On Light, Community, and Being All In…

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Photo credit:  Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; resuse with permission

This past weekend, our family traveled to Staunton, Virginia, for their annual Queen City Mischief and Magic weekend – a weekend to celebrate all things Harry Potter.  We had a great time discovering what houses we were sorted into, observing how to duel with wands, and learning dances for the next Yule Ball.  The kids busied themselves collecting trading cards from costumed characters and from local establishments.  The whole downtown area shut down and found creative ways to channel the world of Harry Potter – from the local train station taking on the persona of Platform 9 ¾, to a photography business creating keepsake photos, to a toy store changing out their stock with Potter toys, games, and books, to the local university offering lectures related to themes from the series, to the local spirits store selling “butter beer.”  For those who love the Harry Potter books and movies, it is a great fun-filled weekend.

As we drove home, I realized what amazed me most about the weekend was not the characters, the paraphernalia, or the crowds.  What amazed me was how a few years ago this small town had a crazy idea to convert the town to this magical place – and everyone bought into the idea.  Staunton does not have some significant tie to JK Rowling or the filming of the movies.  They are just a small town in the middle of the state who decided to do something – and the whole town was all in.  I do not know the history of that idea, or how many people said, “but we’ve never done anything like this,” along the way, or how they figured out the logistics and convinced people to get on board.  But what I can tell you is after two years of attending the festival, the whole town is not just grudgingly on board, but wholeheartedly comes together to welcome people to their town that might not otherwise ever step onto their streets.

I know Staunton converts itself for just three days.  But the more I thought about the event, the more I wondered what kind of power our community might be able to harness for good.  I have certainly seen hints of that kind of energy with the WMBGkind movement in Williamsburg – a community of people committed to being a community of kindness as their dominant identity.  I think that is why I have always thought WMBGkind and the faith community can be such great partners.  Though we use religious language, the end result is the same.  We want our community to be a community that lives Christ-like lives of loving-kindness.  In that way, no matter what our denominational or faith differences are, we can step out of our day-to-day operations and be a part of something much bigger – of a people all united around mission of loving neighbor as ourselves.

This week, Hickory Neck kicked off its stewardship campaign, “Shining our Light.”  What I love about the campaign is the campaign reminds us to look at how much light we are gifted with (in worship, in learning, and in play), and then to gift that light the community around us – to shine our lights, rallying the entire community to live life differently.  That is a cause I am happy to pledge our financial giving to; that is a cause I am excited to pledge our time and talent to as well.  This month, as we pray about our own stewardship, I encourage you to think about how your giving not only supports the ministry of Hickory Neck, but might just have the power to transform our community into something much bigger than ourselves.  I am all in.  Won’t you join me?

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Sermon – Luke 16.19-31, P21, YC, September 29, 2019

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I was listening to my favorite preaching podcast this week, which is hosted by three to four seminary professors and scholars.  Usually they spend about a third to half of the podcast talking about the gospel lesson, and then spend the rest of the time on the three other lessons.  But this week, the focus on the gospel was pretty truncated.  In fact, one of the scholars basically said, “If you are looking for some new knowledge or some hidden message in this gospel, there isn’t one.  This one is pretty straightforward.”[i]  After a convoluted, at times ambiguous, lesson last week about a crooked manager who gets praised for his deviousness, this week’s gospel has very little ambiguity.  You can almost hear echoes of Luke’s beatitudes from chapter 6, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God….but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”[ii]

We could easily read this parable about the rich man and Lazarus and think, “Wow that rich man really messed up; I am so glad I am not rich so I do not have to worry about that kind of poor behavior.”  But here is the thing:  Jesus is not telling a story about “that guy.”  The fact that Lazarus has a name but the rich man does not gives us a big interpretive tool for this parable.[iii]  This is not a parable about a man who messed up ages ago.  This is a parable for faithful people everywhere who daily must navigate the truth of scripture with the reality of being persons of wealth.  Our very citizenship in this country means that we are people of wealth.  We are the rich man.

So, if we are the rich man, what can we learn from him?  Unlike in our passage a few weeks ago, Jesus is not telling us to give up our possessions so we are no longer rich.  What Jesus is saying is our wealth will make behaving faithfully very difficult.  Later, Luke will tell us behaving faithfully with wealth will make getting into the heavenly kingdom as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle.  Jesus warns us because wealth has a corrosive impact on our lives.  Wealth can make us confuse wants with needs.  Wealth can make us think we somehow deserve wealth – as if we did something to earn favored position in life, instead of blessing coming from the grace of God.[iv]  Wealth can deaden our empathy, turning us inward, slowly turning us into people who avert our eyes in the face of poverty, who dehumanize those in poverty, seeing them as servants instead of equals, who become convinced just being Christians and not living as Christians is enough.

We can see how the rich man in our parable gets there.  We are told his clothing is of fine quality.  He eats sumptuously every day.  He clearly ignores Lazarus, sitting by his gate every day.  We know he actively ignores Lazarus because we find later he knows Lazarus’ name without ever having reached out to him.  Even in his death, the rich man is buried with dignity and care.  Therefore, his behavior in Hades, or Sheol, should be no surprise.  Even in suffering afterlife, the rich man dehumanizes Lazarus.  He regards Lazarus as a servant and messenger who can be ordered around to bring him water or warn his brothers.  When your whole life has been blessed by wealth, slipping into a pattern of forgetting to respect the dignity of every human being is quite easy.

The judgment of the parable is both gentle and direct.  Beloved father Abraham, who gathers Lazarus into his bosom, still sees the humanity in the rich man.  Calling him “child,” he almost sadly has to remind him of his poor earthly behavior.  When the rich man desperately tries to help his living brothers, Abraham finally has to be firmer.  Like the beloved father he is, Abraham draws a definitive boundary.  As the rich man insists his brothers need a personal testimony to change their own wealthy behavior, Abraham reminds the rich man they have already been warned by Moses and the prophets. And if any of us wonder if Abraham is being overly dramatic, we need only catalogue the scripture lessons warning about wealthy behavior:  Exodus 22.21-22, 23.9, Leviticus 19.9-10, 19.33, 23.22, Deuteronomy 10.17-19, 15.1-11, 24.17-18, Amos 2.6-8, Hosea 12.7-9, Micah 3.1-3, Zephaniah, Malachi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and on, and on, and on.[v]  And Abraham is not even talking about Jesus’ warnings.  Even later letters, like we heard today in the first letter of Timothy, take up the mantle.

So if our very citizenship makes us like the rich man, what can we do to resist the corrosiveness of wealth?  The gospel lesson today seems to suggest three things.  First, one way to combat the seductive lure of wealthy living is to root ourselves in Scripture and Christian community.  One of the things our Discovery Class attendees are learning is how steeped in Scripture Episcopal worship is.  Just by coming to church on Sundays, we hear a large portion of the Bible’s words.  Add in our songs and our prayers, and suddenly we find our liturgy is dripping with the words of Scripture.  Coming to church and hearing hard texts like this one and the ones we have been having for weeks, we find ourselves among a community of people who want to live life differently, and need Holy Scripture and each other to do that.  Of course, reading and praying with scripture and your Prayer Book outside of Sundays doesn’t hurt either.

Second, another way to resist the pull of wealthy living is to spend time examining the chasms in our lives.  Abraham insists Lazarus cannot help the rich man for many reasons; one of those reasons is the great physical, uncrossable chasm between the two realities the men now inhabit.  But that chasm is just a reflection of the chasm that existed on earth too – the rich man’s gate that prohibited connection, help, or even awareness of Lazarus’s suffering and need.[vi]  We create those same chasms, those same gates in our everyday lives too.  We ignore the dilapidated housing we pass on our drives, we allow ourselves to forget the vast number of students on reduced and free lunch in our schools, we choose homes and sidewalks that allow us to avoid the homelessness we meet every winter at the Shelter.  Today’s gospel lesson encourages us to use our eyes to see, really see, the gates we have built and to begin to dismantle them.

Finally, another way we fight the power of wealth is to use the wealth for goodness – to shine our light into the world, as our stewardship team will be encouraging us to do this month.  I know that kind of charge can feel overwhelming – we could give away every cent we have and not heal every Lazarus we meet.  I am not saying we should not use some of our wealth to try – whether we give to the Lazarus in front of us, the non-profits that create support systems for Lazaruses, or, and particularly important, we use our wealth to support this faith community:  the community that teaches us how to be faithful, that brings together the community of support we need to follow Jesus, and that propels us into the world as enlightened people of faith.  As the dishonest steward taught us last week, we can use our corrupting wealth for goodness.  We can use the precarious nature of wealth to be agents of light in the world – to shine our lights as Hickory Neck.

The work will be difficult.  Jesus assures us the work will be hard and shows us that reality in parable after parable.  But we are encouraged today because of the people in this room.  This is a community of people who not only give us a sense of belonging and support, this is also a community of people who have your back in figuring out this whole faithful Christian living thing.  This is a community of people who vulnerably, humbly, and joyfully are willing to walk with you.  We can shine our lights because each person in this room is shining their light too.  Together we can do the work to open gates, dismantle closed doors, and fill in chasms of separation.  Together we can turn the lure of wealth into a tool for goodness.  Together we can show the world another way, shining our lights.  Amen.

 

[i] Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave #682 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 26),” September 21, 2019, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1180 on September 24, 2019.

[ii] Luke 6.20, 24

[iii] Charles B. Cousar, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 117.

[iv] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1990), 196.

[v] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 3 (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 1991), 253.

[vi] Skinner.

On Discernment…

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This past weekend, our Diocese elected its next bishop.  Having never served in a diocese that was electing a bishop, I was not entirely sure what to expect.  I had heard stories of clergy politicking for particular candidates, trying to sway their colleagues to vote a particular way.  I knew we have a diversity of perspectives in our Diocese and coming to consensus may be difficult.  And although I had spoken to many clergy colleagues about their discernment for the best bishop, I did not know nearly as many laity and what their discernment had been like.  By the time we gathered for the election, I felt anxious, hoping we could be civil, but dreading what might be a contentious process.

Instead, I found something quite different.  Some of the difference may have been the result of careful crafting.  We were seated in an auditorium, with a long center row.  Try as one might, getting up and down to talk to others between votes was not exactly easy.  Instead, many of us were left to pray on our own or consult the limited people around us.  Likewise, once the polling was closed, we were required to wait for the candidates to be notified of the results before we were; once the results were announced though, the leadership immediately had us vote again.  We had little ability to process the results of one ballot with others before voting again.  Further, before each vote, our chaplain read a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.  And finally, there was absolutely no internet or WiFi in the room, forcing us away from technology and into a real sense of presence in the room.

Perhaps it was the rigid structure that guided our behavior, making the election different than I expected.  But I also suspect those gathered last weekend consciously chose a different path.  Instead of dividing into camps behind one of the six candidates, our laity and clergy seemed to embrace the election as a matter of prayerful discernment, not premeditated politicking.  Limited by the confines of the room, you could sense the powerful prayers emanating from each delegate – desperately trying to discern the Holy Spirit’s will.  The pacing of the ballots did two things.  One, there was ample time to prayerfully consider the name one just submitted electronically, before knowing what everyone else had just done; and two, there was a mandate to keep moving, to keep faithfully and rapidly calling on God for answers.  Even our chaplain seemed to root us in tradition.  By using the BCP instead of extemporaneous prayer, she minimized her and our influence on one another – instead, calling us back to the book the is such a marker of our identity.

You may already know about the dramatic turn of events toward the end of our election.  I suspect the prayerful process of discernment in which we were engaged in that space was also shared among the candidates, helping them to faithfully discern what they should do too.  Having walked through that experience so prayerfully, I wonder if there is not something for us all to learn from about the hard decisions of everyday life.  Perhaps we too could stand to:  root ourselves in prayer, trust those around us to be praying too, create environments around our discernment where are weakness are less able to thrive, return again and again to the beautiful words of prayer book, make space for silence when you do not know all there is to know, and, perhaps most importantly, trust the Holy Spirit to do great things in spite of us.  If you are in discernment about something in your life, know that you have my prayers.  I would love to hear your stories of how the Spirit is moving in your life too!

Sermon – Lk. 16.1-13, P20, YC, September 22, 2019

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In seminary I took a class about Reconciliation, and one of the requirements of the class was to lead a Bible Study at the local jail.  Our team of four Episcopalians waltzed into the jail, prepared with study notes, a lesson plan, and as much of an air of confidence as we could muster.  Not very long into the Bible Study, though, we realized we were in trouble.  You see, many of us had been drawn to the Episcopal Church because the Episcopal Church embraces the via media, or the middle way; we are a church that affirms the sacredness of the gray over the black and white.  But an inmate has no time for gray.  Their whole lives are governed by black and white, right and wrong.  The rigidity of life in jail is applied to Holy Scripture as well.  Most of the inmates were either perplexed by our suggestion of any ambiguity or gray in Scripture, or simply thought we were wrong.  Fortunately, our professor had come along.  After about forty-five minutes of debate and disagreement, our professor quietly spoke.  He invited the men to reflect on life where they were from, the complexities of the street, racism, and poverty.  If life at home was so layered, ambiguous, and complicated, surely Scripture could be too.  I am not saying my professor made any great strides in the debate around the literal interpretation of Scripture, but I believe he may have opened a window for some of the inmates.

I think today’s Scripture lesson is a bit like that jail classroom.  At first glance, this could be considered a text that is black and white.  The final verse of our gospel says, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  There is no gray in Jesus’ words.  Either we choose God or we choose money.  And based on the fact God is one of our two options, there is no ambiguity about which of these options we should choose.  But here is the problem with trying to assert this passage of scripture is black and white.  Whereas as the end of the passage Jesus seems to be saying we must choose God or money, in the parable, Jesus seems to be saying something else.

If you recall, in the parable, we have a poorly-behaving manager.  The manager has squandered away the master’s money.  When he is caught, the manager takes a good look at himself and admits some honest truths – he is not capable of doing manual labor and he is too embarrassed to beg for money.  Having been honest about who he is, he connives his way into a solution:  he will engender goodwill among his neighbors by doing financial favors for each of them – forgiving portions of their debts in the hopes that they will sometime very soon return the favor.  Both the master and Jesus recognize the shrewdness or wisdom in the manager’s behavior because the manager uses his wits to get out of a devastating position.  In verse nine, the text says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

This is where things get confusing.  At first, Jesus seemed to be clearly saying money is evil and we must choose God over money.  But when Jesus says to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” Jesus seems to be claiming money can sometimes be one of those gray areas of life; in fact, money can be used as a means to an end.  Now, we all have varying philosophies about money.  Some of us manage to care very little about money, with money holding very little power over us.  Some of us struggle with money, sometimes remembering how money can be used for good, but most times feeling like money creates stress and anxiety in our lives that we cannot seem to shake.  And others of us become narrowly focused on money – either in how we can acquire more or what ways we can spend and enjoy money more.  What Jesus knows we often forget is money is inherently “dishonest.”  Money creates systems of injustice and hierarchies of power; money can destroy marriages and friendships; and money can be the ruin of many a person.  So when Jesus says to make friends through dishonest wealth, he does not mean to become a dishonest people; he means money inherently lures us into dishonesty, and we can either throw our hands up in the air in resignation and a refusal to be associated with that dishonesty, or we can use that dishonest wealth as a means to something much more important – relationship with others.

One of the things I like to do when I am struggling with a challenging Biblical text is to look at other translations to see if I can make more sense of Jesus’ words.  This week, I found the most help from a translation called, The Message.  Now as ample warning, The Message is a very contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, which takes a lot of theological liberties that I am often uncomfortable with; however, I also find that the language from the paraphrase opens up the biblical text enough for me to start seeing the text with fresh eyes.  The Message translates Jesus words in this way:  “Now here’s a surprise:  The master praised the crooked manager!  And why?  Because he knew how to look after himself.  Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.  They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.  I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

What Jesus is trying to say to us today is layered, and very much lives in the gray of life.  First, money has a corrupting force in our lives.  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Jesus talks about money incessantly in scripture, from telling people to give away all their money, to scolding people about storing up their money in larger barns, to reminding people not to stress about money, to this odd text about money.  As Luke concludes today, Jesus tells us that we cannot serve God and money, because of the all-consuming way money can corrode our relationship with God.

Second, we cannot escape money.  Money is a part of our everyday lives, and as we all know is necessary for functioning – for food, for shelter, for clothing, for comfort, for ministry.  Even those monks and nuns who take on a vow of poverty still rely on the money of others for support.  Money, with all its potential for corruption, is inescapable in our lives.

Finally, once we understand the power and place of money in our lives, Jesus reminds us that when we are wise, keeping God at the center, we can use money as a means to goodness in our relationship with God and with one another.  The manager “transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others.  By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors (rooted in monetary exchange) but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationship of friends.”[i]   This kind of work is not about charity per se, but about making friends.[ii]

Many years ago, there was a commercial circulating around the internet.   In the video, a boy is caught red-handed trying to steal a bottle of medicine and a soda.  A woman is berating him in front of a marketplace, wanting to know why he would take these things.  He confesses that the items are for his mother.  A local merchant steps forward, and hands the woman a handful of money to cover the cost of the stolen items.  The man then quietly asks the boy if his mother is sick.  When the boy nods yes, the merchant has his daughter also bring a container of vegetable broth and other items, and sends the boy on his way.  The next clip of the commercial shows the merchant thirty years later, still working in his shop.  He collapses and is taken to the hospital.  The daughter becomes completely overwhelmed as the medical bills add up, even selling the shop they had once run together.  As she is found crying near her father’s bedside, she finds a revised copy of their medical bill.  The amount due is zero.  We find out through the video that the doctor who forgives the bill is that same boy who stole medicine thirty years ago.  He writes at the bottom of the bill, “All expenses paid thirty years ago with three packs of painkillers and a bag of veggie soup.”[iii]

Jesus knows how money corrupts our world.  To be sure there is no ambiguity about the place money takes when talking about God.  We are to choose God.  But Jesus also knows that we can shrewdly utilize our money as a tool to create relationships that glorify God.  This is Jesus’ invitation for us today:  to examine how our relationship with dishonest wealth can be used for goodness.  Jesus affirms for us this week that the way into the black and white, the right and wrong of life, might just be through the path of gray.  Amen.

[i] Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16.1-13,” as found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx? commentary _id= 1783 on September 18, 2013.

[ii] Thomas G. Long, “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 30, no. 4, Pentecost 2007, 55.

[iii] As found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XADBJjiAO_0 on September 20, 2019.

On Stories, Remembering, and Healing…

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Today marks the eighteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 – a fateful day in the United States.  Even eighteen years later, this is a day where we as a country remember – remember where we were that day, remember the people who were touched by tragedy that day, remember how a single day could transform a nation and the world.  This day hangs heavy in our consciousness each year, the weight never quite lifting even with the passage of time.

I think part of why this day is so heavy for us as a people is because of the people this day touched.  Certainly, we could look at the death toll, and recall the names of the almost 3,000 people who died that day, most without the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones.  But September 11’s reach went beyond those who died.  The ripple of that day is mind-blowing:  those who were physically injured, those who were bereaved, those who were supposed to be in those buildings and somehow life’s circumstances kept them away, those whose health continues to be poor from living nearby or helping with the cleanup efforts, those who walked for hours fleeing danger, those who made hard decisions that day – some leading to life and some leading to death.

Four years after that fateful day, NPR’s StoryCorps launched their September 11th Initiative.  A program built around having people tell their stories, StoryCorps launched an effort to record the stories of that specific day – of the man who traded shifts that day and whose mentor died because he had volunteered to take his shift; of the man who consoled his wailing two-year old and had to wait four months before his wife’s body was finally identified; to the woman who sifted through bones and debris in a hanger months later, trying to help people find closure; to the airline employee who checked in the terrorists that day at the gate; the father who lost both sons, one a firefighter and one a police officer, in the line of duty that day.  Every story, every single one is gut-wrenching and tear-evoking.  And every one gives a tiny glimpse into the magnitude of the ripple effect this one day had on all of us.

This day, I invite you to honor September 11 with stories.  Talk to your neighbors, friends, and strangers about their experiences.  Listen to stories like the ones on StoryCorps.  Read whatever stories you can find.  When we engage in one another’s stories, we engage in honoring the dignity of every human being, something we pledge to do in our baptismal covenant.  We allow the depth of this day to do something to us.  And somewhere in that intimacy of story, we begin to hear an invitation – an invitation to honor life today.  Whether it is an act of kindness (maybe even the kindness of simply asking someone to tell their story), or whether it is a time of prayer to honor all that has been, or whether it is a commitment to reclaiming love so that hatred can never win in such a powerful way as it did that day.  May our stories help us connect to the cosmic story of a God who loves us and gives us light in the darkness.

Sermon – Luke 14.25-33, P18, YC, September 8, 2019

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One of the things I enjoyed about living on Long Island was the directness of communication.  Now do not get me wrong, having been raised in the South, I know all too well that when your mom says, “You’re wearing that?” or if your grandma says, “Don’t you want to wear lipstick?” or if your friend says, “Well those new shoes are utilitarian,” they are not actually saying what they mean.  On Long Island things are much clearer.  Instead you’ll be told, “Don’t wear that,” “Put on some lipstick; I’ll show you which one,” and “Those shoes are awful.”  The words always sting, but at least you know you what people think.

Today’s gospel has me convinced some of Jesus’ relatives were from Long Island.  In these short eight verses, Jesus says if we want to follow him, we will need to sell our possessions, carry our cross, and hate our parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even life itself.  I have to say, on this Rally Sunday, on the day we return to the fullness of Hickory Neck, and we feast and laugh and worship together, I could have used a little more southern-speak from Jesus today.  At least Jesus could have saved the hard sell for Stewardship season!

But as we start putting our calendars together for the fall, as our children sign up for the extracurricular activities, and as we think about what ministries we may want to try at Hickory Neck this fall, I suppose there is no time like the present to get real.  This is a season of hard choices.  I know in our household alone, there were two awesome opportunities for afterschool activities that fell on the exact same time and day.  And so we had to make a hard decision.  As I have mapped out my own calendar, I have realized that there are things I can say yes to and things to which I have to say no.  And on the really tricky days, there are times when our family has to bring in a third adult to help us juggle four people’s commitments.  This is a season of hard choices and consequences.  This is a season of priorities.

I do not actually think Jesus is being harsh today.  I know we sometimes get so used to the inclusive, loving, embracing God that we forget that following Jesus is not all rainbows and sunshine.  Jesus, like our beloved Long Islanders, is not harsh – just honest.  And Jesus is not saying there will be no health, healing, and wholeness; no justice, mercy, and grace; no forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  But Jesus is saying those things will cost us.  All those rainbows and sunshine we will receive come at the cost of redistributing wealth, of being faithful even when being faithful gets us ostracized from our social circles, of being intolerant of injustice even if doing so risks our most valued relationships with others.

If we can agree that Jesus is just being honest, understanding why he is setting such a high standard can be helpful.  Starting with one of the trickier things Jesus says today may be best.  Jesus says in the final verse today, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Though money is a taboo subject for most people, Jesus talks about money perhaps more than any other subject in scripture.  Jesus talks about money so much because Jesus knows the power money has over us.  Jesus tells us to give up our possessions, to stop worrying about what is mine because my obsession with owning, possessing, or claiming things as my own can make me think ownership is my exclusive, inviolable right.  Jesus knows having possessions can make me think all things are my own:  my money, my time, my comfortable lifestyle, my political or religious beliefs, my closest relationship, my independence.  Jesus knows when I get possessive, I cling to things that are not God, and create habits in myself leading me to smother, not love; to exploit, not steward; to hoard, not appreciate.[i]

On the podcast “On Being,” Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie retells an old Talmudic parable.  In the parable there is “a ship that is sailing, and there are many cabins.  And one of the people in the cabins on the lower floor decides to dig a hole in the floor of his cabin, and does so, and sure enough, the ship begins to sink.  And the other passengers suddenly discover what’s going on and see this guy with a hole in the floor.  And they say, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Well, it’s my cabin. I paid for it.’  And down goes the ship.”[ii]  What this parable and what Jesus are trying to do is help us see that possessions tempt us to live like the man in the cabin – to believe our ownership negates our relationship to others.  Our possessions can create an obsession with “me, me, me,” with a disregard for the “we” to which we belong as followers of Christ.

Jesus also says in verse 27, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  Part of Jesus’ cross is a redefining of the “we,” we were just talking about.  If you have read your September Nuggets, our newsletter, you know one of the rallying calls of stewardship this fall is going to be “We are Hickory Neck!”  When I thought about that call, I immediately thought about the movie We Are Marshall.  In the film, the rally call “We Are,” answered vigorously by “Marshall!” is a definitive moment about not letting tragedy overcome goodness – not letting death squash life.  When we start our own rallying, “We are Hickory Neck,” we probably all have things about Hickory Neck that are dear to our heart, that inspire our belonging here, and motivate our involvement here.  One of the things we are doing in the call, “We are Hickory Neck,” is also defining who the “we” is in that call.  In carrying our cross as Jesus invites today, we are not just talking about personal sacrifice.  We are also asking, to whom and for whom we are responsible.  We are widening the circle of “my people,” to consider who the people are we will love, welcome, serve, and for which we would make sacrifices.  We are taking on the task of widening our “we” to be broader and riskier than we have previously embraced.  By taking up our cross, we are saying the whole ship, not just my cabin on the ship, but the whole ship has an irrefutable claim on my life.[iii]

Perhaps the hardest thing Jesus says comes right at the beginning, in verse 26.  Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Hate is a strong word – a word we have banned in our home, especially when talking about other family members.  I will not be going home today and telling our children they can pick up that word again.  But I do think Jesus uses a powerful word because the power of discipleship will involve taking on some powerful experiences.  We will need to be willing to hate some things about this life.  We will need to ask which customs, beliefs, or traditions we have inherited we need to renounce in order to follow Jesus.  We will need to look at what baggage we need to abandon, what ties we must loosen, what relationships we must subordinate.  What scholar Debie Thomas says is “Jesus spoke his hard words about ‘hating’ one’s family in a cultural context where the extended family was the source of a person’s security and stability.  Jewish families in first century Palestine were self-sustaining economic units.  No one in their right mind would leave such a unit behind in order to follow a homeless, controversial preacher into some uncertain future.”  What Thomas asks us to consider is what sources of modern-day security and stability we trust more than we trust God.[iv]

So if this is what discipleship looks like, where is the Good News in Jesus’ challenge today?  Why would we do all this hard stuff?  We do all the hard stuff of discipleship because of the rainbows and sunshine.  We give up a sense of possession, we take on crosses, and we renounce things we have loved because we have experienced the rainbows and sunshine of Hickory Neck:  we have experienced life-altering community here; we have experienced love, joy, and blessing we did not know we needed here; we have found purpose, meaning, and value here.  We also take on Jesus’ intense notion of discipleship because we have experienced the rainbows and sunshine of the world around us:  we have experienced the profundity of loving our neighbor as ourselves; we have experienced the blessing of seeing God in someone we thought unworthy of our love; we have experienced being transformed by walking right out of our comfort zones into life-giving discomfort zones.  We accept the invitation of illogical discipleship because of the more cosmic rainbows and sunshine of faith:  of being known and accepted by a loving, living God; of the promise of forgiveness of our most heinous sins; of the reality of eternal life made possible through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Once we start thinking about the rewards of the life of discipleship, the cost seems surmountable.  Once we look at the depth of Christ’s rainbows and sunshine, letting go of possessions, taking up crosses, and hating the stuff of life that only brings death seems much less scary.  Once we realize we may not be able to do whatever we want to in our cabin, we realize we have a ship full of people ready to hold our hands as we take on the burden of discipleship together – because the burden is easy and the yoke is light.  Amen.

[i] Debie Thomas, “What It Will Cost You,” Journey with Jesus, September 1, 2019, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2346 on September 4, 2019.

[ii] Amichai Lau-Lavee, “First Aid for Spiritual Seekers,” On Being with Krista Tippet, July 13, 2017, as found at https://onbeing.org/programs/amichai-lau-lavie-first-aid-for-spiritual-seekers/ on September 6, 2019.

[iii] Thomas.

[iv] Thomas.

On the Why of Church…

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Photo:  Hickory Neck Episcopal Church; reuse with permission only

I spent the last almost three weeks on vacation.  It was a time relaxation, refreshment, and restoration.  It was a time of unplugging, unwinding, and uninterrupted space.  It was a time of sabbath.  And because most Sundays I am in church, I experienced not going to church.  On Sundays, it turns out lots of people are eating brunch, exercising, spending time with their families, enjoying nature, working, or just enjoying a good read.  And for a couple of weeks, I did just that.

The weeks away got me thinking:  why do we go to church on Sundays, when there are so many other things we could be doing?  As I contrasted the time of not going to church with my years of going to church, I realized I go to church for so many reasons – some big and some small.  The big ones may be obvious.  I want to connect with, learn about, and feel loved by God.  I want a sense of community, where I belong and am known.  I want a sense of purpose rooted in Jesus’ command to love God, self, and neighbor.

The small ones are less obvious.  I love the beauty of the people in church:  the elders laughing heartily, children and their looks of wonder and their awesome questions, people caring for the needs of others when they think no one is looking.  I love the power of music:  from the familiar song that takes me back to fond place, to the unfamiliar song with a lyric that blows my mind, to the transcendent way harmonizing voices can bring me to tears for some unknown reason.  I love the little moments:  when an invitation to prayer reminds me of a hurting loved one, when sharing the peace with someone with whom I have had hard feelings dissolves all tension, when the burn of the communion wine down my throat lingers for several minutes – as if Christ is not ready to leave me yet, when the light shines just so on the cross, reminding me once again of the big stuff of Church.

Going to Church every week gives me a sense of belonging – to God and to other people, gives me a sense of meaning in a world that is often confounding, and gives me a sense of hope.  Maybe you have gotten out of the habit of going to Church, for a hundred little and good reasons.  If so, I invite you to shake things up this week and try Church again.  Maybe you left the Church in hurt or never really were introduced to Church.  If so, I invite you to consider stepping in the doors and giving the Church a chance to share Christ’s love with you.  Or maybe you go to Church every Sunday, but things have begun to feel stale.  If so, I invite you to take a deep breath, sit in a different place, or simply allow yourself to be surprised by the Holy Spirit.  I invite you to my Church this week – for some of the reasons here, for your own reasons, or for reasons unknown to you.  I will be there with open arms, ready to introduce you to a group of awesome people, on the same journey to know our awesome God.

On Grace, Love, and Humor…

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One of the things I typically do before a vacation is frantically try to get as much done as possible, working late nights until basically throwing my weary self into a car before letting myself slip into vacation mode.  I run hard partly because I want to have as much done before I leave as possible, setting others up for success; but I run hard partly because I know the to-do list will be even bigger when I return.  The down side to this model is I sometimes push so hard part of my vacation is recovering from the cold I catch in wearing my body down.

But this week, something comical happened.  I had been toying with working on my day off to make sure everything got done before vacation.  And then, days before, my daughter got a fever.  For those of you familiar with childcare, you know a child has to be 24-hour fever free to return to care.  Not only did her fever not ease on my day off, the fever didn’t break until the next day – leaving me precious little time to accomplish my to-do list.

At that point, I just started chuckling.  God has a tremendous sense of humor – and a somewhat mischievous way of getting my attention.  After years of the repeated pattern, if I was unwilling to change my behavior, something stepped in my way (a fever, namely) to force me to break the pattern.  Suddenly, all that stuff that just had to get done would have to wait.  The abruptness was frustrating, and I still squeezed in a few things between videos and meals, but my usually hidden, under the surface high-stress levels just could not continue.  However, it is hard to be frustrated when the roadblock is a red-cheeked, clammy little one who just wants to cuddle and falls asleep at strange times.

I began to wonder yesterday how I might be more measured with my own health and the generosity of a God who loves our hard work for the kingdom, but also loves us unconditionally.  What are some of the patterns you find yourself falling into that disregard the reality that you are made in God’s image and are loved unconditionally?  How might you receive that grace more gracefully this week?  In what ways is God inviting you to shift that grimace to a smirk to a smile?  My hope for you this week is you allow God’s love to wash over you, breathe in God’s unconditional grace, and then share that love with someone else who is pushing so hard they forgot their belovedness too.

Sermon – Isaiah 1.1, 10-20, P14, YC, August 11, 2019

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One of the topics in Confirmation Class is how the Episcopal Church interprets and talks about Holy Scripture.  Confirmands are often surprised to hear the labels “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are not helpful labels.  Instead of calling the first portion of Holy Scripture the “Old Testament,” we call that portion the “Hebrew Scriptures.”  We make that change for two reasons.  One, we want to remind ourselves that the Christian Scriptures do not eliminate the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures – as if the “new” testament makes the “old” testament obsolete.  Two, the use of the “old” can connote irrelevance.  Neither of those things being true, we try to reframe our language.

Today’s Hebrew Scripture reading is a classic example of how our language can taint our interaction with Scripture.  Many of us hear the words of Isaiah and the judgment of Israel’s worship, and we slip into “they” language.  They are being as sinful as Sodom and Gomorrah – the same people who “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”[i]Their worship, their sacrifice of animals, is meaningless to God.  Their prayers will be ignored by God.  They have blood on their hands.  The shifting of audience is easy enough for us; not being a community that offers sacrifices anymore, this piece of Scripture really can feel like an “old” testament.

That’s why I like one scholar’s rereading of this passage.  He argues we need to reframe today’s passage in our modern context.  Instead of condemning ancient practices, he rereads the text for the modern church as God saying thus:  “I hate your worship.  Your prayers make me sick.  I loathe your music.  Your sermons are a sacrilege.  Who asked for your offerings?  Your Holy Communion stinks.  I want none of it.”[ii]  I do not know about you, but that rewording made this passage come alive in ways “old” texts never do.  Suddenly, God is not talking about them; God is talking about us – our worship, our actions, our behavior.  With new ears for this text, God is not criticizing outdated, foreign practices – God is criticizing the thing we are right in the midst of: our worship, our music, our prayers, our communion, this very sermon!

Hearing this passage as a modern reading shook me up this week.  All week I have been pondering our worship – the primary marker of our identity.  Does our communion stink?  As I thought about the sacred meal this week, I could imagine how communion could be so rote communion loses its meaning.  But then I began to think about my experience with communion.  As a priest, I receive communion two to three times on a Sunday – sometimes more.  Despite that repetition, something about the physicality of communion keeps communion fresh.  Sometimes the wafers are stale, making them hard to swallow; sometimes the bread is dry and crumbly, making a huge mess around the altar; sometimes, especially by 11:15, my breakfast is so far gone that eating communion feels like a desperate attempt to ease the rumbling in my empty stomach.  The same happens with the wine:  sometimes the wine burns going down; sometimes the wine soothes a dry throat; sometimes I wish I could take a long draw of wine to wash down the gluten-free wafer that is stuck in my teeth.  Those experiences may sound silly or trivial, but I find God in every one of them:  How often have I longed for God the way I long for food when I am hungry?  How often have I cursed the mess of life before realizing Jesus makes our life messy?  How often has something from church or a word from God nagged at me like a wafer that scraped my throat on the way down.

I like thinking about those physical-spiritual connections in Eucharist because they do what God is challenging us to do in Isaiah today.  God is not saying worship is inherently bad.  The sacrificing of animals, the prayers, the offerings were all thing the community of God had been instructed to do.  There are whole books of the Bible that laboriously detail how to do these things, thoughtfully making concessions for those lacking the resources to make the recommending offerings.  God is not saying God hates the festivals, is repelled by their sacrifices, and will ignore their prayers because God finds them archaic or brutal or wrong.  God’s fervent and harsh criticism of their worship is the hypocrisy of their worship.  In verse fifteen, God says, “I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”  What God is pointing out is the irony of their worship. Here they are, their hands covered in the blood of the sacrificed animals – what should be a pure, sacred offering to God for the blessings of this life.  But what God sees is different blood:  their raised hands are not simply covered in the holy blood of sacrifice; their raised hands are covered in the blood of the oppressed, the orphan, the widow.  God, rather bluntly, says, “Do not come to me with the pretense of humility and righteousness when nothing about your life is righteous.  Do not come to me as though you are pure and sanctified, when I see you covered in the blood of the innocent you trampled on the way into the temple.”

In the aftermath of two more mass shootings last weekend, the cities of Dayton and El Paso gathered in vigil, in prayer, and in conversation.  In Dayton, the governor offered the kind of speech one usually offers in times such as these – a sense of condolence, an encouragement to come together in mutual support, an acknowledgment of grief.  But the residents of Dayton were not having that speech this week.  As the governor was speaking, someone in the crowd shouted, “Do something!”  The governor continued his speech, and two more voices cried out the same call, “Do something! Do something!”  The governor maintained his cool and kept going with his scripted speech, but within moments, the crowd was chanting in one voice, “Do something!” so loudly the governor’s speech was completely inaudible.  Perhaps reflecting the tenor of a nation who is emotionally exhausted by the repeated trauma of mass shootings, the people of Dayton broke.  No longer content to receive prayers and idle words, the people of Dayton demanded the governor do something to change their reality.

I think that is what God is really upset about in our scripture lesson today.  God is not bored by their worship or saying the acts of worship of the Israelites are inherently bad.  What God is saying is their worship is invalidated by their actions outside the temple.  The people of God cannot do evil, ignore injustice, forget the oppressed, shun the orphaned, and leave the widowed behind while still seeking refuge in God.  God wants us to do something.  In fact, in verse seventeen, God says, “Learn to do good.”  We can pray all we want, we can mourn mass violence, we can even criticize politicians about their lack of action.  But God is looking straight into our eyes today and saying, “I am glad you are here and I love you.  But you need to do something.”  And if we are unclear about what that something is, God tells us right here in Isaiah:  cease doing evil, do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  When tragedy strikes, when the world feels like the world is falling apart, when we feel helpless or overwhelmed by the evil of this time, God says your worship of God is odious unless you are doing something.

Now I do not want you to leave today thinking this service is meaningless.  Quite the contrary, “worship is essential for us and requires of us an awed and candid engagement with God that is life giving, community transforming, and world altering.”[iii]  What would be meaningless is for you to go through the motions, or for you to seek solace only, and not strength; pardon only, and not renewal.  The prayers, your offering, our music, the sacred meal are meant to empower us to go out in the world and do something.  I know that can be scary.  I know you may be thinking, “well, I have very strong opinions about guns and what our country should be doing.”  But I also know the people I have spoken to on both sides of the issue do not want the slaughter of innocents.  To that, God offers us encouragement.  God says in verse eighteen, “Come now, let us argue it out.”  God does not want you to run away from the evil of the world, but to dive in and figure out a way to do something.  God wants you to engage because God knows you can.  In fact, God says, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”  God does not hate our worship; but God does not tolerate our worship when our worship is void of action – when we forget the dismissal of our deacon, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.  Today, God invites us to wash the blood of the innocent off our hands, and to go out and do something:  to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.

[i] Ezekiel 16.49.

[ii] Paul Simpson Duke, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 319.

[iii] Duke, 321.

On the Need for Mirrors…

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This weekend I was at the pool with our children.  We had the pool to ourselves for a while until a group of kids joined us toward the end of our time.  A few minutes after their arrival, the lifeguard called break, in keeping with the regularly scheduled breaks.  The new kids were justifiably disappointed, but what happened next was not justifiable.  About five minutes into the break, one of the teenagers starts ranting loudly about why a lifeguard should need a break – claiming his job was not all that hard.  She then asked the lifeguard directly how much longer the break would be.  The lifeguard did not seem to totally understand her question (our lifeguards are usually international students here for the summer), and she spoke to him as if he were a child.  I found my anger rising.  Her taunting behavior continued after the break, and another teenager joined her in disrespecting the lifeguard with audible side comments, and ignoring his instructions about safety.  The lifeguard finally blew the whistle, saying the pool was closed, and everyone would have to leave.

Fortunately, we were on our way out already, as the teenagers’ behavior had angered me so much that I was no longer having fun.  The lifeguard apologized profusely on our way out, and I reassured him that I totally supported his decision, given how disrespectful the other guests were being.  As we walked home, my children asked me why I was so mad.   I explained part of my anger – that we never disrespect others the way those teens did, and their behavior made me mad.  But what I didn’t share was I suspected the teens’ behavior was also related to the lifeguard’s ethnicity.  With tensions around race and immigration these days, I suspected the teen felt she was superior in some way to this man, and I wondered why.

But mostly, I was mad at myself.  As the night wore on, I felt nauseated about the fact I had said nothing to that teenager.  Though my body language probably reflected disdain for her behavior, I said nothing to defend the lifeguard.  The more I thought about it, the more I wished I had approached the teen and talked to her about her inappropriate behavior.  In reflection, I could not figure out why I said nothing to her; I just knew I was ashamed by my inaction – so ashamed, I have felt it for days.

As a country and community, I have heard many conversations about how our government is broken and the other side (whomever we view as the other side) is leading us into evil.  This weekend I began to wonder if, instead, we are the ones who are broken.  We have lost the very values we claim in our baptismal covenant – to respect the dignity of every human being, to strive for justice, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  I wholeheartedly support advocacy work and protest movements when we see injustice.  But this week, I humbly ask you to join me in the work on ourselves – to shift from being people outraged by injustice and to start doing justice; to shift from being hearers of God’s Word, to being doers of God’s Word; to turn our criticism of others to a constructive criticism of ourselves.  Next time you hear me complaining about the degradation of our morals or values, please ask me what I am doing about it.  I promise to do the same for you in return.  Let’s get started!