On Honoring Christ in Others…

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Hungry

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At my local yoga studio, the teachers share a common practice.  At the end of every session, they say, “The love and light in me honors and respects the love and light in each of you.  Namaste.”  The repetition of the refrain every class, by every teacher, makes the end of our class feel like a liturgy – as though the teacher is sending us out into the world with a blessing.  But what I also love about the words is that I can easily substitute Christian language into their words without feeling like I change their meaning that much.  I have talked about a priest-yoga instructor once before here.  Based on his teachings, I always hear, “The Christ in me honors and respects the Christ in each of you.  Peace.”

With that transformed refrain, I find myself each week wondering how I take that mantra out into the world.  Am I honoring and respecting the Christ in each and every person I encounter?  Am I honoring and respecting the Christ in myself?  Those two simple questions are actually really difficult outside of the yoga studio.  In the yoga studio, we are people who are fairly similar – people of privilege who have the time and money to tend to their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.  But out in the world, we encounter a much wider diversity of people – people of all types of socio-economic, gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual-orientation backgrounds.  Is the Christ in me honoring and respecting the Christ in others when I listen to political rhetoric, when I’m driving around town, or when I make financial decisions?

The last couple of days I have noticed a few more community members pan handling near stop lights.  I am not sure why there has been an increase, but it has been noticeable.  I usually carry small bags of supplies in my car for homeless individuals, but I recently cleared out my car and they are sitting in my garage.  So yesterday, knowing I was empty handed, I sat at the stoplight, intentionally not making eye contact with a particular panhandler.  But as we drove by, my youngest daughter waved and shouted, “Hi!”

Clearly my daughter has mastered the art of honoring and respecting the Christ in others.  She did not see class, status, or dirt.  She saw a person whom she would honor like anyone else.  That’s the wonderful thing about being a part of a faith community.  When we are struggling with our Christian witness – with truly allowing the Christ in us to honor and respect the Christ in others – other faithful witnesses will model that behavior for us.  Who are your faith models?  How might you engage more faithfully in honoring and respecting the Christ in others – especially those in whom you struggle to see Christ?

The Blessing of Broken Plans…

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planner

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I am a planner.  I like routine.  I like order and control.  Knowing that those are my natural dispositions, I probably should not have decided to become a priest or a mother.  Both of those vocations regularly involve upset plans, routines, order, and control.  Of course, one cannot do either job well without plans, routines, order, and control – but one has to also be able to extremely flexible when those things fall apart.

This past week has been a week like that.  We had a parish death about two weeks ago, which meant the funeral needed to be on my normal Sabbath.  I was totally fine with that – in fact, I usually drop everything when a death happens.  Again, that is part of being a priest.  You learn to reshuffle the week, and make it work.  And that was what I was doing until this weekend hit.  I ate something that was apparently spoiled and got sick overnight.  The next morning the malfunction light on my car came on as the car lurched its way down the highway.  And then, right as I was trying to rally to get back to my work routine, my eldest got sick in the middle of the night too.

Of course, it is not often the case that everything is shifting and changing all at once.  But when you have a week of concentrated upheaval, you begin to wonder about what God is up to.  In general, I think singular schedule changers are good reminders about self-importance.  Mass schedule changers though seem to be an invitation to do a few things.  First, laugh.  Laugh at how silly it is to think we are ever fully able to control this crazy, wild, wonderful gift of life.  Second, look.  Look at the room full of mourners reminding you of ultimate importance.  Third, love.  Love that God made a tender moment of cuddling with your three-year old because you are too tired to do anything else.

I don’t wish the chaos of my last week on anyone.  It can be disorienting, frustrating, and exhausting.  But if you do find those moments of unpredictability coming your way, perhaps you can take a moment to see where God is inviting you to laugh, look, and love.  Your plans will be there tomorrow!

Sermon – Genesis 18.1-1, 21-1-7, P6, YA, June 18, 2017

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Today we get one of my favorite stories in scripture – Sarah’s laughter at God’s promise.  The story is perfectly crafted.  The story with a flurry of activity.  Abraham is sitting in his tent in the heat of the day when three guests suddenly appear.  As soon as Abraham sees them, he runs to greet them, begging them to stay.  Then Abraham sends the entire household into a tizzy.  He barks orders about baking cakes, grabs a calf and commands the calf be prepared for the guests.  He gets curds and milk and rushes to plate the feast for the guests.  We can almost imagine Abraham panting as he finally delivers the meals to the guests.

But then the story comes to a screeching halt, with a question that tells us what is really important.  “Where is your wife, Sarah?”  And slowly, the promise of a child to a barren, post-menopausal woman unfolds.  Abraham and Sarah were promised long ago to be the parents of a great nation.  But Sarah had given up on that dream.  She had already asked Abraham to go to her slave-girl and have a child with Hagar as a representative child for her.  Her action with Hagar had been a desperate move, but what else could she have done?  So when this guest, or God, as the text later tells us, says that Sarah will conceive herself, after years of longing, hoping, feeling devastated and powerless, Sarah does what we all might do.  She laughs.  She laughs at the prospect of pleasure in her marriage when she and Abraham are so advanced in age.  She laughs at the impossibility that their pleasure might lead to progeny.  She laughs at the promise because believing the promise would mean opening herself up to unfilled dreams yet again.

Sarah’s laughter has long been used as a criticism for a lack of faith in God.  When God asks, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” and when Sarah quickly denies her laughter, countless readers have wagged their fingers at Sarah as if to say, “Oh ye of little faith.”  And I can see how we get there.  The exchange between Sarah and God – the laughter that bubbles out from years of hurt and disappointment, the scolding by God, the attempt to lie to cover up embarrassment, and the scolding yet again when God calls Sarah on her dishonesty – is all too familiar to us.  What the accusation of lacking faith forgets is how terribly vulnerable and resigned Sarah is.  I cannot tell you the number of people I have counseled who at the end of second marriage have begun to doubt God’s presence.  I cannot tell you the number of people I have sat with after receiving a bad diagnosis for themselves or their loved one who has begun to whether God has abandoned them.  I cannot tell you the number of people have received yet another rejection letter who have begun to question God’s call on their life.  When Sarah laughs, I do not feel justification for judgment against her level of faith.  When Sarah laughs, I hear the ache of countless believers who know how ludicrous God’s promises can be.

What gets me about the judgment of Sarah is the short memory of scripture readers.  In the chapter before what we heard today, Abraham is given the same promise that Sarah hears – a child by Sarah.  And his reaction?  He does not simply laugh quietly to himself as Sarah does in that tent.  He falls on his face and laughs full-bodied at God.  The only difference in laughter between Abraham and Sarah is that Abraham laughs in front of God where Sarah tries to hide her laughter.  Both are an acknowledgement of doubt about what God can do.  Both take all their disappointment, pain, and hurt, and dissolve into laughter because, quite frankly, sometimes God is laughable.  Sometimes God makes no sense at all, and laughing is the only release and protection from more hurt.  Humans questioning God is a natural part of a genuine God-human conversation, a conventional motif we see throughout the Old Testament.[i]

This week, I stumbled on an Old Testament scholar, Kathryn Shifferdecker, who suggests that God may not be a God of judgment in this passage.  In fact, she sees God as fully understanding the comedy of the situation.  She sees a God with a sense of humor, who when God says, “Oh yes you did laugh,” says so with a twinkle in his eye.[ii]  The theory totally shifted the reading for me.  Suddenly the pieces all fit together.  Instead of an angry or disappointed God, who judges disbelief, our God is a God who understands that God’s promises are sometimes laughable – even if they are true.  Why else would God tell Abraham to name his son Isaac, which means, “he laughs,” in Hebrew?[iii]  As Schifferdecker explains, “Abraham falls on his face in a fit of laughter.  Sarah laughs behind the tent door.  And the LORD (I believe) laughs with them at the divine, wonderful absurdity of it all.  Given the humor of the scene under the oaks of Mamre, and the comedy of a God who acts in unexpected ways to fulfill God’s promises, it is entirely appropriate that the child of the promise should be named ‘Laughter.’”[iv]

The image of the three of them laughing – Sarah, Abraham, and God, makes a lot of sense once we hear the final words of Sarah.  In chapter 21, Sarah, perhaps initially embarrassed or doubtful of God, now says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  This story is not a story of shame for those of us who struggle with doubt, anger, or frustration with God.  This is not a story of an unfaithful follower of God.  This is a story about a woman and a man who look at the absurdity of God’s promise with the fullness of their humanity and laugh – hard, belly-shaking, on-the-floor laughter that only comes when the divine finally breaks through our disappointment, shame, and anger, and brings us to laughter.

I love this story even more as I think about the trinity of Abraham, Sarah, and God laughing.  Their laughter affirms our own incredulous walks with God.  Their laughter takes those moments when we no long trust God’s promises, and transforms them.  No longer do we need to hide away our deepest doubts, but instead we honor them.  We share them.  And we create communities of laughter with them.  Amen.

[i] Leander E. Keck, ed., New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. I (Abingdon Press, 1994), 465.

[ii] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7],” June 18, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3301 on June 14, 2017.

[iii] Tamara Cohn Eshkenazi, ed., The Torah:  A Women’s Commentary, (Women of Reform Judaism URJ Press, 2008), 97.

[iv] Schifferdecker.

On Learning Love…

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19060191_10155029443210379_5630596855440230652_nThis past weekend, our family was invited to meet up in DC with some friends from California.  They were attending the pride parade that afternoon, so we decided to meet them for a late lunch and then join them for as much of the parade as our little ones could handle.  We did not tell the children much about the visit – just that we would have lunch with friends and watch a parade.  Our oldest had already been a part of a pride parade with my husband’s work last year.  But everything would be new for our youngest.  It would also be my first pride parade.

What struck me about DC that day was the prevalence of invitations to love.  That may sound simple, obvious, or overused.  Perhaps we have become desensitized now that “Love is love,” has become a motto of sorts.  But as I watched all those gathered that day, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love.  This is a community which has every reason to embrace defensiveness, anger, and a sense of righteous indignation.  The LGBTQ community has been the victim of judgment, oppression, prejudice, violence, anger, ostracization, and emotional abuse.  They have been the victims of laws that limited their ability to not only be in relationship, but even to be in committed, monogamous, legal marriages.  They have been denied jobs, housing, adoptive rights, and patient rights.  They have every reason to be a community that reflects the hatred they have experienced.

And yet, I felt nothing but love that day.  I felt nothing but a celebration of love, care, and community.  And I cannot tell you how powerful it is to have your children surrounded by strangers who exude that kind of love.  My heart was warmed and I felt humbled by the community’s ability to show love in the face of hate.  As a person of faith, and as a pastor, I was hoping to see the church out, making the LGBTQ community feel welcome.  But after our day together, I wondered if the movement perhaps needed to be in reverse.  Perhaps the Church needs to be inviting the LGBTQ community in to teach us more about the love Christ talks about.  The love I felt that day was nothing short of the kind of love Jesus teaches throughout his ministry.  I was grateful for the wonderful witness of the LGBTQ community.  I just hope the Church can catch up and follow their example.

Homily – Matthew 28.16-20, TS, YA, June 11, 2017

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When I first sat in the chapel at my seminary, I immediately got a little nervous.  You see, over the altar was a huge stain glass window.  Around the edges of the window were emblazoned the words, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.”  I remember staring at those words and thinking, “When I said I wanted to be a priest, I didn’t mean I wanted to go out evangelize people.”  Sure, I wanted to gather communities around the sacraments, encouraging us to serve the poor and needy, and creating groups of people set apart.  My early vision was about the people who were already there.  But that is not what Jesus commands in the Great Commission.  Though Mark’s gospel is where the instruction comes from to preach the gospel, Matthew’s intent in similar.  They are to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.  In other words, they are to be evangelists.  I don’t know about you, but no matter how many sermons I hear from Presiding Bishop Curry about the Jesus Movement, I still get nervous thinking about going out into the world to make disciples.

I have been thinking a lot this week about why, after all these years after Jesus’ commission, we are still a little skittish about the idea of going out, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching.  I think a lot of our anxiety is about fear.  We are afraid of what people will think.  We do not want to be perceived as one of those faith groups that goes door to door, pressuring someone to come to Jesus.  We do not want to be perceived as judgmental, as if by sharing the Good News we are saying someone’s life is incomplete.  We do not want to be perceived as fanatical, nosy, or just uncool.  And as we all know, the minute you start talking about God, you can get into all kinds of trouble around interpretation of Scripture, historical sins of the Church, and modern heresies.  Forget being judged – we could lose friends!

So why in the world would we ever do what Jesus is asking?  Why would we go out, make disciples, baptize, and teach?  We do what Jesus asks because we were once baptized, and faithful people surrounded us, promising to journey with us, to raise us into the life of faith, and to help us get to know the mysterious, loving, life-giving entity that we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We do what Jesus asks because we have been taught – by countless faithful people.  Some of them were priests, professors, and Sunday School teachers.  But some of them were everyday people, just trying to make sense of the Word of God, who spoke truth to us and changed our lives.  We do what Jesus asks because we were made disciples.  At some point along the line, we learned enough, prayed enough, struggled enough, served enough, and were loved enough that we decided to walk in the way of Christ – even on those days when we do not understand fully what that means.  If all of those wonderfully converting things have happened to us, have brought beautiful children of God into our lives, and have changed our lives for the better, why wouldn’t we want to share that with others?!?

I imagine you may not still be convinced.  You may be still sitting there thinking about that scary window at the seminary thinking, “There is no way I can do that.” After rereading Matthew’s gospel this week, here is what I wish that seminary window had done.  In that big arched window, emblazoned with the words “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel,” I would have put under the window, perhaps even in parentheses, the words Jesus says today:  Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  The going, the baptizing, the teaching, the making disciples is all done because Jesus, coeternal with that creative, blessing God we read about today, through the ever-present power of the Holy Spirit is with us always, to the end of the age.[i]  Not just back then, in a historical moment with the disciples, not just tomorrow when we are finally ready, but now, this very moment, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is with us, always, to the end of the age.[ii]  Our God created you in God’s image, making you very good.  This community, as the community of the Corinthians did with Paul, has taught you how to agree with one another, live in peace, be a people of love who greet one another with holy kisses.  And Jesus sends you out to do some hard, life-giving, joyful work, which you can do because the Jesus, through the Spirit, is with you always, to the end of the age.  When we dismiss you today, we will dismiss you to love and serve the Lord.  But we also dismiss you to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.  And we all say, “Thanks be to God,” because we know that God is with us, always, to the end of the age.  Amen.

[i] Thomas G. Long, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 49.

[ii] David Lose, “Trinity Sunday A:  The Great Promise,” June 7, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/06/trinity-sunday-a-the-great-promise/ on July 8, 2017.

On Life, Death, and the In-Between…

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At the hospital where I delivered my second child, they had a practice of allowing the spouse or supporting person of the mother push a button that would play a tinkling song throughout the hospital marking the birth of a child.  The practice has many wonderful implications.  One, it makes room for joy – joy that can be experienced throughout the whole hospital community.  For those of you who have spent much time in hospitals, you know joy can be lacking.  Two, it creates a sense of mutuality between the birthing mother and her support team.  When the mom is doing most of the hard labor, it is nice to have tangible ways for the supporting team to participate.  Three, it creates little moments of celebration for the hospital staff – something they need too when bogged down with the work of health care.

But what felt like a wonderful, life-giving gift as I was delivering has taken on new layers of meaning as a pastor who visits hospitals.  More often than not, I have heard that song played while sitting with someone with a serious illness or who is approaching death.  The sense of irony about the circle of life is never lost on me, the patient, or their family.  It still feels like a gift, but a bittersweet one nonetheless.  I have also wondered what that song does for women and men in the hospital who have struggled with infertility or who have just lost a child.  That song represents so many unfulfilled dreams and heartache.

That being said, I do not think the disadvantages of the song outnumber the advantages.  I think the song actually does for everyday people what those in healthcare and pastoral care experience everyday – the thin spaces between life and death.  I cannot tell you the number of times when I have experienced life and death in a matter of days, hours, or minutes.  I have written about that here.  In a given week, I can hear the tinkling song while I sit at the bedside of a dying parishioner.  In a given day, I can hear elementary children playing and laughing, and then sit with a family member who needs a good cry.  In a given span of hours, I can bury a parishioner and then counsel a parishioner who is burying a marriage, birthing new love, or celebrating a new beginning.  This work is such that life and death are thinly separated.

The consequence of that thin space is that I get regular reminders of the enormity of God’s presence.  If I find the experience of celebrating life and watching life pass away in a matter of minutes, how much more infinitely does God experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the human experience.  The God who created us and the world about us and called it good, and yet stood by as we sullied that creation has seen much.  The God who took on human form to experience for God’s self the complexity of the human experience knows much.  The God who breathes through life, death, and vocation in between feels much.  As we celebrate Trinity Sunday this weekend, I wonder how your appreciation of the three-in-one Godhead might help you appreciate both the promise that God is with us always, but also help you name God with us always for others.

worlds-oldest-new-father

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On Presumed Barriers…

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Pentecost Languages

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Most of my travels have been to places where I knew or was learning the language.  And if I did not know the language, a few team members did, so we were able to communicate in at least a basic way.  The exception to that pattern was my trip to Myanmar.  There were eight of us on the team, and none of us spoke Burmese.  Most of the time, that was not a problem because we had a local translator.  But on our first Sunday, we were divided into groups and sent to Anglican churches.  When my partner and I sat down, we were handed a prayer book and a hymnal (familiar accoutrements for Episcopalians).  We even had parishioners nearby who would help us find the page we were on during the service.  But the prayer books and hymnals were completely in Burmese – a very pretty language to look at, but completely indecipherable to an English-speaking American.

So we did all we could do.  We smiled and nodded as others helped us.  We sat and stood as others sat and stood.  We closed our eyes when it was obvious we were praying.  We knew when the sermon was being delivered, even if we couldn’t understand it.  But my favorite part came about two-thirds of the way through the service.  One of the hymns was announced.  We stood up with everyone else and prepared to stand silently again.  Then all of a sudden, the people were singing a tune we knew.  All of the tension and anxiety in my body melted away as a broad smile crossed my face.  I quietly sang the words I could remember in English.  Finally, I felt like a full participant in the body as we worshiped.

This Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost.  Even though we will be experimenting with using foreign languages at Hickory Neck, I am not sure we will ever grasp the fullness of that first Pentecost experience – the chaos of languages, and yet the clarity of understanding by each in their own tongue.  But what I hope we get a small taste of is the experience of being united by the Holy Spirit.  That Sunday in Myanmar was a bit like that first experience with the Holy Spirit.  In the desire to connect, communicate, and create community, we were able to do that through the power of song.  On this coming Sunday, we will do that through the written word in our native tongues.  What I hope the day challenges us to do going forward is to seek ways to find common languages – to connect, communicate, and create community with people who are unlike us.  Whether they speak another language, hold another faith, are of a different race or socioeconomic class, there are “languages” that can create barriers to true connection.  I suspect the Holy Spirit is with us when we are willing to work through the barriers.  And if my experience in Myanmar gives any clue, the Holy Spirit will work its magic to help us connect, communicate, and create community.  Then our work really begins.

Sermon – Acts 1.6-14, E7, YA, May 28, 2017

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We do it all the time:  waiting.  Waiting is perhaps one of the cruelest experiences of life.  Waiting for the test results that will tell us whether or not we have cancer.  Waiting for a call back after interviewing for our dream job.  Waiting all summer long after graduating high school before we can start new life in college.  The trouble with waiting is that we can feel lost – we are between two realities – the one we know and the one that is to come.  In some ways, simply by finding out we need the test, by applying for the job, or by making the deposit at college, life can never be the same.  Something is changed in our lives by stepping into the unknown.  And yet, we do not have the answer, we have not started the job, and school has not begun.  We are not the new person we know we will be.  We are in-between, in limbo, in no-man’s land.

Scholars call this in-between time liminal time.[i]  Liminal time is the time in which we are in the middle of a transition.  Native cultures experienced liminal time most famously in the journey to adulthood.  When young men or young women reached a certain age and maturity, they were sent away from their families and out into the wilderness for a time.  When their time in the wilderness was done, they returned with full adult status, respect, and responsibility.  They leave a child and return a man or a woman.  Liminal time is that time in the wilderness – where they are no longer children, and not yet adults.  Their identity is in flux, their purpose is ambiguous, and their life is on pause.  Liminal time is a time fraught with anxiety, frustration, and confusion.  Liminal time is a time when things are happening to you, and you have no agency.  Moments of liminality are some of the hardest moments in life.  The comfort of what has been and promise of what is to come is rarely soothing.  All that is left is ambiguity.

That kind of transition is where we find our disciples today.  They have spent forty glorious days feeling the victory of Christ’s resurrection, being blessed with further teachings, and being comforted by Christ’s presence.  They are ready.  They confidently ask Jesus today, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  This has to finally be the time!  Jesus’ answer is anything but satisfying.  Jesus makes a promise – that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they will be empowered to do their work of witnessing.  But for now, at this moment of climax, confidence, and courage, Jesus says, quite simply, “Wait.”

The trouble is that when the disciples ask that final question to Jesus, expecting to hear when Jesus will restore the kingdom of Israel, and effectively assume his place on the earthly throne, initiating the reign of the kingdom of God, the answer they get is a bit different.  As N.T. Wright explains, they are asking when “Israel will be exalted as the top nation, with the nations of the world being subject to God through his vindicated people.”  In one sense, that vindication already happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  In another sense, we are still waiting for the “time when the whole world is visibly and clearly living under God’s just and healing rule.”  Jesus is not a future king, but the one who has already been appointed and enthroned.  What the disciples are waiting for now is the empowering of the Spirit to go witness this reality.[ii]  The disciples find they are going to have to wait, but what they are waiting for has shifted dramatically.  Their waiting will be fraught with even more ambiguity than expected.

That’s the funny thing about waiting.  Not only do you find all the discomfort that comes from liminal time – the stripping of identity which leaves you naked for a time before you don your new armor.  But also, we all know that in waiting unexpected things happen.  Like the disciples who may have expected one thing to come at the end of their waiting, only to realize something quite different is coming, we too learn that reality shifts while waiting.  Things we thought would matter when we were done waiting stop mattering.  Truths we held to be unshakeable get shaken up while waiting.  Once unappreciated certainties and clarity become longed for realities when we wait.

So what are we to do?  What are we to do in our periods of waiting, in our liminal times?  Karl Barth called the waiting between the Ascension and Pentecost, the days we are experiencing now, the “significant pause…a pause in which the church’s task is to wait and pray.”[iii]  Now, I know what you are thinking.  That’s all you’ve got?  I should wait and pray?  Telling us to wait and pray seems like a classic platitude, what we say to someone who is hurting in ambiguity, and we have no real solace to offer.  Will Willimon explains, “Waiting, an onerous burden for us computerized and technically impatient moderns who live in an age of instant everything, is one of the tough tasks of the church.  Our waiting implies that the things which need doing in the world are beyond our ability to accomplish solely by our own effort, our programs and crusades.  Some other empowerment is needed, therefore the church waits and prays.”[iv]  For the disciples, their waiting is not empty-handed.  Though Jesus has left them, Jesus has left them to sit at the right hand of God.  There is confidence in that knowledge about Jesus.  And though they are facing the “significant pause,” the promise of the empowering Spirit is a promise of hope, empowerment, and companionship.  So their waiting and prayer is not for personal comfort during this time of ambiguity, but for empowerment to be obedient.  They are praying because they know that the coming work of witnessing will be hard work.  Instead of praying out of self-pity, they are praying out of determined expectation.

Perhaps that is why they stay together and pray.  By going to that upper room together, the disciples teach us that community is central to the life of the church and to the practice of prayer – is central to helping us get through those times of waiting.  Like the disciples, “we need each other’s witness and support, challenge and care, in order to live into the possibilities and expectations of God’s realm.”[v]  Now for those of you who have waited for the diagnosis, call back from the potential employer, or start date of college, you know that waiting and praying in community can be hard.  Answering for the fortieth time, “Any news yet?” can be as torturous as your own longing for answers or change.  Perhaps that is why some cultures spend their liminal time alone – so they can avoid all of that communal pressure.  But that is not what the disciples do.  They see this liminal time as a time for all of them – not even just the eleven left, but also the women and others gathered.  If they are going to have to face this significant pause, full of uncertainty and change, they will pray and wait together.

That is our invitation today too – to pray and wait together.  You may not be facing an obvious period of liminal time.  You may not even feel as though you are waiting for something.  But the reality is that we are all waiting.  As David Lose reminds us, “We have no idea of what the remainder of 2017 will bring, let alone 2018.  There will be accomplishments and setbacks, victories and defeats, joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies on a personal, communal, national, and global scale.  And in all these things, God will be with us, comforting, celebrating with, strengthening, and accompanying us in and amid whatever may come.  And God will also be preparing us, preparing us to be God’s emissaries of good news, preparing us to comfort others, preparing us to work for peace, preparing us to live with less fear and more generosity, preparing us to look out for the rights of others, preparing us to strive for a more just community and world.”[vi]  I do not know about you, but I would much rather face that ambiguity with a community who can remind me of God’s promise and helping me see the work of the Spirit.  That is what we do when we pray and wait together.  Our invitation is accept the gift of this community, and to wait and pray with together.

[i] Liminal time is a concept that has been developed by many scholars.  Arnold van Gennep, Victor W. Turner, and Gordon Lathrop all developed the idea of incorporating liminal time into liturgical practice.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 9-10.

[iii] William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation:  A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1988), 20.

[iv] Willimon, 21.

[v] Randle R. Mixon, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 524.

[vi] David Lose, “Easter 7A:  Important Interludes,” May 25, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/easter-7-a-important-interludes/ on May 26, 2017.

On Dancing and Identity…

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First Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[vi] Ramsay, 492.