On Dancing and Identity…

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First Dance

Photo credit:  https://apracitcalwedding.com/first-dance-wedding-songs/

This week I was visiting a parishioner at a retirement facility.   I was waiting in the lobby to meet the parishioner when I suddenly realized they were playing Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade on the speakers.  I was catapulted to another time and place as I listened.  You see, Moonlight Serenade was the first song my husband and I danced to when we were married.  It had been the same song his grandparents had danced to when they were married 55 years earlier.  Not long after we started dancing, they joined us on the dance floor.  I remember catching a glimpse of them together as I danced with my husband, hoping we could enjoy such longevity and happiness in marriage.

Of course, little of our everyday lives are that dreamy.  We spend much of our marriage tending to the “stuff” of life – juggling work and family time; shuttling children to school, activities, and parties; tending to household duties; and trying to squeeze in sleep now and then.  There are certainly great moments – watching my husband engage our children, listening intently as he passionately talks about his vocation, and laughing heartily as he jokes about things only we get.  We are piecing together a life full of wonderful memories and chapters, but that life is also full of the mundane, everyday, ordinary stuff too.

I think that is why I was so grateful to hear that song this week.  That song reminded me of my identity – a moment in which I covenanted to live in a certain way with a certain person.  Though our dance together was just one part of that day, the song is a tangible reminder of identity.

After my visit and quick note to my husband about “our song,” I found myself wondering what other markers of identity we experience.  In the Episcopal Church, I would argue the sacraments are our biggest ones – the weekly celebration of Holy Eucharist, and the periodic celebration of Baptism.  In fact, Church is all about helping us define our identity as disciples of Christ – reminding us who and whose we are.  But I wonder, in your mundane, everyday, ordinary lives, what moments or events remind you of that identity?  What are those moments that halt you in your steps in a lobby and make you feel affirmed, rooted, loved, and empowered?

Sermon – John 14.15-21, E6, YA, May 21, 2017

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If you could have any person, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be?  We have all played the game.  Either you were asked the question at a job interview, you used the question as part of an icebreaker, or you shared the question at the family dinner table as a conversation starter.  The answers are always telling – some would like to have dinner with their favorite celebrity or sports hero; some would love to talk to a famous figure in history, like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Abraham Lincoln; while others would want to have dinner one more time with a loved one who has died.  Invariably, though, someone will give the answer we all get to eventually.  If we could have dinner with any person, dead or alive, we would want to have dinner with Jesus.  We could finally ask Jesus all the answers to our questions!  We could ask Jesus what that one parable means that we can never figure out.  We could ask Jesus what death and eternal life are like.  We could ask Jesus why things are the way they are today and what he plans on doing about them!  The options are endless and the gift of that time with Jesus seems like the gift a magic decoder ring for life.

Except, I am not sure that dinner with Jesus is the best answer to that age-old question about dinner guests.  If you remember, Jesus was not always the easiest to understand.[i]  Think about all those parables that no one understood.  Think about all those times Jesus said something to the disciples that they could not comprehend.  Think about all those times that Jesus was challenged by Pharisees, foreigners, and faithful alike, only to get cryptic, unexpected answers.  Though we like to think we would have understood better than all of those, I suspect that even a modern-day dinner with Jesus would leave us with way more questions than answers.

That’s why I love our gospel passage today.  Jesus is preparing to leave his beloved disciples.  He has gathered them for a last meal, has washed their feet, and is sharing with them all his last instructions and words of wisdom.  The anxiety of his disciples is rising as they start to piece together how Jesus is giving what we now call his “Farewell Address.”  To those anxious, confused, uncertain disciples, Jesus offers a promise.  Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  Instead, Jesus will send the Advocate.  Actually, he says, God will send, “another Advocate, to be with you forever.”  The first Advocate is Jesus himself.[ii]  Unlike Jesus, who is limited by time and space, the next Advocate will be with us forever.  The text tells us that the Advocate will abide in us – will actually be in us.  That word, “Advocate,” is alternatively translated as “counselor, comforter, helper, mediator, or broker.”[iii]  The word in Greek is Parakletos or Paraclete, which literally means “to call alongside.”  This Holy Spirit, this second Advocate, is the one who is called to be alongside us.[iv]

In just a couple of weeks we will celebrate the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise today.  The celebration of Pentecost is a significant feast for us because what Jesus promises in his Farewell Address finally comes to fruition.  Not only does the Spirit fill for us a spiritual need, the Spirit also fills for us a practical need.  You see, throughout his final instructions, through both word and deed, Jesus gives the disciples one final instruction – to love.  Jesus wants his followers to embrace, “not an abstract philosophical concept, but the lived reality revealed in the life, relationships, and actions of a simple Nazarene who looks and talks like them and lives simply among them.”[v]

This past week, our Tuesday night Bible Study group invited a Bible Study group from New Zion Baptist Church to join us for a mutual Bible Study.  After having talked quite a lot about race relations here at Hickory Neck, and having watched our country struggle with race, our Bible Study group decided the best thing they could do was to start building relationships with people of color.  Intentionally or not, the group selected 1 Corinthians 13 as their text for study.  Most of you who have been to a wedding will know this text by heart.  “Love is patient, love is kind…”  On and on we hear Paul talk about the characteristics of love – how love is not envious, boastful, or rude; how love does not insist on its own way, and is not irritable or resentful.”  Just like with a wedding, on the surface, the text was quite romantic for what we were trying to do – talk about loving each other and how we could do that as two different communities.  But what we realized as we studied and reflected on the text is the more we talked about love, the less romantic love felt.  Quite the opposite, we realized the love we Christians are called into is hard work.  We talked about how hard being patient and kind are.  We talked about how hard not being irritable or resentful can be, and how often we insist on our own way.  What seemed like a simple text for a simple gathering – an interracial Bible Study on love, suddenly felt anything but simple.  As we shared our stories, we realized not only did we have a massive amount of work to do on ourselves, we would also have a massive amount of work to do if we were even going to attempt to love each other.

That is why Jesus’ promise today, the promise of the one who comes alongside of us, is so incredibly powerful.  Because if the disciples recall the ways that Jesus feeds the hungry, touches lepers, heals the sick, speaks and acts with care and regard toward women, shows compassion and fiercely protests against injustice,[vi] and then realize that Jesus wants them to do the same in his absence, they could indeed become overwhelmed.  They cannot even seem to get through Jesus’ farewell address without one disciple departing to betray him, and the promise of another disciple who will deny him.  How in the world will they manage to master the simple and yet enormous work of love?!?

Toward the end of our Bible Study, as we became more and more sober about the enormity and humbling nature of living a life of love, someone finally stood up and said something quite simple.  He confessed he did not have any answers and perhaps was not sure he could do what Jesus would want for us.  But what he would do is go and have coffee with anyone who was willing.  That’s all.  Coffee.  It was a simple offer, and maybe seemed like nothing on the surface.  But that offer of coffee was profound.  In that offer was an unspoken confession of sin and separation, and a commitment to turn toward love and relationship.  After over an hour of talking about love, that offer of coffee was a commitment to not just talk about love, but to act on love.

I believe the ability of that parishioner to offer coffee came because the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Spirit was abiding in him.  Jesus had not left him an orphan.  Jesus sent another Advocate who empowered him to be an agent of love.  That is the power of the gospel today.  We will never likely get that dinner with Jesus, even though I am not convinced that dinner would help us anyway.  But we do get dinner with the Spirit – everyday, offering us God’s presence and spirit of truth, empowering us to be agents of love.  We get a dinner with our Advocate, who invites us to pull up another chair, so that we can share that love with our neighbor – one coffee at a time.  Amen.

[i] N. T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 63.

[ii] Linda Lee Clader, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 491.

[iii] Larry D. Bouchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 492.

[iv] Karoline M. Lewis, John:  Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 191.

[v] Nancy J. Ramsay, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 492.

[vi] Ramsay, 492.

On Chaos, Control, and Connection…

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Photo credit:  https://consumeraffairs.com/news/lack-of-control-in-a-high-stress-job-could-cause-you-to-die-younger-101716.html

Last week, my husband went away for five days for a family member’s graduation.  I was thrilled he was able to go, but I always get a bit nervous when I am alone with the children for several days straight.  Part of the anxiety is that managing two children is always tough.  Mornings and evenings are chaotic – just when you think everyone is settled, one child starts screaming.  When you have tucked in the youngest so you can read to the oldest, the youngest keeps getting out of bed.  Even with my husband around, the chaos often feels unmanageable.

The first couple of days after my husband was gone, things went as I suspected.  The children were loud, crazy, and frustrating.  There were lots of timeouts, lots of deep breaths, and lots of lost tempers.  But by day three, I slowly began to loosen up.  I began to realize that there was no way I was ever going to get the children to behave exactly how I wanted, when I wanted, and where I wanted.  And so I started figuring out how to pick my battles, I gave up on my own rigidity around “the schedule,” and I figured out how to shift from toleration to acceptance.  By day four, I was no longer stressed out or anxious.  I was being firm, but having fun; I was letting go of what I couldn’t control; and I was able to appreciate this sacred alone time with the girls.

Part of what took me so long to make that shift in behavior and perspective is that I am someone who likes a sense of control and order.  I get irritated when things do not go as I planned, and I get impatient when things do not happen in a timely, organized manner.  And while some may call it stubborn, I have thought through things and selected what I believe is the best course of action; so, when kids do not want to comply, I get frustrated.  These are, obviously, not the best traits for a parent.  Parenting involves much more agility, creativity, and comfort with ambiguity.

I have begun to wonder if my revelation about my own tendencies and behaviors with my children might also be true about my tendencies and behaviors with God.  How often have I wanted God to behave in a certain way, and could not seem to get God to comply?  How often have I been impatient, frustrated, and irritated with God?  How often have I been rigid in my expectations with God?  This week, I am taking a cue from my children, remembering how much more meaningful, loving, and fun our relationship can be when I let loose of my desire for control.  I suspect the same may be true of my relationship with God too!

On Compassion, Fatigue, and Prayer…

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Photo credit:  houseofdeputies.org/episcopal-migration-ministries-shares-the-journey.html

At our Clergy Day yesterday, we had a staff member from Episcopal Migration Ministries talk to us about the Episcopal Church’s work with refugees.  In what has become a heated topic in our current political climate, I was grateful for an explanation about how the process works for someone to come to our country as a refugee.  The demands and expectations were staggering, and the work to become self-sufficient seemed overwhelming and humbling.  One of the biggest take-aways from the presentation was that if we are going to make progress on this issue, we need to be in relationship with those unlike ourselves.

I left the presentation feeling a bit overwhelmed, wondering how I could invest more energy into one more of the world’s ills.  Our parish has been focusing its energy on racial reconciliation.  But we still have a long way to go.  Imagining taking on another area of reconciliation work felt like a tremendous burden.  I have talked about compassion fatigue before (see post here).  I realized today that my capacity for compassion is stretched pretty thinly these days.  Every time I turn around, the poor seemed to pushed further to the fringes, the oppressed are feeling more pressure instead of less, and we as a country seem to be failing at our commitment to respect the dignity of every human being.

Though we rarely use this language, I think Jesus often suffered from compassion fatigue too.  That is why so often we find him retreating with his disciples, longing for a place of quiet and prayer.  Knowing that Jesus suffered compassion fatigue is comforting, but it only gets me so far.  You see, when I suffer compassion fatigue, I find myself burying my head in the sand, trying to block out the news stories that serve to overwhelm instead of inform.  I find myself watching frivolous television, or escaping in a novel.  I find myself simply tired.  Of course, Jesus did not have online streaming television, but there are ways he could have diverted his mind when retreating from his compassion work.  Instead, he goes off to pray.  That is our invitation when faced with compassion fatigue – not to escape, but to retreat into the Lord, listening for God’s guidance, and praying for those suffering when there is little else we can do.  I invite your prayers for refugees – all those fleeing violence, all those who make it to makeshift homes, all those who boldly decide to make a home in a foreign land, and all those who suffer by those who wish to persecute the persecuted further.

Sermon – Acts 2.42-47, John 10.1-10, E4, YA, May 7, 2017

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These last weeks since Easter Day, we have been telling the story of what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We heard the wonderful stories of discovery on Easter Day, the news from Mary Magdalene that Christ is risen.  We heard that familiar story of Thomas and the other disciples who were able to see and touch Jesus’ risen body.  We heard that beloved story of the walk to Emmaus, where two disciples were able to walk and talk with Jesus, and were reminded that Jesus is still with them.  And then today, we hear in the Acts story what has happened to the disciples.  They have gathered a community of believers who are growing every day.  People are sharing the holy meal, praying together, living in community, and praising God in the temple.  They are seeing signs and wonders, they are being generous with one another, and they have even sold their possessions like Jesus told them to, and are sharing their resources.  Today’s reading from Acts takes all of good stuff from Jesus’ ministry, all the heartache of Holy Week, and all of the joy of Eastertide, and basically concludes, “And they all lived happily ever after!”

In some ways, I cannot imagine a better text for today.  At our later service, we will be confirming and receiving nine parishioners in the church.  These are parishioners who have been studying Holy Scripture, Church History, the sacraments, Church polity, spirituality, and vocation.  Some are teenagers and some have grandchildren.  Some have spent a lifetime in other Christian traditions, and others were born and raised in the Episcopal Church.  And all of them feel called at this point in their spiritual journey to claim their faith as their own and begin a new phase of their walk with Christ at Hickory Neck.  What better thing than for these reinvigorated Christians to hear than a text about what their life will now look like?  They will be sharing in communion, worshiping God in God’s temple, praying together, living generous lives, and sharing their resources communally.  Is that not the image you have of Hickory Neck?

Well….  Okay, so maybe Hickory Neck does not look exactly like that early Christian community.  We certainly have some things down.  We baptize, are generous with one another, share the Holy meal, and praise God in worship.  But as far as I know, we have yet to enter a relationship with one another where we have sold everything we have and are living communally.  I suspect there would be a stack of cots at the back of the church today since we would all need a place to sleep.  I suspect we would have a roster to indicate who was cooking us lunch after services today and who was on clean-up duty.  I suspect we might have a line of zip cars and bike shares in the parking lot every day for those who work further away from church.  I suspect that our retirees here would be responsible for the children while their parents are out working.  Though Hickory Neck has certainly gotten close to the early Church community, we have a long way to go.

Now some of you may be rolling your eyes right now – wondering if Holy Scripture is trying to make the case for socialism or some hippie compound.  Since you know I try to avoid politics in the pulpit, here’s what I can tell you:  there are some Christian communities that are in fact trying to get much closer to the early church than we have ever considered.  When the housing crisis hit almost ten years ago, there were stories about neighbors who made agreements.  One family would sell their house and move in with another struggling family.  The two families would double up in rooms, figure out childcare sharing, meal sharing, and payment sharing.  They found that although the home felt crowded, the home also felt like a place of support, security, and serenity.[i]  And of course, there are what are called, “intentional Christian communities” all over the country.  I had multiple friends from college who volunteered or took nonprofit jobs out of college and lived in these intentional communities.  They shared rooms in a house, took turns with the household duties, gathered for communal dinners every night, and shared in worship a few times a week.

But I think we all know that this lifestyle is not “normal.”  We are not raised nowadays to live communally with other Christians, sharing our possessions and life.  In fact, when we hear Jesus say today that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly, we often think that means that Jesus came so that we might experience financial stability, good health, and happiness.  We confuse our American sensibilities of achievement and accumulation of wealth, with the kind of abundance that Jesus is talking about.[ii]  The truth is, those crazy hippies in the early church were on to something.  They did have an abundance – but they had the abundance because they shared.  And they were able to share because they listened to the teachings of Jesus through his disciples, they broke break regularly, they worshiped in the temple, and they shared the good news.  Their understanding of abundance changed – not an overwhelming sense of monetary wealth, but an overwhelming sense of community, of belonging, of purpose, and of “enough.”

Now before we get too down on ourselves or start thinking about all our possession that we would need to sell, we know the story takes a twist.  Three chapters later in Acts we learn about two members of the community who keep some of their wealth back – they start hording, hoping no one will know their secret.  So, like any of us, not everyone was on board with the communal living thing.  But the majority of the community entered into a covenant about this new way of being together.

I like that we get this text today because I like how the text makes us all ever so slightly uncomfortable.  I like that our new confirmands and those being received are hearing this today because they will need to struggle with this notion of Christian community with each of us too.  I do not know if we will ever get to the ideal found in the early Church, but we need these days of the newly received to remind us that we are not there yet.  We have not yet lived into the abundant life that Christ intended for us.  We are still on our journey, prayerfully pondering how to open ourselves up to the invitation to live life, and live it more abundantly.

That is why at our later service we will reaffirm our baptismal covenant.  Like we do over and over again throughout the year, we remind ourselves of the promises we made in baptism and in confirmation.  To gather with the community of faith, to repent and return to the Lord when we sin, to share the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace.  That baptismal covenant is our touchstone – that five-part measuring stick that lets us know those areas where we are really thriving in our spiritual journey, and those areas that need some work.  On Sundays like this, we get the questions once again, “Are you all in?  Are you ready for the gift of abundant life in Christ and all of the implications that gift involves?”  That gift is both a promise and a challenge – a blessing and what sometimes feels like a curse.  But we have all seen glimpses of that abundant life, and know how the abundant life is like milk and honey.  We just sometimes need a nudge to get us back on the way.  Amen.

[i] Joanna Goddard, “Two Families Sharing a House (Would You?),” October 26, 2015, as found at https://cupofjo.com/2015/10/communal-house-cohousing-san-francisco/ on May 4, 2017.

[ii] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave Podcast:  #539 – Fourth Sunday of Easter,” April 29, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=880 on May 3, 2017.

 

On the Power of Hands…

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Photo credit:  https://www.sevenwholedays.org/2012/05/29/on-confirmation/

When I was confirmed as an Episcopalian, the decision to be in the Cathedral that day was preceded by a long journey.  I took not one, but two confirmation classes, not feeling entirely ready after the first class.  I was not only discerning whether I was called to membership in the Episcopal Church, I was also discerning a call to ordained ministry in the Church.  I had spent over a year studying, praying, talking to people about their denomination experiences, and listening for the voice of God.  I had to have conversations with people like my father, who not only was a United Methodist minister, but also was his father, his brother, his uncles, and on and on.  Needless to say, when I knelt down in front of the bishop that day, I came with the weight and conviction of that discernment process.

But something powerful happened when the Bishop put his hands on my head, and my presenters put their hands on my shoulders.  Though the weight of those hands was heavy, the weight also seemed to melt away the year of toil and angst.  The power of those hands seemed to push out of my being any doubt or sense of wandering, and instead, a wave of peace, affirmation, and purpose washed over me.  When the Dean helped me rise to my feet, I felt light and buoyant.  The imprint of those hands felt both oddly still heavily present and yet empowering.

This Sunday, we will be confirming and receiving several parishioners at our triennial bishop’s visit.  They come from all walks of life.  Some are youth who were born and raised in the Episcopal Church.  Some are adults from Baptist, United Methodist, and Roman Catholic backgrounds.  Some bring burdens from their past experiences in the church and some are deeply appreciative of their roots in another tradition.  All have spent time in study, reflection, and discernment about whether this is the right decision for them.  And all are excited about the new ways they have seen God inspiring their spiritual journey, and are hopeful about the ways that Hickory Neck will walk with them on that journey.

All of that – the preparation, the discernment, the long histories, the maturing of youth, the questions, and the affirmation all come through hands – hands that have been blessed through the centuries and consecrated to bless this new phase of journeys.  I look forward to this momentous occasion and all it brings for our confirmands and those being received.  And I can’t wait to see where the journey takes them in the years to come!

Sermon – Luke 24.13-35, E3, YA, April 30, 2017

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Teachers and group facilitators know there are different types of learning styles.  Some people need to see something in writing in order to follow what is being presented.  These are the folks in church whose head is in their bulletins when the scripture is being read because they need to see the words, not just hear them.  Some people need to hear information orally to absorb information.  These are the folks you will see looking away from their bulletins during readings at church, preferring to watch and hear the words of the lector or celebrant instead of follow the words on the page.  And some people are what are called kinesthetic learners, who need to touch, feel, and do something in order to grasp the concept.  These are the folks who experience God more like our two disciples today – walking, talking, listening, and breaking bread.

I have been thinking a lot about walking this week.  Next month we will be talking about the Christian tradition of pilgrimage – a moving journey with God.  I think one of the primary reasons we walk, why we take pilgrimages, is because we sometimes just need to move in order to see God.  If we think back about Christ’s years of ministry, much of his sacred, life-changing moments happened while walking:  the woman who grabs the hem of his garment and receives healing while Jesus walks; the blind man Jesus encounters while walking in the city; the grieving mother Jesus meets while walking past the funeral procession.  Though Jesus certainly spends time sitting and teaching in homes, in gardens, and on mountains, much of his ministry isspent on the move.

Back in Advent, we had a clergy retreat.  The day was filled with all sorts of activities – conversation, silence, prayer, and readings.  But perhaps my favorite part of the day was when the facilitator assigned us to another person in the room and told us to go for a walk.  One person was to speak about whatever was on their heart and the other was to listen.  At the end, when the speaker was done, the listener was invited to reflect back about what they had heard and where they heard God moving in the speaker’s life.  What is interesting about taking a walk with someone – either being the listener or the speaker – is that you cannot really make eye contact.  Your body is busy watching the path in front of you, avoiding rocks or holes, and navigating turns.  Meanwhile, your mind works harder to focus – keeping your body moving while allowing yourself to speak or listen.  In some ways, that kind of walk is reminiscent of a confessional.  Two people, side-by-side, confessing what is on their heart, without the piercing judgment of eye contact.  Somehow the seemingly simple act of taking a walk with someone becomes profoundly intimate and sacred, something I am not convinced happens as well when we are sitting still.

The two disciples may have been having the same kind of conversation on that road to Emmaus.  They have a lot on their minds:  those last days of Jesus’ life; his arrest, crucifixion, and death; the testimony of the women about his resurrection.  Everything in their lives has been upended, and they are confused, sad, and lost.  But as they walk, Jesus appears on the road alongside them.  Together, the three of them keep moving, sharing hopes, dreams, and fears, while also reflecting where they see God in the midst of this turbulent time.  While their bodies are busy with the steps of that dusty road, their minds and hearts are opening up through their conversation.  The noise all around them fades, and the clarity of truth breaks through.  Though they do not notice the feeling right away, later the disciples remember a distinct feeling of their hearts burning within them.

Most of you know by now or will soon figure out that I am a planner.  I like to sit down and think through challenges.  I spend energy considering the various possibilities, weighing consequences, and working through solutions.  I will do research, talk to people with experience, and try to gauge reactions.  In general, being a planner can be a great asset.  The challenge for a planner is moving.  There comes a moment when you have to move on what you have and make a decision or start the planned action.  And although this will come as no surprise to the more spontaneous folks in the room, sometimes, you have to get moving without doing all the planning.  Sometimes, you just have to take a walk – get out and start doing, and clarity will come.  Sometimes Jesus does not show up until you are on the road.

That is what is interesting about our story today.  The two disciples today are overwhelmed and stuck.  They do not know what to make of all that has happened and they especially do not know what to make of the women’s testimony.  They could have stayed in that room with the other disciples, worrying and talking through the possibilities.  Instead, they get up and walk.  They walk, talk, confess, listen, and learn.  Their hearts burn within them only when they move – only when Christ comes alongside their moving bodies and reveals truth to them, helping them understand the fulfillment of Scripture in all that has happened.

I wonder if Christ is not inviting us to do the same today.  A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated my first anniversary here at Hickory Neck.  It has been an incredible year of growing, relationship-building, serving, and sharing in fellowship.  As I have reflected back, the year has been full of good work, growing discipleship, and energized mission and evangelism.  We really have had a very full year.  But one of the things I keep remembering, and now our Vestry has begun exploring, is the conversation I had with our Search Committee and Vestry over a year ago.  We talked extensively about dreams, many of which had already been articulated.  The one that captured my heart was using the blessing of this property to begin some new ministries – ministries that would serve those in need in our community and would reflect the distinct nature of our neighborhood.  Knowing that we have an abundance of retirees settling in Williamsburg, and an influx of young families moving in as well, Hickory Neck began to dream about how we might serve both constituencies – with childcare, elder day care, or both simultaneously.  The dream was what drew me in, and as colossal as the dream sounded, the dream also sounded inspired and full of the Spirit.

For the last year, we have been sitting, getting to know each other, building trust, and growing in our love of Christ.  But now, your Vestry has started taking some walks.  Your Vestry has started meeting with leaders, service providers, and member of the larger community.  The idea is to walk alongside others, hearing their stories, and listening for the Spirit.  We are also sharing our dream, and making sure our vision is in line with what the community needs.  We are taking those kinds of walks that lay bare our concerns and fears, but also confess our deepest hopes.  Of course, we could avoid these conversations, staying in the upper room with fellow disciples – fellow Hickory Neck-ers.  But instead, we are taking a cue from the disciples today, hoping that on our walk, our hearts will burn with a sense of the presence of Jesus.

The disciples and our Vestry are issuing a similar invitation to us today – to move out of the comfort of familiarity, and to start walking the way in the hopes of encountering Jesus.  What they have learned is that sometimes, in order to clear our heads, in order to get un-stuck in our current path, in order to go deeper with God and to find Christ in our midst, we need to move.  We need to walk, talk, listen, confess, and learn.  We need to step out of our places of comfort and familiarity, and start moving.  On those walks are where we encounter Christ, where scripture becomes clear, and where our hearts burn with renewed energy, purpose, and meaning.  That is work that we are taking on as a community, but also work that we are invited to take on for ourselves.  Taking those first steps can be scary, intimidating, and uncomfortable.  The good news, is that, like the disciples, we do not go alone.  We go with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  We go with neighbors who long for justice and dignity for all.  We go with Christ, who whispers truth and who burns in our hearts.  Come, and take a walk with Hickory Neck.

On Being Stewards of Dreams…

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portion and cup

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“O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot.  My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage.”  (Psalm 16.5-6) 

At our Vestry Retreat this winter, we began to talk about the dream we have been tossing around since before my arrival.  Upon reflection of the demographics and needs in Williamsburg, the dream is that Hickory Neck offer a childcare program, adult daycare program, or a combined ministry of the two.  I have been excited about the idea ever since I first heard it articulated.

I had encountered the concept of intergenerational care online (see video here).  What I loved about the video was that the intergenerational care reminded me of what happens at church:  people from all generations finding comfort, care, and a sense of identity and purpose.  In our modern culture, intergenerational relationship is rare.  Families live far apart, people tend to be segregated by life stage, and we value self-sufficiency.  But what we forget in our modern culture is that our young and our old need each other – they teach each other, they bring each other renewed energy, and they help each other learn.  I have always loved that my children have lots of “grandmas and grandpas” at church.

If I had the option of putting my children in childcare that fosters such a rich environment, I would be thrilled.  Furthermore, I know that our geographic area could use more accessible childcare and senior daycare.  As the pieces came together, God seemed to be inviting Hickory Neck into a new phase of its ministry.  This winter, the Vestry agreed that we should start being stewards of this dream the Spirit had given us.  So, for the last month, the Vestry has been having conversations in the community.  The idea is to learn what services are already offered, whether our sense of the needs matches the actual needs, and what potential partners there may be in our community.  We are obviously in the very early stages of this walk, but it is an exciting time!

I hope you will join us this Sunday as we gather for our quarterly Rector’s Forum.  We will be talking about this vision, as well as the many other tremendous ministries of Hickory Neck.  We indeed are blessed by a goodly heritage at Hickory Neck.  I look forward to celebrating the ways that our Portion and our Cup are leading us!

Sermon – John 20.1-18, ED, YA, April 16, 2017

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Every generation has a baby name that is popular.  In my generation, that name was Jennifer.  As I was growing up, every grade had tons of Jennifers.  I became quite accustomed to the experience of eagerly looking up when someone called my name, only to be disappointed to see they were calling out to someone else.  The name was so common that by the time I got to college, I learned to ignore people calling out my name because more likely than not, they were not actually calling me.  They were calling one of the other twenty Jennifers nearby.  Although the practice helped me save face, the practice was a bit of a hindrance when someone actually was trying to get my attention.

The solution, of course, was a nickname – something to distinguish me from the sea of other Jennifers.  So in college, most of my buddies just started calling me “Andrews.”  It may sound silly, but having a name that was distinct, that when called, I knew I could answer, gave me a sense of belonging and identity.  When someone shouted, “Andrews” across the quad, I knew a friendly face would be looking for me when I raised my eyes.  Though seemingly simple, that nickname made me feel known, especially at a time when everyone is trying to figure out their new identity, where they belong, and who they will be.

I suspect that Mary was the common name in Jesus’ generation.  All we need to do is read through the New Testament to know that there are more Marys than we can count.  Sometimes I even have to look back when I come across a Mary to be sure I am thinking of the right one.  So when Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name, I imagine there must have been some way she knows not only that this is Jesus, but also that he is talking to her.

Easter morning has been a rough morning for Mary.  She comes in the tomb before the first light of dawn has broken.  She is probably still a bit bleary eyed – that kind of haze one has in the days after a death of a beloved one.  She comes to halt before she gets all the way to the tomb though.  The stone that is supposed to be covering the tomb, protecting Jesus’ body, is gone.  Before even going in to assess the situation, Mary runs – runs hard to find the disciples, demanding that they get up and help her.  Two of them, the beloved disciple and Peter, sprint ahead of Mary.  She is too tired from her first run to keep up.  By the time she reaches the tomb, the two disciples are already stepping out of the tomb, Peter looking perplexed and the other disciple with an enigmatic smile.  And without so much as a word to her, they leave – just like they left Jesus on that fateful day.[i]  Mary, overcome with the memories of Jesus’ crucifixion and the continued emotion of this morning, breaks into tears.  When she finally checks inside the tomb herself, she not only sees two angels, she also has an encounter with a supposed gardener.  Frustrated by their insensitive questions, she exasperatedly asks the gardener to just tell her where the body is.

That is when the big news today happens.  The supposed gardener calls her by name.  Not the common name that everyone has.  The supposed gardener calls her by the name that only Jesus calls her.  The haze dissipates.  The tears halt.  The cloud of despair vanishes.  And she calls Jesus by the name that only a few call him, “Rabbouni!”  This is a tremendous moment in our text today.  In the flurry of running, and confusion, and questions, and tears, and despair, two people see each other crystal clearly.  Mary is called by her name – Jesus communicates to Mary that she is known, the she is beloved, that she has an identity and a purpose unique to her.  She is his sheep who knows and recognizes the voice of the shepherd – the Good Shepherd.[ii]  Her relief is palpable.  The return of her confidence is immediate.  Her sense of celebration is ready to explode!

When I was in high school, I had a summer where I attended both a short conference and then a long summer program.  Both were residential.  The conference was the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership conference, or HOBY for short.  I made a few fast friends, but was there just a few days.  A week or so later, I was off to a six-week residential program.  It was my first time staying away from home that long, and I was admittedly a bit nervous since no one else from my high school was going.  After I unloaded my bags, and was getting ready to say goodbye to my parents, someone behind my shouted, “Hey, HOBY!”  Without even looking at who it was, I knew I did not need to worry about belonging.  I was already known here.  I had a place here.  I could have a purpose for those six weeks.

We have all had those moments of clarity around identity, belonging, and purpose.  Whether we are returning to our home town after a long time away, whether we develop good friends at school or in a civic group, and whether that happens at a reunion, we all know the deep, profoundly affirming feeling that comes from being known.  For those of you with a church home, and especially for those of you who have found a home here at Hickory Neck, you most likely found that feeling here.  Perhaps the liturgy was what brought you a sense of identity – either the liturgy reminded you of a practice from your earlier life, or the liturgy offered something to you that you did not even know you were missing.  Perhaps a ministry at church brought you a sense of identity – those little sacred moments that come when you realize that you are actually really good at inspiring people to serve the world, making beautiful music, or teaching children about the love of God.  Or perhaps the community brought you a sense of identity – that first time when someone remembered your name or a part of your story, when someone came to you for expert advice, or when someone knew just by looking at you that you were hurting – and then offered to take you to lunch or coffee.  The church is a place where both Christ and the community call you by name.

Now I would love to tell you that the wonderfully affirming and life-giving feeling of being known is an end unto itself.  I would love to send you home on this beautiful Easter Day with simply a sense of love and affirmation.  And that is certainly part of the gift I am giving you today – to tell you that you can be known and loved here.  But something else happens to Mary at that tomb.  After that profound moment of affirmation, Jesus tells her to go and be a witness to the disciples.  Jesus always gives his beloved homework.  He is that teacher that even on a Friday will give you an assignment for the weekend!  But Mary does not see this as a burden.  Even though Jesus will not let her cling to him – cling to the way things used to be, Jesus’ affirmation this day propels her to go out and share the good news of the risen Lord with the disciples.  In this way, Jesus not only recognizes and honors her identity; Jesus also gives her purpose – a call.

That is your homework on this Easter Sunday.  I know you want to go eat those big Easter meals ,go find those Easter eggs, and find what Easter chocolate awaits at home.  But remember that while this place is a place that calls you by name and affirms your beautiful identity, this is also a place that commissions you to go out and share the good news.  That wonderful sense of affirmation is not for you to bottle up and keep for yourself.  That sense of affirmation is meant to embolden you to share that affirmation with others – to meet people where they are, to hear their stories, and to share how this day of resurrection, love, and affirmation is for them too.  In the same way that you have a vocation, a call on your life, you also are to affirm vocation and call in others.  So this week, as you bask in the warmth and beauty of this day, go out and share that good news with others.  Someone may be waiting for you to call them by name.  Amen.

[i] Richard B. Hays, “Do Not Cling to Me,” Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 10, March 18-25, 1992, 299.

[ii] Karoline M. Lewis, John:  Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 241.

Sermon – John 18.1-19.42, GF, YA, April 14, 2017

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I have been thinking this week about how every year we read the same story of Jesus’ death.  Unlike the Christmas story that we eagerly anticipate hearing each year, this story seems like a masochistic practice of hearing the same devastating story over and over again.  And we do not just read this story on Good Friday.  In addition to John’s version of the passion narrative, we read one of the synoptic versions on Palm Sunday.  Twice in one week we relive the painful story, catching interesting variations.  But the ending is always the same:  death, finality, failure.  At least on Palm Sunday, we use various voices, making the story feel like a performance.  But today, one sole voice, tells the achingly raw story – a story we would rather skip, or soften, or cry out to the reader, “Please stop!”

In hearing the story this year, I was struck by the failures of three characters.  The first is probably the easiest culprit:  Judas.  In Mathew’s gospel there is at least a feigning of loyalty as Judas greets Jesus as “Rabbi,” and kisses his cheek.  But John does not play such games.  In John’s narrative, Judas is fully on the side of the persecutors.  He boldly brings and stands with the soldiers and police.  He does not greet Jesus, or apologize.  He is confident in his decision.  He stands proud, even as we now are able to see his profound failure.  His ignorance of the depth of his betrayal is almost worse than the actual betrayal.  His confidence that this is for the best, is the first crack in our hearts as we hear this painful story.

Then we have Peter – precious, passionate, pitiful Peter.  For all the times he gets things right, and all the endearing times he gets things wrong, today is just a spirit-crushing failure.  In Matthew’s gospel, Peter denies knowing Jesus.  In John’s gospel, Peter denies his discipleship – his very relationship with and dedication to the Messiah.  In the face of Jesus’ “I am,” claim[i] today, Peter’s claim is “I am not.”[ii]  For all the wonderful, powerful, sacrificial moments in Jesus today, Peter is shameful, cowardly, and self-serving.  Even after being warned that he will deny Christ, Peter denies Christ in spite of himself.  That cock’s crow is the second crack in our hearts as we hear this brutal story.

The third character today does not always get as much attention, but their failure is perhaps the worst.  Whereas Judas and Peter deny and betray a friend, the chief priests deny their very God.  They say seven words to Pilate today that should be more shocking than anything said.  “We have no king but the emperor.”  We often get distracted by their words, because we know that they are meant manipulate Pilate’s sense of authority.  But the chief priests, the religious, moral guides of the people of faith say today, “We have no king but the emperor.”  Of course, we have to think back to remember why this statement is so profoundly painful.  You see, once upon a time, God was the king of Israel.  The people worshiped Yahweh, and Yahweh alone.  But the people got greedy, and begged Yahweh for a king like the other nations.  And so God anointed kings through God’s prophets.  But the chief priests take their self-centered sinfulness a step further than our ancestors.  They deny God today.  Their claim to have no king but the emperor is treason against our God – blasphemy.  And with their claim, our heart lies cracked in two as we hear the rest of the awful story.

Of course, blaming Judas, Peter, and the chief priests would be an easy way to scapegoat our way out of this dark day.  There are even Christians who claim that the Jews crucified our Lord.  But we know the truth.  We know that we are the Jews.  We know that we are Judas and Peter and the chief priests.  We know that our heart fractures with each vignette because they remind us of times when we have stood on our soapboxes, certain of our moral claims, only to later look back and see whom we betrayed and trampled in the process.  We know that that our heart fractures because we are reminded of those times when we knew the right thing to do, said we were going to do the right thing, and then failed to do the right thing – over, and over, and over again.  We have heard that same cock crowing.  We know that our heart fractures because we have put other gods before our God.  Sure, the gods have varied:  money, power, security, ego.  But we have gotten so lost in our gods that we said and did things that would have inspired a gasp from anyone more faithful than ourselves.  The failures of Judas, Peter, and the chief priests are not just failures of those men, two thousand years ago.  The failures of Judas, Peter, and the chief priests are our failures.[iii]

I think that is why we tell this story year after year, twice a week from different gospels.  We tell this story over and over again because we fail over and over again.  Though the specific characters are important, the characters live and operate in us centuries later.  That is why the story is so compelling – not because we can gather together and wag our fingers at those people.  The story is compelling because the story is eerily close to our own sinfulness.  Part of the devastating nature of this story is how complicit we are in the story.  Though the powers of evil might want us to deny our culpability in this story, what is hardest about this story is how close to home the story really is.

Now, you I do not ever like to leave the pulpit without a word of hope, a reminder that risen Lord redeems us all.  But today, I encourage you not to rush to the empty tomb.  Take time to sit in our collective confession, to tarry on those things done and left undone which are separating you from God and one another.  Bring your failures or sense of failure to the cross and lay them there today.  Grieve the ways that you cannot help yourself, year after year, from sin and shame.  The whole season of Lent has been building up to this day.  The whole reason we took on those disciplines and came to church for confession was because we knew, ultimately, that this is where we keep tripping up:  in betrayal and denial of our very identity as beloved disciples and children of God.  We are the ones bombing others.  We are the ones racially profiling.  We are the ones denigrating women, the poor, and the oppressed.  We are the ones, century after century repeating the sins of the faithful.

Lay all that sinfulness at the cross today.  Whether you venerate the cross in the liturgy today, wear a cross around your neck, or pray with the cross on your prayer beads, the power of the cross is to absorb all those failures and to transform them into something worth living.  You can, and perhaps should, feel the powerful weight of your sinful patterns today.  But let them die at the foot of the cross with Jesus.  Lay them naked at the cross, for all the world to see.  There is relief in that confession, the depth of which you may not feel fully until our Easter proclamation.

[i] Susan E. Hylen, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 299.

[ii] Karoline Lewis, John:  Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 222.

[iii] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “SB 535, Good Friday,” April 7, 2017, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=873 on April 8, 2017.