Discovering Home…

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Photo credit:  John Rothnie, http://www.hickoryneck.org

When my husband and I were engaged, we relocated to Delaware.  One of the first things on our priority list was finding a church home – partly because we missed church back in North Carolina, but also because we were hoping to make some new friends in our new town.  “Church shopping” was hard – nothing felt quite right, and our old standbys were not working.  I was born and raised in the United Methodist Church, and my husband had nominally been raised in the Presbyterian Church.  After months of frustration, and the recommendation of a friend, we tentatively tried out the Cathedral in Delaware.  My husband was sold on the first Sunday; I took some time to come around.  For a long time, I thought that we were just United Methodists who happened to worship in an Episcopal Church.  But what I did not realize was that a transformation was taking place – I was discovering the Church home I didn’t know I was missing.

Every person who walks in the door of a church has a similar story.  Sometimes a person is what we call a “cradle Episcopalian” – born, raised, and stayed in the Episcopal Church.  Sometimes a couple or family is looking for a compromise in faith traditions.  Sometimes people leave their denomination out of frustration and are looking for something that feels closer to the Gospel as they experience it.  And sometimes a person has never before stepped a foot in a church.  That’s part of the beauty of the Episcopal Church – our members come from a diverse set of experiences, all of which feed our mutual ministry.

That is why we are kicking off a class called “Discovery Class” this week at Hickory Neck.  Whether you are new to Hickory Neck, the Episcopal Church, or you have been around forever, I find it is always helpful to review our roots.  No matter how many times I teach this class, I find that people learn something new, feel inspired to deepen their faith, or find themselves reenergized about their Episcopal identity.  The class also gives us a chance to reflect on and celebrate the unique way that our Episcopal identity is incarnate at Hickory Neck.

I hope you will take some time this week to reflect on your own spiritual journey.  Think back to the times when you felt inspired, fed, and reinvigorated in your faith.  Recall the way you felt when you knew, or suspected, that your current faith community began to feel like a spiritual home.  And if you cannot join us at Hickory Neck, share some of those stories with your neighbors – and invite them into the wonderful work Jesus is doing in your church home!

Sermon – Luke 16.1-13, P20, YC, September 18, 2016

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Often when we talk about Jesus, we marvel at his parables, and we encourage each other to follow his teachings.  We ask questions like, “What would Jesus do?” as if the answers are obvious.  We describe Jesus as illuminating God, helping us to understand God in an incarnate way.  We even say that all things necessary for salvation are found in Holy Scripture.  And for the most part, all of those things are true – until we get to today’s parable.  Most of us listen to the lesson for today and can only say, “Wait….what?”

Here’s the problem.  Unlike many of Jesus’ parables and sayings, most of us come away from this one completely confused.  Jesus starts off simply enough.  A rich man has a manger, or steward, and the manager is accused of squandering the master’s property.  The master threatens to fire the manager, and so the manager goes off and talks to all the debtors of his master.  Knowing he is about to be fired, the steward strikes deals with the debtors, decreasing their debts, in the hopes of making some friends who will feel indebted to him and may take him in once he is fired.  But what happens next is where the parable gets confusing.  When the master finds out what the steward has done, instead of being angry, he commends the manager for being shrewd.  And to top off this odd response, Jesus completes this whole parable with an instruction that all of us should be like the shrewd manager, making friends by means of dishonest wealth.  Jesus concludes the story by telling us that no one can serve God and wealth.

Confused yet?  You are in good company!  Even most scholars disagree about what the parable is trying to do.  Though we all might understand the part about our loyalties being torn between God and money, the parable hardly helps us get there.  The manager is a schemer – he is about to be fired because he has mismanaged things.  But instead of righting the situation with his master, he confesses that he is both lazy and proud.  He sneakily makes deals with the master’s debtors in the hopes that the debtors will see him as an ally and will help take care of him when he is fired.  But what is most confusing about the whole story is that Jesus says we should go and do likewise.

What might be helpful in getting our heads around Jesus’ strange parable is to understand the economics of “Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century.  Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law.  The rich man … along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.”  Wealthy landlords of the day would hide interest charges in the money owed by the peasants.  According to scholars, someone like the wealthy steward could be charging the average peasant anywhere from 25-50% for the landlord, an additional cut for the himself, and then a Roman tax on top of all that.[i]

Now before we get too self-righteous about the injustice of the Roman economic system, we have to remember the economic system we operate under today.  Think about modern college students, who not only attend colleges with soaring tuitions, but also are being offered student loans with higher interest rates that ever before.  Add on top of that a weak economy and you see our young people being buried under unfair debt.  Or think about predatory payday loans.  Those scraping by to make ends meet start slipping behind.  Bills are due and they do not have enough to make ends meet, so they get lured in by the immediacy of a pay-day loan.  But by the time all is said and done, they lose more of their paychecks to the interest charged by loan sharks than if they had just kept their money.  And just in case we think we can get away with blaming student loan and payday lenders, we cannot forget our own country’s lending policies with impoverished countries.  Leaders of third world countries agree to harshly austere loans we make, but the poor of the country end up bearing the brunt of the burden.  In fact, “the Lutheran World Federation calls oppressive debt terms imposed on Honduras and other Latin American countries ‘illegitimate debt’ and likens such debt itself to ‘violence,’ because of its crushing effects on people’s futures.”[ii]  Though we may not have everyday contact with stewards or managers, their economic system is more familiar than we may realize.

What is unclear about the steward’s actions is how he is able to forgive some of the debtors’ debts.  In forgiving the debts of the debtors, the manager may have been forgiving his own cut of the interest being charged.  In that way, his actions seem a bit more noble.  Obviously, he is cutting out his own salary, but he is doing so in a way that seems to, at least outwardly, condemn the system.  Or, the steward could have been eliminating all the hidden and prohibited interest in the contracts.[iii]  This would have been a bolder move, as he would have been denying the master his typical amount due.  But because he is enforcing Jewish laws around interest, he would have ingratiated himself to the local Jewish peasants.   This is why the steward may receive commendations from the landlord and Jesus – not because he is noble per se, but because he manipulates the unjust system to curry favor with his neighbors – the very ones who might lend him a hand when he is fired for doing something supposedly just.[iv]  Whatever the self-interest of the steward is, what he is able to do, and perhaps why his master calls him shrewd, is use an unjust system against itself.  Just or not, the steward is able to see that the power of mutuality, of relationship, is the better bedfellow than the unjust economic system of the day.

One of my favorite classes in college was a class called “Social Dance.”  We spent the semester learning the Fox Trot, Waltz, Tango, Cha-Cha, and Swing.  My class happened to have more men than women, so I never had to sit out a dance.  I just switched from partner to partner, trying to adjust as each lead learned the steps.  There were many hard lessons in that class, not least of which was learning how to let the man lead.  But the hardest lesson was learning that no matter what dance we were doing, and no matter how intertwined our bodies were, my frame was a vital component to the dance.  Even in a dance like the Tango, where bodies seem to be intertwined, each partner is holding on to their frame, protecting their space.   I was fascinated to see how two bodies could function in such unison, looking like one unit, and yet, be two differentiated, separate units.

As I studied our gospel lesson this week, I wondered if Jesus’ lesson about wealth is not unlike a couple dancing the Tango.  Living in the world that we do, there is no way for us to escape the dancing partner of wealth.  Given that wealth has the power to corrupt, we will always need to keep our frame in place – keeping the dance going in unison, but never letting ourselves forget to be differentiated from dishonest wealth.  Though the steward seems unseemly and self-interested, he shows us an intricate tango with wealth – how to manipulate wealth so that wealth only hurts itself, not those most in need.

The way that we keep that firm frame is by being in relationship – by making friends as Jesus tells us.[v]  When we invest in friendships (not just friendships with people we like, but kingdom friendships[vi] – the kind of relationships that are unexpected, but feed us more than any wealth can), then wealth begins to lose its power to weaken our frame.  Kingdom friendships are those friendships with people at church or in the world with whom you thought you would never have anything in common.  Kingdom friendships are those relationships you develop with those who are different – either socioeconomically, racially, or ethnically.   Kingdom friendships are those relationships that develop when you realize that despite the fact that you are trying to help someone else, they are actually helping you.  The steward may have made kingdom friendships out self-interest, but the results are the same.  He realizes once he sees the humanity in those he is oppressing – once he makes kingdom friendships, the wealth he is pursuing no longer matters.  That is what Jesus invites us into today – that is how Jesus knows that we can hold onto our frame when dealing with the master of wealth.  Jesus invites us to nurture our kingdom friendships because when we nurture those friendships, we strengthen our sense of self, ensuring our frame never slips in our tango with wealth.  Amen.

[i] Barbara Rossing, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13,” September 18, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2982 on September 14, 2016.

[ii] Rossing.

[iii] Rossing.

[iv] G. Penny Nixon, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 95.

[v] David Lose, “Pentecost 18C:  Wealth and Relationships,” September 14, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/09/pentecost-18-c-wealth-and-relationships/ on September 15, 2016.

[vi] Thomas Long, “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 30, no. 4, Pentecost 2007, 57.

On Collars, Conversations, and Confessions…

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Last week, I stopped by a local doughnut shop to pick up treats for some of our church volunteers.  The staff needed to make a fresh pot of coffee, so I had to wait by the counter.  After a couple of minutes, the woman who had been helping me approached me and said, “Okay, settle a bet for us.  Are you a nun or a pastor?”

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Photo credit:  https://blackandwhiteandlivingincolor.com/2014/01/16/coffeehouse-musings-why-i-wear-my-anglican-collar-sometimes/

I get questions about my collar all the time.  Most people are not as courageous and will simply stare – usually with a furrowed brow of confusion.  Others will only confess that they always wondered what that “thing” was I wore when we finally get around to talking about our jobs.  Sometimes people will ask if the Roman Catholic Church started ordaining women (trust me – you would know if they had!).  Of course, my favorite experiences have been when I have been both in a collar and pregnant.  That really confuses people!

Once I finally confessed I was a “pastor” to the doughnut shop, one of the women working the drive-through said, “Oh good!  Can you pray for us?”  We had a great conversation after that, and I promised to keep them in my prayers for the rest of the day as I departed.  But as I left, I realized two things.  First, being a priest in my community is a tremendous blessing.  It allows me to have deep, intimate conversations with people a lot more quickly than you would with most strangers.  It allows me to not only be a pastor with my own parishioners, but everywhere I go in my collar.  It allows me to stretch the reach of the Church beyond the walls of our church.

But what I also realized when I left that shop is that talking about the need for prayer probably would not have happened had I not had on my collar.  I am constantly inviting my parishioners to have faith conversations outside the context of our community, but that day I realized how challenging that invitation can be.  A clergy collar is like an automatic ice breaker – it is an invitation for you to say, “Oh good!  Can you pray for us?!?”  But how do we break the ice without such tools?  How can I let the grocery clerk, the delivery man, or the construction worker know that I want to pray for them too – even when I am in my sweats?  How do we get beyond the perfunctory greetings and start having real conversations?  This week, I invite us all to consider how we might start such a journey toward authentic, meaningful conversations about the intersection of our individual journeys and the presence of Christ in our lives.  Know that I will be praying for us both as we figure it out!

Sermon – Luke 15.1-10, Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, P19, YC, September 11, 2016

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I remember that day like it was months ago, not years ago.  I was driving into work, and caught the story right as I was about to exit the car.  A plane had crashed into one of the twin towers.  I rushed inside to find a radio, and my boss and I spent the day listening to the story unfold.  That night, I got the first glimpse of the destruction on television, and the visual was worse than listening to radio updates.  When the first tower fell, and then the second, the wind rushed out of me as I watched the wind rush out of those buildings.  Life lost inside, life being forced away from the wreckage, chaos and rubble left in the wake.  An eerie silence fell upon us as we watched in horror.

In Genesis 1, the narrator tells us that God forms the earth out of the formless void – tohu wa-vohu, in the Hebrew.  Out of nothingness and chaos, God forms order – separating the watery chaos from the earth, dividing the day from the night, bringing vegetation, beasts, and humans to life.  God takes chaos and creates order.  But on that day fifteen years ago, many of us felt like the opposite happened.  All of our order, routine, and compartmentalizing exploded into havoc.  Two-hundred and twenty stories of order were thrown into disorder – which does not even take into account the madness of destroyed winding hallways in the Pentagon and the decision of victims to crash into their own deaths rather than allow terrorists to use their plane for more destruction.  That day, we felt thrown back into a formless void, unsure of what end was up, and what had happened to our world.

I would like to say all is back to normal now – that after fifteen years, we or God managed to bring order back to the earth.  But all one has to do is look at the news and the state of our planet and governments around the world and feel like we are still in the formless void of post-9-11.  That is what makes the reading from Jeremiah so unsettling today.  As a foil to Genesis 1, Jeremiah 4 describes the earth as waste and void – the same word tohu wa-vohu found in Genesis.[i]  Jeremiah says that a hot, destructive wind[ii] blows and the earth becomes a mess – there is no light, the mountains quake, the people and birds of the air are gone, the fruitful land becomes a desert, and cities’ lay in ruin.  Jeremiah goes on to say something even more jarring – that the people are foolish and stupid.

Now, I imagine you may be sitting here today thinking, “This is supposed to be a celebratory day, and I managed to invite a friend to church.  Can you find us some joy, preacher?!?”  Don’t worry – we will get there.  I am happy to name where hope is today, but before we get to hope we have to go with Jeremiah into that desolate place.  You see, for those of us who know hope and joy, we know we do not arrive there on a straight path.  With the exception perhaps of children who have not begun to sense the depth of our depravity, most of us have been through the barren land Jeremiah sees coming.  Perhaps we only saw that formless void in the midst of a national tragedy, but perhaps we found that nothingness in the face of death, divorce, or debt.  Perhaps the destructive wind blew through our lives when violence, illness, or loneliness overwhelmed us.  We do not need to live in this world too long before we know exactly what that barren land looks and feels like.  There is probably even a scar left behind, or a metaphorical box we keep so that the watery chaos does not drown us.

But here is the weird part.  Only when we claim those times in our lives of tohu wa-vohu, those moments when the world is a formless void, can we experience the fullest heights of hope and joy.  Jeremiah calls the people nasty names today not because they are bad people or because they are not smart.  He calls them those nasty names because they have failed to remember gratefully and loyally who created them.  They have begun to live as if there is no hope, no grace.[iii]  And that is why we come to church.  To not let the formless voids of life overcome us, but to surround ourselves with a group of people who will remind us that there is still reason and room for hope.  We eagerly gather in church because we want to be reminded that our God graciously, lovingly, and mercifully blows a creative air into our nothingness and creates again and again.

That is why we celebrate on this day that could otherwise be a day of overwhelming sadness.  We celebrate today because Jesus tells us two parables that remind us why we are a people of hope.  These parables of being lost are why we gather with laughter and smiles today.  These parables are why we host a party later this afternoon – because we want to mirror the joy that God has over lost coins and sheep.

So how do we turn ourselves from the depths of sadness to the rejoicing of a heavenly party?  We need to do some work first.  Because the parable of the Prodigal Son follows these two short parables in Luke, we sometimes jump ahead and want to conclude, “All we need to do is repent, and the Lord will be happy.”[iv]  But today we only get these two short parables, and for that we are quite lucky.  Here’s the thing:  sheep and coins cannot repent.  They do not have the capacity to understand their own sinfulness.  They do not even have the capacity to act.  The funny thing about sheep who are lost is that they do not go around bleating for help.  They know that such noise might attract a predator.   Instead, they crouch behind a bush or other cover, and try to become invisible – paralyzed by the fear of being consumed in addition to being lost.[v]  Likewise, coins have no agency.  They cannot shout from under the couch cushion, “Over here by the crumbs!!”  Those being found cannot cause God to find them.  Nothing we do can earn us being found by God.  Being found, as always, is a gift from our loving God – who is the kind of God who will always seek us, ever search for us, even when searching for us may seem like a lost cause.  And on top of that, when those who are lost are found, the party that ensues is lavish, extravagant, and a taste of the heavenly banquet, as the heavens rejoice with God.

When I was growing up, money was often tight.  Though my parents rarely talked about our finances, I could tell the financial strain made them anxious.  As an adult, my father finally explained how they got by in scarce times.  A box of produce would show up on our doorstep on a day my dad was wondering what we eat that night.  A large bill would be sitting on the table and in our mailbox he would fine an envelope of cash – sometimes with a note that said, “thinking of you,” but sometimes without even a name.  Now, I am not saying that our family’s experience was the best financial planning model, but what our experience taught us is that sometimes you have no control over the good that happens in your life.  Sometimes you do not even have a person to thank.  Regardless, whatever blessing, whatever good comes our way, what Jesus invites us to do today is to be people who celebrate the God who, sometimes completely illogically, searches us out and finds us – and then throws a party when we are found.

When I realized we would be kicking off our program year on the same day as the fifteenth anniversary of September 11th, I was overcome with dread, wondering if maybe I could just ignore the anniversary and turn our hearts toward celebration.  But our scripture today made me realize that celebration – true, deep, heart-rending celebration – can only happen when we understand the depths of our indebtedness toward our gracious God.  Once we understand that debt, then we can celebrate with grateful hearts.  I am thrilled to be embarking on a new program year with Hickory Neck and look forward to all that this year brings.  But that sense of excitement is especially deep because I know the depths of the formless void – the chaos from which we were created and back into which we sometimes slide.  Having seen the barren land that we sometimes create, I can only be even more filled with gratitude that our God is a God who scours every corner to find the coin She has lost.  Today is a day for sobriety – but that sobriety also leads us to a celebration of the heart:  a lavish party with the heavenly host.  I am grateful to be a part of a faith community that invites me to be a person of abiding hope.  Amen.

[i] Anathea Portier-Young, “Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28,” September 11, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2973 on September 7, 2016.

[ii] George W. Ramsey, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 51.

[iii] Dwight M. Lundgren, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 53.

[iv] Karoline Lewis, “Lost and Found,” September 4, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post= 4708 on September 7, 2017.

[v] Helen Montgomery DeBevoise, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 70.

Working Together to Make it Work

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multigenerational

Photo credit:  https://www.indacoriskadvisors.com

Every year our family vacations at a place called, “Memorial House,” in Rehoboth Beach.  The house is owned by the Diocese of Delaware and is an 11-bedroom home used for retreats, meetings, and, in the summer, for family and church vacations.  Each family or individual has a private room, but the dining and living area is shared.  Each day in the summer, a full, hot breakfast and dinner is served buffet-style, and enjoyed at shared tables with the other guests.

This year, our family vacationed with another family with two children.  Joining us were a family with adult children, older couples, and some retired singles.  Our four children were the only children this year, making our eight-person dinner table the most raucous.  I lost count on how many tablecloths we changed, and the broom was never far from hand.  The other mom and I worried a bit that we might be disturbing what could have been a perfectly peaceful vacation for the others.

Luckily, I had two encounters that told a different story.  The first was with a grandmother who talked to us as we were preparing lunches.  She joked with us about how much work she saw us doing.  She confessed that she had already spent one week this summer at the beach with her own family – including children and grandchildren.  But she had done so much work that week that she decided to come to Memorial House so she could have an “actual vacation”!  Another grandmother talked to me at the end of our week.  She pulled me aside and said, “You know, I had forgotten how much work I did as a young mom.  You guys are doing a great job!”

What Memorial House does is a little like what Church does, when Church is at its best.  You see, Church is one of the few places that multiple generations gather to worship, learn, and grow together.  When the Church is at its best, grandmothers distract an inconsolable child when a mom or dad is at her or his wits end.  When Church is at its best, a retiree is teaching children his favorite Bible Stories in dramatic and fun ways.  When Church is at its best, youth know adults who might give them the same answers as their parents, but the youth can hear it better from someone else.  When Church is at its best, we are a multigenerational family, welcoming those from all walks of life, making sure we are all fed, nurtured, and empowered to go out into the world to witness the love of Christ.  This week, I am especially grateful for that gift!

Sermon – Jeremiah 1.4-10, P16, YC, August 21, 2016

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“What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I have lost count of how many times we have asked that question to our oldest daughter.  The answer varies widely depending on what phase she is in or what they have been talking about in school.  I confess that there have been times when I was disappointed when she changed her mind – “author and illustrator” was my favorite, though “engineer” was a pretty good one recently.  But my all-time favorite conversation about what she wanted to be when she grew up was actually a conversation about priesthood.  I asked her my typical question, “So have you decided what you want to be when you grow up?”  She replied thoughtfully, “I can’t decide.  There are too many options.”  Sympathetically I said, “I totally understand.  It took me years to decide what I wanted to be.”  And without a beat, she replied, with disgust, “And you decided to become a priest?!?”

The thing is, I do not think my daughter’s reaction is all that different than most people.  Very few people ever imagine themselves being ordained.  The vocation seems too foreign, to require some mysterious amount of holiness, or to just be too weird.  All of that makes sense to me – not everyone feels called to the priesthood.  But too often acknowledging we do not want to be a priest means that we stop using “call” language altogether.  Instead of being able to talk about what we feel called to do in life, we instead talk about what we want to be when we grow up.  A calling, a ministry, or even a vocation is something that clergy people do, not what we all do.

At least, that is what the secular world would have us believe.  The church says something a bit different.  Throughout our liturgies and Prayer Book, we talk about the ministry of all people.  Our Catechism defines the ministers of the Church as lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.  The Catechism further states that the ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.”[i]  In the baptismal covenant, we all promise to proclaim, by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace.  Now some of you may argue that you do those things – just not as your daily work.  You are happy to be involved in church, but you do not see your life as a student, a secular worker, or a retiree as a vocation.

And stories like the one we hear in Jeremiah do not help us in this distinction.  You see, we hear Jeremiah’s call today like we hear the call of most prophets – and rightly so, since Jeremiah is so similar to other prophets.  Like Moses, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, Jeremiah balks at the idea that God may be calling him to do something.  Jeremiah protests that he is too young.  Similarly, Moses tried to argue he was unskilled, Isaiah that he was unworthy, and Ezekiel that he did not know what to say.[ii]  When God calls people to do big things, they often push back and seek an out.  In most cases, their fear is legitimate.  Being a prophet is often a thankless job – which can certainly lead to suffering, if not death.  But invariably, God reassures the person being called.  In Jeremiah’s case, God tells Jeremiah that he was born for this job.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

All of that sounds nice. In fact, many of us love this verse from scripture because the verse gives us a sense of comfort, belonging, and affirmation – a sense that we are all known by God.[iii]  But what we forget is that in knowing Jeremiah so deeply, God also knows that Jeremiah will have to do a really hard job.  The touchy-feely part of the text starts to wane when we hear the part about being a prophet – especially a prophet who will need to fear others.  But here’s the real problem with Jeremiah’s call:  we do not think God similarly calls us.  Not even all priests see themselves as prophets.  Prophets, priests, deacons – those are jobs that other people do.  Those are not jobs we do.  We go to school everyday.  We are teachers, financial consultants, government workers, stay-at-home parents, or journalists.  We are retired and are done with the “job” part of our lives.  We hear stories like the call narratives of Jeremiah, Moses, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, and we can keep ourselves at a safe distance because those are the jobs that those people do.

But remember that catechism and baptismal covenant?  The truth is we are all called to something.  We all have a vocation.  That calling or vocation may be our jobs or what we do every day.  We may live out our vocation as a student when we stand up to a bully, play with the new kid who seems lonely, or help tutor the troublemaker clearly needs help.  We live out our vocations at work when we advocate for justice for our coworkers, when we offer an ear to a coworker who is struggling, or when we organize a volunteer day for our company.  We live out our vocations as retirees when we volunteer at the local homeless shelter, when we treat with dignity the workers we encounter who provide us services, and when we use our time to advocate for the poor.

But vocation is sometimes found outside of those typical confines.  Sometimes living into our vocation means calling that person who has been on our minds – only to discover how much they needed a word of encouragement.  Sometimes living into our vocation means helping the mom in front of us in the grocery store line who is clearly juggling children, groceries, and dealing with a cashier who has never handled food stamps or WIC benefits.  Sometimes living into our vocation means praising and giving thanks to a preschool teacher who just got chewed out by a parent who thinks their child is just fine (when you suspect the child is actually really hard for the teacher to manage).

This fall, we will be starting up an adult education series called Discovery Class.  The class is for newcomers and members alike, who want to learn more about our Episcopal Identity, the work of Hickory Neck, and how we can connect to a ministry.  In the final session, participants will take a survey to help us discern how our gifts might best tie in with a ministry at Hickory Neck.  The survey is a great resource because sometimes teachers are the best matches for Sunday School and Youth Group leadership.  But sometimes, best matches for Sunday School and Youth Group are retirees who have been around the block and get how hard the teenage years are.  Likewise, someone may have been may have been in construction or administration during their career, but really want to learn how to arrange flowers with the Flower Guild, or play with babies in the nursery.  Though many of us have vocations and callings out in the world, sometimes the church is another place where our vocations and callings feed us and others.

So if we are willing to agree that we all have a calling or vocation, recognizing that some vocations can change and evolve over time, how do we know if we are living into our calling?  The true test of a vocation might be something like this:  whatever in your life is the most intimidating, daunting, or even terrifying task (be it teaching teenagers, asking for money for church, or praying in front of a group), and yet, when you try doing that task gives you an odd sense of deep satisfaction and meaning, is probably your vocation.  Prophets would not go kicking and screaming if being a prophet was easy.  And yet, prophets would not say yes without the assurance that God is with them, empowering them to be God’s agents.[iv]

This fall, I hope we will all prayerfully consider what ministry God is calling us to do.  Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, …The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”[v]  Though Church is certainly meant to give us comfort and encouragement each week, Church is also the place that strengthens us and sends us out into the world to do the work Christ has given us to do.  One of my favorite church signs looked simple enough from the road – with the name of the church emblazed on front, as you drove into the parking lot.  But on the backside, as you were leaving church each week, the sign had a separate message.  The sign read, “Go in Peace to Love and Serve the Lord.”  That is our dismissal this and every week – to not just consume Church, but to use Church as our foundation to go out into the world to love and serve.  And our response is, as always, “Thanks be to God!”  Amen.

[i][i] BCP, 855.

[ii] Bruce C. Birch, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 367.

[iii] John t. DeBevoise, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 364.

[iv] Thomas R. Steagald, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 366, 368.

[v] Ephesians 4.1, 11-13.

Making it Work…

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Millennial-marriage

Photo credit:  marriage.about.com/od/proposingbeingengaged/

This month, my husband and I celebrated fifteen years of marriage.  Now I know fifteen may not seem like a big deal to some – it is certainly not 25, 50, or even the 64 years that one of the couples at church is celebrating this month.  But having worked with couples in premarital counseling for several years now, having worked with couples who were struggling with the strains marriage can bring, and having talked with couples who have had failed marriages, I know that marriage is not simply a gift.  Marriage is not just something that happens.  Marriage is something you work at, that you choose everyday (even on the days you would rather not), that is constantly tested, and that needs tending and loving care.  While wedding days are lovely, they are only the first day of many days that you will have to return to the commitment you made to make it work.

That being said, marriage is also a tremendous blessing.  It can be the place where you learn about the depths of love; your capacity for forgiveness (in part, because you are forgiven so often); where you can find the most honest, if not brutal, truth; where you can laugh more deeply than you ever have because that person knows what really produces a belly laugh; where you experience affirming, life-giving sexual pleasure; and where you find abiding companionship.  When we got married fifteen years ago, I was not entirely sure how things would go.  My own parents had gotten divorced just three years before our marriage began, and part of me wondered whether marriage could be done successfully.  I am so glad I made the leap anyway because marriage has brought joys (and challenges) that I never could have imagined.

I do not often talk about marriage because I work with a variety of people in all walks of life:  people who want to be married but have not found a partner, people who have lost their spouse to death, people who are divorced or who feel like the marriage is on the brink of failure, people who had abusive spouses, and people, who until very recently, were not allowed to be legally married.  At times, I have considered having a Valentine’s Day reaffirmation of vows celebration, as I have seen in other parishes, but shied away because I did not want anyone to think I was being insensitive to those for whom marriage is difficult.

All of that being said, my hope today is not to highlight how blissfully easy and wonderful marriage is.  Simply put, my hope is to honor how each day of marriage can be both a blessing and a challenge – and to thank God for the strength, wisdom, humility, and grace my husband and I have been given to get this far.  I pray for continued strength, wisdom, humility, and grace, as I pray for each of you on your various journeys in partnered, single, and dating life.  In the marriage liturgy of the Episcopal Church, we offer this petition at weddings.  Today, I leave it for my husband and I and all of you doing the work of marriage:  Grant that all married persons who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed. Amen.  (BCP, 430)

 

 

Sermon – Luke 12.49-56, P15, YC, August 14, 2016

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I grew up in a house without conflict.  No one ever fought, no one ever yelled, and certainly, no one ever hit.  There may have been disagreements, but they were quickly resolved and our house was restored to peace.  Given that was my experience growing up, I assumed all family handled conflict in hushed, quiet ways.  But then I visited a friend who taught me differently.  I was staying with her family for a few days, and on a car ride to dinner, her mother and father started arguing and were quickly yelling at each other in the front seat.  My eyes bulged and my whole body tensed up.  I immediately thought, “This is the most horrible thing I have ever seen!”  I surreptitiously glanced at my friend to see if she was equally horrified, but she just sat there like it was an everyday occurrence.  But even more strange than the fight was how the family acted later.  There was a bit of quiet after the yelling, but by the time we stopped for dinner, everyone was back to normal.  I, however, could not manage to release the tension in my body, and my mind was racing.  Are they okay?  Is this normal?  Will it happen again?  How do I act now?

I remember after that visit feeling relieved and almost proud.  Clearly my family had the better conflict management system.  Clearly we were more in control of our emotions and cared for each other with tenderness and love.  I let myself believe that lie until my parent’s divorce.  My entire world view about conflict and family and love came apart.  Suddenly my quiet house was not simply quiet.  My quiet house was a conflict avoidant house.  The lack of yelling in my house was not simply a lack of yelling, but was a stuffing of hurt and pain for the sake of pretend peace.  Now, do not get me wrong.  I am not suggested that you all go home and yell at your loved ones.  What I am saying is that no matter what your experience of conflict has been – avoidance, dramatic confrontation, reasoned discussion through disagreement – we have all experienced conflict in our family.

All that is to say that nothing Jesus says about families should be shocking today.  Most of us like the loving, caring, gentle Jesus the best.  We like Jesus being hailed as the Prince of Peace, not hearing Jesus say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”[i]  That is not the version of Jesus we come to hear about on Sundays.  That is not the version of Jesus we want to read about when our best friend is mad at us, our brother won’t talk to us, or our spouse is thinking about leaving.  That is not the version of Jesus we want the preacher talking about on the Sunday we decided to bring our friend to church.

And normally, I would be right there with you in protest.  I like the Prince of Peace who cares for the poor and downtrodden.  I love the Jesus who tells me not to be afraid and not to worry, especially when the lilies of the field are so well tended by God.  I adore the Jesus who forgives and unites all kinds of people into one.  But all of my protest comes from being someone who used to be pretty conflict avoidant.  That is, until I learned another way.  I will always say that one of the greatest gifts of my time on Long Island was learning how to not only handle conflict, but to really appreciate conflict for all that conflict can do.

For those of you not familiar with the cultural dynamic of Long Island, several things are at play.  First, Long Islanders have a different way of communicating.  They are direct, incisive, and honest.  For a Southerner, their style of communication can feel rude, but over time, said Southerner realizes that all that directness and ability to dive into conflict means you get everything out on the table.  There is no listening for innuendo or passive aggressiveness.  There are no cute phrases that sound nice, but really mean something entirely different.  Instead, you know where people stand, and you go home quite clear about the varying viewpoints.  Of course, that style of communication does not always feel good.  If you have sensitive feelings about criticism, your feelings can and will get hurt.  If you get uncomfortable with heated arguments, you will be challenged to stay calm.  If you prefer niceness over brutal honesty – well, you probably should not live on Long Island.

But here is what I learned and came to love about the beautiful people of Long Island.  They taught me how to listen, even if all I wanted to do was flee the room.  They taught me how to sit through criticism instead of getting defensive.  They taught me how to see conflict not as the ultimate evil, but instead as a critical key to transformation, reconciliation, and restoration.

That is at the heart of Jesus’ message today.  Of course Jesus says that he is going to divide fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and in-laws against one another.  What Jesus is teaching about is a radical reordering of the world.[ii]  We heard that proclamation from his mother’s mouth as she sang out the words of the Magnificat earlier in Luke’s gospel, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”[iii]  Mary was not just talking about the enemy Rome.  Many of the Israelites themselves were proud, powerful, and rich.  We in the modern world are the proud, powerful, and rich.  And to us, Jesus shouts, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

The good news is that Jesus is not telling us he wants us to fight.  He is not encouraging violence or abuse, or even neglect or pain.  Jesus is simply telling us that his message is going to upset the status quo.  And as people who benefit from the status quo, we are going to have to face our demons and look at our brothers and sisters who are in need and take real stock of ourselves and our lives.  And when we start upsetting the status quo – when we start making women equal to men, when we start treating minorities with dignity and respect, when we start empowering the poor thrive and turn their lives around, we will have friends and family who push back.  We will have people who try to convince us to protect our power rather than share our power.  We will have family who walk away because they cannot face the truth.  All we have to do is look at the church – look at the hundreds of denominations who could not agree on whom could be baptized, what Eucharist means, and whom can be ordained or married.  We are a family divided because Jesus’ love is so revolutionary that we will be divided about how to define his love, how to share his love, and how receive his love.  Jesus does not want us to fight.  But he knows that if we are going to authentically live into the Gospel life, we are going to deal with conflict and we are going to be divided.[iv]

But that is also why Jesus went all the way to the cross.  His death was an effort to transform and redeem our conflict and to help us live fully into the people of peace and love we are invited to be in him.  Jesus knows that we will have to fight.  But he also knows that if we are willing to enter into conflict with an open mind, with listening ears, and a discerning heart, we will become a people who do not avoid conflict, but understand conflict as the purifying fire that burns away the mess of life and leaves behind the fertile ground for creating something new and holy.[v]  So yes, Jesus is still the Prince of Peace, who brings peace upon earth.  But the path there is not a smooth, straight, simple path.  The path there will take us through conflict, tension, and pain.  But the peace that awaits on the other side is more glorious than any community that will sit through passive aggressive avoidance just to maintain a false sense of security.

And just in case you are already feeling weary, wondering where you can muster the strength to survive such a rocky path, our letter to the Hebrews today gives us a clue, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”[vi]  That group of people you are going to be in conflict with – whether your biological family, or the crazy family you selected as your church home – is the same group of people who have left us an example of how to work our way through conflict.  They have shown us how to survive the race toward peace and reconciliation, reminding us that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter who gets us there.  We will not get there avoiding conflict.  But we will get there together, holding hands when we disagree, loving each other when we say helpful but painful truths, and rejoicing when we push through to the side of reconciliation, renewal, and rebirth.  Amen.

[i] Luke 12.51.

[ii] Richard P. Carlson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 361.

[iii] Luke 1.51-53.

[iv] Audrey West, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 360, 362.

[v] Elizabeth Palmer, “Living By The Word:  August 14, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time,” Christian Century, July 26, 2016, as found at http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-07/august-14-20th-sunday-ordinary-time on August 11, 2016.

[vi] Hebrews 12.1-2a.

On Fragility…

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green-leaves-with-sunlight

Photo credit:  www.extremetech.com/extreme/191233-new-nanoparticles-get-us-closer-to-artificial-photosynthesis-mass-carbon-capture

I have talked before about how, as a priest, the life cycle is ever present in my work [see post here].  Simultaneously celebrating new life and honoring earthly death can sometimes happen within days or hours.  But this week I have been reminded of how sometimes we do not even see or think about that thin space between life and death because, all too often, we have the privilege of not having to think about it.

This week, one of my close friends celebrated the fifth anniversary of the birth and death of her child.  The baby died in utero around twenty weeks.  That event was formative for our entire community of friends.  Suddenly, pregnancy was no longer a happy, idyllic time, when everything always turns out okay.  We all began to see the dark side of pregnancy, and understand how much we take a “normal pregnancy” for granted.  In thinking about baby Ella this week, and the impact she had on so many of us, I find myself humbled by how much her death gave us.

And like any other cyclical week in the priesthood, what news should I learn but of a friend who was surprised to discover she is pregnant after having lost her first pregnancy over a year ago.  I was equally elated and terrified.  Elated, because I knew how much the couple hoped that maybe, just maybe, they might be blessed with a successful pregnancy and birth.  But terrified because they, and I, know how fragile these next thirty-four weeks will be.

So this week, my prayers are with all of those who walk through the journey of life, death, and pregnancy.  I especially lift them up, because all too often, their joy, grief, and anxiety are hidden.  For fear that life will not be viable, many couples elect to keep their pregnancy quiet for as long as possible.  Whether they share or not, the couple faces consequences.  When everyone knows about a pregnancy that is lost, the couple can have to retell the painful story over and over again.  When no one knows about the pregnancy, the couple can feel isolated and alone in their grief, because to share their story, they have to tell you that they were pregnant and are now no longer pregnant.  There are no easy ways forward, and so for those in our midst walking the path of longing to create new life, fearfully growing new life, birthing new life, and mourning lost life, our prayers are with you.  You live in a fragile reality that we honor and hold with love and that we lift to God.  You are not alone.

So Let Your Light Shine…

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Let-Your-Light-Shine-Banner

Photo credit:  embracingbeauty.com/2013/04/20/letting-our-light-shine-by-donating-w-champions-for-kids-mobilizingmillions-cbias/

These last few weeks, I have been visiting outreach ministries that our parish supports.  The ministries have varied widely – from a free health clinic, to a ministry aimed at keeping seniors independent as long as possible, to a multi-service agency that works in a particularly impoverished area of our community.  Visiting the agencies has given me a great deal of perspective on the larger Williamsburg community – the various ways that poverty can impact the lives of our neighbors.  Whether the challenge is housing, health care, food, clothing, transportation, or education, the needs vary wide.  Luckily, there are people who are passionate about each need, and are working hard to make life a little better for our neighbors.

Equally helpful to learning the statistics and needs of each agency has been watching the passion of our parishioners who are involved in the ministries.  At each agency, a parishioner has shared with me why they volunteer, what inspires them, and how important the ministry is to our community.  With each parishioner, I see a certain tenderness toward the clients and a passion about the issue.   The parishioner’s entire demeanor changes when they talk about the ministry – making the case even more compelling than the executive director of the agency can make it.

As I have watched the physical transformation of our parishioners as they tell me about their passion for outreach ministries, I realized that is the same transformation I hope to see when they tell their friends about Hickory Neck.  You see, just like outreach ministries give us a sense of purpose outside of ourselves, church should similarly give us a sense of purpose outside of ourselves.  At church, we find ourselves inspired by worshiping our God.  At church, we find ourselves renewed as we learn and grow in our faith journey.  At church, we find ourselves made whole as we laugh and rejoice together.  At church, we are changed, we change others, and we change our community beyond the church walls.

I saw that same transformation as I interviewed with the Search Committee and Vestry over six months ago.  I saw that transformation in our parishioners this summer when I asked each of you what brings you joy about Hickory Neck.  And today, I imagine each of you might feel that inner transformation, that deep sense of joy, if you were to think about why you love Hickory Neck.  My invitation for all of us in the coming weeks is to take ourselves to that deep, inner sense of meaning, purpose, and joy, and to start inviting your friends and neighbors into that same experience.  If you speak from the heart, letting your light and passion shine through you, I promise you will inspire others more than you know.  Just like I saw the bodily transformation when you talked about your passions for outreach, your neighbors will be equally drawn in by your passion for church.  As we look to kick off the program year, I look forward to hearing how our newcomers were inspired by the Christ light shining in you, and wanted to find out how to capture that same light.