On Glimpses of Goodness…

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Photo credit:  https://bscomt.org/donate/community-fall-festival/

This weekend our parish is holding its Annual Fall Festival.  I look forward to the event every year because it showcases all the wonderful things about our parish.  All the proceeds of the Festival are used to support outreach ministries in our community.  The Festival is a great way for us to share our property with the community – from time for fellowship and yummy food, to fun activities for children and families, to vendors being able to display their wares, to being able to get an in-depth tour of our historic chapel.  Our “Attic Treasures” section is a wonderful example of being good stewards of creation – allowing one person’s underused items to find new life with someone else (plus all the unpurchased goods get donated to a local ministry).  Our “Amazin’ Grazin’” section allows neighbors to have access to home-baked goods – a privilege that is sometimes lost in this fast-paced, pre-packaged world of consumption.  Even our silent auction is a wonderful example of local businesses and individuals donating their services to benefit the great community.  And that does not even touch the volunteer labor that goes into this one day – both before, during, and after.

If you are paying attention on Saturday, you will learn that Hickory Neck is a community that cares.  We care about our neighbors in need.  We care about children and families, and creating safe, fun places for them.  We care about partnerships and collaboration in the greater Williamsburg area.  We care about the environment, and using our creativity to enrich the earth.  We care about creating a space where a sense of home can be found.  We care about using our time, talent, and treasure to the glory of God.  We care about you.

So, yes, I will be out and about enjoying a festivities of our Fall Festival.  But more than that, I will be thrilled to show you a glimpse into the awesome community of Hickory Neck.  Come join us as we celebrate belonging, believing, and becoming.  The treasure you leave with will be more than just what you purchase; it will be a sense that, for a moment, you are a part of Hickory Neck too.  And if you like how that feels, then come join us again on any given Sunday.  I promise you’ll see more of the same!

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On Responding to the Gospel…

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Photo credit:  http://theconversation.com/giving-the-gift-of-giving-why-children-should-be-taught-philanthropy-13991

This past Sunday we had a visitor at church from out of town.  We were kicking of stewardship season, a time when we talk about our financial giving to the church in preparation for the financial pledges we make for the coming year.  The visitor was an Episcopalian, and no stranger to stewardship in the church.  As he departed he said, “That was a good sermon, by the way…you know, for a stewardship sermon.”

I laughed heartily, and appreciated his honesty.  I suspect he has heard many a stewardship sermon.  As I thought about his feedback, I realized how separate “stewardship season” can feel from other times – how you can pinpoint a stewardship sermon from a regular sermon.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized stewardship sermons should feel more like the norm than the exception of October every year.  Everything we do in church is tied to our financial giving.  Our financial giving is simply the “so what?” of every experience we have in church.

This month we are in the midst of stewardship parties, having engaging conversations about our experiences and dreams for Hickory Neck.  As a community, part of what we are hoping to help people realize is all that happens at Hickory Neck is tied to how we support our ministries with our treasure.  The dreams we have for the work God has given us to do need not only our time and talent – they need our treasure; and not just any treasure, but a treasure that says, “This community and this work is important to me – so important that I will put my resources back into our work to the glory of God.”

This Sunday, we have a fantastic guest preacher coming.  As I was preparing her for the services, I forewarned her that we would be in stewardship season, and she may want to consider that in her preparation.  She quickly responded, “Oh that’s okay.  Every sermon I preach is a stewardship sermon.  You can’t hear the Gospel without a response!”  I hope our guest preacher, our parties, our parishioner reflections, and the materials you have received are helping you consider how every week Jesus is asking for a response from you.  Our work this month is connecting our passion for this place with our financial support of this place.  I couldn’t be more excited to join you in that response!

Sermon – Mark 9.38-50, P21, YB, September 30, 2018

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This week we kickoff a season of stewardship called, “Blessed to Belong.”  You will be receiving packets of information as you leave today from our Stewardship Committee and you have also all been invited to a Stewardship party.  Several of those parties are coming up, but a few of us have already attended parties, and the conversations about belonging have been rich and engaging.  We are sharing stories of how we found a sense of belonging in this community, the ways in which our belonging here has blessed our lives, and the dreams we have to deepen those ties of belonging.  The conversations have already been life-giving to me, and I am looking forward to having those conversations with the rest of you.

But as I read our gospel text this week in preparation for today, I realized the text is pushing us a step further.  You see, when most of us talk about belonging to Hickory Neck, we often share our stories of personal belonging:  how we were welcomed, how we were cared for, and how our lives have become more blessed by this place.  That work is especially important as we think about our financial giving, because our sense of belonging impacts our giving.  We support the ministry of Hickory Neck because Hickory Neck is an important part of our lives.  We give generously because we have been generously blessed.  We increase our giving because we want that sense of belonging, identity, and purpose to continue for ourselves and generations to come.  We give out of a sense of personal investment, commitment, and benefit.

But our gospel lesson today challenges us to think about belonging in a way that is even bigger than us.  Often times, when we talk about our faith or our spiritual journey, we talk about our personal connection to Hickory Neck or to God:  how God has changed our lives, how Jesus has journeyed with us, how the Holy Spirit has led us out of dark places.  But our spiritual journey is not just about us – about our own personal walk with God.  Certainly our gospel lesson last week was about that.  Jesus called out the disciples for arguing about who was the best among them.  Our work this past week was about checking ourselves, making sure we do not become so self-focused that we forget what Jesus is trying to do through us.  Our work this past week has been about examining the self.

But this week, as the disciples journey on with Jesus, we realize the disciples have shifted from a self-centered mentality, to a group-centered mentality.  The disciples have basically shifted from wondering who among them will be the greatest disciple of all time, to how they as a group are the greatest community of disciples of all time.  The disciples discover an outsider casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  John proudly boasts to Jesus, “Don’t worry Jesus, we tried to stop him because he is not following us.”  In other words, this demon-caster did not belong to the inside group, or even follow behind the inside group, so he certainly could not proclaim to do anything in the name of Jesus.  He needs to belong to believe and to become.

I moved around a lot as a kid, and one of the things that I learned pretty quickly is that there are distinct groups, and belonging to one of them is a tricky endeavor.  There are the cool kids, whose belonging standards seem to be about fashion, looks, and behavior.  There are the smart kids, who are rarely confused as being fashionable, but whose knowledge can be intimidating.  There are the athletes, who have played more and with better teams than you can imagine.  There are the alternative kids, who seem define themselves as being the anti-all-the-other-groups group.   The list goes on and on.  What typically defines these groups is who is out:  who is not cool enough, smart enough, athletic enough, or anti-establishment enough.

The disciples are doing the exact same thing.  In a quest to gain importance, and in the face of Jesus’ rebuke last week, the disciples do more of the same.  They shift from arguing about who among them is the best to who outside of them should not be let inside the group.  The difference is subtle:  they are superficially following Jesus’ instruction to not compete for individual advancement, but they are totally disregarding Jesus’ point by seeking group superiority in the same way they were seeking individual superiority.

Jesus sighs deeply (or at least I imagine him doing so) and he tells them something simple, “whoever is not against us is for us.”  In other words, the disciples belong to Jesus and have incredible value.  But they are not the only ones who belong.  Even the guy who has no idea what he is doing but knows there is something special about this Jesus – so special he tries invoking his name – even that guy belongs to Jesus.  Jesus’ standards are pretty low – if you aren’t against him, you are for him.  Jesus casts a pretty wide net for belonging.  In fact, if we keep reading, we come to find out that even those who are against Jesus can be redeemed.  Look at Paul’s life and you can hear that old hymn coming back to you, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea…”  In Jesus’ eyes, there are few barriers to belonging – and even those can be broken down in time.

So what does this all mean for Hickory Neck and those warm, fuzzy feelings we have for this wonderful place and these beautiful people?  A few things.  The sense of belonging we feel here happens because generations of people have espoused Jesus’ words, “whoever is not against us is for us.”  This amazing community is amazing because people who belong here do not hoard their belonging or use their belonging as a weapon.  Instead, people give belonging away freely because they experienced belonging freely.  Just ask Bill Teale, and he will tell you how within weeks of joining Hickory Neck, he was considered “belonging” enough that he was given the position of chair of the Fall Festival – an event he had never attended!

The sense of belonging we feel is because we have adopted certain standards of behavior.  We are a community who will not get in your way because you do not have the right credentials; we know we may not have had the right credentials once upon a time, and we would rather hang that millstone around our necks that get in your way and in the way of something amazing God is going to do through you.  We are also a community that is working so hard on ourselves that we do not really judge your work; the hands, and eyes, and salt reserves we need to tend to ourselves teach us not to judge the challenges of your hands, eyes, or salt.  But instead of stopping at humility, we go the next step, and offer you a hand as you struggle with your own stuff.

The sense of belonging you feel here is because members of this community give generously from their abundance to ensure that this community continues to be a place of belonging to all those who are making their way to Jesus.  That is what today’s gospel lesson is really trying to teach us.  The wideness of God’s mercy and the broadness of God’s love are what inspire us to make this amazing community a community of belonging, believing, and becoming.  We invest our resources here because we learn here what that wideness and broadness feels like, and we want to be agents of expansion.  We want to step out of our tendencies to become self-centered or in-group-centered,[i] and create a community that is so wide that all feel a loving embrace when they walk through our doors.

In the coming weeks, I encourage you to pray about your own experiences in blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and how your own financial giving reflects that blessing.  I invite you to meditate on moments of blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and consider how your financial giving can create more of those moments.  I challenge you to talk to your Hickory Neck friends about their journey of blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and how your collective financial giving might grow that blessing.  This is our opportunity to widen the net of belonging, and grow Hickory Neck’s gifts to one another and the world.  Amen.

[i] Harry B. Adams, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 116.

On Sacred Listening…

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Photo credit:  https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/411697251/the-act-of-listening

Last week and this week, our curate is leading Hickory Neck in a forum on evangelism.  The work of the class is ultimately about sharing and listening to sacred stories.  True evangelism happens not when we tell people what they should believe or that they should come to church with us, but when we listen deeply to people’s stories and reflect where we see the sacred in those stories.

I realize this all may sound a little touchy-feely for many of us, but the truth is, even if you never called it “sacred storytelling and sacred listening,” you have likely experienced the phenomenon.  Think about the last time you encountered someone who was such a good listener you were pouring out your soul to them, without even actively choosing to do so.  Or recall those times when you have shared some of the heavy things on your heart and the listener pointed out where they saw God in the darkness in a way that lightened your entire perspective.  Those holy moments do not happen very often, but when they do, we feel a sense of transformation and the nearness of God.

That’s what evangelism is all about – not a manipulative way of coaxing out stories so that you can convert someone, but a willingness to stand in the fray with people (be it friend, neighbor, or stranger) and wait for God.  That kind of openness is a tremendous gift and privilege – to you, to the other, and to the world.

This past week, I have had the privilege of having lots of conversations – about faith, religion, children, church, and politics.  Some have been with church members, some have been with new acquaintances, and some have been with strangers.  And to a person, in every conversation, I find that I experience more blessing and renewed faith in our God than I even realized I needed.  This week, I invite you into those sacred storytelling and sacred listening opportunities, whether it’s with someone you know or someone you have never met.  I know that sounds scary, but you will be surprised how often someone is willing to share if they know someone is really listening.  If you are willing to accept the invitation, I suspect you will come to church on Sunday with a sense of renewal and restored faith.  I can’t wait to hear your stories!

Sermon – Mark 9.30-37, P20, YB, September 22, 2018

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This week I spent some time with a group I will be working with and we took what was called the DiSC assessment.  The assessment is a bit like other personality assessments, such as Myers-Briggs or Enneagram.  Basically, the assessment helps you understand your own way of relating within groups, how you analyze and solve problems, and how you lead.  What was interesting was I received the results of the assessment before we received a real description about how the survey works and what the survey teaches you.  Consequently, when I read my results, I began to get a bit paranoid, my mind filling with questions.  What would the group think about my strengths and challenges?  What if my personality type was a negative outlier?  What was the best type, and how far was I from that ideal?  But when we finally reviewed the entire group’s results, our instructor told us something that would have been helpful to know from the very beginning:  there was no correct answer, or preferable personality type; there was no particular category that produced the most leaders (in fact, we got a list of four worldwide business leaders who came from each of the four categories); and, most importantly, any group would be better with an equal amount of representatives from each of the four categories.

What I realized in my initial anxiety about my own results was that I had fallen into the same trap as the disciples in our text today.  Here they are, walking along with Jesus, watching him feed thousands of people, watching him as he is transfigured with Elijah and Moses appearing, healing people, and trying to teach them who he really is.  If you remember last week, Charlie talked to us about a shift that happens in the text where Mark stops telling us what Jesus does, and starts reflecting on who Jesus is.  When the visceral encounter between Jesus and Peter happens, where Jesus declares, “Get behind me, Satan,” instead of reflecting on who Jesus is, the disciples start bickering among themselves.  You can almost imagine their murmurings:  Peter is always so petulant – I always knew I was the greater disciple!; You’re the greatest?  No way, you weren’t even chosen to go up the mountain when we saw Elijah!; We all know that I’m the greatest – clearly I bring the financial support for all of Jesus’ shenanigans.  Clearly the disciples are jockeying what my children would call GOAT – Greatest of All Time.

The self-righteous part of us likes to criticize the disciples, seeing how self-centered they are being, especially at time when Jesus is trying to explain the critical future he is facing.  But when we are honest with ourselves, we can totally relate to the disciples’ competitiveness.  Our competitiveness starts when we are children:  who learns to walk, talk, and read first, who is the is the tallest in the class, or who loses their baby teeth first.  Later we compete for measurables:  who gets the best grades, who makes the team or gets a coveted position, who is elected for office in a club or organization.  And the competition only gets worse:  who makes the most money, who gets the most promotions, who gets recognized in the community the most for good works.  We are naturally competitive people.  Even the people who claim they are not competitive compete to be the least concerned about competition.  Competing for humility is still competing.

The truth is, there is nothing inherently wrong with competition.  In fact, competition usually brings out the best in us, pushing us to be the best versions of ourselves.  But when competition starts morphing into self-interest, self-promotion, and self-preservation over the well-being of others, that’s where we start getting into trouble.  When the disciples are so caught up about who is the GOAT among them – The Greatest of All Time – they are not pushing themselves to be a greater team for Jesus.  Their competition is about tearing down instead of building up.  They stop cheering for each other, and start cheering only for themselves.  Ultimately, their self-interest will end up hurting their selves rather than helping.

Jesus sees this weakness of course, and calls them out.  The text tells us the disciples are silent when Jesus says, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  You can hear the guilt in their silence.  They know immediately they were doing something hurtful, or they would have had no problem saying, “Oh we were just talking about who is the Greatest Disciple of All Time.”  But Jesus doesn’t want them to just feel guilty.  Instead he brings in a child, and says the one who welcomes in a child welcomes God; the one who welcomes children is the Greatest of All Time.

Now we have to understand how radical what Jesus is doing with this child.  Some of you may be sitting here thinking how right Jesus is, how adorable children are, how they say such simple, profound things, and how innocent they are.  Meanwhile others of you are envisioning the last epic tempter tantrum you saw and wondering if Jesus has lost his mind.  But Jesus is not talking about the behavior of children.  Jesus is talking about the status of children.  According to scholars, “Mark’s audience would have heard the world ‘child’ as referring to someone like the servant who served meals to everyone else in the household, in that both were seen as without ‘honor’ or high social standing.  A child did not contribute much of anything to the economic value of a household or community, and a child could not do anything to enhance one’s position in the struggles for prestige or influence,” and, now this is the important part, “one would obtain no benefit from according to a child the hospitality or rituals of higher status or someone whose favor one wanted to curry.”[i]  So when Jesus says in welcoming the child, you welcome God, he is saying honor and status and recognition comes not from trying to win the GOAT award, but instead trying to outdo one another in service, in kindness, in care for those who seem to be the least important.

Now Jesus is not trying to create another competition.  Lord knows we do not need the disciples bragging about volunteer hours or non-profit leadership roles or lives saved.  Jesus is not looking for competition, but mutual encouragement.  Jesus is looking not for achievements, but those times when we facilitated the achievements of others.  Jesus finds we are at our greatest when we are not worried about being our greatest at all.  Being a disciple of Jesus is dispositionally about the care of others.  Now that does not mean that we are trying to erase or shame the self.  Jesus just knows we learn to love ourselves, we find our greatest selves, when we are thinking of others first.  Somewhere deep inside ourselves, we know Jesus’ words are true.  How much joy do we get when we spend that extra hour with the kid who cannot catch a ball to save his life, only to finally watch him catch the ball?  How much joy do we get when we join the group cheering on a competitor in the Special Olympics?  How much joy do we get when we find out the woman who we ate dinner with at the Winter Shelter has found safe, stable housing?  God is not found when we achieve the most, obtain the most, and win the most.  God is found when we help others achieve, help them obtain their needs, and help them or the entire team win.

Today’s Gospel lesson is not a lesson about feeling guilty.  Jesus does not long for us to leave this place today in guilty silence.  Jesus is reminding us that as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we ascribe to a different kind of life – a life not devoid of our gifts and talents, but a life where we use our gifts and talents in the service of others.  Church is the place where we slowly, humbly can learn to hone our servant leadership.  And the work is just that:  slow and humble.  Learning to be a servant leader takes time, and mistakes, and corrections.  But learning to be servant leaders will also be one of the most rewarding things you will do here at Hickory Neck.  Soon you will learn the gifts that come from being a servant leader are way more soul-feeding than being a GOAT – Greatest of All Time.  What we learn is servant leadership is not just for our own good, or even for the good of the church.  Learning to be a servant leader is the gift that we then take out into world as our Christian witness.[ii]  When our servant leadership serves as our witness in the world, then others begin to understand your greatness comes from the one who was truly the Greatest of All Time.  Amen.

[i] Sharon H. Ringe, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 97.

[ii] Nathan G. Jennings, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 97.

On Finding and Sharing Joy…

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Photo credit:  Robin Razzino; permission required for reuse.

This past Sunday, I was ready to head off for church bright and early.  My younger daughter was still asleep, so I went in to her room to give her a kiss goodbye.  She stirred and very sleepily asked me, “Is today Sunday School?  And Children’s Chapel?”  I almost giggled that this was her first thought upon arousal from sleep.  When I told her, “Yes,” she would be going to Sunday School and Children’s Chapel, she groggily replied, “It’s going to be fun.”

As I have been thinking about my child’s simple question and sense of joy about church, I had two thoughts.  The first was, I am so happy to know that my child is finding joy, happiness, and fun at church.  As a parent, you hope your child will find as much joy in Jesus as you do, but you learn pretty quickly that every child is an individual with their own passions and sources of joy.  To see my child develop a love for church and the experiences she has there has been so thrilling.  And even more importantly to me (especially as a clergy person), I am so grateful that her positive church experiences are almost totally independent of me.  Other adults are guiding her faith journey.  The community is raising her up in the faith.  Our church family is helping her find joy in God that is all her own.  That reality is one that I have deeply desired for my own children, and I am so proud that my church is a place that does the same for so many other children and families.

The second thought I had about my daughter’s early morning pronouncement was that I want adults to have that same sense of anticipatory joy about church too.  Sometimes we struggle to get ourselves to church because our lives are so over-scheduled that church feels like just one more burden.  Sometimes we go to church out of habit, but go through the motions without much joy or food for our souls for the week.  What I long for is church to be a place that when we first awake on Sunday mornings we think of church and we think, “This is going to be fun!”  We can do that at Hickory Neck because we know we will see people who have given us so much joy in our spiritual journey.  We can do that at Hickory Neck because the worship, preaching, and learning will give us new insights and renewed energy and passion for God.  We can do that at Hickory Neck because we know, somewhere during the morning, we will encounter God – and it’s going to be awesome!

This past Sunday at our Rector’s Forum, someone asked about how we invite people to church, how we share the Good News with others.  Where we start is sharing those stories of how, when we wake up on Sundays, we think about Hickory Neck and think, “This is going to be fun.”  When you tell the story of how your church brings you joy, your countenance changes, your energy shifts, and your enthusiasm is contagious.  The only thing left for you to do is say, “Hey, you want to come with me next time?  It’s really fun!”

On Waiting with God…

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Photo credit:  http://www.makemommygosomethingsomething.com/2016/03/25/the-waiting-room/

The last few days have been marked by two contrasts in our family.  The first was a broken bone for one of our children.  What had been planned was a relaxed dinner of my daughter’s favorite meal, some homework, an early bedtime, and some evening chores.  Instead, what happened was scarfed down meals, scooping up of activities for the waiting room, dividing up of the children with parents, and a long evening of x-rays, diagnoses, and treatment.  After putting the patient to bed, then followed the flurry of emails to teachers, coaches, and parents to cancel classes, rearrange plans, and arrange for care.  Basically, the experience was a classic experience of dealing with an unexpected crisis, the adrenaline that helps you manage everything, and the upending of expectations.

Also happening this week is the opposite experience.  Our region is intently watching the weather forecast as a large, destructive hurricane is approaching the East Coast.  Unlike an immediate crisis, the build-up is much slower with a hurricane.  We can see several days out that the storm is coming.  We can ascertain from previous experiences with hurricanes what sorts of supplies we should have on hand.  Some areas are being evacuated in preparation, and schools have closed.  But unlike an immediate crisis, this kind of crisis is like waiting for a crisis in slow motion.  And these kinds of storms also involve much more ambiguity:  the storm could create massive damage and even death, or the storm could take a different path, destroying other areas, but leaving our area less impacted.  Instead of adrenaline, clarity, and decisiveness, this crisis involves lots of planning, worrying, and waiting.

As I have held these two experiences in tension this week, I have begun to see spiritual parallels.  Often, we relegate our relationship with God to crisis mode.  We lean into God when we need God, but most of our days are spent doing the work we have been given and are equipped to do without thinking much about God.  But in a situation where there is a long wait with an uncertain outcome:  a marriage that is struggling, a friend with a cancer diagnosis, an economy that puts one’s future in jeopardy – we find leaning into God more difficult.  When we lean into God during ambiguous times, we not only have to share all our ourselves with God (the hurt, the doubt, the fear, the anger), we also become much aware of how little control we have in this world.  Ambiguity in life tests our relationships with Jesus more than just about anything in life.

This week, my prayer for all of us is that we push against of our natural patterns.  Instead pulling away from God in ambiguity, my prayer is that you might saddle up next to God and give the anxiety that ambiguity creates back to God.  I promise that God can handle the weight of your anxiety.  And in freeing you up from some of that anxiety, you might be able to offer that same comfort to a neighbor, friend, or stranger.  I know God will give us strength to support one another once this storm hits.  We will do the work we need to do.  In the meantime, my prayer is that we help one another lift the burden of waiting.  God is with us!

 

Sermon – Mark 7.24-27, P18, YB, September 9, 2018

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This week I came back to work excited for a new program year and rejoining you in worship together.  I felt well rested, and ready to preach today.  I caught up with the staff and lay leaders, dug into the onslaught of emails, had some pastoral visits, and then finally sat down to read the lessons for today.  After reading the gospel, I momentarily considered calling Charlie to say, “Are you sure you don’t want to preach this week too?”

If you were listening as we proclaimed the “Good News” of God in Christ today, you might not have felt like this was very good news.  Within Mark’s gospel lesson is one of the very few stories in Holy Scripture about Jesus where we get very uncomfortable.  We are told Jesus has set out to get away.  He wants some rest and to be alone after weeks of healing, miracles, and debates with Pharisees.  In the midst of trying to get some peace and quiet, a woman comes to him, asking for another healing.  The story at this point could go in a couple of directions:  Jesus could agree to heal her daughter out of compassion; Jesus could engage the mother in conversation; or the disciples might intervene to help Jesus get some rest – and maybe Jesus would protest and heal the girl anyway.  We know Jesus is likely tired and needs some serious alone time.  But even in the midst of fatigue and a need to escape the constant pressure of the crowds, we find Jesus’ words to the Syrophoenician woman unpalatable. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

We know a few things.  We know this is a woman and women in Jesus’ day have less power and would not customarily approach a man without a husband or male family member intervening.  But this woman is no ordinary woman – the original Greek text tells us she is a woman of means, a “lady.”[i] We also know that she is Syrophoenician and Greek – a comment on her culture and ethnicity – as well as the fact that she is a Gentile, and not a Jew.  We know her daughter has a demon, so in Jewish minds this woman and her child are impure.  We even know from scholars that this particular area of geography has a history of tensions between Gentiles and Jews, with many Jews being mistreated by Gentiles.[ii]  Finally, we know Jesus understands his ministry is about redeeming the people of Israel first.[iii]  Eventually the Gentiles will be included, in fact, he even says so in his insulting comment; but the Gentiles are not Jesus’ primary mission.  But even with all of that:  the cultural norms, the racial and ethnic tensions, the purity laws, and the God-given mission, Jesus’ words have a tone of disdain and degradation that we simply do not associate with Jesus.  Jesus’ words are uniquely harsh:  no other supplicant in the gospel is treated in this manner.[iv]  This is not the Jesus we know.  To look at this suffering woman and to call her and her child dogs makes our stomachs turn.  We are embarrassed by Jesus, and would rather sweep this particular story under the proverbial rug.

I have been wondering all week why this story about Jesus bothers us so much.  Countless scholars have tried to justify Jesus’ action or mitigate the brutality of his statements or soften Jesus’ words. But after pondering Jesus’ words this week, I realized what bothers us so much about Jesus’ words.  What bothers us is we see ourselves in his brutal behavior.  We do not like Jesus’ harsh treatment of this woman because we do not like to ponder the times when we have acted similarly.  We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated persons of color like dogs – through segregation, lynching, fire hoses, criminalization, or exclusion from opportunities.  We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated persons of other ethnicities like dogs – migrant workers who take jobs, extremists who commit violence, illegal immigrants who want free healthcare or education.  We do not want to examine too closely those times when we have treated women like dogs – refusing safe, affordable birth control and childcare, ignoring sexual assault, leaving unresolved wage gaps.  Because even if we have never called one of those groups, “dogs,” we have either thought the word, “dog,” or our actions have indicated we think of those groups as dogs.  And when someone shines a light on our incongruous behavior, we feel exposed as being uniquely harsh as Jesus is harsh.  We do not like Jesus’ behavior because we do not like our own behavior.  And Jesus is supposed to be the good one.  Jesus is that one about whom we proclaim “and yet He did not sin.”

Here is the good news though:  what is brilliant about this story is the very fact that we see ourselves in Jesus today. As much as we see the bad in Jesus, we also find redemption in Jesus today.  The good news about Jesus’ awful behavior is that he finds a formidable opponent today.  This Syrophoenician woman does not cower, or feel defeated, or walk away.  Quite the contrary, she takes Jesus’ words – his exclusion, his justification, his arrogance, and she turns them back on Jesus.  Jesus thinks she is a dog unworthy of the children’s food.  Fine.  She reminds him that even dogs get crumbs from under the table.  The woman does not contradict the system, or take a deserved stand for dignity, or try to fight Jesus’ presumptions.  She simply reminds Jesus that there is enough for everyone – even in the scraps.  She does not defend herself – she holds a mirror up to Jesus.  And this – this is the best part – this is where something tremendous happens.  Jesus says, “You’re right.”  Jesus acknowledges he is wrong.  Jesus heals and restores her daughter to health.  And, most importantly, Jesus redefines his entire ministry – no longer maintaining redemption of the Jews first and, maybe if there is time, the Gentiles.  Jesus expands his abundance and wideness of mercy for all.

What I love about this story is two-fold.  First, I love that the Syrophoenician woman is a woman who sees abundance in the face of humiliation.  The woman is unwilling to believe she is unworthy of God’s grace and abundance.  She boldly, humbly demands that abundance from the person of Jesus.  Second, I love that we actually get to see Jesus’ humanity in this story.  We could spend hours debating scripture and tradition and the creeds about whether Jesus can be sinful and what that means for our faith.  But one of the things we say about Jesus is that he is fully divine and fully human.  And we all know in this room being fully human means messing up, saying awful things, and sometimes being a failure.  But being human also means righting our wrongs, making amends, and taking our learnings from failures and turning them into future goodness.

What Jesus says today is awful, and we should feel his words as embarrassing, shameful words.  What we sometimes say and do is awful, and we should regard those actions as embarrassing and shameful too.  But what Jesus does today is also beautiful.  Jesus not only changes his mind, he expands the wideness of the kingdom of God.[v]  What the Syrophoenician woman does is make a claim on abundance and hold up a mirror to Jesus to see where he limiting abundance.  Her invitation to Jesus is her invitation to us today too.  Where are we limiting abundance and shutting down possibilities for blessing?  The Syrophoenician woman today asks us to look at the mirror and let go of a sense that there are limited resources and particular protocols about those resources.  She invites us to look at our lives, at the ministry of Hickory Neck, and the community around us and see the opportunities to choose abundance over limitations, to see grace over judgment, to see divinity over humanity.  With her mirror, and Jesus’ example, the possibilities for new life and ministry are endless.  And that’s a Jesus, and a you and me, and a Hickory Neck of which we can all be proud.  That’s a ministry that is expansive and explosive with grace, and dignity, and love.  That’s a church who is doing exciting things and I want to be a part!  Come and join us!

[i] Daniel J. Harrington, ed., Sacra Pagina:  The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 2002), 233.

[ii] Harrington, 232.

[iii] Douglas R. A. Hare, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.

[iv] Harrington, 233-234.

[v] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 49.

On Dreams, Change, and Gratitude…

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Safe in each others' hands

Photo credit:  http://debragaz.com/2016/10/17/we-can-walk-together/

This week, as the buzz of insects filled the air, the heat reflected off the pavement as the sun rose, and the smell of blooming flowers lingered nearby, I greeted families and watched an age-old tradition of parents dropping off children at school.  Some of the families were rushed, the parents trying to get off to work.  Some families took things more slowly, savoring the goodbye of the day.  Some families were worn down by anxiety and tears – of children and adults.  In the hubbub of greeting these families, reality hit me:  Hickory Neck did it!

You see, over ten years ago, the community of Hickory Neck Episcopal Church had a dream – to turn the blessing of property into a blessing for the community:  meeting a desperate need for childcare in our part of our county.  Countless hours were spent by many church members planning, calculating, and organizing.  It would take a tremendous investment to create a school from scratch, but the passion and vision were there.  Unfortunately, the preparation was complete right before the economic recession hit.  And the dream was deferred.

But the needs did not change – in fact they grew as the presence of young families, especially those transplanted away from extended family, grew in our neighborhood.  Hickory Neck’s dream was what a Search Committee invited me to participate in:  to help them take the dream off the shelf, and live out their baptismal covenant more fully in their particular context.  And so, the work began again.  After months of discernment and honest conversations, we realized Hickory Neck’s dream could still meet the needs of the community.

A year later, on a steamy September morning, I was struck with a sense of awe by the Hickory Neck community.  I have been a part of many congregations, and one thing I have learned is most communities resist change.  They might need change; they might want change; they might even say they are ready for change.  But in the deep recesses of their minds and hearts, they do not really want change.  Change is scary and could disrupt what drew them there in the beginning.  But Hickory Neck is different.  Hickory Neck is a community who has been fluid and flexible, who even when her dream began to morph and change, did not dig in her feet, but instead stepped out into the unknown and said yes to the Holy Spirit.  The humility, boldness, courageousness, creativity, and gumption of Hickory Neck brought me to my knees this week.

I am so proud of our community for trying a brave new way of ministry – one that comes from the congregation, will be nurtured by the congregation, and will eventually feed the congregation.  Though I have helped navigate logistics behind the scenes, the truth is, I feel so incredibly privileged to simply accompany Hickory Neck in the fulfillment of her dream.  In these last two and half years, Hickory Neck has given me hope in the future of the church universal.  If communities of faith can cast a vision that betters the surrounding community, journey through adversity to achieve that dream, and then actually live into that dream faithfully, then I think there is hope beyond measure for the kingdom of God.

A few weeks ago, a county official said to me, “You must be so proud of yourself for doing such good work at Hickory Neck.”  But I shared with him, “No, I’m so proud of Hickory Neck.  They are an inspiration to me every day.”  Today, I thank you, Hickory Neck.  I thank you for your witness of bravery, passion, and hard work.  I thank you for inspiring me to be a better priest.  I thank you for letting me be a part of this fantastic journey, in this fantastic community, doing the fantastic work of Jesus.  I am so proud of what Hickory Neck has already accomplished.  I cannot wait to see where we go next!  Oh, and if you are not already connected to Hickory Neck, I encourage you to stop by.  You are in for an incredible treat.  Don’t worry:  we’ve already saved you a seat!

On Grieving Together…

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elderly-woman-and-child-holding-hands-750

Photo credit:  https://www.everplans.com/articles/how-to-make-sure-your-legacy-lives-on-after-youre-gone

Grief is a funny thing.  We all experience it differently, respond to it differently, and let it impact us differently.  Sometimes we let grief do its work and then we are done; sometimes the grief sneaks up on us; and sometimes the grief never fades, a constant companion.  This week my grandmother passed away.  We knew this call would come soon.  I had taken my girls to see her months ago for a goodbye.  She had been in Hospice and had stopped eating.  But in the flurry of living – of clothes strewn about, water sloshing around, story-telling, cleaning, and brushing, the news of death was jarring.  For a moment I thought I would wait – share the news with the girls at a more appropriate time.  But then I remembered there is no appropriate time.  Death happens when it happens, and its companion, grief, comes as it will.

My initial work was helping my girls navigate their grief.  Upon receiving the news, my younger’s eyes got wide, and she was quick to assert that we needed to leave so that we could “take ‘Mee-maw’ to the hospital and take care of her.”  I tried to explain that it was too late, but she insisted that if we rushed, we could help her.  Once her disappointed face registered reality, she proclaimed, “Well, I’m not going to die!”  Then began a conversation about mortality and eternal life.  And a new level of grief began.

Meanwhile, the older child seemed to hold her thoughts and emotions at bay, being equally distracted by her sister’s reactions.  We talked about it briefly as I tucked her in, and she seemed okay.  The next morning, after I had dropped her off at camp and was heading back to my car, she ran back up to me and gave me a big hug and started crying.  “I’m sad about what happened yesterday.”  I honestly wasn’t sure what she was talking about until she explained her delayed reaction to Mee-maw’s death.  Time stood still as we grieved together.  A minute later, she was drying her face with the back of her hand and running to catch up with friends.

My own grief finally caught up with me as I watched an emotional movie later that night.  The truth is, my grandmother was a complicated woman.  She was the matriarch of the family who sometimes ruled with an iron first – even if you were only aware of her power subconsciously.  She was intimidatingly smart, held a wealth of knowledge in her mind, and could talk to any stranger.  I loved and respected her, and also saw her many flaws and the ways she hurt people.  She was not really a loving, doting grandmother, but a woman who held everyone to high standards and pushed us to be our best.  I was often afraid of the woman who insisted on the title “Grandmother Andrews.”  But in these last years, I loved seeing her humanity as a new generation of greatgrandchildren called her “Mee-maw.”

As I wade through grief this week, I welcome your prayers.  Even pastors need pastoring sometimes.  But also know that I am praying for you and the ways in which grief continues to be your companion:  for the grandparents, parents, spouses, and friends lost; for the marriages, jobs, and pregnancies lost; for the possibilities, dreams, and loves lost.  You especially have my prayers as grief reminds us all of our own mortality.  As you hold me, I also hold you in the promise of eternal life, a new reality in Christ Jesus.  May that grounding strengthen each of us as we stand together in the already and the not yet.

Almighty God, look with pity upon the sorrows of your servants.  Remember us, Lord, in mercy; nourish us with patience; comfort us with a sense of your goodness; lift up your countenance up us; and give us peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (BCP 467, amended)