On Sacred Ground and Stories…

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Photo credit: https://gracechurchanderson.com/2017/09/holy-ground/

Last week, our parish kicked off a program called “Sacred Ground.”  The program comes out of the Episcopal Church and is meant to be a program to help Caucasians begin (or continue) to wrestle with the issue of racism.  As part of the introductory materials, Bishop Michael Curry retells Moses’ call narrative.  If you remember, God tells Moses to take off his shoes beside the burning bush because he is standing on holy ground.  Bishop Curry submits that the ground is holy not because of the fire but because it is the place where God tells God’s story.  Curry further suggests that anytime someone shares their story, we are standing on sacred ground with them.

As our group began to tell our stories, I began to realize perhaps this is why we are struggling as a country and community these days.  So often we assume we know people’s stories based on their political stances, their social media posts, or even our chitchat with them on a daily basis.  But every person has a story – a journey of joys and sorrows, a path of successes and failures, and a walk of pride and shame.  And until we make space to hear that story, we will judge, assume, and desecrate the holiness of others.

This week I came across a story of a project in Denmark called the Human Library.  People go to public libraries and instead of borrowing books they “borrow” people.  Each person is given a “title,” such as “Unemployed,” “Refugee,” or “Bipolar.”  When you borrow the person, you sit with them for thirty minutes and hear their story.  The idea is to break down prejudice through the power of story.

This week I invite you to reach out to someone you do not know much about – someone you only know superficially, someone different from you, or someone you already know will rub you the wrong way and ask if you can hear their story.  In this time of social distancing, maybe you start with projects like Humans of New York or StoryCorps.  But maybe you use a phone, FaceTime, or outdoor coffee as your method to connect with someone local.  Either way, this week I invite you to take off your shoes and stand on some holy ground with one another and your God.  Perhaps once we all have our shoes off, we will find ourselves walking much more tenderly with one another.

Sermon – Jonah 3.10-4.11, Matthew 20.1-16, P20, YA, September 20, 2020

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Today, we hear some of the most fabulous stories in scripture.  The first is one of my favorites – the complete and utter temper tantrum of Jonah.  Jonah, the “anti-prophet”[i] who runs from God’s call so vigorously he risks an entire boat’s crew, and is swallowed and regurgitated by a large fish before doing what God tells him to do.  He finally goes to Nineveh, preaching the shortest, most reluctant sermon ever, and when the people repent and God relents from punishment, Jonah loses his mind.  Maybe Jonah hoped that Nineveh, home of the Assyrians who have battled and ruined the Northern empire of Israel, would finally get what they deserve.  Instead they get God’s mercy and grace.  Jonah is angry because he loathes the very nature of God – the God who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Jonah only wants that kind of God for himself – not for his people’s mortal enemies.  Jonah is angry.  In his tempter-tantrum-throwing words, “Angry enough to die!”

The characters in Matthew are not much different.  After laboring in the fields all day, as various workers are brought in from the marketplace, even up until the last hour, the day laborers are distributed their pay.  When the landowner gives those who worked an hour the same as those who worked all day – even though technically, the longest working laborers received exactly what the landowner promised – a living wage that can feed their families – the longest working laborers cannot see and praise the landowner’s generosity toward others.  No, they grumble – a pastime of God’s people from the beginning of time.[ii]  Everyone wants a gracious God – until that grace is extended in ways that violate our precarious notions of justice.  The problem, as once scholar submits, is “Justice and grace cannot be reconciled with one another.”  And yet, “they are both part of the character of God.”[iii]

Now I would love to stand here with you today and patronize these characters.  But those kinds of sentiments let us off all too easily.  If we have not acknowledged our own Jonah-like temper tantrums or our grumbled against God’s gracious mercy in the last six months, we are not paying attention.  Everything about our nation’s conversations right now are about justice, mercy, and grace:  conversations about race and privilege; anger at foreign countries where not only a pandemic originated, but where economic policies are cutting us off at the ankles; an election that has us so polarized we no longer see the humanity in our political enemies; an economy where the rich are either getting richer or are tending to their own, especially when related to the education of their children, while the poor are simply praying to keep their jobs and their homes where their kids are struggling to learn; where the death of an iconic judicial leader has us not just grieving, but taking up arms about the process of electing the next Supreme Court Justice before we’ve even uttered the words, “Rest in Peace.”  The list goes on and on, and I am sure at some point in the last six months we have all been “angry enough to die.”

I understand our emotions are raw right now.  Lord knows, I think every person in my household burst into tears about something this week.  Even the notion of singing the psalmist’s words today feels impossible when we think of “the other.”  But we have to remember when we say, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,”[iv] those words are for us too.  As much as Jonah runs, deceives, puts others in danger, resists God, half-heartedly does his work, stomps away from God, shows his anger, God keeps pursuing him.  Over and over, despite Jonah’s not deserving, God is gracious with him, full of mercy and steadfast love.  And despite the longest laborers’ grumbling, God provides them with their daily needs.  In God’s question to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” are a host of modern-day questions, articulated by a scholar.  She asks, “Could it be any more obvious that we — all of us, every single one of us — are wholly dependent on each other for our survival and well-being?  That the future of Creation itself depends on human beings recognizing our fundamental interconnectedness, and acting in concert for the good of all?  That what’s “fair” for me isn’t good enough if it leaves you in the darkness to die?  That my sense of “justice” is not just if it mocks the tender, weeping heart of God?  That the vineyards of this world thrive only when everyone — everyone — has a place of dignity and purpose within them?  That the time for all selfish and stingy notions of fairness is over?”[v]

I know today’s lessons are hard.  But when we allow ourselves to be fully consumed by God’s grace, mercy, and abundantly steadfast love, our hearts soften a bit – maybe just a tiny sliver.  That sliver is God’s gift to you this week – the gift that will enable us all to see we are all in this together.  God needs me, you, us, and them – however you are defining “them” this week.  God is not asking us to roll over and stop fighting for justice.  But God is inviting us to remember each other’s humanity while doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.  Today’s lessons remind us we can – we can see with the eyes of God’s grace, mercy, and love because we have experienced that same grace, mercy, and love.  When we start seeing with God’s eyes, we will be empowered to find a way forward despite ourselves.  Thanks be to God.


[i] C. Davis Hankins, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 75.

[ii] Kathryn D. Blanchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 94.

[iii] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 97.

[iv] Psalm 145.8

[v] Debie Thomas, “On Fairness,” September 13, 2020, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?fbclid=IwAR1uTVaenGNYgJX-mpph8V_97k_S-kIWEbuuSMwkzJKLohX0XbYvuveEk9k on September 17, 2020.

On Grief, Fairies, and Grace…

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Photo credit: https://childrengrieve.org/resources/about-childhood-grief

A dear friend of mine once talked about the experience of a “grief fairy.”  This fairy was the metaphorical way she explained how grief was not a simple, linear process from tragic event through grief to wholeness.  Instead, she imagined grief as a fairy who would, out of nowhere, lighten upon your shoulder and all of a sudden you went from fine, or at least managing, to not fine at all.

In some ways, I feel like this pandemic has become the same way.  We have begun to convince ourselves that we had our chance to be sad in the first few months of the virus, or even in these last six months.  But by now we should be adjusted, used to the “new normal,” and ready to get moving.  All the markers are there:  Summer has pretty much ended; the children are back to school – if not in person, certainly online; some employers are expecting workers to return to the workplace; churches kicked off their program years – even if they were missing the normal parish parties and picnics; and things like elections are rapidly approaching.  For all intents and purposes, we should be putting on our game faces and getting back to “normal.”

The problem is nothing is truly normal.  And every time we run into anything abnormal, we are reminded of our grief over what has been lost during this time.  We have become quite good at coping, to be sure, but somehow, that fairy keeps landing on our shoulder, reminding us of our grief in big and small ways:  when the kid’s back to school photos are missing pictures of the school bus; when a visit to someone sick is either not allowed, or has enough restrictions that we do not even bother; when the church year begins, but we’re still watching online; when we go to run a quick errand and realize we left our mask at home.   

My prayer for all of us is that we be a bit gentler – with each other, but especially with ourselves.  If you are feeling frustrated about your inability to keep your game face on, take the game face off and let yourself acknowledge the grief still lingering among us.  If you are surprised by a sudden surge of feelings about something seemingly small, remember that grief during this time is not linear, and that the fairy will keep on visiting.  If you are feeling alone in your ability to keep it all together, lean into your faith community to remember God’s grace for all of us.  We are all in this together.  We will have days of strength and days of weakness.  But God is present in all of it, always holding out the light to get us through the darkness. 

Sermon – Matthew 18.21-35, Genesis 50.15-21, P19, YA, September 13, 2020

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Forgiveness is a funny thing.  Forgiveness is at the heart of our gospel proclamation.  We regularly talk about how Jesus the Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins.  We spend six whole weeks in Lent repenting of our sins, making the long journey toward Good Friday and the empty tomb, where our sins are forgiven.  We want to be forgiven.  We admire others’ displays of forgiveness – retelling stories of victims who should never have to forgive, but somehow valiantly do.  We sometimes condescendingly tell others they should forgive.  We even ardently require our children to accept apologies, without really explaining what forgiveness is.  But when we are facing an injustice, an injury, an event that pierces our heart when remembered, and we are told to forgive, our immediately response is, “Whoa, now!”

Perhaps that reaction is at the heart of Peter’s inquiry today.  The disciples and Jesus have been talking about reconciliation within the community of faith when someone has harmed another.  At the end of that conversation, Peter wisely asks, “Yeah, but how many times do I actually need to forgive someone.  Seven times should be plenty right?  That’s a good, holy number.”  And Jesus says, “Seventy-seven times,” or as some translators say, seventy times seven.[i]  Whichever number we use, Jesus is not just setting some higher number to track; Jesus is saying forgiveness must be offered constantly, in an ongoing way.

The problem when we talk about forgiveness is we can think of endless examples of things that should be unforgiveable.  In our news streams this week, we saw conversations about institutional racism, stemming from the centuries-long practice of slavery in our country; we remembered the horror of September 11th and the thousands of people who died, were traumatized by, or whose health was permanently impacted by that event; we saw cases of abuse by spouses or those in positions of power.  And that is just on the meta-level.  In truth, even on the micro-level, we struggle.  We struggle with those instances where someone hurt us personally – the breaking of our trust or the hurtful things said and done by friends, family, or even strangers.  When we need to be the agents of forgiveness, somehow our gilded concept of forgiveness begins to crack.

Part of the problem is our definition of forgiveness.  When we talk about forgiveness, we forget to talk about what forgiveness is not.  Debie Thomas does an amazing job of walking us through what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not denial:  pretending an offense does not matter, the wound does not hurt, we should just forget, or our merciful God cannot be angered or grieved.  Forgiveness is not a detour or shortcut:  forgiveness cannot be offered without repentance, discipline, and confession – there is no grace without the cross.  Forgiveness is also not synonymous with healing or reconciliation:  healing can take a long time and sometimes reconciliation is not possible – in this way, forgiveness is a beginning, not the end.  Finally, forgiveness is not quick and easy:  forgiveness is a non-linear, messy process, that takes time.[ii]

When we let down our defensiveness about forgiveness, we can see those same lessons in Holy Scripture today.  In our Old Testament lesson, Joseph’s brothers come to him after their father’s death, fearing Joseph will finally enact justified revenge for them selling him into slavery.  Now, Joseph has already forgiven the brothers before his father’s death – and is explicit about his forgiveness.  But the brothers know what we just talked about – forgiveness is not quick and easy.  They fear Joseph’s forgiveness has limits.  And in our Gospel lesson, when Jesus uses a parable to talk to Peter about forgiving seventy times seven, he does not tell a story about someone forgiving again and again.  Instead he tells the story of a man forgiven an unimaginable debt – one he could never have paid off in his lifetime, who then refuses to show forgiveness to another in a much smaller, manageable debt.  The parable highlights how forgiveness is not denial – how God is merciful, but can still be angered by our actions.

As one scholar reminds us, “Forgiveness is hard, really hard.  But the good news is that where God calls, God also equips.  God gives us in Christ the gift of forgiveness and helps us to share that gift with others.  And in doing so, God opens doors that are shut.  God opens a future that is shut.  By forgiving those who have sinned against us, we do not allow the past to dictate our future.  Forgiveness breaks the chains of anger and bitterness and frees us to live new lives.”[iii]  The hard work of forgiveness is no joke.  Forgiveness takes time, is hard, and is a winding path.  But the cross of Christ enables us to keep going, enables us claim love – not a love that relativizes evil or negates the justice that is also of God – but a love that can transform both the oppressor and the oppressed – can heal both us and them.  And Jesus tells us today that despite the fact forgiveness is hard, forgiveness is also work we can do through him.  Thanks be to God.


[i] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 69.

[ii] Debie Thomas, “Unpacking Forgiveness,” September 6, 2020, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?fbclid=IwAR1uTVaenGNYgJX-mpph8V_97k_S-kIWEbuuSMwkzJKLohX0XbYvuveEk9k on September 11, 2020.

[iii] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Forgiveness is at the Core,” Setpember 6, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5454 on September 11, 2020.

On Humanity, Anxiety, and God’s Love…

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Photo credit: https://www.coloradodepressioncenter.org/new-anxiety-program-resource/stress-anxiety-emotion-fear-wooden/

This week has been the week I have been dreading for months:  back to school.  Initially I was dreading it because we had no idea what would happen – whether school would be virtual or some hybrid of virtual and in-person.  Then, I was anxious about how to actually help a first grader and sixth grader do virtual school at the same time – all while working myself.  Because this would all be new, I felt like I was staring into a black hole of knowledge, with no way to know what to really expect.  On the one hand, not knowing meant I had no choice but to, “Let go, and let God.”  On the other hand, I’m really terrible at letting go.

Our first day finally arrived yesterday, and some of the anxieties I had felt were founded.  The first few hours were spent dashing up and down the stairs of our home, juggling one child on the second floor and the other on the first floor, or tag-teaming with my spouse.  Fortunately, the two girls started school an hour apart, so I could manage the stress of one child at a time.  However, there were moments when Zoom meetings started at the same time – and some of those times were times when the technology was just not working.  Knowing full well that calm can produce more calm, I put on my “Zen face.”  But on the inside, I kept thinking there was no way this would be sustainable.

But by midday, both girls had found a rhythm.  The elder was especially becoming more independent and her usual confident self, and the younger quickly learned how to go with the flow, finding educational things to fill empty holes, and navigate new systems.  I was even able to find ways to squeeze in my own work throughout the day, do a livestream set of prayers, and catch up on pastoral care calls.  Despite the initial chaos, the day went so well, I felt confident we could do this!

Throughout the day, images and verses from scripture kept popping up in my mind:  Jesus asking Peter why he doubted while walking across water; Jesus reminding us how if the flowers of the field and the birds of the air are cared for, how much more are we loved and valued; or angels at the tomb telling Mary Magdalene and the other women not to be afraid.  Time and time again in scripture, we hear the refrain, “Do not be afraid.”  We hear that phrase not because we should try to become perfect, anxiety-free humans.  We hear that phrase because anxiety is normal – but so is God’s love and care for us.  I do not know what anxieties you are holding today, but my hope is you can remember God’s abundant love and care for you – whether you hear those words from God, whether you feel that in your heart through the Spirit, or whether a friend, family member, or a stranger is God’s messenger of hope to you today.  Wherever the reassurance comes from, do not be afraid – you are loved and cared for – and you’ve got this!!

On God, Scripture, and Politics…

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This week, our church will finish our summer 90-Day Bible Reading Challenge.  At the beginning of the summer, I wanted to find something we could do as a community.  I was also aware the Bible was being used as a prop and as a symbol for certain political opinions.  I figured if Hickory Neck is helping form faithful disciples who can participate fully in civic life, we should know what is in the Bible – all of it!  And so, we began a reading journey.

The days and nights were long.  Twelve pages a day does not sound like much, but for anyone who got behind (or who like me, is still behind), we learned that twelve daily pages of biblical text was no simple feat.  We journeyed through fun, familiar stories, we drudged through laws and genealogies, we read stories that were repeated in other books.  We asked questions, we struggled with cultural differences, and we found some surprises.  We realized the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) comprises two-thirds of the Bible.  We fell in love with new books, laughed, and found modern parallels to life today.

This summer, I realized the gift of the 90-Day Bible Challenge was not just a reading journey – it was a journey into deeper relationship with God.  The Challenge did not allow us to dive deeply into our questions, particular stories, or even cultural issues.  Instead, the Challenge reminded us of who God is – a loving, forgiving, graceful God, whose commitment to covenantal relationship with God’s people is of utmost importance – even when we fail to be faithful over and over and over again.  In fact, watching the people God fail so many times helps us understand the tremendous depth of God’s love for us.  And seeing that overarching covenantal relationship from God’s perspective inspires in us a desire to reflect that abundant, forgiving, graceful love out in the world.

Thank you, Hickory Neck, for reminding me why the Bible is not a book that is to collect dust on the shelf or to only be consumed in small pieces during Sunday services, but a collection of books that speaks powerfully to this time – in ways that cannot be coopted by political agendas of the day, but whose witness of love does have powerful political consequences.  I am grateful for the reading journey that became a journey into deeper relationship with God and with neighbor.

Sermon – Matthew 16.21-28, P17, YA, August 30, 2020

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I have to tell you, I have been dreading this gospel text all week.  We are in a season of life that feels completely out of our control:  whether we direct our attention to the looming presidential election in just ten weeks, the fires and hurricanes bearing down on our neighbors, the impending start of a new school year – whose daily schedule is still unclear, or the ever pervasive global pandemic and the way the pandemic has disrupted our physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial lives.  Even planning this year’s church calendar with our Vestry this past month felt like a game of pin the tail on the donkey – as we tried to guess where our lives would be in two, four, or even six months.

As experts in living an out-of-control life, we can totally understand Peter’s actions in our gospel lesson today.  An impending sense of doom and the anxiety-provoking lack of control lead Peter to rebuke Jesus, declaring vehemently that Jesus must never experience the great suffering and death Jesus predicts for himself.  Peter, who literally two verses before this text is praised for his bold proclamation of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, is severely scolded by Jesus.  “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus yells.  Peter, who has just been called the rock on which Jesus would build his Church, is now a stumbling block, getting in the way of Christ’s mission.  We understand Peter’s actions though.  When Peter declares Jesus the Messiah, he means a triumphal, redeeming Messiah, not one heading to death.  Peter’s Messiah is not supposed to behave this way, and Peter will not stand idly by and let his Messiah self-destruct.

Our tendency is to look at Peter and shake our heads.  Poor Peter – always getting things wrong:  sinking in the water when walking to Jesus, misunderstanding what Messiahship means, getting confused at the Transfiguration, insisting he will never abandon Jesus at the end.  But we have to be really careful with Peter because Peter is not that much different than each of us.  We have all had those instances where we rebuked God for one reason or another.  We too have faced hurricane forecasts and have rebuked God.  As we have watched our political life crumble, we have rebuked God.  As colleges close, mandated technology gets delayed two weeks after school starts, and school schedules are still unknown, we have rebuked God.  As friends are infected, lose jobs, or die from the pandemic, we have rebuked God.  Like Peter, we too have yelled out, “God forbid it!”  We have seen the darkness and pain looming ahead and have desired with every inch of our being to stop the suffering.

And yet, suffering is what Jesus predicts for all of us.  Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Jesus’s words make us very uncomfortable and confuse our notions of a loving, grace-filled God who beckons us to come to God when we are weary.  We hear these words about suffering, recalling all of the pain in our lives – the loss, the heartache, the loneliness – and we cannot imagine that God plans for us to suffer in these ways.  Predestined suffering does not fit our understanding of who God is.  And yet, here we are with Jesus’ words today.

What helps me with this text is to go back to Peter.  What is interesting about Peter’s rebuking of Jesus is that he seems to rebuke all of what Jesus says without actually listening to all of what Jesus says.  Jesus says he, “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Peter hears the suffering and the killing part and seems to totally miss the part about being raised on the third day.  If Peter had been listening, he would have heard the good news imbedded in Jesus’ words.  He would have heard the promise of resurrection, the promise of everlasting life, the promise of resurrection life for all of us.  Yes, the road will be dark and painful – maybe even unbearable – but there is goodness at the end of that road.  God’s promise of salvation, of resurrection on the third day, is good news for Peter.  Suddenly Jesus’ scolding of Peter seems much more justified.

The invitation for us today the same:  to listen.  Listen to the entirety of what Christ is saying to us.  If we get lost in the words about suffering and death, then we become like Peter.  Now I am not arguing Jesus is encouraging us to go recklessly surfing in this hurricane of life.  Instead, Jesus is inviting us into a life that matters – a life lived not inwardly guarding our own comfort, but a life that lets go of control, not worrying about the cost for self, but a life that is poured out for others.  We can enter into that ambiguous place because God promises us that even if our lives end in the process, God has more life in store for us.  Jesus’ invitation to take up our crosses is not an invitation into death, but an invitation into life.[i]  This week, boldly take up your cross; knowing that on the third day, Christ will be raised.  Resurrection life awaits!  Amen.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 80.

On Wrestling with Healing…

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This summer, my parish is participating in a 90-Day Bible Reading Challenge.  It’s been a powerful journey and companion during this pandemic time.  One of the lessons we have already learned this summer is reading the Bible at a rapid pace is different than in-depth Bible Study.  You tend to get the big picture of God and the people of faith, see patterns more easily, and catch things by reading the books in order as opposed to hearing snippets, like we do on Sundays.

As we have been reading through Matthew, something caught my attention this time.  From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he is constantly healing people.  Not just one or two famous stories we may remember, but constantly healing, sometimes healing whole crowds of sick people.  In chapter ten, when Jesus sends out his twelve disciples, he doesn’t tell them to teach people or preach the gospel.  He gives them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.  Jesus also does a lot of teaching in Matthew, but I was surprised to remember how ubiquitous Jesus’ healing ministry is.

Reading Matthew’s Gospel in a rapid, big-picture way, I have been reminded how much Jesus’ healing ministry makes me a bit uncomfortable.  I am generally comfortable with preaching and teaching, but, as one of Jesus’ disciples, healing is not a power I would ever claim.  Additionally, as modern readers, I think healing and miracles are one of those things that lead to all sorts of questions.  Does Jesus really heal people?  When we think of healing, do we soften the words, making the healing more figurative than literal?  If Jesus heals all those people in his time, what do we do with all the people who are not healed in our time, especially as we face a worldwide pandemic?  Shouldn’t healing just be limited to medical professionals and those gifted with the charism of healing, as opposed to all of us as followers of Christ?

Here’s what I do know.  The healing Jesus does allows individuals to reenter communal life, fully participating in the community, and being restored as an equal.  Also, the healing Jesus does clears the way for those individuals to do good with their lives, not only helping others, but also showing others the way to Christ.  As I think about those who are suffering in our communities, part of the healing that is needed is the healing that will restore them to full participation in life – eliminating poverty, hunger, homelessness, and discrimination of any kind.  Making health care, childcare, affordable food, and affordable housing accessible to all.  We may not have the vocation of physical or mental healing, but we all have the vocation of healing our society, respecting the dignity of every human being, and striving for justice and peace among all people.  Perhaps when Jesus sent out those disciples to heal, they all healed others in the ways they knew how.  But they all went out to heal.  We can go and do likewise – healing this world that needs healing so much!

Sermon – Matthew 15.10-28, P15, YA, August 16, 2020

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If you joined us last Sunday, or saw the archived video of church, you know we talked about how Elijah spent a lot of time talking at God instead of listening to God.  In the cave, wind, earthquake, and fire passed by, but only in the sound of sheer silence could Elijah hear God.  What’s funny is today’s Gospel seems to say the complete opposite.  Instead of the Canaanite woman needing to be silent to hear God, her persistent talking to Jesus is what seems to be the instruction of the gospel.  So, either Holy Scripture has completely lost her mind, your preacher is highly confused (or did not look ahead), or something else is going on here.

Taking a closer look at the texts might help.  You see, when Elijah keeps talking and talking, Elijah has turned in on himself, is wallowing in fear, and cannot see out of his desperation.  And instead of looking to God for relief, he gets caught up in blaming others, self-pity, and an inflated sense of ego.  The Canaanite woman is completely different.  She is an outsider on every level – she’s from Tyre and Sidon – regions who are oppressing the Israelites; historically, she a Canaanite, the land Joshua conquered with the Israelites; she is a Gentile, who does not worship God and is not a part of God’s redemptive plan; she is not only a woman, but also an unnamed woman, with lower social status, whose daughter is unclean and tormented by a demon; and she is not just talking to a man in public, but shouting and making a scene.  Despite all the things that societally should keep her from pursuing Jesus, and despite the ways Jesus ignores her and insults her, she will not stop talking until she gets a blessing.  And in this instance, Jesus rewards her persistent talking.

So what is happening?  Why is Elijah’s persistence shut down, and the Canaanite woman’s persistence encouraged?  Here is the real difference between Elijah and the Canaanite woman.  Elijah looks at his life and sees scarcity.  The Canaanite woman looks at her life and sees abundance.  Now, we would need about an hour to talk about the dialogue between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, because I have a lot to say about Jesus’ behavior.  But since we are limited today, I want to shift our focus on the woman.  You see, despite the fact Jesus ignores her, and despite the fact Jesus seems to think Israelite election means Gentiles are excluded from his attention, this woman sees abundance in Israel’s election for all.  “While mercy may begin with Israel, she knows [that mercy] cannot end there, because of the very nature of Israel’s God.  [That mercy] overflows to others in the house – even to the ‘the dogs’.”[i]  And so she keeps talking, violates boundaries set up because of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and demon possession.[ii]  Unlike last week when Jesus says Peter is of little faith, this woman’s persistence leads Jesus to say, “Great is your faith!”  Elijah and the Canaanite woman both are looking at a bleak situation.  But whereas Elijah sees scarcity, the Canaanite sees abundance – and she is willing to talk, to verbally engage God until God allows justice and unrestrained abundance.

So, which is the way?  Are we to be silent and humble before our God, or are we to keep coming at God until God’s mercy overflows?  The answer is, “it’s complicated.” Truthfully, the differences between Elijah and the Canaanite woman say more about the individuals than they say about God.  What happens to each character is the same:  when Elijah is able to stand in the sheer silence of God, Elijah slowly sees the abundance God has already provided for Elijah;  when the Canaanite woman persists with Jesus, the abundance she identifies is provided for her.  Either way, the answer is the same – God’s love and mercy is overflowing, obliterates manmade boundaries of ethnicity, faith, gender, and power, and can transform the world.

Our invitation this week is to ponder our own place in God’s story.  Maybe we are Elijahs who are going to need some TLC and some humbled silence to experience God’s abundance.  Maybe we are Canaanite women who need to shout from the mountaintop for justice and grace to experience God’s abundance.  Or maybe we will experience God’s abundance another way – through the stranger, the innocence of a child, or an intentional relationship with someone many may see as an enemy.  But the invitation is not just to consider where you are in God’s story.  The invitation is to acknowledge where you are in God’s story, and consider what you will do when you finally come to terms with God’s abundant mercy and love all around you.  That is where your story begins.  Amen.

[i] Iwan Russell-Jones, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 360.

[ii] Jae Won Lee, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 361.

Sermon – 1 Kings 19.9-18, P14, YA, August 9, 2020

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Today’s sermon is offered as the height of irony.  The art of preaching is based on the spoken word.  Fortunately for you, we are Episcopalians, so our sermons are usually under fifteen minutes – and in the times of livestreaming, we shorten them down to less than ten.  In other traditions, the spoken word of the sermon can last thirty minutes to an hour.  In fact, I used to worship at a church where scheduling lunches after worship was nearly impossible because depending on how much the preacher got going, lunch could be a noon, at one, or even approaching two in the afternoon.

I say this is the height of irony because our scripture lessons today seem to point to one instruction:  to stop talking.  Poor Elijah has sunken into a funk.  He shuts down the prophets of Baal in a dramatic, showy display of confidence and trust in God.  But as soon as Queen Jezebel threatens to retaliate by taking Elijah’s life, Elijah flees and becomes so despondent in the wilderness, he would rather the Lord take his life.  Though God shows infinite compassion, tending to Elijah’s needs for food and shelter, when Elijah dejectedly goes all the way to Mt. Sinai, God finally asks a loaded question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah’s response is to start talking – a lot.  He goes on and on, justifying what a great prophet and servant he has been, how he has defended God’s honor, and punished sinners.  Then he complains about how despite his valiant work, his life is threatened, and he is the only one left defending God.

As if to demonstrate how Elijah needs to stop talking and start listening, God makes a dramatic point.  A great wind passes by Elijah’s cave, then an earthquake, and even a fire.  But not until there is the sound of sheer silence does God appear.  Once again, God, in the sound of sheer silence asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Now this is the point at which Elijah should have gotten the hint:  answers are not in the noise of wind, earthquakes, and fire – not even in endless talking.  Answers are found in the profound silence of God.  But Elijah does not get the hint, and proceeds to answer God with the exact same verbose explanation.

With the exception of those who live in religious orders, most of us struggle with the sheer silence of God.  Our prayers to God are full of words – petitions for loved ones, diatribes of lament over our fractured political state, or words of anger at God when we feel abandoned, anxious, or overwhelmed.  Even our own liturgical tradition is rooted in words.  We are quite good at talking to God.  Our challenge is not in finding words; our challenge in relationship with God is in not using words – in making room for the sound of sheer silence.  Anyone who has been to a Taizé worship service knows that in the long periods of silence – three to five minutes even – the first couple of minutes are filled with the shuffling discomfort of those gathered.  In our resistance to silence is a resistance to God:  perhaps a fear that we will not be able to hear God, or worse, a fear of what we will hear from God.

Professor Christopher Davis says, “One of the hardest lessons we have to learn is that God is in the quiet, the gentle influences that are ever around us, working with us, for us, and on us, without any visible or audible indicators of activity.  We must learn to listen for the God who is quiet and gentle.”[i]  In Elijah’s story, God makes this point dramatically – offering some of the loudest acts of nature to contrast the sound of sheer silence.  Now the good news is God does not see Elijah’s inability to stop talking as justification to abandon Elijah.  In fact, not only does God quietly tell Elijah he is not alone – there are still seven thousand in Israel who are as faithful as Elijah.  But God also provides a solution for Elijah – kings and a prophetic successor, Elisha, who will take up the mantle when Elijah can no longer keep going.

The promise is the same for us.  Even if we are unable to stop talking at God – Lord knows in the middle of this pandemic, with what feels like the world crumbling around us, we have a lot to say to God.  Our invitation though, is to take a pause, maybe even a deep breath, and listen for the sound of sheer silence.  In that silence, God is finally able to speak to us, showing us the signs of encouragement all around us, pointing us to signs of God’s faithfulness in what can feel like abandonment, and helping us physically turn to God when our bodies are much more trained to stay in tense resistance in some attempt to control the chaos all around us.  This week, the Lord reminds us that we cannot always talk our way out of the cacophony of life.  Sometimes only the sheer silence of God’s presence can speak to us.  When God asks us this week, “what are you doing here?” our invitation is not to justify ourselves with words, but to ponder anew with God in the silence.  Whether we speak or manage to stay silent, God is there:  but today, God offers us the gentle reminder that we will find hearing God a whole lot easier if we can simply stand with God in the sheer sound of silence.  Amen.

 

[i] Christopher Davis, “Commentary on 1 Kings 19:9-18,” August 9, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4556 on August 7, 2020.