Who is our King?

Jeremiah 31:7-14 | Psalm 84 | Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a | Matthew 2:1-12


What do you think of when you think of a king? Powerful man? Bejewelled crown? Royal robes? Huge castle and estate? Or maybe the Burger King, comic yet iconic, fictional but sharing in many of the images we typically think of when picturing a king.

I invite you for the next few minutes to ponder with me the question, “Where is the king?” And not just the question but also the implications around it: Who is king? How do we find him? What do we bring to him? What does it mean to us going forward?

The magi at the time of King Herod arrived asked: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They knew who the new king was–by prophecy and expectation. They were finding him by following the star–and thought the royal palace would be the logical place. (There they found a different king, maybe one of a mold that they and we might expect.) They brought precious gifts–of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And once they had found the Christ Child, they went home by a different road, becoming aware of the clash of kingdoms. Herod had been frightened at word of the new king being born, and those who challenged Herod’s authority were often sent to the grave. We’re left wondering what the magi did once they returned home empty-handed, but we imagine that their hearts and hope filled.

Reflecting on the magi’s experience, we can see that not all questions were answered in ways either they or we expect, which is often the case when we have ideas but not 100% clarity. There’s always more to consider, isn’t there? Usually something that surprises us or isn’t expected? Oftentimes what we have in mind doesn’t match with the reality we see before us.

So how do we respond to the questions? 

Who is our king? Christ is king, we might quickly reply. Is that where our loyalty lies? With Christ as king, is that how we navigate our lives? We hope. We try. Pursuing the other questions help us explore what that loyalty looks like.

How do we find our king? The three from afar followed a star, using their knowledge of astrology to find their way. If we lived in a monarchy, we’d have our governance to point toward the king. But Jesus wasn’t and isn’t the king of a particular place and time. What we know about his kingdom, we read in Holy Scripture. His references and parables of the kingdom of heaven reveal a way of living, being, and navigating life and relationships in communion with God and one another. Perhaps finding the king of this way of living and being requires our attention to an inner wisdom and practices that will cultivate such wisdom and guidance. The more we practice this Way of Love, the more we realize we encounter Christ not in manufactured moments but in mindful moments when we bring the fullness of our presence into relational encounters. That leads us to the next question, because once we’ve found our king:

What do we bring to him? To one fully human and fully divine, we bring nothing less than ourselves. In our Collect for the Day, we prayed, “Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” Our bringing awareness of God in every moment and bringing all of ourselves to God is all we can do. We try to attach tangible value to our reverence to God through our tithes and good works, but God’s economy is love, grace, and mercy–all immeasurable. God doesn’t need anything of us but wants us, desires us to be in relationship. People being who we are, we desire something more like ourselves to identify with, to offer praise and loyalty toward. Typically we want figures to look up to, to cheer for, to revere, even to worship, and we like them to look like us. In the Incarnation, God says, “See me.” Seeing Jesus Christ, maybe we can more clearly see ourselves. Then, we know what we are to bring forth into the world, what gifts we have to share, how best to radiate the light and love of Christ the King.

What does it mean to us going forward?

The wise folks who paid homage to the infant Jesus went home by a different road, knowing the danger they would face if they encountered Herod again. Not only did they know where the new king was, but they also knew how vulnerable he was as an infant of poor parents. All the material rappings of riches and royalty didn’t belong to this king, nor would they ever. The perception of what it meant to be king was being rewritten, tables turned, lives transformed. The magi were taking a different road home physically to protect themselves and hopefully the infant king and perhaps spiritually, too, reevaluating what it is they value and perceive in this life. We know that once the shepherds saw the Christ Child, they went and proclaimed to others what they had seen. They, too, had followed guidance (though theirs was angelic) to find the babe in a manger. They had brought only themselves and had returned to their flock, but they had seen the baby Jesus, the one born who prompted the angels to sing glory to God and pronounce peace and goodwill on earth.

So we might ask it again in a different way: What have our encounters with Christ changed for us? It’s all a comparative exercise, rather objective when we look at other people’s experiences. As Christians, though, we’re in the business of restoration of life, liberty, and love. We’re in the work of discipleship, of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Kin-dom of Heaven here and now. When did we last taste and see and know that God is good? When did we last find ourselves on our knees in mercy or in prayer, seeking forgiveness, giving thanks, begging for guidance? Maybe it was peace or assurance that we felt in the core of our being but knew that it wasn’t by our own strength that it was possible, feeling more like a peace that passes all understanding.

Here at All Saints’ we are finding our way toward the kin-dom, practicing how we offer ourselves to the glory of God, how we share the Good News of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. We are learning and growing as a faithful community, one rooted in Jesus and growing toward fullness in the Holy Trinity. We are nourished by prayer and praise and fellowship in any way we can when these days so much is different. And the fruits of all our labors bear semblance to fruits of the Spirit (which, in case we want a reminder or to keep a checklist for 2021, they are: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, forbearance, gentleness, faith, modesty, self-control, and chastity). It takes all of us to build up this community, sharing all of who we are for the glory of God.

Perhaps that’s one of the most notable aspects of Christ the King: he’s not in it for himself. Quite unlike Herod, Jesus has no pretense of securing power in the “traditional” sense. And while we have numerous stories of people who encounter God, even through Jesus himself, being told, “Do not be afraid,” we never see Jesus frightened. Pained, sorrowed, suffering, yes, but not afraid. His kingdom is secured, made only richer by those with eyes to see and ears to hear, by those who seek to follow, who believe.

So we, as a community of believers and those seeking, are finding our way toward the kin-dom of heaven by following the Light of Christ that we recognize in others and ourselves and by practicing the Way of Love and bringing our whole selves to the altar and to one another for God’s glory. And each time we find ourselves in the presence of Christ, if we are paying attention, we can run out and share that goodness with someone else, encouraging them to join us in this holy work. At the very least, we can marvel at the experience and try something loving and life-giving rather than keep wandering in darkness. For we have seen a great light, and things don’t have to stay the same.

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The Work of Christmas

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Psalm 147 | Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 | John 1:1-18


The First Sunday after Christmas doesn’t always fall so close to Christmas Day. Here we are on the Third Day of Christmas, and if your house is anything like mine, there are still a couple of recipes left to make, some cards to send, some movies to watch. It’s hard to maintain the Christmas excitement because it’s been widely manufactured into one day’s experience, to be consumed and done with in 24 hours or less.

Mary and Joseph know what most new parents experience: the birth of Jesus was just the beginning. When I was a doula and childbirth instructor, I would caution the mamas that three days after birth was a day to watch out for because hormones shift. Maybe the milk has come in, maybe not. Maybe the baby is sleeping too much or too little. Maybe we have good support, maybe not. There are many variables at play, but one thing is certain, it’s still a liminal time. The birthing experience itself throws things out of whack, so consuming is the labor of birth. Time is irrelevant. And now this healing of a mother’s body and the caring of the fragile, completely dependent new life is equally consuming work. It’s not only time for healing and nourishing, but it is also, we hope, time for bonding, nurturing, resting (as much as possible), and being fully in the moment. All of this doesn’t happen on its own; we have to make a conscious effort. Being a parent is a lot of work, and those early days are just the beginning.

Our gospel lesson today speaks of another beginning, of Word becoming flesh and living among us. That Word is life itself, light–the kind that enlightens everyone and isn’t overcome by darkness, and glory full of grace and truth. But this Word is not known to everyone. Those who do recognize, know, and believe, are filled with faith, and their lives are transformed.

How are lives transformed? Well, at our baptism, we are given the name Christian. As Paul says to the Galatians, we are adopted as children of God. As God’s children, recipients of the Holy Spirit, we have tremendous power to extend our personal transformation beyond ourselves. We may not all have a conversion story as dramatic as Paul’s. We may not have experienced a life-threatening illness or crippling addiction to overcome but by the grace of God and support of many. We do have–what everyone has–is choice. We all live in a time when the choices we make are intended to serve ourselves better if not best. When we choose to live a life to offer glory to God, to share the light of Christ with others, to participate in the life-giving, liberating, loving will of God, we make a personal shift to consider ourselves one among many among the children of God. Our hearts are broken open to bleed for the world, not in an act of dying but in an act of surrender to something greater than ourselves. We might be afraid to name the “greater thing” as God, and I would challenge you to consider where that fear comes from. Does naming something that exceeds our comprehension take away our sense of control? Is that what we fear? Lack of control? Because that’s valid. Being out of control is scary. Not being able to contain a deadly virus is terrifying. Not being able to heal the sick is heart-wrenching. Watching events unfold for self-serving reasons while billions suffer is sickening in and of itself. The actions of others is out of our control. But what is in our control? Our own choices. Our own actions. How we understand ourselves and how we relate to others . . . and how we relate to that which is greater than. How we relate to God.

As Christians, we name God. We try to understand God through Jesus. We believe that Jesus is the greatest gift. God’s giving of God’s self through Jesus, as through a son–the only way we could try to comprehend how God loves us. Through Jesus comes our salvation, redemption, and adoption. We have to choose whether to recognize that for ourselves, to allow ourselves to be transformed, to let go of our ego enough to let God’s grace and truth shine through our lives. When we do this, our lives are changed.

Being transformed by God’s grace, we, too, can share in God’s work. God’s work–the work that began in the beginning of Creation and which continues to this day and forever more. Here at All Saints’, we are keen to hear the gospel call to care for others, to lift up the lowly, and we act on it, sharing whenever and however we can. The words of Thomas R. Steagald in his commentary on our reading from Galatians gave me pause: “Social renderings of the gospel are incomplete unless founded on or accompanied by personal transformation.” Do we hear the call to care for our neighbors as something we do because it is the code of Christians, a law to follow, or do we share love of neighbors out of the experience of being loved by God? Does it matter, so long as we are acting compassionately? Probably not to the recipient. But in my experience, it matters to me, and it affects my relationship with God. The authenticity of work done in and out of love for God enriches the lives of all.

Just like being a parent requires time and attention, being a Christian isn’t a passive identity. Others may know we are Christians by our love, but that love takes work and requires all of ourselves. We know this because the story of Jesus’ life and death is not compartmentalized: it’s all about living in accord with God’s will–loving God with all heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving neighbors as ourselves. The gift that we’re given each Christmas we celebrate is as joyful and triumphant as it is heartbreaking and demanding. And if we are to receive the gift of Christ, we, too, are wrapped into the work of God to share that light with the world. 

All that we can or might do in our own work pales in comparison to what God has done, is doing, and has yet to do. Our Psalm today counts the ways God reveals God’s majesty, and these are beautiful images of provision and protection, intimacy and blessing, in heaven and on earth. A God who does all this isn’t impressed by human extravagance but is pleased by reverence, by those who heed the statutes given. Those who know humility in the encounter with God are the ones who will bring the transformational change into the world, who will share the goodwill and peace that Jesus Christ embodied.

While these liminal days between Christmas and New Year’s offer many folks time off from work, time to rest and stay home, my son reminded me that I have one of the jobs that doesn’t take time off for Christmas. That’s true, but it’s true of all of us who believe that we never take time off from being Christian. It’s who we are, when we’re working, resting, and playing, 365, 24/7. 

And in case we lose sight of what our work is, Howard Thurmas summed it up well:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.


from The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations

That music in the heart is the sweet harmony of finding where our lives meet God’s will, when we accomplish any aspect of this holy work. Now is as good a time as ever to make a plan for what we’ll do next. I know Padre and I are taking time this next week to plan for the year to come and maybe take an extra nap or two. May we all find a few moments to allow room for the Holy Word into our lives, to let God guide us for once, to offer thanks for all that is given to us, and to accept responsibility for what is given to us to do. We have holy work to do, and we have everything we need to do it, if we so choose.

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In a Moment of Crisis

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Canticle 15 | Romans 16:25-27 | Luke 1:26-38


When deadlines approach, when curtain calls are about to be made, when due dates approach, we know it’s a now-or-never moment and pray that all we’ve prepared for is enough to make it through to the other side–that our bosses will be satisfied, that the crowd cheers, that the mother and babe are safe. The stress we feel in our bodies in these moments tell us what we know: we’re in a moment of crisis. Some way or another, we’re fighting for our survival, which may or may not truly be life threatening

This past week the “Living Well Through Advent 2020” reflection for Friday was titled “When Hope is Hard.” Robbin Brent articulates what we all know: we’re in crisis mode. The magnitude of all these crises can leave us all overwhelmed and devoid of hope. Brent shares that “the Chinese characters that form the word ‘crisis’ mean both danger and opportunity.” Since I’ve become quite familiar with Google Translate in my efforts to communicate in Spanish, I checked the translation and found that that might not necessarily be the case. The characters translate, if Google is correct, to “in danger” and “machine.”

Crisis: 危 = in danger, 机 = machine // Opportunity: 机 = machine 会 = meeting

Trying to figure out where “opportunity” comes into play, I found that the characters that make up “opportunity” are those for “machine” and “meeting.” 

This whole play on words invites us to think about what we are manifesting, what we are dealing with. Are we in crisis, where danger is being created, or are we in a moment of opportunity, where we are creating something together?

Our lesson from Samuel gives us a glimpse into a moment when crisis is at bay. David’s enemies aren’t a worry, and his house is secure. Like most of us, when things are settled, we look with new eyes upon our surroundings, and David realized that his home was better than the one they had protecting the Holy of Holies. The LORD deserves better! King David’s prophet Nathan agrees, and I’m sure they were already visualizing the grandeur to come of the LORD’s house. However, the voice of the LORD interrupts, tapping his servant Nathan to share God’s will, to remind of God’s plans, and they do not include focusing on a physical structure. God’s will does include obedience of his faithful who will be in and of themselves the bearer of God’s will. Nathan and David are truly in a moment of opportunity, having been met with the clarity of God’s intention for God’s people.

The circumstances are completely different for Mary. For Mary, the crisis–the danger machine–is being put into motion. Take someone who is marginalized (a young female in a patriarchal society) and now impregnate her by someone not her betrothed. She has no livelihood, no home of her own, and no social standing. It would be hard to find hope in this situation. 

And yet, there is opportunity in this moment. Gabriel brings his announcement as a messenger of God and proclaims Mary’s favor. Does Mary perceive the danger building, the crisis at this time of her life? How could she not? If we were witnesses to this moment, would we not be shouting, “Run away, Mary! Save yourself!” As a people accustomed to looking out for our own well-being, we probably would. We’d also be looking for a weapon to get rid of the home invader Gabriel.

But who has God’s favor? Those who keep the covenant. The faithful. The obedient to the will of God.

The disclaimer here is that obedience to God’s will is life-giving, loving, and liberating. We aren’t told anything of Mary’s faith except her reply to be the mother of God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word.” I appreciate the commentary that speaks to Mary not being violated by the Holy Spirit, being forced into obedience or submission, nor viewing the invitation as optional. Being the Mother of God is who she was created to be. It is her vocation, her calling, her identity. The opportunity for Mary here is meeting with God and becoming fully who she is, along with bringing into this world who God is, whether she can comprehend that or not.

Mary’s faith is her hope. Surely she knew that she had no idea how this would play out. Surely she knew the risks. Surely there were moments where her heart raced, anxiety increased, and tears fell. But we have her song, her proclamation of praise and her sharing of God’s will that is good news for all who have the heart to know what she knows, being in harmony with the Divine, her womb the mansion for the Christ Child.

We’ve been praying in song these weeks of Advent, “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” We’re inviting for the God with us to come now. We’re asking for God to be revealed in our lives. If you’ve been praying with intention, with sincerity, maybe your heart is starting to race. Maybe you’ve had tingling of intuition or nagging thoughts or a sense of restlessness, all good indications that you need to pay attention to what is being asked of you. We discern our thoughts carefully when they are persistent and seem to make no sense. Discernment is for all of us seeking to live into who God is calling us to be, for all of us looking for our vocation, what it is God has created us to do.

Maybe what we discern will be revealed to be our own agenda, like David. Thankfully, working in and with community, often what is a personal agenda and what is God’s will can be revealed. We all need our Nathan’s to help us along the way. Maybe what we discern will be life-changing, demanding nothing less than our whole being as we share with the world the presence of Christ.

Maybe we can do one small thing to keep crisis at bay and create opportunity instead. Working with others for the glory of God, we can keep hope alive. That’s one of the reasons I share my pledge with All Saints’. The work we do here is important to me, not only for my employment but especially for sharing the unconditional love of God for everyone. 

This past summer, my friend The Rev. Cameron Nations was interviewed for what they were doing at the parish he served then, St. Luke’s in the Birmingham, AL, area. I thought it was great, too, as they were forgiving medical debt across central Alabama, just over $8 million. Good for them. This fall in one of the Facebook groups I follow, folks were asked what they would do with $10,000 in cash. A recurring response included paying off medical debt. These are people in Northwest Arkansas, people who would put money toward paying off medical debt so they could get a better car, pay for school, or buy a house. This kept nagging at me until I reached out to Cameron to ask what they did in Alabama. He told me it was easy, would totally work in Arkansas, and sent me a link to www.ripmedicaldebt.org. I searched the website and quickly found that Arkansas is one of the hotspots for medical debt in the country, not surprising given our rates of poverty (17.2%, seventh highest in the nation). Why has this not been done, I thought? Surely someone has already done this. Surely someone else will do it, right? These are the thoughts going through the minds of people watching someone choke at a restaurant. Surely someone else will step up and do the heimlich, won’t they? In the meantime, people choke to death. In the meantime, people are at risk of eviction, calling us for utility assistance, visiting food pantries because they can’t afford food, toilet paper, or coats.

I exchanged a few emails and have been saying quite a few prayers. We now have a statewide campaign launched to eliminate the $24 million in medical debt that Arkansans carry. This isn’t all of it, to be sure. Those whose debt could be eliminated are those who are two times below the poverty level (for a family of four that’s an income less than $52,400/year). The program is also for those who have debts greater than their assets and whose debts are greater than 5% of their annual income. There is no discrimination based on residency (I asked specifically thinking of our undocumented neighbors).

We know, especially during the pandemic, that our healthcare situation is in crisis. Maybe this is one way we can provide opportunity. Medical centers get at least a portion of what they are trying to collect, boosting their revenue. People at the margins get a piece of good news in the mail rather than a collection notice.

God is with us, and we are a people of hope, even and especially when it is hard. Our practices of walking the Way of Love have prepared us for this moment so that we, too, can bear the Light of Christ to the World.


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Our Talent

24th Sunday after Pentecost ~ Year A

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18 | Psalm 90:1-12 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Matthew 25:14-30

How many times have you marveled at the energy of a young child running circles around you? A few times? Every time? It’s enough to leave us breathless, those of us with many more years of experience, wear, and tear. That’s a different kind of breathlessness than that of holding a newborn child, especially if we’re there in those first moments after birth, holding the bundle of newly emerged energy even while the lifeblood from the mother tries to find a balance. She’s exhausted, and we’re amazed. In that precious moment we are in the presence of a miracle pulsating with life and potential, acutely aware that something nearly magical has happened, that the veil between what was before and what is now has been crossed in a visible and tangible way. Gratitude wells up in our hearts and often our eyes, and a whispered “Thanks be to God” might be all we can say. We are present to something real, something meaningful (even if we don’t exactly know how yet). We mark the day annually, celebrating birthdays for the holy days they are in our lives but especially their meaningfulness in the lives of others.

Other occasions of joy and gratitude, love and meaning, we don’t often celebrate but experience in the moment. We shop and box up food for a family, doing the inconvenient thing especially in this time of covid to shop for others to provide something more than physical nourishment. Our act of giving unconditionally to another in need says we see you, we hear your need, and we give of our abundance to share with you. Again, we offer thanks to God.

We reduce, reuse, and recycle to reduce waste and our footprint on this planet, showing our care for Creation and hope for future generations. We listen intently to the person speaking to us, sharing their story, our phones silenced or forgotten while we abide in a moment together to laugh or cry but to be fully awake and present to one another. These moments and so many others give us the opportunity to recognize the value of life and presence and to glimpse a sense of our purpose, our meaning. Ahhhh. How many of us wonder what our purpose and meaning are in this life?

Especially now when life’s troubles are so great, when death and devastation are so prevalent, do we wonder if who we are and what we do makes a difference?

If we think about the most meaningful moments of our lives, are others present? Do they know how much that moment meant to us? The mother who blesses us with entrance to her birthing room, the mentor who blows our mind by holding a mirror to our brilliance … do they know how much they have enriched our lives? Do you think the people who owned the property behind my childhood home knew how much it meant to me that I could wander in their woods and play by and in the creek and imagine untold stories while perched on the fallen tree by the waterfall? These are sacred moments in time that I barely give credit for; why would I expect someone else to be aware of them?

We’re wrapping up the Season after Pentecost and moving quickly toward Advent (officially, in case we haven’t already started our preparations). I cannot help but feel our lectionary preparing us for our lessons to keep awake and not to lose hope. Our collect commends to us our scriptures–to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, and I have to tell you that I was caught in a moment not necessarily of breathlessness but of love and appreciation and gratitude while studying the Word of God. Yes, I know it’s in my ordinal vows to study Scripture daily, and I share much time with you engaged in the Word through the Daily Office, Bible study, and our Sunday Worship. But those of you who also engage daily in Scripture know what I mean when we truly open our heart and mind to seek understanding and Wisdom from the Word of God. With practice and perseverance, dedication and humility, work and openness, we realize that the disciples who were on the road to Emmaus were speaking truth to their experience when they said their hearts were strangely warmed. When the one whom we know to be the resurrected Jesus opened Scripture to them, the Word that was in their hearts, the Word they knew to be of God, was enkindled in a way that reminded them they had not only ingested the Word, but they embodied it. Jesus Christ reminded them of what they had within them. A few moments later, they would be fully aware of what was with them all along, even if Jesus Christ was no longer physically present to them.

The words we hear today in our lessons invite us to live into our lives of meaning and purpose.

If we look to Zephaniah, we hear a prophet chiding a people who have become complacent, perhaps indifferent. Though they worship on the day of the LORD, they come before God in their comfort, out of habit, maybe proud of themselves for living so faithfully. They lack the awareness of their frailty and vulnerability that Psalm 90 addresses. This psalm appeals to God to “teach us to number our days / that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” If we continued to the end of the psalm, we’d find in verse 17 that the psalmist also asks for God’s graciousness to “be upon us; (to) prosper the work of our hands; / prosper our handiwork.” Unlike the Israelites Zephaniah addresses, the psalmist asks for God’s blessing, guidance. The psalmist plainly attributes God as refuge, as God of indignation and of grace and loving-kindness. The work of our hands as children or servants of God can lead to prosperity, if we receive the graciousness of God, if we apply our hearts to God’s wisdom . . . if we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

But what of this parable of the talents? Are we to pursue venture capital so we can do amazing and awesome things with all the money we earn? Well, sure, if you can. I’ve got nothing against good fortune for you and give thanks if you can share that with the church. 🙂 But this parable is a gift from Jesus, and as such, it appeals to the wisdom of our hearts, something greater than our materialistic or capitalistic world can comprehend.

A talent, I read, was equal to 15 years’ earnings for a day laborer. In the parable, the master who is about to leave gives one servant the equivalent of a lifetime’s earnings. To another he gives an adult worker’s earnings–retirement secured. To another, he gives 15 year’s worth–he’s invested in the pension. The master leaves for a long time, each person left to do what they could. Informed by the third servant’s judgment of the master, I’ve always thought that the first two played into the game, dealing and swindling like the master, likewise to be commended for earning their gains by whatever means necessary, whether it was right or legal or fair or not.

For today, I have read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested to hear a different perspective. Yes, I read commentaries alongside my Bible and printout of the readings. I don’t do this work alone, and I don’t suggest you engage alone all the time, either. 

The third servant hid his talent out of fear. Did you hear that?

When the master returned, does he count the talents? What does Jesus say the master commends? The trustworthiness. “Well done.” “Good.” Their reward? A promotion? A bonus? “Enter into the joy of your master.” I realize that the slave/master language is difficult. We can reframe it and hear it more clearly, perhaps. Have you ever had a boss thank and reward you and commend you to their joy? But what if we hear this parable from Jesus and see Jesus as the master in the story and his disciples, even ourselves, as the servants? Jesus says, I’m with you now and give you your life, a long time, or a few years. What will you do for the glory of God? What will you do to build up this kin-dom of heaven? Like a Saint you live your life to make more disciples, spreading the Good News to all whom you encounter, so full of life and love as you are. Like another saint, you commit your work to raise the valleys, to the care of the oppressed and the marginalized in whatever way only you can. Well done, good and faithful servant.

How many of us, though, are like the third? We’re given this moment, and we’re afraid. Sounds amazing, Jesus, but I’ve heard stories, and you go messing around where you shouldn’t be. It’ll be easier and safer if I just keep on keepin’ on and find my peace and security in the coins I earn myself. (That’s where the reading from Thessalonians comes in today for me. “Peace and security” was a slogan on Roman coins, reminding the citizens of the source of their peace and security. Paul reminds them that the joke’s on them when Christ returns because the source of peace and security is God alone. So instead of Roman armor and ways of life, better garb up in faith, hope, and love.) In the parable, is says the master had him thrown into darkness, but truly, didn’t he choose to turn toward fear instead of living into the life that was offered to him?

This life that we have, isn’t it easy to be afraid. No matter how many times we’re commended by scripture not to be afraid, we’re crowded by fear and prone to bury our life–our greatest gift and talent, denying the world of the image of God we’re given to share in this world.

But when we give a little space for faith, hope, and love, when we give space to receive grace and mercy, when we allow ourselves to be dependent upon the one who gives us life eternal–from before we were born to the ever after–what happens? What happens when we have God as our first priority, when simply being present in a posture of gratitude, as a beacon of light and love that guides all we meet to God? We have the opportunity to share the presence of God with others, whether we realize it or not. Have you ever done an act of kindness and worried that it meant nothing? Have you ever regretted being present to someone? When we are sick, when we are dying, do we focus on fear? Sometimes. Those who focus on fear are those who are too crowded by darkness and the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those who, even at the last moment, realize that their life was full of moments that give glory to God know what it is to enter into the fullness of joy of Christ. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).There’s no doubt that these are trying times, but I assure you that our lives are meaningful and filled with purpose. Where you see the presence of God, there it is, already with you. It has been with you all along, since you were knit together in your mother’s womb. Others might recognize it before we realize it ourselves. There is joy to be had if we know where to look. We’ll see it wherever we seek God. There is nowhere we are that God is not. Thanks be to God.

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Saints of God

Revelation 7:9-17 | Psalm 34:1-10, 2 | 1 John 3:1-3 | Matthew 5:1-12

This All Saints’ Day 2020, more than a few people are drawn to the beatitudes, especially “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Our lengthy necrology this year is a visual indication of the grief that all of us bear. Names might recall images and memories to those who loved them, and the stark reality of the fatalities by violence and injustice and the devastation caused by covid-19 bind us in our humanity, in our mortality. One day, we know not when, our names will appear on such a list, by those who love us well.

That’s why we grieve, isn’t it? If someone dies and we have no connection with them, not even an ounce of empathy in our connectedness in our common humanity or as part of creation, we don’t really mourn, do we? When we are sad that Sean Connery died, for instance, it’s not because we knew him personally (unless you’re so fortunate!), but because he meant something to us personally. We valued the presence he carried, the roles he played. When we have a physical reaction to the death of George Floyd and tremors that still erupt to this day at all that his death revealed, it’s not because we knew him personally, but that we realize our connectedness with him, his family, with our systems and institutions. Whether we identify with him as a Black man as part of a Black family or whether we realize our identity in the officers, we have reason to mourn deeply, not only for what has been lost but at what is still being killed every day.

And yet . . . our readings this day point toward a great multitude singing praise, consisting of those who have come out of the “great ordeal” and now worship before God who shelters them, provides for them, and “wipe(s) away every tear from their eyes.”

I’m still processing this, but when we mourn, it seems we’re not so much expressing sorrow for those who have died and who now presumably sing among the saints, but we lament our own loss, express regret over what we’ve done or left undone in relationship with the other, and/or question the meaning and purpose of it all. We have customs or traditions to help us deal with all of this in the moments after, and thankfully we have therapy for the lifetime of contending with the grief we carry, but once a year on this day (which delightfully falls on a Sunday this wild and turbulent year), we focus not on our own mourning but on all the Saints.

We are fortunate to carry all the Saints’ in our name, making this also our patronal feast day. I say we’re fortunate because it means we have great diversity in whom we focus on as our patronal Saint. We don’t have just one–we have them all! In a church where we focus on God’s love for all, this couldn’t be more appropriate. It’s also why our mural depicts different persons, harkening back to Saints’ of our past. But they’re depicted in contemporary forms. I’ll write this up more eloquently later so we can share it widely, but let me give you an overview of how it came to be and what it means.

When the idea of a mural was presented, the idea itself was already summoning a depiction of saints, though in the abstract. I happen to have a budding artist with a desire to do mural work, and trusting his creative process, I gave little description though showed him an abstract example. He drafted the image we voted on through our congregational poll, and we have the mural we see today, merely two years after we have moved into this space, and we have brought All Saints’ to life here.

He mentioned to me that he was pulling elements of traditional saint imagery, items associated with saints to persons in the mural. We didn’t talk about this. As he was getting started, I conversed with these images, asking them what they mean to me. I’m thankful for all the Lent Madness brackets I’ve read and all the Morning Prayers I’ve prayed through Mission St. Clare, which shares a commemoration of the saint of the day. Our Christian predecessors have amazing stories, even if sometimes they’re amazingly ordinary.

I started at the left, looking at the mural drawing. With the bishop crook, he’s named “Ed Curry.” Of course this shepherd to me recalled Bp. Edward Demby, the first Black bishop in the states (“The 1916 General Convention opened the way for African Americans to become suffragan bishops with responsibilities over African American churches in the racially segregated South.”). Bp. Demby was suffragan bishop here in Arkansas and among Province VII, given charge over the Black congregations in the state. He served from 1918-1939, and you can read a detail of his life in Black Bishop, a book our current Bishop Benfield commended to me for a project in a history class while I was in seminary. When I was showing the completed mural to family friends, one asked me if this was Jesus. I smiled and said, “It could be. We all have the presence of Christ to share,” and then I told him about Bp. Demby. I also said it speaks to our current Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Thinking on it now, it also represents the arc of our work toward racial justice and reconciliation. From 1916 when General Convention allowed Black men to be suffragan bishops to when Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop in 2015 is 100 years of ongoing work, perseverance, and faith. Our Vans-wearing bishop of the mural is pointing forward, in a gesture of blessing. We still have work to do.

“Maria is next.” Whether calling to mind the Holy Mother or la Virgen de Guadalupe, she also speaks to our Hispanic culture, its prominence and importance in our community. The Virgin Mary is usually accompanied by a lily and depicted reading a book. Hopefully our Maria empowers our Latinas, inspires us all to stand tall, not neglecting wisdom of tradition and learning nor our feminine expressions of God.

We were reminded that since it is 2020, what depiction of saints would we be creating if we didn’t honor our healthcare workers? “Lucas,” in his scrubs, channels St. Luke, the physician. Maybe someone was just discharged from the hospital after weeks on the ventilator, which seems like a miracle after all the charts he’s had to close with time of death. Maybe he’s just wrapping up a three-day shift, throwing his mask to the wind in the safety of his own yard. Maybe it’s 2023, and the pandemic is behind us, but we can almost hear him sing, “Amen! Blessings and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”

“Hilda” plays and sings along with his praise. Hildegard of Bingen was ahead of her time in more ways than one. In the 12th century as a nun, she lived into her vocation fully, sharing her visions, her writing, music, and knowledge. Her creativity and pursuits extended into things dramatic and scientific, but she gives us an example of what it means to give glory to God for all our inspiration and direction, despite what adversities we experience. (Aside from being an intelligent, prolific woman of the time, it is also suggested that she suffered migraines.)

Kneeling as if at a prayer bench, “Pauli Harris” is praying us all up, leading the way for all. Pauli Murray was lawyer, women’s and civil rights activist, and Episcopal priest (the first Black woman in The Episcopal Church, 1977). Barbara Harris was the first woman consecrated bishop in the Anglican Communion (not just TEC) in 1989. As someone who had registered voters in Mississippi during her summer vacations and had been on Freedom Rides and to Selma with MLK, Jr., in the 60’s, the threats she received as a Black woman now bishop were likely not new to her. She was renowned for her outspokenness, a voice that we now have in memory as she died in March of this year (Murray died in 1985). Both of these women are depicted with their hair short and tinged with gray in their later years, and they radiate their love of God.

The burly saint at the end with his deer companion could be none other than “Francis.” With increasing climate turmoil, Creation needs our attention and care. While we focus on Francis at our pet blessing every year near his feast day on Oct. 4th, we don’t often emphasize his vow of extreme poverty. He turned away from a life of material comfort and turned completely toward Jesus Christ, proclaiming the gospel with his whole being.

Undoubtedly, those who knew these Saints in their lifetime mourned their loss–Bishop Harris still today. And yet, we celebrate them, commemorate them (show respect). We may not know what happens when we die or have complete faith in the accuracy or reality of John’s revelation, but we do know that this side of the kin-dom, we keep those whom we loved alive in our memories–not just our memories but in our lives.
What of grandma’s sayings do we still say or dishes do we make? What prayers do we repeat or beautiful lines do we quote? How do we stand strong in the face of oppression and persecution and still radiate the light and love of Christ? How do we inspire others to sing praise to God, delighting in the life that we know here and now, no matter how difficult and heart-wrenching it can be?

The communion of saints with whom we celebrate and feast with in every Eucharistic prayer is here and now. Stories of Saints centuries ago are not all that dissimilar from our contemporaries. We are more connected than we realize. We are not isolated or alone, not even in our grief. There is one Body and one Spirit. There is one hope in God’s call to us. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; One God and Father of all. May this be our comfort and our inspiration, now and forever more.

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From Home to Tomorrow

Proper 24 ~ Year A

Isaiah 45:1-7 | Psalm 96:1-13 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22


Where do you come from? From whence do you come? (for the grammarians out there) If we’re traveling, we’ll likely say we’re from Arkansas, and if others actually know anything about Arkansas, they might ask us where, to which we’d reply Bentonville, Rogers, Bella Vista, etc. Even if they don’t ask us which city, isn’t it funny when, let’s say you’re in Chicago, you tell someone you’re from Arkansas; they light up, saying they have a cousin so-in-so in Arkansas, and surely you know them, right? 😊 We try hard to establish connection, don’t we? To share what we know, especially what we love. Perhaps we’re even trying to establish that sense of belonging together.

This week while I was taking some time to rest and reflect, I did a lot of reading. In one of the books, the author wrote about coming home. While taking time away, I admit that when I thought about returning home, I started thinking about dishes and laundry, responsibilities, and obligations. But that’s not what she described. Instead, she described exactly what I was doing: enjoying a cup of coffee/wine, listening, praying, playing, taking a hike, resting, etc. She described being at peace in the moment, being who I am, nourishing myself in the ways I know I need to be nourished, recognized for who I am, and she called this “coming home.”

Now why on earth would someone from Bentonville “come home” to a cabin in the woods? I’ll tell you why: at that place, I have been nourished as a woman sensitive to the presence of Spirit. Since I was a child, I have loved being among the trees. As a quiet creative, I have a mind that needs silence to hear what’s being said in my conscious and subconscious. I need to hear the ocean through the leaves of the trees in the wind, the crackle of the fire, and the symphony of the birds and the bugs. As someone who has never lived alone, I need time to experience the holy solitude of being alone, which, the author points out, derives from “all one.” Whether we’re surrounded with family or living by ourselves, taking time to be all one means we take time to figure out what we need to feel and be whole. Coming home means to me, returning to the place—even if it’s a moment’s state of mind—where I am fed mind, body, and soul for who I am, for whom I’m created to be, not who I think I am or for what I’m expected to be.

 There’s a danger, isn’t there, in living too much into expectation? Those expectations stack up like precarious building blocks from childhood (and maybe that’s precisely when the expectations were given to us), and they can surround us, walling us in until they—or we—tumble and crumble into a mess. It’s okay to have expectations; roles and responsibilities are built with them, and they provide solid accountability when they are within reason, reality, and respect.

Paul, in his address to the churches, sounds like he is calling the people home to be the Church they were called to be, to be the Christians they truly are. We can read this epistle or any of the others with an anxiety of what a wreck the church has become and with a snicker of what a smooth talker Paul was. OR, we can read this with the compassion we would hope for ourselves, a summons to remember who we are and whose we are and by what power we are able to do what we do. Yes, we’ll get worried when our beliefs and aspirations don’t match our reality. (Christians are still prone to sin and make bad choices, and Jesus still hasn’t returned before faithful people have died. The problems of the Thessalonians aren’t all that different from ours today.) Still today, we make our choices, doing the best we can.

 I wrote but then erased “we cannot change our reality.” It is true that we cannot change what has been done. “It is what it is,” is a common phrase these days. I hear so many people so fed up with this present moment here in the States. It’s divided and hateful. It’s a cluster of epic proportions. The systems are unjust, and the people in power are more interested in keeping their power than in serving the people. Does this resonate with you? Sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve also heard frustration about healthcare, employment, education, the cost of and access to food. The frustrations are institutional and personal—all-pervasive, affecting our waking and, unfortunately, our sleeping (or lack thereof).

I erased “we cannot change the reality” because in truth, we can change or shape the reality of our future. What can we do to be the change, as Gandhi would suggest? Do we take to the ballot or to the streets? Yes, and perhaps. But before we act, before we do anything, we must know where we’re coming from.

When’s the last time we came home to ourselves, were nurtured with the divine voice that assures us of our belovedness and worth, our gifts and our call? Not everyone is called to exhortation and prophecy, just as not everyone is called to teach and to heal. But we all need these in our lives, which is why we give thanks to the many member of the one Body. Can I get an “Amen!”?

Forgive me if this triggers unpleasant memories for you, but there’s a hymn from my Baptist upbringing that came to mind. “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” it’s called, and the refrain yearningly sings, “Come home . . . come home . . . Ye who are weary, come home . . .” There’s a bit about sinners, too, which made this particularly common at funerals and as an altar call, but Jesus calling the weary home is on point. We’re tired. We’re tired because we’ve been too far from home for too long. God’s Beloved Community, God’s dream for us isn’t this hot mess we’re in. God’s dream for us isn’t anything I could describe because it’s too great for me to understand.

What I believe with all my heart, however, is that if we’ve ever been home, been all one, then we have an inkling of what we need more of to change the reality of now to create a better tomorrow. Baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, gifted to persevere in faith, hope, and love, we don’t have an excuse. We may have sin—turning away from God—but we also have repentance, the constant invitation to turn or return to God.

I emphasize this coming home and knowing ourselves as God’s beloved because we need this solid footing in our lives, this firm foundation. When someone comes along, or sends someone along, to flatter and try to trick us in some snare, we need a pause, to take a moment. We don’t know how long Jesus took to look into the young eyes of the Pharisees’ disciples and the Herodians, people aspiring to the powers of the world in that moment. We don’t know how long it took for him to know their heart and their intent, to discern that they were too insensitive to subtleties and had to be told outright what hypocrites they were. Jesus called out the thing they were most concerned with: the coin, the money itself. The emperor could have the coins, but what should be given to God? His challengers were stunned, and why is that?

 What is God’s?

 If we’ve been too far from home for too long, we’re likely to have forgotten. Too far from home, we may have fortified those precarious, unrealistic expectations. Too far from home, we may think that alone means all on our own, and on our own we work within the powers and principalities that give us the materials and money to piece together the identity we think we need and some semblance of power in the reality of this moment. Too far from home for too long, we forget that in the beginning, there was a Word, spoken with a breath of love, in Spirit of Wisdom, and from there all came into being.

 What is God’s? Everything.

Before we make our next move, before we cast our vote, before we declare whose side we’re on, it’s worthwhile to pause, to take a moment or as long as we need, to come home a minute and remember whose child we are. Tell her our woes, our concerns. Share our fears and despair. Let her feed us and give us drink. Let her bathe us, washing away the grime and restore our radiance. Let her whisper, “There, there,” and then whisper the words we long to hear . . . and maybe even the words we didn’t want but needed to hear. We can take what we need from home, and stepping out the doors into the wide world around us, sure . . . we give to the emperor what’s due, but we mustn’t forget what is God’s.

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All About the Posture

Jeremiah 31:27-34 | Psalm 119:97-104 | 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 | Luke 18:1-8

When we talk with one another about our experience of first coming to The Episcopal Church, often we’ll say or hear “we felt at home,” “it just felt right,” or “we loved the experience of worship.” This is particularly true if we are not from a Roman Catholic background, when we haven’t experienced liturgy before. I commend to you the glossary entry for “liturgy” on The Episcopal Church’s website, but I’ll sum it up for you: liturgy is the work we, the people of the church, do in public worship of God. We who follow the rubrics or instructions of The Book of Common Prayer (from which our printed bulletin is derived) have a predetermined, set liturgy. This consistent structure gives us the comfort of going to any Episcopal Church and experiencing the same thing, for the most part. There are, of course, cultural variations. ; )

That we experience comfort in the liturgy or that we miss it if we’ve been away from it for an extended period of time doesn’t strike me as odd. When conditions are right, we are at ease. When we know what to expect, we are comforted. Even when we are relaxed, there are ways to experience challenge without being threatened, to do hard work without being afraid, and to take risks even repeatedly. It occurs to me that this is what we do week in and week out. We gather in this space and are, through the structure of our worship, given time to assume postures ready to receive, to learn, and to serve, encompassed in an environment and posture of praise and thanksgiving, whether that’s standing on our feet or kneeling on our knees. Have you ever thought of it that way before?

If you go back to the beginning of the bulletin, you’ll see we start with song, with praise and recognition of God. Charlie Rigsby, former organist at St. Paul’s always said when you sing you pray twice, so we give more than just a nod toward our praise of God, especially in our Gloria. And we stand through this. You don’t stand because I’m processing toward the altar. We stand with the cross entering the room; many bow or reverence the cross as it moves toward the altar, drawing our eyes and intention toward the even larger cross we have on the wall, behind the altar, our common table, God’s table. We stand as a sign of respect and attention. Here we are, gathered together to do something so counter-cultural. We come to focus on something other than ourselves, to praise the one whose name is above all else, our almighty and everlasting God. Our hearts and voices open and bodies oriented toward that altar, we are in a posture to receive. “All hearts are open, all desires known.” Here we are in our fullness, and with words of praise still lingering in the air, we are ready to receive.

Open to receive, we then turn to learn from God’s Word. It’s so intentional, our liturgy. We open with praise, ready to receive, and then we intentionally receive the Word, ready to learn. We don’t sit and open our skulls like they’re on a hinge to be crammed full and then shut tight. With the Lord with us, we pray to set our intention for this day. Our Collect does just that–let us pray it again together:

“Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

From here we go on to learn from the Word directly. From the Old Testament through the prophet Jeremiah, we learn again how God is on track to lead the people toward a time of building and planting. Whereas before the people had fallen short on following the Mosaic Law (the law of Moses), God is giving them the law in their heart, not just in their mind. There’s a new sense of intimacy between God and God’s people. This is important not just for the people individually following God’s commandments, but it also plays a part in realizing that the presence of the law is not solely kept in the Temple. For a people pulled away from their homeland, where the presence of God is thought to be kept, isn’t it significant that there is a story of God placing the law directly in your heart? If something is written on your heart, isn’t it there forever and always? The words of the psalmist affirm the positive attitude toward God’s law, the significance of obedience and the gift of understanding that comes from God’s commandments.

The second letter of Paul to Timothy is our Epistle reading, epistle being a fancy word for letter. These readings, remember, come after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These letters are generally given toward people living in faith after Jesus’ ascension, which is why they are so often applicable to our lives, given contextualization. I find this applicability very much the case today, as Paul commends to Timothy the importance of scripture and the fulfillment of ministry, particularly as it relates to teaching and training the followers of Christ with perseverance. The work of an evangelist is not to go get more people to come to your church or believe what you believe–that’s proselytizing. To evangelize is to share the Good News, the story of Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection.

To be able to share the story, to be an evangelist like Paul and Timothy, we have to know the stories, and so we turn to the gospel. Today we hear Jesus offer a parable to his disciples about the widow and the unjust judge. Lucky for us, we’re told straight out of the gate that this parable is about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). We could learn all day long about Jesus’ life and teachings, but eventually your eyes will glaze over (if they haven’t already). How does this relate to you? To us? 

One thing I find fascinating about our scripture is that at any moment, this literature, inspired by God, speaks to us in our place and time just as it describes another time and place. This is why we call it the Living Word. By the power of Holy Spirit, we continue to receive the Word and learn from it as it impacts our lives today. We don’t have to look far to find one who is oppressed, seeking justice against their opponent, nor do we have to look far to find those in positions of power who have no love or fear of God and no respect for others. The enormity of both lists, actually, is enough to send me into a state of anxiety or paralysis. But I return to what the parable is about: the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Last week I mentioned that faith involves perseverance. Even when it seems our prayers are not answered in the way we would have them be answered, it doesn’t mean we aren’t being heard. At the time of the Last Judgment, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will Jesus Christ find those of us who continue to pray with perseverance, to endure all the trials and tribulations with a faithful heart? (Remember that even doubt points to a yearning to seek God, so that’s an act of faith, too.) Jesus sharing this parable, these words with his disciples, is meant for our learning, too. Whether we are new to this faith or long-time believers, we come to this Lord’s day to learn again, as if for the first time, that God hears our prayers, that God is a just God, full of mercy. We know that God is merciful because of the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps our greatest act of faith is believing that whatever pain or suffering we endure, joy comes in the morning. Believing the story of Jesus is believing that sin, suffering, and death are not the end, that there is hope in everlasting life, that the moments of joy we taste and know on this side of glory are but glimpses of the joy and life of the kingdom of heaven, where sin and suffering are no more. This message of Jesus Christ is our Good News, which I am given to proclaim and expound upon not just on Sunday mornings. If you want to wrestle with it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it some more, come to Tuesday Bible study, read a little each day, do the Daily Office, talk with me about what it means or doesn’t mean to you. As Epsicopalians, we love the Word of God so much we spend half our service dedicated to it in a posture of learning because we need to know it. The Godly Play curriculum we share with the little kids offers it to them in a way they can engage with it to know it deeply as the wonder what’s important about these ancient stories and how it relates to their lives.

And what do we do with this knowledge? We profess it. We don’t have everything figured out, but this is what our tradition has to offer as a base line, as scaffolding to hold us together. So with our voices it’s like we hold hands, even if they’re too hot or too cold, sweaty or dry, shaky or calm. We create a net of common faith to hold us together as move forward, and then we offer our prayers for all people, today focused on hunger as we share in Bread for the World Sunday. And then we confess for not following God in thought, word, and deed, for not loving God with our whole heart or our neighbors as ourselves. Because God is just and merciful and truly knows our hearts, we seek God’s forgiveness and renewal. And we move forward in peace to greet one another and put into action our gratitude. We bring forth the Presence of Christ in our Holy Communion. We take, bless, break, and share, full of praise and proclamation. We do this prayerfully, intentionally, and gratefully. Together we partake in this holy meal, and then we go to love and serve the Lord.

We, who have received, and learned, been nourished and blessed, posture ourselves again to follow the cross and go out into the world. We go to live lives that speak louder than our words of our deep love of God. We offer a ride to a neighbor, check in on the sick, tend to our families, greet strangers, feed the poor, advocate for the vulnerable, laugh with our friends, cry with the weak and the strong, and do all the things we do because God has continually revealed God’s mercy through the presence of Christ in our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit that gives us strength to continue when we think there’s no way, no how. And we come back next week, God willing, again given the opportunity to receive, to learn, and to serve. Sometimes we make that net of faith stronger, and sometimes we rely on the faith of others to hold us. Always, we do this work together, in a posture of gratitude in the liturgy of our Holy Eucharist.

 

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Work in Progress

Jeremiah 18:1-11 | Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 | Philemon 1-21 | Luke 14:25-33

God tells his prophet Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house. Before God says anything more, Jeremiah watches the potter working at the wheel. If you’ve ever worked with clay, you know it’s more intense than watching.

This clay that you’ve kneaded and pushed and shoved is slammed onto the wheel. Then you dribble some water from a sponge onto it to get it more workable, easier to move. The goal at the early stage is to get it centered in the wheel. If it’s not centered just right, the whole thing will be difficult and likely turn out lop-sided, which is more often than not what happened to me when I worked with clay as a hobby years ago. 

But when you watch someone who has developed their practice, they make it look easy. With strong and certain arms and hands, they center the clay on the wheel, and the clay spins like an ice skater, balanced and fast, slowing at will, ready for the next move without falling over.

This doesn’t mean that a perfectly centered piece won’t go awry. An imperfection in the clay, being too wet or too dry . . . anything can cause the piece instantly to wobble into a mess. So the potter begins again to collect it into a centered mass to be reshaped, reworked, still working with the same clay with which he began, hopefully with patience. 

I don’t know how often I thought about this passage from Jeremiah while sitting at the wheel, looking down at my hands, trying to will the clay to be centered. It was a euphoric feeling when the clay got centered, spinning perfectly in the middle. I hoped my life was centered, spinning in alignment with God’s will. Interestingly, Casey and I were working with pottery right before I went to seminary. As I worked with the clay, I was very aware of how much like clay I was, vulnerable, navigating through forces unseen, being shaped along with my own discernment into something yet unknown to me. I still feel this way, as I’m sure we all do as Christians because our journey isn’t one from birth to baptism to perfection and then to death. Created as perfectly as we are, just as we are, we get wobbly along this journey through life. We get off-center, too greedy, too self-righteous, and often self-destructive. We might be an uncentered mess, but we’re not without the hope of repentance, of being rebuilt, reshaped, reformed, and restored. We can be re-created, even resurrected, into the whole person God intends us to be from before we were born.

Richard Rohr talks about “order, dis-order, and re-order” as the process through which we go to experience transformation and reach true change in our life. Gone through intentionally, the re-order can be done oriented toward God, granting us resurrection experience, new life. We rise to be shaped as someone good and useful for the kingdom here and now. We can hear the words from Jeremiah as very dark, with God promising destruction for God’s people, but we can also hear the hope in the people’s option to repent and turn toward God. The people can turn away from the abandonment of God and turn to walk in God’s way. They have the opportunity to be reworked and transformed. 

This theme of transformation continues in Paul’s letter to Philemon. What starts out as a very complimentary letter turns into a serious request and expectation. Philemon and his household and home church are asked to receive Onesimus back to the house not as a slave but as a brother. I imagine Philemon’s heart sinking, the wheel coming to a screeching halt. We witness a moment of decision in slow motion. Scholars presume that Onesimus fled as a slave and was captured. Paul, who probably encountered Onesimus in prison, adopted him as a child in faith, and, knowing the man’s story, Paul writes Philemon to propose that he receive Onesimus back into the household as an equal in Christ. Talk about opportunity for transformation! Scholars can’t affirm that Paul wanted Onesimus to be granted complete freedom, which is what we would want him to mean. Slavery was a social construct of the time that we cannot deny, but our faith and tradition has certainly come to interpret a life lived fully in God through Christ to be one of freedom and true love of God and neighbor, which leads us to uphold the freedom, rights, and dignity of all. Paul affirms that Onesimus has been transformed by his belief in Christ, and now Philemon has a decision to make which will reveal how much his life has been transformed by Christian love: does it indeed transform all his relationships, including those with whom he has enslaved.

In our gospel lesson, where do we see things being reworked and transformed? This lesson can be challenging. Jesus uses the word we translate as “hate,” and if you’re like me, that’s not a word we use lightly.

Jesus lays out what is required to be a disciple. Speaking to the crowd, he says that if they want to be a disciple, they have to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” and “even life itself.” Also, a disciple has to carry the cross and follow Jesus. The crowd at the time didn’t know what we know now. What we know is that to carry the cross and follow Jesus means to carry a great burden even unto death. We end this lesson with Jesus saying that to become a disciple, we have to give up all our possessions. 

What we really need is a transformation of this lesson into good news!

Thankfully, the good news for us is that we have everything we need to be disciples. Our collet says, “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” Our psalm reminds us that we are “marvelously made” and that God has knit us together in our mother’s womb. God has searched us out and knows us–our sitting down and our rising up, our thoughts and our ways; God knows us altogether.

So also does Jesus know the crowd to whom he speaks. Remember that he has just left the dinner with the Pharisees, where he was among the invited guests, likely the privileged people in the community. Perhaps these people are among those who follow him, but maybe others from the community also follow him, people who have a lot, people like Philemon who have households and the ability to hold church in their home and provide hospitality to those gathered. Jesus tells these people to “hate” those whom they would hold near and dear and even life itself if they really want to be disciples. If we hate something, we completely detest it, are almost if not completely repulsed by it. Maybe we don’t realize how much we hate something until we encounter it and feel physically sickened by it. Maybe Jesus wants the crowd to hate their attachment to the way things are, their attachment to protect and preserve “me and mine.” Rather than all the stuff we think we need in our lives, what Jesus knows we need is our whole heart, our whole self, without extra baggage. 

Like Paul telling Philemon to exercise Christian love in receiving Onesimus into his home, Jesus is telling the crowd and even us to let go of all our superficial attachments so that our life might truly be centered in Christ. Yes, we navigate in our familial relationships and society, but our Christian family is so much bigger. The human family is likewise our family, deserving and worthy of our love as siblings, as children of God.

Our very life as we think it should be, when it is reworked to be aligned with God, is no longer our own. We are not coerced into obedience to God, but because we love God so much, love one another, we want to be obedient to God. We want to reach out to our neighbors in Christian charity, in true love, and share what God has graciously provided. We want to carry the cross we are given to bear and to follow Jesus even to the grave.

Jesus uses strong language that definitely gets our attention, but it’s not our attention that Jesus wants. Jesus desires a transformation and sincere disciples. If we allow his words to rework our thinking, our perspective, we realize that if we detest the social structures that make us overly protective of what we think is ours alone, then we can transform our worldview to see the great human family, all of God’s children, wonderfully and marvelously made. With Christian love, we want everyone to have access to that which helps them thrive, and we will reach out to our neighbors, even strangers, to uplift them, even if it challenges what we thought we knew or understood.

All Jesus asks of us is ourselves. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” Sometimes we need a transformation of our own ways of thinking, and God knows this, too. We are enough. Centered in the love of God through Jesus Christ, we have all the perspective we need to live a life that is transformed by that love. When we encounter those moments in our life when we are conscious that the decisions we make have the opportunity to reflect our love of God, we have immense power to give witness to our life as a disciple. Thanks to God’s infinite mercy, God keeps us on the wheel even when we mess up, guiding and shaping us when we listen and allow it, holding us in infinite love and strength.

The human vocation is to be true co-workers with God and stewards of creation. 

~Denis Edwards

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Humble Work

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

This weekend, many enjoy the celebration of Labor Day, extending the time to re-create into Monday, offering a final farewell to summer with one more picnic, barbecue, or blow-out sale. Labor Day is another one of those holidays I take for granted, so I did a quick Wikipedia review of the origins of Labor Day. I was reminded that it is, indeed, a holiday for the working class, its origins in the early 1880s (about 1882) meant to benefit the labor unions and celebrate the labor laws. Unions aren’t what they could be around here, but we definitely benefit from federal labor laws they advocated for and achieved. Interestingly, there was an effort to make “Labor Sunday” a thing–a day to focus on spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. Obviously the effort didn’t work out, maybe because it lacked the more appealing parades and picnics. Fortunately for us, we have processionals, food, and fellowship, and we have the opportunity to think about our Christian work and labor from spiritual and educational perspectives.

In our readings today, we can think about our spiritual work from a “what-not-to-do” perspective. The prophet Jeremiah, who has accepted the call to share the Word of God even if it means sharing God’s judgment on the people, plainly states two evils the people have committed:

  1. They have forsaken God.
  2. They have dug out cisterns for themselves.

The people have abandoned God, deserted the Almighty. Despite all that God has done for them, despite God being the eternal, living water, the people have turned away from God. AND, they have sought to be self-sufficient. These people of the desert think they can create their own containers for the water that sustains them, but God says their cisterns are cracked and can hold no water. Do we as humans have anything that can contain all the life that God gives us? Even if we put someone on life support, can we restore the life that we know? To abandon God and to presume that we can hold what truly gives us life, these are evil acts, according to God through the prophet Jeremiah.

Similarly, in our gospel lesson, we get words of caution from Jesus, more what-not-to-do’s. Jesus offers a parable to illustrate what is a familiar quote from Proverbs: “for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (25:7). Jesus cautions against our arrogance and conceit, for he knows we are susceptible to pride. Jesus also warns us not to give expecting return. Don’t invite someone to your party or give someone a fancy gift and then expect the same invitation or “generosity” to be returned. True generosity is when what we give is a blessing, filled with grace, and absent any expectation except that it might glorify God.

Sometimes some of us need to be told, “Don’t do this or that!” Other times we need direction on what to do. This is what we get in the life of Jesus when we pay attention, as he did. He was invited to a meal, and he watched others scramble to get the best seats. His own power and authority didn’t come from wealth, but he had enough privilege to make the guest list. In his person, in his being, the Son of God lived humbly, with great humility. He knew that with his privilege there is great responsibility. For the Son of God this meant ultimately sacrificing his life, but while he lived it also meant walking every day with the intention to proclaim the love of God and to pursue peace, justice, and love. With every step, every story, every meal, and every prayer, Jesus perpetually reveals to us the presence of God in every moment AND shows us how we can, too, if we put God first.

In our psalm today, the voice of God says, “Oh, that my people would listen to me.” If they had been listening, they would have known God’s promise: “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” It wasn’t intended to be a one-time manna in the desert experience. God’s promise to provide nourishment, daily bread, living water, and all good things is continual. This promise continues today. There is enough. There is plenty for everyone. God will and does provide.

What do we do to show that we haven’t forsaken God, that we don’t rely on ourselves exclusively or seek our own glory?

The lesson in Hebrews offers guidance, even some helpful suggestions. “Let mutual love continue.” If we love God as much as we profess we do, then by extension, we love our neighbor, too. We love God, we believe in God, we are nourished by our God, and we show others that we are God-loving Christians in our work: work of showing hospitality to strangers, trusting that there truly is enough, even an abundance–again, not expecting anything in return; work of remembering those in prison or being tortured–spiritually, emotionally, or physically–having empathy and compassion for them so that their human dignity is maintained, that they are not forgotten, and that as a child of God they are entitled to repentance, reconciliation, and restoration. We do the work of upholding our relationships, our marriages and friendships, keeping God in our midst and as our greatest love so that we don’t lose ourselves or become too full of ourselves. We keep free from the love of money and work to be content with what we have. All this is summed up: “do good” and “share what you have.” This will be a sacrifice–we have to let go of something we think solely to be ours–but “such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Pleasing God is work toward which we can all aspire.

Our collect reminds us how we can remain focused in our work as Christians:

  • Have the love of God’s name in our heart–not superficially but permanently written;
  • Grow in true religion, religion that puts God first, not ourselves;
  • Let God provide us with all goodness and recognize the goodness we receive from God; and
  • Pay attention to the fruit of good works we accomplish in God’s name.

We certainly don’t go waving the Bible in people’s faces or putting a cross around everyone’s neck, but we can speak loudly for the love of God in the work that we do . . . if we understand what it means. Do we know the stories and lessons of our faith? Do we realize how they still manifest to this day?

The story of the loaves and fish feeding the multitudes speaks clearly to the abundance God provides. There were loaves and fish leftover, right? Last week there was an article released by the Episcopal News Service about a vicar in North Carolina who leads a small 20-member congregation in English and also meets in a home to celebrate Holy Eucharist in Spanish with about 9 people. The congregation wanted to help the under-served neighbors get health care they needed, so they facilitate a health access ministry where a nurse meets with neighbors to talk about diagnoses and facilitate resources for treatment. While people wait, the congregation decided to offer a free meal also. Over 40 people participate in the ministry, benefitting from the medical attention and a strong sense of community. It’s not about what the people provide or even what they can do: it’s about what God does through and for God’s people when they listen.

Our lives as faithful Christians will always be about putting God first and realizing that everything we think we have or think we’ve accomplished is really all thanks to God. When we’re doing really well and thinking we’re deserving of that front row seat, it’s probably a good time to step back and triple check our priorities–double check that to-do list from Hebrews–and ask ourselves if in our work we labor humbly for love of God and for the benefit of our neighbor, for the good of all. And if it seems like we’re trying to keep a cracked cistern full of water, if for all the work we’re busy doing we feel like we’re running ourselves ragged in a hamster wheel, maybe it’s time for us to pause and listen and reorient ourselves. A holiday, a holy day, can give us the moment we need to pause and do just that.

*For a podcast that deeply reflects about listening: https://onbeing.org/programs/gordon-hempton-silence-and-the-presence-of-everything/

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They

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 | Psalm 8 | Romans 5:1-5 | John 16:12-15

(a draft of the homiletical moment)

I speak to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sharing these words with you before I preach centers me and brings me to a sense of presence that I know I don’t have on my own. This Trinity Sunday, it gives me extra pause to contemplate how grateful I am that we have a Triune God–God in three persons–and what it means to me in practice of my faith.

If you want to know what we mean by the Trinity, you could flip back to the back of The Book of Common Prayer (pages 864-865) to the Historical Documents section and read through “The Creed of Saint Athanasius.” From the first lines you see that one’s very salvation depends upon adherence to the “Catholic Faith,” the universal faith, which is “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance” (BCP 864). There’s also a bit about believing rightly in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, most of which we convey in our Nicean Creed. Fortunately, we’re not tested over this. I don’t even recall an incident of someone returning from a near death experience asking what was meant by the true Catholic Faith.

Am I grateful for the Athanasian Creed when I say I’m grateful for a Triune God? I appreciate that people have wrestled with what it means, its implications, and have tried to make sense of 1+1+1=1. Mainly, I am grateful for a God whose very being is relational–our God in three persons, blessed trinity. The God who in the beginning said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The God who visited Abraham, manifest as three strangers, and inspires what I consider one of the most inviting icons, Rubliev’s Hospitality of Abraham. 

There’s so much about God that we can’t understand. Abraham and Sarah didn’t understand how they would have a child in their old age. The disciples didn’t understand everything Jesus was telling them about the kingdom, about the Advocate, about the Father in whom he said we all abide.

Thank goodness we’re justified by our faith and not by our complete understanding, yes?

We believe in a relational God who values love above all else–a selfless, rich, all-encompassing love. We believe in a God who defies all boundaries, despite our attempts to draw lines around what God is/isn’t. When for so long we call God “He,” we might be inclined to forget that God is so much more than any masculine image we might conjure.

I appreciate what our transgender community is teaching us about getting outside our solely binary way of thinking. At the parade this weekend, a friend drew my attention to a child sitting in the back of a truck like royalty, the mother tending to the dress, face, and hair. She told me, “I want to go over and talk to the mom, but I’m not sure what pronouns to use.” Watching the two, smiling admiringly at them, I suggested she tell the woman, “What a beautiful child. What pronouns does the child use?” With such a simple question, we immediately empower the child and the mother, too, who is probably more often than not made to feel weak and other rather than uplifted. And in this situation, again, we have a beautiful trinity–of mother, child, and neighbor–dancing together in a loving relationship.

Richard Rohr calls his book on the Trinity The Divine Dance for a reason. With only two, we can get caught in either-or thinking, becoming polarized and at a stand-off. I think we’re entirely too familiar with this end result. But with three, there’s something more. There’s another way; there’s motion. It’s a dance. There’s a fulness of relationship. There’s God.

Rohr shares this poem:

God for us, we call you Father.

God alongside us, we call you Jesus.

God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.

You are the eternal mystery that enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,

Even us and even me.

Every name falls short of your goodness and greatness.

We can only see who you are in what is.

We ask for such perfect seeing–

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Amen. (So be it.)

–Richard Rohr, “Trinity Prayer,” 2005

In our lives, love, and relationships, may we always leave room for the other, especially allowing space for us to dance with the Holy Spirit.

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