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.

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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!

On the Infertilities of Life…

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One of things I am working on this summer is helping our parish leaders plan our fall Women’s Retreat.  In interviewing guest facilitators, one of the facilitators talked about the scriptural theme of infertility.  Having some amazing people in my life who are or have struggled with infertility over the years, I immediately connected with the idea.  But the facilitator expands the definition of infertility as being unable to do the thing you felt you were created to do.

As I have been thinking about this expanded definition of infertility, I have seen that spiritual struggle all around me.  Certainly, I have been aching for those who struggle with literal infertility, knowing what a crushing experience that can be.  But I have also seen that same sense of infertility happen vocationally for people who really thought they would end up in a certain career, only to find their restrictive geography, their family responsibilities, or their inability to take on the time or financial commitment needed to pursue their dream making them unable to do the thing they felt created to do.  As our diocese is looking at electing a new bishop, I am aware that all four of the current candidates have discerned they feel created to serve in this new role, and yet only one of them will be invited into that ministry.

But infertility strikes us in other ways too.  This week I was listening to Kate Bowler’s podcast Everything Happens, and she and her guest were talking about palliative care and mortality.  The two of them talked about how one of the disadvantages of our American culture is a sense of limitless – that we can do anything we want in life.  And what both of them has seen, as a person in recovery from cancer, and a palliative care doctor, is the falsehood, or even the sinfulness, of the notion of limitlessness.  When we think we can do anything our heart desires, we are inevitably disappointed when our bodies, our mortality, or other things outside our control, throw limits around our dreams.  Part of their work has been helping people work through the sense of infertility that comes from that experience, and helping them find hope, healing, and new meaning in life.

As I have been thinking about literal and figurative infertility, I have been wondering whether sharing those stories might be a part of the healing process.  Something about naming the struggle and sharing the journey has power to not only help you move toward invitations to new vocations, but also has the power to encourage others to name their infertilities, destigmatize them, and transform them into something else that can be lifegiving.  If you are looking for a safe place to do that, I invite you to join our community of faith – a place where wounded souls are heard, broken hearts are mended, and new paths are celebrated.  You are not alone.  We would be honored to walk with you.   I suspect we need you as much as you may need us.

Sermon – Luke 11.1-13, P12, YC, July 28, 2019

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One of the practices highly recommended to clergy is having a spiritual director.  My director is a professor I had in seminary.  He is wise and insightful, and always helps me not only see the bigger picture, but also see goodness in what sometimes feels like darkness.  But perhaps my favorite thing about him is the way he prays.  You would think with such a spiritual, learned man, his prayers would be profound and flowery – worthy of the kind of prayers we find in our own Prayer Book.  But instead, his prayers are the opposite.  They are awkward and fumbling.  You can hear long pauses in them as he struggles to articulate what he wants to say to God.  He uses everyday language, rarely capturing the phrases we normally hear in prayers.  The first several times I heard him pray, I was admittedly a little disappointed and, when I’m really being honest, a bit judgmental.  But in time, I began to see his prayers differently.  His prayers may not be artfully constructed or perfectly paced, but his prayers are never canned or artificial.  His prayers may not be theologically intricate, but his prayers are honest, vulnerable, and capture the deep profundity of whatever you have just shared.  His prayers are not pretty, but they are real and raw – more real than most prayers I have heard.

Of course, I am not the first person to wonder, worry, or wander through prayers.  Today, the disciples ask a simple favor of Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  The disciples at this point have seen Jesus pray many times.  They see how good he is and they see how important prayer is in his life.  In fact, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is regularly found in prayer.[i]  They watch Jesus enter into prayer with God for months, and they long to be able to do that too.  And so they come to Jesus, and they vulnerably submit their request:  teach us to pray.

Their request is full of implications.  First is the admission that they do not have the first idea about what they are doing.  Maybe they learned some prayers in temple, or maybe their parents prayed with them.  But they realize in watching Jesus that they do not actually know how to pray themselves.  Not really.  Second, they see a real connection between Jesus and God that somehow is revealed in Jesus’ prayer life.  Perhaps they see how prayer strengthens him in his weakness and how he is more vulnerable with God than even with them.  They long for that kind of connection with God too, but still, they are not sure how the whole thing works.  Finally, a deeper implication is at hand in the disciples’ request.  Perhaps they are not only asking Jesus how to pray, but also wanting to know what is actually happening in prayer.  Perhaps they have tried praying on their own – for an illness, for a new job, for a broken relationship – but the prayer did not work.  They want Jesus to teach them the right way to pray so that the results they desire are fulfilled.

And so, Jesus responds.  Jesus gives them the ultimate prayer – the prayer we call The Lord’s Prayer.  The prayer Jesus gives them is so beautiful and powerful, that two thousand years later, people who never go to church seem to know this prayer.  This is the prayer we pray when we pray the rosary, when we end our days, and at the end of every Eucharistic Prayer.  This is the prayer we pray when we have no other words.  This is the prayer we teach our children to pray and we sing in our own unique Hickory Neck way.

But if you look at Luke’s version of this prayer, the prayer sounds a little more like one of the prayers my spiritual director might pray.  As one scholar says, “Pious convention has conditioned most of us to repeat this prayer so quietly and reverentially that we fail to recognize how we are risking an aggressiveness incommensurate with bourgeois manners.”[ii]  In other words, the Lord’s Prayer is kind of pushy.  There is no flowery language or even polite deference or usage of the word “please.”  Instead, Jesus just tells us to ask for a bunch of stuff:  give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.  And every week or even every day, we say the same words – give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.  And if we keep reading Luke’s gospel, after the prayer, we hear Jesus saying that our prayerful life with God is akin to being a pushy friend who through their shameless relentlessness[iii] is able to get a friend up out of bed in the middle of the night.

So why in the world do we teach our children this prayer when the prayer is so flagrantly pushy?  Next week Ella and Charlie will be receiving their First Holy Communion.  First Communion is not really the norm in the Episcopal Church.  As a priest, I first encountered First Holy Communion on Long Island, where the Episcopal Church was highly influenced by the Roman Catholic tradition.  Though the Episcopal Church’s theology is that any baptized person can receive communion, some families prefer their children to understand what Holy Communion means before receiving instead of learning to understand communion through experience.  There really is no wrong way to approach Eucharist, but if we are to do a First Holy Communion, one of the things we require candidates to do is learn the Lord’s Prayer.  In part we do that so that there is at least one part of the Eucharistic service they have memorized and in which they can fully participate.

But there is another reason we have candidates learn the Lord’s Prayer.  We want candidates to learn the Lord’s Prayer because the Lord’s Prayer teaches us about what our relationship with God is like.  Our relationship with God is not flowery or picture perfect.  We  may have moments of poetic beauty with God, but when our relationship with God is at its deepest, we cry ugly, full-bodied tears, we rage about injustice – both personal and in the world, we confess our shame and sorrow for the awful things we sometimes do, and we laugh and rejoice with the kind of dancing we would only do in the confines of our homes.  We do not use language with God containing the formality of language we use with strangers; we use language with God we would use with a friend who knows all our foibles and loves us anyway.  All of that is not to say the poignant prayers of the Prayer Book cannot inspire faithfulness; they can and do.  But we teach the Lord’s Prayer to our children so they know we can say unsure, vulnerable, real words to God.

That is what Jesus is really teaching the disciples.  Jesus does not tell the disciples to “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” because he is saying prayer is a vending machine for our every wish.  Jesus tells us to ask, search, and knock, because prayer and our relationship with God is active and relational.  As one scholar asserts, Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer because he wants his disciples to know, “prayer is not a meek, contrived, and merely ‘religious’ act; [prayer] is the act of human beings who know how hard it is to be human.  Real prayer cannot be faked.  [Real prayer’s] only prerequisites are sufficient self-knowledge to recognize the depths of our need, and enough humility to ask for help.”[iv]

This week, I invite you to take a cue from Jesus’ own relationship with God.  Maybe you will start with a prayer like my spiritual director’s – one that does not lead with preplanned words, but instead tries to authentically say the words on your heart; not a structured collect, but a raw conversation with God.  Jesus gives you permission to ask for those things you need, the forgiveness you desire, the protection you long for, and the deliverance you seek.  Jesus invites you to just be you – to be a human with the God who loves you and made you in God’s image.  And if all that fails, then you can say the Lord’s Prayer.  You can rest in the assurance that although Jesus’ prayer sure sounds pretty, his prayer is one of the most honest ones you can offer – the small step you can take in connecting back to your Lord and your God.  Amen.

 

[i] James A. Wallace, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 289.

[ii] Douglas John Hall, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 288, 290.

[iii] Wallace, 291.

[iv] Hall, 290.

On Looking for Miracles…

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This past Sunday, our parish gathered to watch the film Millions (2004).  The film tells the story of two brothers who accidentally come into the possession of a bag with cash, and what they each want to do with the money.  The younger brother, still reeling from their mother’s death, regularly has visions of and conversations with saints, where he discusses the moral issues of how to handle the money.  My favorite scene is between the younger brother and St. Peter.  As St. Peter is talking to him about miracles, he tells him about the Feeding of the Five Thousand story.  But this Peter’s version is a little different than the one we all know.

In the film, Peter says what actually happened that day was not really a miracle.  A boy showed up with some sardines to share with the hungry crowd, and Jesus had the disciples pass them around.  But when each person received the plate, they did not take any, because they had been hiding a stash for themselves.  So, each person took their own stash out, and ate that food instead.  Some people even had a little extra, and so they added a small amount to the plate.  Peter argues there was no magic because the food did not actually multiply.  But as he talks the story through, he confesses perhaps a miracle did happen – the miracle of people sharing their food; the miracle of a once stingy people, hoarding their own food, to a tentatively generous people, willing to share.

What St. Peter was cheekily alluding to was a miracle not of substance, but of changed behavior.  Though the scene is meant to be playful, I have been thinking about that distinction ever since.  We are in a time of stingy hoarding; perhaps humans always are.  But in the face of our selfishness, I often find myself praying for a miracle – for God to act dramatically to change these awful patterns in our society.  But perhaps the miracle we need today is not a miracle of substance, but a miracle of changed behavior.  Perhaps we need little boys with plates of shared sardines to inspire us to let go of our own death grips on security, and open up our hands and hearts to generosity.   Perhaps when we open up, others will see works of miracle in our simple changes of behavior.

What are you hoarding this week on which you can loosen your grip?  Who are the children you have been ignoring who have something inspirational to share with you?  How might you slowly begin to let go of your posture of inward protection and look around your community to see who might need you and your open arms?  I invite you to be open to a miracle of changed behavior this week, and to let me know what ripple effects you see.  Maybe St. Peter is right about us, even today!

On Jesus, Love, Me, and You…

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After welcoming The Kensington School, an independent child development center, on to the Hickory Neck property, the two communities have sought ways to enter into mutual relationship.  One of those efforts has been offering a voluntary Godly Play class for students of the school.  We began the class in the fall, and have had over 18 children registered for the class.  We recently changed the day of the week the class is offered, and so yesterday, I was finally able to join the class.  The children were full of life and wonder, and I loved to watch them engage in the story.  But probably one of my favorite parts was singing Jesus Loves Me with the children.  They clearly knew the words, and it was fun to sing such a familiar childhood song – so simple and, especially in these days, so profound.

My day carried on like any other adventurous day in ministry, and that afternoon, I celebrated Eucharist at a local retirement home.  We usually sing a few songs, and the chaplain always reminds me that familiar songs are important, as they bring up many fond memories for the residents.  So, without thinking, I chose two, and midway through the final song, I realized I had subconsciously chosen the very song I had sung early that morning – Jesus Loves Me.  The same feelings emerged, especially as many of the retirees in that space are in bodies that no longer do all the things they used to do.  But they can sing about the love of a Savior – that they, even in their weakened states, are loved.

I have been thinking about a couple of things since then.  Hickory Neck has been articulating its mission in Upper James City County, and one of the tenets of our mission is to engage in intergenerational ministry.  Knowing our unique setting – a community comprised predominantly of young families and a large retirement community – our parish seeks to minister to both, and in fact, we believe our ministry will be richer as both young and old walk together in Christ.  Yesterday’s convergence of three and four year-olds singing the same words as ninety-three and ninety-four year-olds made me hopeful about the potential of Hickory Neck’s ministry.

But yesterday’s experience also made me think about all of us in the middle – those of us who are twenty-three and twenty-four to sixty-three and sixty-four; those of us who are busily going about life, trying to do our part to make the world a better place, and trying to find meaning and joy in this world.  For those of us in the middle, I wonder if we might hear the words of a song that seems almost childishly simple as instead something profoundly important about ourselves and our neighbors.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  But, Jesus also loves you.  And, from what I know about Jesus, he especially loves those whom we would like to deem “other,” or as unworthy of God’s love.  Jesus loves them too.  Perhaps we in the middle can take a cue from those at the beginning and those near the end and remember the simple, profound words that can hold us together, and help us love better.

Homily – Luke 10:25-37, P10, YC, July 13, 2019

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Last Sunday, a group of parishioners gathered to watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary about Fred Rogers.  There were countless things I could tell you about this film, but one thing that really grabbed my attention was toward the end.  The film documented a criticism of Mr. Rogers as raising up a generation of people who feel and act entitled.  You see, one of the primary lessons from Mr. Rogers is he loves each individual, just as they are.  No changes are necessary; no fault is too big.  Mr. Rogers loves you just as you are.  You can hear the words of God in Mr. Rogers’ words – God too loves us unconditionally, and certainly loves us better than any human ever could.  However, Mr. Rogers’ critics would argue if everyone is loved just as they are, then surely they do not need to improve, or earn respect, or work hard.  But the film asserts something quite different.  The film asserts without being recipients of unconditional love, individuals cannot be givers of unconditional love.  In other words, to respect the dignity of every human being, one must first learn how sacred one’s own dignity is – one must be shown how she or he is a person with dignity to be respected in order to know how to respect the dignity of others.

That sense of each person having profound, sacred dignity is one of the main lessons of our gospel today.  The Good Samaritan is one of those stories that is so widely known all I need to do is say, “the Good Samaritan,” and we likely already know the story.  We might automatically recall, “Oh, that’s the story Jesus uses to tell us to be like the Good Samaritan – to be kind to others.”  In one sense, our recollection would be true – at the heart of Jesus’ story is a message to be kind to all.  But what that simple summary misses is the finer details to this story.

You see, those two people who separately pass the victim along the road, are a priest and a Levite.  These two people are not just people of faith – they are keepers of the faith.  They know the laws better than most people of faith.  You may have heard over the years the logic that priests or Levites could not risk being defiled by touching the body of the victim, and so that is why they went around the victim.  But the truth is, their avoidance had nothing to do with defilement – they were heading away from the temple and therefore were not in need of ritual purity, and any good priest or Levite knows they were expected to check on this victim; should he be dead, they should help bury him, and should he be alive, they should tend him.[i]  Basically, these are good, trained people of faith, not fulfilling their duty to love their neighbor as themselves.

But perhaps even more significant is the identity of the Samaritan.  The story does not say, a priest and Levite passed, but another faithful Jew came to the victim’s aid.  The story says, a priest and Levite passed, but a man whose people are mortal enemies of people of faith – who has persecuted, defiled, and subjugated people of faith – is the one who helps.  Saying “The Good Samaritan,” is like saying, “The Good Murderer.”[ii]  That this typically hated man is the one who shows mercy, kindness, and love is shocking.  The hearers of Jesus’ story are shocked, and our ears need to be similarly shocked.  Asking us to respect the dignity of every human being is already a monumental task; respecting the dignity of every human being is inconvenient, is humbling, and involves a willingness to be wrong about others.  Respecting the dignity of every human being means being willing to see how the best of the faithful fail at kindness, and how sometimes our worst enemies are better people of faith than we are.

Today we are baptizing a child of God.  Her parents, godmothers, and our community will make promises today – to raise her in the community of faith, to show her to love and respect, to fight for justice and peace, to share the word of God, and to repent when she messes up.  We say those words today as we reaffirm our own baptismal covenants; but sometimes we forget how revolutionary the covenant is.  We are agreeing to teach Selah to live a revolutionary life.  When we say we will teach baby Selah to respect the dignity of every human being, we are saying we will teach her the hard work being inconvenienced and humbled in order to care for others.  When we say we will teach her to love her neighbor as herself, we are saying we will teach her that even her greatest enemies are worthy of love.  When we say we will teach her to repent when she sins, we are saying we will teach her to be willing to admit when people who we have deemed unworthy of love and care show us what true kindness really looks like.

Today, when we hear Christ’s words to “go and do likewise,” we can be encouraged that Jesus empowers us to make some promises.  Today we look at Selah’s precious, innocent face, and we promise to walk with her as she discovers how hard this work of being a faithful follower of Christ really is.  Today, we promise to confess to Selah the times when we have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Today, we promise when those we despise, those who hurt us, those we cast out because they are not like us, those we can no longer see humanity in ask us, “Won’t you be my neighbor,” we will say with Selah, “Yes.  You are my neighbor too.”  Amen.

[i] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (New York:  Harper One, 2014), 99-102.

[ii] Levine, 105.

On Neighbors, Kindness, and Baptism…

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This weekend our parish’s Faith & Film offering was Won’t You Be my Neighbor, the documentary about Fred Rogers.  My daughter had never seen a documentary before, and I was a bit anxious about her attending for fear she would be bored or the film would be too advanced for her.  Ultimately, it was a risk I was willing to take because although though I knew she had never watched Mr. Rogers, I also knew she would appreciate his message.

But the true test came on the drive home.  As we were riding along, my daughter said, “You know what, Mom?  I think if Mr. Rogers were alive today, he would be a part of WMBGkind.”  Right then, I knew that she got it – that she had been paying attention to the witness of Mr. Rogers and his ministry of teaching children about the dignity of every human being.  That is what kindness is really all about – honoring and respecting the dignity of other human beings – no matter their age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, ability, or even their own ability to show kindness in return.

This Sunday, we are baptizing a baby into the household of God.  As part of that ritual, we will make promises about our own spiritual journey.  We will promise to gather regularly in Christian community, breaking bread and praying together; to resist evil, and repent when we fail; to proclaim the Word of God in word and deed; to seek and serve Christ, loving neighbors as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.  We promise to do what Christ asked us to do:  love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

I love that my daughter is affirming her baptismal identity at Hickory Neck – whether she sees Christian witness through Mr. Rogers or through her Sunday School teachers.  I love that our younger children and older youth are learning how to live into their baptismal identity – whether through nursery care providers or youth group leaders.  And I love that our adults are still learning to live into their baptismal identities – through preaching, teaching, and our children’s witness.  At Hickory Neck, we are working across generations to keep loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves.  If you are in need of a community to help you claim that same identity and purpose, know that you are always welcome here – won’t you be our neighbor?

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Photo credit:  Hickory Neck Episcopal Church; permission to use required

On Being an American and a Christian…

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Last week, several of the interfaith clergy in our community published a litany for children in detention centers.  They requested clergy leaders read the litany in their homes of worship – not in a special vigil, but in the heart of where weekly prayer and formation take place.  The litany was beautiful, and spoke to much of my own sense of despair about our treatment of children.  But I found myself in a quandary.  You see, my parish is a diverse one.  We pride ourselves on being Christians of varying political opinions who respect one another enough to honor our political differences by kneeling as equals at the Lord’s table.  In order to maintain that sense of respect, I am very careful about how I talk about current events.  My goal is always to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, with the charge that we should engage in politics with the Gospel always in the forefront.

But the issue of children in detention centers tugs at me at two levels.  On the one hand, this is very much an issue of politics – of how we manage the flow of immigrants and those seeking asylum into our country.  I know our parishioners are of a divided mind on this issue – as is most of the country.  The issue of our borders is vastly layered – were it not so, there would be clear, easy answers to very difficult questions.  In addition to being a political, economical, sociological issue, this is a spiritual one as well.  One’s sense of gratitude for our country’s blessings, one’s baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being, and one’s understanding of Christ’s command to love God and love neighbor collide with the realities of limited resources, stretched budgets, and funding priorities.

On the other hand, these are children.  These are eight-year-olds caring for unrelated infants.  These are nursing teen mothers with no diapers or place to lay their heads.  These are toddlers who have no way to wash their hands or clean their soiled clothing.  I look at my own children, who have every comfort they could ever need, and when I imagine them soiled, hungry, deprived of sleep, and so afraid that the color has drained from their faces, my heart shatters.  I know this issue is truly complicated, and I know that philosophically we as a country need to decide how we will manage the treatment of our neighbors.  But when I am hesitant to pray for the welfare of children in detention because it is politically complicated, I realize I am failing to live the Gospel life.

I cannot say I will ever be able to pray the litany presented by my interfaith brothers and sisters.  Though it is beautiful, it is also politically motivated.  But what I can tell you is, as a pastor and baptized child of God, I am praying for those children, praying for their mothers and fathers, and praying for our own souls as we figure out how to reckon politics and human dignity – how to be Americans and Christians.  Given our country’s history, it would seem those two things fit together easily.  But to be a good American and to be a good Christian both take intentionality, discernment, and prayer.  May God bless us all as we seek to harmonize the two.