On Awkwardness and Grace…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

This week our church is hosting our community’s Emergency Winter Shelter.  Every day for a week, from about 6:30 pm to about 8:30 am, we welcome up to twenty-five guests into our church.  This week is a banner week for our church community.  It is the week in the year where everything we say about discipleship and being witnesses for Christ’s love becomes a reality.  The week is so important that we try to engage parishioners of all ages, and we partner with other churches and local schools to make the week happen.  This is the week where we boldly proclaim our identity and live it with integrity.  This is the week where Christ can say about us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”[i]

You would think with that kind of buildup, and that clear sense of purpose, every moment we are hosting our guests would be this beautiful, enlightened, perfect moment.  While there are certainly beautiful moments, what I noticed about our Winter Shelter week is that it is much more awkward that you might imagine.  Up to twenty-five individuals gather together, with unique stories that brought them to this moment of vulnerability and need, and they create a make-shift place of protection for few hours with about twenty volunteers who mostly do not need to worry about where the next meal is coming from or where they will rest their heads.  What do you talk about over a shared meal?  How do you connect with someone who is bone tired from working, hustling to get to the shelter, and worried about what is next?  How do you overcome the very obvious fact that the worlds you are both operating in are diametrically different?

The answers are not super glamorous.  When you invite yourself to sit at a table with homeless men and women, sometimes the conversation is superficial, and sometimes things are said that rock your world and remind you of how much privilege you really have.  When you long for a human connection with someone who is bone tired, sometimes the most you get is a smile; but more often what you get is a reality check about how brutal homelessness can be, and how many other awful things may be present in their lives.  And as you long to overcome the barriers of the two worlds you live in, part of what you have to do is let go of the idea that you can, remembering why Jesus once said it is harder for a person of wealth to get into the kingdom than a camel to fit through the eye of a needle.  Winter Shelter Week is hard and awkward because the experience forces us to examine our lives, acknowledge our privilege, and be honest about the amount of work we still have to do.

The good news in all the awkwardness and difficulty is that God’s grace is all around.  Providing shelter for a week matters.  Acknowledging the humanity of one another matters.  And that we are even trying matters.  God takes our best intentions, and our humbling week, and grants us moments of beauty:  from the almost five-year old who insists on saying goodnight to every guest before going home to bed – and the gracious responses of guests; to the teenager who has the courage to say an extemporaneous blessing over the food, when traditional prayers do not seem to work; to the community – both guests and hosts – who rallies together to protect the physical well-being of all the guests.  When Jesus talked about welcoming in strangers and feeding and quenching other’s thirst, he did not warn us how hard it would be.  I suspect he knew that the grace we would exchange in the mutual vulnerability would be reward enough.

[i] Matthew 25.35

Advertisements

Sermon – Luke 6.27-38, EP7, YC, February 24, 2019

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Last week, we joined the entire community of Williamsburg in performing acts of kindness.  When we issued the charge two weeks ago to go out and perform three acts of kindness, the reactions were pretty wide-ranging at Hickory Neck.  Several parishioners addressed me with concern, “I have to do three?  Can’t I just do one act before next Sunday?”  Other parishioners took on the challenge with gusto – with several parishioners plotting out what they were going to do before they even got back to the parking lot.  While other parishioners noted during the week and the days afterwards how shockingly easy the challenge was.  “I felt silly writing down my acts of kindness.  I mean, I do acts of kindness every week,” shared one parishioner.

I am not sure which perspective was predominant, but I can tell you that Hickory Neck performed over 100 acts of kindness that week.  There were some simple acts:  holding doors for strangers, paying people compliments, and writing thank you notes.  Some were a little more labor intensive:  volunteering at a food pantry, helping out at your child’s school, going through your closet to donate clothes.  Others showed some real effort:  listening to a stranger who seemed to need a friend, making Valentines for the whole class – even the kids you do not like, visiting someone in the hospital – even though you hate hospitals.

Now I know several parishioners who thought our challenge was a bit silly or who felt uncomfortable with the idea of drawing attention to our own good works.  Surely we should just be doing acts of kindness every week.  But for those of you who jumped in with both feet, my hope is that you got a tiny glimpse into what can happen when you start living out kindness more intentionally:  your whole way of being starts to shift.  When you do acts of kindness, the more opportunities for additional kindness seem to appear.  The more you think about kindness, the more you start to notice kindness all around you.  And the more you engage in kindness, the more your whole demeanor shifts – from one of staying in your lane, attending to your daily routine, to lifting up you head and noticing how you can shift the community around you.

That seismic shift is what Jesus is talking about in Luke’s gospel today.  Many of us hear the instructions from Jesus as a list of commands or a checklist of duties:  love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you; do not judge, do not condemn, forgive, and give.  If we look at today as a list of commands from Jesus, then we might as well consider this week as Week Two of an acts of kindness challenge – except this time, Jesus asks us to do acts of kindness for those to whom showing kindness is the hardest.  When we read Jesus’ words like a weighty list of to-do items, this gospel feels just that – full of weight and guilt with no promise of hope or encouragement.  And part of what Jesus is saying is just that:  showing kindness is actually pretty hard when we show kindness to those who are hardest to love.  We do not mind showing kindness to friends, and we do not even really mind showing kindness to strangers.  But asking us to show kindness to those who we actively dislike or to those who have hurt us?  Now Jesus is pushing us way out of our comfort zones!

At the beginning of February, the Greater Williamsburg area kicked off a commitment to becoming a community of kindness with a rallying event.  The former Mayor of Anaheim, California, Tom Tait, who had run on a campaign of kindness, was the keynote speaker.  Mayor Tait talked about his time on City Council in Anaheim, how part of his work felt like a game of whack-a-mole.  Each month, some crisis or community problem would arise – violence in the community, the prevalence of drugs, problems in the public schools.  And the City Council’s response felt like trying to whack at the problem to temporarily knock the problem out.  But those solutions never really made a deep impact.  What Mayor Tait saw was all those problems were like symptoms – symptoms of a city that was facing an internal sickness.  The only way to heal the internal sickness was to commit as a city to transform its entire way of operating.  Mayor Tait believed transformation would occur by committing to kindness.  To many, the idea sounded a little too pie-in-the-sky.  But once elected, Mayor Tait was forced to try to live out the reality of kindness.  With every decision, every major action, the community wondered together what would reflect kindness.  And slowly, the illness in the system began to heal.  Kindness was not a Band-Aid, but a system-altering antidote to a host of problems.

In a lot of ways, that is what Jesus is talking about today.  Yes, the things Jesus is talking about are commands – a list of ways to be kind, even to the persons to whom being kind is most difficult.  But Jesus is not just talking about commands.  As one scholar describes, “Jesus isn’t offering a set of simple rules by which to get by or get ahead in this world but is inviting us into a whole other world.  A world that is not about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest.  But instead is about love. Love for those who have loved you.  Love for those who haven’t.  Love even for those who have hated you.  That love gets expressed in all kinds of creative ways, but often come through by caring – extending care and compassion and help and comfort to those in need – and forgiveness – not paying back but instead releasing one’s claim on another and opening up a future where a relationship of …love is still possible.”[i]

What Jesus is doing is trying to, “inculcate, and illustrate, an attitude of heart, a lightness of spirit in the face of all that the world can throw at you.”  We are to assume this new way of being because “that’s what God is like.  God is generous to all people, generous…to a fault:  [God] provides good things for all to enjoy, the undeserving as well as the deserving.  [God] is astonishingly merciful…”  As N. T. Wright adds, “…this list of instructions is all about which God you believe in – and about the way of life that follows as a result.”[ii]  When we take Jesus seriously, and embrace this new way of being, the way of kindness that leads to love, life can be “exuberant, different, astonishing.  People [will] stare.”[iii]

In a lot of ways, what Jesus does to today is saying, “I see your week of kindness, and I raise you to life of loving-kindness.”  In other words, keep going.  Now, fortunately for us, Hickory Neck has set up the perfect set of circumstances for you to try on this new life of loving-kindness.  Tonight, we open our doors to strangers.  Tonight, we open our doors to some people we will find easy to love, and some people that will make us uncomfortable.  Tonight, we open our doors to some late nights, really early mornings, and hard labor.  But tonight, we also open our doors to a new way of being – a way of opening ourselves to live exuberantly, differently, astonishingly – to live like God.

Now I know one week (or even the one shift or duty you signed up for at the Winter Shelter, or even the financial contribution you made) may not change the world necessarily.  Jesus is talking about a seismic change in the way we live our lives every day.  But the Winter Shelter is a pretty good start.  And the good news for you, is Lent is coming, and we’ve set up all kinds of tools for you to embrace this way of loving-kindness.  Instead of a week of kindness, we have a whole 40-day kindness challenge.  We have a devotional set of readings that reflect on kindness, story, and scripture for forty days.  We will be studying kindness in scripture.  Hickory Neck has assembled the tools to help you not just try simple deeds for a week, or not just try the hard stuff of relationship with the homeless for a week – but instead to try on a new way of being – to take on the way of God.  Part of what Hickory Neck is all about is empowering discipleship – empowering you to go out into the world and live as faithful witnesses of Christ.  This is what discipleship is all about.  And Hickory Neck is here to help – to walk with you, to lift you up when you fall, to hold your hand in the hard parts, and to revel in the joy of watching love win.  We cannot wait to enter in to this most sacred time of loving-kindness with you!  Amen.

[i] David Lose, “Epiphany 7 C:  Command or Promise?” February 22, 2019, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-7-c-command-or-promise/ on February 22, 2019.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 73-74.

[iii] Wright, 74.

On Love and Basketball…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As we headed into the Duke-Carolina game tonight, my daughter asked me if I thought Duke would win.  She’s finally starting to pay attention to my passion for Duke Basketball, and so I sat her down to explain the phenomenon of the Duke-Carolina basketball rivalry.  I told her what every Duke or Carolina fan knows:  no matter what ranking either school has (including if one of the teams in unranked), no matter how well one team or the other has been playing against other teams, no matter which team’s arena they are in, when Duke and Carolina play you NEVER know who will win.  The rivalry is so intense that every time the two teams play, either team could win.  I am not sure whether the rivalry is so intense and so long-standing that both teams get inside their heads too much, or whether there is some weird psychological reason why this rivalry produces so much uncertainty.  All I do know is that when Duke and Carolina play, it truly is any team’s game.

As I was thinking about the game today, I was realizing how we often have people or entities in our lives that get in our heads and make us second-guess our gifts and talents.  We may be full of confidence, doing what we are born to do, and all we need is skeptical relative or an old high school rival to say something and our confidence stutters.  We may have thoughtfully prepared our next steps forward, consulting experts and resources, and in the middle of executing our well-thought-out plan someone raises a question we did not think of that makes us question our abilities or even the whole process.  Criticism can be tough, but what is worse is when we allow that criticism to erode our strong sense of self and purpose.

This coming Sunday, we will hear the story of when Joseph’s brothers discover that Joseph is alive and thriving (Genesis 45.3-11, 15).  Often when we read this story, we read it from the perspective of Joseph – being thrilled to have the persecuted one redeemed.  But more often, I think we are a little more like Joseph’s brothers – filled with jealousy, impulsive, and longing for love and affirmation.  In a moment of hateful weakness, the brothers sell Joseph into slavery; and in our lesson from Sunday, their reckoning happens.  As they come to pharaoh for help in their weakness, they are confronted with the one person who has every right to punish them.  But instead, Joseph is filled with love.  Joseph is able to see goodness.  Joseph is able to offer redemption.

Now I am not saying Duke and Carolina fans should just turn their hearts to love (I cannot look at that Carolina blue without feeling a bit nauseated).  But what we can all stand to remember from rivalries is that when we root ourselves in God’s love, when we live and operate out of love, things like criticism, self-doubt, and challenges have less power over us.  When we root ourselves in love, we are able to love ourselves the way God love us.  And, when we root ourselves in love, we can also see past ugliness of others and instead see God in them too.

So whatever you are facing this week, whomever is trying to tear you down (or beat your team), I offer you the collect for this Sunday:  O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:  Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.  Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.  (BCP, 216)

On Walking toward Christ through Kindness…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Many people I encounter, both church-going and non-church-going, tend to think my role as a priest is to teach people how to live holy lives.  The expectation is not unfounded.  When I was ordained, the bishop asked me several questions in front of the congregation.  One of them was, “Will you do your best to pattern your life and that of your family in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?”  Not only does the Church anticipate I will teach my community how to live holy lives, the Church expects me to exemplify how to live a holy life.

The reality of that expectation sneaks up on me sometimes.  This week has been one of those times.  On Sunday, I challenged our church community to participate in Random Acts of Kindness Week, doing at least three acts of kindness this week, and reporting back next Sunday.  Just a few days in, two funny things have struck me.  One, I have felt a pressure to do kind acts myself.  As a servant leader, I need to set the tone with my own behavior.  And so, I have been plugging away – purchasing food for our local food pantry, collecting prom dresses and accessories for a program that helps low-income teens, and writing some kind notes.  But planned acts are almost easy.  It is the everyday inculcation of kindness that I am not as sure about.  Just two Sundays ago we heard the passage from 1 Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind.  Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[i]  Although I may be performing kind acts, I have a bit further to go before I am living a life of kindness:  of patience, humility, flexibility, and generosity.

The second thing that struck me this week is how often I have been the recipient of kindness since we started honoring this week.  Already a parishioner has offered to cook me and my family a meal – just because.  Another parishioner sent me a thank you note for my kindness and work on behalf of the church.  Two classmates came to support me on Sunday, even though they have their own church homes.  And the kindness is not limited to people I know.  I have noticed people holding doors for me, waiting patiently for me as a pull out of a parking space, asking how I am doing (and really wanting to know).  I am not sure if people are inspired by this week, or if they are already living faithful lives of loving-kindness.  Either way, I find myself inspired by those around me, who are managing to be kind in the mundane parts of life.

If anything, this week is teaching me that the work of modeling faithful living will go way beyond a week.  And although the intentional acts I am doing this week are great, they are just a small part of transforming my entire life into a model of kindness and graciousness.  The other thing I am learning is that all of the modeling does not have to come from me.  In fact, I am also a student of Christ, still on the path to learning how to walk in Christ’s path.  The good news is that I have more than a week to master this transformation.  In fact, Hickory Neck will be taking up a Lenten kindness challenge this year.  I am so excited to see what forty days of living a life of kindness might teach me.  If they are as powerful as this first seven, then Hickory Neck is in for some incredible inspiration.  I cannot wait to hear what you are learning about this week too!

[i] 1 Corinthians 13.1.13

Sermon – Luke 5.1-11, Isaiah 6.1-8, EP5, YC, February 10, 2019

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Stories of God calling individuals into a new mission, or “call narratives,” as we label them, are some of our most beloved stories from scripture.  They are all pretty dramatic:  God speaking to Moses from a burning bush, God having Jonah thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish, God sending an angel to Mary, or today, a seraph placing a burning hot coal on Isaiah’s lips.  At first, almost everyone one of the characters resists – with protests about how they are not good public speakers, how they do not agree with God’s mission, how the thing God is proposing is biologically impossible, or how they are so full of sin, they could not possibly do whatever God has proposed.  And yet, after much arguing with God, each individual usually agrees – and often says the words we hear in Isaiah today, “hineni,” or “Here I am;” send me.  The whole process is very dramatic and awe-inspiring.  We love to hear and reread these stories and we love to see individuals rise to the occasion.

But here’s the problem with call narratives.  The stories are so dramatic and the responses are so confident and selfless, that we cannot see ourselves in them.  Those are stories that happen to those people.  We are not Moseses, Isaiahs, Marys, or Jonahs (ok, maybe we are a little like Jonah, but even his story is a bit extreme!).  We can certainly relate to the resistance each servant offers to God, but the call is a bit harder for us to imagine.  God doesn’t come to us in dramatic ways, and we definitely do not feel like God is doing something dramatic in us to change the world.  The last time we checked, we were not being asked to lead a people out of slavery from a dictator, use our bodies for immaculate conception, or even go around proclaiming judgement to the world.  Those sorts of dramatic things are things other people do; not us.

I think that is why I like Luke’s version of Simon Peter’s call narrative.  This pericope, as Bob taught us last week, or this piece of scripture might be the story we need to help us see call narratives are not just about those people.  The way we get there though, is not jumping right to overflowing boats, full of fish.  The way we get there is looking at all the seemingly innocuous parts of the story.

The first small detail of the story that can sneak past us is how Jesus starts teaching.  The text says, “while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him … He got into one of the boats.”  Jesus does not ask permission of Simon to get in his boat.  Jesus does not negotiate the terms of using Simon’s boat for a period of time.  Jesus literally just gets on the boat. He does not seem to care that Simon and his crew have had a total failure of a night of fishing, and are probably both exhausted and frustrated.  Jesus just gets on the boat with a word to Simon.  As scholar David Lose argues, what we learn about in this brazen action is “sometimes God doesn’t ask our permission to get involved in our life, to encounter us with grace, God just goes ahead and does it.”[i]

Then something even more odd happens.  When Jesus finally does get around to asking Simon to push the boat out a bit so he can teach, Simon just does what Jesus asks.  We have no idea why.  Perhaps he simply responds because he knows this is just the way Jesus is.  We know that Simon Peter already had an encounter with Jesus at this point in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus healed his mother-in-law.  Maybe Simon was so grateful for that healing that he pushed the boat out to sea out of a sense of gratitude or obligation.  Or maybe Simon Peter was just that kind of guy – the kind of guy who even when he is bone tired and frustrated would still lend you a helping hand.[ii]  Regardless, his immediate and silent acquiescence tells us something.

Then another funny thing happens.  The text tells us when Jesus is done teaching, Jesus speaks to Peter.  That half sentence almost seems like a throw-away transition.  But even in this transition, we see something special.  What we see in this transition is even “when he’s all done teaching, Jesus isn’t actually all done.  In fact, that he’s just getting started.  Because God’s like that, always up to more than we imagine.”[iii]

Then comes Jesus’ request – to put the nets back out again.  Now, remember that Simon Peter and his crew have just spent the early hours of the morning cleaning all those nets.  So already, Jesus is asking a lot to this worn down, frustrated crew.  But Jesus’ request is funny in another way.  Jesus does not suggest they try his new and improved fishing method.  Jesus does not suggest a new body of water or a different location.  Jesus does not give them new nets to try.  He just asked them to do the exact same thing they had been trying all night.  The only difference this time, as Lose points out, is “… Jesus spoke to them and they do what he says and the word Jesus spoke makes it different, because God’s Word always does what it says, even when those hearing that Word fall short or even have a hard time believing it.”[iv]  God’s Word changes everything.

Now what happens next is pretty typical.  When the miracle of all those fish happens, and Peter senses Jesus offering a call to him, Peter protests as many a servant has – saying he is a sinner.  But what is interesting in this call narrative is Jesus’ response.  Jesus does not say that Simon’s sins are forgiven, or do some symbolic act to cleanse Simon’s sinfulness.  No, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”  Sure, Jesus offers forgiveness of sins.  But Jesus offers so much more.  Jesus offers encouragement and comfort.  Instead of simply insisting Simon can answer the call, Jesus instead offers the words of a pastor.  Those words, “do not be afraid,” will be words we hear over and over again in Luke’s gospel.  Part of this call narrative is a reminder that we do not have to be afraid anymore!

Then Jesus tells Peter something even more incredible.  This miracle he just witnessed is nothing.  Peter is going to do something even greater – be a fisherman of people – “catching people up in the unimaginable and life-changing grace of God.”[v]  Simon Peter really was not someone special.  Simon was not so gifted that he was already a leader in the community.  No, Jesus just picks an average fisherman for this incredible new mission.  That’s something else we learn about God in this passage; this is “how God works, always choosing the unlikeliest of characters through whom to work, putting aside all their doubts and fears and excuses and professed shortcomings to do marvelous things through them.”

And this is how we get back to each person in this room.  Despite the fact that call narratives can be dramatic, call narratives are also full of ordinary little things that remind of us the kind of God we have; the reasons why we trust this incredible, loving God; how woefully unprepared and unworthy any of us really are; and how through our relationship with God we find ourselves saying yes, saying hineni, without an exclamation point, but with scared-out-of-our-minds trust.

We may think call narratives are something that biblical heroes experience.  But the reality is, each one of us here has a call narrative.  Sometimes they are dramatic, but most of the time, they are gradual calls that evolve as we deepen our relationship with Christ, as we slowly, quietly keep saying hineni, as we try, fail, and try again to figure out what God wants us to do with our lives, and as we suddenly realize we are doing it.  We are leaving boats full of fish to follow Christ.  We changing the course of our lives in incremental ways.  We are finally able to see ourselves as Christ sees us – as individuals gifted with special gifts that enable us to share God’s love in our own little piece of this big world.  Do not be afraid, friends.  The secret of you already following God’s call is safe here.  Just keep saying yes, keep saying your quiet hineni and God will keep using you in powerful, dramatic ways.  Amen.

 

[i] David Lose, “Epiphany 5C: Lots to Love,” February 5, 2019, as found on February 6, 2019, at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-5-c-lots-to-love/.

[ii] Lose.

[iii] Lose.

[iv] Lose.

[v][v] Lose.

On Kindness and Holy Healing…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

KINDlogo_final-01This past Friday, our LEAD Greater Williamsburg Class launched our kindness initiative.  About 200 people from Williamsburg, James City County, and York County gathered to learn how they could commit to kindness.  One of the highlights was keynote speaker former Mayor Tom Tait.  Mayor Tait served for many years on City Council in Anaheim, California.  He described his work with City Council as a game of “Whack-a-Mole,” where they were constantly trying to snuff out “symptoms,” whether they be drug abuse, homelessness, or violence.  What he slowly came to realize was this model of treating the symptoms was not getting to the root of the problem – the fact that the whole body was sick.  And so, he ran for Mayor on a campaign of kindness.  He believed kindness would transform the entire body, or system, in such a way that the symptoms would go away – because the entire body would learn to operate in a healthier way.

After the event, as I spoke with clergy about the theology of kindness, we came to a few conclusions.  First, we agreed that embodying kindness is one way that people of faith can embody God – the same God that is regularly described as showing loving-kindness, or hesed, in Hebrew.  Our acts of kindness help us to show forth and experience God in our community.  But as we talked about Mayor Tait’s analogy, we realized that showing kindness gets to the root of Jesus’ work.  Jesus was often seen healing what may be seen as symptoms – leprosy, blindness, hemorrhaging.  But what Jesus was really doing was healing entire systems.  Each healed person was restored to wholeness in the community, with no barriers to full membership in the community.  Christ was concerned about the presenting symptoms and suffering of individuals – but what his work was really about was restoring the entire body to wholeness.

The kindness campaign #WMBGkind is an incredible movement because it seeks to do just the same thing – transform our entire community from one that can be divided or cynical, to being a community transformed to wholeness through kindness.  As members of the faith community of Greater Williamsburg, we have an opportunity to be leaders in that transformative work:  because we were commissioned through our baptism to be agents of healing and wholeness, because we can be a powerful witness of God’s love through our kindness, and because, as members of the “body” of our community, we will be transformed too.  This Sunday at Hickory Neck, you will be invited into this commitment to kindness – or as we as persons of faith would call it, into doing acts consistent with our baptismal identity.  I look forward to seeing you then, as we work toward transforming our community, one act of kindness at a time!

On Invitations to Compassion…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

This past week I have been pondering the notion of compassion.  The notion first struck me as I visited one of our parishioners at the hospital several times.  Each time I have visited, someone else had already visited or was on their way to visit.  Having been to many a hospital room, I know this is not the norm.  Often, people in the hospital are there without much support.  To see the community rally around this parishioner – both fellow parishioners and personal friends – was such a potent witness to the power of compassion.

Midweek, our own parish began to wonder how we might show compassion to our neighbors in need who were struggling due to government shutdown furloughs.  As we shared ideas as a community, and as we checked on our own parishioners, we discovered that several of our parishioners were already acting on behalf of our neighbors in need.  In fact, several parishioners were quietly gathering funds to support our local Coast Guard members.  I was so proud to learn about the quiet, unassuming compassion of our church.

Finally, my daughter and I paid a visit to a Children’s hospital for some routine checkups.  As we were waiting in three different waiting rooms, we watching families pass us by with children who were much sicker, or who had challenges that I will never face with my children.  I found myself humbled by journeys I could not imagine, and wondering how I might move from sympathy to compassion.

My ponderings reminded me of something Father Gregory Boyle articulated in his book Tattoos on the Heart.  Father Gregory teaches a class in the local prisons, and in one of the classes they talked about the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.  As the inmates discussed the topic, they agreed that sympathy is the expression of sadness for something someone is experiencing.  They defined empathy as going a step further and sharing how your own similar experience makes your sympathy more personal.  But compassion was a bit harder to define.  Father Gregory argues, “Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself.  If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”[i]

I wonder how God is inviting you this week to step beyond sympathy and empathy, and step into compassion. That kind of work is not easy, and will likely mean getting a bit messy.  But I suspect that same kind of work takes us from looking at the world around us and saying, “That’s too bad,” or “I’m so sorry,” to “Let me walk with you.”  That is the sacred spot where we experience God between us.  I look forward to hearing about your experiences of accepting God’s invitation to compassion this week.

[i] Father Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York:  Free Press, 2010), 75.

Sermon – 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a, EP3, YC, January 27, 2019

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Last week, Paul talked to us through his first letter to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts.  He talked about how there are a variety of gifts, and although they are all different, they are all activated by God.  As Charlie talked about this lesson last week, he encouraged us to reflect on our own spiritual gifts, and then to use that discernment to determine how we might support the ministries of Hickory Neck.  In fact, today we will gather our Time and Talent forms, blessing our discernment and our offering of those spiritual gifts.

If the portion of Paul’s letter last week affirmed that we all have gifts, the portion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we hear today tells us how the use of our gifts within the church is not just a nice thing to do – like bringing someone flowers.  No, today Paul explains to us the sharing of our gifts is critical to the operation of the church as an organism.  In other words, without each of us giving our gifts to the church, the whole church either limps along as an incomplete body or does not function at all.

Any of us who have had an injury or are currently suffering through a portion of our body not working knows how this works.  A couple of weeks ago, my hands got really dry and a little crack developed on my thumb.  Literally, the crack was about an eighth of an inch in size.  And yet, it was one of the most painful experiences.  Over the next few days, I realized the pain wasn’t going to stop and the cut wasn’t going to heal until I put on a Band-Aid.  The first challenge is figuring out how to make the Band-Aid stick when the cut is not on a flat surface.  Then, of course, do you know how hard keeping the thumb dry to maintain a Band-Aid is?  Suddenly, you find you are washing your hands and your face in super awkward contortions – sometimes electing to use only one hand while washing your face, or giving up altogether so you can help give a bath to your little one.  And once you have the Band-Aid on your thumb, you do not have the same kind of grip on things like jars and bottles you are opening.

This drama is the same for any part of us that is damaged.  We never realize how important one of our body parts is until we lose or have limited use of the part.  For a brief period of time, once the body part is healed, we find ourselves thanking God for our thumb, or kidney, or heart.  But we are a pretty forgetful people, and eventually, we stop thanking God for the incredible parts of our body.  We walk, eat, talk, ponder, laugh, exercise, and breathe without thinking about all the tiny parts needed to make those functions possible in the first place.  Everyday, we could easily pray through hundreds of parts of our bodies, thanking God for each part that works.  And yet, I know very few healthy people who engage in such thanksgiving and gratitude.  Even folks who were once ill or injured seem to forget the painful reminders of not being whole once wholeness is restored.

Paul uses the classic metaphor of the body to help the Corinthians see that the body of the faithful is no different.  Once the community has done a spiritual assessment, once those Time and Talent forms are turned in, we are not done.  We do not take those forms and say, “Okay, we got an usher, someone willing to adopt a church garden, a Sunday School teacher, and someone to make meals.  We did not get someone to operate the sound system, or deliver welcome baskets to newcomers, or help layout the newsletter.  Ah well, we’ll be fine.”  Paul knows we cannot operate the body of Christ this way in the same way that anyone with a broken toe or someone with fluid in their lungs or ears cannot operate at full capacity.  As Paul familiarly says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”[i]

Paul’s letter today reminds of a few things.  First, we are not fully honoring our own bodies when we do not offer our gifts to the church.  When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, I tried out many things.  I remember a Marketing department tried to convince me that I would be a great asset to their team.  And, I probably would have been pretty good at the work and the team did seem to have a lot of fun.  I remember how I loved working at a Food Bank and my awesome boss, even though most of my fellow volunteers were not people of faith.  I remember being thrilled when I landed at a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, serving a good cause, talking about our faith, even praying at staff meetings.  And yet, something still felt unbalanced.  And so the church became my playground.  I learned how to lead Morning Prayer, I fumbled my way through an adult bible study, and they even convinced me to co-lead the Middle School class!  What Paul would remind seekers like you and me is the church is the place where we can find a sense of wholeness by using all the parts of our bodies.  The church may be the place where the teacher by weekday brings his gifts to the Sunday School classroom on Sundays; or the church may be the place where the teacher by weekday finds her gifts are better utilized organizing a portion of the Winter Shelter.  The Church is the place where our head and our hands, our bodies, are affirmed.

The second thing Paul’s letter does is remind us how essential each person in the body is.  When other ancient writings used the metaphor of the body, they used the metaphor to determine social or political status; whomever was the head had power over the hands, feet, and legs.[ii] [iii]  Not so with Paul.  Paul says the head is just one part of many.  In fact, those parts we often forget about are usually the essential missing link to powerful ministry.  So, you may have been at home this week thinking, “Meh!  Hickory Neck has nine toes, they will be fine without me.”  Today, Paul asserts ministry does not work without you – whether you are the pinkie toe or the big toe!  Not all of us are great lectors, are handy with a wrench, or are tech savvy.  But we are all good at something – and when that “something” is not offered, the body of Hickory Neck is not whole.  Each of us, even the littlest one who goes to the nursery on Sundays, or the homebound member who rarely gets to join us, has an ability to make us better.  In fact, Paul might argue that those two individuals should have the highest honor in the community.  In other words, even if you do not think you have a gift special enough to give, the church needs you.[iv]  Hickory Neck is not whole without your offering.

The final thing Paul’s letter does is a little more subtle.  Even when all of us fill out our Time and Talent forms, and even when we make that stretch and agree to lead Children’s Chapel, take communion to a parishioner, or help with marketing, Hickory Neck will still not be complete.  There will always be parts of the body that are not operating at full capacity because not everyone is here yet.  This is why whenever a newcomer decides to become a member, we encourage them to look over the Time and Talent form – even if they join at a time well past stewardship season.  Each new person who enters through our doors has something new and fresh to teach us – something we as the community of Hickory Neck were missing until that fateful day you walked through our doors.  But if each new person makes us more whole, that means there are a lot of other holes in our body from all the people we have not yet invited into our fold.  For every neighbor, friend, and stranger who was looking for wholeness and yet we did not invite to church, our community suffers.  For every person whose socioeconomic status, skin color, or sexual orientation is not like ours that we did not invite to church, our community suffers.  For every person who is not my age, does not have my physical or mental abilities, or does not agree with my politics that we did not invite to church, our community suffers.  When we read Paul’s letter and when we look at our Time and Talent forms this week, we will invariably see the people we forgot to invite to church who would make us so much better as a community.

Today’s word from scripture is both affirming and convicting.  Paul wants us to know that each us has the capacity for wholeness when we use all the gifts God gives us.  Paul wants us to know that our Church needs us, in all our unique, odd, loveliness.  Paul wants us to know that the Church is the place where everyone has a place.  But Paul also wants us to know that we are not done.  We have sometimes not affirmed our own beautiful selves, we have sometimes held back our gifts from the church, and we have sometimes avoided welcoming in the very people who would make Hickory Neck a fuller version of her fantastic self.  Our invitation this week is to say yes:  say yes to honoring our own bodies with all their fabulous gifts; say yes to trying new adventures at church that will bless us in ways we cannot imagine; say yes to inviting a person who we might not even consider compatible with our image of who Hickory Neck should be.  Paul promises God will arrange the body so that we can all rejoice together.  Amen.

[i] 1 Corinthians 12.21

[ii] Lee C. Barrett, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 278.

[iii] Troy Miller, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 279.

[iv] Raewynne J. Whiteley, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 283.

On Gifts and Giving…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As every year of ordained ministry passes, I become more grateful for my work before ordination.  For about six years, I was the Director of Volunteer Services for a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Delaware.  Coordinating over 2000 volunteers a year, a major part of my job was helping people find just the right volunteer position based on their gifts.  Most volunteers that came my way expected that volunteering at Habitat meant wielding a hammer.  And sometimes that was true.  But sometimes you were hanging drywall, or painting, or putting down flooring.  Sometimes you weren’t doing construction work at all.  Volunteers were needed in the office, partnering with families as they worked on their sweat equity hours and financial training classes, helping raise funds, and serving on the Board.  Sometimes the gifts of a person were a perfect match for what we needed, and sometimes volunteers wanted to try something totally out of their comfort zone.  Figuring that out took time, listening, and a little bit of experimenting.

The same is true in churches.  We all come to church with many gifts, and sometimes those gifts are just what is needed:  the elementary music teacher who takes on the pageant, the architect who takes on property management, the financial planner who serves on the endowment board.  But sometimes, church is where we want to find and use other gifts:  the engineer who is also great relating with kids, the military officer who is also great with technology, or the construction worker who is a fantastic listener and discernment partner.  And sometimes, the things we think we would never be able to do we discover we can do through service at church.

This week at Hickory Neck, we are spending some time discerning our gifts and how we might use them to build up the church.  For some, this is a time to renew our passion for a current ministry we serve, and rededicate ourselves to making that ministry more powerful.  For others, we need a break from serving in one capacity, and want to try something new.  For others, we have yet to commit to serving the church and are nervous to step forward.  What the church reminds us during this time of connection is each of us has gifts, and the church is better when we gift those talents and our time to the church.  The church knows that when we give of that time and talent, we get so much more back.  We learn, we grow, we make new friends, and we come closer to God.  Whether it’s picking up sticks on a cleanup day, making meals for the homebound or new parents, or editing a newsletter, in those activities we have holy encounters with Christ.

I cannot wait to hear how you will give of yourself this year at Hickory Neck.  I cannot wait to hear how you are challenging yourself, and listening to the whisper of the Holy Spirit.  I cannot wait to hear in the coming year the ways in which you bump into God, even in the most unlikely places.  When each of us tends to our gifts and our journey at Hickory Neck, the community as a whole benefits.  We all get a bit closer to God when we simply show up and use our gifts.  I look forward to hearing about your journey in time and talent this year!

On Shielding the Joyous…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

A couple of weeks ago a parishioner of mine asked me what had changed.  “Changed?” I asked.  “Yes,” he said.  “You seem full of joy lately.  You are almost glowing at the altar.”  I have been thinking about his observation and wondering what the cause could be – what might be the reason my countenance has changed.  And then I realized what it must be.  I am happy.  I am full of joy and that joy is evident.

As a pastor, and someone who sees the worst of the worst at times, I am very cautious about claiming joy or happiness.  I think there is something deep in the recesses of my subconscious that is afraid to claim joy or happiness because I am afraid to jinx it.  If I simply say aloud, “I’m happy,” surely some tragedy will come along and steal my joy.  I also think the power of evil slips in at times and tries to convince me that joy or happiness is equal to perfection; if life is not perfect, it cannot be happy or joyous either.  On one level, my hesitancy around claiming joy is silly and superstitious.  But on another level, I have begun to wonder if it is selfish.  By not claiming my joy, claiming my happiness, I do not allow those around me to know how happy they make me.  But, equally important, by not claiming my joy, I do not allow God’s joy to spread.

In The Book of Common Prayer, one of my favorite prayers comes from Compline.  It reads, “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.”   (BCP, 134)  I have always loved the petition “shield the joyous,” because we ask God to protect not just those who are suffering, but also those who are experiencing joy.  Maybe we ask that because joy can be fleeting.  But maybe we ask that because we know the sinfulness of the world would rather squash joy than have it thrive, grow, and spread.

Knowing full well I could jinx things, I ask your prayers that God might shield my joy:  that God might help me to celebrate the myriad ways I love my church and the joy my parishioners give me every day; that God might help me honor my daughters and husband by telling them how much joy they give me, even in the tiny things; that God might help me to shout on the mountaintop how much we love being a part of Williamsburg, the friends we are making, the connections we are establishing, and the service in which we are engaging.  And then, I ask your prayers that I might take that protection of my joy and share it with others – so that we might be a people of joy, sharing joy, spreading joy.  If you need a little joy, or you want to pile on some joy, let me know.  I am happy to share and receive.  And when my well of joy runs low, I will look for your joy to bring me back up.  Together we will keep praying for God to shield the joyous, for all of our sakes!