On Compassion, Fatigue, and Prayer…

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Photo credit:  houseofdeputies.org/episcopal-migration-ministries-shares-the-journey.html

At our Clergy Day yesterday, we had a staff member from Episcopal Migration Ministries talk to us about the Episcopal Church’s work with refugees.  In what has become a heated topic in our current political climate, I was grateful for an explanation about how the process works for someone to come to our country as a refugee.  The demands and expectations were staggering, and the work to become self-sufficient seemed overwhelming and humbling.  One of the biggest take-aways from the presentation was that if we are going to make progress on this issue, we need to be in relationship with those unlike ourselves.

I left the presentation feeling a bit overwhelmed, wondering how I could invest more energy into one more of the world’s ills.  Our parish has been focusing its energy on racial reconciliation.  But we still have a long way to go.  Imagining taking on another area of reconciliation work felt like a tremendous burden.  I have talked about compassion fatigue before (see post here).  I realized today that my capacity for compassion is stretched pretty thinly these days.  Every time I turn around, the poor seemed to pushed further to the fringes, the oppressed are feeling more pressure instead of less, and we as a country seem to be failing at our commitment to respect the dignity of every human being.

Though we rarely use this language, I think Jesus often suffered from compassion fatigue too.  That is why so often we find him retreating with his disciples, longing for a place of quiet and prayer.  Knowing that Jesus suffered compassion fatigue is comforting, but it only gets me so far.  You see, when I suffer compassion fatigue, I find myself burying my head in the sand, trying to block out the news stories that serve to overwhelm instead of inform.  I find myself watching frivolous television, or escaping in a novel.  I find myself simply tired.  Of course, Jesus did not have online streaming television, but there are ways he could have diverted his mind when retreating from his compassion work.  Instead, he goes off to pray.  That is our invitation when faced with compassion fatigue – not to escape, but to retreat into the Lord, listening for God’s guidance, and praying for those suffering when there is little else we can do.  I invite your prayers for refugees – all those fleeing violence, all those who make it to makeshift homes, all those who boldly decide to make a home in a foreign land, and all those who suffer by those who wish to persecute the persecuted further.

Sermon – Acts 2.42-47, John 10.1-10, E4, YA, May 7, 2017

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These last weeks since Easter Day, we have been telling the story of what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We heard the wonderful stories of discovery on Easter Day, the news from Mary Magdalene that Christ is risen.  We heard that familiar story of Thomas and the other disciples who were able to see and touch Jesus’ risen body.  We heard that beloved story of the walk to Emmaus, where two disciples were able to walk and talk with Jesus, and were reminded that Jesus is still with them.  And then today, we hear in the Acts story what has happened to the disciples.  They have gathered a community of believers who are growing every day.  People are sharing the holy meal, praying together, living in community, and praising God in the temple.  They are seeing signs and wonders, they are being generous with one another, and they have even sold their possessions like Jesus told them to, and are sharing their resources.  Today’s reading from Acts takes all of good stuff from Jesus’ ministry, all the heartache of Holy Week, and all of the joy of Eastertide, and basically concludes, “And they all lived happily ever after!”

In some ways, I cannot imagine a better text for today.  At our later service, we will be confirming and receiving nine parishioners in the church.  These are parishioners who have been studying Holy Scripture, Church History, the sacraments, Church polity, spirituality, and vocation.  Some are teenagers and some have grandchildren.  Some have spent a lifetime in other Christian traditions, and others were born and raised in the Episcopal Church.  And all of them feel called at this point in their spiritual journey to claim their faith as their own and begin a new phase of their walk with Christ at Hickory Neck.  What better thing than for these reinvigorated Christians to hear than a text about what their life will now look like?  They will be sharing in communion, worshiping God in God’s temple, praying together, living generous lives, and sharing their resources communally.  Is that not the image you have of Hickory Neck?

Well….  Okay, so maybe Hickory Neck does not look exactly like that early Christian community.  We certainly have some things down.  We baptize, are generous with one another, share the Holy meal, and praise God in worship.  But as far as I know, we have yet to enter a relationship with one another where we have sold everything we have and are living communally.  I suspect there would be a stack of cots at the back of the church today since we would all need a place to sleep.  I suspect we would have a roster to indicate who was cooking us lunch after services today and who was on clean-up duty.  I suspect we might have a line of zip cars and bike shares in the parking lot every day for those who work further away from church.  I suspect that our retirees here would be responsible for the children while their parents are out working.  Though Hickory Neck has certainly gotten close to the early Church community, we have a long way to go.

Now some of you may be rolling your eyes right now – wondering if Holy Scripture is trying to make the case for socialism or some hippie compound.  Since you know I try to avoid politics in the pulpit, here’s what I can tell you:  there are some Christian communities that are in fact trying to get much closer to the early church than we have ever considered.  When the housing crisis hit almost ten years ago, there were stories about neighbors who made agreements.  One family would sell their house and move in with another struggling family.  The two families would double up in rooms, figure out childcare sharing, meal sharing, and payment sharing.  They found that although the home felt crowded, the home also felt like a place of support, security, and serenity.[i]  And of course, there are what are called, “intentional Christian communities” all over the country.  I had multiple friends from college who volunteered or took nonprofit jobs out of college and lived in these intentional communities.  They shared rooms in a house, took turns with the household duties, gathered for communal dinners every night, and shared in worship a few times a week.

But I think we all know that this lifestyle is not “normal.”  We are not raised nowadays to live communally with other Christians, sharing our possessions and life.  In fact, when we hear Jesus say today that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly, we often think that means that Jesus came so that we might experience financial stability, good health, and happiness.  We confuse our American sensibilities of achievement and accumulation of wealth, with the kind of abundance that Jesus is talking about.[ii]  The truth is, those crazy hippies in the early church were on to something.  They did have an abundance – but they had the abundance because they shared.  And they were able to share because they listened to the teachings of Jesus through his disciples, they broke break regularly, they worshiped in the temple, and they shared the good news.  Their understanding of abundance changed – not an overwhelming sense of monetary wealth, but an overwhelming sense of community, of belonging, of purpose, and of “enough.”

Now before we get too down on ourselves or start thinking about all our possession that we would need to sell, we know the story takes a twist.  Three chapters later in Acts we learn about two members of the community who keep some of their wealth back – they start hording, hoping no one will know their secret.  So, like any of us, not everyone was on board with the communal living thing.  But the majority of the community entered into a covenant about this new way of being together.

I like that we get this text today because I like how the text makes us all ever so slightly uncomfortable.  I like that our new confirmands and those being received are hearing this today because they will need to struggle with this notion of Christian community with each of us too.  I do not know if we will ever get to the ideal found in the early Church, but we need these days of the newly received to remind us that we are not there yet.  We have not yet lived into the abundant life that Christ intended for us.  We are still on our journey, prayerfully pondering how to open ourselves up to the invitation to live life, and live it more abundantly.

That is why at our later service we will reaffirm our baptismal covenant.  Like we do over and over again throughout the year, we remind ourselves of the promises we made in baptism and in confirmation.  To gather with the community of faith, to repent and return to the Lord when we sin, to share the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace.  That baptismal covenant is our touchstone – that five-part measuring stick that lets us know those areas where we are really thriving in our spiritual journey, and those areas that need some work.  On Sundays like this, we get the questions once again, “Are you all in?  Are you ready for the gift of abundant life in Christ and all of the implications that gift involves?”  That gift is both a promise and a challenge – a blessing and what sometimes feels like a curse.  But we have all seen glimpses of that abundant life, and know how the abundant life is like milk and honey.  We just sometimes need a nudge to get us back on the way.  Amen.

[i] Joanna Goddard, “Two Families Sharing a House (Would You?),” October 26, 2015, as found at https://cupofjo.com/2015/10/communal-house-cohousing-san-francisco/ on May 4, 2017.

[ii] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave Podcast:  #539 – Fourth Sunday of Easter,” April 29, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=880 on May 3, 2017.

 

On the Power of Hands…

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Photo credit:  https://www.sevenwholedays.org/2012/05/29/on-confirmation/

When I was confirmed as an Episcopalian, the decision to be in the Cathedral that day was preceded by a long journey.  I took not one, but two confirmation classes, not feeling entirely ready after the first class.  I was not only discerning whether I was called to membership in the Episcopal Church, I was also discerning a call to ordained ministry in the Church.  I had spent over a year studying, praying, talking to people about their denomination experiences, and listening for the voice of God.  I had to have conversations with people like my father, who not only was a United Methodist minister, but also was his father, his brother, his uncles, and on and on.  Needless to say, when I knelt down in front of the bishop that day, I came with the weight and conviction of that discernment process.

But something powerful happened when the Bishop put his hands on my head, and my presenters put their hands on my shoulders.  Though the weight of those hands was heavy, the weight also seemed to melt away the year of toil and angst.  The power of those hands seemed to push out of my being any doubt or sense of wandering, and instead, a wave of peace, affirmation, and purpose washed over me.  When the Dean helped me rise to my feet, I felt light and buoyant.  The imprint of those hands felt both oddly still heavily present and yet empowering.

This Sunday, we will be confirming and receiving several parishioners at our triennial bishop’s visit.  They come from all walks of life.  Some are youth who were born and raised in the Episcopal Church.  Some are adults from Baptist, United Methodist, and Roman Catholic backgrounds.  Some bring burdens from their past experiences in the church and some are deeply appreciative of their roots in another tradition.  All have spent time in study, reflection, and discernment about whether this is the right decision for them.  And all are excited about the new ways they have seen God inspiring their spiritual journey, and are hopeful about the ways that Hickory Neck will walk with them on that journey.

All of that – the preparation, the discernment, the long histories, the maturing of youth, the questions, and the affirmation all come through hands – hands that have been blessed through the centuries and consecrated to bless this new phase of journeys.  I look forward to this momentous occasion and all it brings for our confirmands and those being received.  And I can’t wait to see where the journey takes them in the years to come!

Sermon – Luke 24.13-35, E3, YA, April 30, 2017

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Teachers and group facilitators know there are different types of learning styles.  Some people need to see something in writing in order to follow what is being presented.  These are the folks in church whose head is in their bulletins when the scripture is being read because they need to see the words, not just hear them.  Some people need to hear information orally to absorb information.  These are the folks you will see looking away from their bulletins during readings at church, preferring to watch and hear the words of the lector or celebrant instead of follow the words on the page.  And some people are what are called kinesthetic learners, who need to touch, feel, and do something in order to grasp the concept.  These are the folks who experience God more like our two disciples today – walking, talking, listening, and breaking bread.

I have been thinking a lot about walking this week.  Next month we will be talking about the Christian tradition of pilgrimage – a moving journey with God.  I think one of the primary reasons we walk, why we take pilgrimages, is because we sometimes just need to move in order to see God.  If we think back about Christ’s years of ministry, much of his sacred, life-changing moments happened while walking:  the woman who grabs the hem of his garment and receives healing while Jesus walks; the blind man Jesus encounters while walking in the city; the grieving mother Jesus meets while walking past the funeral procession.  Though Jesus certainly spends time sitting and teaching in homes, in gardens, and on mountains, much of his ministry isspent on the move.

Back in Advent, we had a clergy retreat.  The day was filled with all sorts of activities – conversation, silence, prayer, and readings.  But perhaps my favorite part of the day was when the facilitator assigned us to another person in the room and told us to go for a walk.  One person was to speak about whatever was on their heart and the other was to listen.  At the end, when the speaker was done, the listener was invited to reflect back about what they had heard and where they heard God moving in the speaker’s life.  What is interesting about taking a walk with someone – either being the listener or the speaker – is that you cannot really make eye contact.  Your body is busy watching the path in front of you, avoiding rocks or holes, and navigating turns.  Meanwhile, your mind works harder to focus – keeping your body moving while allowing yourself to speak or listen.  In some ways, that kind of walk is reminiscent of a confessional.  Two people, side-by-side, confessing what is on their heart, without the piercing judgment of eye contact.  Somehow the seemingly simple act of taking a walk with someone becomes profoundly intimate and sacred, something I am not convinced happens as well when we are sitting still.

The two disciples may have been having the same kind of conversation on that road to Emmaus.  They have a lot on their minds:  those last days of Jesus’ life; his arrest, crucifixion, and death; the testimony of the women about his resurrection.  Everything in their lives has been upended, and they are confused, sad, and lost.  But as they walk, Jesus appears on the road alongside them.  Together, the three of them keep moving, sharing hopes, dreams, and fears, while also reflecting where they see God in the midst of this turbulent time.  While their bodies are busy with the steps of that dusty road, their minds and hearts are opening up through their conversation.  The noise all around them fades, and the clarity of truth breaks through.  Though they do not notice the feeling right away, later the disciples remember a distinct feeling of their hearts burning within them.

Most of you know by now or will soon figure out that I am a planner.  I like to sit down and think through challenges.  I spend energy considering the various possibilities, weighing consequences, and working through solutions.  I will do research, talk to people with experience, and try to gauge reactions.  In general, being a planner can be a great asset.  The challenge for a planner is moving.  There comes a moment when you have to move on what you have and make a decision or start the planned action.  And although this will come as no surprise to the more spontaneous folks in the room, sometimes, you have to get moving without doing all the planning.  Sometimes, you just have to take a walk – get out and start doing, and clarity will come.  Sometimes Jesus does not show up until you are on the road.

That is what is interesting about our story today.  The two disciples today are overwhelmed and stuck.  They do not know what to make of all that has happened and they especially do not know what to make of the women’s testimony.  They could have stayed in that room with the other disciples, worrying and talking through the possibilities.  Instead, they get up and walk.  They walk, talk, confess, listen, and learn.  Their hearts burn within them only when they move – only when Christ comes alongside their moving bodies and reveals truth to them, helping them understand the fulfillment of Scripture in all that has happened.

I wonder if Christ is not inviting us to do the same today.  A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated my first anniversary here at Hickory Neck.  It has been an incredible year of growing, relationship-building, serving, and sharing in fellowship.  As I have reflected back, the year has been full of good work, growing discipleship, and energized mission and evangelism.  We really have had a very full year.  But one of the things I keep remembering, and now our Vestry has begun exploring, is the conversation I had with our Search Committee and Vestry over a year ago.  We talked extensively about dreams, many of which had already been articulated.  The one that captured my heart was using the blessing of this property to begin some new ministries – ministries that would serve those in need in our community and would reflect the distinct nature of our neighborhood.  Knowing that we have an abundance of retirees settling in Williamsburg, and an influx of young families moving in as well, Hickory Neck began to dream about how we might serve both constituencies – with childcare, elder day care, or both simultaneously.  The dream was what drew me in, and as colossal as the dream sounded, the dream also sounded inspired and full of the Spirit.

For the last year, we have been sitting, getting to know each other, building trust, and growing in our love of Christ.  But now, your Vestry has started taking some walks.  Your Vestry has started meeting with leaders, service providers, and member of the larger community.  The idea is to walk alongside others, hearing their stories, and listening for the Spirit.  We are also sharing our dream, and making sure our vision is in line with what the community needs.  We are taking those kinds of walks that lay bare our concerns and fears, but also confess our deepest hopes.  Of course, we could avoid these conversations, staying in the upper room with fellow disciples – fellow Hickory Neck-ers.  But instead, we are taking a cue from the disciples today, hoping that on our walk, our hearts will burn with a sense of the presence of Jesus.

The disciples and our Vestry are issuing a similar invitation to us today – to move out of the comfort of familiarity, and to start walking the way in the hopes of encountering Jesus.  What they have learned is that sometimes, in order to clear our heads, in order to get un-stuck in our current path, in order to go deeper with God and to find Christ in our midst, we need to move.  We need to walk, talk, listen, confess, and learn.  We need to step out of our places of comfort and familiarity, and start moving.  On those walks are where we encounter Christ, where scripture becomes clear, and where our hearts burn with renewed energy, purpose, and meaning.  That is work that we are taking on as a community, but also work that we are invited to take on for ourselves.  Taking those first steps can be scary, intimidating, and uncomfortable.  The good news, is that, like the disciples, we do not go alone.  We go with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  We go with neighbors who long for justice and dignity for all.  We go with Christ, who whispers truth and who burns in our hearts.  Come, and take a walk with Hickory Neck.

On Being Stewards of Dreams…

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Photo credit:  https://www.pintrest.com/pin/536632111820932245/

“O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; it is you who uphold my lot.  My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a goodly heritage.”  (Psalm 16.5-6) 

At our Vestry Retreat this winter, we began to talk about the dream we have been tossing around since before my arrival.  Upon reflection of the demographics and needs in Williamsburg, the dream is that Hickory Neck offer a childcare program, adult daycare program, or a combined ministry of the two.  I have been excited about the idea ever since I first heard it articulated.

I had encountered the concept of intergenerational care online (see video here).  What I loved about the video was that the intergenerational care reminded me of what happens at church:  people from all generations finding comfort, care, and a sense of identity and purpose.  In our modern culture, intergenerational relationship is rare.  Families live far apart, people tend to be segregated by life stage, and we value self-sufficiency.  But what we forget in our modern culture is that our young and our old need each other – they teach each other, they bring each other renewed energy, and they help each other learn.  I have always loved that my children have lots of “grandmas and grandpas” at church.

If I had the option of putting my children in childcare that fosters such a rich environment, I would be thrilled.  Furthermore, I know that our geographic area could use more accessible childcare and senior daycare.  As the pieces came together, God seemed to be inviting Hickory Neck into a new phase of its ministry.  This winter, the Vestry agreed that we should start being stewards of this dream the Spirit had given us.  So, for the last month, the Vestry has been having conversations in the community.  The idea is to learn what services are already offered, whether our sense of the needs matches the actual needs, and what potential partners there may be in our community.  We are obviously in the very early stages of this walk, but it is an exciting time!

I hope you will join us this Sunday as we gather for our quarterly Rector’s Forum.  We will be talking about this vision, as well as the many other tremendous ministries of Hickory Neck.  We indeed are blessed by a goodly heritage at Hickory Neck.  I look forward to celebrating the ways that our Portion and our Cup are leading us!

Sermon – John 20.1-18, ED, YA, April 16, 2017

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Every generation has a baby name that is popular.  In my generation, that name was Jennifer.  As I was growing up, every grade had tons of Jennifers.  I became quite accustomed to the experience of eagerly looking up when someone called my name, only to be disappointed to see they were calling out to someone else.  The name was so common that by the time I got to college, I learned to ignore people calling out my name because more likely than not, they were not actually calling me.  They were calling one of the other twenty Jennifers nearby.  Although the practice helped me save face, the practice was a bit of a hindrance when someone actually was trying to get my attention.

The solution, of course, was a nickname – something to distinguish me from the sea of other Jennifers.  So in college, most of my buddies just started calling me “Andrews.”  It may sound silly, but having a name that was distinct, that when called, I knew I could answer, gave me a sense of belonging and identity.  When someone shouted, “Andrews” across the quad, I knew a friendly face would be looking for me when I raised my eyes.  Though seemingly simple, that nickname made me feel known, especially at a time when everyone is trying to figure out their new identity, where they belong, and who they will be.

I suspect that Mary was the common name in Jesus’ generation.  All we need to do is read through the New Testament to know that there are more Marys than we can count.  Sometimes I even have to look back when I come across a Mary to be sure I am thinking of the right one.  So when Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name, I imagine there must have been some way she knows not only that this is Jesus, but also that he is talking to her.

Easter morning has been a rough morning for Mary.  She comes in the tomb before the first light of dawn has broken.  She is probably still a bit bleary eyed – that kind of haze one has in the days after a death of a beloved one.  She comes to halt before she gets all the way to the tomb though.  The stone that is supposed to be covering the tomb, protecting Jesus’ body, is gone.  Before even going in to assess the situation, Mary runs – runs hard to find the disciples, demanding that they get up and help her.  Two of them, the beloved disciple and Peter, sprint ahead of Mary.  She is too tired from her first run to keep up.  By the time she reaches the tomb, the two disciples are already stepping out of the tomb, Peter looking perplexed and the other disciple with an enigmatic smile.  And without so much as a word to her, they leave – just like they left Jesus on that fateful day.[i]  Mary, overcome with the memories of Jesus’ crucifixion and the continued emotion of this morning, breaks into tears.  When she finally checks inside the tomb herself, she not only sees two angels, she also has an encounter with a supposed gardener.  Frustrated by their insensitive questions, she exasperatedly asks the gardener to just tell her where the body is.

That is when the big news today happens.  The supposed gardener calls her by name.  Not the common name that everyone has.  The supposed gardener calls her by the name that only Jesus calls her.  The haze dissipates.  The tears halt.  The cloud of despair vanishes.  And she calls Jesus by the name that only a few call him, “Rabbouni!”  This is a tremendous moment in our text today.  In the flurry of running, and confusion, and questions, and tears, and despair, two people see each other crystal clearly.  Mary is called by her name – Jesus communicates to Mary that she is known, the she is beloved, that she has an identity and a purpose unique to her.  She is his sheep who knows and recognizes the voice of the shepherd – the Good Shepherd.[ii]  Her relief is palpable.  The return of her confidence is immediate.  Her sense of celebration is ready to explode!

When I was in high school, I had a summer where I attended both a short conference and then a long summer program.  Both were residential.  The conference was the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership conference, or HOBY for short.  I made a few fast friends, but was there just a few days.  A week or so later, I was off to a six-week residential program.  It was my first time staying away from home that long, and I was admittedly a bit nervous since no one else from my high school was going.  After I unloaded my bags, and was getting ready to say goodbye to my parents, someone behind my shouted, “Hey, HOBY!”  Without even looking at who it was, I knew I did not need to worry about belonging.  I was already known here.  I had a place here.  I could have a purpose for those six weeks.

We have all had those moments of clarity around identity, belonging, and purpose.  Whether we are returning to our home town after a long time away, whether we develop good friends at school or in a civic group, and whether that happens at a reunion, we all know the deep, profoundly affirming feeling that comes from being known.  For those of you with a church home, and especially for those of you who have found a home here at Hickory Neck, you most likely found that feeling here.  Perhaps the liturgy was what brought you a sense of identity – either the liturgy reminded you of a practice from your earlier life, or the liturgy offered something to you that you did not even know you were missing.  Perhaps a ministry at church brought you a sense of identity – those little sacred moments that come when you realize that you are actually really good at inspiring people to serve the world, making beautiful music, or teaching children about the love of God.  Or perhaps the community brought you a sense of identity – that first time when someone remembered your name or a part of your story, when someone came to you for expert advice, or when someone knew just by looking at you that you were hurting – and then offered to take you to lunch or coffee.  The church is a place where both Christ and the community call you by name.

Now I would love to tell you that the wonderfully affirming and life-giving feeling of being known is an end unto itself.  I would love to send you home on this beautiful Easter Day with simply a sense of love and affirmation.  And that is certainly part of the gift I am giving you today – to tell you that you can be known and loved here.  But something else happens to Mary at that tomb.  After that profound moment of affirmation, Jesus tells her to go and be a witness to the disciples.  Jesus always gives his beloved homework.  He is that teacher that even on a Friday will give you an assignment for the weekend!  But Mary does not see this as a burden.  Even though Jesus will not let her cling to him – cling to the way things used to be, Jesus’ affirmation this day propels her to go out and share the good news of the risen Lord with the disciples.  In this way, Jesus not only recognizes and honors her identity; Jesus also gives her purpose – a call.

That is your homework on this Easter Sunday.  I know you want to go eat those big Easter meals ,go find those Easter eggs, and find what Easter chocolate awaits at home.  But remember that while this place is a place that calls you by name and affirms your beautiful identity, this is also a place that commissions you to go out and share the good news.  That wonderful sense of affirmation is not for you to bottle up and keep for yourself.  That sense of affirmation is meant to embolden you to share that affirmation with others – to meet people where they are, to hear their stories, and to share how this day of resurrection, love, and affirmation is for them too.  In the same way that you have a vocation, a call on your life, you also are to affirm vocation and call in others.  So this week, as you bask in the warmth and beauty of this day, go out and share that good news with others.  Someone may be waiting for you to call them by name.  Amen.

[i] Richard B. Hays, “Do Not Cling to Me,” Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 10, March 18-25, 1992, 299.

[ii] Karoline M. Lewis, John:  Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 241.

Sermon – John 18.1-19.42, GF, YA, April 14, 2017

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I have been thinking this week about how every year we read the same story of Jesus’ death.  Unlike the Christmas story that we eagerly anticipate hearing each year, this story seems like a masochistic practice of hearing the same devastating story over and over again.  And we do not just read this story on Good Friday.  In addition to John’s version of the passion narrative, we read one of the synoptic versions on Palm Sunday.  Twice in one week we relive the painful story, catching interesting variations.  But the ending is always the same:  death, finality, failure.  At least on Palm Sunday, we use various voices, making the story feel like a performance.  But today, one sole voice, tells the achingly raw story – a story we would rather skip, or soften, or cry out to the reader, “Please stop!”

In hearing the story this year, I was struck by the failures of three characters.  The first is probably the easiest culprit:  Judas.  In Mathew’s gospel there is at least a feigning of loyalty as Judas greets Jesus as “Rabbi,” and kisses his cheek.  But John does not play such games.  In John’s narrative, Judas is fully on the side of the persecutors.  He boldly brings and stands with the soldiers and police.  He does not greet Jesus, or apologize.  He is confident in his decision.  He stands proud, even as we now are able to see his profound failure.  His ignorance of the depth of his betrayal is almost worse than the actual betrayal.  His confidence that this is for the best, is the first crack in our hearts as we hear this painful story.

Then we have Peter – precious, passionate, pitiful Peter.  For all the times he gets things right, and all the endearing times he gets things wrong, today is just a spirit-crushing failure.  In Matthew’s gospel, Peter denies knowing Jesus.  In John’s gospel, Peter denies his discipleship – his very relationship with and dedication to the Messiah.  In the face of Jesus’ “I am,” claim[i] today, Peter’s claim is “I am not.”[ii]  For all the wonderful, powerful, sacrificial moments in Jesus today, Peter is shameful, cowardly, and self-serving.  Even after being warned that he will deny Christ, Peter denies Christ in spite of himself.  That cock’s crow is the second crack in our hearts as we hear this brutal story.

The third character today does not always get as much attention, but their failure is perhaps the worst.  Whereas Judas and Peter deny and betray a friend, the chief priests deny their very God.  They say seven words to Pilate today that should be more shocking than anything said.  “We have no king but the emperor.”  We often get distracted by their words, because we know that they are meant manipulate Pilate’s sense of authority.  But the chief priests, the religious, moral guides of the people of faith say today, “We have no king but the emperor.”  Of course, we have to think back to remember why this statement is so profoundly painful.  You see, once upon a time, God was the king of Israel.  The people worshiped Yahweh, and Yahweh alone.  But the people got greedy, and begged Yahweh for a king like the other nations.  And so God anointed kings through God’s prophets.  But the chief priests take their self-centered sinfulness a step further than our ancestors.  They deny God today.  Their claim to have no king but the emperor is treason against our God – blasphemy.  And with their claim, our heart lies cracked in two as we hear the rest of the awful story.

Of course, blaming Judas, Peter, and the chief priests would be an easy way to scapegoat our way out of this dark day.  There are even Christians who claim that the Jews crucified our Lord.  But we know the truth.  We know that we are the Jews.  We know that we are Judas and Peter and the chief priests.  We know that our heart fractures with each vignette because they remind us of times when we have stood on our soapboxes, certain of our moral claims, only to later look back and see whom we betrayed and trampled in the process.  We know that that our heart fractures because we are reminded of those times when we knew the right thing to do, said we were going to do the right thing, and then failed to do the right thing – over, and over, and over again.  We have heard that same cock crowing.  We know that our heart fractures because we have put other gods before our God.  Sure, the gods have varied:  money, power, security, ego.  But we have gotten so lost in our gods that we said and did things that would have inspired a gasp from anyone more faithful than ourselves.  The failures of Judas, Peter, and the chief priests are not just failures of those men, two thousand years ago.  The failures of Judas, Peter, and the chief priests are our failures.[iii]

I think that is why we tell this story year after year, twice a week from different gospels.  We tell this story over and over again because we fail over and over again.  Though the specific characters are important, the characters live and operate in us centuries later.  That is why the story is so compelling – not because we can gather together and wag our fingers at those people.  The story is compelling because the story is eerily close to our own sinfulness.  Part of the devastating nature of this story is how complicit we are in the story.  Though the powers of evil might want us to deny our culpability in this story, what is hardest about this story is how close to home the story really is.

Now, you I do not ever like to leave the pulpit without a word of hope, a reminder that risen Lord redeems us all.  But today, I encourage you not to rush to the empty tomb.  Take time to sit in our collective confession, to tarry on those things done and left undone which are separating you from God and one another.  Bring your failures or sense of failure to the cross and lay them there today.  Grieve the ways that you cannot help yourself, year after year, from sin and shame.  The whole season of Lent has been building up to this day.  The whole reason we took on those disciplines and came to church for confession was because we knew, ultimately, that this is where we keep tripping up:  in betrayal and denial of our very identity as beloved disciples and children of God.  We are the ones bombing others.  We are the ones racially profiling.  We are the ones denigrating women, the poor, and the oppressed.  We are the ones, century after century repeating the sins of the faithful.

Lay all that sinfulness at the cross today.  Whether you venerate the cross in the liturgy today, wear a cross around your neck, or pray with the cross on your prayer beads, the power of the cross is to absorb all those failures and to transform them into something worth living.  You can, and perhaps should, feel the powerful weight of your sinful patterns today.  But let them die at the foot of the cross with Jesus.  Lay them naked at the cross, for all the world to see.  There is relief in that confession, the depth of which you may not feel fully until our Easter proclamation.

[i] Susan E. Hylen, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 299.

[ii] Karoline Lewis, John:  Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2014), 222.

[iii] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “SB 535, Good Friday,” April 7, 2017, found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=873 on April 8, 2017.

Homily – John 13.1-17, 31b-35, MT, YA, April 13, 2017

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In 1984, the gay community in London was seeing a lot of violence and oppression by not only the police, but also the community.  In the midst of their own activism, one gay activist caught wind of the Coal Miners who were striking in Wales.  Upon watching the violence of the police against the strikers, the activist realized their suffering was not unlike his own, and that of the gay community.  And so, in an act of solidarity and love, he organized his gay community to raise funds to support the families of the striking miners.

But not everyone was on board.  You see, the miners worked in small towns in which many members of the gay community had once lived.  In those small communities, they had been bullied, taunted, and beaten.  And now someone was asking them to come to their aid.  Many in the gay community could not turn the other cheek.  Why should they return hatred with love?  And as the gay activists soon learned, their help would not be readily received.  Why should the gay community risk further rejection, shame, and violence to support an oppressed people who could not see their commonality?

Jesus shares a meal with his disciples as he has done on so many occasions.  Only on this night, he is among friend and foe.  He knows Judas is about to betray him.  He knows that Judas is about to put into motion a series of actions that cannot be stopped, that will lead to pain and suffering, and ultimately death.  Looking into Judas’ eyes, Jesus must have felt a betrayal so deep that he had to resist hatred as a human response.  “How could you?” would be an easy question for Jesus to ask in this intimate moment.

But Jesus does not do that. He does not challenge Judas or reprimand or even expose Judas in front of the others directly.  No, he takes off his outer robe, takes a bowl and a pitcher of water, and he washes the feet of everyone in that room – not just the feet of those whom he loves – which would have been a poignantly intimate moment anyway.  But as he makes his way down the table, he shifts his bowl under the dusty feet of Judas; feet as dirty as the rest of them.  He takes the feet of this betrayer of his trust and confidence, and he manages to love Judas as deeply as everyone else.  Tenderly, lovingly, he washes the feet of the enemy of the worst kind – an enemy who was once a friend.  Love in the face of betrayal.

This year, Jesus’ tenderness with Judas has been haunting me.  I do not know about you, but the last thing I want to do is tenderly, lovingly care for my enemy.  Society teaches me to have a strong defense, to protect myself, to avoid conflict.  The norm is not to kneel down before a betrayer of trust, to make oneself subservient, and lovingly treat someone who acts so hatefully.  Only a fool makes himself vulnerable before the enemy.  And yet, that is what Jesus does.  That is how he shows the depths of his love.  He does not use his power to thwart the enemy.  He restrains his power to bring the enemy in – always with the offering of love that can transform any heart.

Tonight, we will engage in the tradition of washing others’ feet.  Many of us get caught up the squeamishness of feet and the vulnerability such intimacy involves.  But something much bigger happens in foot washing than letting go of self-consciousness.  In foot washing we enter into the love of Christ:  washing the feet of those we know well and love; washing the feet of those we know only superficially; washing the feet of those who seem to have their lives totally together and those who we know are suffering; washing the feet of someone who has indeed offended you, and washing the feet of someone with whom you wish to reconcile.

But what we do literally here, we take out figuratively into the world.  Washing the feet of someone you know, or even someone you do not know well in church is one thing.  Washing the feet of the people who are not here is another thing entirely.  Though Jesus’ washed his disciples’ feet, the inclusion of Judas suggests that loving one another cannot be limited to the community of believers.[i]  All we have to do is imagine an actual enemy, someone who has betrayed our trust or offended our values, someone who oppresses the oppressed, and then we know how hard what Jesus does is tonight.  Tonight, some powerful feelings are set loose:  sorrow, loss, regret, even fear; but also some powerful feelings are set loose by Jesus:  commitment, conviction, and determination.  God lays aside everything tonight.[ii]  Enter into Christ’s love tonight through the example he sets for us.  Know that God will use the power of this act to change your heart.

A year after that bold move by the gay community in London in the 1980s, much had happened.  Horrible things were said, mean things were done, violence erupted, commitments were betrayed, and help was rejected.  But a year later, even after ultimately losing their cause, the mineworkers did something out of character.  Chapter after chapter of mineworkers loaded onto buses, came to London, and marched for gay rights with their new brothers and sisters.  God’s love has tremendous power.  Even if that love cannot transform the heart of a Judas, the witness of that love slowly breaks through and transforms communities.  Join us tonight as we start locally.  Know that God will use your small action here to do bigger work out in the world!  Amen.

[i] Susan E. Hylen, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 275.

[ii] William F. Brosend, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 276.

The Pilgrimage of Holy Week

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17903433_10155696878822565_4685487522288081020_nIn Holy Week, I like to offer the parishes I serve a service for each night of the week.  It can be labor intensive, and people can feel overwhelmed by the idea of coming every night of a week for church (even if it is only once a year).  But, if you can make it through every night, you find yourself in the midst of a beautiful pilgrimage – an unfolding story and walk with our Savior, Jesus Christ.  This year, we are only three days in, but each night has given me little “God moments.”

On Holy Monday, my heart was warmed that our community was gathering “virtually” to celebrate compline (evening prayers).  We have been doing it all Lent, but it was a wonderful way to close my evening in my pajamas, knowing that others were on Facebook, praying together with our Curate.  On Holy Tuesday, as I sat in the silence of our Taize service, I was watching the flames of the many lit candles flicker.  Since I knew people had lit the candles with prayer intentions, I imagined each of those flames as a prayer, symbolizing the cares and concerns of each person in the room.  As our silence extended, I imagined the flames represented the prayers and concerns around the world, remembering how our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters must be hurting this week.  It was a powerful, transfixing image.  Then last night, on Holy Wednesday, during our healing prayers, two things happened.  First, my daughter came forward for prayers by me.  Her request was humbling, and the privilege of affirming her and praying with her in that space was incredible.  Second, another local pastor laid hands on me and prayed just the prayer I needed this week.  It was all I could do to hold back the tears.

So, I do not know what the next three days, the Triduum, hold.  But I can promise you there will be many more sacred moments.  If you have a church home, I encourage you to take advantage of their offerings for the rest of the week.  If you do not have a church home, and live in the Williamsburg area, know that you are most welcome.  You can find all our information on our website.  A continued blessed Holy Week for you.  As you ponder your own connection to church, I offer you this video as inspiration for your Holy Week pilgrimage to Lent.  Peace!

On Remembering Roots…

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Photo credit:  https://wels.net/serving-you/christian-life/campus-ministry/

Last night, as a member of our Diocesan College Ministry Commission, I visited Canterbury at William & Mary.  We had some time with both the students involved in the Episcopal Campus ministry and with the Campus Minister.  It is a vibrant ministry, with a lot of passion and enthusiasm around service, worship, and discipleship.  Canterbury is a place where they can ask questions of their faith, become leaders, serve their community, and forge deep friendships.  They are doing the work began in their baptism, continued in their confirmation, and now affirmed as adults.

As I listened to the students and Campus Minister, I was flooded with a host of memories from my own experience in Campus Ministry at Duke.  Although I was involved in the Wesley Fellowship, the models are quite similar.  Wesley was the place where I came into my own faith, where I engaged my intellect in partnership with professors at the Divinity School, where I first discovered the power of mission trips, and ultimately, where I began to feel a sense of call to ordained ministry.  Wesley created disciples – encouraging us to find a local church community, fostering a personal spirituality, developing deep Christian friendships, and exploring the implications of my faith.  Most of my friends from Wesley took a year or more to volunteer or live in intentional Christian community.  Today, most of the alumni I know are clergy, lay leaders, non-profit workers, social services providers, and are raising up a new generation of faithful disciples.

When I was in college, I thought Wesley was doing something revolutionary.  The community certainly articulated its faith a little differently than my home churches had.  But more than that, we created an intimate, trusting, challenging space that fed me and informed my life path.  As I thought about that experience and the experience of the Canterbury students at Williams & Mary, campus ministry does exactly what Church does – or should do.  We are forming people into faithful disciples, who want to learn and grow in their faith, who want to find ways to serve God and live out their baptismal covenant, who want to develop the deep bonds of Christian community, and who want to have some fun while they are at it!

As a pastor, I often get caught up in the programmatic and administrative work of Church.  I want to create a community that offers the things necessary to produce faithful disciples.  What last night reminded me of is that I need to remember to look around and enjoy what we are creating too.  If you have been looking for a community that can help you find meaning and purpose, can help you grow in unexpected ways, can help you connect with others on the spiritual journey, and can embolden you to live a life full of the love of Christ, come join us at Hickory Neck.  And if you are already a member, invite a friend into this rich experience.  There is good news to share!