On Crises, Crucibles, and Communities…

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Photo credit: Deposit Photos (used with permission)

The parish I serve is situated in a crossroads.  In our community are two very different populations:  one is retirees who have fallen in love with the greater Williamsburg area and have settled here to enjoy their retirement; the other is families with young children, who have found a relatively affordable place where they are excited to raise their children.  In both of those populations, the moves to our area often mean people are leaving behind familial systems of support.  In that crucible of our community, Hickory Neck has worked to ensure that our faith community is a community for both populations:  that doesn’t try to just serve each unique group but tries to bring them together so that they can care for each other – surrogate grandparents for young children, and surrogate children and grandchildren the elders can love.  It has been a joy to watch our community embrace our context and thrive.

Then, 18 months ago, our world imploded.  Throughout that time, our parish has tried to be attentive.  Our younger families offered to pick up groceries for our elder members to keep them safe.  Our elders send cards to families encouraging them during these difficult times.  We all figured out new technologies together and laughed along the way.  And when there were times that we could gather, there was joy and hesitation among both populations.  Many of the elders needed to be careful about their health, even if vaccinated.  Many of the young parents were happily vaccinated but then have been forced to wait for vaccines for their children.  In so many ways, it has been the best of times and the worst of times.

Eighteen months later I find a community of parishioners who are just exhausted.  Parents have been pushed to the point of breakage at times.  I cannot tell you the number of times this article came across my desk when talking about the impact of this pandemic of families with school-aged children.  And our elders are breaking too.  Many of them have been pushed into lonely isolation, maybe having figured out technological ways to connect but missing human contact horribly.  Having ridden the rollercoaster of being rushed to be vaccinated, being told they are now safe, many of our elders now are being asked to mask and distance again, and they are terrified of the isolation they thought they had defeated.  All of us are carrying a heavy burden but in very different ways.

Having watched our faith community love and care for each other for so long, I sense now that we are at a new crossroads – one in which our love and care for one another is being tested.  When a crisis comes, adrenaline kicks in, and we move mountains to care for the “other.”  But when a new wave of crisis hits in the form of the Delta variant, our now wearied minds, bodies, and spirits are being pushed once again.  This is the moment when our community will shine.  This is the moment when superficial questions like “how are you?” are being transformed to, “No, really.  How are you?”  This is the moment when emails, texts, calls, and cards that simply say, “I see you,” mean so much – to both generations.  This is the moment when the light of our love is not done out of instinct but out of a deeply rooted baptismal identity that says, with God’s help, I will respect the dignity of every human being.  I am so grateful to be a part of our faith community now – not in the first days, weeks, and months of a pandemic, but in the heart of a long crisis whose crucible will reveal something more beautiful than I ever imagined.

Sermon – Mark 8.27-38, P19, YB, September 12, 2021

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Our Gospel lesson today is pretty harsh.  We read with sympathetic ears for Peter:  partly because, objectively speaking, Jesus is being rude.  But we are also sympathetic because we can identify with Peter more than we might like to admit.  Peter has decided that he knows what being a Messiah is, that Jesus is that same Messiah, and that Jesus is not acting how he should.[i]  So he rebukes Jesus in front of everyone.  Peter’s desire to control Jesus makes sense.  His life has been out of control since the moment he left his boat to follow this crazy man.  Trying to control Jesus is the natural response of someone desperate for some normalcy.  For Peter, Jesus being the conquering Messiah will validate Peter’s decisions – but only if Jesus acts in accordance with the definition of a Messiah.  If Jesus starts redefining the concept of Messiah, Peter will be left floundering, his life spinning even further out of control than his life already feels.  Anyone who has been paying attention during this pandemic knows what having little control over life around you feels like.

One of my favorite book and film series is Harry Potter.  In the first movie, while trying to save the Sorcerer’s Stone, the main characters, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, fall into a pit.  At the bottom of the pit is a bed of vines that cushions their fall.  But they soon find that the vines are magical vines, which start weaving themselves around Harry and the others’ bodies.  The more they struggle, the tighter the vines wrap around their bodies.  Hermione remembers from class that the only way to escape one these plants is to totally relax your body – to surrender.  She relaxes, and her body sinks into the bed of vines, disappearing.  Harry and Ron freak out, but Hermione shouts from below that they just need to relax and they will reach the floor.  Harry listens to Hermione and relaxes his body and is also sucked in and released.  Ron, however, totally loses his cool.  He completely panics, and thrashes about so much that the vines wrap themselves around his screaming mouth.  After losing the battle of trying to convince Ron to relax, Hermione has to use a special spell to get the plant to release him. 

Sometimes I think our relationship with God is a lot like Ron’s relationship with that strange plant.  We are creatures who want to be in control.  We want to control how our careers develop, what our relationships will be like, our plans for retirement, and the timing of major life events.  Although we are rarely successful, we try to control other people too – our family members, our friends, our co-workers.  And most of all, we try to control God.  We see this desire most readily in our prayer lives – we ask God for things, we pray for specific solutions to our problems, and we get angry with God when things do not go our way.  We rarely say those words that Jesus says, “Not my will but yours be done.”[ii]  And even more rarely do we sit in prayer with God and just listen.  When we examine our relationship with God, we are more likely to find our hands grasping tightly for control than to find ourselves with open hands, willingly ceding control to God.[iii]

The unfortunate thing about our desperate need for control is that we miss what God is trying to do in our lives – just like Peter.  By being so controlling with Jesus, Peter is unable to really hear Jesus, and unable to understand the radically wonderful way that Jesus will not only redefine the concept of the Messiah, but will do so much more than the expected Messiah could do.  But that is not the scariest part.  The challenge for us today is not just the ceding of control; the challenge is when we finally cede control with Peter, there is more to the story.  In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that once we understand what a Messiah really is, we too must behave like a Messiah.  We too must follow the way of Christ – the way of the cross that leads to death.  That cross up there over our altar, the one that we hang everywhere, including around our necks, is not just a symbol for what Christ did for us.  That cross is a symbol for the life that we take up too.  The cross is not simply Jesus’ cross, but the cross is our cross. 

But, if we can trust Jesus, trust God, if we can relax our bodies in those tangled vines that are trying to squeeze the life out of us, we might just fall into the place where we need to be.  We might just realize that taking up our cross does not only lead to suffering; taking up our cross also leads to a glorious life of greater joy than we can imagine, and salvation beyond our wildest dreams, where death and suffering have no power over us.  When we move our hands from being tightly closed fists of control to open hands of trust and acceptance, we create space for God to rest in our hands, to show us the way.  The other side of those tangled vines of our desire for control is a glorious place.  All we have to do is let go and let God.  Amen.


[i] Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 70.

[ii] Luke 22.42. 

[iii] Patrick J. Wilson, “Cross Culture,” Christian Century, vol. 111, no. 5, Feb. 16, 1994, 165.

On the Sacred and Bus Stops…

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Photo credit: https://www.longislandpress.com/2019/12/13/school-bus-stop-arm-cameras-coming-soon-to-long-island/

For years now, I have walked my children to the school bus stop.  It has been precious time – holding hands, talking about expectations and hopes for the day, noticing nature’s wonders, playing games while we wait.  We have goodbye rituals too:  the four instructions they get everyday (have fun, be kind, learn lots, and do your best), waving and making heart signs from the bus, waiting until the bus pulls away.  They are rituals that are often taken for granted as the day’s to-do list creeps into one’s mind.  But when one pays attention, one realizes these are sacred rituals.

As you can imagine, the transition to the new rituals of Middle School has been a bit rough.  I am still allowed to drive my child to the bus stop, but definitely not allowed to get out of the car.  We still talk about hopes and expectations, except when a friend finally shows up and becomes the priority.  We are in that journey to adulthood where my child’s primary influences are changing from me to her peers:  and this is good and holy too. 

And so, I am creating new practices for myself.  When my child leaves the safe space of the car and boards the bus with twenty other kids, I have been surprised to find myself praying.  Praying for my own child, certainly:  that she will be safe from this pandemic, that she will cultivate friendships that are life-giving, that she will be inspired by the gift of learning.  But as I watch the other children board the bus, I find myself praying for them too:  for the ways in which Middle School can be so brutal, for the struggles at home they may be experiencing, for the pressures they face as they define their identity.  I even pray for the bus driver, and the ways in which he is the guardian of our children, even if only for a couple of hours a day.

I imagine there are opportunities for expanding prayer for all of us in everyday life.  Where have you found yourself worryingly praying for a loved one?  Who in their immediate field can you pray for too:  their coworkers, teammates, doctors and nurses?  Who are the shepherds who need your prayers too:  their bosses, coaches, ministers?  This week, in your prayers, I invite you to let your prayers expand – fan out a little further than the immediate concern on your heart.  Observe how your fanning prayers expand something inside of you too:  a larger worldview, a bit more compassion, a lot more empathy.  Then, maybe add an action:  send a note to someone, make a phone call, send a text.  I would love to hear how your expanding prayers and actions help expand your experiences with the sacred.

Sermon – Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23, P17, YB, August 29, 2021

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My mom and stepdad have been longtime members of what many of us would call a megachurch – a very large United Methodist Church in Alabama. Having worshiped with them many times, the church truly is “mega”:  multiple services of varying styles, a professional band, a TV production company, a large youth center, an indoor playground, a coffee shop, a gym with fitness classes, and a big campus.  But the thing that impresses me most about their church is their clear sense of identity.  When my family started attending regularly, two people came to visit them in their home, and they had a very frank conversation about expectations for membership.  At that meeting my mom and her husband were asked to commit to at least one ministry each, were asked about what kind of education they wanted to join, and they were asked to tithe – to make a commitment to give 10% of their earnings to the church, as is the Biblical tradition. 

I remember when my mom told me this story having a visceral reaction:  that would have felt WAY to “pressure-y” for most Episcopalians.  But as time has passed, I have come to admire their church’s clarity.  The Episcopal Church does a poor job of defining membership.  Our commitment to professing “All are welcome!” seems to translate into no defining characteristics of membership.  In fact, as a priest, one of the questions I dread the most is “How do I join your church?”  That should be a very easy question, and yet when I talk to new members, the answer has to be two-fold:  the technical answer (as long as you attend three services a year and are a financial contributor, you’re considered a member – the answer from the wider Episcopal Church which I loathe!), and the more practical answer we have crafted here at Hickory Neck:  you fill out a form, you commit to supporting the church financially, you commit to feeding yourself (through study, prayer, regular worship), and you commit to feeding others (through giving your time to the church and to the wider community on behalf of the church). 

Our gospel lesson today seems to be wading through a similar debate.  The Pharisees and scribes are totally perplexed by how some of Jesus’ disciples are not washing their hands before eating – a totally valid concern in these days of COVID!  But handwashing was not just about hygiene.  The ritual washing of hands was about identity, or “membership” as we understand it today.  The Jews of this time are in an “oppressed minority, living in an occupied land.”  Their question is asked with the backdrop of colonialism, cultural and religious diversity, and competing claims on identity.[i]    Their question is both simple and complex:  why aren’t the disciples living like members of our community? 

For many a reader of this text, all sorts of erroneous conclusions have been drawn – primarily the antisemitic understanding that the laws of the Jews are superseded by laws of Jesus.[ii]  But that is not what is happening in this text.  Jesus does not have any issue with ritual cleansing:  he of all people understands the consequences of following God.  But Jesus is saying something more nuanced about identity and membership.  Jesus is saying that no matter how we traditionally mark ourselves as “other,” even if something is “the way we’ve always done it,” what is more important is how we live our faith.  So, if we are doing all the right things:  washing our hands the right way, bowing at all the right times, crossing ourselves when we’re supposed to, saying “Amen” during the sermon – or avoiding saying “Amen” during the sermon – none of that matters if our insides are defiled.  As Jesus quotes from Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…”[iii] 

Today’s invitation is to ponder what membership in this body of faith means.  Are we honoring Jesus with our lips, but our hearts are far from Jesus?  Are we following the external “rules” but fostering evil intentions in our heart?  Our work this week is making sure that when we go out into the world to love and serve the Lord, we love and serve the Lord in ways that show people Christ through our words and actions; that when we wash our hands, we do not wash them simply to keep ourselves safe, but to keep our neighbors safe; and that when we talk about how much we love this church on the hill, we do so in a way that does not show mask our individual struggles with avarice, deceit, slander, pride, and folly.  Telling the world you are a proud member of Hickory Neck Episcopal Church is just fine; but our invitation is to be clear with others that, as that old tune says, “He’s still working on me,” is also a part of membership in the body of Christ.  Amen. 


[i] Debie Thomas, “True Religion,” August 22, 2021, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2944 on August 27, 2201.

[ii] Idea suggested by Matt Skinner on the Sermon Brainwave podcast, “#799: 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 22B) – Aug. 29, 2021,” August 22, 2021, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/799-14th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-22b-aug-29-2021 on August 25, 2021.

[iii] Mark 7.6b.

To Everything There is a Season…

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Photo credit: https://www.amazon.com/Ecclesiastes-Everything-Season-Unframed-Inspirational/dp/B08FMDFBTK

Having finally sat down to write a blog post, I was shocked to realize it had been two months since my last post.  Writing has always been a source of pleasure, joy, and learning for me – a way to reflect on the happenings of life in light of my faith and Holy Scripture.  Blogging for me is akin to preaching and spiritual direction:  an exercise in translating our daily, seemingly secular life into the sacred.  Nearly weekly postings for most of my ministry has been an outlet for me and a ministry to many others.

As I contemplated why there was such a big gap this summer, two theories percolated.  One was the more obvious.  I took some time for vacation, we were searching for and then training a new staff member, I was a part of a bishop’s search (which some argue is like a second full-time job), I was tending my family in a pandemic, I was investing time in continuing education, and I was trying to serve my beloved parish.  My plate was quite obviously full. 

But the second, perhaps more revealing reason came to me through scripture.  I was reminding of that familiar passage from Ecclesiastes, chapter 3:  For everything there is a season.[i]  Honestly, I think more people are familiar with this passage through The Byrd’s song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”  This summer has felt like a different season for me.  Instead of writing about life around us and interpreting it in light of our faith, I spent the summer doing that work orally with two faith communities – talking through what God is doing in the Church, what God has done through us in this time of pandemic, where the Church is going, and who Jesus is calling all of us to be.  In some ways those conversations have been very similar in content to what I write.  But experientially, it was significantly more vulnerable.  Instead of hiding behind the written word, I was engaging in deep, hard, thoughtful conversations in real time, being probed, questioned, and challenged – and all of that experience being broadcast in recorded and live videos for anyone and everyone to see.  I described it to a dear friend as a time of feeling naked before the world.

This summer has been a season for discernment, for deep reflection, for vulnerable pondering.  And just like the scripture writer says, for everything there is a season:  a time to plant, a time to break down, a time to laugh and dance, a time to embrace, a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to speak, and a time to love.  Now, I enter into another season:  a time to reconnect with the Hickory Neck community that loved me through this process – even though it was difficult for them.  A time to write again:  about where we see God in the midst of this season of pandemic that we wish were over.  A time to dream and a time to innovate:  about where God is calling us now.  A time to laugh, dance, and embrace:  even if we have to go back to doing that all virtually.  No matter what the season, God is with us.  I’m honored to journey in this season with you.


[i] Ecclesiastes 3.1-8 reads:  For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Sermon – Joshua 24.1-2a,14-18, John 6.56-69, P16, YB, August 22, 2021

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The film Remember the Titans tells the story of the integration of the football team at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971.  Bringing together an all-white and an all-black team, the new head black coach has to be very clear about the rules – how and who they will be, how they will comport themselves, what is acceptable.  The rules are strict – if you’re on-time, you’re late.  The rules disrupt the norms – interracial roommates at camp for starters.  The rules are non-negotiable – break them and you are out.  In some ways, there is no other way for the head coach to be.  He is trying to do the impossible at a racially charged time in a racially charged town in a racially charged system.  Any lack of clarity about identity, purpose, and posture could lead to a collapse of the entire system.

This past week, we baptized another child into the household of God.  When the church celebrates a baptism, we are similarly clear about identity, purpose, and posture.  The parents and godparents promise to raise the child in the Christian faith and life, praying and witnessing for the child how to grow into the full stature of Christ.  Further, we claim that the child is marked as Christ’s own forever.  We are clear about identity.  We are also clear about purpose.  The community gathered promises to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to proclaim Jesus’s resurrection, and to share in the eternal priesthood.  We promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.  We are also clear about posture.  We will resist evil and when we fail, we will repent and return to the Lord.  We will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.  We will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.  We are clear about identity, purpose, and posture:  who we are, what we are made for, and how we go about our faith. 

Of course, what we do in baptism is not that extraordinary among people of faith.  As people of faith, we have constantly handed down our sense of identity, purpose, and posture.  We hear some of that in the Hebrew Scriptures today. Joshua pulls the people of God together and demands they proclaim their identity:  they are the people of God who will serve the Lord.  They respond by telling their story – the way God led them out of slavery, protected and provided for them.  The people proclaim their purpose:  They are to serve the Lord.  And finally, they define their posture:  they will put away false gods, the gods of the ancestors to free them to serve only the Lord. 

What’s interesting is Jesus does the same thing in the gospel lesson today.  Jesus is trying to explain his identity, his purpose, and his posture – the same he expects from his followers.  In response, we are told many people walk away.  Not unlike that football team in Remember the Titans, some are just simply unwilling to get on board with the identity, purpose, and posture Jesus demands.  The text tells us, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  Those disciples hear about Jesus’ identity, purpose, and posture, and they walk away – Jesus’ way of life is just too difficult.  But Jesus does not judge or condemn; in fact, Jesus gives an out.  He asks if those remaining wish to go too.  But those who remain are clear.  They know no other way but to follow Jesus now, the one who has the words of eternal life, the Holy One of God. 

You know, sometimes I think we take for granted how difficult being a Christian can be.  One of the things I consistently talked about in the bishop search was how proud I am to be a part of a Church who can gather people of all political persuasions around the Eucharistic Table peacefully.  But in my pride in our identity, purpose, and posture, I sometimes forget how much work that common table really is.  Just this week I read a blog post of epidemiologist who happens to be a preacher’s wife.  She writes of her sympathy for pastors making decisions about gathering the church during the escalation of the Delta variant of the Coronavirus, especially as pastors weigh all the sides.  She argues, “This is not a debate though.  There are no sides.”[i]  She argues that how we handle the church’s response to the pandemic is not political but a matter of faith.  But that is the rub today.  Everything these days is politicized:  how we handle the prevention of the spread of a pandemic, whether we go or stay in Afghanistan, what the extents of humanitarian aid and support should be, and on and on.  When people ask me how I handle politics in the pulpit, I usually say I just preach Jesus and let everyone figure out the rest.  But even Jesus is political.  His clear defining of his identity, purpose, and posture has people deserting him.  Walking with God has always been political.  The Israelites are given a similar choice by Joshua – to be with him and his house as they serve the Lord, or to serve the gods of the locals. 

Our invitation this week is to take a similar hard look at our lives and the difficult teachings of Jesus and to decide which god we will follow.  As Jesus gives the disciples a choice, we too have a choice; although, I suspect your answer may be similar to Simon Peter’s, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  The question this week is just what Simon Peter’s declaration means for our daily lives.  How will we embrace our baptismal covenant this week, respecting the dignity of every human being, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves?  These are not just pretty words and lovely concepts.  They are difficult markers of identity, of purpose, and of posture.  Our work is to reclaim the baptismal promises together the only way we know how:  by promising, “I will, with God’s help.”[ii]  Amen.   


[i] Dr. Emily Smith, “Delta and Church:  Three questions: Is it truthful, faithful, and loving?” August 20, 2021, as found at https://emilysmith.substack.com/p/delta-and-church?r=aezlb&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR0JMkDQ07Z1OHcV-ec0Z8s0lFQlyGMe8VdL-DDrvVbcF0txJi0LnyUncZM, on August 21, 2021.

[ii] BCP, 304-305.  This is the repeated response to the five baptismal covenant questions.

Sermon – Ephesians 4.1-16, P13, YB, August 1, 2021

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In your senior year of seminary, you are given the privilege of preaching for the entire community.  I remember the week I was to preach, I was sitting at lunch with some classmates and a professor and I confessed to the table that I was a little nervous.  There is little worse than preaching to a room full of preachers; we tend to be a tough crowd.  But I will never forget what my professor said in response to my anxiety.  “Just remember what that old hymn says, Jennifer.  ‘If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, “He died for all.”’”  At the time, I remember thinking how reassuring his words were – all that mattered was I preached the gospel. 

But sometime later, as I thought back to his comments, I had the distinct thought, “Wait a minute.  Was he saying I was not going to be as good a preacher as Peter?”  Suddenly I was confused by my professor’s words – was he trying to center me for preaching, or just trying to gently tell me not being a good preacher was okay.  I felt the emotional whiplash that seems to be a unique gift of Southerners – a little akin to a solid, “Bless your heart.”

What the words of that professor unearthed in me was a fear we all experience.  Our society tells us we need to be good at all the things – at being exceptional in our workplaces while also being an exceptional parent and spouse; at being a high-performing student and accomplished athlete (and musician, performer, and artist); at volunteering in so many places in retirement that we are working harder than we were working for compensation! 

But that is not what Paul, or the person writing in the name of Paul,[i] tells the Christian community.  Our epistle writer says, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[ii]  Paul argues that mature Christians understand that they have been equipped with gifts for ministry.  However, as scholar Clark-Soles says, Christians “do not need to imagine themselves as pan-gifted, and there is no reason to compete with one another.  Our job is simply to recognize our particular gifts and use them for the development and augmentation of the body.”[iii] 

Nine months ago, I began to sense God was asking me to live into the maturity of my gifts – perhaps being called to serve as a bishop in the church in a land called Iowa.  The decision to be open to that process was not an easy one because my gifts have also been very much affirmed in this slice of heaven here called Hickory Neck.  A day after the election, with the news that I will in fact not be serving as a bishop, I find myself singing that old tune again, “If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul…” 

But this time, the recollection of that hymn does not sting in the same way the song stung in seminary.  Former bishop Porter Taylor says, “while the passage [in Ephesians] affirms the diversity of individual gifts, it asserts that these are always to be used for the good for the whole, ‘to equip the saints for ministry.’…To grow in one’s ministry, therefore, is to align oneself with God’s intentions, both individually and corporately…”[iv]  What Bishop Porter, the epistle to the Ephesians, and even the election yesterday remind us all of is that God equips each one of us here to the work of ministry – sometimes as preachers, sometimes as evangelists, sometimes as pastors, sometimes as teachers, sometimes as bishops – but always for the good of the whole and of the greater community.  Even though I was not elected yesterday, my hope is that the process was a good reminder for all of us that our work is to constantly be assessing what gifts God is giving us, how those gifts are evolving over time, and how we can use them for good.  Our one baptism is an invitation, whether we are Peters or Pauls, to share the love of Jesus.  The rest is in God’s hands.  Amen.


[i] Paul V. Marshall, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 304.

[ii] Ephesians 4.11-13.

[iii] Jaime Clark-Soles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 305.

[iv] G. Porter Taylor, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 304.

Sermon – John 6.1-21, P12, YB, July 25, 2021

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A few weeks ago, your Vestry engaged in a calendaring session – looking at the 2021-2022 calendar and deciding what events, programs, and services we want to offer.  This year’s calendaring session was a bit easier than last year’s, even though there is still some lingering lack of clarity about how much resumption of “normal” activities we should plan.  The most immediate concern was about our annual backpack and school supply drive.  We had not heard from our partner church with whom we have coordinated for years to support a local low-income-earning neighborhood.  We were not sure how we would coordinate assignments anyway since many people are still watching church from home, and not coming in for activities, and we were just not sure what people’s inertia would be like.  So, we hemmed and hawed and eventually landed on the idea of using Vacation Bible School as a forum for collecting backpack supplies for a different, smaller agency that could use our help.  The thought was we could at least help on a smaller scale with the outside help of Vacation Bible School attendees.

Then this week, the flood gates opened.  Our partnering church called and wants to do backpacks again for our immediate neighbors in need.  Suddenly there was a loaded silence among our community engagement leaders:  eyes widened as we processed the predicament.  We have certainly had support of the backpack ministry in the past and managed to cover the needs for our neighbors.  But, managing to collect supplies and backpacks for two communities?  Could we even accomplish that?  And what about our current COVID fog?  Half of our traditional donors are not attending in-person worship on Sundays.  We certainly cannot use Sundays as our main recruitment center.  Who is going to call all our previous donors and coordinate assignments?  Are people still going to be willing to give?  What if they aren’t?  Should we check the Community Engagement budget and the Rector’s Discretionary fund?  And if we use those funds, who will procure the supplies with the redirected funds?  The panic was palpable.  Obviously, we want to support both efforts.  But we are not even sure we can.

Jesus creates a similar panic in our gospel lesson today when he asks the disciples where they can buy bread for the approximately five thousand people who have been following Jesus.  Phillip pipes up first, explaining they would need six months of salary to buy that kind of bread – and even then, each person would only get a little.  Andrew starts to get creative by noticing a boy in the crowd has five barley loaves and two fishes.  But then he realizes how ridiculous the numbers sound:  how could five barley loaves and a couple of fish feed five thousand people.  Any outside-the-box thinking is immediately squashed as the disciples go silent with panic.  They are not unconcerned with the crowd but come on!  They do not have the kind of cash necessary to feed that many mouths.  And they are all for creative problem solving, but even this kid’s food won’t feed more than a few families.  Jesus is asking for the impossible.

 Whether we are talking about bread or backpacks, our gut reactions to extraordinary requests are often rooted in a theology of scarcity.[i]  Now I know how that sounds:  weighing the methods and means of an effort is not about scarcity; weighing the methods and means is good stewardship.  We have limited resources.  The need out in the world is astronomical.  If we try to help everyone, we will not get very far.  Besides, giving out bread or backpacks is just piecemeal work – that kind of work is about feeding people, not teaching them how to fish.  And we are not just worried about money:  we must be realistic about the amount of labor to accomplish tasks.  What others call a theology of scarcity seems like judicious stewardship to us.   

Unfortunately, Jesus has never been big on realistic, measured stewardship.  Where we see scarcity, Jesus sees abundance.  First, the text tells us there is much grass on which the people can sit – a detail unique to John’s gospel.[ii]  Second, unlike in the three other gospels, in John’s gospel, Jesus does not have the disciples do the work.  Jesus distributes the bread himself.  As Karoline Lewis notes, Jesus knows “Life cannot be abundant if it is not grounded in intimacy and relationship and security….Not only is Jesus the source of abundant life, but it is being in relationship with him that is also the source.”[iii]  Third, John’s gospel is all about abundance – and the disciples have already seen this witness.  They saw the theology of abundance from Jesus chapters before at a wedding in Cana – where Jesus did not just produce wine, but he produced barrels of wine – and not just any wine, but the best wine.  Even before that miracle in Cana, John’s gospel tells us that Jesus is the Word made flesh, from whom we experience grace upon grace.  And later, Jesus will tell the disciples about how the Father’s house has abundant dwelling places, and how Jesus himself will go ahead of them to prepare a place for them in that abundant place.[iv]  And just in case the disciples are not sure about the validity of such a theology of abundance after seeing twelve baskets of leftovers, later in our reading today, when the disciples are terrified in a boat on rocky waters, Jesus calmly says, “It is I, do not be afraid.”  But the actual Greek translation is not just “It is I,” but “It is I AM.”[v]  As in, all that you have seen, all the abundance you have witnessed is of God, of Yahweh, of the great I AM. 

The good news is that Jesus does not ask us to make abundance in the world.  In fact, as Debie Thomas explains, “Jesus’s feeding miracles are his self-revelations.  He gives bread because he is Bread.  He makes possible the gathering of the body so that we might become his body, the church.”[vi]  Our invitation is to do just that.  Whether we participate in the theology of abundance by adding some school supplies to our shopping list, whether we start looking for abundance when our gut instinct is to wisely worry about scare resources, or whether we participate in Jesus’ abundance by saying “yes,” to whatever new scary adventure Jesus invites us into, the miracles of Jesus are not just something to marvel at from a distance.  Our invitation is to become Jesus’ body, knowing full well that Jesus will give the bread because he is Bread.  Amen.


[i] H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Bread and Miracles,” Christian Century, July 5-12, 2000, vol. 117, no. 20, 715.

[ii] Karoline Lewis, John (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 83.

[iii] Lewis, 83.

[iv] Charles Hoffman, “More than Enough,” Christian Century, July 25, 2006, vol. 123, no. 15, 18.

[v] Lewis, 85.

[vi] Debie Thomas, “The Miracle of Gathering,” July 18, 2021, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2944 on July 22, 2021.

Sermon – Ezekiel 2.1-5, Mark 6.1-13, P9, YB, July 4, 2021

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Every Sunday, before we hear the scripture lessons appointed for the day, we pray what is called the “Collect of the Day.”  This prayer is written to summarize the themes found in the readings.  I like to think of the collect as a preview of what is to come in the readings, almost a decoder I can use to understand the lessons. 

That is why today’s collect is so confusing to me.  If you remember, we prayed, “O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord…”[i]  Even though this collect is not the appointed one for the Fourth of July, the collect’s themes are already heading in the right direction.  What other message might we want to hear on this Independence Day but to love our neighbor, be devoted to God with our whole heart, and be united to one another with pure affection? 

But our collect today is a bit of red herring.  Instead of lessons about loving neighbors and being united in affection, we get the prophet Ezekiel being sent out to the stubborn, rebellious people of God who refuse to listen to God’s word.  Meanwhile, Jesus and his teaching is being so rejected in his hometown he cannot even perform the same wonders he has just performed in other towns.  Into that rejection, Jesus sends out his disciples, warning them of similar potential experiences as they go out to preach repentance, cast out demons, and heal those who are sick.  They too will face rejection, and they are to keep going as Jesus does, shaking the dust off their feet as a testimony against the rejection.

Our temptation in reading these texts today is to place ourselves in the shoes of Ezekiel or the disciples who will be rejected by many and will have to righteously carry on with the work of discipleship.  But today, our seemingly counterintuitive collect is pointing us another way.  Perhaps, as scholar Rolf Jacobson suggests, we are not the disciples today – perhaps we are those rejecting the disciples and the prophets.[ii]  We are the ones rebelling against God, refusing to hear God’s prophets even though we are fully aware of their prophet status.  We are the ones hearing a new message from Jesus and rejecting the word because we do not trust the legitimacy of the messenger – either because of his questionable parentage or because we are just suspicious of new things in general.  And we are especially the ones who are getting dust shaken on our welcome mat because we do not accept the preaching of strangers, even if they are healing our neighbors. 

Any of us who has walked around Colonial Williamsburg and found the men standing on step stools and shouting about condemnation and judgment is feeling a little leery about the implications of today’s readings.  I know I steer clear of them and usually whisper to my children about why their words are not words we believe about Jesus.  If I am the one of those rejecting God’s word in scripture today, does that mean I need to stop and engage the street preachers?  Maybe.  But more importantly, I need to be asking the question, where am I being stubborn, judgmental, and dismissive to the new things God is doing among us?  Where am I so stuck in my ways that I am unable to love my neighbor and be united with my neighbor in pure affection – especially my neighbor who is trying to get me to think in new ways about the love of God or the movement of the Spirit?

On this Independence Day, we remember how our beloved Hickory Neck refused to see a new way and closed our doors once the British lost the Revolutionary War.  On this Independence Day, we recall the over one hundred years we could not imagine a new way and had our buildings used as a school or a hospital instead of hearing a prophetic word about how we could be the church in the New World.  On this Independence Day, we honor what this last year has taught us about our complicity with institutional racism and the invitation to be the Church in the new digital world.  This time around, we have been a bit less stubborn and dismissive and have been willing to hear the words of people with whom we disagree or who are different from us.  We have embraced the work of loving God and our neighbor and being united to one another in pure affection – even when the outside world would try to divide us.  Our invitation this Independence Day is to keep accepting the invitation to be a people of love, united in pure affection, as our witness to a celebrating nation.  Amen.


[i] BCP, 230.

[ii] This idea proposed by Rolf Jacobson in the podcast, “Sermon Brainwave #791: 6th Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 14B) – July 4, 2021,” as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/791-6th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-14b-july-4-2021 on July 3, 2021.

Sermon – Job 38.1-11, Mark 4.35-41, P7, YB, June 20, 2021

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One of the disadvantages of being flexible about baptism dates is we follow the Revised Common Lectionary – assigned readings for each Sunday.  Sometimes the lessons work out, but today’s lessons are a little strange when we think about what baptizing little Nelly means.  We enter the book of Job today toward the end, when after almost forty chapters of lamenting to God about Job’s suffering, God finally answers Job.  And God’s answer is one of indignation –anger that Job would dare question God’s sovereignty and power.  Meanwhile, in the gospel lesson, we have this odd interaction, where Jesus clearly performs a miracle, but then scolds the disciples for lacking faith.

The lessons from Job and Mark can be read with the lens of shame.  Often when I teach about Job, I use Job as a model for what having an authentic relationship with God means – to bear one’s hurts and pain honestly to God is part of being faithful.  But the response of Yahweh today is a response of putting Job in his place, lest he think intimacy with the Lord means equality with the Lord.  Meanwhile, amid a violent storm, the disciples are terrified and cry out to Jesus.  And although Jesus cares for their needs, he also scolds the disciples for their lack of faith.  As the ambassador of love, this version of Jesus can make us uncomfortable – Jesus seems harsh, unforgiving, and judgmental.

So are these lessons a bust for a day like today?  I do not really think so.  One of the things we do in the baptism service is promise to raise Nelly in the life of faith.  We commit to forming her in a faith community, to teaching her about the love and life of Jesus, and to equipping her to own her faith as she matures.  She cannot make these commitments for herself, and so we – her family, her godparents, and her church community – promise to help her until she can choose her faith for herself. 

Given that reality, Job suddenly seems like the perfect lesson for today.  When I think to the Nelly who will experience all the pressures and anxieties of adolescence, the Nelly who will face all the doubts and questions of young adulthood, and the Nelly who will walk through grief and loss in her later adulthood, I want her to know about Job and his journey with God.  I want her to know she has an ancestor who lost everything, whose friends and family judged him, and who saw no hope for a long time.  I also want her to know that she can be honest and real with God, and that God will be honest and real with her – even when she needs to hear things she does not want to hear.  And I want her to know there is redemption promised – something we all learn later in Job’s story.

And if we are going to raise Nelly up in the life of faith, I also want her to know about the very real relationship between the disciples and Jesus.  The story we read today takes place before the disciples fully know who Jesus is.  Their confusion and fear are totally normal, even if Jesus is encouraging them to have more faith.  I love this text for today because the story gives Nelly permission to not have all the answers, to know she will have moments of question and doubt, and to understand that even if she has moments where she has no faith or is afraid, Jesus will calm the waters around her anyway. 

Today’s lessons are a blessing for Nelly and for all of us gathered here.  Although we might like to think today is about perfect pictures and white dresses, what today is really about is taking the first step in helping Nelly begin her own faith journey.  Our scripture lessons remind us that the journey will be full of lows and highs, of pain and joy, of doubt and faithfulness.  Our scripture lessons remind us that what we initiate today is a deep, intimate relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – one that is honest and real.  And our scripture lessons remind us we are not alone – we have a community of faith to support us, help us grow, and encourage us forward.  I cannot think of a better gift for Nelly – but I especially cannot think of a better gift for all of us!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.