On Cultivating Empathy…

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This weekend, I watched the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast with our children.  They have seen the animated version many times, but the differences in storyline in the live version made them feel like they were seeing the story for the first time, no longer trusting the outcome to be the same.  As we watched the film, we were spread across the living room in our favorite watching spots.  At the point where the beast releases Belle to go help her father, the Beast sings a sad song not found in the animated version.  In the midst of the song, my younger daughter jumped up from her seat, her eyes overflowing with tears and ran to jump in my lap.

I was surprised by her strong reaction to the scene, and quickly began to comfort her and ask what was upsetting her so much.  She was devastated Belle might not come back and was weeping for the beast.  We whispered quietly and I tried to reassure her so she could keep watching.  Meanwhile, my older daughter was completely confused by her sister’s reaction.  Perhaps she felt her sister should remember the ending, or maybe she just thought crying over a movie was silly (as she has told me so many a time as I have wiped my own tears at various movies).

Later that night, I talked with my younger daughter about the movie and her reaction.  She said she was glad she had not seen the movie at school because she wouldn’t want her friends to see her cry.  As we talked about her fear, she recalled that I had once told her it was okay to cry when something is really sad.

I have been thinking since that night how we teach our children and what lessons adult internalize about emotions.  I am not suggesting we need to walk around crying all the time, but I do think we have internalized some messaging about how crying connotes weakness instead of a deep sense of empathy.  And the good Lord know we need a lot more empathy these days – for our friends, for our enemies, for strangers.

As I think about Jesus’ ministry, one of the things he always showed was a sense of empathy without boundaries:  for women and the powerless, for the sick and ostracized, for those who are slow to understand, for those who follow rules but forget grace, for those who have let fear and anger harden their hearts.  This week, I invite you to consider where you have lost touch with empathy.  If you need some prodding, I suspect just reading or listening to the news will give you ample opportunity for occasions for empathy.  But I imagine you already know where you have separated yourself from empathy.  It will not be easy work, and others might look at you askance when you show empathy.  But I suspect the more you work on empathy, the more you might receive it in return.

 

 

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Sermon – 1 Kings 19.1-15a, Luke 8.26-39, P7, YC, June 23, 2019

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I remember when I was discerning one of my first calls to a parish, I heard a distinct word of encouragement from God that made me confident I should accept the call.  Or at least I thought I heard a distinct word from God.  Moments and days later, I began to doubt myself.  Maybe the words I heard in my head were my own.  Maybe I imagined the whole thing or, in hoping from a word of clarity, I made up the words myself.  And as soon as I began questioning what I heard, I started questioning the guidance of the words.  Either I was boldly following God’s distinct word to me or I was misguidedly making decisions based on an imagined experience.  Saying yes in that fog of doubt became one of the scariest experiences I have had.

That’s the funny thing about our relationship with God.  Most of the time when we talk about our relationship with God, we talk about the God of love.  But real, vulnerable, authentic experiences with God are scary too.  Whether we are trusting God through a major life crisis, we are taking a new path we are not certain is the right one, or someone challenges our life choices, following God in everyday life is scary.

We see that reality in two of our scripture readings today.  To understand why Jezebel wants to kill the prophet Elijah, we have to recall what happened in the previous chapters.  In an effort to proclaim the supremacy of Yahweh, Elijah challenges the god of Jezebel’s prophets to a duel of sorts.  All day long the prophets of Baal cry out to Baal to reign down fire on a sacrifice and are unable.  Elijah, fully confident in the power of Yahweh, immediately calls down fire, victorious over the prophets of Baal, and then proceeds to slaughter the whole lot.  But Jezebel’s answering threat on Elijah’s life sends him running.  No longer full of prophetic nerve[i], he runs to the wilderness, and asks God to take away his life.  Once so confident in the power of God, Elijah would rather cower in a corner and die.  Even when God’s voice come to him in a word of encouragement, Elijah can only see what is in front of him; in fact, he can only see the limited view he has, not the wider, sweeping view of God’s power to save.   Fear leads Elijah to paralysis.

Meanwhile the Gerasenes are equally scared.  They have developed a system for dealing with the possessed man of their village.  They know when to bind him and when to abandon him.  They know he is dangerous, and unclean, but they have figured out how to keep the town safe.  He is the identified patient of the town – the one who has the “real” problems.  By identifying the demoniac as the patient, no one else has to look at their own demons – the ways in which each of them are “vulnerable to forces that seek to take [them] over, to bind [their] mouths, to take away [their] true names, and to separate [them] from God and from each other.”[ii]  So, when Jesus casts out the impossible demons, and sends them to their death through their herd of swine, and the townspeople find the demoniac healed, clothed, and sitting in his right mind at the feet of Jesus, they do not celebrate or thank God for healing.  Instead they stand afraid of the power of God.  Now the demoniac is healed, they are afraid this Jesus will see their demons or challenge their feigned health.  In response, they do not ask for an explanation, but ask Jesus to leave.  Their fear leads to paralysis too.

To be fair, fear is a natural and sometimes necessary emotion.  Fear helps us develop a healthy sense of preservation.  Fear allows us to make necessarily cautious decisions.  Fear can keep us safe.  But fear can also lead to paralysis, and perhaps more importantly, to a lack of trust.  And when we are talking about God, a lack of trust evolving from fear gets us into trouble.  We start doubting the graciousness we know God intends for us.  We start avoiding the very work that will give us joy and fulfillment.  We start losing our sense of connection to God – who happily emboldens us when we allow God to do so.

We see in Elijah and the Gerasenes’ story the goodness that can happen when we work through our fear.  For Elijah, despite the fact he is terrified and despondent, convinced he would be better off dead, God provides food for him the wilderness – twice!  The angel of God feeds him with food so sustaining Elijah is able to make a forty-day journey.  And despite the fact that Elijah is so afraid he becomes convinced he is all alone in God’s work, God not only speaks to him, but opens up a vision of God’s work that is bigger than Elijah and extends well beyond his lifetime.[iii]  As Elijah slowly loosens his grip on fear, he opens himself up again to God’s guidance, protection, and confidence – even though the guidance, protection, and confidence had been present all along, hidden in the presence of gripping fear, but there nonetheless.

The same is true for the Gerasenes.  Despite the fact the townspeople are fearful of Jesus’ power, Jesus brings about healing anyway.  And knowing the people of Gerasene may continue to be fearful, Jesus has the former demoniac stay behind so he can testify to the salvific work of God.  As scholar Debie Thomas points out, “The story ends with Jesus commissioning the healed man to stay where he is and serve as the first missionary to his townspeople — the same townspeople who feared, shunned, trapped, and shackled him for years.”[iv]  Jesus does not scold, shun, or shame when he is asked to leave.  Jesus keeps holding out hope in the face of fear – Jesus holds hope that the townspeople might be healed like the demoniac is healed.  Jesus loves graciously and expects transformation in the face of hopeless fear.

One of the main tenants of practicing yoga is while you are practicing, you are to clear you mind of thoughts.  I am pretty sure every yoga instructor knows this is an impossible goal, because the other thing one learns in yoga is how to clear your mind once your mind becomes distracted – not if your mind becomes distracted.  There are all sorts of methods, but the primary instruction is to acknowledge the thought and then let the thought go.  In other words, when you catch yourself on the fifth thing on your to do list, you stop yourself by acknowledging you got off track, let the failure go, and try to clear you mind again.  There is no need for judgment, just acknowledgment and release.

That is our invitation today too.  Fear will always be with us.  No matter how strong we are in our faith life, we will sometimes be paralyzed by fear.  But if we can take a cue from yoga by pausing, taking a deep breath, acknowledging our failure in the face of fear, and trying again, perhaps we will be able to release the paralysis fear causes and step boldly back into the path God establishes for us.  Today’s lessons remind us there is encouragement for this work all around us.  There are angels that feed us when we want to give up the fight.  God speaks to us, reminding us how God is working at a much higher level, supporting us in ways we do not even realize we need.  God sends healed messengers to testify to us, to remind us of the ways in which we need healing more than those we have labeled as sick.  In breathing and letting go, we open our eyes in fresh ways to see God all around us acting for good.  And with each breath, and with each relaxing of our grip on fear, God washes over us with grace, kindness, compassion, and love.  Yes, letting go is scary.  But God shows us over and over again how when we let go of our fear, God is there with abundant, wonderful, powerful love.  Amen.

[i] Trevor Eppehimer, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 148.

[ii] Debie Thomas, “Legion,” June 16, 2019, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay, on June 19, 2019.

[iii] Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 151.

[iv] Thomas.

On Liturgy, Love, and the Lord…

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Photo credit:  Hickory Neck Episcopal Church; reuse with permission only.

This past Sunday we celebrated an “Instructed Eucharist,” a worship service in the Episcopal Church narrated to explain how and why we do the things we do in Church.  Though Instructed Eucharists are pretty common in the Episcopal Church, I had never led one myself, and I found I was pretty nervous about how it would go.  I worried the narrative pieces would feel too long and people would start to lose attention.  I worried the worship would feel too disjointed by narration to feel like worship.  I worried the teaching portion would not be particularly meaningful for those gathered.

As in most things, my worries were unfounded.  Many of those gathered shared that the narrative did not make the service too long.  In fact, they were surprised at how seamlessly the narrative flowed, and how engaging the experience was.  Several of those gathered were touched by the parts that are always touching – scripture, music, preaching, the peace, communion, and the dismissal.  And many of those gathered, of all ages, and of all spiritual backgrounds, shared not only did they love the service, but they also learned many new things.

What caught my attention about the feedback was not simply that people liked the experience.  What caught my attention about the feedback was people were excited about worship.  Having learned something about the weekly ritual of worship allowed our worship to shift from the physical (the habits of bowing, kneeling, standing, singing, eating, greeting) to the mental (understanding the theology, history, and spirituality of our worship) to the spiritual (the opening of our bodies and minds creating deeper connection with God).  That kind of excitement is at the heart of what drew most Episcopalians to the Episcopal Church – a ritual that somehow spoke to something deep inside them, and of which they wanted more.  Sometimes that longing could be easily described, but sometimes that longing was too mysterious to capture in words.

If you had that experience this past Sunday, or if you have ever been touched by that mysterious sense of God in the worship within the Episcopal Church, I invite you to share that sense of wonder with someone today.  You may share the first moment you stepped into an Episcopal Church, or a lifetime of practice, or a simple Instructed Eucharist.  Share the wonder and beauty with someone else, and invite them into the same experience that has enlivened your spiritual journey.  And if you have never had that experience in a church before, know you are welcome to join us at Hickory Neck – a place where you can weekly come and participate – whether physically, mentally, or spiritually – in something bigger than yourself, but in something that makes you feel more grounded in yourself – something that allows you to find God within, already there waiting for you, affirmed in the community around you.  You are welcome here.

A Confession and a Call to Action…

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Over the weekend, a mass shooting happened in Virginia Beach.  Virginia Beach is less than an hour and a half away from Hickory Neck.  Some of our parishioners were colleagues with some of those killed.  There are many Episcopal Churches in Virginia Beach, and I know their priests have been working hard on pastoral care and preparing funerals.  Having a mass shooting so close to home, and certainly within our Diocese, has made this new reality of mass gun violence weightier and more tangible – as if the violence is making its way toward my personal sphere.

On Tuesday, our Bishop joined a worship service at an Episcopal parish in Virginia Beach.  As I thought about the service, I found myself wondering what liturgy they might be using, and how one even constructs a liturgy when you and your community is under such stress.  And then a dreadful thought occurred to me – one that is painful to confess.  I thought, “well, maybe I should develop a liturgy now when I’m not overcome with grief and counseling others, so the liturgy is easily modified for the situation.”

As soon as I had the thought, I crumpled in grief.  This is where I have come.  After years and years of devastating, massive amounts of death, countless pleas for us to change – change something, anything, and sermon after sermon preached about how we must do and be better, I have allowed myself to succumb to inevitability instead of demanding change.  This realization has been sitting with me all week, and it still brings me to tears when I recall my own sense of resignation.

This week, my prayer for us is a bit different.   My prayer for us is that we recommit to working for change.  My prayer is that we not let the sin of indifference or the sense of inevitability paralyze us from being agents of love and change.  My prayer is that we stop letting the sense of powerlessness take away our power.  I do not want to develop a “just in case” liturgy.  I don’t want to have to officiate over such a liturgy.  I want us all to acknowledge that we want to be better, and start doing the hard work of gathering diverse peoples to the table and finding a path forward.  Let’s be the Church – the Church our community needs.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  (BCP, 815)

Flip-Flops and Fresh Looks…

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This Sunday, our church is trying something new called “Flip-Flop Mass.”  The concept began with the idea that we wanted to move our “Mass on the Grass” indoors because, let’s face it, even in early June, Virginia is hot and humid.  We also had some rearranging with musical leadership, and we wanted to keep the casual vibe of our outdoor service.  But as we shifted to the idea of an indoor casual mass, the ideas started flowing.  What if we totally rearranged the space?  What if we played with the liturgy and how we interact with Scripture?  What if we not only went casual, but we also went ancient?

What has resulted, after a ton of logistical plans, gathering different supplies, and coordinating with servers, is a worship service like that of the earliest church – an intimate meal around the table reminiscent of the meal between Jesus and his disciples.  I suspect the service will have its fumbles and things we did not anticipate, but I am also hopeful that the service will shift our routine just enough that we thoughtfully reflect on what it is we do on Sundays and what it all means.

Whatever style of church you prefer (and believe me, Hickory Neck manages to artfully offer lots of different styles), I encourage you to join us this Sunday for the adventure.  I suspect whatever you are used to or you prefer, this Sunday will give you the opportunity to engage just differently enough that you experience the elements of worship more powerfully:  the gathering of a community of strangers and friends, seeking a sense of belonging and meaning; a space to wrestle with Scripture, especially when Scripture is sometimes difficult to relate to modern-day life; a fresh way to experience God’s presence, using all of your senses; a place where you can find a renewed sense of purpose and passion for serving the world.  I don’t know about you, but I am thrilled to be invited to experience church with fresh eyes this weekend.

So, grab your flip-flops, grab a dish to share for lunch, grab a friend (or a stranger!), and come to church.  We’ll save you a seat at the table!

Sermon – Acts 16.9-15, E6, YC, May 26, 2019

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Before I went to seminary, I participated in a program at my parish called EFM – Education for Ministry.  I know many Hickory Neck parishioners have done the program, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, the program is a four-year program where a small group of people gather and each year study a different topic – Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, and Theology.  When I was taking the class, during one of the scripture years, I was traveling by plane alone and I was sorely behind in my scripture reading.  So I threw my overly large study bible into my bag, planning to use flight time and layover time in airports to catch up on my scripture reading.  Now, I do not know if you have ever thought about taking a huge study bible along with you to an airport, but I would encourage you to think long and hard before you do.  Over the course of the day I found I could barely read in peace.  I had a middle-aged woman chat endlessly about her church and bible studies she had enjoyed.  And of course, there were tons of people who just stared at me warily trying to figure out what my angle was and making sure they had a ready escape just in case.  You would think the lesson from my trip would be, “Take a Bible with you, and see what evangelism opportunities the Bible creates.”  But to be honest, I found myself wanting to never carry a Bible with me again in an airport.

These days, I find wearing a collar has a similar effect.  Just this week, I was in a parking lot and some man approached me about giving money to his ministry.  After I agreed to take some information instead of giving him cash, he asked me what the thing around my neck was.  When I told him I was an Episcopal priest, he gave me a smirk, and kind of grunted as he turned away and looked for his next “customer.”  Most often when I am in my collar, people stare – sometimes discretely, but other times I have to catch their eye before they realize how blatantly they are staring.  Other times – probably my favorite times – people will tentatively ask me if I am clergy and then will ask some really interesting questions, sometimes even asking me for a prayer.

I get to have a lot of God conversations because of my collar.  But when I am in plain clothes, and I imagine for most of us here, finding ways to engage others about faith is trickier.  We certainly could lug around a huge study bible.  We could print up some Hickory Neck gear and either hope people talk to us, or make sure the gear says “Ask me about my church!”  We could get really bold and when we are at the coffee shop put up a little sign that says, “Ask me about Jesus and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”  Or we could take the opposite tack, and just hope not only someone will randomly talk to us, but also the conversation will magically shift toward spirituality, church, or God.

Truthfully, when most of us think about evangelism or having spiritual conversations, we kind of wish we could be a little like Paul in our scripture lesson today.  Paul travels from town to town, receives direct instruction from God about where he should go, and when he and his group talk with a group of praying women, one of them – in fact, a prominent, powerful woman of wealth, not only decides to be baptized, but also invites Paul and his group to stay in her home.  When we think about evangelism, or at least the baptismal covenant promise we make to share Good News, we want something similar.  We want God to be super obvious about where we should go and to whom we should speak.  We want to know if the coffee shop, the grocery store, or the brewery will be the place where we can avoid awkwardness and have a meaningful conversation.  We would love to know we are going to talk to a group of spiritually-minded people who are open to what we have to say.  And, secretly, we would be thrilled if whatever conversation we have leads to a total conversion – someone as enthusiastic as Lydia who wants to come with us to church on Sunday.  If Jesus, the church, or our crazy clergy keep insisting that we talk to people in our community and have God conversations, we at least want to be assured we will have as smooth of an experience as Paul.

But that’s the funny thing about Paul’s experience.  Paul does not really seem to know how to handle this evangelism thing much better than us.  In the verses of Acts before our text today, we are told that Paul starts out for Asia, but the Holy Spirit prevents him from going there.  As Paul keeps trying cities on the way to Europe, he finally has a dream where a man from Macedonia implores him to come and help.  But once Paul finally makes his way to Macedonia, the man from his vision never appears.  In fact, Paul and his crew hang out for several days in the city, not seeming to do anything.  Not until the sabbath does Paul seek out people who are already worshiping.  Paul does not approach strangers or people whose faith is unknown to him.  Instead, he finds the familiar – people of his own tradition, praying to God, and there he decides to share his faith.  And although Paul thought he was bringing blessing to others, Lydia is the one who brings blessing to him – offering her home and hospitality, and continuing to do so when Paul gets in trouble with the law (which is a story for next week!).

At the heart of what happens in our story today is what theologian Ronald Cole-Turner calls the “inexplicable convergence of human faithfulness and divine guidance.”  According to Cole-Turner, “Paul would not have been guided to this place at this moment, were he not first of all at God’s disposal, open to being guided, sensitively attuned to being steered in one direction and away from all others.  Lydia would not have arrived at this place or time, had she not first of all been a worshiper of God, a seeker already on her way.  Paul does his part and Lydia hers, but it is God who guides all things and works in and through all things, not just for good but for what would otherwise be impossible.”[i]

That is our invitation today: to be faithful.  To be willing to listen to God, to be willing to speak, even when we worry what others might think of us, and to be willing to listen to and honor the story of others.  That is really all Paul does – rather clumsily, but faithfully.  And we can be faithful in that way – on the golf course, at work or school, at the local eatery, because we know that there will be an inexplicable convergence of our faithfulness with divine guidance.  We can be faithful because we know God will show up.  God will make sure we have that casual conversation that leads to us talking about why in the world we would work so hard to get ourselves and/or our families here every Sunday.  Jesus will make sure that when someone is sharing something vulnerable or painful with us, we will be able to name God’s presence in the midst of their experience.  The Holy Spirit will make sure that when we open our mouths, despite the fact we have no idea what to say, something meaningful will be said.  Divine guidance will be there because of our human faithfulness.  Inexplicably converging, and working for good.  I cannot wait to hear your stories of convergence!  Amen.

[i] Ronald Cole-Turner, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 476.

On Finding God in Community…

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One of the quirks of being a priest is that my work is often outside of the church.  Whether I am meeting a newcomer for coffee, catching up with a parishioner over lunch, or visiting someone in the hospital, I am more often out in the community than sitting in the church office.  The challenge with that mode of operating is that I sometimes find myself with an extra hour here or there between commitments.  So I often take work with me – catching up on emails, reading for a class or sermon, or doing some writing.

Lately, that pattern has meant having all kinds of interesting encounters.  The other day I met someone who was a former parishioner of my church while buying a cup of coffee.  While responding to emails, someone who recognized me from barre class introduced herself to me, realizing we had never formally introduced ourselves, but that she had seen me around town several times.  While doing some writing while waiting for routine maintenance in the local car dealership, one of the salesmen came over to say he was one of my neighbors and we had not yet met.  Sometimes you even have to leave your home to meet those closest to your home!

Research tells us in order to grow your church community, you need to get off the property.  If you want to get to know the people who are not joining you every Sunday, you need to go where they are on the other days of the week.  Of course, just drinking coffee does not mean you will magically meet people – you do actually have to engage others in conversation – even if it is about car brand loyalty, or your favorite new drink on the coffee menu.  Getting off the property allows us to meet people where they are – and to see God in all the wonderful, myriad places God likes to hang out.  Though there are other ways to do that in reverse – holding a Fiber Festival, welcoming a school to your property – you really have to do both to have those God-moments.

All that being said, I confess, I sometimes have an easier job of talking about God.  The collar is dead giveaway.  But my invitation to you is the same.  Take a moment to get out of your bubble.  Go to an event to which you wouldn’t normally go, linger in a coffee shop you do not regularly frequent, or get even more bold, and take your committee meeting off campus and go public.  If you need some Hickory Neck gear to break the ice, I can help you out.  But my guess is you will find those God moments just by being you.  I cannot wait to hear about who you meet and what you learn!

On Community, Connection, and Blessing…

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One of the things people say about Williamsburg is that it is a small town in the truest sense.  You cannot go too far without running into someone you know – or someone who knows you through someone else.  I find that reality to be true at church all the time.  Someone will come visit the church looking for a church home, and lo and behold, they realize they work (or worked) with a parishioner without realizing they attended Hickory Neck.  Or I will have coffee with a newcomer, and we realize we have friends and acquaintances in common.  In Williamsburg, there really is about two, if not one, degree of separation between most people.

In some ways, that is very good for a pastor.  One of the many things we learn about in seminary is how important it is for clergy to get out in the community, to get to know the people surrounding them – not with the intention of evangelism; more with the intention of being a leader who can authentically lead within their community.  That was one of the major reasons I applied to be in the LEAD Greater Williamsburg program.  The program is a community immersion program for emerging and existing leaders, who also do a community service project for the wider community.  As I approach graduation this week, I am especially grateful for this aspect of the program.

What LEAD taught me affirmed what I learned in seminary – it is so important to understand, know, and appreciate the community within which you do ministry.  As much as I thought I had gotten to know many people in Williamsburg, the monthly classes and my 28 fellow classmates helped me see that there are so many people, companies, and agencies that I did not know.  Maybe some people are okay with that lack of knowledge, but for me, working on that knowledge gap has not only helped me understand my own ministry better, it has helped me fall in love with the community even more.  I am overwhelmed by the diverse, myriad ways that greater Williamsburg residents work to make our community better.  This community is filled with incredible, inspirational people, and I surmise I have only scratched the surface.

Today, my reflection is two-fold.  One, I am filled with gratitude for the amazing opportunity of being in the LEAD program this past year.  Thanks to my classmates for an incredible year of making WMBGkind!!  The blessings abound – from knowledge, to leadership development, to friendships, to joy!  But two, I find myself wanting to connect more, and I would like to invite you to do the same.  Whether you are here in the Greater Williamsburg area, or even in your own hometown, think about someone you have wondered about or admired from afar, and ask them to coffee.  Get to know the people of your community – really know them:  their work, their home life, their fears, and their joys.  My guess is that the more you expand your connection to people in your community, the more you will see ways in which God is inviting you to bring blessing to your community!

Sermon – John 10.22-30, Psalm 23, E4, YC, May 12, 2019

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One of my good friends is enamored with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  She can describe the chapel of the Good Shepherd at the National Cathedral in minute, passionate detail.  In her office are images of Christ the Good Shepherd.   I suspect that if you asked her who Jesus is to her, she would say he is the Good Shepherd.  And she would not be alone.  The verses of John immediately before the text we heard today about Jesus being the Good Shepherd is a favorite when planning funerals.  The 23rd Psalm, which says “The Lord is my Shepherd,” is perhaps the most well-know scripture passage of all time – known even by people who have not attended church in ages.  The passage from John we hear today talks about the intimacy between Jesus and Jesus’ followers being like sheep who know their shepherd’s voice.  The fourth Sunday of Easter is even called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” in the liturgical year.  We probably should have all worn those awesome sheep hats the Praise Band wears during the Epiphany pageant to show our sheep solidarity.

Despite all that – despite the familiarity, the wide-spread popularity, and the commitment of an entire day in the church calendar to shepherd imagery – I must confess something I have told very few people in life:  I do not really like the imagery of Christ as the Good Shepherd.  Now I know some of you may be shocked – how can a priest not like one of the most popular biblical metaphors?  Some of you may be perplexed – what’s not to like about the image of a good shepherd?  Some of you may be downright offended – how can I not relate to the metaphor that has sustained you countless times?

Let me break my dislike down for us.  I do not like the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd primarily because I do not like the idea of being sheep.  Now I know we have the Fiber Festival coming up this weekend, and I like wool as much as anybody, but sheep are not the brightest animals.  They are easily spooked, they tend to be a little clueless, they seem to lack individual intelligence, and they make a horrible bleating noise that sounds nothing like the “baa” of nursery rhymes.  Sheep are easily corralled – dogs are used to herd them in simply by nudging them all back together.  That rod and staff the 23rd Psalm talks about is used to physically push and prod sheep into uniformity.  And let’s not forget they are notorious for getting lost.  I mean, of all images to conjure up and celebrate on a given Sunday, we get to be sheep?!?

But as you and I both know, the things that make us the most uncomfortable are usually the things that are the most true.  Take for example the question and request of Jesus by those gathered around him in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.  They say to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Jesus responds, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”  I cannot count the number of times we have asked Jesus this same question.  Sometimes the question is the exact same question as the one the people of faith ask today – are you the Messiah?  Can we believe in you?  Should we believe in you?  For anyone who has struggled with their faith – worried like those gathered at the tomb whether any of this Jesus stuff is true – the question and request today are not unfamiliar.  But we often ask this question in other ways.  As one writer confesses, there are countless times that we petition God with, “‘If you are.’  If you are good.  If you are powerful.  If you are loving.  If you are real.  If you are the Messiah, then stop talking in riddles.  Stop hiding when I long for your presence.  Stop awakening in me holy hungers you won’t satisfy.  Show up, speak plainly, act decisively.  Take this world of swirling, dubious gray, and turn it black and white, once and for all.”[i]  To all those questions, to all those longings, the response from Jesus to us is the same response of Jesus to the people of faith in our scripture lesson:  I have, but you do not believe.

Now here is where the text gets even more uncomfortable.  Jesus’ full words are, “I have told you, and you do not believe…because you do not belong to my sheep.”  Now there are all kinds of awful things that have been said historically about this text – the supersessionism of Christians over Jews, predestination, you name it![ii]  But I do not think Jesus was trying to exclude one group, or say, only one group will ever belong and everyone else is out.  I think what Jesus is trying to do is challenge people like me who do not like the idea of being sheep.  Jesus is saying today – I know you do not like being sheep, I know you do not like submitting control to me, I know that you do not like admitting that you do not have things all figured out.  When Jesus says, you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep, I think Jesus is saying, we do not belong because we are unwilling to belong.  In other words, we do not belong not because Jesus excludes – we do not belong because we actively fight belonging.  And because we fight belonging, we also struggle with believing.

One of my favorite church welcome videos features a series of concerns that often keep people away from church:  feeling like they do not lead lives that are good enough, worrying about unfamiliar or even weird cultural practices that might be uncomfortable, concern they might not fit in because of what they wear, or a sense that they could never belong to a group that has shown a history of hypocrisy.  To each concern, the church-goers have response.  Not sure what to wear?  Wear clothes.  Not sure your past sins will make you worthy?  We all have pasts that make us unworthy.  Worried about secret handshakes or stiff worship?  You’ll just find love and affirmation here.  Know the church is full of hypocrites?  Aren’t we all hypocrites?  What I love about the video is that belonging is more natural that belonging seems – and the more you spend time belonging, the more you realize your belonging helps you believe.  Belief does not come first.  It cannot come first.  Belonging comes first.

Author Debie Thomas says knowing belonging comes first is where our hope is today.  “According to this text, whatever belief I arrive at in this life will not come from the ups and downs of my own emotional life. It will not come from a creed, a doctrine, or a cleverly worded sermon.  Rather it will come from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus’s flock — of walking in the footsteps of the Shepherd, living in the company of fellow sheep, and listening in real time for the voice of the one whose classroom is rocky hills, hidden pastures, and deeply shadowed valleys.  If I won’t follow him into those layered places — places of both tranquility and treachery, trust and doubt — I will never belong to him at all.”[iii]

For the longest time, I have resisted the metaphor of Jesus as our Good Shepherd because I did not like what being a sheep implied about my character and intellect.  But what I forgot in my resistance is that there are a whole lot of sheep around when I simply consent to belong.  Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me that I have companions along the journey who are also sometimes resistant to the guidance of Christ.  Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me that I am not alone in the things of life and faith I do not understand.  Bumping into fellow sheep reminds me going solo often leads to peril.  Bumping into fellow sheep really is not all that bad.  Not only do we have a shepherd who loves us unconditionally and irrationally, we also have a community where all our weakness, foibles, and sins are held in common, and forgiven.

Our invitation is to remember what John is actually saying today in his gospel.  As one scholar reminds us, “God is the one who initiates a relationship to us.  God seeks us out long before we seek God.  Christ makes us his sheep; we do not make him our shepherd.”[iv]  That is why we have long said as a people of faith, “The Lord is my shepherd…He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters.”  I mean, if you want to keep fighting the invitation to belong, by all means.  Lord knows, I have tried that route.  But on this Good Shepherd Sunday, your invitation is to consider another way:  to lean into the sheep all around you today, to trust that the Shepherd actually is good; and to know that wherever you are in your belief journey, belonging is the easiest step to get you there.  Amen.

[i] Debie Thomas, “Tell Us Plainly,” May 5, 2019, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2201 on May 8, 2019.

[ii] Thomas H. Troeger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 447.

[iii] Thomas.

[iv] Troeger, 449.

On Resurrection and Race…

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This Sunday at Hickory Neck, we kick of a three-week series on James H. Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  Only a few pages into the book, and I confess this will be a heavy discussion for us as a parish.  You might be wondering why we chose such a book in Eastertide – isn’t race and violence a better topic for Lent?  Or maybe you are wondering why we are talking about race – again – at church.  Surely we can move on to talk about other topics!?

When my family I visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in April, something poignant happened to me as I shepherded our young children through the museum.  There was an exhibit about the Jim Crow era in Mississippi.  As you walked through the exhibit, there were motion detectors that triggered recordings.  The recordings were of white men and women saying or shouting the things that were said or shouted to persons of color – about not belonging, about watching out, about even just existing in a segregated world.  Since I had small, active children, the motion sensors were triggered a lot, meaning these voices were shouting at me constantly.  I found by the time we exited that portion of the museum, my nerves were totally shot.  The exhibit was a powerful reminder of how, even when civil liberties were won, African-Americans were still not treated equally.  In fact, their existence then (and I suspect even today) was one of walking on egg shells – never knowing when someone would say something offensive, physically-threatening, or even life-threatening.  That kind of lifelong anxiety must do things to your psyche and mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

But as a Caucasian, I have the privilege to not experience that egg shell kind of life.  I have the privilege to decide when “we’ve talked about race enough.”  I even have the privilege of deciding when a good season to talk about race is – lest we confuse happy seasons with sad or contemplative ones.  And that is why we try at Hickory Neck to engage in at least one book or film study a year – to remind us of the privilege we hold because of something totally out of our control:  our skin color.  And if we are an Easter people, then celebrating resurrection life means bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth.  One of the ways we advance the kingdom is to live out the gospel – to live out the life of Jesus, instead of one that is counter to the life of Jesus.

I know the reading will be hard, and I know you have hundreds of things to do.  But for the next three weeks, I invite you to join us.  Join us in setting aside the comfort of our privilege in life, and stepping into the shady places of life.  Join us in being open to hearing other experiences, learning new things, and seeing race and reality differently.  Join us in living into the true meaning of Easter – a life where the resurrection means reconciliation and renewal.  Walking into the shady parts of life will allow us to more authentically proclaim the light of parts of life – the light of Christ.