Sermon – Luke 2.1-14, CE, YC, December 24, 2018

Tags

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

One of the things I love about Christmas are Christmas movies.  I know we all have our favorites, and some are related to our generation.  My two favorites are The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (the original, not the Jim Carey one) and Home Alone.  What is fun about Christmas movies is we watch them over and over again because we like something about their message.  The movies teach us something.

This year, I introduced my younger daughter to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  She was fascinated by the movie, asking all sorts of questions – why they play bad music when the Grinch is around, why he stole all their presents, and why he hits his dog.  But the question she asks most frequently has been about the Grinch’s heart.  For those of you not familiar with the story, the Grinch tries to ruin Christmas for Whoville by stealing all their presents, decorations, and feast items.  But when Whoville does not cry and wail about all that is lost, and instead returns to the town center to sing as a community, without their “stuff,” the Grinch’s heart is strangely warmed, growing three times the size the heart was.  My daughter keeps asking me about the Grinch’s growing heart, and her questions have allowed us to talk about what Christmas is really about, and why someone’s heart might grow.

Every year we watch our favorite Christmas movies and cartoons because we enjoy revisiting the lessons the movies teach us.  But what is interesting about those movies is, over time, the lesson the movie teaches us takes on new meaning.  We meet new Grinches over our lifetime – or sometimes we become them!  We get to know presumably creepy or scary neighbors who we eventually learn are beautiful human beings.  We experience Christmases where everything goes wrong, but we find joy in the unexpected.  We know part of what the story is teaching us, but as we age and mature, the movies speak to us in new and fresh ways.

We tell the story of Jesus’ birth every single Christmas for a similar reason.  We tell the same story every year because God did this amazing thing.  God is all powerful, and conceivably could do anything God wants – and has:  from kicking Adam and Eve out of the garden, to flooding the earth, to cursing generations for one person’s sins.   God can rule and govern and do anything God wants, and yet the one thing God does is become human.  God becoming incarnate is such an amazing thing that when we say the Creed, many people bow or genuflect during the part of the Creed that talks about God becoming incarnate from the Virgin Mary, being made man.  Becoming human is God’s ultimate expression of God’s lovingkindness, that hesed, we have been talking a lot about lately.  Becoming incarnate is the way God shows God’s love for us.

I am a part of group that is creating a kindness initiative in 2019 in the Greater Williamsburg area.  We will be encouraging the faith community, business community, local schools, and nonprofits to engage in acts of kindness, with the ultimate goal of making Greater Williamsburg the next community of kindness.  I like the initiative because I know doing acts of kindness helps me get a small glimpse into God’s lovingkindness; doing acts of kindness helps me honor God, and embody God to others.  When we talk about shining Christ’s light in the world, or being Jesus to others, we are often talking about doing acts of kindness.  The ultimate form of flattery or honoring someone else is when we do acts of kindness.  When we, as persons of faith, do acts of kindness, we honor God by imitating God’s lovingkindness.  Any of you who has a sibling knows that siblings often copy what we do.  How many times have you heard the complaint, “He’s copying me!” or “She’s keeps stealing my clothes.”?  The reasons our siblings do this, besides to annoy us, is because they want to be like us – they want to honor us by imitating us – just like we imitate God.  Of course, they would never admit that reality to your face, but the truth is, imitation is the best form of flattery.

Tonight, we tell the story of Mary and Joseph, of innkeepers and registrations, of shepherds and angels because we love the story.  The story makes us feel safe, loved, and reassured.  And sometimes we really need opportunities to feel good about life, ourselves, and our God.  But we also tell the story because the story is formative – the story shapes who we are and how we behave.  Over the years, different parts of the story touch us, and as we grow and change, the lesson grows and changes.  So we listen to the story to remember who we have been and who we are.  But we also listen to this familiar story to remind us of what we will do tomorrow.  This story invites us to share God’s lovingkindness like the shepherds.  This story invites us to ponder God’s amazing love like Mary.  This story invites us to sing loudly like the angels, shouting our love for God and the world like an army of kindness.  I cannot wait to learn what hearing the story this year leads you to do in the days, weeks, and months to come!  May this favored story not just be a story of comfort, but also a story of action.  Amen.

Advertisements

Homily – Luke 2.8-20, Blue Christmas, December 21, 2018

Tags

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

One of the Christmas songs we do not sing tonight is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”  Up until this year, I was mostly familiar with the first verse, which says, “Peace on the earth, good will to men,” and “The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.”  Those words have always felt more like an aspiration than my reality.  I do not know about you, but the holidays are rarely a time of stillness and peace for me.

But this year, I stumbled on a verse of this song that is not in our hymnal.  The verse says, “And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow; look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!”

One of the challenges about Christmas is that we can sometimes lose our place.  When we listen to the old carols, we either hear songs of peaceful silence or we hear songs of beautiful, glorious praise.  The same is true of our secular experiences of Christmas.  We are filled with retouched nostalgic memories, with songs that tell us we should be rockin’ around Christmas trees, or cozying up with loved ones.  But sometimes Christmas is none of those things.  Instead Christmas is a time when the gap between our reality and the projection of all the things we should be feeling grows ever wider.

I think that is why I was captivated by this extra verse of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”  “And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow; look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!”  Suddenly, the otherworldliness of the angels are there for us too.  Whether life feels like a crushing load, whether your daily toil is bringing you down, or whether you are just weary, the song invites us rest by the weary road – because the angels have a song for us too.

I used to serve at a church where Christmas was the pinnacle of events.  Families would wear evening gowns and tuxedos to church, they would send their servants to reserve rows of seats, and the coat rack was full of fur coats.  Christmas was another soiree in their perfectly formed lives, and church was host of their glamorous party.  But what always amused me about that experience was the contrast between their polished, perfect lives, and the rustic, imperfect story of the angels and shepherds.  I wondered if they understood the ironic contrast of their experience and scripture’s experience.  What did they know of being crushed beneath life’s load, the toil of taking painful, slow steps, and the weary road?

Not until many years later did I realize that the weariness of life can infect anyone.  Those in tuxedos and evening gowns were struggling with broken marriages, estranged family members, and the grief of death as much as someone gathered in a candlelit historic chapel.  Those whose servants went to reserve a seat in church were just as lonely, unfulfilled, and afraid as those who are servants.  Those whose fur coats lined the coat racks were experiencing a sense of failure, a lack of fulfillment, and a longing for meaning as much as someone slipping quietly into a service like tonight.  Weariness affects the donkey who carries a pregnant Mary; the shepherds who keep watch all night; the innkeeper who feels pulled in many directions with no vacancies to accommodate need; with Josephs who are on a path they did not choose, but who feel obligated to be faithful; and with Marys who say yes and hold hope, even though the dread of impending suffering is almost palpable.[i]

You see the angels came not to a perfect world, to a perfect people, delivering perfectly good news.  The angles came to a weary world, with weary people, delivering good news that would not dismiss our weariness, but relieve our weariness.  That is why I love this service so much.  I love our Blue Christmas service because Christmas is all about a wearied people, with a crushing load, with painful steps, welcoming a savior who gives us hope that we will not be weary forever, that God will walk our weary roads alongside us.

On this night, I share this blessing for all of us:  “May the world slow down enough this season for you to catch a glimpse of a star in the sky and a light on the horizon.  May the earth pause enough for you to catch the faint sound of a baby’s cry on the wind and the song of the angels through the trees.  May the slow time of Christmas night bring joy to you, and hope, and light, and more than anything else, rest to your waiting spirit.  All you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow; look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!”[ii]  Amen.

[i] Melissa Bills, “All This Weary World,” December 18, 2018, as found at https://youngclergywomen.org/all-this-weary-world/ on December 18, 2018.

[ii] Bills.

God’s Gifts in the Chaos…

Tags

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

Every December since our elder child was about two or three years old, the same thing happens.  The anticipation of Christmas turns our children into possessed creatures.  They argue more, act out in school, whine at the drop of a hat, and generally become entirely unpleasant to be around.  No matter how much I try to minimize the excitement of Christmas, the buzz around them is unavoidable, and, ergo, crazy behavior.  I found myself so frustrated the other day with the constant effort to reign them in that I had the distinct thought, “I just wish Christmas was over already!”

But I soon as had the thought, I knew I did not mean it.  You see, despite the mayhem of the season, in these last days of Advent, there are still sacred moments everywhere.  As we read our Advent devotional this week, one of the questions was, “Who are you praying for this Advent.”  My younger daughter immediately said, “I want to pray for all dead people.”  “Oh,” I said, “like whom?”  “Like MeeMaw,” she said.  And despite the fact that they nearly broke half the ornaments that came out of the ornament box, now, every morning, both girls rush to the tree to plug in the lights and find the ornaments that play Christmas tunes or funny sounds, twirling around in their nightgowns to the sounds.  And last week, as they had their Christmas dance performances, I teared up watching them, remembering how very special dance had been to me growing up.

The same can be true in any season.  Whether we are putting our heads down, trying to finish one more project, or absorbed in technology for extended periods of time, or simply fixated on our endless to-do lists, we can achieve a lot, but miss life along the way.  Fortunately, we are blessed with a God who is continually trying to get our attention anyway – who is relentless in pursuing relationship with us.  In these last days of Advent, God invites us to take a deep breath, lift up our heads, and open our eyes to the beauty of the sacred all around us.

Hickory Neck offers us the opportunity to do that over the next several days.  Whether you come to our Blue Christmas service, our last Advent liturgies, Christmas Eve services, or the service on Christmas Day, there will be multiple times to see glimpse of the sacred all around you – ways in which the manger is a window into the greater redemptive work God is doing in the world.  Whether it’s with an encouraging word from our Blue Christmas service, the sharing of memories at an upcoming funeral, or the wedding vows that one couple will renew on Christmas Day (sixty years later!), what we learn is that in the chaos of life, God is gifting us sacred gifts in tiny, momentous ways.  Today, I invite you to receive God’s gifts among the chaos.

Sermon – Luke 4.7-18, A3, YC, December 16, 2018

Tags

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

Today we are honoring the beginning of Bob Gay’s diaconal ministry with Hickory Neck.  We do not arrive at this day lightly.  Bob and his family had to discern if coming out of retirement was what God was calling him to do.  Bob had to confirm that call with church leaders, church members, and Diocesan staff.  Bob had to prayerfully consider what a diaconal ministry at Hickory Neck would look like and how that ministry might be different than at other churches.  And today, Bob and our community make commitments to not only support his call, but also recommit to our own senses of call.  Though our celebration of Bob’s ministry may feel brief in relation to all we do today, the gravity of what we do in and through Bob is serious.

Although I am thrilled to honor Bob’s new ministry among us, sometimes these types of days can leave us with the impression that “calling,” is something that happens to those with collars – people are called to be priests, deacons, and bishops.  Sometimes we are willing to expand the notion of calling to certain helping professionals – people are called to be nurses, social workers, fire fighters, and teachers.  But we get a little tripped up imagining being called to be other things – a lawyer, an engineer, a stay-at-home parent, an investment banker, or a business owner.  And when we are younger, we almost never hear people saying we are called to be a student, a babysitter, a friend, or a sibling.  We might think we are good at some of those things, or we enjoy those jobs or roles, but we do not always say we are “called” to do them.

I met a retired priest once, and he said his greatest joy in retirement was in helping parishioners experience God on Mondays.  In partnership with the clergy of his church, his “calling” in retirement was to set up what he called “Sunday-Monday Appointments” with church members.  He would go visit members of Church on Mondays in their places of employment and talk about where they see God in their everyday life – how they make the connection between what they do on Sundays and what they do on Mondays.  Those conversations are meant to help the parishioners name how they experience “calling” in their work place.  For some parishioners, that conversation is quite easy.  But for others, that conversation is much more difficult.  Many of them have never had a priest visit them at work, and they have certainly never prayed aloud at the end of a meeting at work.  When the retired priest asks them about their Sunday-Monday connection, sometimes he finds parishioners do not really have a connection.  Those two days feel very separate in their minds.

Part of what is challenging in claiming that we are “called” to a role outside of church is we feel intimidated declaring what God would want us to do outside of church.  We imagine something a bit like what happened to those around John the Baptist in our gospel lesson today.  We do not like the idea of being called a “brood of vipers.”  We do not like the idea of being told our ancestry does not matter – that being a descendant of Abraham does not hold sway with God.  We do not like hearing about repentance, or axes lying at the root of trees who do not bear fruit.  Perhaps if we had been one of those gathered around John the Baptist, we might have simply concluded that the whole baptism thing was not for us.  Baptized living sounds hard as John describes baptism.

But before we get too far down the path of defeatism, something interesting happens in our gospel story.  Instead of walking away with their heads hung low when John starts calling them broods of vipers, the crowd asks a question, “What then should we do?”  After being called broods of vipers, you might expect the eccentric John to tell them to sell all their possessions, eat insects, and live in rags.  Instead, John says something quite simple, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Basically, John says, share your stuff when you have more than you need.  That is all:  share your stuff.  We can tell John’s answer is pretty benign because the tax collectors jump in, “Teacher, what should we do?”  They ask because although the others get off pretty easy, the tax collectors know they are in a bit of hot water, resembling broods of vipers more than they might like to admit.  But John is mild again, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  In other words, John says, “Just do your job fairly.”  The soldiers are emboldened now too, asking, “And we, what should we do?”  John gives them an easy out too, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  That one is pretty basic too:  appreciate what you have, and don’t be a bully.

What scholar David Lose appreciates “is how mundane, if not downright obvious, John’s admonition proves.  I mean, this is not rocket-science; indeed, [John’s admonition] is the logic of the classroom and playground most of us first heard in kindergarten: share, be fair, don’t bully.  But if somewhat obvious, [John’s admonition] is at least also within their reach.  John does not tell the crowds to join him out in the wilderness, he does not ask the tax-collectors to abandon or betray Rome, and he does not urge soldiers to a life of pacifism.  Instead, he points them to the very places in which they already live and work, love and laugh, struggle and strive, and suggests that these places are precisely where God calls them to be, where God is at work in them and through them for the sake of the world.”[i]

This month in our Sunday Forum series we are talking about our spiritual gifts.  We are hearing diverse voices talk about what gifts each of us have and how we can use those gifts in our various callings.  The idea is not simply to discover what gifts we have so that we can use them in the world; the idea is also to name how we are already using our gifts in the world, and to understand the use of those gifts out in the world and within this community as our calling.  You know as well as I do that some of us are called to teach children, some to read scripture in worship, some to advise the church about financial decisions, some to plan parties, and others to find and stop leaks in water pipes.  And some of us are not called to do any of those things.  But each of us has spiritual gifts unique to ourselves, and each of us are invited to use those gifts in the church and the world.  Those spiritual gifts can be as simple as the fidelity of a parent or spouse, the attentiveness of a friend, the hard work of an employee, the honesty of an employer, the steadfastness of a volunteer, the generosity of participating in an outreach ministry, or the compassion of visiting the sick or homebound.[ii]

What Bob’s new ministry and John’s invitation in our gospel lesson today do is not send us home thinking we must be ordained or be some crazy wilderness prophet to be faithful to God and live out our calling.  What we do liturgically and hear scripturally today is remember that the connection from Sunday to Monday matters.  The things we do in our everyday lives are opportunities to stop seeing work, home, school, and community as simply work, home, school, and community, but instead as our mission field – as the places where we live out the calling we discern here on Sundays.  And if we are not certain what that calling is, the crowd surrounding John encourage us to ask the same question they ask, “And me, what should I do?”  I promise the answer will not be overwhelming.  The answer will be simple:  show God’s loving-kindness in the workplace, at home, at school, and in the community; be Christ’s light in the grocery store, on the playground, with your loved one, and with the stranger; share the Holy Spirit’s love while driving, while emailing, while eating, and while playing on a team.  Our job each Sunday is to keep asking, “And me, what should I do?” and then trust on Monday the answer will be unique to our gifts, within our reach, and fulfilling beyond measure.  Amen.

[i] David Lose, “Advent 3C:  Beyond Scolding,” December 11, 2018, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2018/12/advent-3-c-beyond-scolding/ on December 14, 2018.

[ii] Lose.

On Parenting Myths and Grace…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

This week, my sabbath and a snow day coincided, meaning the whole family was home.  My sabbath is usually the day I take care of household stuff – cleaning, errands, etc.  But I knew the kids would not patiently handle that as well.  So, the girls and I suited up, and off we went into the snow.  I confess I used some of the time to dig out my car, but the rest of the time we spent building a snowwoman and sledding down a neighborhood hill.  Several other kids joined us, and we found ourselves laughing and having a truly fun morning.  We topped off the morning with yummy grilled cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate.  Later that evening, my younger daughter needed to go to dance class, so the three of us headed over together and the older one played while I read a book.  As we were leaving, totally unprompted, the older daughter said a heartfelt thank you for being able to come and play.

The story could end there, and you might imagine that our day, and, in fact, parenting in general, is a wonderfully blissful experience of fun, respect, and mutuality.  When I look at most parents, that is the impression I get of their experience of parenting:  that parenting is the most wonderful thing in their lives, bringing them great fulfillment, joy, and purpose.  And some days, parenting is that for me.  But most days, parenting is hard.  At the end of that idyllic Monday, children melted down, said hurtful, disrespectful things, and refused to follow instructions.  What had been a cooperative day became a battle-of-wills evening.  And more days are like that evening than like that morning.

As I have been reflecting on that contrast this week, I realized I could either feel deflated, focusing on the negative behavior, feeling like a failure of a parent, wondering why I cannot seem to sustain the more joyful moments; or, I could choose to hold fast to the joy of the day, letting the negative have less power.  Maybe other parents do that more naturally, or maybe I am just to too prone to pessimism, but it was clear as my children fell to sleep, it was my choice how I would remember the day – and how I would say goodnight to the children.

I imagine God has similar challenges with us.  Though I am my toughest critic, I trust that God is much more inclined to see my goodness than I ever am.  I trust that God remembers everyday how when God created humankind, God said it was very good.  I trust that God sees little wonderful things we do even when we do not realize we are doing them.  And if God has that much grace with us, perhaps we can share that grace with others – in the grocery line that stalls when the checker has to page the manager, with the friend who is complaining…again, and during the doctor’s office wait that is way too long.  And if you are a parent who is struggling with one more temper tantrum or sassy comment, perhaps you can also see your child with God’s grace, remembering the child is just trying to develop into an independent, competent, confident person – which is really hard when you are tired, immature, and physically and emotionally incapable of being what you want to be right now.  We know how hard it is because we need that same grace from God.  Everyday.  Hang in there, everyone!  You can do this.  Give yourself a break.  And give those kids, strangers, neighbors, and friends a break too.  We all need it this week.

On Relationships and Lunch…

Tags

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

Today we are hosting our second Retiree Lunch with the Rector at Hickory Neck Episcopal Church.  We kicked off this new event last month.  I threw together the event rather quickly, and expected only 10-15 people to show.  When RSVPs hit 60, I was floored – and ever so grateful for our Parish Life Committee who offered to make some more batches of chili, since my one or two Crock Pots would no longer suffice.  The idea for the lunches came out of my annual review with our Personnel Committee.  They were concerned about longtime and older parishioners feeling a sense of connectivity with me and with one another.  No need for a program, worship service, or class; just some time for all of us to be together.

As I thought about the feedback initially, I was not entirely convinced.  Surely gathering that many people was a lost opportunity for formation or enrichment.  But the more I thought about the feedback, the more I could understand the feedback.  One of the dangers of thinking Sunday worship is sufficient for connectivity is realizing how little personal relationship building happens.  Sure, the liturgy and shared experience of reflecting on scripture and sharing the meal is a central part of shaping our identity.  But the handshake, and the “Everything’s fine!” I get in the receiving line is hardly conducive to relationship building.  Some times you need to just spend time together, and that is what our lunches are trying to do.

I am in the midst of reading Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last.  He argues relationships are core to healthy systems.  Setting visions, doing tasks, and sharing responsibility is great, but in order to get anything done, the members of the system need to be in relationship – to spend time together, simply getting to know each other.  He uses the example of the shift in Congress that happened under Newt Gingrich.  It used to be that Congress members lived in DC, played sports together, ate together, and got to know each other’s families, no matter party differences.  But the shift that happened under Gingrich meant more of a focus on spending time back in the home districts for fundraising.  Once the members weren’t spending time together, they gradually began to be more divided, rallying against “the enemy” – the members of the other party with whom they had little to no relationship.  The absence of relationship led to the absence of collaboration, respect, and productivity – a pattern that continues today.

For some, Retirees with the Rector may feel like a simple lunch.  For me, they feel like a dramatic statement about who and how we are going to be as a community.  We are going to make time to be together – to talk to church members from other services whom we rarely, if ever, see.  We are going to sit with parishioners who have very different political opinions from us and talk about the awesome apple pie someone made.  We are going to share stories, build camaraderie, and reconnect with who we are.  And hopefully we will find ways to take that model beyond our doors.

Who do you need to have lunch with today?  What relationships need tending, conversations need to be had, and laughter needs to be shared?  I suspect that that when we gather with others, with the sole intention of relating, we might find that God is working among us for transformation, reconciliation, and inspiration!

Homily – Advent L&C, A1, YC, December 2, 2018

Tags

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

This school year, our younger daughter’s preschool offers a weekly yoga class.  She has shown me all sorts of fun poses, but my favorite part is the yoga breathing she is learning.  The first time she showed me, I was so excited.  I have wanted to give my children the gift of cleansing breathing since they were born.  That same breathing had gotten me through each pregnancy in my prenatal yoga classes.  I knew how restorative that kind of breathing could be.  But I was not sure the practice would stick – I mean, how many mellow, breath-controlled preschoolers do you know?  So, imagine my surprise a few weeks ago, when my daughter was in the midst of an epic ramp up and all of a sudden, she stopped and said, “Wait!”  I froze, and watched her close her eyes, take in a deep breath, and slowly let the breath out.  “Do you want to do another one?” I tentatively asked, afraid to spoil the magical moment.  She closed her eyes again, drew in a slow breath, and let the breath back out.  She opened her eyes and smiled at me.  Temper tantrum and tension gone, a renewed, calmed child remained.

I do not know about you, but I find myself longing for the deep calming breaths that Advent can offer us too.  Normally, we as a country take a sacred moment at Thanksgiving, gathering with loved ones, sharing a meal, saying prayers of Thanksgiving.  But we only get the one day – sometimes only a half-day.  Because the retail industry wants us to forget about Thanksgiving, and jump right into Christmas shopping.  They lure us in with sales and deals, and they know we either need to occupy all those loved ones who came into town – or we need to escape them, and so we hit the pavement, get bombarded with Christmas tunes, see trees and towns already decorated, and our minds start to cloud with a huge, percolating to-do list.

But this year, with Thanksgiving earlier in November, we got an extra week – an extra Sunday that was not Advent 1, an extra week before we even entered December, and an extra week to breathe before the chaos really begins.  Our secular calendar seems to finally be in sync with our liturgical calendar – the calendar that tells us to use this season of Advent as a time, not of preparing the hearth, distributing the gifts, and attending the parties, but instead, preparing our hearts, distributing acts of grace, and attending the path leading to the Christ Child.  The secular calendar seems to be inviting us to do the same thing the liturgical calendar invites us to do – to take a breath, to ground ourselves, to breathe in some peace.

That is why we start Advent today with Lessons and Carols.  Lessons and Carols is a service different from other Sundays.  We do not introduce the lessons in the same way.  We hear more music.  We squeeze in moments of silence.  We do not receive the holy meal.  The church offers us this totally different service as a way of saying this season is totally different.  And then, the service walks us through all the ways this season is different.  This season is not just baby Jesus in a manger.  This season is remembering Adam and Eve’s sinfulness, remembering the promises God makes over and over to redeem God’s people, remembering the amazing, terrifying moment when a baby in a womb was the worst and best thing to ever happen, and then to remember that in the child we are anticipating, the kingdom of God comes near.  In order to even consider that grand, sweeping narrative, we have to let go of some things – let go of how we always do things so that we can be graced with the way God is doing things.

That is my hope for you this Advent season.  That you might take a cue from the extra week you just received from the secular calendar and use that week as your grounding for a calmer, more intentional, more life-giving, breathing season.  Breathe in the presence of our God, and breathe out the self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-pity.  Breathe in the coming of the Christ Child, and breathe out the busyness, consumerism, and forced good cheer.  Breathe in the calming, unifying Holy Spirit, and breathe out the sins, disrespect, hurtfulness of yesterday.  You might open your eyes and realize the gift of Advent is way better than any gift you will get this Christmas.  Amen.

On Leading with Kindness…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

Recently I have been feeling pretty defeated about the ways we have been treating one another in our country.  It happens in all sorts of ways.  It happens in the tribalism in politics that makes us unable to even listen to alternate perspectives or work toward respectful compromise.  It happens in the ways in which we give ourselves permission to believe stereotypes instead of getting to know individuals.  It happens in the ways in which truth is distorted and disregarded.  It even happens in our wonderful hometown, when people submit hateful, anonymous comments in what our local paper calls “The Last Word.”

I think that is why I have been finding such joy in a new endeavor here in this same hometown.  I am a part of the LEAD Greater Williamsburg program, a community immersion program that provides opportunities for recognized and emergent leaders to collaborate on issues of importance to the region, run through the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance.  The issue that our class is working on is kindness.  I know that may sound simple or even too ephemeral, but the more we work on helping the Greater Williamsburg Area become the next Community of Kindness, the more excited I become.

The program will launch on February 1, 2019, but already I am seeing the power of kindness.  First, the LEAD with Kindness program is already uncovering all kinds of efforts by schools, businesses, and non-profit organizations to promote kindness.  Just learning about these efforts has lifted some of that defeatedness I had been feeling.  But it has not stopped there.  The more we talk about promoting, developing, and honoring kindness, the more I have started seeing kindness.  I see it in my parishioners at Hickory Neck, I see it in my family members, and I even see it in that “Last Word” column in the paper.  And the more I see kindness, the more inspired I become to live into kindness – in fact, the more I see the loving-kindness, or hesed, of our God in others.

You will be hearing a lot more from me about this kindness project, my dreams for seeing the Greater Williamsburg area become the next Community of Kindness, and our church’s role in the movement.  But for now, I invite you to try a few things.  First, put on your “kindness glasses,” and just start looking around you for acts of kindness you see every day.  Two, acknowledge the kindness you see around you – whether it’s a high five, a pat on the back, or even a note about how someone’s kindness inspired you.  And three, perform one act of kindness today.  It does not have to be anything grandiose.  Just one small act of kindness.  And then let me know about it.  Let’s let God’s loving-kindness take root in us, transforming our community, our region, and maybe even the world!

Sermon – 1 Sam 1.4-20, 2.1-10, P28, YB, November 18, 2018

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

A little over a year ago, I was talking to a parishioner about my sermon, and he said to me, “Oh yeah, as soon as I heard them talking about a woman in the lessons, I knew that would be what you preached on!”  At first I laughed, because he was not wrong.  In general, I am often drawn to stories of women in scripture.  But the more I thought about his comment, the more I wondered why I am drawn to them.  I suspect most people would assume I am drawn to women in scripture because I am a woman.  There is probably some truth to that assumption.  But the bigger reason I am drawn to women in scripture is because when women are featured in scripture (which is infrequently, and rarely with a name attached), something notable happens.  I am not necessarily drawn to those stories because of a sense of camaraderie; instead, I am drawn to those stories because they are a signal – a signal that we should perk up and listen to what dramatic thing is going to happen.

The last few weeks two women have done that for us:  last week, Ruth captured our imagination, and this week, Hannah captures our attention.  The women capture our attention for different reasons.  Ruth is a loyal daughter-in-law, who sacrifices everything to follow Naomi.  She endures hardship, discrimination, and uncertainty about her future before her life settles into some sense of normalcy.  Hannah, on the other hand struggles with fertility.  For any families who have been through the journey of infertility, Hannah’s story probably rips at the tenuously healed hole left in your heart.  If you have known infertility, then you probably have known people like the brutal second wife, the clumsy, loving husband, and the clueless priest.  For those familiar with grief work, the people in Hannah’s life evoke a basic prayer, “God deliver me from well-meaning friends.”[i]

Now, I could spend all day talking about Hannah’s story this week because her story evokes so many things in us:  the grief and trauma of infertility, the pain of those who taunt us, the frustration of misguided counsel, what prayer means and what we believe about unanswered prayers, and even the sacrifices we make with children.  But this week, something more macrocosmic has been tugging at me.  You see, despite the heart-wrenching, relatable story of Hannah, something much bigger comes out of her story.  The miracle child she is given she dedicates to God.  After all her suffering and pain, and although God restores her to value within the community through her baby boy, Hannah gives Samuel away. We know she does this because she bargained with God to have a child in the first place.  But what is more significant is her child is not just a baby boy.  Samuel is one of the most prominent figures in scripture.  Samuel is the last judge of Israel, who helps God shepherd in the era of the kings.[ii]  And even more prominently, the important king he anoints is the legendary King David.

The same thing happened to Ruth last week.  After her dramatic tale, we learn that she is also blessed with a baby boy, who we learn at the end of the book will become the grandfather of (you guessed it!) King David.  So in the course of two weeks, we meet the great-grandmother of King David and the mother of Samuel, the judge who will anoint King David.  The two women are not contemporaries, but they bear two of the most prominent men in Holy Scripture.

So you may be sitting there thinking, “Okay, we have two stories of two women who produced two important figures in Scripture.  Big deal!”  But that is just it:  this is a very big deal.  Holy Scripture could have started both David and Samuel’s stories differently.  They could have both started with stories that began, “Once upon a time there was a man named…”  But neither of their stories start that way.  Through Ruth’s story and Hannah’s story we learn that their beginning – in fact, sometimes their grandfather’s beginning, matters.  The tales of these two women are not just idle tales.  They are stories with implications that impact generations.

For Ruth, we need to know that David is descendant from Ruth for a few reasons.  One, David’s birth from a foreigner (and not just any foreigner, but the detested Moabites!), tells us that not only is our king from an impure lineage – in fact our Messiah, Jesus Christ, comes from that same lineage.  Later, when we see Jesus’ ministry expanding to all people, we begin to see the expansion not just one of generosity – but based in Jesus’ very genealogy.  Second, Ruth’s parentage is important not just because she is an outsider.  Her parentage is important because she is one of the most righteous, faithful, loyal, self-sacrificial exhibitors of loving-kindness we meet in scripture.  In fact, her loving-kindness, her hesed, is the akin to the loving-kindness embodied by and attributed to God.

For Hannah, we need to know that Samuel comes out of a place of barrenness. You see, by being the last of the judges, he finds the entire people of Israel are in a place of barrenness.  The weight of foreign powers is upon them, they feel a sense of anxiety and abandonment by God, and they long for relief.  Samuel offers them the same relief he offered his mother Hannah.  Likewise, the monarchy being born in such emotion and in such surrender to God is significant.  Samuel’s birth “springs from a place of trust, a place of humility, even a place of mystical union.”[iii]  The conditions surrounding Samuel’s birth will shape the tenor of the entire monarchy.

But perhaps more significantly, the stories of these two women are mirrored in stories we will hear later in Advent.  Elizabeth also shepherds in a messenger of God – John the Baptist.  She bears John in her old age.  And just like faithful Ruth, faithful Mary will bear the child of Jesus – a child descendant from Ruth.  And what’s more, as we heard the canticle of Hannah today, praising God for the revolutionary thing God is doing through Samuel’s birth, so Mary will sing a song almost identical to Hannah’s, proclaiming the revolutionary thing God is doing through Jesus’ birth.

So why have we walked through these women’s stories?  Because our stories matter.  The journey we walk, the suffering we face, the challenges we overcome, the people we encounter, the life we stumble our way through matters.  All of those things not only shape who we are, but they also shape our understanding of God.  That same story also shapes what God does through us.  So when we encounter the person whose parents divorced at the same time in life as our parents divorced, we find ourselves in a place to uniquely witness God’s love.  When we encounter that person who was infertile or lost a pregnancy like we did, we find ourselves in a place to uniquely witness God’s love.  When we encounter that person who lost a parent or a spouse or a child too soon, we find ourselves in a place to uniquely witness God’s love.  Our story matters in the ways in which our story can transforms someone else’s story – and even God’s story here on earth.

But our story matters on an even broader level.  In Hannah’s song or canticle we heard today, and in Mary’s canticle we will hear in late Advent, we see how God transforms stories into global action.  Their canticles are songs of social upheaval, songs of justice.  Both talk about how the poor are raised up and the rich are sent away empty.  Both talk about how the powerless are raised up to power, and the barren are made prolific.  Just a few weeks ago, I talked with our youth about how voting is a Christian action – that our votes as persons of faith reflect our understanding of how the kingdom of God can be enacted on earth.  We acknowledged that two Christians might vote quite differently, but the point is that God is not absent from public life, from justice, and from peace.  Our stories help us transform the world from a place of anger, division, and mistrust, to a place of respect, dignity, and truth.

I do not know what God is doing in your story.  I do not know how God is using you to affect those around you or make an impact more broadly.  But what I do know is that God intends you for goodness and invites you to step into that goodness.  We know that God does not act in our lives meekly:  of the four women we talked about today, we saw barrenness, suffering, isolation, misjudgment, shame, and societal displacement.  But through those dramatic stories, God acted dramatically.  I suspect God can do powerful things through us too when we let God work through our story.  Amen.

[i] Martin B. Copenhaver, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 292.

[ii] Thomas D. Parker, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 296.

[iii] Marcia Mount Shoop, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 292.

On Balance and Harmony…

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

I recently visited the William & Mary Wellness Center for a presentation on how they help students create a culture of wellness.  After the presentation, someone asked about how to create work-life balance.  The presenter said the Wellness Center does not teach work-life balance, because work-life balance is a myth – something that can never be achieved because we can never perfectly balance our work life and our personal life.  He went a step further to suggest that attempting to achieve work-life balance is quite unhealthy because it places pressure upon us in each arena.  One will never spend an equal amount of time in either arena, and attempts to create a one-for-one balance only create more stress and anxiety.

Instead, what he teaches is work-life harmony.  He knows that we will never achieve, and arguably should never desire, a balance of the two arenas.  But the two arenas can work in harmony in such a way to create a more happy, healthy lifestyle.  As an example, the presenter talked about an orchestra.  If you tried to work on balance within an orchestra, every instrument would sound equally, making for a horrible racket.  But if each instrument plays in harmony with one another – well, then you have a masterpiece!

I have been wondering if the same might be true with our spiritual life.  Now I will be the first admit, I would love to see my parishioners at church every Sunday – partially because I know how healing and life-giving communal worship can be, but also partially because I just like my parishioners so much.  Church is more fun when everyone is there.  But using the harmony model, I think our spiritual life needs a sense of harmony too.  We need to create space for worship, learning, service, and outreach.  We need to find time for fellowship, formation, and evangelism.  We need to be sure we are both being fed and feeding others at church.  But we need to do that in a way that creates harmony in our lives.

Now I imagine some of you are thinking, “Awesome, my rector just said I don’t have to come to church as much so that my life is more in harmony.”  And maybe that is true for you.  But I suspect that the opposite may be true.  My guess is that for many of us, our spiritual life is not in harmony with the rest of life:  we aren’t finding time for formation, for worship, or for service.  The good news is that I am not suggesting you find balance – just harmony.  I remember complaining once to my Spiritual Director that with young children and a busy work life and a desire to be present to my husband, my prayer life was suffering – I just wasn’t praying like I used to.  Gracefully, he suggested that I shouldn’t worry about praying in a certain way – as if only praying the Daily Office everyday is real prayer.  He suggested something much more harmonious in life.  “Perhaps at this stage of life, the best you can expect is a prayer spoken at a stop light, or an exhausted thank you before drifting off to sleep.”  We all struggle with spiritual harmony.  I wonder what solutions are working for you today.  How are you finding harmony with work, life, and God?