Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sermon--Blue Christmas 2020

 For the congregation of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Thomasville, GA. The scripture text I was working with is Psalm 23 in the King James Version. 


If there ever was a year when this Blue Christmas service is needed, 2020 definitely would be it!

This has been the year of the mask, the Purell, the hand soap, and toilet paper shortages. Too many people have been sick and far too many have died from COVID…from friends, church members, uncles, aunts, cousins, people’s moms and dads. COVID has wreaked havoc on our lives…changed the way we shop, go to school, do our jobs, even go to church. And in an almost too cruel twist of fate, this viral pandemic has collided with the ongoing struggles in the nation over race and racism. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry describes it, these times are our midnight hour, which is the darkest hour of the night.

These are the times for Psalm 23.

This one is probably the most well-known of the psalms. And this version…the King James Version…is the classic form of the psalm. In fact, my practical theology professor…the Rev. Dr. Altagracia Perez-Bullard…told us to memorize this rendering of the psalm. She told us it will be important because in any ministry we might have, we might find ourselves in a hospital room with grieving Christians from another denomination and this is the version of Psalm 23 they will want to hear. It is words of comfort.

It is a song of reassurance.

It is the one that tells us the eternal truth: God is with us at those moments when we feel adrift in a sea of grief and can only sing the blues.

“The Lord is my shepherd…” The psalmist uses the imagery of the shepherd leading and encouraging the flock along still waters. I’ve seen shepherds at work when I was on a trip to France with my spouse. It was a small village, and the shepherd was moving the sheep along a street heading toward the pasture on a mountain. The sheep were pretty content to follow him…except when they would stop to snack on the flower beds of some of the houses. Then the shepherd would drop back, encourage these hungry sheep to keep moving along, not with a beating but with a guiding nudge of his staff. Eventually, the flock arrived at a fountain in the middle of the town square, and he let them take a drink before they continued their journey toward the green pasture of the mountain side.

Shepherd, for the psalmist, has additional meaning beyond the shepherd of sheep. Many a biblical scholar notes that the kings of the ancient world were called shepherds of their people. It was thought that the job of the worldly leader was to guide and direct the populace with the same skill as a shepherd. So, to say that the Lord is my shepherd once again places God as the true guide and authority to lead one along and  restore the life force—the soul-- to a place of resting and feasting.

Before we get to the banquet table in the psalm, we pass through the valley of the shadow of death. The Hebrew for this description is “deep darkness,” a sense of danger and death. This is the midnight hour of the psalm. This type of darkness is one that can leave us frightened for the lack of being able to see our way out of our troubles. And yet…the psalmist tells us “I will fear no evil” because God is there and remains present even when we haven’t asked. 

God keeps gently guiding us through this dark spot.

God is there with the food bank worker distributing bags and cans to families in need because COVID forced parents out of their jobs.

God is there with that nurse checking on patients in the intensive care and emergency room and being one of the only people able to hold the hand of a person struggling to breathe.

God is with the scientists and medical researchers who have put their skills to work to get us a vaccine.

God is with us to keep us moving toward the psalmist’s vision of the banquet table, where we will be beyond the things that trouble us, where we will lay down those things that keep us divided and bring us to the other side of pandemics. Because even when it is midnight, stars of bright light poke through the gloom to remind us that God is nearby.

To keep Christmas in this Coronatide it’s important to not only keep looking for those lights, those signs of God’s presence in the acts of kindness of others, but to remember that we can be those lights to one another.  “The Lord is my shepherd.” The Lord will lead us through our valleys to a day when we will again feast together.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Senior Sermon: St. James of Jerusalem

 Well, this is my one and only time that I will be in the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, and it is to preach my senior sermon to a camera, and the seven or eight people on hand functioning as lector, cantor, organist, deacon, presider and sacristans. This is NOT what I had imagined for this big moment in my seminary career. But then, I also didn't imagine we'd be hampered and hemmed in so much by a viral pandemic. 

Hopefully, the link will post here. I am picking this up at my sermon. The Gospel lesson from Matthew 13 is short and details Jesus' rejection at Nazareth:

"He came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’ And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief."

Here's the link to my sermon.  

The text follows:


“Who is Jesus Christ?!”

That was the question posed to me by a bishop of the Episcopal Church.

My rector and I had travelled two and half hours to have this meeting. It had come after a long time of me doing everything I could think of to avoid following a call to the priesthood.

But my study of Scripture…my experiences of being in leadership roles both inside and outside the church…working with massage clients…and being told by my atheist friends that I was the one Christian they could stand left me with no choice.

I had to trust God…and go before a bishop.

His question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” was not so much a question. The way he posed it was quite demanding. And so I smiled and told him the truth, my truth:

Jesus Christ is the greatest liberator from oppression ever.

I know this because I believe Jesus’ death and resurrection signals to us…to me… that there are no powers and principalities or bullies and tyrants in this world who can destroy the greater power of a love that knows our sitting down and rising up (Ps.139). It is a love that knows pain and suffering…stays  hangs with us through difficulty. (note: I made this word substitution on the fly as I was preaching and as it turned out, it was a powerful and spirit-filled choice). 

Simply put: Jesus and his work on the cross prove that death doesn’t get the last word, and that Love really does win.

Unfortunately, my earnest and heartfelt statement went unheard. What I had said did not conform to the catechism.

All this bishop could see was my gender non-conforming dress, my broad shoulders, my buzz haircut.

I couldn’t help but reflect on that moment in my journey when I read this Gospel story.

Jesus is going before his hometown folk in Nazareth. He has been teaching and healing in other towns, and he has sent his disciples out to do good works. He’s warned them that they will face opposition so “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

So here he is in his childhood Temple, sharing his wisdom, speaking his truth and raising up the names of the prophets and calling on the assembled gathering to get back to right relationship with God. And while they might have been curious at first…all they could say is: Aren’t you Mary’s son? And your daddy, he’s a carpenter, right? And then these men and women are your siblings?

They could not…or maybe they did not want to hear him.

It’s as if their minds were already made up about who he was and what he was about what they already thought they knew.

Jesus’ own hometown rejected him.  

 Now one of those siblings who we hear was present is named James, the ancestor we are honoring today. James is referred to as “the brother of Jesus”. This can lead to many sidebar discussions about what exactly is meant by “brother.”

Is he Jesus’ full brother?  A younger Half brother? An older Step brother? Do we go with what St. Jerome said and call him a “Cousin” of Jesus?

For now, it’s enough to acknowledge that James had a brotherly kinship with Jesus…and became a loud and proud confessor of Jesus as Messiah.

James was given to constant prayer and was considered by many to be virtuous…. thus earning him the name “James the Just.”  

As we heard in today’s readings, James as the bishop of Jerusalem, played a major role in settling the dispute over whether the Gentiles entering this emerging faith around Jesus needed to convert to Judaism…meaning they needed to be circumcised.

Upon listening to the testimony particularly of Paul and Barnabas, James declared that the Gentiles did not need to convert…and it had always been God’s plan to include the Gentiles. But…in perhaps a finding a delicate balance in this disagreement…he did encourage these new members to avoid such practices as eating food offered to pagan idols  as that could lead to idolatry…and hence away from proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

Many became believers in Jesus because of James. That did not sit well with one particular high priest. According to the Christian writer Hegesippus…James’ religious opponents begged him,

“Please persuade the people not to go astray by believing in Jesus as the Messiah.”

They took James to the pinnacle of the temple and demanded that he preach a sermon denouncing Jesus. Instead…he told his truth…maybe even described Jesus as the greatest liberator from oppression ever, freeing the captive from whatever real or imagined prison was holding them back…maybe he spoke words of hope to those who had felt rejected.

For being that bold in his profession of his faith…his opponents threw James from the pinnacle and when that didn’t kill him, they cudgeled him to death. So this bishop seen as virtuous and devout spoke his truth about Jesus…and it was violently rejected.

But even in this case…love wins. The death of James so offended the Jews in Jerusalem that the incoming Roman Governor removed that high priest who had killed their beloved James.

There is always going to be opposition to love.

As Jesus shows us this work of bringing Love into the world will not happen easily or overnight or even with one election.

To bring about Love takes persistence.

To bring about Love takes courage.

To bring about Love means speaking your truth.

And it takes constantly returning to the source of our strength and remembering why we are who we are and whose we are. 

Because for every one person who refuses to see us or hear us, there are so many more still seeking and desiring to know that there is such a love that is--as our presiding bishop says--liberating and life-giving.

Don’t be silent. Don’t let anybody turn you back. Keep going in the name of Love.  


Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Love That Makes Us Free

I’m in the middle of a class right now on the life and writings of the theologian and mystic Howard Thurman. Thurman is one of the leading religious thinkers in 20th century American Christianity. He was born and raised in Daytona Beach, Florida, and was the first African-American to complete eighth grade there and go on to high school in Jacksonville. His father had died when he was a boy, and his mother had to work to support the family so his maternal grandmother helped to raise him and his two sisters.  And it was this lady, his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who pointed Thurman to Jesus.
Ambrose was born into slavery in north Florida. She couldn’t read or write, so Thurman would read the psalms and the Gospels to her. She never wanted to hear Paul’s Letters…because white preachers on the plantation would only cite Paul’s words about slaves obeying their masters. In the hands of these preachers, the Bible became a weapon.
But Ambrose told him that…once a month…a black preacher…a fellow slave from another plantation would come preach to them. And it was that preacher who spoke the truth: he said, “You’re not slaves: you are precious in the eyes of God as God’s own children.” Thurman said when his Grandma Nancy would tell this story, her spine would straighten up as that deep profound love of God filled her body with self-worth.
It was from this preacher…Ambrose learned to distinguish for herself the difference between liberty and freedom. She taught Thurman that liberty is what someone else gives you. BUT freedom was the love of God found within yourself.
It’s too bad that Paul’s Letters left such a rotten taste in her mouth because today’s portion from his Letter to the Romans confirms that same message of what it means to be free.
We hear from Paul that there is nothing…absolutely nothing…that will separate us from the love of God. God’s love has no borders or boundaries…cannot be legislated or segregated. It is higher than mountains and lower than the seas. It is the coolest most refreshing drink to sustain us on the hottest most humid days of life.
And we can’t earn it because it just is. If we allow ourselves to feel loved that strongly, that deeply, that much…Yowse, my friends! That’s freedom! That’s power! For you, for me, for everybody.
 Acknowledging and accepting that God has loved us, does love us, and will always love us wipes away fear.
Fear is what motivates those in positions of power to act in ways that hurt and devalue another person.
Fear is what paralyzes us from taking action to help somebody.
Fear is what starves us of the Love that frees us.
If God is for us…whether we are the powerful or the powerless…than who can be against us?
Nobody. Love gives us freedom from fear and puts us in right relationship with each other.
I think that’s critical to our Gospel lesson as well. As the commentators note…what Jesus is telling us about the kingdom of heaven is we can find it in things like a trash tree…or in this case…a trash bush. Seriously: farmers in the First Century who had laid out perfect rows for their crops wouldn’t have been happy to have a mustard bush growing like kudzu in their field!
And that’s Jesus’ point: The kingdom of God is about a love that is wild and free…disorderly and disruptive.
It’s the love of unwanted leaven that makes an amazing sourdough. It’s a love that gives up old habits, and former beliefs, to gain something new and greater.
It’s a free love found in little things, ordinary things, unwanted things.
And notice that when he asks, “Do you get it?” everyone tells Jesus, “Oh, yeah, we understand what you mean, man!” 
But…did they really?
Do we really understand how deeply God loves that even a trash tree symbolizes the kingdom of God?
Have we grown so used to the order of the way things are that we can’t even imagine how they should be? 
I think at a time of this viral pandemic…that’s a pressing question for the Episcopal Church, not just St. Thomas, but the broader Episcopal Church.
Right after the Fourth of July, three Episcopal priests…the Reverends Winnie Varghese, Stephanie Spellers, and Canon Kelly Brown Douglas…released a letter called “Speaking of Freedom.” It was an open letter to our denomination. These women, distinguished leaders and preachers…two of them Black and one of South Indian descent, placed the challenge before us as Episcopalians to address our history as the church of the powerful…and the slave-owners. 
Their letter calls on us to be the baptized beloved community we say we want to be. Really fulfill the promises we make with each baptism to resist evil, return to God, and respect the dignity of EVERY human being.
The truth is we often don’t do those things.
We all fall short of living into and promoting the freedom found in the Love of God.
What would it be like for the Episcopal Church to fully show up for Jesus?
Tap into our inner freedom that knows the love of God’s kingdom is like that unwanted mustard seed growing big and wild in that otherwise ordered field.
These women of our church are challenging us: can we white Episcopalians yearn enough for Jesus and God’s message of radical inclusion to let go of the things that keep us separated from our siblings of color…and finally live fully into our baptismal covenant so that we can be free?
Good news! I’ve seen it happening.
White Episcopalians I’ve known in Tallahassee who never spoke out on any social justice issue are now posting links to anti-racism resources on Facebook.
I’ve seen videos of white friends joining in marches right here down Remington Avenue for Black Lives Matter. I call such actions praying with one’s feet.
Paul has already declared to us that God loves us beyond all human comprehension with a love that frees us in such a way that nothing can stop us. This is the love that empowers us and frees us to have the courage to look closely and critically at our church’s history. Such an examination may feel disruptive and uncomfortable. But God is for us. And like that unruly mustard seed…such a push for an honest examination will grow a healthier, more vibrant, more loving Episcopal Church.
And so we pray,
O God of peace, open our hearts, guide us in your path, and lead us as your children to live more freely and fully into your commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us. For it is in the loving that doubt and fears give way to faith and hope. Trusting in you and your love, we are made free.

(To see the service and hear the sermon, click HERE. Make sure it's for July 26th.) 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Comfortable Words in an Uncomfortable Time: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached for online Morning Prayer worship, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Thomasville, GA.

These last few lines from our Matthew reading this morning are among my favorites in Scripture. I remember when I was a child in my church up in New Hampshire hearing our curate Rich Weymouth read them aloud right before the offertory. His voice conveyed such tenderness and kindness that it felt like a friend was pulling up a chair, wrapping their arm around my shoulders, and giving me reassurance that everything was going to be OK.
The disciples needed to hear these comforting words, too. Jesus has told them they’re gonna face resistance. Even when they’re speaking words of love and freedom…some people will not want to hear it. This God work is not easy.
To illustrate this…Jesus paints a picture of this resistance. This generation…his generation…are a people who don’t respond appropriately to anything… good or bad. Play the flute, be joyful, dance and be happy...this generation sits on the sidelines and mutters they don’t take part in such silliness. Come crying and mourning at loss and death? This people shrugs and laughs it off: it’s no big deal. They say that John the Baptizer’s religious practice of self-denial is demonic…and Jesus’ ultra-inclusive religion of love is not orthodox enough. Nothing will satisfy or convince this generation. They know better. Good luck to the disciples dealing with this mess!
Why aren’t the people convinced? Why do they resist so much? Why are they afraid to turn around, to change?
I feel like these are the same questions that we are wrestling with today. We celebrated Independence Day, but it hardly feels like a time of celebration. Racism is still dividing us, and we are caught in the net of a viral pandemic that has left many of us feeling very dependent. I’ve been shocked as I watch videos of grown men and women going ballistic in a grocery store when a teen-age clerk asks them to put on a mask. It makes no sense to me.
I know people who have or have had COVID-19. Some have died, some are still suffering from constant headache and short-term memory loss. Others have recovered relatively unscathed but may have lingering effects crop up years down the road. I can’t ignore how COVID-19 has exposed the gaps in our healthcare system and is disproportionately affecting racial minorities and the poor. All that makes me cringe as I watch the unmasked person screaming at the store employee while hurling packaged meats and loaves of bread to floor.
Is this rage really because of a request to put on a mask?
In seminary, one of the things they ask us to do is to pay attention to people and listen with what they call “our third ear.” It’s a way of being compassionate in times of high emotions and anxiety. And while I can’t say that I would have the patience to engage a person screaming at me and throwing things on the floor, I think that behavior might be pointing to something larger than a mask and more universal to all of us.
I think we are scared. This virus makes it impossible for us to go about our lives as we always have. We can’t gather together. We can’t sing in groups. We can’t go out to eat or drink. Businesses are closing. Unemployment benefits go unpaid. We are facing the uncomfortable truth that we are not in control. And when doctors and scientists come to us and say, “Put on a mask and keep social distance,” we become like that generation who thought John the Baptizer had a demon and Jesus was a glutton and drunkard.
But still…the doctors persist. The nurses keep emphasizing the public health advice. And now, even more politicians on both sides of the aisle are saying we must accept the reality of this virus, so please wear a mask in public.
Yet the resistance to these instructions continues.
So, do we give up? Do we say as Paul wrote to the Romans that we know what we ought to do, but we do the thing we hate?
We are living in a time of trouble on so many fronts. Life is hard, overwhelming and scary. Change is difficult. But Jesus’ message is that we must keep pressing forward even though we will suffer at times and may even lose a friend or two along the way. That’s part of the cost of discipleship…which brings us back to those comfortable words.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Taking just a minute here…Imagine for a moment what troubles you? What makes you uncertain?
Now think of what it feels like to have someone be with you in that place of discomfort and fear. A friend or a loved one who listens attentively and stays with you in that place.
Now…imagine for a moment another person…someone who is a stranger to you. Are they feeling troubled? Do they feel anxious? As you listen to them…what are they telling you?
Ask yourself: what might I do to make their burden a little bit lighter?
This is where the Spirit of God is meeting us in this time. When we can find fellowship and kinship with another…when we can hear in their experiences echoes of our own…we come closer to living out our faith as Christians to be the true friend to another child of God.
The tasks and the difficulties before us…our race relations or COVID-19…are no less weighty…but we are not alone. Jesus is with us. He’s teaching and leading us in how to take care of one another and have compassion even when we meet with resistance. This is what it means to walk the path of Love.
We who have ears to hear, listen.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

To Tell the Truth: A Trinity Sunday Sermon

The common joke about this day…Trinity Sunday…is that it is often referred to as “Deacon Sunday.” That’s because the priest tends to punt on this day and has the deacon preach the sermon. And since the deacon is in charge today…well…I’m the one in Seminary—so tag I’m it.

Our reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is peculiar. It’s the conclusion, the wrap-up sentences of this missive to one of his church plants. And what’s interesting is this is the only time Paul ever uses a trinitarian conclusion to a letter. Oh, sure…he often ends his letters with citing the “grace of Christ.” But here it’s extended to include “the love of God” and “the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

The grace of Christ…Jesus’ willingness to go to the grave so that we could have life.

The love of God…so much so that God gave us God’s Word…God’s Son…so that we could taste what it means to live free.

The communion of the Holy Spirit…ah, yes! That Spirit which is our every breath…that blew open the hearts and minds of our ancestors and gave them courage to speak in every tongue their truth as followers of The Way.

Grace and Love all intertwined and knit together in communion…all three. All one.

Paul probably needed to summon the strength of that threesome for the times in which he was living. You see…as nice as this conclusion sounds, it’s coming at the end of three chapters worth of angry appeal…and calling out the corruption and the problems that were growing in the church. People had come into the community and started spreading lies about Paul claiming that he was stealing from them and wasn’t a real apostle. I imagine for the man who had worked so hard to build up this Christian community, such attacks on him and discord probably felt like a gut punch. How could this people turn on him and believe the purveyors of falsehoods? In the lines preceding this passage, Paul says something that I think speaks to us today:

Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2Cor.13:5).

This is our now. We too, have the apostle’s words saying to us: examine yourself. Is Christ not within you? We are grappling with the realities of racial division made starkly evident in the most recent deaths of Ahmaud Aubery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Our siblings of color…many of whom are the essential workers we have depended upon during this COVID-19 pandemic and have been the backbone of American business for centuries have told us they are tired.

They’re hoarse from screaming for justice.

They are all cried out for mercy’s sake.

These events have brought us to a place where we must examine ourselves, test ourselves to see if we are living faithfully into the grace of Jesus. This type of self-examination requires us to be willing to be vulnerable and let our guards down. We have to recognize and confess to the ways in which we have been both blind and complicit to the brokenness in our nation.

We recently had a great example of what that honest assessment looks like from our new bishop, the Right Reverend Frank Logue. I don’t know if you watched his sermon from last Wednesday night’s diocesan Evening Prayer service. If you didn’t, I highly commend it to you as Must-See TV. He did truth-telling about his life, his background, and realizations that he was OK just sitting on the sidelines thinking that he was immune from what was happening around him. That is the lullaby of living in a white body in America. I have heard it, too.

When my wife and I signed the lease on the house that we eventually bought in Tallahassee, we were elated. We were in a neighborhood near parks, downtown, and had our friends as neighbors right across the street. The man who was our landlord was also pleased. He didn’t question that we were two single professional women renting this home that he had built for his father. Our friends had vouched for us as the type of people he’d want to have living there. As he handed us the keys and waxed nostalgic about this house and the one next door—which he also had built and had been his family’s home—he told us how he had been mayor during the Civil Rights era in Tallahassee, and he assured us that we would never have to worry about having “colored people” next door. We were the right people for that house…because we were white. And in the comfort of our whiteness…we said nothing.

Truth-telling is difficult work, but it is an important task and it is the work toward true freedom. Jesus in John’s gospel tells his disciples that if they continue in his word…stay true to his teachings…they will know the truth and the truth will set them free (John 8:31-32). Truth meaning that they must remain steadfast in their relationship to God. And this brings us back to Love.

Living in love with one another lifts a weight off the mind and the heart, gives us more lightness in our being and allows us to see more clearly the light of Christ in the other person. We ourselves then can live more faithfully into the grace of Christ, the love of God and in communion with the Holy Spirit. That’s the trinitarian nature of God. It is about three being bound together…being interrelated and interconnected…being unifed even in diversity. God invites us into this same relationship. Right here. Right now.

May the Wisdom of God, the Love of God, and the Grace of God strengthen us to be Christ’s hands and heart in this world, in the name of the Holy Trinity.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

I Can't Breathe: Pentecost in the Pandemic

We're on fire in America. In Minneapolis. Nashville. Washington, DC. We're on fire. 

On Pentecost, the story is that the Holy Spirit arrived in the Upper Room in Jersusalem in a rush of wind and settled on each of the people in that room with "tongues of fire." That fire gave them the burning energy to proclaim to the world the glory of God and the story of Jesus and his ministry. That fire drove them out into the world that was no less dangerous for them than it was before the mighty wind gust blew open the windows and doors of their hearts and minds. With that powerful spirit inside them, surrounding them, lighting them up...they went out into the streets, into the countryside, off to distant lands to bring a new way of relating to the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. They were on fire.

Fire has the ability to rage. It burns. It destroys buildings. 

Fire has the ability also to purify. A welder's fire brings metal to metal to form a bond. The heat of a fire on a stove can melt butter, sizzle oil, boil the water. 

Right now in our country, with a deadly pandemic showing no mercy to anyone and disproportionally taking out those who cannot afford to stay home, we have fires burning inside and out. They are both the fires of destruction and the fires of purification. And they stem from a spark lit in Minneapolis with a white cop kneeling on the neck of a black man in handcuffs. George Floyd was pleading, "I can't breathe." And those were the words of his dying breath. That breath of spirit leaving him has lit up this nation and revived a part of the "normal" in America that I had prayed would not come back.

This spark, this ember, has been burning and igniting fires for centuries in this country...all the way back to colonial Virginia when wealthy landowners figured out that they needed to sow seeds of distrust between indentured whites and African slaves. Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, which burned Jamestown to the ground, was the beginning of the move for the white ruling class to set up legal distinctions between "white" and "black" people. By giving "white" indentured servants land and convincing them that they really had more in common with the ruling class than their fellow poor Africans, they were able to divide and conquer more easily. Aside: Nathaniel Bacon was no hero either as his motive to make a militia of black and white servants was motivated by hatred of the indigenous tribes of Virginia and a power struggle with his wealthy white relative who was Governor at the time. A hundred years later, a Revolution, and a nation was born...but the fire of racism was, and still is, burning.

This new fire...fueled by the taking of George Floyd's destroying buildings. And it is having the power to purify. I am witnessing an awakening of some of my fellow white people to realize that we have always had one advantage: we aren't black. We aren't immediately deemed "suspect" when we walk into a store. We can drive, walk, jog, check out things in our neighborhood without having to worry that there will be some misunderstanding or misread about us. It is a sobering realization. But it is one that, once that fire is lit within, can help to purify the soul to do the work of repairing the breach. 

The Holy Spirit is often represented as the wind or the breath of our souls and bodies. And as long as the George Floyds of America gasp that they cannot breathe and have their breaths taken away, none of us can breathe freely. Time to let that other image of the Holy Spirit...that fiery on white America to call out for an end to this madness of our own making, acknowledge the cries of the unheard, and purify the soul of this country. May I have the courage to do this work.  

Friday, May 22, 2020

Caesar and the Church

I have already written on the issue of opening the church prematurely during a pandemic. But today the president decided to announce that churches and other faith spaces are "essential services"; hence they need to open right now. And if any Governor attempts to stop a religious group from gathering, he would personally see to it to override the gubernatorial authority and order the buildings open.

Needless to say, I used a string of words that I promise I will ask God to forgive me for uttering before I go to sleep tonight.

This is an outrage and overreach by the president. He has no right to demand this of any Governor, and he has absolutely no authority to declare any religious entity open its doors for a worship service. The churches, the synagogues, the mosques, the temples....none of them have been "closed" during this pandemic. We have not been meeting in person. We are keeping socially-distant when we do, and usually no more than two or three. Most of us have learned to navigate our way into the world of online worship, and we're doing it warts and all every week, with services that are reaching people who otherwise might not walk through our doors. And, the last time I checked, God was not limited to a building anyway. For Christians, the "church" is the people, not the space. And God can be praised anywhere, any time. 

The reason we are not meeting, and why most religious leaders have been discouraging gathering in our buildings, is simply because there is no way to keep the most vulnerable members safe, or keep the communities we live in safe if we should meet and someone in our midst be a carrier of COVID-19. Remember, it is the asymptomatic carriers who put everyone within their radius unintentionally at risk. This is why wearing a mask in public is necessary. But never mind that: most of the people demanding that churches meet are also the ones walking around their local Publix without a mask. Following Christ requires us to "love God, love your neighbor as yourself." That means thinking about more than just our own needs and wants and considering others. 

This is why pushing to bring us all together into our buildings for an hour on a Sunday morning...or into a mosque or synagogue on a Friday or asking us to turn our worship spaces into a petri dish of highly-contagious viral infection. And this is, in my opinion, demonic. Only the powers of Satan would want to encourage people to gather during the height of a pandemic into a space dedicated to worshipping God and call it an "essential service." What a perfect scenario for the satanic work of driving people away from God: get them or their loved ones seriously ill, possibly kill them, for coming to worship together. Already, I am seeing posts on Facebook from atheist friends who are touting, "See: I told you!" For them, this confirms Christianity is a "death cult." 

Yesterday, we marked the ascension of Jesus into heaven to prepare the way for the incoming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus left his disciples with a road map to follow to know how to live and take care of one another. We shouldn't let his ascension be a chance for us to lose our minds and retreat inward into selfishness. 

Frankly, the president can say whatever he wants about people heading back to their worship spaces. I will render to Caesar what is Caesar's. The church, in my context, is governed by the orders of the bishop. And we'll be doing services in my diocese online this Sunday. All are welcome...even in your pajamas.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

What is "Normal"?

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy, 
but now you have received mercy.

--1 Peter 2:10

I have been thinking a lot about the re-opening of states during this pandemic. Not that states were ever really “closed.” Some things were, and still are, being put on hold. Opportunities for large gatherings—sporting events, church services—are still not considered safe enough to reopen, really. But restaurants and some retail have been told they can operate in a modified fashion. Some are taking the steps they need to keep customers safe. Some are finding it challenging to strike the balance between being in the service industry and needing to limit how many can be served at one time. In other words, it’s still a bumpy ride.

All this effort seems geared toward attempting to get the economy going again and returning to “normal.”

And that’s an odd thing…in my opinion…for us to be striving to achieve.

See: “normal” and getting wheels grinding for our economy are not necessarily the lessons I would have hoped we would have gained in this time of pandemic time-out. In fact, there is a whole lot of what had been considered “normal” that I do not think we should accept as “normal.” 

·       Should white vigilante justice be “normal,” allowing white people to shoot black people because we think they might be criminals?

·       Should we want to rush back into the “normal” of school shootings and gang violence taking out young people in the beginning of their lives?

·       Should we accept a healthcare system that lacks proper personal protection equipment for doctors, nurses, and EMTs?

·       Should we be OK with large meat processing plants that have allowed infection to spread among the workers not to mention the many reports over the years of unsanitary conditions for the animals leading to food-borne illnesses?

·       Should we consider normal pollution that has been choking rivers and streams and causing us to have days where it was considered unsafe for some to step outside and breathe the supposedly fresh air?

These are just some of the “normal” that I think have been accepted for far too long, and we should not be in a rush to go back to this. In fact, I think it might be nice to consider how we move away from this type of people that we have been and look to being made more into God’s people. A people that takes to heart that love of God is expressed by loving each other, caring for each other, valuing each other, and recognizing that those things that attack and destroy the creatures of God are the very things we are pledged to stand against.

My prayer for this time continues to be that we rediscover what we have lost along the way of being such a productive people. For far too long we have labored for the purposes of an economy that lives on the gold standard and not the God standard. Let’s begin to recognize in this pandemic that we are a people more connected than we might have otherwise thought. And let us rediscover an old way and turn our attention toward caring for each other and all of creation…animal, vegetable, and mineral.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

They Will Know I Am Christian By My Mask

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.--Acts 2:42-47

When I contemplate the above passage, one of the assigned readings for this Fourth Sunday of Easter, I am aware of the growing irritation and anger that is in the country right now as governors announce they are lifting restrictions on businesses and allowing them to reopen. People have been anxious and afraid of COVID-19, and rightly so: it has killed close to 60,000 people since the end of February. At the same time, the social-distancing has meant that we don't get to spend time with each other...including in our churches...and for many that leads to a lot of heartache. We humans are social animals, and as we see in this reading from Acts, Christianity is a social religion. 

But the way the anger has spilled over is not good, in my opinion. Gangs, and that's what I call them, of people have been storming state capitol buildings with automatic rifles slung across their bodies to protest the government orders to stay at home. They are being egged on by those who have seen their stock portfolios tanking during this pandemic (see, businesses forced to close cannot make money for the CEOs). These hooligans are attacking the health care workers and first responders and now even the grocery store workers who are wearing masks. In one video that was circulating on Twitter, a woman is screaming at another woman wearing a mask that by covering her chin, mouth and nose,"you're frightening people!" 

"....with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people..."

When I see masked workers, I see something completely different. They do not frighten me. In fact, they make me feel safer. When I see a store demanding that I, as a shopper, also wear a mask to cover my chin, mouth and nose, I am not offended. I am happy to take on that inconvenience because it tells me this business owner cares not only about the safety of their employees but also the safety of the other customers. The key to the passage from this Sunday's lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is that the apostles' hearts were glad and generous because they held all things in common....most especially the common good and the healing of all people. The whole reason we have had these stay-at-home orders, this social distancing, the wearing of masks is to starve COVID-19 of its ability to pass from one person to another and overwhelm our hospitals. This is about protecting the common wealth of all people against a deadly virus. The temple that we are being asked to spend time with is the temple of our own body, in our own home, and breaking bread with our own family. For those who are alone, this is a time of difficulty. And yet the phone (mobile and landline) still exists for everyone, even when there is no internet to allow for Skype, or Zoom, or Google hangouts, or FaceTime. 

Wearing a mask, for me, is probably the most outward and visible sign of God's love that I can show another person. It is my signal to others that I care enough about the interconnectedness of humanity that I don't want to put you or anyone at risk of illness. In turn, I see your mask as extending that same love toward me. 

"And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."

Please: if we want to save the human race, please: wear a mask in public. Wash your hands. Stop screaming at our emergency and essential workers. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Locked Homes: The Unpreached Sermon

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.--John 20:19-31

This Sunday, I was scheduled to preach at my contextual ministry site in DC.

Instead, I will be tuning into online services from the comfort of my home in Florida. Such is the demise of the spring semester of my Middler year.

It's just as well. What I would have probably said about the reading from the Gospel of John pre-COVID-19 would be so meaningless in this time of pandemic. I do see something for us in this story that is relevant for our present time, and so let's see how I might shuffle the pieces of this passage and lay down some appropriate preaching cards.

I think we all know what it means to be locked away right now. We are in fear of a virus that could be riding on the air droplets from anyone. The people may not appear to be sick but who knows who they've been around?

Where have they been?

How completely has this person washed their hands?

The federal government has done little to alleviate our paranoia. We simply don't know how many people are sick or potential carriers because we have not been aggressively testing. The states have been left to their own devices to find ways to meet the demands made on hospitals. For many of us, the order to stay at home seems the best way to avoid getting deathly ill.
But we are also, admittedly, going a little stir crazy. One wonders if all those in First Century Palestine who locked themselves away were ready to climb the walls, too?

Suddenly, without the door ever opening, Jesus appears to them. Well, most of them. Thomas wasn't there for the initial visit. And Jesus says, "Peace be with you."

Peace. What a concept! Trapped inside a locked house in fear of what is on the outside, Jesus defies the barrier to bring greetings of peace. And unlike the accounts from our synoptic gospels, there's no mistaking who this is standing in the middle of the room because he still bears the scars of his brutal execution. His marks of suffering are visible to the eye, but he is not in pain or showing any signs of worry. Instead, he arrives in the midst of fear and anxiety in his marred body to say, "Peace be with you."

I've been telling people this week that this time of unknowns and great fear has highlighted for me that my faith in God is even more real, more present, and more important than when things were "normal." I don't have a Eucharist to re-member me into the Body of Christ every week. I don't have the physical community surrounding me and praying and singing with me as we put aside any differences we may have to unite in "one hope, one faith, one baptism." Being stripped away of the "things" of my faith leaves me with the one thing that is important: my trust and belief in God who has an intimate understanding of what it means to feel lost and alone because he has "been there, done that, got the wounds to prove it." I'm experiencing the God who abides with us, in us, and around us as we stay physically distant from one another.

And so what about Thomas, one of my personal favorites of the Bible? We can, and I have heard many a sermon where the preacher has scoffed at Thomas for having "doubts" about the veracity of the story from the other disciples that Jesus showed up in their midst. I don't blame Thomas. I relate to Thomas. I think the initial loss of Jesus was traumatic enough that he was highly skeptical of what his clearly delusional friends were telling him.

And I think if we were honest, we are just as skeptical today. We doubt God is present with us as we thrash about trying to figure out how to get churches open or businesses going rather than honoring the advice of our scientists that we have to wait. We fail to believe in God when we can't see how wearing a mask in public  right now is the most Christian way we can express love for our essential worker neighbors. We doubt God when we protest stay-at-home orders and insist on congregating in large groups. Basically, the more we try to impose our will on the circumstances of this pandemic, the more we are tapping into our doubt that we can make it through this rather than trusting in our faith that our medical researchers are using their God-given skills to help us.

Jesus said "Peace be with you." He says it three times in this passage. This is the message he delivered to the believers and the doubters locked in the house. That is still the message being delivered as we are encouraged to stay at home during this pandemic. Peace is with you...peace has been with you...peace will be with you. Trust and believe.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday in the Pandemic Wilderness

This entry is going to be short. I feel as though I have seen and read and been exposed to countless musings about this Good Friday and what it means to be experiencing Good Friday when we are (start the list of all the losses, the fears, the doubts, the despairs) that we are experiencing. And, just like other people's blogs, I am not discounting any of those feelings. They are real and legitimate. 

But long before there was a pandemic to plunge us into the spiral of feelings we're in, I have been thinking about this day and this night and the terrifying and unjust torture that happened to Jesus. I had been connecting it to the Scripture passages that I have preached on this academic year. If you aren't familiar with my Christ the King Sunday sermon or the one for the First Sunday in Lent, you might want to pause and go check them out. You see, I think that part of the reality of Jesus being fully human is that he fully suffered as we did and still do. And I believe that his fully divine nature was not unnaturally divided and untouched by that human suffering. But I believe what the miracle and the victory of Easter shows us is how God...through Jesus Christ's first-hand, up-close-and-personal experience of being human...can take all the broken parts and transform them into a resurrected self. 
And this is how Love wins and defeats Death, and the forces of cruelty and injustice that attempted to kill Love, and the temptations that thought their allure could deceive Love, are thrown back down and Love becomes the victor and standard-bearer for us all. 

I've been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Meditations on the Cross this Lent. This snippet from a letter to the Leibholz family, written in 1942, seems fitting for our time:

"There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart."

And so, as I think about this time of uncertainty and this wilderness moment, I am also believing in the God who is actively at work in this moment of suffering to bring about a transformation. If I can express hope in all of this, it is that as we emerge from the cloud of COVID-19 and all the holes it has exposed in our social safety nets, we might turn back toward being a more loving people than what we have been. Maybe we'll see the need to take care of our infrastructure, our health care system, our economic disparities. In this way, I diverge from Bonhoeffer. If we actually cared for the sick, took care of the widow and orphaned, really loved one another, I think we would see God in that happiness. 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Tridiuum in Trying Times

Tonight, we are entering into that special sacred space we call the "Tridiuum." It's a fancy way of saying the three days leading up to the Feast of the Resurrection, commonly called Easter.

Normally, Episcopalians would gather at their churches tonight, sometimes to share an agape meal, but always to have a foot-washing, a Eucharist, and the sobering moment of watching the things that make our altars beautiful and identifiable get stripped down to nothing. As I remarked in a sermon once at my sending parish, St. Thomas has some of the altar linens fastened down with Velcro. When the altar guild removes them in the silence of the sanctuary with us watching, the ripping sound sends a chill down my spine. It is the reminder of the humiliation and violence Jesus endured when the Roman soldiers stripped him, beat him, and mocked him.

These days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday have served as the opportunity for me to stand before a cross, draped in black, and reflect upon those last moments in Jesus' life and what that brutality and violence means for me and the world. These are the days when I enter deeply into the Christian narrative and have been a time which is both intensely personal and transformative.

I have had these moments of theological reflection both as  a devout member of a faith community and even when I was not a member of a church.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my faith in God, and my faith in God as the Trinity (I have to do this anyway as part of a class in seminary). Since Palm Sunday, I have been reflecting on a conversation I had about Ash Wednesday with the late Father Lee Graham, a Virginia Theological Seminary graduate. Lee challenged me to stand outside St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Tallahassee and protest Ash Wednesday. I was curious what prompted this 90+ year-old Episcopal priest to be so anti-Ash Wednesday. He explained that he "ain't dust!" and insisted that he was a "child of God" and that the church was using Ash Wednesday as a way to make people feel guilty. And then he turned the tables on me.

"What do you think? Do you think you're dust?"

I didn't have an answer. I had never thought about the question. He smiled and shook his head.

"You need to question your faith!"

Here enter a pandemic that has cancelled Holy Week and Easter services in churches around the globe. People are long-faced and despairing.

How can they celebrate Easter when it feels as if Holy Week is never-ending?

How can they know that they are members of the body of Christ if they are unable to celebrate the Eucharist?

I find myself returning to Fr. Lee's examination of me at his dining room table, and I turn the question around: is our faith in God so dependent upon the rituals and liturgies of Holy Week? Is our faith in God only to be found in the breaking of the bread? Is it only Easter if we are gathered in a church full of flowers on a particular Sunday in the Spring?

Again, I remember that I spent years of my life not associated with a church community in large part because the only church community I had ever known, the Episcopal Church, was a toxic and harmful place for a queer person in Tallahassee. And I had known enough, and had enough of an experience with God, to know that I did not need to subject myself to homophobic rantings from a pulpit to be in relationship with God.

Returning to the church, being part of the Christian community, has certainly deepened and strengthened my relationship with God. One of the ways these roots have sunk so far down is that I have developed friendships with others who, through their baptisms, are in a covenanted bonding with me through Christ. This is why Christianity is a communal religion and why it has been painful for many of us to have to resort to Facebook Live and Zoom in order to worship together. But that's the thing: we are able to worship together through the means of technology. We are able to text and talk on the phone and have Skype and FaceTime and other means of being in touch during this time when we cannot touch each other.

All of this reminds me of the scene in Matthew's gospel where the disciples are in a boat, and they see Jesus walking on the water toward them. They cower in fear because they presume he's a ghost. He assures them that it's really him and they shouldn't be afraid. That's when Peter pipes up and asks Jesus to invite Peter out onto the water with him. Jesus tells his disciple to come. So Peter steps out of the boat onto the water:

But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.--Matthew 14:30-32

These are trying times right now. But I believe that it is in our moments when we are feeling ourselves sinking into despair about social distancing and mourning the loss of liturgy that we are called upon to trust in God and not be afraid. Easter will happen. Love will conquer death. And we, too, will rise from this figurative death as well. Keep the faith.