On God and Spring…

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Photo credit:  Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; reuse only with permission

This year, spring has taken me a bit by surprise.  I am mostly surprised because we keep having cold bursts, and yet, the budding trees seem undeterred.  But what has also surprised me is how unprepared I have been for the emergence of color.  You see, in these brisk days, I had become accustomed to bare trees and the dormant brown of the season.  As the trees begin to blossom, though, I have been caught off guard.  I forgot how beautiful these trees can be in spring.  I forgot the soft yellows, purples, pinks, and whites of their blooms, and I had forgotten the beauty they possess.  Despite having watched these same trees blossom year after year, I still find myself surprised by their loveliness.

As I have been surprised by the beautiful emergence of spring this year, I began to wonder if I don’t do the same thing with the people around me.  Sometimes, I think we get so used to our loved ones that we forget to really see them.  We get used to the rote normalcy of life, and we get so accustomed to our routines, we sometimes fail to see the beautiful blooms of the people right in front of us.  We neglect to see the ways the people in our lives are changing and growing, and sparking new life, and we fail to see their blossoming beauty.  We fail to behold their beauty with the wonder it deserves.

I wonder who in your life has been blossoming without your notice.  I wonder whose blossoms are coming into glory and yet you have been too busy to notice.  I invite you this week to take a long look at your loved ones.  Look at them with fresh eyes, expecting to be wowed with something fresh and inspiring.  See them with the eyes of a new acquaintance instead of the eyes of someone who only sees the withered winter version.  And then, tell them what you see.  Share with your loved ones the beauty you see in them, the new life you see budding, and the ways in which their color gives joy to the world around them.

I suspect when you start to embrace this new way of seeing your loved ones you will see them as God sees them – as beautiful creations whose beauty reflects God’s glory.  You can share that gift too – the ways in which you see God’s glory reflected in them.  But beware!  Once you begin to see God’s beauty and glory in others, you might also begin to see it in yourself as well.  If you need a little help seeing the color blooming in yourself, let me know.  I’d be happy to help you see yourself as God sees you!

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On Finding and Creating Sabbath…

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Photo credit:  Elizabeth Shows Caffey; reuse with permission only

“So what do you actually do on your Sabbath?”  It’s a question I have received many times.  Usually, I think people want to make sure I am resting and reenergizing.  Or maybe they are imagining what they would do with a Sabbath day.  Or, maybe just the word “Sabbath” is a little too churchy and weird, and so they are trying to figure it out – does it just mean “day off”?

The truth is, usually my Sabbath day is just that – a day off where I do the same stuff everyone else does on their day off.  I run errands, clean the house, try to go to an exercise class, go to a doctor’s appointment, get my hair cut, or, if I’m lucky, get a nap.  I do not think a single Sabbath has consisted of me “sitting around all day and eating bonbons,” as many have asked.  Luxuriating may happen for an hour, but that is rare, and it never extends to a whole day.  And although I do try to take care of my physical well-being, I can rarely be found praying, meditating, or studying all day.

But this past Monday and Tuesday, I converted my Sabbath to a true Sabbath.  I got away with four other clergy friends, and we took a true Sabbath – not answering work emails (for the most part), not tending to the laundry, not running errands, but just relaxing, sharing stories about our ministries, talking about our dreams, reflecting on our relationships, and even exchanging ideas about leadership.  Of course, there was also yummy food, lots of laughter, sleeping in, and balancing a nice long hike with some comfy time on the couch.  But because we stepped away from the everyday stuff of life and work, we all actually reconnected with the intention of Sabbath – of taking time apart to reconnect with God, with others, and with ourselves.

Now, I know how hard finding true Sabbath time can be.  Lord knows, I am not sure when the last time my “Sabbath day” felt like this much of a Sabbath.  But I suspect that there might be ways that we can create little moments of Sabbath in our lives.  Maybe it’s putting down technology for a few hours.  Maybe it’s mixing up the family’s routine to spend unstructured time together.  Maybe it is neglecting that “to do” list for a few hours to read, pray, or connect with God, others, and/or ourselves.  You will have to be creative to find it – you may even have to just claim it by turning off all stimulation in the car so that the ten minutes of alone time you get is dedicated to Sabbath.  Regardless of the restrictions on your time, Sabbath is actually about intentionality – intentionally creating little blocks of time set apart.  It takes work, but when you intentionally make that space, not only are you restored, and your relationships enriched, but also, you may be able to finally hear the Holy Spirit’s whisper.  I cannot wait to hear about your creative creations of Sabbath, and the new ways your spirit is renewed!

Sermon – Luke 4.1-13, L1, YC, March 10, 2019

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After Ash Wednesday services this week, Father Charlie caught me in my office eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  “Guess we’re not observing that whole fasting thing, huh?” he joked with me.  We then talked about how both of us struggle with fasting.  Prone to being what some call “hangry,” or in my case of low-blood sugar, even faint, neither of us is particularly good at fasting.  When I was finally diagnosed with having low-blood sugar many years ago, a great mystery was solved.  Upon hearing the news, all of my friends would, with relief, say, “Oh!  That explains soooo much!”  Only then did I discover my friends had been involved in a huge coping conspiracy.  Jennifer is acting weird or annoying or cranky – who has food?  I may even be the inspiration behind those Snickers commercials where cranky people are suddenly transformed back to their lovely selves as soon as they get the candy bar.

The trouble with people like me, or maybe even most of us, is that we hear the temptations of Jesus today and we immediately see ourselves in them.  We think about the times we have been hangry or desperate for food, and we know the difficulty of the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread.  Or maybe we relate more to the temptation of the ego to be all powerful, or to temptation to test God, just to be sure we are secure in God’s protection.  Because the temptations in the gospel lesson are so relatable, we can almost too easily see ourselves in them and miss the point.  You see, the temptations of Jesus aren’t really about bread, power, and safety.  Just like the Lenten disciplines we take up are not really about chocolate, scripture reading, or prayer.  The temptations of Jesus are about something much deeper:  they are about identity.

In Luke’s gospel, Luke has already described Jesus’ baptism by John, when God declares, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Then, just before this passage, Luke articulates the genealogy of Christ, emphasizing the importance of who Jesus is based on his ancestors.  So, when Jesus goes into the wilderness, the devil is not actually trying to tempt Jesus with bread, power, and safety.  No, Jesus is being tempted to deny his identity.  As Karoline Lewis says, “the identity test for Jesus is not so much a test of who he is, but how he will live out his identity as Son of God.  The devil knows perfectly well who Jesus is.  The devil does not question who Jesus is, but tries to get Jesus to question who he is…”[i]

And that is a temptation we understand all too well.  “…temptation is not so often temptation toward something – usually portrayed as doing something you shouldn’t – but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship.  Too often Christians have focused on all the things we shouldn’t do, instead of pointing us to the gift and grace of our identity as children of God.”[ii]  In the end, the temptations Jesus faces could be anything.  They could certainly be “Bread, power, and safety.  But [the temptations] just as well might have been youth, beauty, and wealth.  Or confidence, fame, and security.”  The devil does not care about the content of the temptation.  The devil seeks “to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity.”[iii]

In part, that is why we take on disciplines during Lent.  We fast, pray, and study Scripture not because we need to imitate Jesus’ temptation.  We give up chocolate, coffee, or wine, or we take up kindness, fitness, or quiet not to simply push ourselves into new patterns.  We take on disciplines in Lent because we need to remind ourselves of our genealogy – to remind ourselves that we too are beloved children of God.  We know that when we claim that blessed status as beloved children of God, the devil will try to make us doubt the abundant, enduring, graceful love of God for each of us.  Because only when we doubt or forget our identity do we really fall into the temptations of this world.

No matter what our spiritual discipline, our invitation this Lent is to reclaim our identity.  Our invitation is to use these forty days to reaffirm, to recover, to reassert we are beloved children of God.  In yoga speak, when we have distracting thoughts, we are encouraged to acknowledge the thought, and then let the thought go.  Our invitation is to do the same this Lent.  As the devil puts distracting thoughts of inadequacy, unworthiness, and insecurity in our minds, we acknowledge them for what they are, and let them go.  Because we are beloved children of God.  Because when we boldly remind the devil that we are beloved children of God, we are empowered to remind others they are beloved too.  Together, affirmed in our identity, renewed in Christ’s love and light, we can do the real work of Lent – not just showing the world we are beloved children of God, but transforming that same world through our beloved status.  Amen.

[i] Karoline Lewis, “Identity Test,” March 3, 2019, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5294 on March 7, 2019.

[ii] David Lose, “Lent 1C:  Identity Theft,” March 7, 2019, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/03/lent-1-c-identity-theft/ on March 7, 2019.

[iii] Lose.

Holding on to Joy in Lent…

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Photo credit:  Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; reuse only with permission

Last night I had one of the most fun Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras celebrations I have ever had.  We had a great crowd, there was a spirit of joy and celebration, the Kensington School hosted an awesome kids’ corner with fun activities, and best of all was the Hickory Neck Talent Show.  I have not laughed so hard and smiled so much in a long time.  I even woke up this morning with an uplifted spirit, the smile still lingering on my face.

While I am so grateful for that blessing, as a priest, it does make entering into Ash Wednesday a bit tricky.  Here I am still coming down from the high of last night, and now I need to enter into a worship service where I tell people to fast, to repent, and to remember their mortality.  It almost feels like emotional or spiritual whip-lash, and I have been struggling this morning to know how to help others with that same abrupt shift.

Where I have landed is that I think the best way to enter into Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is with that same lingering sense of celebration.  You see, when you have experienced the highs of life, talking about the “lows” of life seems a bit more bearable.  Yes, we are mortal, and yes, we will return to the dust.  But while we are still mortal, we can make this life here on earth one of great joy and love – one of laughter, of community, of togetherness.

I wonder if this might be a way to enter Lent in a healthier way.  Instead of lamenting our sinful nature (and believe me, we do need to lament our sins), perhaps our Ashes today might remind of us the earthy nature of being humans and encourage us to strive for the ways we might live that earthy life in a more holy way.  I plan to do that today by entering into a season of kindness.  I am taking the joy from my community of faith last night and channeling it into forty days of kindness – where my repentance becomes a practice of demonstrating my identity – of living more faithfully the virtue of kindness.  What Lenten discipline are you taking up?  What might be a way for you to joyfully grasp onto this fleeting life and make it a witness to Christ’s light and love?  I can’t wait to hear all about it!!

On Awkwardness and Grace…

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This week our church is hosting our community’s Emergency Winter Shelter.  Every day for a week, from about 6:30 pm to about 8:30 am, we welcome up to twenty-five guests into our church.  This week is a banner week for our church community.  It is the week in the year where everything we say about discipleship and being witnesses for Christ’s love becomes a reality.  The week is so important that we try to engage parishioners of all ages, and we partner with other churches and local schools to make the week happen.  This is the week where we boldly proclaim our identity and live it with integrity.  This is the week where Christ can say about us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”[i]

You would think with that kind of buildup, and that clear sense of purpose, every moment we are hosting our guests would be this beautiful, enlightened, perfect moment.  While there are certainly beautiful moments, what I noticed about our Winter Shelter week is that it is much more awkward that you might imagine.  Up to twenty-five individuals gather together, with unique stories that brought them to this moment of vulnerability and need, and they create a make-shift place of protection for few hours with about twenty volunteers who mostly do not need to worry about where the next meal is coming from or where they will rest their heads.  What do you talk about over a shared meal?  How do you connect with someone who is bone tired from working, hustling to get to the shelter, and worried about what is next?  How do you overcome the very obvious fact that the worlds you are both operating in are diametrically different?

The answers are not super glamorous.  When you invite yourself to sit at a table with homeless men and women, sometimes the conversation is superficial, and sometimes things are said that rock your world and remind you of how much privilege you really have.  When you long for a human connection with someone who is bone tired, sometimes the most you get is a smile; but more often what you get is a reality check about how brutal homelessness can be, and how many other awful things may be present in their lives.  And as you long to overcome the barriers of the two worlds you live in, part of what you have to do is let go of the idea that you can, remembering why Jesus once said it is harder for a person of wealth to get into the kingdom than a camel to fit through the eye of a needle.  Winter Shelter Week is hard and awkward because the experience forces us to examine our lives, acknowledge our privilege, and be honest about the amount of work we still have to do.

The good news in all the awkwardness and difficulty is that God’s grace is all around.  Providing shelter for a week matters.  Acknowledging the humanity of one another matters.  And that we are even trying matters.  God takes our best intentions, and our humbling week, and grants us moments of beauty:  from the almost five-year old who insists on saying goodnight to every guest before going home to bed – and the gracious responses of guests; to the teenager who has the courage to say an extemporaneous blessing over the food, when traditional prayers do not seem to work; to the community – both guests and hosts – who rallies together to protect the physical well-being of all the guests.  When Jesus talked about welcoming in strangers and feeding and quenching other’s thirst, he did not warn us how hard it would be.  I suspect he knew that the grace we would exchange in the mutual vulnerability would be reward enough.

[i] Matthew 25.35

Sermon – Luke 6.27-38, EP7, YC, February 24, 2019

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Last week, we joined the entire community of Williamsburg in performing acts of kindness.  When we issued the charge two weeks ago to go out and perform three acts of kindness, the reactions were pretty wide-ranging at Hickory Neck.  Several parishioners addressed me with concern, “I have to do three?  Can’t I just do one act before next Sunday?”  Other parishioners took on the challenge with gusto – with several parishioners plotting out what they were going to do before they even got back to the parking lot.  While other parishioners noted during the week and the days afterwards how shockingly easy the challenge was.  “I felt silly writing down my acts of kindness.  I mean, I do acts of kindness every week,” shared one parishioner.

I am not sure which perspective was predominant, but I can tell you that Hickory Neck performed over 100 acts of kindness that week.  There were some simple acts:  holding doors for strangers, paying people compliments, and writing thank you notes.  Some were a little more labor intensive:  volunteering at a food pantry, helping out at your child’s school, going through your closet to donate clothes.  Others showed some real effort:  listening to a stranger who seemed to need a friend, making Valentines for the whole class – even the kids you do not like, visiting someone in the hospital – even though you hate hospitals.

Now I know several parishioners who thought our challenge was a bit silly or who felt uncomfortable with the idea of drawing attention to our own good works.  Surely we should just be doing acts of kindness every week.  But for those of you who jumped in with both feet, my hope is that you got a tiny glimpse into what can happen when you start living out kindness more intentionally:  your whole way of being starts to shift.  When you do acts of kindness, the more opportunities for additional kindness seem to appear.  The more you think about kindness, the more you start to notice kindness all around you.  And the more you engage in kindness, the more your whole demeanor shifts – from one of staying in your lane, attending to your daily routine, to lifting up you head and noticing how you can shift the community around you.

That seismic shift is what Jesus is talking about in Luke’s gospel today.  Many of us hear the instructions from Jesus as a list of commands or a checklist of duties:  love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you; do not judge, do not condemn, forgive, and give.  If we look at today as a list of commands from Jesus, then we might as well consider this week as Week Two of an acts of kindness challenge – except this time, Jesus asks us to do acts of kindness for those to whom showing kindness is the hardest.  When we read Jesus’ words like a weighty list of to-do items, this gospel feels just that – full of weight and guilt with no promise of hope or encouragement.  And part of what Jesus is saying is just that:  showing kindness is actually pretty hard when we show kindness to those who are hardest to love.  We do not mind showing kindness to friends, and we do not even really mind showing kindness to strangers.  But asking us to show kindness to those who we actively dislike or to those who have hurt us?  Now Jesus is pushing us way out of our comfort zones!

At the beginning of February, the Greater Williamsburg area kicked off a commitment to becoming a community of kindness with a rallying event.  The former Mayor of Anaheim, California, Tom Tait, who had run on a campaign of kindness, was the keynote speaker.  Mayor Tait talked about his time on City Council in Anaheim, how part of his work felt like a game of whack-a-mole.  Each month, some crisis or community problem would arise – violence in the community, the prevalence of drugs, problems in the public schools.  And the City Council’s response felt like trying to whack at the problem to temporarily knock the problem out.  But those solutions never really made a deep impact.  What Mayor Tait saw was all those problems were like symptoms – symptoms of a city that was facing an internal sickness.  The only way to heal the internal sickness was to commit as a city to transform its entire way of operating.  Mayor Tait believed transformation would occur by committing to kindness.  To many, the idea sounded a little too pie-in-the-sky.  But once elected, Mayor Tait was forced to try to live out the reality of kindness.  With every decision, every major action, the community wondered together what would reflect kindness.  And slowly, the illness in the system began to heal.  Kindness was not a Band-Aid, but a system-altering antidote to a host of problems.

In a lot of ways, that is what Jesus is talking about today.  Yes, the things Jesus is talking about are commands – a list of ways to be kind, even to the persons to whom being kind is most difficult.  But Jesus is not just talking about commands.  As one scholar describes, “Jesus isn’t offering a set of simple rules by which to get by or get ahead in this world but is inviting us into a whole other world.  A world that is not about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest.  But instead is about love. Love for those who have loved you.  Love for those who haven’t.  Love even for those who have hated you.  That love gets expressed in all kinds of creative ways, but often come through by caring – extending care and compassion and help and comfort to those in need – and forgiveness – not paying back but instead releasing one’s claim on another and opening up a future where a relationship of …love is still possible.”[i]

What Jesus is doing is trying to, “inculcate, and illustrate, an attitude of heart, a lightness of spirit in the face of all that the world can throw at you.”  We are to assume this new way of being because “that’s what God is like.  God is generous to all people, generous…to a fault:  [God] provides good things for all to enjoy, the undeserving as well as the deserving.  [God] is astonishingly merciful…”  As N. T. Wright adds, “…this list of instructions is all about which God you believe in – and about the way of life that follows as a result.”[ii]  When we take Jesus seriously, and embrace this new way of being, the way of kindness that leads to love, life can be “exuberant, different, astonishing.  People [will] stare.”[iii]

In a lot of ways, what Jesus does to today is saying, “I see your week of kindness, and I raise you to life of loving-kindness.”  In other words, keep going.  Now, fortunately for us, Hickory Neck has set up the perfect set of circumstances for you to try on this new life of loving-kindness.  Tonight, we open our doors to strangers.  Tonight, we open our doors to some people we will find easy to love, and some people that will make us uncomfortable.  Tonight, we open our doors to some late nights, really early mornings, and hard labor.  But tonight, we also open our doors to a new way of being – a way of opening ourselves to live exuberantly, differently, astonishingly – to live like God.

Now I know one week (or even the one shift or duty you signed up for at the Winter Shelter, or even the financial contribution you made) may not change the world necessarily.  Jesus is talking about a seismic change in the way we live our lives every day.  But the Winter Shelter is a pretty good start.  And the good news for you, is Lent is coming, and we’ve set up all kinds of tools for you to embrace this way of loving-kindness.  Instead of a week of kindness, we have a whole 40-day kindness challenge.  We have a devotional set of readings that reflect on kindness, story, and scripture for forty days.  We will be studying kindness in scripture.  Hickory Neck has assembled the tools to help you not just try simple deeds for a week, or not just try the hard stuff of relationship with the homeless for a week – but instead to try on a new way of being – to take on the way of God.  Part of what Hickory Neck is all about is empowering discipleship – empowering you to go out into the world and live as faithful witnesses of Christ.  This is what discipleship is all about.  And Hickory Neck is here to help – to walk with you, to lift you up when you fall, to hold your hand in the hard parts, and to revel in the joy of watching love win.  We cannot wait to enter in to this most sacred time of loving-kindness with you!  Amen.

[i] David Lose, “Epiphany 7 C:  Command or Promise?” February 22, 2019, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-7-c-command-or-promise/ on February 22, 2019.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 73-74.

[iii] Wright, 74.

On Love and Basketball…

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As we headed into the Duke-Carolina game tonight, my daughter asked me if I thought Duke would win.  She’s finally starting to pay attention to my passion for Duke Basketball, and so I sat her down to explain the phenomenon of the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry.  I told her what every Duke or Carolina fan knows:  no matter what ranking either school has (including if one of the teams in unranked), no matter how well one team or the other has been playing against other teams, no matter which team’s arena they are in, when Duke and Carolina play you NEVER know who will win.  The rivalry is so intense that every time the two teams play, either team could win.  I am not sure whether the rivalry is so intense and so long-standing that both teams get inside their heads too much, or whether there is some weird psychological reason why this rivalry produces so much uncertainty.  All I do know is that when Duke and Carolina play, it truly is any team’s game.

As I was thinking about the game today, I was realizing how we often have people or entities in our lives that get in our heads and make us second-guess our gifts and talents.  We may be full of confidence, doing what we are born to do, and all we need is skeptical relative or an old high school rival to say something and our confidence stutters.  We may have thoughtfully prepared our next steps forward, consulting experts and resources, and in the middle of executing our well-thought-out plan someone raises a question we did not think of that makes us question our abilities or even the whole process.  Criticism can be tough, but what is worse is when we allow that criticism to erode our strong sense of self and purpose.

This coming Sunday, we will hear the story of when Joseph’s brothers discover that Joseph is alive and thriving (Genesis 45.3-11, 15).  Often when we read this story, we read it from the perspective of Joseph – being thrilled to have the persecuted one redeemed.  But more often, I think we are a little more like Joseph’s brothers – filled with jealousy, impulsive, and longing for love and affirmation.  In a moment of hateful weakness, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery; and in our lesson from Sunday, their reckoning happens.  As they come to pharaoh for help in their weakness, they are confronted with the one person who has every right to punish them.  But instead, Joseph is filled with love.  Joseph is able to see goodness.  Joseph is able to offer redemption.

Now I am not saying Duke and Carolina fans should just turn their hearts to love (I cannot look at that Carolina blue without feeling a bit nauseated).  But what we can all stand to remember from rivalries is that when we root ourselves in God’s love, when we live and operate out of love, things like criticism, self-doubt, and challenges have less power over us.  When we root ourselves in love, we are able to love ourselves the way God love us.  And, when we root ourselves in love, we can also see past ugliness of others and instead see God in them too.

So whatever you are facing this week, whomever is trying to tear you down (or beat your team), I offer you the collect for this Sunday:  O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:  Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.  Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.  (BCP, 216)

On Walking toward Christ through Kindness…

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Many people I encounter, both church-going and non-church-going, tend to think my role as a priest is to teach people how to live holy lives.  The expectation is not unfounded.  When I was ordained, the bishop asked me several questions in front of the congregation.  One of them was, “Will you do your best to pattern your life and that of your family in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?”  Not only does the Church anticipate I will teach my community how to live holy lives, the Church expects me to exemplify how to live a holy life.

The reality of that expectation sneaks up on me sometimes.  This week has been one of those times.  On Sunday, I challenged our church community to participate in Random Acts of Kindness Week, doing at least three acts of kindness this week, and reporting back next Sunday.  Just a few days in, two funny things have struck me.  One, I have felt a pressure to do kind acts myself.  As a servant leader, I need to set the tone with my own behavior.  And so, I have been plugging away – purchasing food for our local food pantry, collecting prom dresses and accessories for a program that helps low-income teens, and writing some kind notes.  But planned acts are almost easy.  It is the everyday inculcation of kindness that I am not as sure about.  Just two Sundays ago we heard the passage from 1 Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind.  Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[i]  Although I may be performing kind acts, I have a bit further to go before I am living a life of kindness:  of patience, humility, flexibility, and generosity.

The second thing that struck me this week is how often I have been the recipient of kindness since we started honoring this week.  Already a parishioner has offered to cook me and my family a meal – just because.  Another parishioner sent me a thank you note for my kindness and work on behalf of the church.  Two classmates came to support me on Sunday, even though they have their own church homes.  And the kindness is not limited to people I know.  I have noticed people holding doors for me, waiting patiently for me as a pull out of a parking space, asking how I am doing (and really wanting to know).  I am not sure if people are inspired by this week, or if they are already living faithful lives of loving-kindness.  Either way, I find myself inspired by those around me, who are managing to be kind in the mundane parts of life.

If anything, this week is teaching me that the work of modeling faithful living will go way beyond a week.  And although the intentional acts I am doing this week are great, they are just a small part of transforming my entire life into a model of kindness and graciousness.  The other thing I am learning is that all of the modeling does not have to come from me.  In fact, I am also a student of Christ, still on the path to learning how to walk in Christ’s path.  The good news is that I have more than a week to master this transformation.  In fact, Hickory Neck will be taking up a Lenten kindness challenge this year.  I am so excited to see what forty days of living a life of kindness might teach me.  If they are as powerful as this first seven, then Hickory Neck is in for some incredible inspiration.  I cannot wait to hear what you are learning about this week too!

[i] 1 Corinthians 13.1.13

Sermon – Luke 5.1-11, Isaiah 6.1-8, EP5, YC, February 10, 2019

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Stories of God calling individuals into a new mission, or “call narratives,” as we label them, are some of our most beloved stories from scripture.  They are all pretty dramatic:  God speaking to Moses from a burning bush, God having Jonah thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish, God sending an angel to Mary, or today, a seraph placing a burning hot coal on Isaiah’s lips.  At first, almost everyone one of the characters resists – with protests about how they are not good public speakers, how they do not agree with God’s mission, how the thing God is proposing is biologically impossible, or how they are so full of sin, they could not possibly do whatever God has proposed.  And yet, after much arguing with God, each individual usually agrees – and often says the words we hear in Isaiah today, “hineni,” or “Here I am;” send me.  The whole process is very dramatic and awe-inspiring.  We love to hear and reread these stories and we love to see individuals rise to the occasion.

But here’s the problem with call narratives.  The stories are so dramatic and the responses are so confident and selfless, that we cannot see ourselves in them.  Those are stories that happen to those people.  We are not Moseses, Isaiahs, Marys, or Jonahs (ok, maybe we are a little like Jonah, but even his story is a bit extreme!).  We can certainly relate to the resistance each servant offers to God, but the call is a bit harder for us to imagine.  God doesn’t come to us in dramatic ways, and we definitely do not feel like God is doing something dramatic in us to change the world.  The last time we checked, we were not being asked to lead a people out of slavery from a dictator, use our bodies for immaculate conception, or even go around proclaiming judgement to the world.  Those sorts of dramatic things are things other people do; not us.

I think that is why I like Luke’s version of Simon Peter’s call narrative.  This pericope, as Bob taught us last week, or this piece of scripture might be the story we need to help us see call narratives are not just about those people.  The way we get there though, is not jumping right to overflowing boats, full of fish.  The way we get there is looking at all the seemingly innocuous parts of the story.

The first small detail of the story that can sneak past us is how Jesus starts teaching.  The text says, “while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him … He got into one of the boats.”  Jesus does not ask permission of Simon to get in his boat.  Jesus does not negotiate the terms of using Simon’s boat for a period of time.  Jesus literally just gets on the boat. He does not seem to care that Simon and his crew have had a total failure of a night of fishing, and are probably both exhausted and frustrated.  Jesus just gets on the boat with a word to Simon.  As scholar David Lose argues, what we learn about in this brazen action is “sometimes God doesn’t ask our permission to get involved in our life, to encounter us with grace, God just goes ahead and does it.”[i]

Then something even more odd happens.  When Jesus finally does get around to asking Simon to push the boat out a bit so he can teach, Simon just does what Jesus asks.  We have no idea why.  Perhaps he simply responds because he knows this is just the way Jesus is.  We know that Simon Peter already had an encounter with Jesus at this point in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus healed his mother-in-law.  Maybe Simon was so grateful for that healing that he pushed the boat out to sea out of a sense of gratitude or obligation.  Or maybe Simon Peter was just that kind of guy – the kind of guy who even when he is bone tired and frustrated would still lend you a helping hand.[ii]  Regardless, his immediate and silent acquiescence tells us something.

Then another funny thing happens.  The text tells us when Jesus is done teaching, Jesus speaks to Peter.  That half sentence almost seems like a throw-away transition.  But even in this transition, we see something special.  What we see in this transition is even “when he’s all done teaching, Jesus isn’t actually all done.  In fact, that he’s just getting started.  Because God’s like that, always up to more than we imagine.”[iii]

Then comes Jesus’ request – to put the nets back out again.  Now, remember that Simon Peter and his crew have just spent the early hours of the morning cleaning all those nets.  So already, Jesus is asking a lot to this worn down, frustrated crew.  But Jesus’ request is funny in another way.  Jesus does not suggest they try his new and improved fishing method.  Jesus does not suggest a new body of water or a different location.  Jesus does not give them new nets to try.  He just asked them to do the exact same thing they had been trying all night.  The only difference this time, as Lose points out, is “… Jesus spoke to them and they do what he says and the word Jesus spoke makes it different, because God’s Word always does what it says, even when those hearing that Word fall short or even have a hard time believing it.”[iv]  God’s Word changes everything.

Now what happens next is pretty typical.  When the miracle of all those fish happens, and Peter senses Jesus offering a call to him, Peter protests as many a servant has – saying he is a sinner.  But what is interesting in this call narrative is Jesus’ response.  Jesus does not say that Simon’s sins are forgiven, or do some symbolic act to cleanse Simon’s sinfulness.  No, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”  Sure, Jesus offers forgiveness of sins.  But Jesus offers so much more.  Jesus offers encouragement and comfort.  Instead of simply insisting Simon can answer the call, Jesus instead offers the words of a pastor.  Those words, “do not be afraid,” will be words we hear over and over again in Luke’s gospel.  Part of this call narrative is a reminder that we do not have to be afraid anymore!

Then Jesus tells Peter something even more incredible.  This miracle he just witnessed is nothing.  Peter is going to do something even greater – be a fisherman of people – “catching people up in the unimaginable and life-changing grace of God.”[v]  Simon Peter really was not someone special.  Simon was not so gifted that he was already a leader in the community.  No, Jesus just picks an average fisherman for this incredible new mission.  That’s something else we learn about God in this passage; this is “how God works, always choosing the unlikeliest of characters through whom to work, putting aside all their doubts and fears and excuses and professed shortcomings to do marvelous things through them.”

And this is how we get back to each person in this room.  Despite the fact that call narratives can be dramatic, call narratives are also full of ordinary little things that remind of us the kind of God we have; the reasons why we trust this incredible, loving God; how woefully unprepared and unworthy any of us really are; and how through our relationship with God we find ourselves saying yes, saying hineni, without an exclamation point, but with scared-out-of-our-minds trust.

We may think call narratives are something that biblical heroes experience.  But the reality is, each one of us here has a call narrative.  Sometimes they are dramatic, but most of the time, they are gradual calls that evolve as we deepen our relationship with Christ, as we slowly, quietly keep saying hineni, as we try, fail, and try again to figure out what God wants us to do with our lives, and as we suddenly realize we are doing it.  We are leaving boats full of fish to follow Christ.  We changing the course of our lives in incremental ways.  We are finally able to see ourselves as Christ sees us – as individuals gifted with special gifts that enable us to share God’s love in our own little piece of this big world.  Do not be afraid, friends.  The secret of you already following God’s call is safe here.  Just keep saying yes, keep saying your quiet hineni and God will keep using you in powerful, dramatic ways.  Amen.

 

[i] David Lose, “Epiphany 5C: Lots to Love,” February 5, 2019, as found on February 6, 2019, at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-5-c-lots-to-love/.

[ii] Lose.

[iii] Lose.

[iv] Lose.

[v][v] Lose.

On Kindness and Holy Healing…

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KINDlogo_final-01This past Friday, our LEAD Greater Williamsburg Class launched our kindness initiative.  About 200 people from Williamsburg, James City County, and York County gathered to learn how they could commit to kindness.  One of the highlights was keynote speaker former Mayor Tom Tait.  Mayor Tait served for many years on City Council in Anaheim, California.  He described his work with City Council as a game of “Whack-a-Mole,” where they were constantly trying to snuff out “symptoms,” whether they be drug abuse, homelessness, or violence.  What he slowly came to realize was this model of treating the symptoms was not getting to the root of the problem – the fact that the whole body was sick.  And so, he ran for Mayor on a campaign of kindness.  He believed kindness would transform the entire body, or system, in such a way that the symptoms would go away – because the entire body would learn to operate in a healthier way.

After the event, as I spoke with clergy about the theology of kindness, we came to a few conclusions.  First, we agreed that embodying kindness is one way that people of faith can embody God – the same God that is regularly described as showing loving-kindness, or hesed, in Hebrew.  Our acts of kindness help us to show forth and experience God in our community.  But as we talked about Mayor Tait’s analogy, we realized that showing kindness gets to the root of Jesus’ work.  Jesus was often seen healing what may be seen as symptoms – leprosy, blindness, hemorrhaging.  But what Jesus was really doing was healing entire systems.  Each healed person was restored to wholeness in the community, with no barriers to full membership in the community.  Christ was concerned about the presenting symptoms and suffering of individuals – but what his work was really about was restoring the entire body to wholeness.

The kindness campaign #WMBGkind is an incredible movement because it seeks to do just the same thing – transform our entire community from one that can be divided or cynical, to being a community transformed to wholeness through kindness.  As members of the faith community of Greater Williamsburg, we have an opportunity to be leaders in that transformative work:  because we were commissioned through our baptism to be agents of healing and wholeness, because we can be a powerful witness of God’s love through our kindness, and because, as members of the “body” of our community, we will be transformed too.  This Sunday at Hickory Neck, you will be invited into this commitment to kindness – or as we as persons of faith would call it, into doing acts consistent with our baptismal identity.  I look forward to seeing you then, as we work toward transforming our community, one act of kindness at a time!