On Making Room in the Inn…

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As my family approaches the holidays this year, life is a bit different.  We decided months ago that we would visit our California family over Christmas break.  Now that we are traveling with four, we realized the travel expenses would set us back quite a bit.  Having noticed the last couple of years how much we are spending on gifts for the kids, we decided that the trip will function as our Christmas.  My in-laws are also gifting the family a couple of days at Disneyland, which we agreed would function as their Christmas gift.  So instead of “stuff” we are concentrating on “adventure” or “experiences.”

It took some explaining and questions, but we seem to have everyone on board with the new concept.  Personally, I did not mind giving up gifts.  But what took me by surprise was how much I would miss having a live Christmas tree.   I love everything about decorating a live tree:  the smell, stringing the lights, recalling the memories of each ornament, all while sipping eggnog and listening to Christmas songs play in the background.  But the danger of the fire hazard while we are away means the tree-related boxes will stay sealed this year.

For the last week or so, I was grieving the change in our Christmas traditions.  But this week, as Advent rapidly approaches, I realized that my grief is fading, and instead, a sense of relief has overcome me.  You see, instead of running around getting gifts, I am able to imagine the calm of Advent that I always preach about, but rarely get to experience.  Instead of working frantically to get a tree and find a meeting-free night to decorate the tree, I can pull out our Advent wreath, Advent devotional, and our creches from around the world to decorate the house.  I have often heard the encouragement to simplify for Advent, but have rarely figured out how to accomplish the goal.  This year, the unintended consequences of decisions have done it for me.  And I could not be more grateful.

Now I am not suggesting you chuck all your holiday traditions about the window.  But I wonder what things or thing you might let go of this year in order to relieve some of the pressures we find in Advent.  Too often we take the “prepare” message of Advent like Martha does with Jesus.  We run around buying, baking, partying, planning, decorating, and distracting.  Maybe this Advent we can be a little more like Martha’s sister Mary, finding ways to sit at the feet of Jesus – or perhaps at the empty manger – preparing our hearts for his nativity.  I suspect that the extra room you create in your heart might be just the room Jesus and his family need when they can find no room in the inn.

 

 

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Sermon – Matthew 25.31-46, P29, YA, November 26, 2017

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This past weekend we celebrated one of the most significant American holidays.  Thanksgiving has evolved over time, but generally involves people gathering with family, friends, or neighbors over a meal to give thanks for the blessings of life.  The concept sounds rather innocuous, but the meal can be fraught with challenges.  A few days before Thanksgiving this year, I caught the results of a poll.  The poll said almost 70% of people were hoping to avoid talking about politics with their family this Thanksgiving holiday.  According to the survey, the percentage of people wanting to avoid talking about politics is one of the highest in years.  Even though the numbers are unprecedented, the results are probably not a surprise to anyone here.  Politics is one of those topics polite conversations are supposed to avoid anyway.  But given the especially high tensions of our political climate lately, I can totally understand why almost three-fourths of us would want to avoid talking about our country’s deep divisions and political differences.  No need to ruin a day of attempted unity with a conversation about the very thing that divides us most deeply.

So, on the Sunday following the day when everyone wants to avoid talking politics, what are we going to do?  Talk politics.  Now before you get too anxious, do not worry.  We are not invited to talk American politics.  Today, our readings invite us to talk about biblical politics.  Today, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday – the last Sunday in the liturgical year before we start Advent next week.  The feast of Christ the King is not actually that old of a feast.  Pope Pius XI established the feast day in 1925 in response to growing secularism and a deemphasis on the primacy of Christ.  At the time, Europe was seeing a rise in non-Christian dictators, many of whom were seeking to influence authority over the Church.  Pope Pius wanted to remind the Church who was the head of the church, and the primacy of Christ for the Church’s identity.  Establishing Christ the King Sunday was not only a bold move by Pope Pius, the feast day was also needed if the Church were going to remain loyal to its identity.

The historical setting of the creation of the holiday is not all that unique from the biblical struggle with kingship.  If you remember, God is not at all on board when the people ask for a king.  You see, the people of God have already been on a long journey.  Abraham had settled them in a faraway land, which God had promised would be their land.  But famine struck, and the people were forced to flee to Egypt for sustenance, submitting themselves to a pharaoh – a new king of sorts.  For a while, that arrangement was not so bad.  But a new pharaoh meant a harsh life of enslavement.  So, God once again led the people out of the rule of a king, into the wilderness and eventually the promised land.  And what do the people ask for upon their arrival?  A king!  You see, they have been watching the other nations who have kings, and they want their own.  God wants them to see how God is their king.  But eventually God submits, giving them their hearts’ desire.  As predicted, an earthly king does not go well.  Sure, there are moments of enjoyment and blessing.  There are even some kings who do well – king David and Solomon.  But even the good kings come with human flaws.  As time goes on, the bad kings outnumber the good ones, and eventually the kingdom of God is ripped apart, and the peoples are scattered.

That is where we pick up things today in Ezekiel.  Recognizing the earthly kings have not worked so well, God promises to take the throne back, to become the people’s king once again.  God becoming king means the people will be gathered once again in their promised land.  They will have their wounds bound, their stomachs filled, and their thirst quenched.  They will return to an abundant land, with the rule of a comforting shepherd.  The promise to the wearied people of God is assuring and soothing; a balm to a scattered, disheartened people.  Their failures are ever before them:  their insistence on an earthly king have gotten them where they are today.  But admitting failure hardly seems onerous with the promise of redemption by God.

By the time we get to our gospel reading today, the people are yet again under an oppressive rule.  Rome has put her heavy hand on the people of God, and their hoped-for Messiah has not arrived.  The expectation of the Messiah was for a mighty, God-ordained leader who would vindicate the people, and establish a time of prosperity, power, and peace.  There are rumors that Jesus might be that Messiah, but much of what he has to say does not jive with what they are expecting.  Take today’s lesson, for example.  Jesus tells them the reign of God will entail feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  Those are all certainly good things to do, but they are not exactly what the people are thinking of when they imagine a Messiah.  Though those tasks are noble, they do not indicate a people who have triumphed over oppressive rule.

I suspect we know a little about that sense of disappointment and disorientation.  Now I know I said I was not going to talk about politics, but stay with me for a bit.  You see, no matter who our leader is, we will never be truly happy with an elected, human leader.  Human leaders, like those leaders in the times of Ezekiel are flawed.  Think of your favorite president in American history – the president that really represented the goodness of American ideals.  Think of all the great things he did, the advancements he made, the ways in which he made us a better country.  Now, in balance with all that goodness, think of all the flaws he had.  Every president had them.  For every advancement he made, there was an advancement he neglected.  For every inspiring quote he had, there were things he said that would make us shudder.  For every injustice he corrected, there were injustices he ignored.

That is the funny thing about being both an American and a Christian.  Though we have probably structured the government with the most potential for justice and balanced leadership, we still fall short of the goal – because we are human.  And because nothing we make or conceive or structure will be perfect, we lean into our Christian identity for guidance, comfort, and strength.  You see, the only king who will ever bring about a perfect kingdom is Christ.  And yet, even “perfection” is redefined by Christ.  The kingdom of God is not reproduced through democracy, socialism, monarchy, oligarchy, or totalitarianism.  The perfect system in Christ involves each us feeding the poor, giving water to those who thirst, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.

I can imagine what you are thinking, because I am thinking the same thing.  Those jobs all sound nice, but how do we ensure justice, safety, and structure?  How do we govern?  The good news is, just as we talked about last week, we all have a vocation.  If feeding, sating, welcoming, clothing, tending, and visiting are the parameters of perfection, we are each to use our gifts to achieve that perfection.  So maybe your vocation is to physically feed the poor and sate the thirsty.  Maybe your vocation is to advocate for those in prison.  Maybe your vocation is to govern with the intention of creating laws that will tend the sick and clothe the naked.  How we approach perfection will vary widely, but that we strive toward perfection is what Christ asks today.  Christ is not actually all that worried about who our king is or what kind of government we choose.  Christ is concerned that our lives reflect his true kingship over us.  Christ wants us to live lives that, upon observation by others, make obvious who is our king.

Our invitation this week is to take stock of our daily living, making sure we have aligned our lives with the kingdom of God.  If you have gotten off track, there is time and support for correcting course.[i]  If you have mastered feeding the hungry, but are not so great at welcoming the stranger, this community is here to help you expand your kingdom work.  And if you are not sure you can get on board with this kingdom work at all, you may need to do what we all avoided this Thanksgiving – get to a table and start talking politics.  Jesus promises to be with us, joining us in the conversation, blessing our ponderings.  With Christ the King on our side, the work does not feel like work, the conversation does not feel like a curse, and the results produce much more for which to be thankful.  Amen.

[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew:  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), 212.

On Cultivating Gratitude…

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Photo credit:  sixtyandme.com/50-women-over-50-express-their-gratitude-on-thanksgiving-day/

I don’t know about you, but I find my spiritual life has hills and valleys.  There are times when I feel especially close to God, and that closeness leads to a sense of overflowing gratitude.  And there are times when I fill up the extra space in my life with everything but God.  In those valleys, I sometimes feel God is far away – mostly because that is where I pushed God.  In those times, gratitude is often the last thing I experience.  Instead, I can be irritable and short-tempered.

In order to stay out of those valleys of self-absorption, I have found I need intentional practices of gratitude.  Celebrating Thanksgiving Day tomorrow helps put most of us in a spirit of gratitude (assuming we are not in a spiral of menacing traveling conditions, dread about time with challenging family members, or anxiety about food preparations).  But this year, I have found that I am coming into Thanksgiving Day with a full cup.  I am working on a stack of thank you notes for the generous pledges our parishioners have made to our church; the generosity of our parishioners makes writing the notes a joy.  Our church has been negotiating a new partnership which looks like may come to fruition; it is the culmination of a lot of dreams, most of which began before my arrival, and the promise of fulfillment is at times overwhelming.  And our church has two different services for Thanksgiving:  one with our ecumenical brothers and sisters, and a mass on Thanksgiving Day; both are occasions for deep joy and gratitude.

The thing about these events and experiences is they cultivate in me a spirit of gratitude.  When my spirit is primed for thanksgiving, every time I take a walk or hop in my car, I find a breathtaking tree that has hit its peak fall color.  When my spirit is primed for thanksgiving, the little things my family does – an unprompted “thank you,” a cleaning up of the kitchen, a spontaneous hug – all make my heart warmed.  When my spirit is primed for thanksgiving, I see the daily tasks of others that go unnoticed:  the county worker clearing a dead animal from the street, the childcare provider who sees my child being extra clingy and swoops her up in a big, distracting hug, or the administrator who has already thought about the things on my mind and started the projects I need accomplished.

If your spirit has not been primed, there is still time.  Perhaps you can start with tomorrow’s celebration, looking for glimpses of hope and blessing throughout your day (even in the midst of family drama, I promise you can find those glimpses!).  But do not let the thanksgiving end there.  Find ways to enrich your spirit each day:  whether it is putting on lenses of gratitude, taking up a tangible practice, or surrounding yourself with others who are naturally inclined toward an attitude of gratitude.  My suspicion is you will find your cup running over soon, and that overflow can be a blessing to others!

Sermon – Matthew 25.14-30, P28, YA, November 19, 2017

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Our parable from Matthew’s gospel today seems to present two very different versions of God.  When the story opens, the landowner is painted in a positive light.  Within the first line of this parable, we already find a landowner who places a great deal of trust in his servants.  Not only does he trust his servants with his property, he is also thoughtful about what each servant can handle.  Based on their abilities, he give gives one servant five talents, one servant two talents, and the other servant one talent.[i]  Now before we go too much farther, we need to remember that the entrusting of even one talent is a big deal.  You see, a talent is worth about 15 years of what a servant would normally make in wages.[ii]  To the first servant, the landowner is entrusting about 75 years’ worth of wages!  This landowner is not only generous with his property, he communicates a great deal of confidence in these three servants.

The story continues to be remarkable.  Nowhere in the parable does the landowner say, “Okay here are your talents.  Here is how I suggest you manage my wealth.”  No, the landowner leaves, communicating not just generosity, confidence, and trust, but also giving the gift of freedom to each servant.  Implicit is the expectation that they handle the wealth well, but also implicit is the idea that they have some autonomy in their management.

Many years later, the landowner returns, and we find his generous, trusting, encouraging nature continues.  When the first servant tells the landowner of his adventures with the talents, how he is able to double his holdings, the landowner is effusive with praise.  Because he has done such a fantastic job, the landowner says he will reward him with entrusting him to do more.  And then, as if to further prove what a generous landowner he is, the landowner opens his arms widely and says, “enter into the joy of your master.”  What a tremendous gift to this servant who has worked hard, taken on tremendous risk, and hustled for years and years for the sake of his landowner.  We can almost hear the vigorous pats on the back, and imagine the tears welling up in the servant’s eyes as he is affirmed, encouraged, and loved.

But then our story changes.  The third servant seems to evoke a very different version of the landowner.  Clearly the landowner knew the third servant was not as gifted as the others when he only gave the third servant one talent.  Faced with the sudden burden of wealth like he has never seen before, the third servant panics.  He does not want to mess things up or disappoint the landowner.  Unlike the other servants, this servant is full of self-doubt and fear.  And so, he does the best he can.  He goes and he buries the money.  Sure, he does not come back with more like the other servants, but at least he does not come back with less than with what he was entrusted.  To this nervous, timid, perhaps slightly less bright servant, the landowner is suddenly a very different landowner.  The landowner calls the servant wicked and lazy.  The landowner yells at the servant for mischaracterizing the landowner and for being so overcome with fear.  And then, as if the yelling and name-calling is not enough, the landowner strips him of the wealth, gives the talent to the first servant, and then casts the third servant out of his grace and abundance, leaving him in the outer darkness.

So, why is this landowner so kind, generous, and trusting in one breath, and impatient, mean, and cruel in the next?  We have been getting a lot of these kinds of stories from Matthew lately.  First, we got the wedding host who seemed to be generously welcoming all to the party, only to cast someone out who wore the wrong clothing.  Then we got the feuding bridesmaids who refuse to care for one another, and the bridegroom who has no patience for a lack of preparedness.  And then we get today’s parable.  If we simply had just this one instance of God’s harshness or unjust judgment, we could say the parable is an anomaly, a strange outlier.  But given the repeated telling of scary-ending stories, we are cued into the idea that something else is going on in Matthew’s gospel.  Indeed, all of these unsettling parables are what we call eschatological parables – stories about the end times.[iii]  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is approaching the end of his life.  Instead of continuing to heal, preach, and lovingly teach his disciples, he starts getting real.   I am reminded of one of the first reality television shows that ever aired, MTV’s The Real World.  MTV would pair seven very different individuals and make them live together for a few months.  The tagline of the show was, “This is what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”

Understanding that Jesus is facing his immanent death is critical to understanding what is going on with Jesus in these parables.  Any of us who has journeyed with someone who is dying knows that at some point, they stop being polite and start getting real.  This is their last chance to tell others the essentials:  the life lessons learned, the love they want to share, and the stern encouragement they want to give.  Although this landowner seems harsh or even irrationally mean, what he is doing is communicating ultimate significance.

Let’s go back to this third servant.  We know what the third servant does is not all that bad.  He does not squander the entrusted wealth, or act rashly.  He is conservatively prudent and, perhaps based on his skill level, wise to restrain himself.  But ultimately, the landowner is not upset about what the servant does.  The landowner is upset about the servant’s motivation:  fear.[iv]

In a couple of months, our family will be going on a trip that involves a visit to an amusement park.  We have been talking about the park as a family, and most of the members of our family are thrilled.  We have been watching videos about the rides, and the children are getting amped up to try some of the rollercoasters.  I, on the other hand, have no interest in the rides.  I am scared to death of rollercoasters.  I do not like the way they make me feel, I do not like how tense they make me, and I do not like the lack of control I feel when on them.  I gladly prefer to be the “holder of bags” at amusement parks.  But my family has been riding me this time.  They want to experience the adventure with me.  They want to discover which ones are too scary and which ones are just plain fun together.  And yet just talking about that idea has my knees knocking with fear.

That’s the funny thing about fear.  Fear distorts every good thing about our nature.  Fear cuts off creativity.  When we are overcome with fear, we cannot be imaginative and playful, coming to new solutions and ways of being.  Fear also messes with our sense of trust.  When we are overcome with fear, we forget the goodness of others, our previous examples of how things have gone well, or even the bold support of our God.  Fear messes with our confidence.  When we are overcome with fear, all the good, powerful, and holy parts of us gets riddled with self-doubt and inaction.  And finally, fear messes with our willingness to take risks.  When we are overcome with fear, we cannot do the things that will lead to great payoff.

Fear in the abstract is a normal reaction in life.  But we have to remember what Jesus is talking about in this parable to understand why the landowner is so harsh about fear.  You see, talents are not just metaphors for the thing things we are good at or even for the money we have in life.  Talents are metaphors for the vocations we each have.[v]  You see, each person in this room has a calling.  Some of us are called to particular jobs or courses of study.  Some of us are called to particular roles within families or groups.  Some of us are called to use our gifts in particular ways.  We all have a call, a vocation in life.  And our vocation is affirmed by the skills or materials we are given to live out that call.  The problem with the third servant is that he is given what he needs in abundance.  The landowner affirms him, trusts him, and gives him space and time to live out his vocation.  But the third servant allows himself to be so overcome with fear that he does not live out his vocation.  He shuts down creativity, trust, confidence, and risk-taking all because he is afraid.  And that is the ultimate sin for God.

What this parable invites us to do today is not to see this landowner – this stand-in for God – as a mean, cruel, reactive God that punishes.  Quite the opposite, the parable today invites us to remember that our God is trusting, discerning about our gifts, confident in our abilities, and joyful in our obedience.  God gives each person in this room a vocation, a purpose, in this world, gives us the gifts and encouragement we need to fulfill that vocation, and, ultimately, expects us to go out into the world and boldly take the risk of doing what God has already enabled us to do.  No one likes being thrust out of the nest, having to use our wings to sustain us.  But our parable reminds us we can do what we need to do.  We have beautiful wings and our flying will help others, will bring blessing to the world, and will bring us great joy.  Getting scared when God stops being polite and starts getting real is normal.  But letting fear overpower our beauty is not what God desires for us – because God knows you can do it.  God knows your willingness to live out your vocation means great things for the world.  You can do it!  So buckle up and get ready for the ride!  Amen.

[i] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 310.

[ii] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 309, 311.

[iii] Douglas, 308

[iv] Douglas, 312.

[v] Idea presented by Matthew Skinner in the podcast, “SB570 – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 33)” November 11, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=948 on November 17, 2017.

On Needing Each Other…

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This morning I attending a symposium about housing in the greater Williamsburg area.  The theme of the symposium was the effect of housing on health, both for individuals and the community.  One of the ideas that stuck with me was about the consequence of a lack of affordable housing.  What the researchers found was that a lack of affordable housing had a negative impact on the entire community – not just those struggling to make ends meet, but also on those in upper-income brackets.  When communities do not have affordable housing, service industry workers can eventually opt out of living and working in the community altogether, creating a void of laborers, and an increase in the cost-of-living for all.  Whereas many wealthy community members may not be concerned about affordable housing, in fact, a lack of affordable housing hurts the property values and economy for all.

The idea of affordable housing being a problem for everyone reminded me of an idea I have been pondering lately:  we need each other.  In the United States, we have long-held ideals about individualism, independence, and industriousness.  We value an “every man for himself” ethic.  But that kind of ethic only gets us so far.  Sooner or later, we eventually discover that every man (or woman!) cannot do everything for himself or herself.  In fact, we need each other.  I suspect that our need for one another is not a surprise when we are really honest.  But many of us have a hard time being honest about our mutual need because it means admitting vulnerability, dependency, and incompleteness.  Whether we like it or not, we need one another.

This Sunday at Hickory Neck Church, we are finishing a series on discipleship, using Rowan Williams’ book Being Disciples.  Williams argues that there are two principles of Christian faith and discipleship that we need to form the basis of a moral society:  we are each of equal value to God, and we are all dependent on each other.  His second point is what connected with me today.  Williams argues, “The community that most perfectly represents what God wants to see in the human world is one where the resources of each person are offered for every other, whether those resources are financial or spiritual or intellectual or administrative.”[i]  When we allow each person to be needed, to play a role in each other’s lives, we begin to be able to see that we are not just being kind – we actually need each other.

I invite you to take a look around this week, and try to imagine what each person you meet has to offer the world.  From infants to wise elders; from wealthy to homeless; from male to female; from convict to free – imagine what gift each person has for the world, and how you can honor and respect the dignity of each person you meet.  Even when someone is rude, unkind, or on the other side of the political aisle, I encourage you to find what you need in each other.  God will help you find the answers, and I hope you will share them here!!

[i] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples:  Essentials of the Christian Life (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 69.

On Seeing Colors…

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IMG_7493For those of you who read here regularly or know me personally, you know that fall is my favorite season.  Though I know many people love the flowers and the vibrancy of greens in spring, I find the turning of leaves in fall much more beautiful.  There is something poignantly graceful about a tree making a vibrant show of color before losing everything and going bare for the winter.  Whether it’s an entire tree that is vividly yellow, orange, or red, or whether it’s stumbling across a particularly beautiful fallen leaf, I find my breath being taken away time and again in the fall.

Fall just finally began to show in force this past week where I live.  The colors could not have come sooner.  In a time filled with anger, hatred, and violence, I have found myself struggling to see beauty around me.  Instead of the vibrant red of love, I have seen the ugly color of abuse and subjugation.  Instead of flaming orange of peace, I have seen the frightening colors of war and gun violence.  Instead of the brilliant yellow of respect and dignity, I have seen demoralizing color of sexism and racism.  In such times, I have longed to stumble on a stray leaf of hope.

As my mind has reeled with yet another mass shooting in Texas, more women coming forward to protest assault and harassment, and legislation that seems to value personal gain over the relief of the suffering of the poor, I have been wondering if fall would come at all.  And then I realized, perhaps the leaves of hope I have been looking for are everyday people who come into my path and show me vibrant signs of hope.  I see hope in a neighboring pastor who told me about the prayer tent he set up in a nearby neighborhood after a shooting that occurred the night before.  Children were overjoyed to see his presence as they got off the school bus the next day.  I see hope in the yoga teacher who, sensing a need in our community, approached our church to see if we could provide space for a sliding-fee yoga class for people of all income levels.  I see hope in children who teach me a profound sense of empathy instead of the reverse.

This week, I invite you to take a look around you in God’s creation to see the signs of hope and love that God is giving you to revive your spirit.  And I also invite you to take a look around you at the people who are offering you signs of hope and love this week – even in the small gestures of kindness, generosity, and love.  I suspect you will be overwhelmed by the beauty you see, and hopefully inspired to unfurl your own beautiful colors of love, peace, respect, and dignity.

Sermon – Matthew 5.1-12, AS, YA, November 5, 2017

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Today we honor All Saints Sunday, one of the major feasts of the Episcopal Church.  We recall this day all the faithful departed who lives were marked by heroic sanctity and whose deeds have been recalled and emulated from one generation to the next.  The celebration of these saints began as early as the late 200s, as churches began to honor those who gave up their lives for their faith, as well as those who lives were particularly exemplary.  Later, in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, sainthood became reserved for a select few who meet a certain set of requirements, which could include the performance of miracles or a particularly virtuous life.

On such a day of reverence for those whose virtuous lives remind us of God, our gospel lesson from Matthew is an intriguing choice.  Today’s gospel lesson is the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, that ministry-defining sermon by Jesus that tells us what we can expect from the Messiah.  He begins his long sermon with what we call The Beatitudes:  the famous listing of those whom we define as blessed.  The last two beatitudes make a lot of sense for today’s celebration:  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Certainly martyrs fall into the category of sainthood.  But what about the other beatitudes?  What about those who mourn, who are poor in spirit, are meek?  Those characteristics seem much more passive than martyrdom, or even the actions I associate with most saints.

I think what has always challenged me about honoring the saints or even reading The Beatitudes is that they feel unattainable.  If Jesus is associating being blessed with grief, meekness, poverty, purity, peacemaking, and mercy, I am not sure I can attain those things.  In my mission travels, I have visited with a couple of L’Arche communities.  Founded by Jean Vanier, L’Arche communities are communities for people with developmental disabilities.  Some of those disabilities are quite severe, and others are so mild that the individuals are highly functional.  Rooted in The Beatitudes, L’Arche communities flip the notion of most group homes.  Those with developmental disabilities are called “core members.”  They are the center of the community, the most elevated and honored members of the community.  The people who are there to help them are called “assistants,” and they live among the core members.  Though society labels abled-bodied people as more valuable, in L’Arche communities, the able-bodied members are seen as mere helpers for the more revered members.

The use of The Beatitudes in shaping L’Arche communities only heightened my sense of inadequacy when reading those beautiful words.  Reading those words have often made me feel like an outsider – that unless I suffer grief, pain, persecution, I will never come close to God.  Unless I give up my life in the ways that many assistants do at L’Arche, or unless I give up my life as the martyrs do, my life will only be one of mediocrity.  I will never be able to achieve the checklist of virtues that The Beatitudes provide.

Luckily, I found some relief from the scholars this week. Stanley Hauerwas says about Jesus’ words today, “The sermon, therefore is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.  To be saved is to be so gathered.  That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon – precisely because they are not recommendations.  No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek.  Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek.”[i]  N.T. Wright concurs.  He says, “These ‘blessings,’ the ‘wonderful news’ that [Jesus is] announcing, are not saying ‘try hard to live like this.’  They are saying that people who already are like that are in good shape.”[ii]

Taking the pressure off a sense that I need to work harder to be like the saints or that I need to seek out ways to be mournful or meek, I found the text opened up something else this week.  Another scholar suggests we look at the beatitudes in this way, “Perhaps [Jesus is] challenging who we imagine being blessed in the first place.  Who is worthy of God’s attention.  Who deserves our attention, respect, and honor.  And by doing that, he’s also challenging our very understanding of blessedness itself and, by extension, challenging our culture’s view of, well, pretty much everything.  Blessing.  Power.  Success.  The good life.  Righteousness.  What is noble and admirable.  What is worth striving for and sacrificing for.  You name it.  Jesus seems to invite us to call into question our culturally-born and very much this-worldly view of all the categories with which we structure our life, navigate our decisions, and judge those around us.”[iii]

At our worship service on Wednesday night of this week, we shared who the saints are in our lives – the everyday people who taught us something about God.  There were all sorts of people named – mothers, fathers, grandparents.  One that struck me the most was the description of one such mother.  “She simply did her duty every day:  being a wife, being a mom, structuring the home.”  Though I have come to use saints in my prayer life as vehicles for deeper prayer and connection with God, more often, the people whose lives motivate me are just like that mom:  everyday people whose everyday lives point to the sacred – who reveal God to me in the basic ways they live their lives.

In the Episcopal Church, the day after All Saints’ Day is called All Souls’ Day.  This day was established in the tenth century as an extension of All Saints’ Day.  All Souls’ Day is the day the Church remembers the vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church.  All Souls’ Day is a day for particular remembrance of family members and friends who, though no icon has ever been painted, showed us the beautiful life of holiness and righteousness.

The honoring of these lesser known saints seems to go much more richly with The Beatitudes to me.  If we know those who are meek, grieving, and poor in spirit are just as righteous as those who thirst and hunger for righteousness, we get to the heart of Jesus’ sermon today.  I imagine you all have a story.  Our family has been following a family whose ten-year old daughter had an awful case of cancer.  She has been fighting and fighting, and just last week Hospice was finally called in for support.  At dinner on Tuesday night, our eldest, just two years younger than our friend, said, unprompted, “I feel bad for kids with cancer who cannot trick-or-treat.”  The next morning, we found out that our little friend had passed that very night.  Lord knows, my child is not often a saint.  But that confluence of grief, suffering, and loss, brought us a little closer to blessedness.

Today, we will tie ribbons on our altar for all the saints and souls who have gone before us.  Maybe you will be tying your ribbon for a canonized saint, whose religious fervor has motivated you in your spiritual journey.  Maybe you will be tying your ribbon for a family saint, whose small, everyday witness taught you about the vastness of God’s love and grace.  Maybe you will be tying your ribbon for the random person you encountered who said something so profound you knew God was speaking right through them to you.  The saints we honor today are exemplary and ordinary.  The saints we honor today are people marked by action and advocacy, and people marked by everyday suffering.  The saints we honor today are people completely unlike us and just like us.  God has certainly inspired us by a host of other witnesses.  But God is also using each of you to inspire others in their journey.  Amen.

[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew:  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), 61.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 36.

[iii] David Lose, “All Saints A:  Preaching a Beatitudes Inversion,” November 1, 2017, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/11/all-saints-a-preaching-a-beatitudes-inversion/ on November 3, 2017.

On Saints and Community…

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Halloween-trick-or-treat-hours

Photo credit:  kanecountyconnects.com/2016/10/complete-list-of-halloween-trick-or-treat-hours-in-kane-county-communitys-2016/

I have never been one for promoting the spirituality of All Hallows’ Eve.  I have done children’s liturgies before, but I always suspect that the lure of trick-or-treating is too strong to encourage people to fast on October 31st.  As an adult, I have never been that into Halloween either.  I never dress up or throw big parties.  As a parent, I take the kids out, and we have candy to pass out at our home, but besides the promise of candy being around, I do not get too invested in the holiday.

But last night, something powerful clicked for me.  We live in a neighborhood that is very easy to walk with kids, and our youngest is old enough that she is starting really enjoy door-to-door trick-or-treating.  As we walked, I realized something new was happening.  Everyone in the neighborhood was genuinely engaged.  Adults made eye contact with one another, smiling and greeting with a heartiness I had not seen before.  Older members of our neighborhood were delighting in the children, making connections over costumes and candy.  Most of the time, I think of our neighborhood as being the place where we live.  But last night, our neighborhood felt like a community:  a community of people who care about each other, want to connect with each other, and are happy to share a little bit of joy in a sometimes very disappointing world.

Though our neighborhood was doing something entirely secular, there was something sacred about our interactions last night.  Though we were not fasting for All Hallows’ Day, our honoring of each other was a way of preparing me for today’s feast day.  Our connections last night made me realize how connected we are to the saints:  people who seem totally unlike us, whose lives feel disconnected from our own, and yet, whose stories bring us comfort, encouragement, and assurance.  The communion of saints makes us realize how much larger our “community” really is, and how full of goodness and hope it can be.  If you are longing for that kind of connection to the saints, or even a connection to a modern community, I hope you will join us tonight as we celebrate All Saints Day.  Come feast on the holy meal, share a good word, and look into the eyes of those who see you for what you are:  a beautiful child of God to be honored and celebrated!

Sermon – Deuteronomy 34.1-12, P25, YA, October 29, 2017, 8 AM

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This morning our community is celebrating our past, present, and future.  We celebrate the community of Hickory Neck, who one hundred years ago, came together to consecrate this historic church, which had been dormant of worship since the Revolutionary War, used varyingly as a school and hospital.  We celebrate a community who committed itself this year to paying off our debt which covered the cost of our New Chapel, as well as renovations to existing buildings.  And we celebrate our commitments to financially support Hickory Neck in the year ahead through our pledges of offerings.  In each celebration, we see glimpses of who Hickory has been, is, and is becoming.

We are not unlike our ancestors, the Israelites, as we find them on the brink of the Promised Land.  Today’s lesson from Deuteronomy tells the story of the last days of Moses and the beginning of Joshua’s leadership.  In their mourning over Moses’ death, the community remembers the profound ways in which God, through Moses, changed their lives.  They were exiles by famine from their land, enslaved by the Egyptians, and indebted to Pharaoh.  But Moses became their advocate, leading them out of slavery, across the Sea of Reeds, and through the long years of the wilderness.  Moses took all their complaints and whining, and advocated for food, water, and safety.  Moses took their metaphorical wandering, and delivered a new law from the Lord.  Moses organized their community and empowered the next generation to lead.  Moses’ death reminds the people of Israel all they have been through.  Their mourning is where they find themselves in the present:  no longer wandering, but not yet into their next phase of life.

And yet, Moses’ death also points them to their future.  Moses has already blessed Joshua as their next leader, and Joshua will take them into the Promised Land.  Moses is even given the gift of seeing the beauty of that land, as far as the eye can see.  Though Moses knows he is not to cross over, God shows him all that is to come.  The vision is vast, abundant, and blessed.  We suspect Moses can die in peace having seen the land of milk and honey, even if he himself will not experience the land.  And Moses has already seen Joshua receive the spirit of wisdom.  There is nothing left to do but join God in the heavenly kingdom.

On days of introspection about the past, present, and future, we can easily gloss over all the hard stuff.  Though today the people of Israel honor their esteemed leader, and they have the Promised Land ahead of them, we do not often get a sympathetic retelling of the Israelite story.  For the last several weeks, we have heard stories of the Israelites complaining about water and food, but we forget how debilitating hunger and thirst can be.  We read the story of the construction of the golden calf recently, but we rarely wonder about what waiting blindly at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return felt like or the doubt his absence created.  We also recently heard the story of the Passover, but we rarely imagine how terrifying that night must have been and what being saved meant.

I have wondered what stories linger behind our own history.  I have asked our historians about the Hickory Neck community one hundred years ago.  I have wondered who the members were, what their feelings were about the old church that was no longer theirs, or what inspired them to regather.  But we have no record of their story:  their passion that lead to us worshiping here today.  We can only imagine the negotiating they did, the partnerships they forged, the strain they underwent in those early years.  And though many of you were here when we built our New Chapel, I was not.  I imagine there were lingering doubts and concerns about whether a capital campaign, and taking on a mortgage was a good idea.  I am sure there were anxieties about church growth and identity.  And I already know some of that same labor is true today.  We wonder where the Holy Spirit is guiding us, what ministries will define us, and what people will join our community and change us for the better.  The future is always ambiguous and daunting.

That is why I appreciate our parallel story of the Israelites, Moses, and Joshua today.  As one scholar writes, what our ancient story and our modern story reminds us of is “Building the realm of God is a process, and we each have our part to play, even if we will not be around to see all our hopes come to fruition.  Even if we will not be present for the final outcome, it is important that we build the realm of God in the here and now, trusting God to work through each of us to bring about God’s vision for the world.  Furthermore, God assures us in [today’s Old Testament reading] that there will be people to continue leading us to the promised land and building God’s kingdom after we are gone.  The emergence of Joshua as the new leader of the Israelite people shows us that the work to be done is bigger than any one individual, and God will continue to provide prophetic presence through different people and voices.”[i]

In both the stories of our biblical and historical ancestors, we are reminded that we are a part of a greater narrative – each phase of the journey filled with challenges, hard times, and anxious moments.  But each phase is also filled with successes, celebratory times, and joyful, life-giving moments.  That is why we have been talking about journeys this month.  As we have reflected on our personal journeys to generosity during stewardship season, we have heard countless stories of how our journey has evolved, changed, and deepened.  We have also heard of the fellow pilgrims along the way who taught us about generosity and shaped our journey along the way.  What we have been doing this month, and what our Old Testament lesson and our current celebrations remind us of is “there is value in the journey.  The value lies in the growth, the relationships, and the spiritual development we experience along the way, not to mention the incremental progress we make toward creating the just and peaceable world that God desires for all of creation.”[ii]

Our invitation this week, is to continue to invest in the journey.  Each of you have shared with me the innumerable ways that Hickory Neck has influenced your journey.  I cannot tell you the countless times that this building alone has played a powerful part of your experience here.  I cannot tell you the multiple times I have heard about the passion and excitement that enlivened your faith life as we built a new worship space after hundreds of years on this land.  I cannot tell you the hundreds of times I have heard dreams and vision whispered in my ear as you have envisioned what the next steps of our journey together at Hickory Neck will be.  There will be hard moments and joyful moments, times of struggle and times of celebration.  Today we are reminded of the God who journeys in each phase with us, and empowers us as partners on the journey to change the kingdom of God here on earth.  God will empower us to stay on the journey together.  I cannot wait to see where the journey leads!  Amen.

[i] Leslie A. Klingensmith, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Supplement to Yr. A, Proper 25 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.

[ii] Klingensmith, 6.

On Generations of Generosity…

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This past week, my daughter and I were out shopping for a birthday gift for a friend.  As we were doing the self-checkout, the computer asked us if we would like to donate to charity.  I quickly tapped “no,” and my daughter was incensed.  “Don’t you want to help, Mommy?!?”  As we walked back to our car, I explained how we do help others.  She seemed incredulous, so I detailed our charitable giving, starting with what we give to the church.

Though she seemed mildly satisfied, our conversation made me realize a couple of things.  First, I could stand to have more explicit conversations with our children about our giving to church.  We already talk about budgets, treats, and how we spend money otherwise.  I realize now that our eldest may be ready to understand the commitment we make to church too.  Second, my daughter’s initial indignation is really good thing.  Her frustration with me reveals a sense of compassion and generosity that I was not sure she had fully developed.

This Sunday in church, we are celebrating lots of things.  We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the consecration of our historic church.  After hundreds of years of our church being used as a school and hospital, a faithful community gathered once again in 1917 for the original purpose of the building – to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.  We are also celebrating the paying off of our mortgage on our newest worship space.  After one final push this summer, and years of generosity before, we are able to be debt free!  We are also celebrating In-Gathering Sunday: a day where we offer our pledge cards for blessing.  These pledge cards indicate our commitment to the upcoming year of ministry, and reflect our journey toward generosity.

As these three celebrations combine into one day, I am ever aware of Hickory Neck’s own journey to generosity.  From the faithful who worked to reestablish our church after years of dormancy, to the faithful who saw a vision of a more modern, spacious place of worship just over ten years ago, to the faithful who see the new things budding at Hickory Neck and want to be a part of that growing community, we are a community who has always been on a journey to generosity.  I am grateful for the chance to celebrate together, especially for the ways in which our celebration is an example for the future generations who are also being shaped into faithful servants of compassion and generosity.  From the past and present, and into the future, I see God’s abundance all around us!