Monday, December 6, 2021

Prepare and Proclaim: A Sermon for St. Barnabas at Advent 2

 

I knew it was coming. 

When people started arriving at St. Barnabas yesterday, I heard the grumbling about how their "mostly annual" Christmas Giveaway event, where they literally give away baby clothes, puzzles, toys, dining room sets, etc. etc., did not have the same overflow turnout as the time before. There was stuff leftover that would need to be carted away. They didn't have the long line stretching out to the road. Oh, what a miserable failure it had been...

But it wasn't. 

Things had been given away. People had shown up and left with two large garbage bags full of clothes and toys. And even if they didn't have a line (we're still living in a pandemic and people just aren't interested in standing in lines with strangers), about 200 people showed up...and those 200 people left happy. 

And once more, this congregation that is so small by comparison to others that I have been associated with, managed to make something happen. And it was good. And it needed to be named as such. 

At Advent, we take stock of what maybe amiss in our lives, but we are not allowed to just sit there staring into the void and thinking "Woe is me. I'm so broken. The world is going to hell in a handbasket." We are to see those things with the knowledge that there is light shining through the cracks of our lives...and that light is the promise of God that is always there: we are not alone. We are loved. Clear out the clutter and see that light shining." 

+++

God, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing;
Let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightening,
Illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness,
and exclaim… in wonder… how filled with awe is this place…and we did not know it. Amen.—Shabbat Evening 1, Mishkan T’filah, 53.


When we hear the phrase, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” how many of us immediately think of the opening musical number from Godspell? If you remember the movie, the John the Baptist character has his arm wrapped around a statue in the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in New York City as he sings out “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” And from all over the city, a ragtag motly crew of hippies in their beads, scarves and bellbottoms flock to this fountain and join the song, joyously splashing in the waters. It’s an upbeat, energetic, playful scene.

What a great way to imagine the hopefulness and excitement of this news…singing, dancing, and splashing in the water. This enthusiastic moment captures the liberating feeling of the Holy Spirit…

And it tells us a lot about John.  

The Baptizer is full of the Spirit. He’s one of the important characters in the Gospels whose entire life is about heralding this “new thing” that is coming with the advent of Jesus.

So let’s take a moment to talk about John…and John’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth…and what they might have to say to us in our world right now.

Our Evangelist for the season…Luke…is a careful and meticulous keeper of the records. All those names we heard this morning in the Gospel: those might seem to be a lot of blah-blah-blah Pilate blah-blah-blah Herod. But really what our Shakespeare of the Bible is doing here is establishing an historical time frame…and a particular set of power brokers. These are the forces of empire and status who are the polar opposites of John, the hippie back-to-the-land, prophet who eats locusts and wild honey. John was the leader of the Essenes… a group that had moved out into the wilderness in an effort to rediscover and live into what they considered a purer form of Judaism. 

In Luke’s Gospel…the births of John and Jesus are both detailed and bear one striking similarity. We’ve heard the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary to tell her that she will be the God bearer? Well…Gabriel appeared first to Zechariah, the priest to announce John’s birth. Here’s what happened.

It was Zechariah’s turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer up incense to God. He departs from the crowd that had gathered to pray and enters the sanctuary and who should be waiting for him but Gabriel. The angel tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a son and he is to be called John.

Gabriel goes on to tell Zechariah that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit, will get the people of Israel to return to the Lord, parents and children will find each other, and the disobedient will become wise and righteous…all in preparation for the Lord.

Now…this is Advent…and Advent is a season just begging for us to engage our brains in imagination.

So put yourself in Zechariah’s shoes. You’ve entered the sanctuary expecting to perform a religious ritual you’ve done countless times before. And there’s an angel standing there telling you about this son you never thought you were going to have and that he’s going to be this prophet to lead Israel into a new era of peace.

Keep in mind both Zechariah and Elizabeth already have their A-A-R-P cards.

They know what time the early bird special is being served, so the idea that Elizabeth is going to have a child is outrageous.

So, can we really blame Zechariah for being a bit skeptical?

He says to the angel:

“Mmmm….how do I know this is true?”

And Gabriel, being a bit irritated that anyone would doubt such great news, tells him: Look, dude: I’m Gabriel. God sent me to tell you this. And since you’ve doubted me, I’m going to make you mute.

Zechariah emerges from the sanctuary and he can’t say anything. And the people gathered are like, “Whoa! Something happened to him!”

Fast forward about nine months. John is born and on the eighth day, which is the customary time for Jewish babies to be named and the male children circumcised…the people gather and ask Elizabeth: So what’s your baby’s name?

And she says: John.

And their like: John?! What sort of a name is that? There isn’t a John in your family?!

And…as happens all-too-often…the woman’s word must be wrong, so they all turn to Zechariah to straighten this out. Zechariah takes a writing tablet. Everyone leans into see what the old man is scribbling down. And then there is the collective gasp as they read the from the tablet:
His Name is John.

Instantly, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed…his mouth is opened, and he simply can’t contain himself. After nine plus months of being speechless… his heart sings out:

“Baruch ata Adonai!

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel

He has come to his people and set them free!”

His joy bursts forth…

“This was the oath that he swore to our Father Abraham

To set us free from our enemies,

Free to worship him without fear,

Holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.”

And then…turning to gaze down into this baby cradled in the arms of Elizabeth:

“You, my child, shall be called the Prophet of the Most High

For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation

By the forgiveness of their sins.”

This canticle is so common to our Morning Prayer worship to the point that it becomes rote and may just seem like words, words, words. But this is Advent… a time to slow down and pay attention…and notice what Zechariah is proclaiming.

A new thing is coming…and his son is going to be the one to prepare the way.

We can get a sense that this whole family has been touched by the Holy Spirit: Elizabeth in her declaration of John’s name; Zechariah in his proclamation of John’s future…and John with his announcement to prepare the way for the Lord.

All against a backdrop of empire, classism, and haves and have nots. The light of peace and promise is going to break through the darkness of despair and there’s no way to stop it.

And maybe that’s the preparation we are all called to be doing at this time of Advent. Not to be a Pollyanna and say everything in the world is wonderful. But we also need to be careful to not let those things that we carry around in our hearts…worries about the world, our jobs or relationships…keep us from seeking God and noticing those signs of beauty and love that are still happening even in trying times. And naming them when they happen.

I had a great example of that this past Wednesday when I pulled into our church parking lot. I can’t tell you how grateful I was to see a bunch of cars, and then to walk into our parish hall and witness it bustling with activity…with folks laying out items for the Christmas Giveaway. There was a spirit of collaboration and co-operation as people made space for one more dining set…and arranged brightly colored baby clothing…or set up books. There was so much love that went into making our parish hall into a shopping bazaar.

The sight of those cars and that room and knowing that what we were offering to the community could bring a smile to someone else helped to sweep away some of the weight of worry that was on my mind that afternoon. Even if the turnout wasn’t huge, we made some people happy and THAT is enough!

John’s cry in the wilderness:

"Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

 Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

                            and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

When doubt and despair begins to cloud our minds…remember that John is calling us to not get fixated on what is broken, but to look for love in action and proclaim it. Prepare for God’s inbreaking. Get ready. A new thing is about to happen.

 

Monday, November 29, 2021

Seek God: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent at St. Barnabas

 


As I was prepping for my sermon this past Sunday, I read in a commentary that Vincent VanGogh's famous painting "The Starry Night" was inspired by the scripture reading from Luke, which depicts chaos in the skies and the seas as the Son of Man is coming. 
I also knew that as I was reading both Jeremiah and the pericope chosen from Luke 21, I couldn't stop thinking about the trial in Brunswick, Georgia, and the conviction of Greg and Travis McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan for the murder of a black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery. So many people expressed shock (and relief!) that an almost all-white South Georgia jury found three white men, one of whom (Greg McMichael) had a connection to the local Brunswick District Attorney, guilty of murder. I wasn't shocked; I thought the evidence was pretty overwhelming. I was relieved because well...I have thought the evidence pretty overwhelming in other cases where the killing seemed racially-motivated and yet the people were not charged or convicted. Certainly, the lack of a conviction in Wisconsin in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse made some more anxious about what was to happen in Georgia. 
And the Georgia trial had all the theater that I know some in the South really don't like. There were demonstrations outside the courthouse, including one day when the New Black Panther Party marched with guns. The judge in the case made sure the jury was secluded from what was happening outside the courthouse. 
What didn't get as much attention was the clergy group that had formed in the wake of the murder. That interfaith group kept up a vigil of prayer every morning for all parties involved, the lawyers, the judge and the jurors. Prayer isn't as striking an image for the TV cameras as armed people, especially armed black people. But I would like to believe that the presence of those clergy people had a small yet significant impact on keeping the peace in moments of disquiet and difficulty.
There is no better time for God's presence to be known than in those times!

+++

Good morning! And welcome to Advent…that season of preparation, anticipation, and not anything our culture understands or appreciates.

I’m sure y’all noticed the red and green decorations in the stores…even before all the Halloween candy was sold out. Even driving in this morning…I saw the large Christmas ball decorations on the street corners.

While big box stores have been pushing Christmas for weeks…we come to church and are greeted with the words of Luke’s Gospel:

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken….”(Luke 21:25-26)

The Luke reading may sound a bit grim…and in so many ways…that seems exactly right for this season of Advent…and especially for our times right now.

All eyes of the nation had been focused on the trial in Brunswick for the past month.

And while the jury handed down guilty verdicts in that case…

One family has had a son murdered…

Two other families are living with the punishment that their loved ones committed a murder.  

And a community must now work to reckon with what has happened and heal from the event.

I think the bishops here in Georgia…our bishop Logue and the Bishop of Atlanta as well as the Lutheran bishop of the Southeastern Synod got it right when they called for us to pray for all affected, including ourselves…as we continue to do the work we have been given to do to reckon with the sin of racism and to strive toward a world where all God’s beloved children are treated with respect and dignity.

I had honestly and maybe naively hoped that the pandemic with shutdowns and lockdowns and dependance on those we called “essential workers”…which included people working in grocery stores and restaurants…that maybe our hearts would have softened enough to see how we are… as people… so interconnected and interdependent.

Perhaps we might begin to see Christ in the face of the person we regard as “other.”

Time and time again…I’ve been disappointed and disillusioned that our forced social distancing has seemed to separate us even more.

Tempers are shorter.

People are more rude.

As one of my friends once said, “We are a long way from the manger in Bethlehem.”

Again…I say…welcome to Advent….a time when we are encouraged to slow down…take stock of the messiness that is our reality at times…and to keep searching for that light in the distance as we look for Christ’s return.  

If there’s someone who understands “messy” and has words that still remain so incredibly relevant it’s the prophet Jeremiah.

“The days are surely coming…” he says. They aren’t here yet. They are “surely coming.”

Something to know about Jeremiah:

he’s the prophet for people who have been through trauma. And this poor guy has seen A LOT of trauma.

He’s the prophet of those residents of the southern kingdom…Judah… who thought they had it all figured out. The Assyrians had conquered them…but they were going to eventually overthrow their aggressors.

Instead…they were defeated, captured and scattered in the Babylonian exile. Jerusalem was piles of rubble and only a small remnant remained…one of those being Jeremiah.

Now he’d tried to warn the leaders of Judah of these enemy invasions.

But instead of thanking him and heeding the warnings…Jeremiah was beaten and ridiculed.

So here he is…in this city still smoking and smoldering from the Babylonian takeover… and yet Jeremiah is proclaiming hope.

The hope is not going to come right away…but “the days are surely coming.”

There is a righteous branch that will spring up for David (Jer.33:15b). The conquered kingdom of Judah will be restored…and the ransacked city of Jerusalem will be safe…and will be called “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jer.33:16).

These days haven’t arrived yet.

But Jeremiah knows this is coming.

He has such an intimate and close relationship to God (at the beginning of the Book of Jeremiah…we hear God say that he knew Jeremiah in the womb) and Jeremiah knows in the depths of his soul that God is going to deliver this frightened and shaken people.

Those days are surely coming…so don’t give up.

Don’t shut down.

Keep the faith.

Jeremiah’s lite motif: Seek God. Seek God. Seek God!

How much do we need to have the prophet now in our time…during these past almost two years…to keep our hearts and minds fixed on a future beyond pandemics?

Interestingly…the symbol of the righteous branch…new life growing… fits with the hope that follows the “roaring sea” and “fainting in fear” language of Luke’s Gospel.

Jesus uses the fig tree to reminds us that even when things might be feeling out-of-sorts…there is hope…like when the leaves of the fig tree start sprouting, we know cold and winter will give way to warmth and summer.

This is Jesus giving us a type of pep talk in the same way that Jeremiah was giving reassurance to his beleaguered people.

Where this particular passage comes in Luke’s Gospel is right before everything starts unraveling in Jerusalem and Jesus is arrested.

So he’s speaking these words in a time where he knows that he’s in danger.

But even in this moment of uncertainty…Jesus isn’t saying to throw in the towel.

No!

He’s saying, “Don’t let the worries of this life get you down!

Keep your head up!

Redemption is coming!

Not as some after-you-die sort-of-thing; it’s coming now…right now!

Don’t just stare into the void, but see what is happening around you, and know that hope is springing up…just like that righteous branch.”

Jesus’ lite motif: Seek God. Seek God. Seek God.

How much do we need to hear that message from Jesus now?!

And it is coming into fruition.

I see it in the response of clergy in Brunswick who came together to serve as the non-anxious presence of prayer for the length of that murder trial.

All five of the Episcopal Churches in the Glynn County area…as well as Baptists, Methodists, Jews and Muslims…made a point of being outside the courthouse. They all agreed to work together because they knew how deeply shaken the community had been by what happened.

And like Jeremiah…and like Jesus…they also knew that their best offering back to the community was to acknowledge that while the times are hard…there is still a God who has not forsaken South Georgia and empowers them and us to seek the Holy that is present in all people…loving our neighbors as ourselves.

They kept a daily vigil each morning to pray for the judge, the jury and the families.

They looked to God…and served as a visible sign of God for a hurting and troubled community.

Not only did this help serve as a balm to the wounds of Brunswick…it has opened channels of communication and dialogue among the people of faith in Glynn County.

I pray that the good work they’ve begun continues…and might even be an inspiration for us here in Lowndes County.

What an amazing thing it would be if our three Episcopal Churches might find a common mission to make life better for all people.

What a positive affect we could have if the Episcopal Churches joined with other faith leaders to be a force of love and lowering the temperature on the anger that seems to be fueling division in the world?

What an outward and visible sign of God’s grace and love when the Episcopal Churches and all people of faith come together in unity of purpose to seek God!

Those days are surely coming, says the Lord…

In the Name of our Undivided Trinity…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…

 


Sunday, November 14, 2021

Things Cast Down Being Made New: A Sermon for Proper 28B at Christ the King, Valdosta

 Christ the King Episcopal Church needs prayers. 

They are in the midst of lots of transitions. Their founding rector, the Rev. Stan White, died last year right before Christmas at the time when churches were still navigating how to do their services in the middle of a viral pandemic of catastrophic proportions. The person brought in to steady the ship is my supervising priest and one-time spiritual director, the Rev. Galen Mirate. She was raised up from that congregation and has known them for at least two decades. In the time that she has been with CtK this year, she has steered them through the rough waters of letting go of their old building and moving into another downtown space. She's also had to break the bad news to them that their annual audit uncovered the need for them to tighten up their processes and procedures. 

The Sunday she shared that news I was the scheduled preacher. 

Today, she laid on the assembly at their new dual services of 10am and 2pm the fact that, on December 31st, she is going to say "Good-bye" to them. She has accepted the call to be the Rector of St. Paul's Albany. Albany is not that far, by Georgia standards, from Valdosta. But it is also not CtK. 

And, again, I was the scheduled preacher for the days this news was being delivered to the people. 

Mind you, there is also still a world in which the defense lawyer for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA, apparently complained about "too many black preachers" being in the courtroom (Arbery was the young black man chased and then gunned down by three white men back in February). So there's just lots of stuff swirling in the air. 

And I was called on to preach. And the text was the start of the "little apocalypse" speech from Mark 13...in this case vv 1-8. 

Below is the written form of my sermon. I actually did quite a bit of ad libbing at the start. I have also included the repeat I did of the Collect of the Day at the 10am service. That was my prayer in tribute to the memory of one of my most favorite priests, Fr. Lee Graham of St. John's Tallahassee. Fr. Lee always used these words as his prayer before he preached at the 12:10 Friday services. And he is a priest who endured many challenges in his career, beginning with coming to terms with his own prejudices as a white Southern man from Gainesville who was called to be a priest in Alabama during the early 1960s. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign for civil rights left an indelible mark on Fr. Lee as he stood up to the white supremacist culture at that time. 

On a Sunday when I was so aware of all that was "out there" in the room, I needed the comfort of this prayer...at least for the morning service. 


+++

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn,
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 Listening to the start of today’s Gospel…I have to wonder if the disciples are EVER going to “get it.”

It seems as if every time I have preached here…the disciples are saying something that reveals how clueless they are.

Today we hear one of them saying, “Wow, Teacher! What big stones and large buildings!”

And I want to say, “All the better to distract you with, my dear!”

To be sure…the Temple in Jerusalem was apparently quite impressive. The stones were really about the size of a Toyota Prius…and this grand structure…which had already been destroyed once in history…was only half-finished at the time that Mark was writing this Gospel.

This brief exchange about the tearing down of the Temple has often been seen as an analogy about Jesus’ own human body, and how his physical body is about to be brutalized and destroyed in the crucifixion.

But there’s even more going on in this passage. The community who would have first heard this Gospel in First Century Palestine was in midst of a massive upheaval…and civil strife.

Non-Jewish foreigners had started moving into areas set aside for the Jews, which led to ugly clashes between the two groups. And the Jewish community was locked in a bitter struggle with each other over how to deal with their Roman oppressors.

There were several people running around Jerusalem claiming to be the Messiah. And some of those Messiahs were agitating and insisting on taking up arms to overthrow the Empire.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the culture wars of the First Century sound a little bit like our own, don’t they?

And becoming fixated on the building…it’s size, it’s magnificence…helps to distract from what is the central mission of Jesus, a mission that is going to lead to conflict with the ruling class.

This passage…sometimes called the “little apocalypse”…all sounds pretty doomsday.

Wars, rumors of wars, famine.

Things are falling apart.

The world…as they know it…is about to be rocked by earthquakes (there actually was one that hit in that region of the world).

This great huge temple…the center of their worship…and a place of pilgrimage…is going to be destroyed…again.

And even in the middle of all this chaos…Jesus’ message is not so much, “Don’t worry, be happy,” but more “don’t worry, because something new is coming.”

Maybe it’s because I’m slowly starting to put my mind to planning my ordination service, but the phrase, “things that were cast down are being raised up” has been rattling around in my brain and seems to be fitting for this particular reading…and especially at this time for our congregation.

I mean, here we are, in a building that’s not quite finished.

When folks have asked me if Christ the King has moved into its new building, I happily respond “Yes!”

When they ask what’s it like, I respond cheerfully, “It’s rustic!”

The building can become a fixation, but there is more to the life of this parish than whatever issues might be going on with the construction.

This is a time when we are moving from all things that have been familiar into lots of new…and unchartered waters.

There are two basic lessons of hope that I think might mitigate for all the talk of destruction in this passage.

The first is that Jesus is not one of those “Messiah” figures calling for a war with the Roman Empire.

It’s not that Jesus is down with the oppression. He definitely is not.

But the revolution Jesus is leading is not one fought with swords. He’s looking for the deeper more lasting change of hearts and minds. The new thing he has in mind will not happen by brute force, but by steadfast compassion. And in many ways, that’s a lot more dangerous to those wanting to maintain the status quo. It’s easier for an Empire to squash a rebellion that’s led with clubs and spears than one of the Spirit based in thoughts and ideas.

The other lesson I think we can draw out of this Gospel passage is contained in the last sentence:

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

When we think about birth pangs…we get a sense of the intensity of sensation a woman experiences in labor…and the fear associated with childbirth. It’s not a given that a woman will survive giving birth. And this is serving as the metaphor for what happens during times of unrest in the world.

There is the pushing and struggling and stretching open as the world enters into the white-knuckled strain of giving up on old ways, outdated beliefs to make room for what is new. There is resistance to the changes that are coming…just as Jesus’ Love Revolution faced opposition. But when change is a comin’, it comes with abundance and you cannot push it back.

Once the world has moved through the topsy-turvy toil of labor…with all the huffing and puffing and gritting of teeth…new life emerges.

A calm descends.

Breathing is easier.

The tears shed are part relief, part joy, part exhaustion.

Life is now ready to journey on in a new way, and a new path.

And there is great rejoicing!

The difficulties we encounter through all those birth pangs aren’t necessarily forgotten, but they aren’t a punishment.

It’s a period of refinement and preparation for becoming something even better than what had existed before.

Change is not easy, but just as giving birth results in that breathtaking moment of a new life realized into the world…we can’t lose sight of the fact that the things being cast down now are being made into something new. There is good at the other end of this struggle.

The trick is for us not to get discouraged or give up in the midst of all this change.

God is still present.

May we keep hope for the future even when things might feel strange or unfinished and out-of-sorts.

And now let the church say, “Amen.”

 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Simple Witness

laptop cover with Pride and Episcopal stickers

 I don't make a big deal about being a lesbian. I guess that comes with having been "out" for more than half my life. Or maybe it's because I'm at the age where I really don't have time for people's prejudices against me or anyone else for that matter. But now, taking my place among the ordained clergy in the Episcopal Church and especially in a diocese in Bible Belt country, I find myself being reminded on occasion that I am something of a unicorn. 

It's not that there aren't other lesbian and gay priests here. But not many of them are as outwardly visible as I am. At my diaconal ordination, the bishop said in his sermon that I would "stretch" the diocese by my presence. I understood that in an intellectual way. And I've been discovering it in more heartfelt ways over these past four months. 

For example, dismissing "my siblings in Christ," at the end of a service became a matter that had to be "discussed" with the bishop to make sure that I could use the term "siblings" in place of the gender binary term "brothers and sisters." It seemed appropriate to me, especially as I surveyed this congregation which includes members of the gay and lesbian community of Valdosta. I felt the joy and love in the room that we all had for one another, so the dismissal came very freely and easy from me. For the record, the bishop said that my use of the term was fine, and the individual who raised the concern acknowledged that they "had some things to learn."  I confirmed that, and thanked them for letting me know the outcome of that conversation. 

But what really made me understand the profound impact of my presence came at last weekend's diocesan convention. 

As a very new member of the clergy in the diocese of Georgia, and as an off-the-scale introvert, I knew that I wasn't going to come into convention and make floor speeches, but rather be present and "listen and learn something," as my late father would say. I'd observed Georgia conventions before, so I knew the way things flowed in the business meeting. Still, this one was going to be heavy into the weeds of some canonical and constitutional "clean up," so, with enough coffee, I felt that my role was not to talk but give the speakers my attention. 

At some point, I noticed that my iPhone's battery was draining quickly. I pulled out my laptop, put in the lightening cord, and used the USB port to put some more life back into my phone. What I did not realize was that I and my laptop cover, bedecked in various pro-queer Christian stickers, would be caught onscreen in the convention center, not just for the people present, but those who were watching online at home. My seat was in that sweet spot just a couple of rows behind one of the microphones on the floor, so whenever someone approached to speak from that particular mic, I was in the lower righthand corner of the shot. Realizing that I was visible, I made sure to keep my COVID-safe masked face in a very neutral expression. Doing seminary on Zoom, I learned my lesson about controlling my facial expressions!

That's why I was concerned when one of the clergy members approached me at the end of the convention and started with, "I don't know if you realized that you were on the screen while people were talking..."

My heart began to beat a little faster. I had visions of something I might have done to draw attention to myself. Was it an unintended frown, some side glance, or (worse) did I roll my eyes at something I was hearing? Steeling myself for the worst, I listened as my fellow clergy person continued.

"You had your laptop open with all the stickers. And we have a child who is trans, and I was able to contact them and point to you as a leader in the church...." 

My heart went from pounding to melting. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. Without knowing it or planning it, I had become representative of something larger than myself that had not only moved another member of the clergy; it had served as a bridge to the church for a child in transition. I had a vision in that moment of what it must have been for Jesus to be in situations such as with the hemorrhaging woman or even in the Syrophoenician woman where he knew in these encounters that he represented something greater than himself...and for more than just the children of Israel.    

I can only imagine the difficulties this must be for this family. Preacher's kids, or PKs, live in a fishbowl existence. If mom or dad is the parish priest, and are living with the demands of a parish who expect some sort of superhuman perfection from their clergy person and 24/7 access to them, the kids are also under constant observation and have to wrestle for the attention of their clergy parent who spends hours ministering to the needs of their siblings in Christ. That's tough enough. Now to be a kid with a parent who is so public, serving in an institution that has not always lived up to its "All are welcome" message to the LGBTQ+ community, I can sense the difficulties and strain that must cause for this child. All the more reason to see someone whom God has called to be the outward and visible sign of God's immense love for those whom the church has not always shown kindness.  

I asked for their name, and have been praying for them ever since. And I invited this priest to bring them to my ordination, so they might see a gender non-conforming lesbian become officially part of the Sacred Order of Priests in the diocese of Georgia. 

God is working God's purpose out as year succeeds to year...


Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Unseen Body: A Sermon for All Saints Sunday, St. Barnabas, Year B

 


I have to admit I was afraid going into today's All Saints service that I was being a little too ambitious for someone who is still feeling my way into life as an ordained minister. We not only were doing a service for All Saints. We dedicated our columbarium and then interred the ashes of the Senior Warden's husband in the top niche. Fortunately, I am tall and strong, so I had no problem slipping the canister into place. What I didn't know was how the light was hitting that spot right at that moment. 

Our supply priest had asked me to preach the sermon, and so I put the emphasis on the unseen body. The light bathing that niche was the visual evidence of the presence of what I was talking about. I couldn't have scripted this moment if I tried!

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I think most of you know that besides splitting my time between here and Christ the King downtown…I spend at least half of my week as a massage therapist in Tallahassee.

One of the techniques I learned while I was in massage school is called polarity. It’s a type of touch therapy that is very light and involves the therapist placing her hands at two points on the body, possibly doing some rocking motions, often we’re just holding still.

The client’s experience of this work can be any range of sensations with the hope being that it will bring release of tension or pain they might be holding.

For the therapist…we feel the energy pulsing and moving back and forth between our hands. Unlike other types of massage…where we are actively sinking into the muscle tissue with our fingers or knuckles or elbows…polarity work involves engaging with energy that surrounds the body and all its muscles, the joints, and ligaments. When my hands…and my energy…meet the client’s field of energy…it’s something like when you hold two magnets with the same poles facing each other. It feels like a very lively force field.

This magnetic energy is the unseen body.

Whether we’re conscious of it, we can sense and feel that energy as it swirls up and down and all around a person’s physical frame.

As I sat with our first reading from Wisdom…I kept thinking about the experiences I’ve had feeling and sensing that energetic body of a client: There’s this unseen dimension that also has a presence. And it’s that something more which I think gets captured in the poetic words of the Wisdom writer when we hear about that part of us which will “shine forth and will run like sparks through the stubble.”

It’s that same idea that Paul writes about in his First Letter to the Corinthians, when speaking about the mystery of God that passes human understanding. Death is not a finality.

Skeptics tend to say that once the person is dead, that’s it. They’re gone.

But while that physical body is gone from this world, the spirit of a person, that energetic body is what continues on…free from the physical limitations of time and space that exist in our here and now. This energy is beyond our flesh and blood version of reality (see 1Cor. 15:51-53).

This reading from Wisdom is among the choices the church gives for use at the time of a funeral and so it makes sense that as we celebrate All Saints that we have this reading.

This time of All Saints marks a period of liminal space.

Here in the northern hemisphere, the light dims earlier in the day and the temperatures…finally!...start to cool off. There is a thinning of the veil between the worlds of physical and spiritual living…which lends itself to feeling the closeness of our loved ones who have transitioned and… in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet…“shuffled off this mortal coil.” Many cultures particularly in Latin communities are keenly aware of this thinning of the space between the living and the dead.

The two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos is a time of food and drink and dancing as families feel that energetic presence of their ancestors being close to them. It’s not a time of weeping but rejoicing. And in this way…death isn’t an ending; it’s another leg of the soul’s journey.

So it seems only fitting that on this day, we are dedicating our columbarium which shares this sacred space with the two major visual cues of our Christian heritage: the baptismal font and the Eucharistic table.

We come into our faith in Jesus through the font. As we note in the service of baptism, it is through those waters that we are buried with Christ and risen again into his life everlasting (BCP, 306).  To be brought into the body of Christ means to be brought into the mission of Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world. And spending just a few minutes listening to the nightly news, there is a lot of work to do in these times of polarized politics. Seems like there is no time like the present to give sight to the blind, good news to the poor, free the captives and liberate the oppressed (Luke 4:18).

The font is in line with our altar…the gathering place where we put aside all labels and pretenses about ourselves…to be re-membered with Christ. Living into the promises of our baptismal covenant…particularly the promise to seek Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being…is a struggle. As Christians, we are called to resist the powers that want us to assert dominance over other people…or even to tell the driver in the other car who cut us off what we think of them…in sometimes very colorful language.

This table is where we come to be nourished and fed so that we can get back out there and keep striving to bring about a kingdom where we live as a beloved community of God.

And now we have added this columbarium. This is the place where we enter our final rest, freed from our physical bodies, and yet that energetic spirit dwells just on the other side of the veil. Having the columbarium in this space is a reminder that our mortality does not cut us off from being in communion…and is part of the journey of life.

We are changed in death…but life continues.

Our energy lives on in that great cloud of witnesses who keep watch over the work we must continue to do in our realm…as we live into our own versions of sainthood.

These saints may be at rest from their labors, but God is continuing to work in and through us, perfecting us, coaxing us, bugging us until we can’t ignore God any more. Their work is done. But ours is just beginning.

Time to shine forth like sparks running through the stubble.

In the name of God…F/S/HS

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Politics of Jesus: A Sermon for 22nd Sunday After Pentecost Proper 25 Year B


It's a challenge to go back and forth between congregations. It is particularly difficult when I preach three weeks in a row, and one of those weeks is at the other congregation. So if what you read below sounds like a rehash of some of last week's sermon at Christ the King, well...it kind of is!  

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One of the concerns I have often heard expressed about the church…and especially about preachers…is this fear that we are going to “preach politics.”

I’ve come to understand this as meaning a person doesn’t want to hear about a particular political party, or politician.

I’ve spent too many years around politics and politicians…including in my own family, so I know that politicians are people…and they can be both saints and sinners just like everyone else.

But if we pretend like there isn’t something “political” happening with Jesus and what he is doing as he marches toward Jerusalem…and that the same types tensions he was facing aren’t plaguing us today…then I think we’re fooling ourselves.

The politics of Jesus are about changing and transforming hearts and minds…and a revolutionary movement to get back to God…loving God and neighbor and our selves. Jesus is about love and love stands in opposition to greed and fear and the othering of people. This is a message that should give us hope and encouragement even if it simultaneously makes us uncomfortable when we realize that this isn’t how the rest of the world operates…and how often we don’t live up to the mission of Jesus.

We see that in the story of the rich man. He went running after Jesus, wanting to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He learned that he had to let go of his attachment to things. He can’t do it…and neither can we.

We see it from those closest to Jesus. Peter wants a messiah who is going to overthrow the Roman Empire and restore a king of Israel. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, enamored by Jesus demand that Jesus place them one on his right and one on his left in glory. The others disciples are offended by their request…probably because they hadn’t thought of it first. Do they even know and understand that the ones who literally are on his right and left at Calvary will be the lowest of the low in society, the condemned criminals? Doubtful!

Two weeks in a row now we hear Jesus ask:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Last week…this was the question to James and John, which leads to their self-serving desire to be at Jesus’ side in glory.

This week…it’s Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sitting on the outskirts of Jericho. He can’t see anything…at least he can’t see anything with his eyes…but he has enough of a spiritual vision that he knows that the commotion off in the distance is a crowd gathering around this one, this man who might be the answer to his prayer.

He bellows out:

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This is the ultimate “Help me!” We can imagine that desperation in his voice…the pleading cry of one who depends upon the kindness of strangers. No doubt some of us have seen it in the faces of people we’ve come across in our own lives. Maybe we’ve even been in this position at one time or another. Our backs against the wall and our only answer is to turn to God.

The crowd tries to tell this misfit…this outsider…to shut up. Go away! Leave the leader alone. But he doesn’t quit:

JESUS, SON OF DAVID, HAVE MERCY ON ME!

And then Jesus…stops. Up to now, he has been a man on the move. But now, just as with the hemorrhaging woman who grabbed ahold of the hem of his robe, Jesus stops and tells the crowd to let Bartimaeus come to him. This man’s plaintive cry has reached Jesus’ ears and so he invites this outsider in and asks him the same question he put to his very self-assured insiders James and John:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

And…big difference from James and John…Bartimaeus says,

“My teacher, let me see again.”

My. Teacher. Let me see again.

Bartimaeus gets personal. “My teacher.”

My rabbi.

My Rabbouni.

One of society’s forgotten unknowns…already has a clearer sense of who Jesus is than his well-known inner circle of disciples.

Bartimaeus’ profession and request is held in stark contrast to the disciples’ metaphorical blindness and a curious deafness. I mean, Jesus has told his followers at least three times what’s going to happen to him when they get to Jerusalem, how he’s leading a revolution not fought with swords but with love. He has made service to others the cornerstone of his ministry, and yet the disciples are blind to his actions and still hang onto what they think are the symbols of greatness: money and power. They were dumbfounded when Jesus told the rich man to give away everything and follow him.

And let’s look at that rich man for a moment. He wanted what Jesus was offering…but he didn’t want to have to change. He didn’t want to let go of his attachments. And rather than take Jesus up on his instruction to give away his things to the poor and follow, this man turns and walks away.

In contrast…Bartimaeus not only goes toward Jesus…we hear that he threw off his cloak to run to Jesus. In ancient days…beggars needed their cloaks because that’s what they would spread out on the ground to collect the meager offerings tossed in their direction!

So where the rich man fails to follow…and the Sons of Zebedee assume greatness with Jesus will give them some kind of lofty perch when the revolution happens…

Bartimaeus gives up everything and asks to see. And then when he gets his sight…he joins this march to Jerusalem, a long walk toward standing in opposition to all the ways of the Empire, ways that reward with fame and fortune…to strike a new path of power that comes when we show up for one another.

Mark has made great efforts in the weaving together of these various moments to put us in a place of thinking about how we see Jesus and the goal of his mission.

It is a mission that challenges the political and economic forces of his day.

So… if we take the Gospel seriously, it should shake the core of those forces in our time as well.

That’s what I mean when I say Jesus has a political message for us…and it’s one that turns our common understanding of power upside down. If we don’t acknowledge this…then we’re just as blind and deaf as the disciples in Mark.

The way I see it…the culmination of these past many weeks points back to that probing question we heard Jesus ask several weeks ago: “But who do you say that I am?”

That question leads us into a deeper examination of our faith.

Who Jesus is for us?

Who do we say Jesus is in our time? Our place? Our world rife with economic, political, and racial divisions?

And then comes….

“What do we want Jesus to do for us?”

What is the prayer we lift to God to heal our wounds, make peace and seek justice and reconciliation?

O God make speed to save us as we seek your will for our world.

O Lord make haste to help us to be the love and light for those in search of loving kindness.