On Shifting Sands and Drishtis…

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Photo credit: https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/pillars-of-power-yoga-using-drishti-on-and-off-the-mat

When you are doing balancing postures during yoga, one of the skills you learn early on is developing a drishti, or a focal point.  The idea is the more you focus your gaze on one fixed object, the more your body steadies itself.  I am not entirely sure why or how finding a drishti works, but I know from experience that a very wobbly body in a balancing posture is quickly steadied once focused on a drishti.  It is a strange sensation, but when the drishti is engaged, the gaze of the eyes has complete power over the entire body, creating a sense of self-possession, control, and power.

I was talking to a fellow parent this past week and when we talked about parenting during a pandemic, I told her I felt like I was standing on shifting sand.  Just when I would start to figure out a rhythm or start to feel like I had some modicum of control over family life, things would change – whether the formal arrangement with hybrid learning, the changing of teachers mid-quarter, or even my own child’s changing ability to adapt and thrive.  Just when I feel like our family is finding our balance, something makes us wobbly all over again.  That kind of uncontrolled imbalance, of attempting to stand on shifting sand leaves the body weary and fatigued.

But as I have been thinking about pandemic parenting and my learning in yoga, I’ve begun to wonder if what this wobbly parent might need is a pandemic drishti.  For some parents that might mean focusing on the blessing of your children – so that no matter what tempter tantrum they are throwing today, what argument you are having as a family, or what door they have slammed, you focus not on the anger and frustration of the scene immediately in front of you, but on the love you have for your child (even if it’s only the love you see when they are fast asleep).  For me, my drishti is the love of God surrounding us on every side:  the one who loves me when I fail as a parent, the one who loves my child as they receive another setback in expectations, the one who loves each of us when all we can see is the heat of anger and frustration in one another.  Once I focus on God’s love of us, slowly my demeanor starts to shift, my balance starts to return, and my steadiness strengthens.

This week, I encourage you to claim your pandemic drishtiWhether you focus on God’s lovingkindness, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, or the ever-present blessing of the Holy Spirit, take whatever time you need to shift your gaze on God.  My guess is the more you practice steading your gaze on the goodness of God, the more your wobbling, weary body will feel grounded in goodness too.  We cannot control the shifting sand of these times.  But we can control our steady gaze in the face of a storm.

Sermon – Matthew 25.14-30, P28, YA, November 15, 2020

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This week your Vestry spent some time talking about adaptive leadership in the midst of a pandemic.  In our conversation, we were reminded of what Winston Churchill once said about World War II:  Never let a good crisis go to waste.  The phrase sounds a bit morbid, whether talking about World War II or this pandemic where over 245,000 people have died in the United States alone.  But what Churchill and our lecturer were trying to communicate were simple.  In a time of crisis, we see and do things differently.  A crisis produces clarity about what is important, what is not, and how we can creatively and boldly make changes for the good.  In a crisis, we are able to make changes and be nimble because fear is pushed aside for the sake of survival.  Basically, crisis strips away all the things that hold us back when life is “normal” and opens up new and fresh ways of being.  From Churchill’s point of view, wasting all that powerful insight and activity would be a waste of the crisis. 

That is what Jesus is getting at in our parable today.  We can easily get caught up in the emotional whiplash of this parable.  The master trusts his servants with inconceivable wealth – anywhere from 15 – 75 years’ worth of wages[i] – and gives them unprecedented freedom to manage the wealth.  Upon the master’s return, he is gracious, full of praise, even welcoming two of the servants into his bosom.  But when the final servant comes forward, the master becomes another person.  He is angry, scolding, and harsh.  He strips the servant of his talent and casts him into the outer darkness.  The discomfort we feel with the behavior of this stand-in for God is natural; but our discomfort can distract us from the master’s valid concern that we allow fear[ii] to stop us from realizing our vocation.

So why is the master so harsh about fear?  The problem is fear distorts every good thing about our nature.  Fear cuts off creativity.  When we are overcome with fear, we cannot be imaginative and playful, coming to new solutions and ways of being.  Fear also messes with our sense of trust.  When we are overcome with fear, we forget the goodness of others, our previous examples of how things have gone well, or even the bold support of our God.  Fear messes with our confidence.  When we are overcome with fear, all the good, powerful, and holy parts of us get riddled with self-doubt and inaction.  And fear messes with our willingness to take risks.  When we are overcome with fear, we cannot do the things that will lead to great payoff. 

Fear in the abstract is a normal reaction in life.  There are certainly ways in which fear fosters a sense of carefulness, one we have needed in this pandemic.  But we have to remember what Jesus is talking about in this parable to understand why the landowner is so harsh about fear.  You see, talents are not just metaphors for the thing things we are good at or even for the money we have in life.  Talents are metaphors for the vocations we each have.[iii]  Each person in this room has a calling.  Some of us are called to particular jobs or courses of study.  Some of us are called to particular roles within families or groups.  Some of us are called to use our gifts in particular ways.  We all have a call, a vocation in life.  And our vocation is affirmed by the skills or materials we are given to live out that call.  Even our parish has a vocation in our community – a call to use our unique mission to further the Gospel of Christ.  The problem with the third servant is he is given what he needs in abundance.  The landowner affirms him, trusts him, and gives him space and time to live out his vocation.  But the third servant allows himself to be so overcome with fear that he does not live out his vocation.  He shuts down creativity, trust, confidence, and risk-taking all because he is afraid.  And that is an ultimate sin for God. 

What this parable invites us to do today is not to see God as a mean, cruel, reactive God that punishes.  Quite the opposite, the parable today invites us to remember that our God is trusting, discerning about our gifts, confident in our abilities, and joyful in our obedience.  God gives each person in this room and our parish of Hickory Neck a vocation, a purpose, in this world, gives us the gifts and encouragement we need to fulfill that vocation, and, ultimately, expects us to go out into the world and boldly take the risk of doing what God has already enabled us to do.  God is telling us not to waste the crisis of this pandemic.  God sees us becoming nimbler, doing “church” differently in ways that reach more people in our community, and embracing the creativity and experimentation that has always made us great.  Letting fear overpower our beauty is not what God desires for us – because God knows we can open new paths previously unimagined.  God knows our willingness to live out our vocation means great things for the world.  As one scholar reminds us, this “…parable is the invitation to the adventure of faith:  the high-risk venture of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.”[iv]  Amen.


[i] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 309, 311.

[ii] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 312.

[iii] Idea presented by Matthew Skinner in the podcast, “SB570 – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 33)” November 11, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=948 on November 12, 2020.

[iv] John M. Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 312.

On Rituals, Church, and Candy…

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Photo Credit: https://www.hauntedwisconsin.com/things-to-do/kids-family/trick-or-treat/

Last weekend, I took my younger daughter trick-or-treating.  We spent a long time as parents debating whether we should take our children.  We read scientific articles, talked to other parents, and spent time in long conversations.  Ultimately, we decided to go ahead, making sure we donned our masks, only traveled as a family, and sanitized our hands frequently between houses.  We also talked to our child about how although she may want to greet friends with warm hugs, that night was a night for verbal greetings instead of physical.  Our child did not argue with the restrictions and was simply happy to be going at all.

We embarked at the designated time not knowing what to expect – whether other families with children would be out safely, whether homeowners would respect social distancing and mask wearing, or whether the entire evening would need to be abandoned.  Much to my surprise, the evening went better than I could have hoped.  The number of trick-or-treaters was cut in half, and people mostly respected safe distancing.  Homes distributing candy were also at about fifty percent, and many of those who distributed exhibited tons of creativity:  from baskets of candy lowered from outdoor balconies, to candy “kabobs” planted in yards, to zipline delivery mechanisms, to clotheslines of candy. Many homeowners bagged candy to reduce touching and many seemed to have read the best practices about how to hand out candy.  I was blown away by our neighbors’ thoughtfulness, creativity, and grace.

But what struck me the most was a truth emerging from the whole evening.  If you had asked me or any of my neighbors before Halloween why we were participating in the ritual of trick-or-treating, we probably all would have said we were doing it for the kids:  to give them some sort of normalcy in this crazy, abnormal time.  But as I tucked my child in that night, and thought about all our experiences, I realized a deeper truth.  I think all of us adults participated in the ritual not just because the children needed it; we participated because we needed it.  We needed just one thing to be semi-normal in this super stressful, topsy-turvy world.  And we took our precautions and stretched our creativity, but we participated in a ritual that reminded us of joy, innocence, and community.

In many ways, that is what we are trying to do every week in churches too.  The very essence of Church is incarnational – from how we gather (in large groups), how we worship (using our all our senses, including touch), how we participate in ritual (often kneeling shoulder to shoulder, receiving communion from common dishes, and laying on of hands), to how we interact (from children’s programming and play to Coffee Hours).  With this pandemic, our incarnational essence just is not possible in the same way.  And so, we are worshiping online, we are offering socially distant worship services, and we are gathering on Zoom for pretty much everything – from formation, to fellowship, to learning, and even play.  I know Church right now is not the same, but if Halloween offers any lessons, perhaps it is that participating in the ritual – even an amended and altered ritual – is important for our spiritual, emotional, and physical health.  If you have taken a break from the ritual of Church because it just is not the same (and you are right, it is not), please know that Hickory Neck is here to help you reclaim some of that ritual.  It may be awkward or push your technological abilities.  But I promise, even those unusual connections might just offer the ritual you need to stay healthy and whole!

Sermon – Matthew 5.1-12, ASD, YA, November 1, 2020

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There are certain events in life that when we stop and pay attention, bring into laser-sharp focus the importance of ultimate things:  baptisms, weddings, and funerals probably being the most significant.  For baptisms, we do not just celebrate because babies are cute or because adult baptisms feel empowering.  We celebrate by making promises to journey with the individual in their faith, and by renewing our own baptisms.  Similarly, we make promises to couples getting married.  There is even a prayer for already married couples in our liturgy, asking God to renew their promises to one another.  Of course, funerals can do the same thing.  They are not just sobering in their reminder of our own mortality, but also, they refocus us on the ultimate significance promised in Jesus Christ – eternal life.  All of these events in the life of the church offer us a sobering reminder of the importance of ultimate things.

In some ways, that is what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes – that portion of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s gospel today.  Prior to these verses, Jesus has been healing the sick, proclaiming the gospel, and managing swarms of crowds who are drawn to his message and healing.  But in these verses, Jesus stops.  He sits down, gathers the disciples, and invites them to listen.  Jesus then shares the importance of ultimate things.  The disciples are seeing what he sees – the suffering, the pain, the agony.  Into that overwhelming need, Jesus does not teach them how to heal.  He does not teach them how preach.  He does not set a schedule for where they will go next or how many more they will heal.  Instead he lays out a series of blessings that remind the disciples what is ultimately important.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Jesus is more than willing to heal and soothe suffering.  But Jesus is also saying that our pain and our suffering mean something; our pain and suffering can and will be transformed.

We do something similar in our liturgical actions today as well.  We honor not just the saints who have gone before – those who have performed miracles or lived notable lives.  We honor all the “saints” – the label Saint Paul used for all Christians – the mothers, fathers, siblings, children, friends, lovers, and mentors who taught us about the ultimate things.  Even though the practice looks a little different this year, every year we tie ribbons on our altar rail to remember the ultimate things of this life – the wisdom our loved ones taught us.  In our socially distant worship service today, a couple will renew the wedding vows they made forty years ago because they want to remember the ultimate things of married life.  Even in the midst of pandemic, protests, and political campaigns, the Church today pauses this morning and reminds us of ultimate things. 

On this All Saints Day, the faithful stop, take a deep breath, pulling in the anxiety, the pain, the anger, and the suffering, and breathe out the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are those who hunger, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are persecuted…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are you.”  Our invitation today is to breathe in with the all the saints who have gone before, so that when we breathe out, we are renewed with the breath of ultimate things.  Keep doing the work of our Savior in this crazy time because you are blessed and will continue to be blessed.  Rejoice today and be exceedingly glad – for great is your reward in heaven.  Amen.

Sermon – Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18, Matthew 22.34-46, P25, YA, October 25, 2020

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This summer when we were doing our 90-Day Bible Challenge, many of our readers dreaded reading Leviticus.  We read all the fun stories of Genesis and Exodus, and then for chapter after chapter of Leviticus we had to read about how to make sacrifices, what numerical formula to use for different kinds of worship of God, the differences between burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings.  All the momentum of reading came to a screeching halt.  In fact, a seminarian once said of Leviticus, “I never realized I could fall asleep on a treadmill until I did so while trying to read Leviticus.”[i]

For the most part, our wariness of Leviticus is warranted.  But the reading we get from Leviticus today is from the chapter that likely helps us understand why all the other monotony is so important.  You see Leviticus focuses on how to be in right relationship with God.  All those repetitive instructions are meant to do what our reading today finally gets to:  to tell us we can be holy because God is holy.  All those instructions about worship are meant to enrich our relationship with God – to help us see what being holy before the Holy One looks like.  But this particular chapter does not just focus on that vertical relationship with God.  Chapter nineteen of Leviticus introduces something new – our horizontal relationship with one another.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  This too is what holiness looks like.

Of course, this should sound familiar.  In our gospel lesson today, when Jesus is asked what commandment is the greatest, Jesus pulls from his Jewish roots and the lessons of Hebrew Scriptures.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” a text straight out of Deuteronomy, and, he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” a text straight out the Leviticus text we read today.  As people of faith, we balance the vertical and the horizontal – one cannot be true, full, or authentic to one without the other. 

That concept is so simple, our eyes can begin to glaze over like all readers of Leviticus.  Love God, and love neighbor – got it!  Simple enough.  But there is nothing simple about this summary of the law and prophets.  All we need to do is look around us and see how hard these commands are.  Seven months into a pandemic, with cases rising again, our nation in political upheaval around issues of racial injustice, and a national election that has us so divided we cannot even conceive of loving anyone who advocates for the “other” candidate – whichever the other one is for you.  With each passing month of this pandemic, coming to God in reverence and praise sometimes feels impossible because all we feel is anger, frustration, and fatigue towards God – not holiness.  And forget about loving our neighbors – unless, of course, we mean loving our neighbors who agree with us, who are willing to bash the other side with us, who have done enough discernment to know our political position is the holy one.  As each day gets us closer to this election, Leviticus’ words about not slandering others, not seeking vengeance or bearing grudges, makes loving all our neighbors seem impossible.

So what do we do?  With all these feelings of impossible holiness, do we give up or stop trying?  In facing these feelings, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Made in the image of God, human beings share in God’s holiness.  God has placed within them what they need to do God’s will.  God has furthermore placed them in communities of support, giving them teachings to guide them in their life together.  Wherever sinfulness comes from and whatever drives [sinfulness], [sinfulness] is less fundamental to human nature than holiness.  People can be sinful, but the Lord their God is not sinful.  People can be holy, for the Lord their God is holy.”[ii]   All the things that feel impossible now – loving God fully (despite our misgivings) and loving our neighbors fully (the ones we actually love and the ones we love to hate) is possible because we are made in the image of God – we share in God’s holiness.

I think that is why I am so grateful we are in stewardship season right now.  As we gather financial commitment cards today, we are claiming something about the resources God has given us.  We are taking our resources and investing them in our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with one another and our neighbors beyond these walls.  We commit to giving not because we are capable of generosity alone – we give because our God and this community inspire faith-filled generosity.  We look at a world that seems impossibly flawed and messy and say, “Yes.  I am holy because the Lord my God is holy.  My giving is a sign of my sharing in God’s holiness.”  Giving may not feel easy in this time of upheaval, in this time of economic turmoil, but giving is our way of saying, “I cannot do this alone, but with this community I am committing to faith-filled generosity.  I trust Hickory Neck will walk with me as I claim my holiness.”  Even though we are scattered, even though some of us are visiting this campus today, either for a quick drive-thru or a full service, and some of us cannot be here until a vaccine is available, we celebrate the holiness of one another today, the holiness of our God, and the holiness of our neighbors – all our neighbors.  Only in seeing that holiness can we be liberated to live lives of faith-filled generosity.  Amen.


[i] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18,” October 25, 2020, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4626 on October 22, 2020.

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 195, 197.

On Empty and Overflowing Cups…

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I have always been a bit of a night owl.  It has served me well with small children, as I often get a second wind after everyone is asleep.  In college, it allowed me to stay up late to finish papers and studying.  Of course, I also found in college that the late hours meant my eyelids were sometimes heavier than they should be in lectures – with my notetaking become illegible as my body succumbed to the fatigue, as if my handwriting was in sync with my drooping eyelids.

That kind of fatigue – the sheer exhaustion of pushing our bodies and minds to work at maximum capacity – is the kind of exhaustion I am seeing all around me.  Whether it is fellow clergy trying to be constantly nimble and creative while managing the emotional and spiritual field of a pandemic, whether it is working parents who are feeling the crush of working and schooling their children simultaneously, whether it is essential workers who have been putting themselves in constant risk for months, unsure of their job security despite our desperate need for their services, or whether it our retirees who feel the weight of missing their extended family, the binding feeling of restrictions, or the loneliness that can come from social distancing, we are all tired: bone-tired, fatigued, emotionally, physically, and spiritually spent.  Add on top of that a pending heated election, the work of racial reconciliation, and the economic impact of a pandemic and it is a minor miracle that most of us are functioning.

In this time of weariness, I want you to know not only do I see you, but also our Lord and Savior sees you.  When we are this spent in all parts of our lives, we may not feel Christ present with us in the same way.  But it is during these times that Christ is most available to us, surrounding us with grace and light.  It may be in the form of a healing phone call with a loved one, the stunning beauty of a tree turning vibrant fall colors, an online set of prayers or worship service, a good, hearty, unexpected laugh, or the kind word of a stranger, but God is with us in this, seeing our pain and weariness and sending us loving gestures every day.

Today, I invite you find some small way to let that loving generosity into your heart.  Maybe you give yourself a couple of minutes before bedtime tonight to make a mental list of things for which you are grateful, maybe you write down those moments of grace from the last week, or maybe you call someone to share with them your reflection.  My guess is once you create that moment for grace, you will start seeing those moments more and more.  These small graces are what can sustain us in this moment, and eventually refill our cup so that it can run over to bless others.  You are in my prayers as you refill your cup!

On the Awkward and the Sacred…

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Phot Credit: Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly; permission to reuse required

One of the disadvantages of leading virtual worship is that you do not get to participate in worship.  Of course, I can always go back and watch later, but I never get the “live” experience of watching prayers.  That all changed this week.  My seminary held their annual Convocation yesterday.  It was entirely virtual, with webinars, Zoom meetings, breakout rooms, and Zoom worship.  Our worship at Hickory Neck Church is via Facebook Live, so this was my first time worshiping with a community via Zoom, and I was curious to see how it would feel.

My initial response was dissatisfaction.  Although I could see there were about 50 people gathered, once slides were used on the shared screen, I could only see six people without constantly scrolling.  Although the sermon was close to my normal experiences with preaching, watching faces that seemed spaced out was a bit odd (Do the faces look that spaced out when I preach??).  And of course, when I joined in speaking the italicized words (those words “the people” are supposed to say), because we were all on mute, I felt like only the officiant and I were participating.

But that was just the initial reaction.  As I said more and more of the unison readings, I felt less and less awkward.  And even though I could only see a few faces, I loved knowing I was not alone in the worship experience.  And as I became less paranoid about what my own video screen was showing, I was able to relax into my chair, and transport myself to an imaginary pew.  The worship experience was not the same – but it was also familiar, human, holy, and lovely.

Looking back on that experience, I want to offer major kudos to all who are “making it work” with virtual church.  I know it is not the same.  I know it is hard staying positive when all you want is something more familiar.  I am so grateful for all of you who are sticking with it, making the awkward become sacred.  I hope that you are having moments of grace and blessing.  And I also hope you are noticing all the names (and faces if you’re Zooming) you do not recognize:  those folks who find it harder to harken the doors of the church than to hop on Facebook for worship – whether when you are live, or at 10:00 pm, as you watch the archived video while you ease off to sleep.   This may not be church as we have always known it.  But we are also fashioning something new, flexible, and creative, while rooting ourselves in the traditions we know and love that ground us.  This week, you have my gratitude for all the ways you are staying open to the Holy Spirit.  And if you have not found a place to experience the Spirit, I’ve got just the place for you!!

Sermon – Matthew 22.1-14, Isaiah 25.1-9, Psalm 23, P23, YA, October 11, 2020

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The text we heard today from Isaiah is one of my favorites.  The text is commonly read at funerals because the text depicts the sumptuous heavenly feast:  a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  The vivid, lavish image of the heavenly banquet is enough to calm our anxieties about our loved ones, but is also a comfort to us as we ponder our own mortality, and the feast that awaits us with our God.  Of course, feasts are a part of our faith vernacular from our Jewish roots.[i]  When we receive communion, we talk about the meal as being a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.  For many of us, not receiving communion these last seven months have been particularly difficult because the act of feasting on Christ’s body and blood is a weekly ritual that offers us promise, encouragement, and joy.

But as I read our others texts today, I began to realize that perhaps our rosy image of the heavenly banquet is not quite complete.  In our beloved twenty-third Psalm today, one also read at funerals, there is a tiny unsettling line in an otherwise soothing psalm.  The psalm says, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me,” or in our the much more familiar King James Version, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”  Somehow that sumptuous feast becomes a little less satisfying knowing we have to share the feast with those who trouble us.  I can think of a lot of people right now that I have no desire to feast with in the life to come. 

And we cannot forget the wedding feast in our lesson from Matthew today.  As much as we like the allegory of all being welcomed at the king’s feast, where both “good and bad”[ii] are welcomed at God’s table, we are totally thrown by the king’s rejection of the man without proper clothing.  Our immediate reaction is condemnation:  surely if the king, if God, is inviting all in, something as superficial as what we wear should not lead to being cast out.  I mean, this is Hickory Neck after all – where bowties and jeans are equally welcome!  But before we get too bent out of shape, we need to realize Matthew is not talking about a literal wedding robe.  Matthew is talking about wearing the “baptismal garment of Christ, clothing oneself with the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience of one who belongs in the kingdom.”[iii]  You see, although the welcome is broad, as Thomas Long explains, “being a part of the Christian community should make a discernible difference in who we are and how we live…there should be a sense of awe and responsiveness about belonging to the church, belonging to the community of Christ, being a child of the kingdom of heaven.”[iv]

As a priest within the Episcopal Church, I talk to newcomers of all kinds of backgrounds.  The most common question I get from this varied group is, “How do I become a member of the church?”  This is a reasonable question, and in other traditions the answers are very simple.  But the Episcopal Church has a terrible track record with this sort of thing.  Technically, membership in our church means attending church at least three times a year.  Yep.  That is the only definition we have in writing.  I would argue our denominational lack of clarity around membership leads to a lack of investment and true belonging.  In a desire to make everyone feel welcome or create a rosy sense of belonging, we water down what being a person of faith really is.  In fact, Long argues, “to come into the church in response to the gracious, altogether unmerited invitation of Christ and then not conform one’s life to that mercy is to demonstrate spiritual narcissism so profound that one cannot tell the difference between the wedding feast of the Lamb of God and happy hour in a bus station bar.”[v]

Now I know that sounds harsh, much like Matthew’s story sounds harsh.  But as I have been thinking about the rosy feast of Isaiah this week, I realized I needed the feast of the twenty-third Psalm and Matthew too.  I need to remember that not only am I, in all my imperfections welcomed to the table, so are my enemies.  And not only are God’s arms widely open to me, God also expects something of me – for my life to have some recognizable response to the grace of God, for others to know we are Christians by our love, by our wedding garments of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

That is why at Hickory Neck, we try to be a bit clearer about membership – or more aptly, about discipleship.  Our newcomers learn quickly that being here means a few things:  being a member at Hickory Neck means coming to worship, to the feast, regularly enough to be fed and shaped in the life of faith; participating in formation and outreach to continue to grow, learn, and serve; to support the mission of the church with our time, our talent, and our treasure.  We do all of this because the welcome we receive here at Hickory Neck is not hollow – the sense of belonging we feel here is not simply for stuffing ourselves.  That is why our stewardship team invited us this month into a reflection about faith-filled generosity – not inviting us to give financially just because we should.  We are invited to financial generosity toward Hickory Neck because we have been generously, unconditionally welcomed to the feast, and we want to embrace the garment of Christ as a response to that generosity.  This week, as you reflect on the commitment cards and time and talent forms you received by mail, I invite you to reflect on your own experiences with the feast of God – the times when this table has been a lifeline, when Christ’s welcome has been a salve, and when the garment of Christ has been an honor rather than a burden.  I look forward to hearing your stories of faith-filled generosity at the feast this week!  Amen.


[i] Susan Grove Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 167.

[ii] Matthew 22.10

[iii] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 247.

[iv] Long, 247.

[v] Long, 248.

On Things Hidden and Things Seen…

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Photo credit: https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-sit-with-painful-emotions/

October is reserved for awareness about many issues:  infertility and child loss; breast cancer; domestic violence; and mental health.  What I noticed about all these issues is they are hidden – issues we do not talk about, have shame about, or are labeled as “private” and therefore off-limits.  And while I always like to respect people’s privacy or private grief, when we do not talk about these issues, we end up ignoring people’s pain or worse, robbing them of our empathy and support.  By hiding these issues away, we can do more damage than the issue itself.

I have seen a similar pattern with the Coronavirus.  Because we are physically isolated, we struggle to make space to honor the physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial strain of this time.  In my pastoral conversations, I have heard the grief of people who are physically or financially secure but are overcome with anxiety and depression.  I have talked with those who have lost jobs and are struggling with a sense of failure that has nothing to do with their abilities, effort, or achievements.  And I have reflected with others on how things slowly returning to a semblance of normalcy as we progress forward in phases of regathering in our communities makes them feel even more stress – as if they should feel normal too, but cannot seem to operate at full capacity.

In times like these –in infertility, infant loss, breast cancer diagnoses, domestic violence events, and mental health strains – but also most certainly during this pandemic, many of us are trying to show strength or an ability to power through, so much so that we avoid taking our suffering to God.  But that is not the kind of God we worship.  God does not expect an ability to be stronger than the pain and suffering of this world.  Instead, God longs to be invited into our pain, journeying with us, giving a comfort the world cannot provide.  This kind of relationship involves vulnerability and honesty – something that may be difficult for us.  If you find yourself in the midst of that struggle to trust God enough to show your weakness, or if you are feeling shame for your lack of empathy lately, I invite you to pray Psalm 139 with me this week, especially the first twelve verses.  I leave them here for your prayers, inviting you to be gracious with yourself, with your neighbor, and with the stranger.  Even if we do not know their struggles, God does.

Psalm 139.1-12

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

    you discern my thoughts from far away.

3 You search out my path and my lying down,

    and are acquainted with all my ways.

4 Even before a word is on my tongue,

    O Lord, you know it completely.

5 You hem me in, behind and before,

    and lay your hand upon me.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7 Where can I go from your spirit?

    Or where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9 If I take the wings of the morning

    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10 even there your hand shall lead me,

    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

    and the light around me become night,”

12 even the darkness is not dark to you;

    the night is as bright as the day,

    for darkness is as light to you.

Sermon – Matthew 11.25-30, St. Francis Feast, YA, October 4, 2020

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Today we honor the life and witness of St. Francis of Assisi.  St. Francis is well-known and beloved for myriad reasons.  Primarily, people tend to appreciate two things about him: his commitment to living in solidarity with the poor, which included dramatically stripping his clothing off, begging for food, and supporting the most needy; and, his affinity for the creatures of God, with stories of preaching to birds, negotiating with a violent wolf to make peace with the local town, and generally valuing the beasts of the earth.  The second component of his identity is why we do things like the Blessing of the Animals. The first component, we tend to get a little uncomfortable with – or at least like to admire his commitment to being in solidarity with the poor, but not actually imitate it. In fact, one author argues, “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated.”[i]

This week I have struggled with which component to bring to the fore: Francis’ solidarity with the poor, or Francis’ love of creatures.  But as I looked to our gospel lesson, and started thinking about yokes, I realized, the two are not unrelated.  You see, yokes were used to harness two animals for work.  The yoke allowed the two not just to double their work, but to rely on one another – if one was tired, the other could push harder; and then the weaker one could later support the stronger one.  Yokes, like Jesus’ work, were easy and made the burden light. 

But beyond the mechanics of a good yoke, the yoke is also a good metaphor for how we see the gospel.  Being yoked to another makes you connected.  And once you are connected, and see how dependent upon one another you are, you begin to see how that connection extends beyond the two of you – that your yoked interconnection is a microcosm of the connectedness of all of God’s creation.  When Francis was experiencing his conversion, he heard a sermon on another Matthew text.  In Matthew 10, Jesus instructs the disciples to go and proclaim the good news, curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons.  All of this without pay, without backup supplies, and relying on the kindness of strangers.  After the priest explained the text to Francis, Francis’ response was, “This is what I wish, this is what I seek, this is what I long to do with all my heart.”[ii]

But what Francis learned and what we learn when we do likewise is helping the poor and the sick opens our eyes.  We slowly begin to see all of humanity is connected.  And the more we spend time seeing the humanity in others – especially the humanity in those we would rather not – then we start to see that our interconnectedness extends even further – to God’s creation, to God’s creatures, to the cosmos.  If we open our hearts to one, we cannot help to open our hearts to all.  Francis’ love for the poor and Francis’ love for creatures were not two separate things – they were one in the same. 

In our psalm today, we heard the invitation to all of God’s creation:  Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars;  Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; Young men and maidens, old and young together.[iii]  We bless animals today because Francis reminded us how all of God’s creation is worthy of love.  But the invitation for us today is not just to love on cute dogs, cats, hamsters, and horses.  The invitation for us is to start claiming our yoked nature – yoked to those we love, yoked to our political opponents, yoked to those who have different ethics and values than ourselves, yoked to parents who make different parenting decisions, yoked to those with different skin color or sexual orientation, yoked to those we see as deserving of God’s grace and those who are not.  Our yoked nature allows us to pray the Prayer of St. Francis from our Prayer Book:  “Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”[iv]  We can do the work of St. Francis because of the yoke of Jesus.  Thanks be to God.


[i] Holy Men, Holy Women:  Celebrating the Saints (New York:  The Church Pension Fund, 2010), 622.

[ii] Hilarion Kistner, The Gospels According to Saint Francis (Cincinnati:  Franciscan Media, 2014), 7-8.

[iii] Psalm 148.9-12.

[iv] BCP, 833.