On Bringing the Church and World Together…

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Photo credit:  http://stas.org/en/media/photos/rogation-days-2016-15612

This coming Sunday at Hickory Neck, we will be adding a procession and blessing before our service begins in honor of Rogation Days.  Traditionally, Rogation Days are the three days before Ascension Day during which the litany is said as an act of intercession. In England, Rogation Days were associated with the blessing of the fields at planting, and in the United States they have been associated with rural life, agriculture and fishing, commerce and industry, and the stewardship of creation.[i]  For Hickory Neck, we are using this year’s Rogation Days to give thanks for rainwater collection barrels built for our Community Garden by a Boy Scout in our parish.  We will also bless the Garden, praying for a fruitful harvest for our parishioners and neighbors who use the gardens this year.

What I love about this upcoming event is that it represents a confluence of everything about which the church should be.  Our Community Garden has long been an example of using our property as a way to bless and welcome others.  At the garden, I see strangers become friends, people planting and tending in sacred silence, and the fruits of labor shared with one another.  Meanwhile, it has been a joy to watch our parishioner take leadership of an Eagle Scout project that benefits the church, the community, and his troop.  Watching our parishioner bring his faith community and his service community together has been a tremendous witness to each of us about how to make connections between the various parts of our lives.  And marking Rogation Days with liturgy is the church’s way of making the everyday parts of our lives sacred.  We take the labor of our hands, the fellowship of friends and strangers, the bounty of creation, and we name it all as holy.

Often when people think about church, they think about the building and the people who regularly attend worship services on Sundays.  But the church is much more about what the faith community does outside of the walls of the building, and how the community uses the blessing of its property to bless others.  This Sunday, we celebrate the ways in which we are living into the fullness of our identity, while also challenging ourselves to ever be outwardly-minded in our ministry.  I hope you will join us, but mostly, I hope you will invite a friend as we celebrate the ways in which the blessing of our community flows out into the world!

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Rainwater Collection Barrels Installation.  Photo credit:  Paula Simmons.  Permission required for reuse.

 

[i] Donald S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, eds., An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church:  A User-Friendly Reference for Episcopalians, “Rogation Days,” as found at https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/rogation-days on May 1, 2018.

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On Paths Not Taken…

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Photo credit:  https://www.pixcove.com/walking-bases-gravel-grit-feet-sneakers-path-trail-male-shoes-walk-man-legs/

Today is the feast of St. Mark the Evangelist.  Typically, this is the day we honor the author of the gospel of Mark.  Who Mark was is a little uncertain, as there are several references to Marks in scripture.  If we are to believe that they all point to the same person, we have some clues about his identity.  In Colossians, Paul refers to Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, who joined Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey.  At some point in the journey, Mark turned back, abandoning the mission.  Later, when the three are ready to journey again, Paul refused to travel with Mark because of his earlier abandonment.  Later, the two reconcile and Mark and Paul journey to Rome together.

St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice honors the fullness of Mark’s progression from turning back on his missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas, to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ as Son of God, to bearing witness later in life as companions of Peter and Paul.  So often, when someone disappoints us or seems like a failure, we turn an eye of judgment upon them.  We may welcome them back in the fold if they repent or correct their ways, but we always remember in the back of our minds how once upon a time they disappointed us.  But the Basilica seems to claim Mark’s entire journey is a journey to be celebrated.

I wonder what those times have been when you have abandoned your own missionary journey.  Perhaps you felt an initial call and sense of passion, but then you got scared, or you started to doubt yourself or the call, or you just could not pull your life together to follow Christ’s invitation.  So often when we talk about faith journeys, we talk about forks in the road, or new paths, but we rarely admit those times when we did an about-face, and just let go of what God had called us to do.  Perhaps we are ashamed or fear the judgment of others.

What I like about St. Mark’s story is that God is present throughout Mark’s journey and God uses Mark no matter what.  Whether it was a vocation we quit, a relationship with a faith community we left, or a personal relationship we cutoff, God is ever present with us, using our actions for good.  Some of us will never return to the same path like Mark did.  But we certainly take something powerful from that experience of walking away.  I invite you to consider those turns on your journey which you have been holding in shadow and consider letting God’s light to shine on them.  My guess is you will find more people who want to celebrate your path than judge.

Sermon – Psalm 23, E4, YB, April 22, 2018

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Many years ago, I was planning the funeral of a longtime, beloved church member.  We had visited on multiple occasions, and I knew all the stories about her children, including the son who was no longer going to church.  We talked about Jesus and her faith walk, and I always looked forward to sassy, witty, heartfelt stories.  When I sat down with her children to plan her funeral, I had an idea of what I could expect.  As we chose the lessons for the funeral, I shared with them that many people appreciate hearing the 23rd Psalm.  “Oh, no, we can’t do the 23rd Psalm,” the family protested.  A bit taken aback, since the parishioner I knew would have loved the psalm, they explained to me what had happened in her last days.  Her daughter had been comforting her one afternoon and decided to start reading scripture with her mom.  She started with the 23rd Psalm, and the mother snapped at her, saying, “Don’t read that one!  I’m not dead yet!”

Every year, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we hear the 23rd Psalm.  Though many of us are more familiar with the King James Version, the words of Psalm 23 are words that are familiar even to those who do not attend church regularly.  Whether we have heard the psalm at a funeral, or read the psalm at someone’s deathbed, or seen the psalm on someone’s wall, the 23rd Psalm is one of the most well-known psalms in our culture.  Even in surveys, when asked about their favorite piece of scripture in times of trouble, many respondents name Psalm 23.[i]

In some respect, this familiarity and preference is a blessing and something to be celebrated.  But in other ways, this familiarity can be a tremendous hindrance to hearing these sacred words with fresh ears.  For example, most of us hear the psalm’s words as words of comfort for the dying.  We hear the words, “the valley of the shadow of death,” and we assume the whole psalm is about death.  Lying down in green pastures, remaining by still waters, gathering at a table, and having goodness and mercy follow us all sound like end of life images.  We envision the peaceful, beautiful resting place, gathered around the heavenly banquet table, and we take home the promise that no matter what happens in life, at least the ending will be a place of respite and relief.  And in some ways, that is true.  But I am not sure that is what this psalm is ultimately about; this is a psalm not about death, but about life.

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm on the move.[ii]  Throughout the psalm, we hear the activity of life.  Those green pastures we are going to lie down in are the places where we will find rest after a long day.  Those still waters are the sources of water we will need to drink in this earthly life.  Those righteous pathways we will be on are the paths of ethical living, those paths where we will seek and serve Christ, loving our neighbor as ourselves.  That rod and staff that will comfort us because those are God’s tools that will push and pull us toward our vocations and the purposes God gives us.  The dwelling we do in the house of the Lord is not the eternal dwelling place, but the earthly church where we find renewal for the journey.  That valley of the shadow of death is not the valley of death, but those shadowy places in our lives where we are reminded of the darkness of death:  times of illness, divorce, unemployment, loneliness.  The 23rd Psalm is not ultimately about a promise in death, but about the promise we are given in life – the promise of refreshment, restoration, reinvigoration for the journey of life.

This winter Charlie and I attended a training on church development.  One of the first images from the presentation was that of a base camp on a mountain.  We talked about the purpose of a base camp – what people need from and do at a base camp.  Ideas included rest, refreshment, preparation, and stocking up for the journey.  No one mentioned making a permanent home or using base camp as a place of escape.  Our instructor then asked us how a base camp is similar to Church.  We began to talk about how Church does the same thing – is a place of refreshment, rest, preparation, and stocking up for the journey.  Church is not a place to escape the real world or to hide away from hurt and pain.  Instead, Church is the place where we refill our tanks so that we can go out into the world – gathering the strength we need for the journey.  Church is not the house of the Lord where we will dwell forever.  In fact, that translation, “to dwell” is not helpful.  The word in Hebrew that is translated as “dwell” is better translated as “return.”[iii]  So instead of talking about a place where we will hide out from the world or imagining the heavenly kingdom where we will dwell, the psalmist is talking about the place we will keep returning – the base camp, the Church, where we will keep returning for strength so that we can get back into the world doing the activity of discipleship – the life where we will rest, drink, walk, be righteous, commune, and serve.[iv]

So just in case I have ruined Psalm 23 for you forever, making the psalm feel more like a psalm of work and labor as opposed to a psalm for rest and relief, have no fear.  There is one more line that similarly gets mistranslated which may open this text for you in another way.  In verse six, the psalmist says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  Again, understanding the original Hebrew is helpful.  The word translated as “follow” is better translated as “pursue” or “chase down,”  Goodness and mercy shall chase me down all the days of my life.[v]  Shifting that word does a similar thing as the rest of the verbs in this text.  When goodness and mercy follow us, we often think of hindsight.  Bad things happen to us, but when we look back, we will see goodness and mercy came out of the bad things.  But the psalmist says something more powerful than that.  The psalmist says that goodness and mercy will pursue us – will hunt us down and knock us over with their power.  We will feel threatened by that valley of the shadow of death, or we will worry about places to lie or drink or walk.  But the psalmist tells us those worries are futile because even in the midst of those stresses, God’s goodness and mercy is constantly seeking to bowl us over.

Scholar Gary Simpson says this about God’s goodness, “The goodness of God is in every place before we ever arrive at any particular place.  The good things that happen to us along life’s journey do not happen because we have arrived.  God’s goodness has already been where we are planning to go.  The goodness of God is so present that every direction that we turn to look, wherever we are, we bump into goodness again.  It is perhaps egocentric and arrogant to think that goodness follows us.  The goodness of God goes ahead of us, clearing out new ground, pulling us to new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark places of new possibility, opening doors that no one can shut.”[vi]

I think that parishioner resisted hearing the 23rd Psalm in her last days of life because like many of us, she had trapped the psalm in the land of the dying.  But the 23rd Psalm is a psalm for the land of the living – a psalm that commissions us to continue our work of discipleship, to move out into the world with the promise of the essentials we will need, to keep returning to God’s house for sustenance and refueling, and to remember that no matter what we face, God’s goodness is already there, chasing us down.  On this Good Shepherd Sunday, perhaps you were hoping to hear a few words of comfort, longing to dwell in this house for longer than an hour today.  But today, that Good Shepherd is prodding you with a staff, filling up your tank so that you can go out into the world, serving as God’s disciple in all the green pastures and right paths where God leads.  You can do your work because no matter how much those shadows linger, God’s goodness will chase you down – all the days of your life.  Amen.

[i] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 23,” March 30, 2014, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2004 as found on April 19, 2018.

[ii] Joel LeMon, “Commentary on Psalm 23,” April 25, 2015, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3646 on April 19, 2018.

[iii] LeMon.

[iv] Cameron B.R. Howard, “#602 – Fourth Sunday of Easter,” April 14, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1008 on April 17, 2018.

[v] Gary V. Simpson “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 438.

[vi] Simpson, 440.

On Resurrection Living…

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I have been thinking a lot about death lately.  That probably sounds a bit morbid, but given my profession, should not be much of a surprise.  I think death has been on my mind for lots of reasons:  we celebrated the death of an incredible woman at our parish last week, our Adult Forum series during Eastertide is about death (end of life care, wills, legacy giving, funeral planning), and this Sunday’s lessons, although beloved, are quite common readings for funerals.  Everywhere I turn seems to offer reminders of death, and yet here we are in the season of Easter – a time to honor resurrection – to honor Christ’s victory over death!

One of the reasons we are freed up to talk about death in Eastertide is because death is changed through the resurrection of Christ.  In light of the resurrection, we see our life and death differently.  We proclaim that difference in the Book of Common Prayer at funerals.  “Life is changed, not ended,” we say in the burial office.  Whereas the secular world would have us consume life to its fullest, ignoring the inevitability of death; would have us preserve our bodies and make ourselves look younger to ignore our natural aging; would have us avoid conversations with our loved ones and community about death, the Church says something different.

The Church says Christ’s resurrection changes life so much, talking about death is no longer morbid.  The Church says, the promise of eternal life allows us make those funeral plans with a spirit of joy, not a spirit of dread.  The Church says that our time among the living is meant to bless and honor others, so making that will and designating those legacy gifts to a church are in great congruence with our understanding of resurrection living.  An Adult Forum series on death (or Resurrection Living, as we have called it) or reading lessons from funerals during Eastertide makes perfect sense.  Those exercises free us from seeing death as final, encouraging instead a life of resurrection hope and joy – a life lived in the light of eternal life.  I hope you will join us this week at Hickory Neck as we dive into that new identity and welcome the transformation of life in the light of the resurrection.

 

 

Sermon – Luke 24.36b-48, E3, YB, April 15, 2018

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Last month I was talking to Pastor Alex from Stonehouse Presbyterian.  We were walking toward our cars and he complimented my license plate, noting how fun spotting my plate around town has been.  I chuckled and told him the plate had been both a blessing and a curse.  He asked me what I meant, and I explained.  You see, I love the plate for the very reason he mentioned – that I run into people who recognize my plate, that people connect who I am with what I do, that people ask me about my vocation and about Hickory Neck.  But the plate is also a bit of a curse.  If I had to choose any place to be a witness for Christ, I am not sure the car is the best location.  You see, the car is where I leave prayer books, post-its about phone calls, gum wrappers, and coffee cups.  The car is where I cart around children – sometimes singing at the tops of our lungs to a favorite song, and sometimes scowling after an argument about behavior.  The car is where I find a moment to getaway before picking up children, and the car is where I sometimes reveal that I once lived in a region of the country that is known for impatient, sometimes foul-mouthed drivers.  The car is not really home to my best witness for loving Christ.  And yet, there is where a big plate – on both the front and the back – witnesses to the world who and whose I am.

That is what I find so funny about the disciples this week.  Here they are in Luke’s gospel, not unlike what we heard in John’s gospel last week, hiding in a room, afraid, disbelieving, and wondering what to make of all that has happened.  To be fair, life has gotten a bit chaotic of late.  Their whole world has gotten turned upside down since that beautiful, sacred night when Jesus washed their feet.  They had ideas about what was coming in their life, what was going to happen to Jesus, and how the world would be changed.  But Jesus dies, they are outcasts, and God seems to have closed a door – a tomb door.  Then, just days later, their world gets upended again.  The disciples learn from the women that the same closed tomb door is now open.  Two of the disciples have an encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.  And as if all of that is not enough, today, Jesus shows up – very much alive, proving his corporality, teaching them, and reminding them they are witnesses.

The disciples certainly have our sympathy and concern.  And yet, the disciples remain holed up in a room – as if they can hide.  As if they can integrate back into the world, with no one realizing who and whose they are.  As if no one will notice the license plate on their car that says, “Jesus’ disciple.”  The disciples are hiding, acting as though no one is watching, no one is making conclusions about them based on their behavior, no one is making conclusions about Christ.  Their hiding is just as much of a witness as going out into the community.  Perhaps they feel being in that room is giving them a break from being witnesses – that no one sees them.  But we know better.  And so does Jesus.  “You are witnesses of these things,” says Jesus.

Sometimes we do the exact same thing.  We too can start to believe that we have hiding places in our lives – places where we do not have to be witnesses.  Maybe yours is a car.  Maybe yours is at work or school because those places seem more removed from what we do here on Sundays.  Maybe yours is at home, on vacation, or when surrounded by friends.  Like the disciples, we too have that same longing to “turn off” our witness.  Maybe we are just tired and feel like being a witness for Christ is exhausting.  Maybe we are upset with or disappointed in God and are not sure communicating those feelings helps our witness of Christ.  Or maybe we are just afraid – that people will notice that we do not live lives that reflect who and whose we are.

But “turning off” our identity as people of faith is not really an option.  Sooner or later we will get caught.  Sometimes being caught can be a very positive thing.  An acquaintance who knows you go to church may ask you to add them to your church’s prayer list because they or their child just received a horrible diagnosis.  But sometimes being caught can be less flattering.  At our Adult Forum series on evangelism this fall, we watched a video about how not to invite people to church.  The video features two neighbors, one who is out gardening in the yard and the other who is clearly just coming home from church.  The neighbor who is out gardening wonders to himself, “I wonder why he never invites me to his church.  I would go if he asked me.”  But sometimes being caught can be even worse.  I had a friend who waited tables during college.  She always moaned when she got her work schedule and discovered she was assigned a Sunday.  I finally asked her why she hated Sundays so much.  She said, “Because that’s when all the churchgoers go out to eat – and they are the worst tippers!”  Somehow, in all her long hours of trying to make a few bucks to pay for books and school fees she had gotten the message that people of faith did not value her.

We know from experience that hiding as a Christian is really an illusion.  Wherever we are, whenever we are, with whomever we are, our identity is always there.  Jesus confirms that today.  As biblical scholar Karoline Lewis says, “Jesus’ address to the disciples is not, ‘you will be witnesses.’ Not, ‘please be witnesses.’ Not, ‘consider being witnesses if you have time.’ No, [Jesus says] ‘you are witnesses of these things.’ We are witnesses.  As it turns out, witnessing is not voluntary, but a state of being.”[i]  Lewis goes on to add, “‘We are witnesses’ does not depend on our acceptance or agreement or approval. ‘We are witnesses’ does not depend on our readiness or recognition or responsiveness. ‘We are witnesses’ just is.”[ii]  The disciples learn that today.  When Jesus says, you are witnesses, he empowers a very scared, uncertain, fearful group of followers to remember who and whose they are.

The good news is that Jesus does not judge the disciples today.  Jesus meets the disciples where they are.[iii]  Jesus’ first words are words of encouragement.  “Peace be with you,” he says.  Then, ever the tender pastor, Jesus asks the question in verse 38, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your heart?”  Knowing their confusion, Jesus eats with them to assure them he is really there, not just some ghost or figment of their imagination.  He sits down and teaches them once again, taking them back to their roots, reminding them of how the prophets have taught them all they need to know.  And then, come those fateful words in verse 48, “you are witnesses of these things.”  Jesus meets them where they are, offering comfort, assurance, and affirmation.  But Jesus also encourages them to move beyond where they are.

After September 11th, there were two widows featured on the news.  “Grateful for the outpouring of support they received, they started thinking about the women in Afghanistan who, when widowed, lose status in that society and therefore find their already difficult lives even harder.  They raised money and formed a foundation called Beyond the 11th to support Afghani widows, and even made visits to Afghanistan to meet the widows they were helping.”[iv]  Those widows had lot of options – fear, anger, vengeance, or isolation.  But instead, they remembered how Jesus encourages us to remember our identity as witnesses and to move beyond where we are.  Our invitation today is to reclaim that same identity.  Now I do not know if that means you go put a Hickory Neck bumper sticker on your car, or you start wearing that cross necklace again, or you start tangibly connecting your words and actions to your identity as a witness.  Only you can know the shape your witness will take.  But today Jesus invites us to let go of our hiding places, realizing that even when we think we are hiding, we are still witnessing.  Our invitation is to own who we are, so that others might see the beauty of who and whose we are.  Amen.

[i] Karoline Lewis, “We Are Witnesses,” April 9, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5126 on April 12, 2018.

[ii] Lewis.

[iii] Nancy R. Blakely, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 424.

[iv] Blakely, 428.

On Being Agents of Joy…

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Photo credit:  Photo taken by Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly on March 25, 2018.  Permission required for reuse.

A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of one of the craziest seasons for a clergy family, we found a moment to head down to the historic district of our town.  My daughter had just received a bubble wand as a birthday gift and wanted to take it along.  Somehow, a bubble wand seemed like a bad idea – it being totally out of context in the otherwise historically accurate setting.  But, I was not in the mood for an argument, so I consented.

There we were, in the midst of tourists, costumed interpreters, walking along cobblestoned streets filled with colonial architecture, and my daughter was gleefully running down the sidewalk with her pink princess bubble wand.  Seeing her happy and joyful was enough to bring a smile to my weary face.  But what I had not anticipated was how her bubble-making would bring joy to so many around us.  A large visiting family burst into smiles as she rained bubbles on them.  Little children began tugging on their parents’ clothing, giggling and shouting, “Look!”  A mother wistfully thanked us, explaining that her preteens had been catching and chasing the bubbles behind us.  I saw some teenage girls light up with a long-gone innocence as the bubbles floated toward their laps.  Even a costumed interpreter whispered as she passed, “We all love your bubbles.”

What was so beautiful about that day was the way in which my little four-year old was able to freely and abundantly give away the unexpected gift of joy, laughter, and refreshment.  It was such a powerful thing to witness the strength of her gift; seeing her joy, and the spreading of her joy, brought me unexpected joy.  That kind of innocent, pure, wholesome goodness is so rare in life and my daughter gave it with abandon.

That wave of abundance, generosity, and joy made me wonder what ways we might be invited to be agents of joy.  Perhaps the opportunity could be as simple as bubbles.  I had a friend who kept them in her car for whenever she got caught in traffic (it is hard to stay cranky in traffic when bubbles are floating by).  But it could be something else – sending a card or making a phone call when a person randomly pops into your mind.  Starting a practice of thoughtful, tiny good deeds – little gifts to those whom you know need it, maybe even without credit.  Or maybe a new idea will strike you.  I would love to hear your ideas.  But more so, I would love to hear how it goes when you try it.  Practices of abundant joy are catching.  I can’t wait to hear about the joy you spread this week.

Sermon – John 20.1-18, ED, YB, April 1, 2018

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Last weekend, before Holy Week started, our family celebrated my youngest’s fourth birthday.  A dear friend was there and asked me how I was doing, knowing full well that Holy Week and Easter were coming.  I launched into a diatribe about all the things I was juggling – birthday party, work commitments, packing for Spring Break, and the pressures of writing an Easter sermon.  The last complaint caught her attention.  “You’re worried about an Easter sermon?” she asked.  “Oh, yes!” I explained.  “It’s a big day.  The sermon needs to be good!”  She looked at me, dumbfounded, and said to me, in a way that only a best friend can, “You know nobody comes to church on Easter because of the sermon.”

Now as a preacher, you can imagine my ego was a little bruised.  But the more I thought about her observation, the more I realized she was right.  We come to church on Easter for a whole host of reasons.  We come to church on Easter because that is what our family has always done, and the continued observation of Easter somehow connects us to the past, present, and future, creating a sense of belonging and identity.  We come to church on Easter, because we long for a good word – a reminder that even in a tumultuous world, there is the promise of resurrection life, joy, and hope.  We come to church on Easter because we love the music, the flowers, the crowded seats, the Easter attire, and the experience of being a part of community.  And some of us are not sure why we come to church on Easter, but we suspect, or at least hope, we will find something that can revive our weary souls.

I suspect what most of us are hoping for today is an experience like Mary Magdalene’s.  I am not sure Mary knew why she went to the tomb that fateful day.  In John’s gospel, Mary is not there with spices to anoint Jesus’ body.  She does not bring flowers or some memento to leave at the tomb.  In fact, she comes to the tomb in darkness, before the morning light has arisen, perhaps in a fog of knowing she needs something but not sure what that something might be.  And then, not unlike the chaos that may have been your morning to get here on time and half-way presentable, Mary’s life gets thrown into chaos.  An empty tomb means she and the disciples run around like chickens with their heads cut off.  Later, Mary finds herself bemoaning to angels and a stranger alike that she just wants Jesus’ body – a physical reminder of all the horror and love and pain that has happened.  And in the midst of this chaos, a simple, profound thing happens.  Mary is called by her name.[i]  And her world gets turned on its head.

There is something very powerful about being called by your name.  We will frequent restaurants or coffee shops because we love being recognized by name by our favorite barista or shop owner.  If you have ever received a blessing or healing prayer by a person who knew your name, you know the intimacy that is created between the two of you, and the power of hearing your name lifted up to God.  We even try to use nametags here at Hickory Neck because we know how wonderful being known by name feels.  Being known by name creates a feeling of acceptance, affirmation, affection, and acknowledgement.[ii]  I can only imagine the rush of emotions when Jesus calls Mary by name today – not just the recognition of who Jesus is, but the reminder of how much he has loved her.

I suspect we should add that to the list of reasons why we come to church on Easter Sunday.  We want to be known too.  Perhaps we want to literally be called by name.  But perhaps we know just being here creates the same sense of belonging that being known by name creates.  When we sit in these seats today, we know that we are sitting next to someone who is longing for belonging today too – who also rallied to get to church on time – maybe with kids in cute dresses, or maybe just pulling their aching bodies to church.  When we sit in the seats today, we know that we are surrounded by a group of people who also love having their senses overwhelmed – from the smell of fragrant lilies, to the joyous sound of song [brass], to the taste of communion bread and wine, to the sight of fanfare and smiles, to the feel of another hand at the peace.  When we sit in these seats today, we know that we will be offered a word of joy, light, love, hope – and we want our lives to be marked by that same sense of promise.

Now you may feel tempted today to take all that affirmation, encouragement, and joy, and go about the next days on your own personal high – as though the gifts you receive today are solely for you.  But what all this fanfare, acknowledgment, and hope are meant to do is to propel you out into the world.  When Mary is called by name, receiving the blessing of recognition and encouragement, she does not stay at the feet of the resurrected Jesus.  She becomes John’s gospel’s first preacher.  “I have seen the Lord,” Mary says to the disciples.  Now I know some of you will go out from this place today and do just that – you will put on your Facebook page, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” or you will hug your neighbor and tell them what a joyous day you just had at church.  But for others of you, sharing today’s joy may take you a little more time, or may look a bit different than proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord,” to your favorite barista.  But what Mary invites us to do today is find our own way of sharing the beautiful gift we receive today – to give someone else the gift of joy and hope, to quietly tell a friend what a cool experience this day was, or to simply call someone else by name – sharing that same sense of belonging and affirmation you receive today.   You came to church this Easter Sunday for something.  Mary invites you to give that something to someone else.  Amen.  Alleluia!

[i] Serene Jones, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 378.

[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 380.

Homily – Mark 16.1-8, EV, YB, March 31, 2018

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I once worked with a parish who wanted to tweak their outreach efforts.  Instead of simply volunteering together with an outreach ministry or donating funds, they wanted to partner outreach and formation – what the secular world would call service learning.  And so, we experimented.  We gathered a team for six weeks in preparation for service with a transitional home for women coming out of prison.  The first week, two clients came to talk to us about their experiences with the ministry we were serving.  We heard stories of abuse, addition, and authority.  We learned about the things within their control and the things outside their control. Then we spent four weeks reading about a woman whose ministry in a prison led to her live and serve among the prisoners, guards, and families affected by the prison.  In the final week, the parishioners served a meal for the women in the transitional house, engaging in meaningful conversation as we ate.  When we gathered after our days of service, each participant felt as though their experience at the transitional home was much richer than the experience would have been had they simply showed up at the house with a hot meal, having never thought much about who they would encounter and why.  With old assumptions gone, parishioners were able to ask meaningful questions, understand how hard the road ahead would be, and share their own journeys.

Easter Vigil is a bit like that service learning group.  You see, we could gather tonight, and ring in Easter, happily celebrating the empty tomb the two Marys discover.  The miracle of that event, and the consequences of Christ’s resurrection are cause enough for a tremendous celebration.  But what we do tonight is not just jump into the resurrection.  First, we learn together why the resurrection is meaningful at all.  We start at the beginning, when the world was a formless void.  We learn about the creative God, who makes order out of a disordered world, who creates the beauty of the world around us, and who trusts us to care for that beauty.  But, of course, we fail at being stewards of God’s creation, and fall into sin so deep that God destroys most of the created order, saving one family from every species.  And God gives us a covenant – to never destroy the world again.  Generations later, as God helps us flee suffering and enslavement, God does the impossible – parts an entire sea so that we might be forever free.  Later, God is able to restore a valley of dry bones to life through God’s prophet Ezekiel.  God teaches us that even death and destruction can be restored.  Even as they are scattered in exile, God once again promises to restore the people.  Story after story after story tells us tonight that we belong to a God who creates us in beauty, stays in relationship, and restores us to wholeness.

When you know the breadth of our walk with God – when you remember all the pieces of what we know about God – then what happens to God’s Son this night makes more sense.  We can move from singing, “this is the night,” to singing, “how wonderful.”  “How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.  How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away.  It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn.  It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.  How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.”[i]  What is shocking about this night is not just the empty tomb.  What is shocking is the empty tomb in light of all that has gone before – despite our sinfulness, the breaking of covenant after covenant, our unfaithfulness and lack of gratitude, God stays in relationship.  God keeps making creation new.  God goes a step further in the resurrection of Christ Jesus.

That is why I love that we get Mark’s gospel to close our learning tonight.  Ever the succinct writer, Mark describes for us perfectly how overwhelming God’s love and commitment is to us.  Despite all the drama of our relationship with God, despite all the unfaithfulness, and despite all the waywardness of our behavior, God’s love never ends.  That realization leads to the same sort of terror, amazement, and fear that the Marys experience – the experience of a theophany – of an encounter with or a revelation of God.[ii]  The women flee the tomb tonight and remain silent because they are completely overwhelmed by their encounter with God and God’s love.  On Palm Sunday we were silent at the tomb in grief and despair.  Tonight we are silent at the tomb in unspeakable joy.  The women at the tomb give us permission tonight not to describe the experience, but simply to allow the blessing of this night to overwhelm us.  We can go and tell the news to others tomorrow.  But for tonight, hold on to that marvelous, wonderous feeling of knowing that Christ has been raised.  Amen.  Alleluia.

[i] BCP, 287.

[ii] Gail R. O’Day, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 357.

On Listening with New Ears…

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Every year on Palm Sunday, most Churches read the passion narrative.  We read the story from the night before Jesus’ death, all the way through the cross and the sealed tomb.  Because the story is so long (2-3 pages of text at least), many churches read the narrative as if it is a script, with parts assigned, to break up the reading.  This practice helps keep our attention, but also helps us hear the story differently each year.  As someone who has both listened to passion narratives and participated in them, I know how powerful the experience can be.  I will never forget the first time I was asked to read Jesus’ part.  There is something indescribable about having Jesus’ words in your mouth.  Likewise, hearing other people read parts can be powerful.  Imagine hearing the most faithful church elder say the words of Judas or denying Peter; or imagine how a well-placed pause by the narrator can make you hear differently.

As a priest, knowing the power of the voice in the passion narrative, I work hard to make sure the voices people hear on Palm Sunday are moving for them too.  Of course, I am sometimes limited by the available readers, but whenever I get the list of potential readers, I work hard to create synergy – looking for a mixture of male and female voices, looking for variations in age where possible, and also looking for visuals, like varieties in the physical attributes of the readers.  This year, I happened to have some children and youth offer to read and tried to find unexpected roles for them too.  What I did not anticipate was how powerful their voices would be for me.

You see, this past weekend, children and youth from all over the country and globe took to the streets because they feel afraid and threatened, and they are frustrated that adults are either not listening or are unwilling to find a way forward to make them feel safe.  Now, I know some of us may disagree with some of their proposed actions, but if nothing else, this past weekend made me feel like our inability to listen respectfully to one another and work for change was exposed.  Our children this weekend drew back the curtain on our ugly secret – that we are not acting as agents of love in the public sphere – on either side.

Feeling raw and exposed by Sunday, imagine the wave of emotion that hits when a nine-year old reads the part of Jesus to our church in the passion narrative.  Having a child say, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough!” shook me to the core.  As I listened to his clear, steady voice, I began to not only hear the passion differently, but also began to realize that Jesus is speaking to us every day, with voices we may not expect, but voices that speak truth – raw, painful, beautiful truth.  As we continue our Holy Week walk this week, I invite you to listen to the Jesuses speaking to you in your everyday life.  What does God need you to hear this week?  How might hearing a voice that says something you oppose sound differently if you listen with holy ears?  Adjusting your ears will certainly change how you experience Holy Week, but more importantly, adjusting our ears might help to change how we experience humanity in this moment.  Those who have ears, listen.

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Photo credit:  Picture taken at Hickory Neck Episcopal Church by John Rothnie, March 25, 2018.  Permission required for reuse.

Homily – Mark 11.1-11, 14.1-15.47, PS, YB, March 25, 2018

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When I did my AmeriCorps year of service at a food bank in North Carolina, the warehouse manager was from Liberia.  Eugene and I talked about a lot of things, but one favorite topic was the church.  When Holy Week rolled around, I remember Eugene telling me about Good Friday in Liberia.  On the way to church on Good Friday in Liberia, the children lead a procession.  The children carry an effigy of Jesus, and all the children take turns flogging the effigy of Jesus all the way to the church.  I remember being mortified when I learned about this tradition, wondering who in their right mind would invite children to participate in worship in such a gruesome, grotesque way.

The weird thing is, this mortifying tradition is not all that dissimilar to the physicality of our own worship today.  Today, we invite everyone to vigorously wave palms hailing Jesus Christ the king; then we have voices from our parishioners narrate the text, sometimes taking roles of people like Judas, Pilate, or denying Peter; and if that were not bad enough, then we put the words, “Crucify him!” in bold in our bulletins, reminding everyone to shout the words together.  The practice is so visceral that I often notice many people resist participating.  I cannot tell you how many photos I had to scroll through to find a good Hickory Neck Palm Sunday processional photo this year.  In what is supposed to be replica of joyously welcoming the Messiah, Hickory Neck-ers rarely take more than one palm, we hold them upright so as not to seem too zealous, and forget about a smile or look of excited victory.  I do not know if we feel silly or if we know all too well what comes next so we resist, but we struggle to engage in even the joyful part of today’s liturgy.

And I have rarely found an Episcopal Church anywhere who wholeheartedly joins in the chant, “Crucify him!”  We are so uncomfortable with that part of the liturgy.  More often people do not say the words at all, or they embarrassingly mumble the words.  Sometimes I see people tense up if those beside them enthusiastically participate too much.

Our resistance is futile though.  As if we hesitantly wave palms, or if we stay silent while the crowd demands we crucify Christ, we somehow avoid complicity with this humiliating atrocity.  But we are complicit with sin every day, in the most heinous ways.  We are complicit as our neighbors decide between housing, health care, and child care costs.  We are complicit as racism creates separate, unequal experiences for our citizens.  We are complicit as our God invites into a new way and we say “no.”

That is why the church offers us this very tactile, primal service today.  We wave the palms with fervor today because we remember the ways in which we see in part – the ways in which we manage to follow Christ, even if we do not understand what Christ is doing, even if we do not catch how Jesus inverts his triumphal entry on the back of a young donkey.  We fully participate in the words of today’s passion in order to remind us to “stop abusing the image of God revealed in the dignity of every human being.”[i]  And then we let those final words soak in today, as we stand with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses, silently at the tomb, seeing where Christ’s body is laid.

What we do in worship today is actually the perfect entry into this most Holy Week in Church.  Now some priests will tell you that we combine the liturgy of the palms with the passion narrative today because the designers of the Prayer Book knew that many of you would come on Palm Sunday, skip the days of worship during Holy Week, and then show up on Easter Sunday without having walked from this triumphal entry into Jerusalem through the cross and tomb.  And maybe they were right (though I know most of you rearranged your schedules this week for Holy Week services).  But more importantly, even if you walk through this journey with Christ this week, the reason we pair the Palms with the Passion is that we could never go from the Palms to the Resurrection without the connection to the cross.  The triumphal entry into Jerusalem makes no sense without the cross; the irony of that festive procession only makes sense when you are standing silently and bleakly at the tomb.

I know today is uncomfortable.  I know today is confusing, and oddly visceral, and may even be a bit overwhelming.  But today, and perhaps all this week if you are able to join us, allow the senses to take over.  Allow the sights, and smells, and touches, and sounds, and tastes to overwhelm you this week.  Allow the ache of standing with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses to sink deep into the same body that has waved palms and shouted awful things today.  Because only when our senses are that overwhelmed are we able to see that the cross is not about suffering and death, but rather is about a relationship that holds.  Only then will we find a “love stronger than death, that can withstand whatever the forces of evil do against [love], and that can hold suffering even as [love] struggles to alleviate [suffering].”[ii]  What feels like an empty, guilty ache today instead becomes a sign of how God overcomes terror, enfolds us in Life, and dwells with us forever.[iii]  But until then, stand with the Marys and with one another at the tomb in silence.

[i] Michael Battle, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 182.

[ii] Margaret A. Farley, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 182.

[iii] Farley, 184.