On New Songs…

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Take Five Speakers-Rev. Jennifer Andrews-WeckerlyThis reflection was offered through the livestream program called “Take Five” at New Zion Baptist Church on July 28, 2020.  This is the text from that talk.

Tonight we turn to Psalm 149, which says, “Praise the Lord.  Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.  Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King.  Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with tambourine and harp.  For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.  Let the saints rejoice in this honor and sing for joy on their beds.”

Now I know what you may be thinking.  Really?  You want us to talk about praising God?  We’ve got a worldwide pandemic, which our country is becoming one of the worst handlers of in the world, which disproportionately is affecting people of color, and has become so politicized that we are no longer worried about the sanctity of human life, but are instead arguing about rights and the ethics of sacrificing life for some contrived greater good.  Not only that, we are in a crucible around racism, that alternatively gives us great hope for change and makes us despondent about how far we really have to go.  Add to that the emotional, spiritual, financial, and physical toll of this time, a time when we seem incapable of respecting the dignity of every human being, and you want to talk about singing to the Lord a new song?

I don’t know about you, but when I am feeling the weight of the world, and when I am longing for a word from God, an old song is usually where I return.  Every once in a while, when I slow down enough not to just to pray to God, but to actually listen to God, those old timey hymns from my childhood come back.  Their words speak to my ache, or let me wallow in my despair.  They talk about sweet, sweet Spirits, and walks through garden alone with Jesus, and balms in Gilead.  When I talk to Jesus, I want an old song.

But that is not what the psalmist says.  We are not asked to recall the old songs; we are invited to sing a new song.  In fact, seven times in the psalms, we are invited to sing a new song to the Lord.  As a fellow pastor says, “New songs of praise are appropriate for new rescues and fresh manifestations of grace.  As long as God is gracious toward us, as long as he keeps showing us his power, and wowing us with his works, it is fitting that we not just sing old songs inspired by his past grace, but also that we sing new songs about his ever-streaming, never-ceasing grace.”[i]

In this time of utter upheaval, unrest, and unevenness, two things are happening.  One, God is still moving.  The Spirit’s movement may be hard to see or hear in the cacophony of noise.  But I know in talking to New Zion’s leadership, talking to the folks at Hickory Neck Church, and talking to our neighbors here in James City County, Jesus is still moving.  I know that you are finding moments of grace, even in the darkness of this time.  I know that you are seeing shreds of hope, even in what feels like the disappointing failures of our nation.  Two, despite how comforting those old songs are, I am guessing the Holy Spirit has whispering some new songs in your ear.  You may not be sure of the words, and you may be straining to hear the tune.  But in the depths of your heart, where we fear change and we harbor anxiety, we know that only a new song can help get us out of this mess.

So, here’s the good news.  We are not on our own to birth these new songs.  Psalm 40 says, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”  God put a new song in my mouth, says the psalmist.  Not I, out of my genius, wrote a new song.  Not, I worked hard and put in the time, and out of my labor created a new song.  Not, I listened to what others were singing and sang their songs.  No, the psalmist says, God put a new song in my mouth.  Our invitation tonight is to open ourselves to that new song.  Our invitation is to concede that during this time – a time unlike anything any of us has experienced – God is providing something new – new grace and new songs (which might be even better than that old favorite).  Our invitation tonight is to sing the new song God gives us out in the world – to trust in the wisdom of the words and notes Jesus is giving us and shout them out to a world that desperately needs to hear that new song.

Let us pray.  Holy and creative God, we know that you see our suffering and our cries.  We know that you see us patiently waiting on you to lift us up out of the mud and mire, to put us on a firm place to stand.  Help us to trust that you will put a new song in our mouths – a song to give voice to your ever-streaming, never-ceasing grace.  When we finally hear your new song, help us to sing that song – help us to praise your name with dancing, and make music with tambourine and harp.  Help us to remember that when we sing your new song, we shine your light into the world, helping your transformative, life-giving love take root, and disrupt the injustice of our day.  We praise you, Lord, and we bless you, and we sing a new song with you.  Amen.

[i] David Mathis, “Sing a New Song,” May 4, 2014, as found at https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/sing-a-new-song on July 27, 2020.

Sermon – Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52, P12, YA, July 26, 2020

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In today’s gospel lesson, full of six very different rapid-fire parables by Jesus, the line that jumps out at me most is in verse 51.  Jesus says to the disciples, “Have you understood all this?” and the disciples answer, “Yes.”  Now, after a week of pouring over this text, I still cannot figure out whether we are supposed to laugh at this line – because who could so simply understand such vivid parables by Jesus; whether I am supposed to feel a kinship with this line – because I have heard these parables a million times and feel pretty confident I understand them too; or whether I am supposed to be intimidated by this line – because if the disciples, who rarely understand anything, so simply understand these parables, maybe I am doing something wrong.

Part of the challenge is context is really important for today’s gospel lesson.  Much like Jesus tells these parables in rapid-fire succession, we could consume the images in a rapid way:  a tiny seed that grows into huge plant, a woman adding yeast to bread, a man finding treasure, a merchant finding a sought-after pearl, a net catching fish.  The images are basic enough that we could read them and figure out what Jesus is saying about the kingdom.  In fact, the disciples’ simple “yes” doesn’t seem so funny or intimidating after all.

But there is more to these images than our modern eyes often catch.  That beloved mustard seed we know so well, that we maybe rolled around between our fingers in Sunday School class, is a little more complicated.  Ever the fan of the underdog, we Americans might see this mustard seed as the metaphor of the little guy winning.  But the context we miss is the mustard plant is a weed, an ancient version of kudzu, that consumes valuable garden space that most farmers would have pulled from a field[i].  And although we might be used to throwing yeast into bread, yeast in Jesus’ day was seen as evil or unclean, a symbol of corruption and impurity[ii].  And let’s not forget the merchant, who at the time was not a respected businessman, but someone who would have been socially suspect, using excessive funds for a luxury item, an item that has nonkosher origins, who in spending everything, who loses his identity as a merchant because he has nothing to buy or sell.[iii]  So when Jesus says the kingdom of God is like invasive weed, a corrupting yeast, or a shady merchant, our simple “yes,” about understanding might be premature.

What we learn about the kingdom of God in these parables is rich and layered.  The kingdom of God is surprising:  something seemingly small and worthless can be a place of shelter and nurture.[iv] The kingdom of God unsettling:  where something seemingly corrupt can secretly grow goodness to feed hundreds.  The kingdom of God is disturbing:  where unsuspecting individuals are inspired to seemingly irrational behavior that glorifies God.

I am still not sure how we should interpret the disciples’ “yes” today when Jesus asks them if they understand.  Perhaps their yes is followed by ellipses and a question mark – a tentative commitment to keep listening because what Jesus is saying is so overwhelming, “yes” is all they can say.  Perhaps their yes is a quiet yes because they understand how their lives are about to be upended.  Perhaps their yes is a bold declarative, comical on the surface because who can really understand Jesus, but also admirable, because despite how surprising, unsettling, and disturbing this kingdom is, they are all in with Jesus.

Our invitation this week is proclaim a yes for Jesus too.  In a time of a worldwide health crisis, of political unrest, and of societal upheaval, Jesus invites us to see the kingdom not as escape from the world, but a way of being that embraces surprising, unsettling, disturbing love and grace of God that will change us completely and transform the world beautifully.  Your yes today can be tentative, sober, or declarative.  You are in good company either way.  But your invitation is to say yes regardless – and then buckle up for the ride.  Amen.

[i] J. David Waugh, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 287.

[ii] Talitha J. Arnold, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 286.

[iii] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus:  The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York:  Harper One, 2014), 160-161

[iv] Waugh, 287.

On Hope and Confidence…

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One of the things I have loved about my church has been the Choral Scholars we employ at our 11:15 am service on Sundays.  The eight singers are college students from William & Mary.  They come from all sorts of backgrounds – some grew up singing in their hometown Episcopal Churches, some are Southern Baptists, and a few have even been Jewish.  I have always enjoyed watching their journey through college, but I especially became appreciative of that relationship when this pandemic shut down our church.  Two Choral Scholars immediately became part of our four-person team livestreaming services every week, helping keep music at the center of our digital worship.

I was not sure what to expect, however, once the semester was over in June.  We managed to recruit two other students:  one, an out-of-state college student who grew up in our church and is home for the summer, and another who is also from William & Mary, but has never sung with our Scholars.  As each week has passed, I have slowly learned about their faith journeys and experiences.  And this Sunday, when our Music Director was on vacation, the substitute she procured is an organ student from William & Mary who sings at another local church during the school year, and who led a choral evensong with a campus group at our church last year.

As we sang and played together on Sunday, I had an epiphany.  I realized I was the oldest person in the room by several years.  After years and years of talking about the so-called decline of the mainline church, hearing myriad, often contradictory, reasons why the next generation is not coming to church (for more about this topic, check out this video by Dean Ian Markham), here I was a part of a worship leadership team primarily led by people in their very early twenties.  And they were not just playing supporting roles, like greeting people at the door or handing out bulletins.  They were in charge of the entire musical offering.  They were equals in leadership, and they were doing it with confidence and beauty.

In a few months, one of the high school students I mentored in my curacy will be ordained a priest.  Listening to her hopes for the ways the Episcopal Church can speak afresh to this world, wondering about the future lay leadership of our pre-med summer singer, and imagining the bi-vocational life our substitute organist who hopes to play on Sundays after college graduation while having a weekday career, gives me hope for the future of our Church.  Yes, our Church will continue to evolve and change, living online, living in cafes and bars, living in soup kitchens and childcare centers – but living and thriving.  Our Episcopal liturgies, our openness to the intellect, and our graceful blessing of all walks of life are the things that attract the young (and more seasoned!) people who are leading us today, and they are the strengths that give me hope for the Church of the future.  I have often resisted the doom and gloom of the predictions of the decline of the Church, but have been unsure how to legitimize my hunch.  This week I am grateful for the young people in my life who have given me some language and some confidence that Jesus is not done with us yet.  I hope you can feel that hope today too.

Sermon – Mt. 13.24-30, 36-43, P11, YA, July 19, 2020

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The parable in our gospel lesson today is a story about weeds – actually, one weed in particular, called the darnel.  The darnel is a nasty weed, wrapping its roots around the roots of good wheat, totally indistinguishable from wheat until producing seed, and life-threatening if allowed to mix in with wheat once harvested.[i]  Jesus tells the disciples that this menacing, evil, life-threatening weed is metaphorically planted in the field of the world.  These evil weeds are planted, growing, and thriving side-by-side with the nutritious, filling, wholesome wheat, intimately intertwined, impossible to separate without destruction to both.  And this, Jesus tells the disciples, is our world.  In one short parable, we have the reality of the enemy or devil, the problem of evil in our lives, and an accounting or judgment at the end of life.  Happy Sunday, huh?

In order to find some hint of grace in this parable, we first have to explore the bad news.  The bad news in this parable is like a funnel of evil, which starts out with a wide, removed description of evil, and as the funnel narrows, the evil comes closer and closer to home.  At the wide mouth of the funnel, we find the evil of the world.  We see evil in the world everyday – as people are kidnapped, tortured, and murdered.  We see evil as people are denied basic human rights, work in sweatshops, and are forced to flee from their lands.  We see evil as people live without shelter, food, or medicines.  And although we recognize the outcomes of evil, we get uncomfortable identifying “evil” because we hope for some hint of goodness in everyone and, secretly, we know that we too sometimes participate in the world’s evils.

Our funnel narrows as the master’s field becomes defined as not only the world, but also our church community.  Here is where the notion of “evil” weeds becomes even more uncomfortable.  Jesus experienced evil in the midst of his community, as individuals constantly sought to kill him.  The early Church also experienced evil in the Church’s midst.  And the evil within the Church is still with us today.  There is no perfect church.  I love this parish and the beautiful ways we care for and love one another – but I cannot claim that we are perfectly good.  In fact, each us has at some point been like that nasty weed, capable of choking the nutrients and life-giving water out of true goodness among us – a reality that makes us uncomfortable, both with the idea of judging each other, and with the potential of being exposed ourselves.

Then comes the tightest, most compressed area of the funnel – the spout through which evil finally flows.  The field in which evil is planted is also the field of ourselves.  Paul articulated this evil in his letter to the Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”[ii]  Paul’s words perfectly capture the inner turmoil of being human.  Imagining the weeds and the wheat growing up together in our own beings is not difficult.  We are constantly an intertwined field of great deeds and hurtful wrongs.  We pray that the good seed will yield fruit and the weeds will eventually be burned, but we know both weed and wheat are inside of us.  And so, the funnel shows us that evil is in our world among us, in our faith community beside us, and in our very beings.

The grace is that the funnel also works in reverse.  Grace spews out of the same funnel.  When the servants ask the master about whether they should go ahead and pull out the weeds, the master tells them to wait, letting the two grow side by side, entangled and indistinguishable.  This waiting time is the grace for our own selves.  Recognizing that both good and evil are in ourselves, God gives us time:  time to continue to nurture the good; time to avoid killing the good in our efforts to kill the evil in ourselves; and time to allow God’s grace to work in and through us, so that the goodness in us might be gathered into that barn.  As God is patient with us, so we are to be patient with ourselves.

The same grace moves out of the funnel, out of ourselves, and into our Church.  God gives us time as a faith community too.  The gift of time gives us the opportunity to live into God’s grace – witnessing goodness to one another, so that the evil among us might be overwhelmed and eventually discarded.  The gift of time for the Church also allows us to make amends for those times when we are the agents of evil in the church, confessing our faults weekly, repenting and returning to goodness.  The gift of time for the church allows us to learn and grow in God’s goodness, to marvel in the mystery of God’s grace, and to prayerfully lift up the Church to God.  God is patient with the Church just as God is patient with each of us.

Finally, the funnel of goodness spills over into the world through the gift of time.  The gift of time allows us to work on spreading goodness in the world.  We have time to give one more meal to a hungry person, to comfort one more grieving person, to advocate one more time for a just society.  And we realize in this gift of time that we are not responsible for sorting out the weeds and the wheat.  God will do that.  We can only work to cultivate goodness in our lives, in our community, and in the world – and the rest is in God’s hands.

When we realize that each of us is some mixture of wheat and weed, of holy and unholy, of potentially fruitful and potentially destructive, we can then turn away from God’s work of judging, and turn toward our work of attending to that which increases the potential for holiness.[iii]  In other words, the grace for us in this parable is that we can leave the judgment to God, and do our work of promoting goodness in ourselves, in our community, and in the world.  This is our work.  Let anyone with ears listen!

[i] Talitha J. Arnold, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 260.

[ii] Romans 7.19

[iii] Gary Peluso-Verdend, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 264.

On Haircuts, Darkness, and Light…

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One of the inconveniences of this pandemic was that I was due for a haircut right as salons were closed.  I decided quickly this was a superficial, somewhat vain, concern, and I could simply wait until things reopened.  As the months passed, my growing hair became a symbol of this time – our need to stay-in-place, to stay socially distanced, and to make sacrifices for the sake of the community.  Eventually, as I did daily online prayers, it became a running joke that people were measuring the length of quarantine by the length of my hair.

So, when my hairdresser finally came back to work last week, I was equal parts thrilled and nervous.  My hair had not grown that long since college, and I longed for the ability to look properly groomed.  But I also was anxious – there is no way to stay six feet away from someone cutting your hair, and even with us both wearing masks, getting my hair cut was taking on a risk.  I tentatively booked the appointment, feeling both relief and guilt.

That tension did not dissipate during the experience.  My nervousness made my entire body tense.  I realized half-way through the cut I was subconsciously praying for both of us – that neither of us would get sick (then, guiltily realizing I probably ought to be praying for my hairdresser daily!).  As three-inches curls of hair fell to the ground, I had flashes of the Sampson story we had just read in our 90-day Bible Reading Challenge.  Had this been a mistake?  Was shedding all this hair a symbol of my failed ability to lead others with the example of compassion and care?

As I got back into my car though, the lightness of the weight of my hair created a lightness on my spirit too.  I suddenly realized that in addition to all of the suffering and death this pandemic has brought, it has also given us an invisible weight on our shoulders – the angst of making decisions about communal versus personal behavior, the load of constant cycles of grief, and the burden of a system crumbling around us.  Losing my hair was akin to losing a bit of the weight on my shoulders – remembering that despite all of the bad that has come out of this pandemic, so has a lot of good.  For me, cutting my hair (done with all the safety precautions possible) was a reminder of the light in the darkness of this time.  I say that not as an endorsement of getting one’s hair cut in general.  I say that because we all need reminders of the light trying to shine through during this time of darkness.  If you are finding you need help finding that light, I am here.  If you need help finding that light, Hickory Neck Church is here.  If you need help finding that light, God is surrounding you with light on every side, even if you cannot see it yet.  My prayer for you is you find hints of light today to sustain you in this darkness!

Sermon – Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30, P9, YA, July 5, 2020

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In Compline, one of the prayers is for “we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life.”[i]  I have been feeling that prayer these last several weeks – or even months.  The longer we stay in our homes, the longer this pandemic wages illness and death upon us, the longer the spread of virus takes away the everyday privileges we never fully appreciated, and the longer civil unrest forces us to look at our demons and sinfulness, we become more and more weary.  We do not have to ponder too long why cases of the pandemic are soaring this summer.  People who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life are so grief-stricken they are becoming reckless, self-centered, and indignant.

So, you can imagine my full-bodied relief when I heard the last verses of our Gospel lesson today.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Those words from Jesus are sweet comfort to us, who just want a break, who just want some semblance of normalcy, who just want peace.  Jesus’ words are a warm embrace in a time of touchlessness.  Jesus’ words are a balm to our country who this very weekend honors a liberty that many of our neighbors are reminding us is not felt by all our citizens.

But as scholar Thomas Long says, “What Jesus offers, however, is not a hammock, but a yoke.”[ii]  I know we want to linger on verse 28, but immediately after that comforting embrace, Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  In the shift between these last verses, Jesus does a bit of a bait and switch.  He beckons us into his comforting arms, but also places a burden on our shoulders.

I confess, I have been a bit cranky about that switch.  Can’t we just have one week, one Sunday, one moment, where we abdicate responsibility, where we take a sabbath from all this work, where we binge watch television and eat crappy food?  Isn’t that what Jesus means when he says he will give us rest?!?

Fortunately for all of us, I had my tempter tantrum early in the week, and have had some time to sit with this yoke of Jesus’.  You see, when I am being honest, I know binge watching television or eating junk food is not actually restorative.  I feel stiff and tired after sitting for hours.  And when I eat unhealthily, the lingering stomachache or sluggishness is not actually as comforting as the comfort food implies.

What Jesus is suggesting today is not a restful, self-centered, time of abdication.  What Jesus is suggesting is we find rest in the things of life that matter.  As one scholar suggests, “we will find rest for carrying the burden of the gospel by living out the unique mission to which Jesus calls each of us.”[iii]  That yoke we may be skeptical of this week, is not actually a ploy or a trick by Jesus.  The reason Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light is “because [his yoke] is the way of God, and [his yoke] is profoundly satisfying to the human soul.”[iv]

Jesus uses some strong imperatives today:  come to me, take my yoke, learn from me.  But Jesus is not being bossy.  Jesus is reminding us, in his ever so firm, but pastoral way, that the ways we are seeking rest and relief from weariness are not the ways to life.  The way to life, of true refreshment, of renewed spirits is through the yoke of Christ.  How is that possible?  As one scholar reminds us, “The easy yoke means having something to do:  a purpose that demands your all and summons forth your best.  [The easy yoke] means work that is motivated by a passionate desire to see God’s kingdom realized.  [The easy yoke] means work toward a certain future in which all of God’s dreams will finally come true.  To accept the yoke of the gentle and humble Lord is to embrace the worthy task that puts the soul at ease.”[v]  Jesus reminds us today that the rest we seek is not mind-numbing, emotion-numbing, spirit-numbing relief, but purposeful, meaning-filled, reward-making clarity.  When we harness ourselves to Christ, the burdens no longer feel like burdens, the work no longer feels like work, and the desire to be done turns to a desire for God’s delightful sense of purpose and meaning.  That is the kind of profound satisfaction Jesus offers today.  Thanks be to God!

[i] Book of Common Prayer, 133.

[ii] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 132.

[iii] Emilie M. Townes, “Theological Perspective,”  Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 214.

[iv] Long, 132.

[v] Lance Pape, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 217.

On Refreshment in a Parched Land…

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

Over three months ago, when we closed our church’s doors because of the Coronavirus pandemic, we had to make some quick, difficult decisions.  We knew we wanted to offer a livestream service, but we also knew we did not feel comfortable consuming the holy meal without the community of faith gathered.  Fortunately, we have a rich traditional of prayers from our Book of Common Prayer, so we switched to Morning Prayer on Sundays.  In seminary, I attended Morning Prayer daily, so in some ways, the last many months has been like visiting an old friend.  As the officiant, I have often worn my seminary cross as a sign of gratitude for the formation I receive at Virginia Theological Seminary to be able to confidently officiate the service.

But as our diocese gave us permission to begin the regathering process, the liturgical team began to realize we had a conundrum.  For the limited number of people who would be able to gather in the space, would we keep offering Morning Prayer, or would we offer communion under the new guidelines?  If we offered communion to some, would those watching online feel left out if the livestream was different from the in-person offering?  So, like we often do at Hickory Neck, we decided to try an experiment.  We still did not want the altar party to consume on screen if no one else could consume with us.  But perhaps we could try an offering of “Spiritual Communion”:  a service identical to the familiar Holy Eucharist we normally celebrate, but with a special shared prayer instead of actual reception of the body and blood of Christ.

This past Sunday, we gave the experiment a go.  Shifting types of services is more complicated than it sounds, especially given the challenges of working with limited technology.  My brain was so jumbled with details that when we hit the livestream button, I had not processed the significance of the morning.  I put on vestments I have not worn in over three months – vestments I used to wear every week.  As the celebrant, I was saying words that I have said countless times in the last ten years.  It was only when I elevated the elements, recognizing the muscle memory of my body, that the power of what we were doing hit me.  Holy Eucharist is just one of the myriad things that have been taken away from us during this time of social distancing – one of the many comforts that I have grieved in these last months.  Despite the fact we were not actually receiving communion, despite the fact the room was still empty minus a camera, despite the fact a hundred little things were different, all of a sudden, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion.

Celebrating Spiritual Communion was not the same as celebrating Holy Eucharist.  But celebrating Spiritual Communion felt like a sip of water in a parched land.  It was not complete refreshment, but it was reassurance, comfort, and care.  It was an unexpected gift from the Holy Spirit in the wilderness of this pandemic.  I do not know what our community will decide to do going forward – whether we will keep Morning Prayer or Spiritual Communion, or some combination of the two.  In fact, I am hoping our parishioners and viewers will let us know their feedback.  This week I am just grateful for a community that is willing to experiment – to try, to fail, to learn, and to grow.  That commitment to playful creativity has always been a joy; during this pandemic it is salve to our open wounds.  Thanks be to God!  And thank you, Hickory Neck!

Sermon – Matthew 10.40-42, P8, YA, June 28, 2020

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This summer, several parishioners are participating in our 90-Day Bible Reading Challenge.  In supporting each other in our reading, one of the patterns we have noticed is the break-neck pace of reading twelve pages a day means we do not have a lot of time for traditional Bible Study – looking at the original Hebrew or Greek, discerning the historical context of the book, studying the cultural norms of the community, or even delving into the literary devices of the book.  Instead we are drinking from the fire hose of Scripture – capturing the larger narrative God’s covenantal relationship with humankind, but not indulging in the intriguing details.

With a passage like the one we hear in today’s gospel from Matthew, we could easily do the same.  There are only three verses in the text, and they are somewhat repetitive in pattern.  A quick skim brings up an old adage we have learned by heart – welcome the stranger because you may be welcoming Christ himself.  Maybe your mind immediately leapt to a time you saw Christ in a stranger.  Maybe you began thinking about the ministry of hospitality, particularly how strong that ministry is at Hickory Neck.  Maybe you even started to wonder what you could do to be more hospitable, especially during this time of social distancing.

But here’s the thing:  when we slow down our reading, we realize Jesus does not say, “whoever welcomes the stranger welcomes me.”  Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me…”  Often when we think of hospitality, we think of hospitality from the perspective of the host.  Whether we acknowledge the reality or not, we are people of power and privilege, and our notion of hospitality is rooted in how we can offer hospitality to others.[i]  There is nothing inherently wrong with this dynamic – in fact, our sense of obligation to offer hospitality is an answer to Jesus’ call to love neighbor.  But Jesus is not talking about offering hospitality to others from a position of power.  Instead, Jesus is inviting us to give up power and receive others’ hospitality.

If you remember, we have been in the midst of Jesus’ Missionary Discourse[ii] the last several weeks.  Jesus told the disciples to go out, without resources, to do the work of discipleship.  He warned them they would face persecution, and family members would turn against one another.  And today, as Jesus concludes his discourse, he tells them whoever welcomes them, welcomes Jesus.  So not only are the disciples to make themselves vulnerable to the hospitality of others, they will be mirroring Jesus to others.  In other words, in every moment, every interaction, every relationship, encounter, conversation, and conflict among the disciples –the disciples will be witnessing Jesus.[iii]

I do not know about you, but that is a lot of pressure.  Making oneself vulnerable is hard enough.  Making oneself vulnerable means opening up all our flaws, weaknesses, and doubts.  And now, Jesus is saying while we are vulnerable, our homes, our marriages, our workplaces, our extended families, even our friendships are windows into Christ for others.  As Debie Thomas asks, “When we know Jesus is visible in and through us at every moment…[will] we tread more lightly on the earth?  Speak less and listen more?  Reconsider our grudges and grievances?  Choose our words with greater care?  Examine our motivations more closely?”[iv]

There is a lot about this pandemic that has been absolutely awful – devastating, painful, and full of death.  But one of the things that has happened to Hickory Neck in this pandemic represents new life too.  Before we closed our buildings in March, we offered hospitality from our comfort zone – hospitality unparalleled once you walked in those doors – hospitality that made most of us join this church.  But once we moved everything online, the doors and walls of this place lowered – we went out, showing who we are and what we are about to a much broader audience.  Here in this exposed setting, we are carefully, thoughtfully, intentionally showing others what Jesus looks like.  The work is hard and scary, but the reward is great too.  In letting down our walls, we are helping people to see Christ – the same Christ who redeems us, gives us strength, and makes us whole.  But the work of discipleship is not just happening on livestream.  I see this work happening in you – as you call to check in on people in the parish you have not met before because you attend a different service, as you don a mask and attend a rally in support of our African-American brothers and sisters during this raw time, and as you have socially-distanced conversations with neighbors about the power of Christ in your life.  The promise Jesus made at the beginning of his Discourse is still lingering today.  Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age.  His promised presence will allow us to keep letting down walls and being Christ’s mirror in the world.  Our job is to take up the challenge we will hear in our dismissal today:  Go.  Receive God’s love and hospitality.  Serve the Lord as Christ’s mirror.  Amen.

[i] Debie Thomas, “Welcome the Prophet,” June 21, 2020, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay on June 26, 2020.

[ii] Eugene Eung-Chun Park, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 189.

[iii] Thomas.

[iv] Thomas.

On Race, Earthquakes, and Action…

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A few years ago, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had an exhibit of the works of Kehinde Wiley.  I had not seen his work before, and found his pieces in the exhibit shocking to the eye.  Wiley managed to take traditional poses and settings from art history and infuse them with images of modern African-Americans.  The pieces were jarring to the senses.  As I made my way through the exhibit, it began to dawn on me why my senses were so jarred. By consistently seeing classical art featuring people with light-colored skin, I had been enculturated to expect certain images in art.  The prominence of one kind of subject also created unspoken messages about value, beauty, and power.  Wiley’s vibrant pieces were like an earthquake.  And as someone who considers herself fairly self-aware, I found myself humbled by his work, and sorrowful for my ignorance.

I think that is why I was so surprised by an experience last week.  Last Tuesday night, our family went up to Richmond to take a look at the Robert E. Lee statue and the surrounding damage to businesses and monuments.  For those of you who have not been following the story, as part of the protests about George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter cause, the prominent Confederate monuments in Richmond have come under fire.  The statue of Robert E. Lee’s large stone plinth has been covered in graffiti, protesting George’s death, the treatment of African-Americans by the police, and systemic racism.  As I took in the visceral, pain-filled cries of graffiti, as I looked at pictures of black victims of police violence surrounding the statue, whose names I have prayed for over the years, as I watched families of color take pictures in front of this once pristine, but ever-controversial, statue with a new sense of pride and defiance, what I began to understand is those who are harassed and feel helpless have been begging for our compassion for a long time – cries that could no longer be ignored when staring at that powerfully altered statue.

But mostly, I mourned again for my complacency and blindness.  As a descendant of Confederate veterans, student of African-American history and politics, and pastor of a church built long before the Civil War, I know the issue of Confederate statues and monuments is sensitive.  But watching what was happening at the Robert E. Lee statue created the same feeling as Kehinde Wiley’s art work:  an earthquake for all in positions of privilege and power.  Standing there with my family, I felt like I was on unstable ground, my complicity in systemic racism exposed, and the weight of the question pressing on my chest:  what are you going to do about it?

For my brothers and sisters of color, I am sorry.  I am sorry that you have had to do the work to awaken my senses instead of doing that work myself.  For my brothers and sisters of European descent, we have work to do.  Hickory Neck Church has been posting ways for you to engage this issue – not necessarily telling you what to do, but inviting you into the position of making yourself vulnerable to listening, learning, and acting.  This is our work to do.  It is hard and uncomfortable, and this post may even make you defensive.  Please know that I am here – here to walk with you, here to encourage you, and here to hold us all to Jesus’ message of love.  What you do next will vary widely.  Maybe you can only do one small thing to start.  Our invitation is do something – and keep doing something until we find ourselves doing the work of the kingdom Jesus has desired for a long time.

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

 

Sermon – Matthew 9.35-10.23, P6, YA, June 14, 2020

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Last Sunday afternoon, I attended a rally in Colonial Williamsburg to renew the covenant between our Historical area police departments and the African-American community.  Established just three years ago, initiated by faith leaders in the African-American community, the covenant was established to proactively create collaborative relationships with our local police in order to prevent some of the racial divides that have occurred in other cities.  Although I was there to witness the support of the local clergy for this covenant, what I heard was the testimony of a community of people who have been harassed and feel helpless right here in our community.  Though we may have avoided some of the violence we have seen elsewhere in our country, the African-American community here in Williamsburg still feels the heel of racism pushing down on her neck.

Last week, we heard Matthew’s Great Commission, and we talked about the juxtaposition of civil unrest exploding around the issue of systemic racism and Jesus’ call to go out into the world doing works of justice, mercy, and love.  As some of the heat from protests simmered down a bit this past week, we could easily come to church today and long to turn down the heat too.  But our collect appointed for today, which you will hear later, holds our feet to the fire.  The collect says, “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion…”  Now the Collect of the Day is not just a random prayer, meant to sound good.  The Collect of the Day pulls themes from the scripture lessons appointed for the day – in essence, the Collect of the Day tries to articulate the thesis of our lessons.

After watching weeks of protests (maybe attending some yourself), hearing countless stories about unrest, reading articles or starting books about systemic racism, and praying diligently for peace, you may have come to church today hoping for some respite or reassurance.  But Jesus’ message to “Go!” from the Great Commission last week does not fade today.  Instead, Jesus’ words from Matthew’s gospel from almost 20 chapters earlier shows us our work is ever before us, beckoning us out into the world.

Years before his cross, resurrection, and ascension, we find Jesus teaching, healing, and proclaiming the good news to crowds of people.  In the midst of this work, we are told Jesus looks at the crowd and has compassion for them because they are harassed and helpless.  When Jesus sees the harassed and helpless, he does not simply fix the problem or strike down the system with godly power.  Instead, he turns to his disciples with a charge.  Jesus calls the twelve disciples by name (Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas), those who have been following him, learning from him, studying and praying with him, and sends them out, telling them how hard the work of showing compassion will be:  they will go without financial support, will be dependent upon the hospitality of strangers – some of whom will show them scorn rather than hospitality, will be persecuted and beaten, and will be betrayed even by their closest relatives.  This is the sobering work of love – of proclaiming God’s truth with boldness, and ministering God’s justice with compassion.

So how do the disciples hear such a sobering commission and still take the first step?  They take the first step because Jesus empowers the disciples.  Jesus gives the disciples power to heal and care for the oppressed; Jesus teaches them how to dust off their feet when they are scorned; Jesus promises when they need words, the Spirit of God will speak through them.  In other words, they just need to go, and God will take care of the rest.

Several of you have reached out to me over these last two weeks, longing for something to do in the midst of this important moment.  We have exchanged ideas and resources, and many of you have already begun to take specific action.  The content of how we respond in the coming weeks and months will vary widely, given our different gifts and abilities.  But our Collect today is not a prayer asking God to empower others to do the work of love or for God to just “fix it.”  Our Collect today is a request to God to help each one of us – called by name (Sue, John, Linda, Bob, Lisa, Bill, Tori, Don, Terri, Jim, Beth, and Dave) – to proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion.  Jesus has already given us everything we need to do this work.  God is already keeping us in God’s steadfast faith and love; through God’s grace we can proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion.  Amen.