On the Sanctity of Life…

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Photo credit:  https://bigvalleygrace.org/life-is-sacred/

This past Sunday, I was assigned to be the preacher.  I had done my research and preparation, I had incorporated the theme from our stewardship campaign which would be culminating on Sunday, and I had finished the sermon by Saturday morning.  By that evening though, I found out there had been another mass shooting, this time at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.  This one was particularly heart-wrenching because it was at a place of worship, committed by someone who explicitly wanted to persecute people from the Jewish faith – my brothers and sisters.  So, on Saturday night, I had the age-old question of a preacher:  do I need to change my sermon?

Ultimately, I decided to mark the event liturgically with our prayers, but not address the incident in my sermon.  I could not preach about it because I was not ready.  Something about this incident hit me differently, but I could not yet articulate it.  And one of my homiletics professors always told me if you are going to preach something pastorally sensitive, make sure you have carefully constructed your sermons to pastorally address the issue.  And I just wasn’t there.

But in the days since the massacre, and after having a few conversations with parishioners about their frustration that I didn’t mention it, I am finally beginning to be able to articulate why this particular mass shooting is so upsetting.  The problem for me with this shooting was not that it occurred in a place of worship.  Despite the fact that I think those places are sacred places, gunmen and those with bombs have long desecrated houses of worship.  The problem for me was not that the shooting was anti-Semitically motivated.  Christians have long been complicit in anti-Semitism and if we are going to get upset about a shooter, we need to be equally upset about our own culpability in not rooting out that sin.  The problem for me is that this mass shooting was the final straw in helping me see that we as a country, and more importantly, we as a Church, have become complicit with the devaluing of all life – that same very life we claim to be made in God’s image, and created in goodness.

That accusation may feel harsh for you, as you are not likely a person who has ever committed violence with firearms on another person.  But until we as a society, and we as Church, decide that human life is sacred, these incidents will never stop.  The Oklahoma City Bombing happened weeks before I graduated from high school.  The Columbine High School massacre happened weeks before I graduated from college.  Essentially, for my entire adulthood, our country and our Church has not been willing to definitely say, “No, this is not who we will be.  We will make concrete changes so that this doesn’t happen again.”  And so it keeps happening.   At colleges, in schools, at workplaces, in homes, and in houses of worship.  To African-Americans, to immigrants, to the LGBTQ community, to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  To teachers protecting students, to police officers protecting innocents, to mothers protecting children.  Yes, I am outraged that eleven beautiful children of YHWH were murdered senselessly in their most sacred place of worship.  But I am also outraged that we as a people are unwilling to do something about it.  We are so scared of losing, of sacrificing, of giving up something that we do nothing.  We become complicit, unable to hear from a mother who lost her kindergartener and say, “This will not happen again.”  And so it does.  Again, and again, and again.  Because this is who we are.  In our unwillingness to change, we have become a country who does not value life, who does not stand up for what is sacred, who does not see God in every human being.

My dear readers, I implore you, please take this day or this week or this month to do better.  I know it is hard, and compromise is nearly impossible in our current political climate, and you deserve certain rights.  But when the Lord our God created us in God’s image, God said that it was very good.  Our job while on this earth is to protect that goodness – even if it means not winning, sacrificing, and giving up some things.  Because until we are willing to make a change – any change – this is our reality.  This is our America.  This is our norm.  I don’t want that.  And I suspect you don’t either.  So, crawl with me.  Creep with me.  Scratch with me to make our way back to that blessed place where we hold life as sacred, where we stand in the light with all our brothers and sisters and see the holy in each one of them, where we can look at another person, no matter what political views they have, and say, “it is very good.”  And then help us to live into that goodness.

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Sermon – Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Mark 10.46-52, P25, YB, October 28, 2018

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If ever there was a confluence of people not “getting it,” in holy scripture, today is that day of confluence.  First, we have the Job story.  Many of us are thrilled to hear the victorious ending of Job today.  After weeks of following Job’s story – from the fateful bargain between God and Satan, to Job’s suffering, to those around him cajoling him to give up on God – we finally arrive at the great redemption of Job.  But what I love most about this last chapter of Job is not what we heard, but the verses we skipped.  The verses we skipped are about Job’s friends, his friends who have tried and tried to tell Job what he has done wrong, what he needs to change, why all this bad stuff is happening to him.  In verses 7-9, God expresses God’s anger at Job’s friends, saying, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”  At least, the New Revised Standard Version translates the text that way.  But the original Hebrew does not say, “you have not spoken of me,” but “you have not spoken to me.”[i]  In other words, the friends of Job talked and talked to Job – but never to God.  They sat and mourned with Job, but when they opened their mouths, they did not open them in petition to God.  They just ran their mouths, spouting all sorts of unhelpful nonsense.

We could argue the same of the followers of Jesus.  They are faithfully following Jesus toward Jerusalem, presumably the innermost circle of Jesus’ followers.  When blind beggar Bartimaeus shouts out to Jesus, their immediate response is to shut him down.  We are not clear if they are embarrassed by this filthy beggar’s presumptuous cries, or they feel as if the beggar is breaking protocol for appropriate ways to seek healing, or they just think Jesus is above helping this person in need.  Regardless, their immediate reaction is to shut him down, push him aside, shush him into oblivion.  The crowd following Jesus assumes they knew better and they presume to speak for Jesus about when, how, and to whom God offers healing or blessing.  They never speak to Jesus himself.

The summer I spent as a hospital chaplain, I saw this sort of behavior all the time.  Hospitals can be places of deep despair and suffering.  The hospital can be the place where we face our mortality, where a diagnosis changes the course of our lives, or where decisions have to be made that no one ever wants to make.  In that thin place of life and death, all sorts of things are said, much of which is an attempt to make sense of things that do not make sense.  I cannot tell you the number of times a patient was blamed for their fate by a family member, a patient began to question their life choices, or a friend blamed God for the patient’s suffering.  When there was no medical solution, those who were suffering seemed to be looking for something or someone to blame.  Those were the times when devastatingly hurtful things were claimed or God was used as a weapon instead of a companion.

We could easily wag our fingers at the friends of Job or at the followers of Jesus or even those patients and family members in the hospital, saying in exasperation, “When will those people ever get it?!?”  We fancy ourselves as Jobs or Bartimaeuses.  But that is not where God is speaking to us today.  God sees us in the crowds today.  God sees us as we saddle up to friends, and instead of simply listening or affirming someone’s frustrations or sufferings, we offer explanations and answers, we think of hundreds of “if you just would do this” solutions, or we even act as judge, thinking of reasons why maybe they, in fact, deserve this suffering.  God sees us as we scold a panhandler or judge a family living in a motel.  God sees us when we judge someone’s addiction or mental health challenges as if they are not medical conditions.  God sees us secretly wonder about whether someone’s suffering is a result of “bad karma.”

This summer, in the days before General Convention started, the House of Bishops held a listening liturgy for victims of sexual abuse in the church.  The first-person accounts of twelve men and women were read by bishops.  Unlike most of General Convention, where one person after another makes impassioned, but time-limited speeches at a podium, this was an opportunity to simply listen, to let the painful words fall on those gathered, and to make space for painful truth.  The liturgy was made all the more powerful by having male and female bishops in purple clericals saying the words aloud – in essence, taking on the victim’s pain through their own voices, and ultimately, demonstrating the pain of individual victims belongs to the entire church.  Resolutions, covenants, and task forces would follow, but for that hour and a half, everyone stopped and sat in the ashes, not presuming to speak for God, not explaining the suffering away like the friends of Job, or not trying to stifle the voices of the suffering like the crowd around Jesus.

The counter example to the friends of Job and the crowds are Job and Bartimaeus.  Job could easily listen to his friends and turn his suffering inward, accepting his suffering is somehow his own fault or assuming his suffering is God’s way of casting Job out of favor and relationship.  But unlike Job’s friends, who God proclaims refuse to speak to God in the midst of suffering, Job does nothing but speak for about forty chapters.  Instead of abandoning his relationship with God as his friends do, Job does something different.  “In the midst of his dark night, he dares to tell the truth of his life to his Creator.  By lamenting, complaining, and shouting his discontent to the God he believes to be attacking him, he keeps his relationship with God alive.”[ii] As Biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor explains, “In the midst of his abyss, Job holds fast to God; he argues, yells, and acts up in courage and fidelity; Job clings to his dignity as a human, maintains his integrity, and sets it without qualification before God.”[iii]  Job understands that suffering is not an occasion to walk away from God, but to stay in brutally honest, painful, vulnerable conversation with God.

Bartimaeus seemed to embrace a similar relationship with Jesus.  When Bartimaeus needs healing, he shouts out to Jesus – an uncouth, ugly, socially unacceptable, raw cry to Jesus.  And when the crowd shushes him, he cries out even more loudly.  Where the crowd wanted boundaries around Bartimaeus’ relationship with Jesus, Bartimaeus understands that relationship means staying in conversation, calling God to account, demanding presence with God.

Now the fact that Job is restored to wealth and wholeness and Bartimaeus’ sight is restored is not really the point.  We could easily and cheaply want to say, “all you need to do is cry out to God and you get whatever you want.”  You and I both know from firsthand experience that that is not how God works.  As O’Connor explains, “It is not true that good things always come to good people, but it is true, as Job discovers, that new experience of life requires new ways of speaking to God.”[iv]  What we see today in scripture is a model of how to engage with God throughout all of life’s journeys – the joys, the sorrows, the celebrations, the suffering.  We are not promised a happy ending, but we are promised a transformed life when we stay in active, vulnerable, ugly conversation with God.

Today we are celebrating our blessing to belong to this faith community, and are offering our financial pledges to support the work and ministry of this place that has blessed us beyond measure.  But our invitation today from scripture is to also celebrate the way in which we belong to God.  For some of us, that invitation will be quite easy.  We may be in a place where our love for the Lord is abundant, and we can happily proclaim our love.  For others of us, that celebration may be more difficult, because, quite frankly, we are a bit angry with God, have lost trust in God, or are just trying to make it through this day.  Part of our responsibility as a community who is blessed to belong here at Hickory Neck is embracing each one of us here and wherever we are in that journey with God.  The blessing of this community is that no one here is going to be like the crowd or the friends of Job, telling you to get your relationship right with God.  But we will sit with you in your suffering and celebrate the transformation of your life in Christ.  Because we know part of being blessed to belong here at Hickory Neck means you will do the same for us someday.  And that is a community I want to belong to everyday!  Amen.

[i] Rolf Jacobson, “Sermon Brainwave #629 – Ordinary 30 (Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost),” October 20, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1068, as found on October 24, 2018.

[ii] Kathleen M. O’Connor “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 196.

[iii] O’Connor, 198.

[iv] O’Connor, 194.

On Being Blessed to Belong…

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Photo credit:  https://www.silversneakers.com/blog/activities-for-seniors/

A couple of Sundays ago, something magical happened at our 11:15 service.  As we transitioned from adult formation to setting up for our last service, every time I turned around, someone special had arrived.  First it was an older couple who have limited their driving.  Their daughter was in town and brought them to church.  You should have seen their faces light up as one parishioner after another rejoiced in seeing them back in church.  Then there was the graduate student who we see occasionally, but whose studies keep him super busy.  I was delighted to see him again, and I think he was delighted to be recognized and warmly greeted.  Then there was the couple who have both had health issues.  I noticed early into the service they had quietly sneaked into the back row of the church, and when our eyes met, we both lit up with smiles.  And none of that accounts for those who had returned after vacations, visiting family members of our Choral Scholars, and our regulars who were equally happy to experience the sense of reunion that Sunday.

That overwhelming sense of joy and reunion is at the heart of what has been our stewardship season this fall called, “Blessed to Belong.”  In a world that can feel stressful, isolating, challenging, or discouraging, having a place where you can experience blessing and belonging is a priceless gift.  That sense of belonging creates a sense of protection, comfort, encouragement, and hope.  That sense of belonging creates so much joy you want to share the joy with others.  That sense of belonging is one known through the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  Though belonging can connote exclusivity, instead, at church, belonging begets belonging.  The bubbling sense of delight we experience at Hickory Neck cannot help but be shared.

This Sunday, we will gather in our financial pledges for the 2019 budget year.  Even our ingathering is a festive demonstration of belonging, as the community organically rises from their seats and joins the throngs showing their commitment to the work and ministry of Hickory Neck.  The procession in our way of saying, “Yes, I want to belong here, and have my belonging mean something.”  I cannot wait to join you all as we shuffle our way to the altar, blessing our commitment to Christ and Christ’s church, and hugging each other along the way.  Oh Lord, I want to be in that number!  When the saints go marching in!

Homily – Mt. 11.25-30, St. Francis Feast, YB, October 21, 2018

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Photo credit:  http://thewildreed.blogspot.com/2007/10/st-francis-of-assisi-dancer-rebel.html

Today we honor the life of St. Francis of Assisi.  Francis is one of the most popular and admired saints of all time.  Most of us know the highlights of his story: born the son of a wealthy man in 1182; had a conversion experience and devoted his life to Lady Poverty; shaped monastic and lay devotion; was a friend to all God’s creatures – being known to have preached to the birds.  But the story I like most is the story about St. Francis and the Wolf.

According to legend, there was a wolf that was terrorizing a nearby town, killing and eating animals and people.  The villagers tried to fight back, but they too died at the jaws of the wolf.  Francis had pity on the people and went out to meet the wolf.  When Francis found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross, and said, “Come to me, Brother Wolf.  In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.”  The wolf calmly laid down at Francis’ feet.  Francis then went on to explain to the wolf how the wolf was terrorizing the people and other animals – all who were made in the image of God.  The wolf and Francis then made a pact that the wolf would no longer harm the town and the town would no longer try to hurt the wolf.  The two traveled into town to explain the pact they had formed.  The people were amazed as Francis and the wolf walked side-by-side into town.  Francis made the people pledge to feed the wolf and the wolf pledge not to harm anyone else.  From that day on, the wolf went door to door for food.  The wolf hurt no one and no one hurt the wolf; even the dogs did not bark at the wolf.[i]

What I love about this story of St. Francis is that the story is about reconciliation and relationship.  At the beginning of the story the town and the wolf are at an impasse – the wolf is hungry and getting attacked; the people are afraid and are lashing out.  What Francis does for both parties is shock them out of the comfortable.  For the wolf, no one has addressed the wolf kindly – they have either shut the wolf out or actively tried to kill the wolf.  For the people, the wolf has not asked for help – he has simply and violently taken what he needed and wanted.  Francis manages to shock the wolf first – not through violence or force, but with the power of love and blessing.  By giving a blessing in the name of God, Francis is then able to implore the wolf to reciprocate with love.  Francis also manages to shock the village – not with a violent victory, but with a humble display of forgiveness and trust.  By walking into town with a tamed wolf at his side, Francis is able to encourage the town to embrace, forgive, and care for the wolf.  Francis’ actions remind both parties that unless their relationships are reconciled, unrest and division will be the norm.

The funny thing about this story is that the story is pretty ridiculous.  I mean, how many of us go around talking to wild animals, blessing them with the sign of the cross, expecting anything other than being attacked?  We will never really know whether the story is true.  But like any good Biblical story, or even any good midrash, whether the story is true is hardly the point: the point is that the stories point toward “Truth” with a capital “T.”  What this story teaches is that peace and reconciliation only happen through meeting others where they are.  We cannot expect great change unless we are willing to get down in the trenches – to go out and meet that destructive wolf face-to-face.  The other thing this story teaches is relationships are at the heart of reconciliation.  Only when the wolf and the town began to get to know each other and began to form a relationship with one another could they move forward.

This is the way life is under Jesus Christ.  In our gospel lesson today, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  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.”  Jesus’ words have layered meaning.  The first meaning we all catch is that Jesus offers us rest and refreshment.  Jesus encourages us to come to him, to cast our burdens and cares upon him, and to take rest, to take Sabbath in Christ.  Our souls will find peace in Christ Jesus.  The second meaning is that peace in Christ Jesus is not without work.  Jesus does not say come unto me and relax forever in happy retirement.  Jesus says we will still have to take on a yoke – the burden of disciple living.  But luckily, that burden of being Christ’s disciple will not be burdensome – it will be light.  Finally, not only will Jesus make the workload “light,” as in not heavy:  Jesus will also make us “light” – as in lights that shine into the darkness and refuse to allow the shadow to overwhelm[ii]; as in lights that shine on this very Holy Hill where Hickory Neck rests.  We become the light when we work for reconciliation in our relationships with others.

That is why we do so many special things today.  Today, we ask for prayers and then exchange signs of peace – that God might help us reconcile the relationships in our life that need healing.  Today, at our 9:00 am service, we ask for blessing on our animals – that God might help our relationship with our pet be one of blessing and light.  Today, we come to Jesus for Sabbath rest – that God might renew us on this Sabbath day, use the rest to fill us with light, and renew our commitment to be agents of reconciliation, gladly putting on Christ’s yoke.  Amen.

[i] John Feister, “Stories about St. Francis and the Animals,” October 4,2005, as found at https://faith32.livejournal.com/61897.html on October 18, 2018.

[ii] Mel Williams, “Let it go…and rest” Faith and Leadership, July 6, 2014 as found at http://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/mel-williams-let-it-go%E2%80%A6and-rest  on October 18, 2018.

On Glimpses of Goodness…

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Photo credit:  https://bscomt.org/donate/community-fall-festival/

This weekend our parish is holding its Annual Fall Festival.  I look forward to the event every year because it showcases all the wonderful things about our parish.  All the proceeds of the Festival are used to support outreach ministries in our community.  The Festival is a great way for us to share our property with the community – from time for fellowship and yummy food, to fun activities for children and families, to vendors being able to display their wares, to being able to get an in-depth tour of our historic chapel.  Our “Attic Treasures” section is a wonderful example of being good stewards of creation – allowing one person’s underused items to find new life with someone else (plus all the unpurchased goods get donated to a local ministry).  Our “Amazin’ Grazin’” section allows neighbors to have access to home-baked goods – a privilege that is sometimes lost in this fast-paced, pre-packaged world of consumption.  Even our silent auction is a wonderful example of local businesses and individuals donating their services to benefit the great community.  And that does not even touch the volunteer labor that goes into this one day – both before, during, and after.

If you are paying attention on Saturday, you will learn that Hickory Neck is a community that cares.  We care about our neighbors in need.  We care about children and families, and creating safe, fun places for them.  We care about partnerships and collaboration in the greater Williamsburg area.  We care about the environment, and using our creativity to enrich the earth.  We care about creating a space where a sense of home can be found.  We care about using our time, talent, and treasure to the glory of God.  We care about you.

So, yes, I will be out and about enjoying a festivities of our Fall Festival.  But more than that, I will be thrilled to show you a glimpse into the awesome community of Hickory Neck.  Come join us as we celebrate belonging, believing, and becoming.  The treasure you leave with will be more than just what you purchase; it will be a sense that, for a moment, you are a part of Hickory Neck too.  And if you like how that feels, then come join us again on any given Sunday.  I promise you’ll see more of the same!

On Responding to the Gospel…

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Photo credit:  http://theconversation.com/giving-the-gift-of-giving-why-children-should-be-taught-philanthropy-13991

This past Sunday we had a visitor at church from out of town.  We were kicking of stewardship season, a time when we talk about our financial giving to the church in preparation for the financial pledges we make for the coming year.  The visitor was an Episcopalian, and no stranger to stewardship in the church.  As he departed he said, “That was a good sermon, by the way…you know, for a stewardship sermon.”

I laughed heartily, and appreciated his honesty.  I suspect he has heard many a stewardship sermon.  As I thought about his feedback, I realized how separate “stewardship season” can feel from other times – how you can pinpoint a stewardship sermon from a regular sermon.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized stewardship sermons should feel more like the norm than the exception of October every year.  Everything we do in church is tied to our financial giving.  Our financial giving is simply the “so what?” of every experience we have in church.

This month we are in the midst of stewardship parties, having engaging conversations about our experiences and dreams for Hickory Neck.  As a community, part of what we are hoping to help people realize is all that happens at Hickory Neck is tied to how we support our ministries with our treasure.  The dreams we have for the work God has given us to do need not only our time and talent – they need our treasure; and not just any treasure, but a treasure that says, “This community and this work is important to me – so important that I will put my resources back into our work to the glory of God.”

This Sunday, we have a fantastic guest preacher coming.  As I was preparing her for the services, I forewarned her that we would be in stewardship season, and she may want to consider that in her preparation.  She quickly responded, “Oh that’s okay.  Every sermon I preach is a stewardship sermon.  You can’t hear the Gospel without a response!”  I hope our guest preacher, our parties, our parishioner reflections, and the materials you have received are helping you consider how every week Jesus is asking for a response from you.  Our work this month is connecting our passion for this place with our financial support of this place.  I couldn’t be more excited to join you in that response!

Sermon – Mark 9.38-50, P21, YB, September 30, 2018

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This week we kickoff a season of stewardship called, “Blessed to Belong.”  You will be receiving packets of information as you leave today from our Stewardship Committee and you have also all been invited to a Stewardship party.  Several of those parties are coming up, but a few of us have already attended parties, and the conversations about belonging have been rich and engaging.  We are sharing stories of how we found a sense of belonging in this community, the ways in which our belonging here has blessed our lives, and the dreams we have to deepen those ties of belonging.  The conversations have already been life-giving to me, and I am looking forward to having those conversations with the rest of you.

But as I read our gospel text this week in preparation for today, I realized the text is pushing us a step further.  You see, when most of us talk about belonging to Hickory Neck, we often share our stories of personal belonging:  how we were welcomed, how we were cared for, and how our lives have become more blessed by this place.  That work is especially important as we think about our financial giving, because our sense of belonging impacts our giving.  We support the ministry of Hickory Neck because Hickory Neck is an important part of our lives.  We give generously because we have been generously blessed.  We increase our giving because we want that sense of belonging, identity, and purpose to continue for ourselves and generations to come.  We give out of a sense of personal investment, commitment, and benefit.

But our gospel lesson today challenges us to think about belonging in a way that is even bigger than us.  Often times, when we talk about our faith or our spiritual journey, we talk about our personal connection to Hickory Neck or to God:  how God has changed our lives, how Jesus has journeyed with us, how the Holy Spirit has led us out of dark places.  But our spiritual journey is not just about us – about our own personal walk with God.  Certainly our gospel lesson last week was about that.  Jesus called out the disciples for arguing about who was the best among them.  Our work this past week was about checking ourselves, making sure we do not become so self-focused that we forget what Jesus is trying to do through us.  Our work this past week has been about examining the self.

But this week, as the disciples journey on with Jesus, we realize the disciples have shifted from a self-centered mentality, to a group-centered mentality.  The disciples have basically shifted from wondering who among them will be the greatest disciple of all time, to how they as a group are the greatest community of disciples of all time.  The disciples discover an outsider casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  John proudly boasts to Jesus, “Don’t worry Jesus, we tried to stop him because he is not following us.”  In other words, this demon-caster did not belong to the inside group, or even follow behind the inside group, so he certainly could not proclaim to do anything in the name of Jesus.  He needs to belong to believe and to become.

I moved around a lot as a kid, and one of the things that I learned pretty quickly is that there are distinct groups, and belonging to one of them is a tricky endeavor.  There are the cool kids, whose belonging standards seem to be about fashion, looks, and behavior.  There are the smart kids, who are rarely confused as being fashionable, but whose knowledge can be intimidating.  There are the athletes, who have played more and with better teams than you can imagine.  There are the alternative kids, who seem define themselves as being the anti-all-the-other-groups group.   The list goes on and on.  What typically defines these groups is who is out:  who is not cool enough, smart enough, athletic enough, or anti-establishment enough.

The disciples are doing the exact same thing.  In a quest to gain importance, and in the face of Jesus’ rebuke last week, the disciples do more of the same.  They shift from arguing about who among them is the best to who outside of them should not be let inside the group.  The difference is subtle:  they are superficially following Jesus’ instruction to not compete for individual advancement, but they are totally disregarding Jesus’ point by seeking group superiority in the same way they were seeking individual superiority.

Jesus sighs deeply (or at least I imagine him doing so) and he tells them something simple, “whoever is not against us is for us.”  In other words, the disciples belong to Jesus and have incredible value.  But they are not the only ones who belong.  Even the guy who has no idea what he is doing but knows there is something special about this Jesus – so special he tries invoking his name – even that guy belongs to Jesus.  Jesus’ standards are pretty low – if you aren’t against him, you are for him.  Jesus casts a pretty wide net for belonging.  In fact, if we keep reading, we come to find out that even those who are against Jesus can be redeemed.  Look at Paul’s life and you can hear that old hymn coming back to you, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea…”  In Jesus’ eyes, there are few barriers to belonging – and even those can be broken down in time.

So what does this all mean for Hickory Neck and those warm, fuzzy feelings we have for this wonderful place and these beautiful people?  A few things.  The sense of belonging we feel here happens because generations of people have espoused Jesus’ words, “whoever is not against us is for us.”  This amazing community is amazing because people who belong here do not hoard their belonging or use their belonging as a weapon.  Instead, people give belonging away freely because they experienced belonging freely.  Just ask Bill Teale, and he will tell you how within weeks of joining Hickory Neck, he was considered “belonging” enough that he was given the position of chair of the Fall Festival – an event he had never attended!

The sense of belonging we feel is because we have adopted certain standards of behavior.  We are a community who will not get in your way because you do not have the right credentials; we know we may not have had the right credentials once upon a time, and we would rather hang that millstone around our necks that get in your way and in the way of something amazing God is going to do through you.  We are also a community that is working so hard on ourselves that we do not really judge your work; the hands, and eyes, and salt reserves we need to tend to ourselves teach us not to judge the challenges of your hands, eyes, or salt.  But instead of stopping at humility, we go the next step, and offer you a hand as you struggle with your own stuff.

The sense of belonging you feel here is because members of this community give generously from their abundance to ensure that this community continues to be a place of belonging to all those who are making their way to Jesus.  That is what today’s gospel lesson is really trying to teach us.  The wideness of God’s mercy and the broadness of God’s love are what inspire us to make this amazing community a community of belonging, believing, and becoming.  We invest our resources here because we learn here what that wideness and broadness feels like, and we want to be agents of expansion.  We want to step out of our tendencies to become self-centered or in-group-centered,[i] and create a community that is so wide that all feel a loving embrace when they walk through our doors.

In the coming weeks, I encourage you to pray about your own experiences in blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and how your own financial giving reflects that blessing.  I invite you to meditate on moments of blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and consider how your financial giving can create more of those moments.  I challenge you to talk to your Hickory Neck friends about their journey of blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and how your collective financial giving might grow that blessing.  This is our opportunity to widen the net of belonging, and grow Hickory Neck’s gifts to one another and the world.  Amen.

[i] Harry B. Adams, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 116.

On Sacred Listening…

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Photo credit:  https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/411697251/the-act-of-listening

Last week and this week, our curate is leading Hickory Neck in a forum on evangelism.  The work of the class is ultimately about sharing and listening to sacred stories.  True evangelism happens not when we tell people what they should believe or that they should come to church with us, but when we listen deeply to people’s stories and reflect where we see the sacred in those stories.

I realize this all may sound a little touchy-feely for many of us, but the truth is, even if you never called it “sacred storytelling and sacred listening,” you have likely experienced the phenomenon.  Think about the last time you encountered someone who was such a good listener you were pouring out your soul to them, without even actively choosing to do so.  Or recall those times when you have shared some of the heavy things on your heart and the listener pointed out where they saw God in the darkness in a way that lightened your entire perspective.  Those holy moments do not happen very often, but when they do, we feel a sense of transformation and the nearness of God.

That’s what evangelism is all about – not a manipulative way of coaxing out stories so that you can convert someone, but a willingness to stand in the fray with people (be it friend, neighbor, or stranger) and wait for God.  That kind of openness is a tremendous gift and privilege – to you, to the other, and to the world.

This past week, I have had the privilege of having lots of conversations – about faith, religion, children, church, and politics.  Some have been with church members, some have been with new acquaintances, and some have been with strangers.  And to a person, in every conversation, I find that I experience more blessing and renewed faith in our God than I even realized I needed.  This week, I invite you into those sacred storytelling and sacred listening opportunities, whether it’s with someone you know or someone you have never met.  I know that sounds scary, but you will be surprised how often someone is willing to share if they know someone is really listening.  If you are willing to accept the invitation, I suspect you will come to church on Sunday with a sense of renewal and restored faith.  I can’t wait to hear your stories!

Sermon – Mark 9.30-37, P20, YB, September 22, 2018

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This week I spent some time with a group I will be working with and we took what was called the DiSC assessment.  The assessment is a bit like other personality assessments, such as Myers-Briggs or Enneagram.  Basically, the assessment helps you understand your own way of relating within groups, how you analyze and solve problems, and how you lead.  What was interesting was I received the results of the assessment before we received a real description about how the survey works and what the survey teaches you.  Consequently, when I read my results, I began to get a bit paranoid, my mind filling with questions.  What would the group think about my strengths and challenges?  What if my personality type was a negative outlier?  What was the best type, and how far was I from that ideal?  But when we finally reviewed the entire group’s results, our instructor told us something that would have been helpful to know from the very beginning:  there was no correct answer, or preferable personality type; there was no particular category that produced the most leaders (in fact, we got a list of four worldwide business leaders who came from each of the four categories); and, most importantly, any group would be better with an equal amount of representatives from each of the four categories.

What I realized in my initial anxiety about my own results was that I had fallen into the same trap as the disciples in our text today.  Here they are, walking along with Jesus, watching him feed thousands of people, watching him as he is transfigured with Elijah and Moses appearing, healing people, and trying to teach them who he really is.  If you remember last week, Charlie talked to us about a shift that happens in the text where Mark stops telling us what Jesus does, and starts reflecting on who Jesus is.  When the visceral encounter between Jesus and Peter happens, where Jesus declares, “Get behind me, Satan,” instead of reflecting on who Jesus is, the disciples start bickering among themselves.  You can almost imagine their murmurings:  Peter is always so petulant – I always knew I was the greater disciple!; You’re the greatest?  No way, you weren’t even chosen to go up the mountain when we saw Elijah!; We all know that I’m the greatest – clearly I bring the financial support for all of Jesus’ shenanigans.  Clearly the disciples are jockeying what my children would call GOAT – Greatest of All Time.

The self-righteous part of us likes to criticize the disciples, seeing how self-centered they are being, especially at time when Jesus is trying to explain the critical future he is facing.  But when we are honest with ourselves, we can totally relate to the disciples’ competitiveness.  Our competitiveness starts when we are children:  who learns to walk, talk, and read first, who is the is the tallest in the class, or who loses their baby teeth first.  Later we compete for measurables:  who gets the best grades, who makes the team or gets a coveted position, who is elected for office in a club or organization.  And the competition only gets worse:  who makes the most money, who gets the most promotions, who gets recognized in the community the most for good works.  We are naturally competitive people.  Even the people who claim they are not competitive compete to be the least concerned about competition.  Competing for humility is still competing.

The truth is, there is nothing inherently wrong with competition.  In fact, competition usually brings out the best in us, pushing us to be the best versions of ourselves.  But when competition starts morphing into self-interest, self-promotion, and self-preservation over the well-being of others, that’s where we start getting into trouble.  When the disciples are so caught up about who is the GOAT among them – The Greatest of All Time – they are not pushing themselves to be a greater team for Jesus.  Their competition is about tearing down instead of building up.  They stop cheering for each other, and start cheering only for themselves.  Ultimately, their self-interest will end up hurting their selves rather than helping.

Jesus sees this weakness of course, and calls them out.  The text tells us the disciples are silent when Jesus says, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  You can hear the guilt in their silence.  They know immediately they were doing something hurtful, or they would have had no problem saying, “Oh we were just talking about who is the Greatest Disciple of All Time.”  But Jesus doesn’t want them to just feel guilty.  Instead he brings in a child, and says the one who welcomes in a child welcomes God; the one who welcomes children is the Greatest of All Time.

Now we have to understand how radical what Jesus is doing with this child.  Some of you may be sitting here thinking how right Jesus is, how adorable children are, how they say such simple, profound things, and how innocent they are.  Meanwhile others of you are envisioning the last epic tempter tantrum you saw and wondering if Jesus has lost his mind.  But Jesus is not talking about the behavior of children.  Jesus is talking about the status of children.  According to scholars, “Mark’s audience would have heard the world ‘child’ as referring to someone like the servant who served meals to everyone else in the household, in that both were seen as without ‘honor’ or high social standing.  A child did not contribute much of anything to the economic value of a household or community, and a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggles for prestige or influence,” and, now this is the important part, “one would obtain no benefit from according to a child the hospitality or rituals of higher status or someone whose favor one wanted to curry.”[i]  So when Jesus says in welcoming the child, you welcome God, he is saying honor and status and recognition comes not from trying to win the GOAT award, but instead trying to outdo one another in service, in kindness, in care for those who seem to be the least important.

Now Jesus is not trying to create another competition.  Lord knows we do not need the disciples bragging about volunteer hours or non-profit leadership roles or lives saved.  Jesus is not looking for competition, but mutual encouragement.  Jesus is looking not for achievements, but those times when we facilitated the achievements of others.  Jesus finds we are at our greatest when we are not worried about being our greatest at all.  Being a disciple of Jesus is dispositionally about the care of others.  Now that does not mean that we are trying to erase or shame the self.  Jesus just knows we learn to love ourselves, we find our greatest selves, when we are thinking of others first.  Somewhere deep inside ourselves, we know Jesus’ words are true.  How much joy do we get when we spend that extra hour with the kid who cannot catch a ball to save his life, only to finally watch him catch the ball?  How much joy do we get when we join the group cheering on a competitor in the Special Olympics?  How much joy do we get when we find out the woman who we ate dinner with at the Winter Shelter has found safe, stable housing?  God is not found when we achieve the most, obtain the most, and win the most.  God is found when we help others achieve, help them obtain their needs, and help them or the entire team win.

Today’s Gospel lesson is not a lesson about feeling guilty.  Jesus does not long for us to leave this place today in guilty silence.  Jesus is reminding us that as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we ascribe to a different kind of life – a life not devoid of our gifts and talents, but a life where we use our gifts and talents in the service of others.  Church is the place where we slowly, humbly can learn to hone our servant leadership.  And the work is just that:  slow and humble.  Learning to be a servant leader takes time, and mistakes, and corrections.  But learning to be servant leaders will also be one of the most rewarding things you will do here at Hickory Neck.  Soon you will learn the gifts that come from being a servant leader are way more soul-feeding than being a GOAT – Greatest of All Time.  What we learn is servant leadership is not just for our own good, or even for the good of the church.  Learning to be a servant leader is the gift that we then take out into world as our Christian witness.[ii]  When our servant leadership serves as our witness in the world, then others begin to understand your greatness comes from the one who was truly the Greatest of All Time.  Amen.

[i] Sharon H. Ringe, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 97.

[ii] Nathan G. Jennings, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 97.

On Finding and Sharing Joy…

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Photo credit:  Robin Razzino; permission required for reuse.

This past Sunday, I was ready to head off for church bright and early.  My younger daughter was still asleep, so I went in to her room to give her a kiss goodbye.  She stirred and very sleepily asked me, “Is today Sunday School?  And Children’s Chapel?”  I almost giggled that this was her first thought upon arousal from sleep.  When I told her, “Yes,” she would be going to Sunday School and Children’s Chapel, she groggily replied, “It’s going to be fun.”

As I have been thinking about my child’s simple question and sense of joy about church, I had two thoughts.  The first was, I am so happy to know that my child is finding joy, happiness, and fun at church.  As a parent, you hope your child will find as much joy in Jesus as you do, but you learn pretty quickly that every child is an individual with their own passions and sources of joy.  To see my child develop a love for church and the experiences she has there has been so thrilling.  And even more importantly to me (especially as a clergy person), I am so grateful that her positive church experiences are almost totally independent of me.  Other adults are guiding her faith journey.  The community is raising her up in the faith.  Our church family is helping her find joy in God that is all her own.  That reality is one that I have deeply desired for my own children, and I am so proud that my church is a place that does the same for so many other children and families.

The second thought I had about my daughter’s early morning pronouncement was that I want adults to have that same sense of anticipatory joy about church too.  Sometimes we struggle to get ourselves to church because our lives are so over-scheduled that church feels like just one more burden.  Sometimes we go to church out of habit, but go through the motions without much joy or food for our souls for the week.  What I long for is church to be a place that when we first awake on Sunday mornings we think of church and we think, “This is going to be fun!”  We can do that at Hickory Neck because we know we will see people who have given us so much joy in our spiritual journey.  We can do that at Hickory Neck because the worship, preaching, and learning will give us new insights and renewed energy and passion for God.  We can do that at Hickory Neck because we know, somewhere during the morning, we will encounter God – and it’s going to be awesome!

This past Sunday at our Rector’s Forum, someone asked about how we invite people to church, how we share the Good News with others.  Where we start is sharing those stories of how, when we wake up on Sundays, we think about Hickory Neck and think, “This is going to be fun.”  When you tell the story of how your church brings you joy, your countenance changes, your energy shifts, and your enthusiasm is contagious.  The only thing left for you to do is say, “Hey, you want to come with me next time?  It’s really fun!”