On Seeing Sacred Moments…

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In general, my children are pretty typical in many ways – they have their good days and their bad days.  They tattle on each other, try to sneak in a hit or shove, and one will occasionally shout how she “hates her life.”  But then, every once in a while, totally unprompted and seemingly “out of sight,” I will overhear the love, care, and affection they have for one another.  One child will walk over the other who is crying, and she will give a hug and offer reassuring words.  Or the two children will gleefully play with one another without arguing or fussing.  Or best of all, I will hear them laughing pure, innocent laughs together.  In these holy moments, they show me the light of God’s presence, and reveal their best qualities – that they are individuals full of love and compassion.

These last few weeks at our church, I feel like I have been able to see similar holy moments.  We are preparing for our Annual Fall Festival, from which all the proceeds go to support local ministries.  As we lead up to the event, I have seen countless tasks being done by parishioners:  from making up food order forms and staffing tables for pre-orders, from cleaning out closets to pricing and sorting donations, from recruiting donations from local businesses to developing the silent auction booklet, from breaking down our worship space to setting up parking space.  As the weeks and days have gotten closer to our festival, I have seen hard work, commitments of time, generosity of spirit, and joy in participation.  Most of the work could go unnoticed; even those of us who volunteer do not always see all the other work that is happening somewhere else.

But today, I want to say, “I see you.”  I see you, Hickory Neck, giving your cherished time to support the church.  I see you, sharing in fellowship as you work together on projects.  I see you, passionate about your neighbors in need and working a little bit harder.  I see you in holy moments, individually and collectively, and I am so proud of you.  Your laughter together is a sweet, sacred sound.  Your labor is a witness to me and to our community of God’s abundant love for all.  Well done, good and faithful servants!  You are a blessing!!

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Photo credit:  food.ndtv.com/health/10-surprising-health-benefits-of-laughter-1464095

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On Redefining our Work and God’s…

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This Sunday our church has planned “Bring a Friend Sunday.”  The day is the culmination of a series on evangelism, and we had imagined that bringing a friend would be a perfect way to conclude the series.  Some people have excitedly shared with me whom they plan to bring with them this Sunday, others have expressed a tinge of anxiety, while others have not mentioned the day (or their fears about inviting friends) at all.  We have been using a series of videos to inspire us, distributed postcards and other invitation tools, and created fun social media posts.

But our class this past Sunday had me wondering if we were approaching our event all wrong.  In his book Transforming Evangelism, David Gortner talks about the fact that evangelism is not a program or an effort to “get more people in the pews.”  Instead, evangelism is about creating an ethos of sharing the good news.  That ethos involves doing our own inner work about our own journey in Christ, and cultivating the skills for evangelism, such as practicing gratitude, listening for the holy in other’s stories, strengthening a sense of humility, and knowing the sacred stories that speak most powerfully for us.

We concluded our session with a talk by Michael Harvey, who argues that evangelism is not about bringing people to church, but creating a culture of invitation.  He suggests that events like “Bring a Friend Sunday” place “success” in the wrong place.  In fact, he says the most important work we can do is invite others.  “Whether someone says yes or no is God’s bit.  That is not our bit.  Our job is to just offer a simple invitation,” says Harvey.  By both worrying about inviting and labeling “success” as acceptance, we confuse our work with God’s work.  Instead, Harvey suggests that faith communities focusing on faithfulness, not some measure of “success.”  Whether the friend you invited comes or not, the church says, “Well done!”

So, I’m officially changing the name of this Sunday to “Invite a Friend Sunday.”  If you come to Hickory Neck this week and tell me you invited a friend, I’ll have a gold star waiting for you.  I want to hear about your experience in invitation, whether the experience was different than your expectations, and what it was like knowing that the invitation was more important than the return.  I suspect we will all grow in Christ in the process.  I cannot wait to hear about your experiences in invitation!

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Photo credit:  davisstreetbaptist.org/how-to-invite-people-to-church/

Sermon – Matthew 21.33-46, P22, YA, October 8, 2017

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One of the things I love about coming to church week in and week out is the practice setting time aside to discern how Holy Scripture is speaking to our everyday life.  Whether I have had a stressful week or a week of celebration, whether I am struggling in life or am experiencing a time of joy, or whether I am pained by the world around me or encouraged by the world around me, the Holy Scripture that we hear on Sunday always finds a way of speaking to me – of comforting, encouraging, challenging, and journeying with me.

But I confess to you I have been struggling to hear a good word from God through Holy Scripture this week.  You see, six days ago, we awoke to the news of the deadliest mass shooting in our modern history.  I cannot seem to shake the awful images and sounds of that night – the rapid sound of gunfire, the screams of terror in the crowd, the panic created in a crowd who had no idea how to escape the unseen shooter, and the sheer volume of deaths, injuries, and psychological trauma.  A week later, having no real leads on motive, all I am left with is the reality of violence in our society that seems inescapable – of one more city to add to the growing list of instances of mass violence:  Columbine, Blacksburg, Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, Orlando.

With the weight of the sinfulness of our violence upon one another, what I really wanted from Holy Scripture was a balm or a promise from God that love would win.  Instead, our gospel lesson today feels more like a mirror of our modern violence.  Jesus tells the leaders of the faithful a parable about a landowner who plants a vineyard and entrusts the tending of the vineyard to tenants.  When the time comes for the tenants to proudly show the landowner the fruits of their labor, instead the tenants do something awful.  They beat, kill, and stone the servants sent by the landowner.  And their action is not a one-time occurrence.  The landowner sends even more of his servants to the tenants, and they beat, kill, and stone them too.  The landowner even sends his own son; but filled with greed, entitlement, and violence, they kill the landowner’s son too.  Instead of redemption at the end of the parable, Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Because this is a parable, we know that Jesus is trying to tell the people of Israel something about themselves.  Stanley Hauerwas interprets the parable in this way, “The parable of the wicked tenants can serve as an outline of Matthew’s understanding of the life of Israel.  God [calls] Israel to be his vineyard fenced by the law, grounded in the land, and protected by worship of God in the temple.  God [sends] his prophets to call the people to faithfulness, but the people beat, [stone], and [kill] them.  Finally God [sends] his very Son, but even he [is] rejected…Jesus [leaves] no ambiguity about how this parable is to be understood.  The chief priests and the Pharisees [realize] that they are the ‘rejected.’  Yet they are not in any fashion to repent.”[i]

The starkness of Jesus’ parable has left me wondering whether we have become like the tenants in this story.  Not knowing the motive of the shooter in Las Vegas, we can somewhat distance ourselves from him – perhaps blaming mental illness or labeling him as an outlier in an otherwise healthy society.  But what concerns me more is that this is not an isolated event.  This is not the first time I have had to talk about a mass shooting from the pulpit.  We have not just beaten, killed, and stoned a couple of servants.  We keep committing awful violence, and what is worse is I fear we are becoming desensitized, accepting violence as the status quo – a consequence we are willing to live with in order to have the things we want in life.

In the spiral of darkness between our news feed and Holy Scripture, I had to take a deep breath, praying for some glimmer of hope.  So I started with where we started in worship today – with our collect.  We prayed, “Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior…”  The collect today reminded me that no matter how dark things seem, there is always light to be found.

With the encouragement of the collect, I was able to go back to the parable.  I realized that perhaps the tenants, or perhaps even ourselves, are not going to be the origin of our hope.  Instead, our hope in darkness rests on God.  The landowner in the parable is marked by goodness.  The landowner plants the vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a wine press, and builds a watchtower.  Then the landowner allows tenants to use the land, having given them the tools they need, trusting them to care for the land.  Heard another way, we hear all the good news of our creative God.  God creates this beautiful land which we are given the privilege to tend – our own breathtaking vineyard.  And because tending vineyards is hard work, God gives us the “fence” of the law – a set of guidelines to order our common life.  God gives us the tools for work, protection, and worship, knowing we will need those things too.  God even sends us prophets, knowing we will likely go astray.  Eventually, God sends us God’s Son.  This parable is the story of God’s covenantal relationship with us – a relationship marked by love, forgiveness, and grace.  And just like the whole of our Christian story, there will be moments of faithfulness, and moments of repentance.  There will be moments of honor and moments of shame.  In spite of the winding nature of our journey, God is ever present, pouring out love, abundance, mercy, and grace.  Even on our darkest days, when we crucify God’s Son, God does not answer violence with violence.  As one scholar conveys, “… rather than return violence for violence, in the cross of Jesus God absorbs our violence and responds with life, with resurrection, with Jesus triumphant over death and offering, not retribution, but peace.”[ii]

In the midst of stewardship season, I have been wondering all week how in the world I could talk about stewardship today.  But I think stewardship might be the perfect response to the seeming hopelessness of the world and this parable.  A Journey to Generosity is just that:  a journey.  Each one of us has been gifted a vineyard to tend, is surrounded by the gift of God’s word to root us in love, is given the tools needed to tend the vineyard, and is promised that even when we are pretty terrible farmers, Jesus will redeem our darkest days.  God has given us all we need, walks with us in the darkness, and makes a way for us toward light.

The invitation for us today is two-fold.  The first is to go back to the beginning – whether we go back to the collect we heard today, go back to the covenantal stories of our walk with God, or go back to our own vineyard to look around at the abundance in which we find ourselves.  Sometimes in order to appreciate where we are in our Journey to Generosity, we have to look back at the faithfulness of God that is often only evident in the rearview mirror.  After we have immersed ourselves in the abundance of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness offered by our God, then we take the next step on our journey.  What that next step is will be different for each person in this room.  But if we can envision each person in this room as agents of God’s light and love, imagine the collective power we have to drive out darkness, and transform the world into goodness.  We do not do this work alone.  We are encouraged today by fellow companions on the Journey to Generosity.  I cannot wait to hear the stories from your adventures in generosity.  God is doing great things through you.  And that is reason enough for hope.  Amen.

[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew:  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), 186-187.  Verbs in quotation changed to present tense for preaching purposes.

[ii] David Lose, “Pentecost 18A: Words and Deeds,” October 6, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/10/pentecost-18-a-words-and-deeds/ on October 6, 2017.

A Journey to Generosity…

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tens_nodate_logovertical (1)I am always amused when I discover the Holy Spirit at work because the discovery usually happens when I am in the thick of executing something I thought I had planned myself.  Ideas come to me, I test out the idea with others, I do the planning to implement the idea – basically the whole process involves a great deal of self-direction.  But when an idea really blows me away is when the idea takes off in even better ways than I planned.  When I finally realize how inspired the idea is, I realize that the idea could not have possibly come from me alone.  The only way those incredible moments of confluence occur is through the Holy Spirit.

I had one of those moments this week.  On Sunday we kicked off our stewardship campaign entitled “Journey to Generosity.”   All sorts of activities are a part of that campaign:  inspirational materials from our Stewardship Committee explaining the campaign, reflections from fellow parishioners, Parish Parties, sermons from the clergy, and meditations from national church leaders.  All of those experiences would be enough to situate us in a place of profound gratitude.  But then other things started happening.

The first has been attending our adult formation series.  The series is about evangelism, so I had expected our energies to be focused on the work of spreading the good news.  But the first sentence from the book we are using says, “Evangelism is your natural expression of gratitude for God’s goodness.”[i]  While I thought our conversations about gratitude and generosity would be limited to stewardship, here gratitude was permeating other areas of church life.  The second thing that happened was welcoming the first of three babies due this month at church.  As I held the first one yesterday, especially after a rough twenty-four hours of mourning another massive shooting in Las Vegas, I looked at that tiny child and felt a profound sense of gratitude for the gift of life.

Our “inspired” idea to talk and pray about our Journey to Generosity has already morphed into something much bigger.  I find myself being grateful not just for the generosity of parishioners who are passionate about our church and support its work through financial giving.  I am also grateful for a community of people who are so enthusiastic about their gratitude that they want to go out and share the good news with others.  I am grateful for a church community so generous in spirit that they can take tragedy and find rays of light and hope all around.  I am grateful for a community whose gratitude is so powerful that they have a vision of making our community a better place:  through our Fall Festival, through our visioning work with our Vestry, and through daily service to others.  What seemed like a catchy campaign slogan has actually been naming a way of life at Hickory Neck:  a life rooted in gratitude and generosity.  Thank you for letting me be a part of this journey with you all.  You inspire me every day and you transform my relationship with God every week.  God bless you on your journey to generosity!

[i] David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism (New York:  Church Publishing, 2008), 1.

On Cars and Change…

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Photo credit:  https://orlandoespinosa.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/to-everything/

This weekend we got a new car and traded in my old car.  My old car was fifteen years old and had almost 180,000 miles.  We would have kept the car longer, but there were too many expensive fixes to make repairing the car worth the car’s value.  Normally, people get pretty excited about a new car – all the old dents and scratches are gone, and in my case, I can now be certain I won’t be break down on the highway.  But mostly I have been a bit sad about having to get rid of the old car.  That car helped us get through three rounds of graduate school, four moves, multiple jobs, the birth of two children, and was only six months younger than our marriage.  The car survived endless road trips, commutes to work, and at one point was our shared car until we got a second car.  Although the car had started making me anxious with all its repair needs, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a good, faithful friend.

As I have been reflecting on that experience, I have been thinking my experience with my old and new car is similar to how we all experience change.  Most of us know that change in inevitable, and yet most of us do not like change.  Even if the thing we are changing from is good for us, we miss the old quirks, patterns, and sense of regularity.  And the further out of the familiar we get, the more epic the memory of what once was becomes.  This is often the point at which people begin to refer to the “good ol’ days,” or “the way things used to be.”  Whatever the new change is will rarely seem as good as the old standard.

I have been feeling that way about my new car.  Sure, it is more reliable, it has fewer things peeling, sagging, or just broken, and it is more sporty, shiny, and colorful.  But I am finding I am not yet sold.  The new car just does not feel like it fits yet.  Observing my feelings about my car has been especially helpful for me as I think about all the times I have introduced change at church.  Sure, whatever changes I have introduced are usually for the good, and most often, become the new “way we have always done it.”  But falling in love with the new change takes time.  It does not happen overnight.

Perhaps this may be a good way we can approach our relationship with God.  The Holy Spirit is God’s agent of change.  She is always whispering new ideas, blowing new people into our lives, and breathing life into our imaginations.  Listening to the movement of the Holy Spirit is exciting, fun, and invigorating.  But boldly following the Holy Spirit also needs to involve tending to the grief of letting go of the what the Spirit was doing before.  The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”  I wonder what seasons are passing away in your life, and what new times are arriving for you.  My prayer for you is that you be able to appreciate the season you are in, let go of the seasons that have passed, and embrace the seasons that are yet to come.  I know the Holy Spirit is doing good things in you.  I cannot wait to walk with you in the twists and turns!

Sermon – Exodus 16.2-15, Matthew 20.1-16, P20, YA, September 24, 2017

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This week in Discovery Class, we did a review of Holy Scripture.  We talked about how many years writing the Bible took, the content in each section, the types of literature we find in scripture, and what scripture reveals about us as God’s people.  Our homework was to study today’s gospel lesson, being sure to read the text immediately before and after the text we hear today as a way of helping us interpret the passage.  That tip was especially telling in today’s Old and New Testament lessons

In our lesson from Exodus last Sunday, we heard the story of the parting of the Sea of Reeds.  We heard of that dramatic moment where God allows the Israelites to pass through on dry land, but destroys the Egyptians as the waters return.  The last line in last week’s lesson from Exodus is, “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians.  So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.”  Today, the first sentence from our Exodus reading is, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”  Israel’s groaning and complaining today are much more grievous when we read the great heights of their praise and faithfulness last week.

Likewise, in our gospel lesson today, we hear the familiar story of the generous landowner, who gives the same wage to those who work an hour and those who work all day in the broiling sun.  We can read this passage, and criticize the envious, hardworking laborers for their lack of gratitude.  But the power of the story is heightened when we realize immediately before Jesus’ parable, Peter interrupts Jesus’ teaching and basically says, “But what about us?  We left everything behind and we have been following you.  What’s in it for us?”  And right after Jesus’ parable, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus and basically says, “Listen, if it’s not too much trouble, can my boys sit at your right and left hand in the kingdom?”  So, when Jesus says to Peter, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” and when the landowner says to the workers, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” what do you think Jesus is trying to address?[i]

I do not know about you, but both of these texts have left me pretty uncomfortable this week.  Watching the Israelites go from faithful, obedient, loyal followers, to whiny, unappreciative, complaining messes hits a little too close to home.  Admittedly, part of me cringes at this text because we have been hammering home the importance of gratitude with our own children.  No sooner is the ice cream cone finished before the complaint comes that we never do anything nice for them.  But as much as we fuss at them, we know the same is true for us.  We are great at praise and thanksgiving to God – when things are going well.  When seas are parting, and enemies are defeated, our God is awesome.  But when we cannot seem to make ends meet, when our loved one is sick again, or when our relationships are falling apart, gratitude is the last thing on our lips.  We find ourselves in what one scholar calls the “spiritual wilderness of ingratitude.”[ii]  We cringe at these readings because we are no more masters at gratitude than our children are.

What both of these lessons do, ever so brutally, is lure us in with stories about abundant, underserved generosity, and put under a microscope our deeply buried discomfort with abundant, underserved generosity.  Part of the reason we are uncomfortable is because God’s generosity often bumps up against our notions of fairness.[iii]  I do not know if we understand the concept of fairness innately or if we are taught fairness by our community, but somewhere along the line, we learn the concept of fairness and apply the concept with exacting scrutiny.  I remember when I was a child and wanted a treat, my dad would make my brother and me share the treat.  One child was allowed to split the treat in half, but the other child got to pick which half he or she wanted.  You can imagine how precise my cuts became when looking at that cookie.

But our notions of fairness evolve over time.  One could take that same cookie and give a slightly larger half to the older child since they are bigger.  Or one could take that same cookie and give the slightly larger half to the child who was better-behaved.  Or one could give the larger half to the one who was physically weaker and needed more nourishment.  There are all sorts of ways to determine fairness.  But God’s measure, in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures seems to be that everyone receives God’s generosity despite worth or effort – or even the showing of gratitude.

Take our lesson from Exodus.  The people have clearly approached mutiny.  Their love for God is buried in their physical hunger and their self-centered greed.  But instead of punishing the Israelites, God lavishes them with all they need.  God gives them bread every day and meat every night.  In fact, God even gives them a double portion on the eve of the Sabbath so that they can observe the Sabbath without having to work for their food.  The feast is not a rich feast of wines and marrow, but their feast is gloriously generous and enough.

The same is true in Jesus’ parable.  Yes, the landowner has a weird way of putting the day-long workers in the awkward position of watching his generosity, but ultimately, the landowner gives everyone enough.  He gives the wage he promised to the day-long workers – a wage that will fill them and their families for days.[iv]  But he also gives the same wage to the hour-long workers.  Sure, they did not deserve the wage, but the same wage that feeds the other workers feeds them too.  The landowner is gloriously generous and gives enough.[v]

I have been wondering all week where these texts leave us:  maybe a bit guilty, perhaps a bit convicted, and definitely “last” in the pecking order Jesus describes.  But what I realized this week is both in Exodus and in Jesus’ parable, perhaps being last is not all that bad.  You see, Jesus does not say, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be ejected.”  No, Jesus says, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  So even on our worst Israelite days, when we are moaning and complaining about the very God who miraculously saved us, or even on our worst vineyard days, when we are complaining about an unfair, albeit generous, owner, we are still not ejected.  We are not taken out of God’s generosity; we are not stripped of our blessing.  We may be last, but we still have enough.  Our abundantly generous God takes care of us when we deserve God’s care and when we do not.  Our abundantly generous God gives us enough when we think God’s generosity is fair and when we do not.  Our abundantly generous God loves us whether we embrace God’s generosity or we do not.

I cannot promise we will ever get in line with God’s generosity.  I am not sure we will ever be cured of our sense of fairness or even our ill-conceived notions that we could earn God’s generosity.  But what I can tell you is that we are not alone.  Our people thousands of years ago did not master God’s generosity.  The disciples two thousand years ago did not master Christ’s generosity.  And I suspect we will not either.  But every week, we try.  Every week we continue on our journey toward generosity – seeing God’s generosity in ourselves and others – being inspired to try again.  I am not sure we will ever be first in line.  But the good news is we get to stay in line – which means there is always room to try again.  Our generous God will make sure we have enough until then.  Amen.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 100-102.

[ii] Deborah A. Block, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplemental Essays, Year A  (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 2.

[iii] Taylor, 103.

[iv] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York:  Harper Collins, 2014), 224.

[v] Block, 4.

On Creating Tables…

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Group of people using their smart phones

Photo credit:  https://www.webmarketing-com.com/2016/10/03/50473-mobile-first-vitesse-enjeu-principal

This week I stumbled on a commercial that was created for an event commemorating Canada’s 150th anniversary.  Canada decided to celebrate with “Eat Together” Day this summer.  The commercial, which you can see here, features a woman, surrounded by people on their phones wrapped up in their own worlds, not acknowledging each other’s presence.  Fed up, she grabs her roommate, her small kitchen table and chairs, and sets dinner out in the hallway of their apartment complex.  Slowly, people emerge from the elevator and are invited to sit down.  Others hear the commotion, come out of apartments, and add tables, chairs, and food to the impromptu gathering.  People of all colors, ethnicities, and ages sit at the table, perhaps hearing and seeing each other for the first time.

Modern technology did not create the longing to be connected.  The need has always been there.  But technology has shifted how we connect.  We can now feel closer to friends in distant places, keep up to date on news stories that were buried or hard to find, and even connect with strangers with whom we have a lot in common.  But connecting online sometimes means we are no longer available for the person sitting on the couch next to us, waiting in line at the grocery store, or living next door.  In a desire to connect from afar, we sometimes forget to connect nearby.

I am usually one of the last to criticize the ways in which technology helps us connect.  In this past week alone, I have been grateful for the ways social media has enabled me to hear when a friend or family member is safe after a storm, to see that good things are still happening to my friends who are living in areas of conflict, and to learn when friends are blessed with new babies, marriages, and milestones.  In fact, this weekend Christians around the world will be participating in “Social Media Sunday,” a Sunday to embrace the ways social media helps us connect both virtually and in real time to our neighbors, friends, and strangers.

At Hickory Neck, we will be joining other churches as we celebrate the ways social media brings us together.  But part of what we are celebrating this Sunday is how social media takes the connections we make online, and brings them to the table – the Eucharistic table, where, like that video “Eat Together,” people encounter one another in meaningful, vulnerable, and powerful ways.  We can certainly be transformed by Social Media, but nothing can replace the taste of communion bread and wine on your tongue, the experience of brushing shoulders at the altar rail with someone very different from you, and the power of God’s blessing that comes at the table.  So by all means, post about Hickory Neck Episcopal Church, bringing your cell phones and tablets to church.  But also make time and room this week to “Eat Together” at God’s table.  I suspect that the connections you make at the Eucharistic Table will enrich the virtual table you have created online.

On Busyness…

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We all have habits that pull us away from God.  Mine is the habit of busyness.  In juggling family, work, and self, I can easily fill every second of every day.  Even the fun stuff I schedule can feel like something to be “fit” into the schedule, not delighted in and savored in the moment.  I was particularly convicted of this reality by a speaker I heard at a leadership conference, Juliet Funt, who talked about the value of white space.  She defines white space as the strategic pause taken between activities.  White space is not meditation, letting the mind wander, or mindfulness.  It is a simple, intentional break.  And white space isn’t just for work – it is for the home too.

What struck me about her talk is I realized in my devotion to busyness, I am carving out a life that looks and is experienced in a particular way – a way that I am not sure I necessarily like.  Two things brought this home to me recently.  The first was watching the film About Time.  The plotline was a bit farfetched:  a man who can travel back in time and change parts of his life.  After myriad adventures, what the time traveler eventually realizes (spoiler alert!) is that he does not need to travel anymore.  Instead, he treats everyday like a gift to be savored and celebrated.  He was carving out white space in his life.

The second thing that brought this home was the funeral of a beloved parishioner.  In the eulogy, the family talked about all the life lessons they had learned from their mother, many of which were about living with joy and exuberance.  As I sat listening to the eulogy, I realized that everyday I am filling up my children’s life full of lessons – and I want them to be the right ones.

So, taking a cue from the fictional to the very real, I decided to create a little white space this week.  There are some lovely yellow wildflowers blooming on the drive to my children’s childcare facility.  So yesterday, I pulled over, grabbed the phone, and took some pictures of beauty – the beauty of God’s creation in nature and in my children.  It was a small victory, but as my children proclaimed, “That was fun!” I knew I had carved out a little holy space for all of us:  space to say thank you to God for all of our gifts – creation, life, each other.  I invite you today to find a moment of white space.  I can’t wait to hear about what that white space brings!

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Photo credit:  eskipaper.com/yellow-flowers-field-background.html#gal_post_32591_yellow-flowers-field-background-1.jpg

Sermon – Matthew 18.15-20, P18, YA, September 10, 2017

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I have been looking forward to this Sunday for weeks!  After taking successive vacations at the end of the summer, all of our staff are finally back in town.  Many of you have been traveling, spending time away with friends, or simply taking a break to enjoy the last bits of summer.  Our musicians and liturgy team have been planning our return to three services.  Our Stewardship Committee has been organizing our new Discipleship Fair.  Our Parish Life Committee has been organizing our Parish Picnic.  Church members have been inviting friends to join them for church, or maybe you yourself decided today was the day to search for a new church home.  I have felt the anticipation building as this has day approached.

I have been so excited to kick off a new program year, to invite people to engage in their faith journey, and to share an invitation to others to discover the beauty of this vibrant community, and what does the gospel lesson from Matthew offer us?  A text about fighting within the church.  Jesus does not just admit that sometimes, every once in a while, people in the church might experience conflict.  No, Jesus goes into great detail about what to do when you face conflict in the church:  embrace conflict directly, repeatedly, and publicly.  To those of us who were raised in the South, or at least to those of us who were raised in conflict-avoidant families, this text is our worst nightmare!  And this is certainly not the joyful text I was looking for when anticipating this festive day.

Part of what bothers us about this text from Holy Scripture is many of us come to church looking for a break from the conflict that surrounds our everyday life.  Whether we experience conflict in our families, conflict in our workplaces, schools, or service organizations, or conflict in our political lives, the last thing we want to do when we come to church on Sundays is deal with more conflict.  A friend of mine once confessed to me that he was thinking about leaving his current church home over a conflict within the church.  We were both young adults, on our own for the first time since college, and we had images in our minds about what church should be and what we wanted from our church communities.  But instead of bucolic communities of peace, harmony, and justice, we were both finding churches riddled with conflict and disunity.  As we were talking about his frustration, my friend finally confessed, “When I go to church, I just want everyone to get along.  I go to church to escape what is going on in my everyday life, not relive it!”

Now, I could spend the next hour deconstructing his complaint, but there is something powerful at the heart of his complaint, and perhaps at the heart of our own experience of church.  When we talk about church as being like a family, or being like home, what we really mean is we want a place that is a bit unlike our families or homes.  We want a place that is always happy, loving, nurturing, sometimes challenging, but more often comforting.  When we think about the warm, fuzzy feeling we have, the feeling we find at a place like Hickory Neck, the last thing we think is, “Man, I love the way we handle conflict at church!”

Unfortunately, that is exactly what our text is inviting us to do – to celebrate the way that the church teaches us to fight – or to phrase it a little differently, how the church teaches us to deal with conflict in healthy ways.  In order to get to the point where we can see the gift of healthy conflict resolution as a good thing, we need to do a few things.  First, we need to get to the point where we can embrace the inevitability of conflict in the church community.  For some of us, that is not a big hurdle.  For others of us, the assumption of conflict is difficult.  Perhaps you were raised in a family who treated conflict as something to be avoided at all costs.  Or perhaps you grew up in an environment where conflict was so aggressive you created patterns of conflict-avoidance later in life.  Regardless, if we have come to see conflict as the enemy, accepting the inevitability of conflict is going to be our first task.  In Matthew’s gospel today, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  But what he implies is that when two are three are gathered in his name, there will be conflict.  Jesus himself was so sure there would be conflict that he developed a whole conflict management plan.  So take a deep breath, let the breath out, and repeat after me, “Conflict is unavoidable in church.”

Now that you are breathing calmly, and accepting the unavoidable, the next thing we need to do is honor the gift of conflict management Jesus gives us in scripture today.  For those of us who are conflict avoidant, Jesus’ conflict management plan is going to seem daunting.  The good news is scholars agree with you.  Many of the scholars who have written about this text say the step-by-step instructions do not necessarily need to be read as a step-by-step guide to solving conflict within a church.[i]  What is most important is what the instructions convey:  conflict in the church is not to be ignored, hidden, or buried.  Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has this to say about conflict, “[Jesus] assumes that conflict is not to be ignored or denied, but rather conflict, which may involve sins, is to be forced into the open.  Christian discipleship requires confrontation because the peace that Jesus has established is not simply the absence of violence.  The peace of Christ is nonviolent precisely because it is based on truth and truth-telling.  Just as love without truth cannot help but be accursed, so peace between the brothers and sisters of Jesus must be without illusion.”[ii]

As Christians, Jesus wants us to behave differently.  Jesus wants us to be truthful with one another.  Jesus wants us to deal with one another face-to-face instead of talking behind each other’s backs.  Jesus wants us to work on reconciliation of relationships instead of letting hurt and pain fester and erode relationships.  For Jesus, being right or wrong is much less important than being in relationship.  Being in right relationship, keeping the family together is much more important.[iii]  Jesus wants us to take a breath in, let the breath out, and repeat after him, “Conflict is not the enemy.  Letting conflict ruin relationships is the enemy.”

Finally, once we have accepted the inevitability of conflict, and once we have agreed to value relationships over the avoidance of discomfort, we are ready to embrace the gift of our gospel lesson today – and perhaps even claim that this might be the perfect lesson for a Rally Sunday.  If you came to church to escape conflict or enter some bubble of blissfully ignorant happiness, Hickory Neck is probably not the right place for you.  But, if you came to Hickory Neck to learn how to transform conflict into something holy, they you may have just found a real home – not a home based on illusion, but a home based on truth, dignity, and respect.  When you accept the inevitability of conflict and the value of meaningful relationship, you receive the tools to work through conflict and land in the reality of reconciliation.

But here is the best part of Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Class today.  If we can stay on the journey through conflict to reconciliation, gaining the tools that this community has to offer us, then we as a community create something much more powerful than can be contained in these walls.  We create a witness for our community.  We create disciples capable of not only working through conflict within the community, but also capable of modeling reconciliation beyond our community.  Anyone who has read a headline in our country in the last year knows that our country needs more models for healthy conflict engagement.  That is what Jesus offers us today:  tools to work on our own issues around conflict, tools to become a loving, honest, and reconciling community, and tools to teach reconciliation beyond these walls.  Jesus has promised to be with us as we do our work.  In fact, Jesus is here with us now as we anxiously try to step on that path toward reconciliation.  So take a deep breath, let the breath out, and repeat after me, “Conflict is a blessing my church teaches me to embrace.  Thank you, Jesus, for the blessing of conflict and the promise of reconciliation.  Help me to share that gift with others.”  Amen.

[i] David Lose, “Pentecost 14 A – Christian Community,” September 6, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/09/pentecost-14-a-christian-community/ on September 7, 2017.

[ii] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew:  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), 165-166.

[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 88-89.

On Comforters and Church…

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Sleeping-in

Photo credit:  https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2015/11/20/Sleeping-in-on-the-weekend-may-be-bad-for-your-health/1821448035720

I have a confession to make.  Though I always encourage parishioners to go to church when they are traveling, and though many of my clergy friends love checking out other churches while on vacation, this year I skipped church both Sundays I was on vacation.  There were options available to us – in fact, I could have seen some clergy friends celebrate in their own churches.  Instead, I slept in, went shopping, took a long walk, ate brunch, and generally treated the day as a true day “off.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it is perfectly healthy to just take a day off from church now and then.  For parents with children, I totally get how hard it is just to get out the door, let alone manage their squirminess in the pew.  In fact, I’ve had parents tell me that they always have to read my sermons on my blog because their kids are just too distracting.  And even if you do not have kids, sometimes the allure of a warm bed or cozy pajamas is just too much.  Sometimes you just need a break.

But here is what I noticed about skipping two Sundays in a row:  something was missing.  I had a hard time tracking what day of the week it was the rest of the week.  I missed seeing familiar faces and hearing about the joys and challenges of the week.  I missed singing songs of praise, being challenged by Holy Scripture, and participating in the holy meal.  I missed prayer time with God, being surrounded by a community that confesses their sins as I confess my own, and having time to set an intention for the week – whether something the preacher said or something the Holy Spirit inspired.

That’s the thing about going to church:  it gives meaning to everything else I do during the week.  The things we say and do in worship, the ways that we relate in community, and the purpose we find as we are sent out into the world define how I experience the rest of life.  And when you find a really great church, that experience makes it a lot easier to toss off that comforter and head to church for some real comfort.  If you are looking for such an experience, you are always welcome at Hickory Neck.  And if you already found a church home at Hickory Neck, invite a friend to join you next Sunday.  The paper and that cozy bed will be waiting for you after church!