner’s prayers for healing, I began to understand how much I have had to lean on others for help in this illness:  from the deacon to help with pastoral care calls (because I literally couldn’t speak), to the two retired priests who helped lead services I could not have led alone, to the choir who sang a song so powerful it became a healing balm, to the countless parishioners who prayed for me and simply patiently waited for my strength to return, to my own family who kindly trudged through family life with a Magna Doodle board.  As a person whose job is to care for a community of people, it is a strange feeling to not only not be able to do your job, but also to need the kind of care you usually offer to your own community.

I’ve been thinking this week how much we need, and yet rarely get, that kind of role reversal in our lives.  We are all problem-solvers, hard workers, and generally responsible for ourselves in life.  But sometimes, whether through injury, illness, or other obligations, we simply cannot fulfill our responsibilities or expectations, and are left at the mercy of others.  I am convinced that these seasons of need are the only thing that is keeping us in check to thinking we have no need for community.  Being at someone else’s mercy from time to time teaches us how interdependent we truly are – not only upon one another, but upon Christ.

Being a part of a community you can trust with that vulnerable need for mercy is at the heart of the Christian experience.  Without leaning into the community from time to time, we cannot learn how to lean into Jesus – how to come to Christ for help when everything is overwhelming, difficult, or seemingly impossible.  By learning to say, “I need your help,” to other human beings, we train ourselves to do the same with God – to honestly and authentically say to God, “I need your help.”  If you do not have that kind of community in your life, please know that you are always welcome at Hickory Neck.  And if you are a part of our community, and have not yet leaned into to others, know that our interdependence is mutual!  You are needed here!

Sermon – Matthew 4.1-11, L1, YA, March 1, 2020

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There is an ongoing debate among people who have way to much time on their hands about  the efficacy of most spiritual disciplines during Lent:  whether we are giving up chocolate, alcohol, or swear words; whether we are taking up health improvements, like getting more sleep, walking daily, or practicing yoga; or whether we are committing to something more traditional like fasting, daily prayer, or the reading of scripture.  The argument is that these disciplines domesticate Lent, making Lent akin to New Year’s resolutions instead of the sacred practices the ancient church intended.  There’s even a book entitled, A Grown-up Lent: When Giving Up Chocolate Isn’t Enough, whose title alone insinuates that most of our disciplines are immature, are not “grown-up” enough to be considered worthy of Lent.

Now there are myriad articulations about why our practices are not enough, but one of the reasons articulated uses today’s gospel lesson as their defense.  In today’s gospel, we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  On the surface, Matthew describes three temptations:  the temptation to satiate a physical need (after forty days, Jesus is hungry and could turn stones to bread to satisfy this physical hunger), the temptation to prove God loves us (Jesus might want to know that God has his back before he takes on this whole savior role), and the temptation to gain political power (any messiah might assume their cause is always better aided by powerful force).  By reading about Jesus’ temptation today, we might easily deduce the reason we assume Lenten disciplines is because we are mimicking Jesus’ temptation for these next forty days.  Like Jesus was tempted by hunger, a desire for comfort, and a desire for power, our disciplines highlight our daily temptations and our desire to not submit to the forces of evil.

But this gets to the heart of why so many are critiquing our spiritual disciplines during Lent.  Theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues, “…the temptation Jesus endures is unlike the temptation we endure, for the devil knows this is the very Son of God, who has come to reverse the history initiated by Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden and continued in the history of revolt by the people whom God loves as his own, namely, Israel.”[i]  In other words, although we are surely tempted by Satan in our own time, today’s temptation of Jesus is about a cosmic battle – the very battle between good and evil, the very evil that is wreaking havoc on the civility and humanity of our country today, making us turn against one another and abandon our baptismal promises to respect the dignity of every human being.  Some would argue that our giving up chocolate, or our eating fish on Fridays in Lent does not get us any closer to routing out the evil seeking to destroy the fabric of our church, our community, and our country; our focusing on physical health does not battle the things we confessed in the Great Litany today:  pride, vainglory, hypocrisy, deceits of the flesh, and dying suddenly and unprepared.

Now, while I get the academic protest about the simplistic nature of our disciplines, here is what I know.  A week ago, after a wonderful celebration of the end of Epiphany, and after a glorious honoring of the spirituals of our religious tradition, I lost my voice.  Despite my croaking despair with my doctor, he told me, rather unsympathetically, no matter what my job was, no matter if a big event, like, say Ash Wednesday with its three services, one ecumenical potluck, and Ashes to Go, were on my agenda, in no way was I to use my voice.  In essence, I was forced into silence on a week where I needed to lead.  Or, I suppose put more spiritually, I was gifted the opportunity to truly embrace the classic invitation of Lent: fasting (in this case from speaking) and meditating on God’s holy word (since I certainly could not speak God’s word).  The irony of this gift was not lost on me – an extrovert prone to powering through any challenge being forced to slow down and keep quiet is what Lenten disciplines are all about, right?  Take our biggest spiritual struggles, and then use disciplines to help ourselves correct behavior and get right with God – this is classic Lenten stuff!

I can tell you, this past week has been a profound week of learning.  All of those things we confessed in the Great Litany were in my face this week.  Nothing attacks one’s pride, vanity, and envy like watching other people do the job I was made to do but could not do in my weakness.  And while I was able to patiently be silent, working alone from my home office on the day before Ash Wednesday, I realized about half-way through Ash Wednesday my vocal chords were hurting not from physically trying to speak, but from tensing them in the desire to speak – my longing to speak manifested itself in a anticipatory tension of use, which became dangerously close to having the same effect of actually using my voice.  When I finally realized what was happening, why I was feeling worse, I had to mentally force my throat to relax, my shoulders to release their tension, and my mind to accept I could not simply do everything I normally do, simply removing one minor part – that of speaking.  No, being mute on Ash Wednesday would mean taking on another way of being.

I tell you all this not because Lent is all about me and my laryngitis.  I tell you all this because although I understand the academic critique of Lenten disciplines, I also see with fresh eyes the very blessing of Lenten disciplines.  Perhaps the critique is true that giving up meat, or taking up Pilates, or even reading a devotion is not going to help us battle the spiritual forces of evil; but taking on those practices will shake up our senses in really meaningful ways.  Daily resisting of patterns, or daily assumptions of new patterns, creates in us a retraining of our bodies so we can begin to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch God in new ways.  And that shaking – whether big or small – shakes up other things in our lives.  We begin to see more clearly where we have had a blindness of heart; where we have delighted in inordinate and sinful affections; where we have hardened our hearts again our black, Latino, young, old, Republican, and Democrat neighbors; where we have even held in contempt God’s word and commandments.  These disciplines are not juvenile – these disciplines, when embraced and practiced open up renewed relationship with Christ, with ourselves, and with our neighbor.

In essence, what spiritual disciplines do is help us fight the devil.  Now I know that might sound extreme, but stick with me a bit.  Hauerwas argues, “The devil is but another name for our impatience.  We want bread, we want to force God’s hand to rescue us, we want peace – and we want all this now.  But Jesus is our bread, he is our salvation, and he is our peace.  That he is so requires that we learn to wait with him in a world of hunger, idolatry, and war to witness to the kingdom that is God’s patience.  The Father will have the kingdom present one small act at a time.  That is what it means for us to be an apocalyptic people, that is, a people who believe that Jesus’ refusal to accept the devil’s terms for the world’s salvation has made it possible for a people to exist that offers an alternative time to a world that believes we have no time to be just.”[ii]

So, I say, give up chocolate.  Read your devotional.  Play Lent Madness.  Pray before the kids or pets wake up or after they go to sleep.  Commit daily acts of kindness.  Take that daily walk.  You may feel like you are doing something simple.  But in our simplicity, we are participating in the cosmic work of Christ.  In bringing intentionality into those things we can control, we bring intentional focus on those things we cannot control – those things only God can fight for us.  Our forty-day journey is not the same as Christ’s.  But taking this journey aligns us with the work of Christ, and helps us claim the light in a world overwhelmed by darkness.  May God bless our Lent, and make our Lent holy.  Amen.

[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), 51.

[ii] Hauerwas, 55.

On Signs and Listening…

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Every once in a while, someone will ask me to whom my sermon was directed.  I think most folks who ask this think I somehow got into their minds and was preaching about them.  But I always assure people that the primary person I am preaching to is myself, something on which I need work.  I share my struggle because I often hear echoes of my struggle in others’ struggles as well.

Well, this past Sunday I preached a sermon directed at myself, without even realizing it!  On Sunday we celebrated Transfiguration Sunday, this year using Matthew’s Gospel[i].  In Matthew’s Gospel, God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  In my sermon, I talked about one of the things we all need to do this Lent is listen to Jesus.  Sunday night, by the time three services and one concert was over, my voice was gone.  By Monday, I was diagnosed with laryngitis.

Now, we can all get a laugh about how the preacher who reminded us all to listen is now mute and forced to listen to Jesus.  But I must be hardheaded, because I think Jesus was already asking me to listen just a few days before.  The week prior to my sermon, I had just returned from a pilgrimage, and was frantically trying to meet deadlines, follow up on pastoral care, and catch up on emails.  But we got a snow on Thursday night that cancelled school on Friday, and I had to clear my entire calendar so I could be at home with my kids.  Instead of making all my appointments, I sat down and did other things from my home office that were also being neglected.  I am convinced the snow day was God’s way of trying to get me to slow down, and listen to Jesus.  Apparently, I need more than one sign from God before I listen!

I wonder what signs you are finding in your faith journey?  Where are you having ah-ha moments of God speaking truth that finally click?  I believe God is speaking to us all the time:  sometimes in words directly to us, sometimes through the words and actions of others, and maybe even sometimes through creation!  As we take our ashes today, and as we begin a season of intentional relationship with God, I invite you to take time this Lent to listen.  I cannot wait to hear what God is saying to you!

[i] Matthew 17.1-9.

Sermon – Matthew 17.1-9, LE, YA, February 23, 2020

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On this last day of Epiphany, as we prepare to enter into Lent this week, we are given the text of Jesus’ transfiguration.  The text in and of itself is mesmerizing:  Jesus and three disciples go up a mountain, which is a hint to all of us that something dramatic is about to happen; Jesus is transfigured, his face shining like the sun and his clothes turning dazzling white; Moses and Elijah appear, two giant figures in our tradition – so giant we heard about Moses’ mountaintop experience today too; a cloud comes down around them and God speaks; and when the experience is all over, Jesus gently touches the disciples and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  We could easily get lost in this spellbinding moment, longing to stay on the mountaintop this morning.

But as many scholars point out[i], this mountaintop story, situated at the end of the Epiphany season, is not told in isolation.  Because we tell this story when we do, we have to take a wider view today.  The end of this season is bookended by the end of the season we are about to enter:  Lent.  That season ends on a mountain, of sorts, too – the hill of Calvary, where we see a very different kind of scene.  In this Sunday of transition, we hold the two mountains in tension together.  As scholar N.T. Wright reminds us, on Transfiguration Sunday, “…on a mountain, is Jesus, revealed in glory; there, on a hill outside Jerusalem, is Jesus, revealed in shame.  Here his clothes are shining white; there, they have been stripped off, and soldiers have gambled for them.  Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes, representing the law and the prophets; there, he is flanked by two brigands, representing the level to which Israel had sunk in rebellion against God.  Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness comes upon the land.  Here Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; there, he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows Jesus.  Here a voice from God himself declares that this is his wonderful son; there, a pagan soldier declares, in surprise, that this really was God’s son.”[ii]

Looking at the transfiguration of Jesus in that way as opposed to a momentous, isolated event feels like riding a rollercoaster – seeing the glorious and the disastrous all in once glance, feeling the high of sweet affirmation and comfort and the low of betrayal all in one breath, knowing the promise of victory and reality of failure all in one moment.  When you take the expanse of the mountaintop transfiguration, the journey through Lent, the culmination on the hill of Calvary, you can almost feel dizzy from the range of emotions.

In some ways, that sensation of being on a rollercoaster of emotions has not been dissimilar to the experience of emotions lately at Hickory Neck.  In the course of one week recently, we said goodbye to a beloved curate, labored intensively with our homeless neighbors, and then had the Presiding Bishop rock this very Nave.  In the course of these next months, we live into the reality of switching from a staff with two full-time priests, to one full-time priest, and will discover how that will shape and shift not only our experience with our staff, but our experience with caring for one another.  In the course of these next forty-plus days, we will go from the high of pancakes and talent shows, to ashes and repentance, back to alleluias, butterflies, and Easter eggs.  I can feel viscerally that rollercoaster of Transfiguration to Calvary right here in the life and ministry of Hickory Neck.

But that is why I am also deeply grateful for Matthew’s transfiguration text today.  We get two instructions today – one from God and one from Jesus.  God speaks first, with words we heard earlier at Jesus’ baptism.  “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”  Those words are another declaration and reminder of Jesus’ identity.  But God adds something else today.  “Listen to him!” God says.  In those three words, God tells us what to do when caught in the whirlwind of life and transition:  listen to Jesus.  For a people who live in a culture marked by the spirit self-determination and can-do attitude, we are not necessarily the best at listening to Jesus.  Listening takes time and patience and discernment, and we just want to get on with the “doing.”  But today, God’s words are for us.  Listen to Jesus.

I used to be a part of a group who opened our gatherings with prayer.  One particular leader had a unique method of prayer.  He would introduce the prayer normally, saying, “Let us pray.”  But then he would say nothing.  For a long time.  So long was the silence, that the first time I experienced his prayer method, I kept discretely peeking through my eyelashes to make sure nothing was wrong.  I wondered if something had happened, or if he was struggling for words, or maybe even if he had fallen asleep.  But he remained sitting in a serene body posture, in silence as we waited.  When I finally conceded he must be doing this on purpose, I tried to relax and just sit in the silence.  Eventually his spoken prayer began and was lovely.  But I needed several more times praying with him before I could settle into the silence he created.  In that silence I began to stop talking in my head, and began to do what God commands today.  Listen to Jesus.  That is one of our invitations as we enter this Lent, and as we settle into this liminal time of transition at Hickory Neck.  We are to listen to Jesus.  Listening will not feel like doing.  Listening will sometimes be frustrating.  But in listening, we will be equipped to hear Jesus speaking to us and guiding us.

The other words spoken today are by Jesus.  Actually, Jesus does something powerful before he speaks.  He touches the disciples.  Jesus’ touch reminded me of a story from a priest friend of mine.  The priest was at his Diocesan Council a few years ago, an event at which he rarely speaks.  But an important issue arose, and he felt as though he could not avoid speaking.  He stood up, argued his case, and faced a heated confrontation.  In the end, the assembly agreed with him and his opinion won over.  As he sat back at his table, a friend quietly whispered in his ear, “You’re shaking.  I’m going to touch you for a little bit.”  As the friend laid his hand upon his shoulder, my friend could feel his blood pressure lowering and the tension releasing from his body.[iii]  In a world that has become extremely and wisely cautious about touch, we sometimes forget the power of touch.  We all have had powerful experiences with touch:  whether we received a similar hand on the should as reassurance that all would be well; whether we received a hug that was just slightly longer than normal, but much needed, after confessing some bad news; or whether someone just held our hand for a while, as a silent, encouraging gesture.  That is the kind of touch Jesus offers today.

But then, Jesus speaks.  Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  For those of us who are doers, these words are anchoring today.  God tells us to listen to Jesus, Jesus gives us a reassuring touch, and then Jesus tells us to get up and not be afraid.  In other words, Jesus is speaking to us, Jesus is reassuring us, and then Jesus is telling us to get up and get going.  I hear in Jesus’ words today more modern words for Hickory Neck, “You’ve got this!”  As we enter into the season of Lent, we commit to what we always do in this season – to returning and repenting, to listening and discerning, to seeking comfort and renewal, and then getting back in there.  In what can feel like a rollercoaster of emotions, today’s lesson offers us grounding, comfort, and encouragement.  In a season of journeying from one mountain to another, we have the promise of a comforting hand, soothing words, and inspiring action.  We are not off the rollercoaster yet, but we have each other, and the promise of those unknown to us who join us in this journey.  As we stand here on our hill in Toano, I am grateful for good companions on what promises to be an awesome ride.  Amen.

[i] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Pres, 1997), 194; also, Rolf Jacobson, Sermon Brainwave podcast, “#708 – Transfiguration Sunday,” February 15, 2020,  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1232, as found on February 20, 2020.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 14.

[iii] Steve Pankey, “The Power of Touch,” as found at http://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/the-power-of-touch/ on February 27, 2014.