In the beginning was the Word . . .

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 | Psalm 147:13-21 | John 1:1-18

The gospel reading we have today is the same one from Christmas Day (maybe just in case you missed your Christmas observance that busy day). After the Christmas Eve emphasis on all the people at the manger-side, the Fourth Gospel brings to us a cosmic-level view, quite literally expanding our horizons if not blowing our minds, emphasizing both the eternal and the temporal spheres. In the Prologue of John, we are distinctly taken out of our carefully imagined, precious nativity scene following the long search for an inn . . . all the labor pains, sweat and tears, and animal scents and sounds . . . and brought to “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Like a high-speed, rewound montage of one’s life flashed before our eyes, we’re instantly time-warped back to before Creation. These words ignite a memory of similar words that are hopefully as familiar to us as they were to our Jewish ancestors. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” . . . or “When God began to create,” there was a wind of God or “spirit of God” that “swept over the face of the waters.” And then what did God say? “Let there be light.” And there was light, and it was good. (Gen 1:1-3)

Through the Word, light manifests, revealed of God, from God’s self. Ever-present, luminous, inspiring, yet intangible. And the Word of God throughout the Old Testament establishes God’s relationship with the people in covenantal relationship, intertwining word and deed. God’s promise endures faithfully, even as the people’s thoughts, words, and deeds fail again and again. It is the Word of God that sustains the people of Israel, keeping them in relationship with God, their strength and their refuge, their creator and defender, their assurance that they are the chosen ones. Eternal and Almighty God in heaven above maintains a covenant with the obedient, chosen people below. That’s the way it was.

But what if the story changes. It’s the same but new, familiar yet different.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He–word/logos, masculine in Greek, different from the feminine Spirit/pneuma in Greek or the breath/wind/ruach of Hebrew–He, the Word, was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being; all of creation is in unity through the Word. What has come into being through and in him is life, and the life is the light of all people. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And it was good, very good, I want to add, because my mind’s eye is set on Creation and God’s proclamation of the goodness of it all. God is. The Word is. The breath of God carries the Word over all that is to be in creation, filling all things through the divine inspiration, bringing Light and Life. And it is good, eternal, holy, divine, and beyond any concept I have of time and history.

Then the Prologue pulls us to a very real, earthly, temporal time and place in the person of John. Not known here as John the Baptist but rather John the witness. Twice we’re told John’s purpose is to testify to the light. John is not the light, but he’s a witness to it, to the divine light, the same light that we’ve heard was present at the beginning, that was coming into the world, to humanity and its domain, so that all who received this true light, who believed in his name, had power to become children of God, to be born of God, not of flesh but of Spirit (as Nicodemus would help clarify for us later in his exchange with Jesus).

I mentioned on Christmas Day the St. John’s Bible, illustrated beautifully, truly illuminated. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” takes the gilded words and suggests they form the ethereal haloed figure who seems to be walking forward, toward the reader, full of grace, though with such an indistinct figure. How they’ve conveyed such grace, I cannot know but just perceive. And it is through the person of Jesus Christ that we receive grace upon grace, grace and truth. It is through Christ that we are revealed the heart of the Father, the heart of God.

Our story has changed from one of a chosen few to all of Creation imbued with this Light of the Word that has been made flesh in Jesus. As it was in the beginning is now present in all that lives. And if we choose to live a life in the Light that overcomes the darkness, we, too, are children of God, not just in this sphere but in the eternal as well. Our story becomes not just one of deliverance and promise–though it is that, too–but ours is mainly a story of love, good and true. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). It’s not just a love story written in the stars but a love that was bold enough to become flesh. The Word, the Light and Life, was strong enough to become weak and vulnerable. The Word, the Love, need only to be named and known to be restored in its fullness.

And you know that fullness of love, right, when your heart feels like it will explode with love for another, be it family, friend, or lover? It feels all-consuming it its goodness, its joy, its truth. That kind of love exists for our souls, yearns to be acknowledged, recognized, and loved in return. The beauty of this love is that it’s not contained just for ourselves but naturally spreads to those around us because in its fullness, it enlightens the life of the Word in others, the Christ-light, the Life of all, whatever we choose to call it.

This is all that is, if we believe. The Light overcomes the darkness, but it does not mean that the darkness isn’t there, too, that there will be trials, tribulations, obstacles, barriers, fortresses that attempt to persuade us that the Light is a wish-dream we only thought was real. Our hope is folly, weak, and vulnerable, the darkness would have us believe. Remember, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and I believe with all my heart and soul and strength that that Word brought Love into our lives in a way only God knew would fulfill us and restore us to the fulness of the image we were created to be in God, a reflection of the Light and Life of Christ.

God came to our world through the Word in the person of Jesus. As we enter a new year, what word will you carry with you that might remind you of the Light you bear, thanks be to Jesus Christ? What might unlock the barriers of your love and joy in life that most connect you to God? To your brothers and sisters in Christ? What word will motivate you in your spiritual gifts and talents to be a defender of the faith and the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the stranger? What word might empower you to be the Christian this community needs, an ambassador for the love of Christ?

A friend of mine these past few years has herself chosen a word for the year, and the artist that she is, she decorated the word and hung it on her fridge or mirror or wherever she would encounter it often. The last couple of years at least, she took tiny canvases and using paint and paper and stamps and pen, decorated the canvas, emblazoned with a word, chosen by the one who commissioned her artistry . . . not only her art but also her prayers. Since she introduced me to the practice, I was reminded how years ago, a dear friend of mine and I set intentions for the new year, writing them on slips of paper, putting them in a special box. These special words have a way of addressing the truth of who we are, what we truly need. I don’t mean to sound flippant when I say, “All we need is love,” but in a way, all we need is the love of God to be manifest in our lives, fully and completely. What word do you need to help you reveal the light? My word is courage this next year, to be strong of heart. Because when the Word became flesh, our world broke open to the reality of a fierce love available to all, and it takes all of us to keep the life-light emblazoned not only for ourselves but for others. I need courage. Like John, we are called to testify to the Light, the Light that brought heaven to earth in a story of enduring love. And Love itself is a powerful Word.


Continue Reading

Christmas Lessons

Isaiah 9:2-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-20 | Psalm 96

My children asked me earlier this week what my favorite Christmas carol was, and I couldn’t think of which one to choose. There are so many, and each one of them highlights a different aspect of the nativity (except for the ones you hear on the radio’s stream of Christmas music that seems to have nothing to do with Jesus and everything about a different sense of the word “baby”). That’s the thing, isn’t it? Christmas is about the birth of the Christ child and everything that entails. The birth of a child changed our world, and imparted upon us themes that recur not only in the music we share but the stories we tell. These are some of the themes I’m picking up on this season:

    • God’s timing is God’s timing. If Mary had her way, they would not have been traveling to Bethlehem in her final days of pregnancy. If Joseph had his way, Mary would not have been pregnant to begin with. If the powers that be had their way, there would not be a game-changer entering the playing field. But God’s timing is perfect as it is mysterious, and it is beyond our understanding. We realize this when circumstances in our life send us reeling. We won’t always know–we can’t always know how or why things happen the way that they do, but we walk in the way of peace and trust that there is a greater wisdom in our midst.
    • There’s no room at the inn. My modern interpretation of “no room at the inn” is that scene in Forrest Gump when he’s looking for a seat on the bus, and kids repeat “seat’s taken” over and over again. He eventually finds a seat, as Joseph and Mary eventually find a place to stay, having been rejected. No one seems to want to welcome the stranger, the poor, the suspiciously unknown. No one wants the mess of birth to happen in their space. It’s all rather inconvenient, discomforting, and disruptive. How true that making space for Jesus in our lives is all of this.
    • You gotta trust the process. After all the rush, there comes a time to be still and wait, when all we can do is to trust the process. We might rush to make it to Bethlehem for a census only to wait for office hours; rush between inns, pausing for contractions; and finally remain in place while the process overtakes the body for new life to emerge into the world. Such trust requires strength and perseverance, and faith helps to keep us moving forward in the process.
    • We depend upon one another. Mary doesn’t give birth alone. She likely learned a great deal from Elizabeth, maybe even witnessed John’s birth to know what to expect. Joseph remains with her, and hopefully he was able to fetch the local midwives to attend, though we’re not surprised not to hear about them. Someone provided the stable. God doesn’t tell us how to love one another, leaving our specific actions up to us, but we need to love one another, to be in relationship with one another to make manifest God’s love for us.
    • God pays attention to all. The stories from the past are often told by those in power, and often it’s the family lore that sustains the stories of unsung heroes, of everyday miracles that impact our lives directly. Our Christian family birth story tells us that God recognizes the weak and vulnerable: a young woman, an ordinary man, and commonplace shepherds. We have a gracious, loving God who recognizes us all as worthy, even if we’re not worthy: that’s why it’s called grace and mercy. That God works miracles out of the ordinary, our hope knows no bounds.
    • God needs us to witness. Goodness bears telling and sharing! The angels didn’t hesitate in their rejoicing, and the shepherds had to see the miracle for themselves, maybe not quite sure what was going on. We, too, get to share the good news of Jesus’s presence. Like yesterday at the Miracle on 14th Street, when 436 families came through for groceries and gifts. Like on Wednesdays for the past few months when folks have come together to have conversation on difficult topics like racism, prejudice, and sexism–not just to talk but also to listen deeply and respectfully, with compassion for self and other. Like how we are a church with doors open to all, and all truly means all, regardless of any demographic we use to categorize ourselves. We are about being in relationship with one another in Christ, and that doesn’t just happen in church; it happens over coffee, in the prison and jail, in the hospitals, on the street corner,  . . . and everywhere when we realize that Jesus Christ is present in our thoughts, words, and deeds AND we give voice to that presence with thanks to God. It’s not fake. It’s not always out loud. (We Episcopalians might have to work on giving thanks in our out-loud voice.) We can extend a hand to someone in need or promise to pray for a family in distress and recall Christ’s presence in our midst, maybe even offer the peace of the Lord to a stranger.
    • We can only go through. Mary became mother having gone through pregnancy and birth. The shepherds became heralds themselves having journeyed to see for themselves and sharing the glad tidings of the angels. God broke into our earthly abode through the flesh of Jesus, and our way to God remains through Jesus Christ. Truth be told, even dramatic moments of conversion are part of a longer story, as we reflect on our relationships with God and one another throughout our lives and through all time. We don’t shortcut, sidestep, or outsmart God (see “God’s timing” above). If we are being true to ourselves and to God, we allow ourselves to be transformed by going through the process of living a life in the Light of Truth and Love of Christ. It is that Light that shows us the way, guides us, directs us, enlightens us, especially when things start to get dark.

So it’s appropriate that the birth story of our Lord starts in the dark, that we might notice the Light more clearly. May we ponder on these things in our hearts, as Mary treasured and pondered the words of the shepherds. Her story and their story are our story, shared in the songs we sing this holy season. But the light of the Son of God is not limited to one night alone. When we leave tonight, may you leave touched by the light of Christ. May you carry that light into the world, witnessing to the good news of love and peace we know because the Christ child is born.


P.S. My favorite carol is “O Holy Night”. . . at least for this year.

Continue Reading

The Lord is With You

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

Advent is all about preparation. “Prepare the way, O Zion,” we’ve sung, and theoretically, that’s what we’ve been doing, preparing the way for Jesus Christ to be fully present. These past three weeks have given us clues. As we lit the first candle with a word of peace and heard the Gospel tell us to “keep awake,” we focused on being present and aware. We lit the second candle in hope that we’d be a part of making a straight pathway through the desert, that the pathway of God’s peace might be realized. We lit the third candle with a word of joy and the vivid image of John the Baptist proclaiming, being that voice in the wilderness for the one who stood among them but was not yet known, the one greater than him who would baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit. And today, we light a candle with the word of love on our lips, and we remember the Annunciation of Mary, to whom the angel Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

If you went home today or sat in your favorite chair reading or watching a movie tonight and Gabriel appeared to you, would your preparations find you in a place ready to engage God’s will? Because Mary was apparently ready, though I do like the poems and paintings that show her hesitance, reticence, youth, and vulnerability. It is not lost on me that after Gabriel has told her not to be afraid and that she’s chosen to bear the Son of the Most High, her most pressing question is about how that’s to be? How can she be pregnant? Forget the logistics of gestating, birthing, and mothering the Son of God: let’s start with the basics. And she’s told that the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, with her consent. Mary shows us who she is in her devotion, in her strength.

I mentioned that there was one more thing I wanted to share from Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. . . .” (quote from Roshi Joan Halifax at the beginning of Ch. 7, p.147)

I mention this because while we all take for granted Mary’s strength, we often hear her spoken of as meek and mild. Of course she’s that, too. God knows who she is and favors her. Surely she is one who loves God with all her heart, all her soul, and all her mind. She’s awake and aware. She anticipates the Lord’s presence in her life. Her joy is harder for me to see, so tied up in her love and her surrender, that it must be complete in being so implicated in God’s will. That Mary is all of this in her youth speaks to a wisdom beyond her years, a strength of spirit that even Zechariah failed to show when Gabriel appeared to him. She heeds Gabriel’s message not to be afraid, and her love of God remains steadfast. Zechariah, a high priest and elderly man, powerful in many ways, serves as a contrast to this our Mary in Luke’s telling.

Young as she is, dependent upon her family and now her betrothed though between the two households, and about to be pregnant…could she be more vulnerable?

“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

God knew in Mary the strength of her spine, her strong back, not only to withstand the strain of childbirth but to endure the trials of raising a son who would have to go the way of the heavenly Father. He would break her heart in rejecting his earthly family. He would dismiss her when she called him out at the wedding feast, though she did not dismiss him. She would be close always to the news of him, as a mother does, and stand there even at his death. The song “Mary Did You Know” wrenches our hearts because we know that all this will come to pass, but how could she? God knows she’s strong of heart, and she has a strong back.

And she’s soft. Soft enough to swell with a child. Soft in her vulnerability, which means not only that she can be broken but also that she can break into newness of life. She’s not hardened to possibilities or unresponsive to that which is far greater than herself. Naive as it may be, she knows who she is and where she is in this world. She doesn’t have God’s approval like Zechariah and Elizabeth; she has God’s favor.

And the Lord is with her. Already. Before he was conceived. Before he was born.

“How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly–and letting the world see into us.” (rest of Halifax’s quote on p. 147)

We see the Virgin Mary, in her youth and vulnerability, in her obedience and devotion, in her strength and love beyond her years. The Lord’s favor was with her, indeed, radiating to all through the generations, this most highly favored lady. But before all the generations called her blessed, she had to brave the wilderness of her wild-hearted response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s “yes,” Mary’s consent to participate in the will of God took her further into vulnerability, the wilderness of walking a way alone. Like we said last week, though, when we take a light into the darkness of the wilderness, we tend to find others who have also ventured into a way that was right even if it wasn’t popular, a way that is true even if it’s uncomfortable. Mary makes it to Elizabeth’s house. Mary makes it to the birth with Joseph. The Lord is with her all the while.

We may not get Gabriel visiting us today or ever. Our calls are not as dramatic most of the time as we navigate our jobs and vocations, our lives and loves, but the decisions we make are often life-altering. When we approach a precipice having done the training in mindfulness and presence, with knowledge of our story and stories, and with a strong back and soft front and wild heart . . . what does our decision look like if we not only believe but know that the Lord is with us?

Beloved, the Lord is with you.

How do our decisions make space for the presence of the Lord to grow in our lives? Are we responding out of fear? Are we putting up a shield to defend ourselves from what is uncomfortable, terrifying, or different? Or are we showing our soft front, our wild, open hearts? Can we take that step into the wilderness even if it’s dark and unknown but we feel it to be true?

With this kind of walk in faith, the Light grows, and we make way for the Incarnation.

Continue Reading

Breaking In, Making Way

Isaiah 40:1-11 | 2 Peter 3:8-15a | Mark 1:1-8 | Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

There’s part of me that wants a rally cry from the church to come down from above, stop us in our tracks, and realign everything so that we’re all fixed in God’s will. So when I hear the words of Isaiah to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” I get excited. Yes! This is it. Finally, “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” We’ll get the level playing field for equality and justice to be manifest so the Glory of God can be revealed, for all to see it together. That’s the beloved community I long for. And the Gospel of Mark repeats this, basically. Only, it’s not so much a rally cry as it is an introduction . . . for John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness, humble and unworthy, yet baptizing many.

This is why we can’t solely proof-text the Bible, why we can’t just pick and choose verses of Scripture to hold onto. Well, we can certainly hold onto verses of Scripture for the strength and assurance we need; I have one stuck to my laptop screen (Jn 15:11). But we also need to know the context of the greater picture.

As much as I want Isaiah to be a rally cry for social justice–and it very well can be–it’s also part of an image of the way the world is when God’s will is manifest. The Israelites have suffered under oppression and are at that time returning to their land, something they didn’t think could or would happen. What’s happening is that what they least expected is actually happening, what they don’t deserve is being granted because God is faithful in God’s covenant with them. Their journey this time won’t be forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, but the path will be straight for them. In that moment, this is an observation of the mercy of God, even as we also get a picture of the fickleness of the people with whom God is in relationship and know their struggles are not over.

We get an even richer image of God’s manifestation in Psalm 85. God is speaking peace (shalom) to the faithful: peace, the fruit of forgiveness. What does it look like? Like mercy and truth meeting together, like righteousness and peace kissing each other, like truth springing up from the earth and righteousness looking down from heaven, like abundance for all and peace as the pathway. Just thinking this fills my imagination and heart with goodness, but it’s highly conceptual. I read a story about a group who created a physical “Road to Shalom” so youth groups could actually walk a way of peace. They had signs that said “Steadfast Love,” “Faithfulness,” “Righteousness,” and “Peace.” Using Ps. 85, vs. 10, they had youth hold the signs and act out the verse. Steadfast Love and Faithfulness met one another (our “Mercy” and “Truth” in the NRSV translation; NIV has “love” and “faithfulness”), and Righteousness and Peace exchanged a kiss (among much giggling). This was a very physical, tangible experience, a way to embody the path of peace so that our finite minds can try to fathom the greatness of God’s glory.

Whereas the Word of God does stand forever, we are more like the grass and flowers that wither and fade. Our Epistle reading reminds us that with God “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” We know with God there’s that timelessness and all time, the kairos time I’ve referred to before. With that perspective of all time, I cannot even imagine the kind of enduring patience that waits for us to turn our hearts toward the way of peace. That kind of steadfast love that waits for us to acknowledge the truth of our condition of suffering. That kind of goodness that accepts us wholly and unconditionally.

I want a rally cry, and I’m offered a way of Peace. I’m reminded of the patience of God who is waiting on me, when I think I’m waiting on God.

I’m waiting for God to intervene in the Middle East crisis and the poverty crisis and the refugee crisis and every single one of our life crises. And I think surely this Christmas we’ll remember that Christ has come and been made manifest and that we have all the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new, . . . but I’m told to wait. To be still. To listen. To be alert and awake. And to heed the messengers who have gone before me. And to repent for my sins. So that I can be ready to meet Christ at his Birth and at his Second Coming. That’s a lot to do for one “just” waiting.

I want a rally cry to make the world a better place, and I’m so outwardly focused that I miss that God is waiting on me. And on you.

Wait. Be still. Prepare yourself. Listen. A rally cry will come…has already come…and broken into our world. God has prepared a way of peace, determined a pathway long ago. Who’s to say it’s not already written on our hearts? We might stumble upon the path of peace, but what happens when we prepare ourselves for it? What happens if we help reveal it to others?

What does it mean for us to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God”? Would it be like parting the Red Sea or the Jordan River? Or making way through the crowds clamoring for healing or throwing down palm fronds on the way into Jerusalem? Is it really the people doing the “making way”? Or are the people the ones noticing enough to direct attention at what is breaking into the world, right into the midst of all the messiness and struggle, settling into our heart and spreading to our minds and lives.

And this in-breaking presence of God speaks peace to the faithful, to those who have their hearts turned toward God.

So we don’t have to go to someplace that tells us it’s trying to create a visual of the path of peace. We live it. Frederick Buechner said, “The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.” People the world over don’t have to wonder what it’s like to live outside of God’s love because God’s love already broke into our world and prepared for us the Way to salvation. But we forget that we’re in this eternal covenant of God’s steadfast love and grace and mercy. And we have to be reminded that when we greet one another with peace, whether we’re in church or in our cars or on the phone or in the restaurant or the grocery store, we are walking along the path of peace, one that was and is and yet will be.

Steadfast love/mercy and faithfulness/truth meet not just like teenagers on a youth trip, shaking hands and exchanging names. Mercy and truth meeting looks like legislators listening to the constituents showing up at their offices in D.C., outlining the affect health care has on their lives, how grateful they’ve been for the dialysis they’ve received or for every effort made by the medical team to heal the child and provide a refuge for the parents as they watched their child die. In this coming together of mercy and truth, righteousness and peace kiss, coming together in a communion of intimacy and love that bears fruit of something good for all, in legislation that benefits the most, especially the least recognized, the most invisible.

I want a rally cry, and I’m invited to be still. Be alert. Notice the pathway of peace that signals where the feet of God have trod–to the altar, to the food bank doors, to the waiting rooms of health centers, to the kitchen table, to the artist’s canvas, to the inventor’s studio, the programmer’s desk, to the child’s imagination, and to the student’s mind–to everywhere Holy Spirit gives us a taste of the grace and mercy, righteousness and peace that creates what is Good for each of us and all of us. In our haste, chances are we’ve paved over the holy with our good intentions and self-interest, creating a different kind of highway that helps us navigate the mountains and valleys without thinking too much about it. And we have the soundtrack of our lives playing so loudly that there’s no way we’ll hear the voice of a weird-looking guy in the wilderness or even a still, small voice within, nudging us to stop a minute and notice the glimmer of light out of the corner of our eye.

There’s a way that’s been prepared for us. There’s a light that’s broken in in the most unlikely of ways. God’s waiting for us to notice and follow the path.

Continue Reading

Anticipation & Presence

Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37

Quite unlike our January 1st New Year’s Day, we in the Church have a less festive way of celebrating our turn of the calendar year, for this is a new year. If you’re keeping track of readings, we’re in Year B now, a year we’ll get to read lots from Mark, and for the Daily Office, we’re starting Year Two. But I doubt many of you stayed up until midnight to mark the occasion–no fireworks, singing, or festive parties. Then you come to church (you faithful lot), and solemnly light one candle and proclaim to you to KEEP AWAKE since second coming may be nigh. What does it all mean?

We say “keep awake” as we enter the darkest time of the year. The last thing I do to keep awake is to turn out all the lights and let things get quiet; that’s actually the perfect setting for really good sleep. We do need good sleep. We’re tired and weary from all our worries and concerns and trying to get everything done. We need rest. We need our basics to be taken care of. So “take care of you” is what I often say. I might have borrowed it from Pretty Woman, but the words get at the oft-forgotten need to truly care for ourselves. When we are rested up, taken care of, safe, and prayed up, there’s something about entering into darkness, letting things be shadowed. We’re aware and alert, appreciative for the intensity of the darkness, grateful for our safety in the unknown, and incredibly sensitive to the liminality of space and time when we just don’t know what might happen next.

Liminal times seem to sneak up on us but are pretty predictable. We find them in our traditions. They have a way of taking us out of chronos, out of chronological, sequential time, and putting us into that no-time and all-time, the moments of kairos time. I was fortunate to be able to attend my friend’s funeral this past week. It was an unexpected death, though we all know we will one day die. Hugging his mother outside the church on the beautiful sunny day, she said, “Good morning,” though it was afternoon, and then laughed through grieving eyes as she said she really didn’t know what time it was. I held her arms and smiled, knowing that in birth and death and all times marked by deep love, these are particular times when the separation between heaven and earth and all dimensions seems so very thin–that if we just closed our eyes, we could reach into the unknown. As we listened to the Word, the music, and the homily, our hearts open and vulnerable, the distance between us and our beloved was not far, and the connection between each of us gathered was nearly palpable.

After the funeral, on the way back home, I opted for the road less traveled. But you know how when you gotta go, you gotta go? That was me. Let me tell you, there aren’t many amenities to choose from in the Ouachita Mountains between Hot Springs and Russellville, but there is a campground at Hollis. If I had listened to my body the first time, I could have stopped at the nice visitor’s center, but I didn’t (that’s another lesson: listen to our bodies!). At the Hollis stop, there was what looked like little yellow Post-It notes on the bathroom doors. I thought it was weird but maybe a new thing to leave notes for folks. (You never know what the new trend is!) Bringing my keys and phone with me, I realized that it wasn’t notes but yellow duct tape over bullet holes that went through the door; the ones that didn’t go through just dented the door and removed the paint. Glad I brought my phone with me (because this is obviously how scary movies get made), I also realized there is no light inside this old-school forestry cinderblock outhouse.

When I got out and stepped back into the fresh air, I was caught in a pause. Maybe it was the fresh air tinged with smoke from the forest fires; maybe it was the twilight. Maybe it was the stillness . . . the stillness of being in the woods when I stop walking along making all manner of noise because it feels like I’m the one disturbing the sacred silence for the lives of those all around me. It’s a feeling of being watched, knowing I’m not alone but also of being unafraid. It’s still. I’m keenly aware, with heightened senses, actually. Looking around expectantly but also waiting patiently because I know I don’t know, but I might just feel the presence of Spirit in my goosebumps or in the swell of my heart or a deep sigh or in an even deeper knowing, though I can’t quite put my finger on it or words to it. It’s a connection to a deep mystery in a brief moment.

I pondered this concept of alertness in stillness and silence and found myself taking a seat at Crystal Bridges in one of my favorite sections of art. Having just been outside, I knew that darkness had settled all around. The lighting in the museum is soft, almost hushed, intentionally angled to highlight pieces, to invite illumination and shadow. We need the light and the dark to see the relief, the detail in the sculptures, the shadows in the painted compositions. It’s amazing and to me conveys the energy the pieces bear. The pieces themselves are alert and vivid but perfectly still . . . silent . . . waiting for the next person to round the corner and engage and notice so that the hidden meanings, the random strokes, every shade and hue can reveal itself to the reaction of another–be it fascination, disgust, or ambivalence. We need light to see, but we don’t need light to feel. We only need relationship, consent to engage one another that we might reveal to the world our beauty of creation, including our shadows, which are part of our beauty. We’re just waiting for the light to come and fully illumine us, that we might be restored in full relationship with God, one another, and ourselves. We yearn to be restored to the fullness of this Holy Presence.

“Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

We think we have to go someplace, do something special, say magic words, but as we say in our Psalm (and will say in our prayers Sunday morning), we need only the light of God’s countenance to be saved . . . from ourselves, from resignation, from the sin of turning away from God, losing ourselves in darkness void of Light. How God’s countenance is shown to us–where it manifests–will be many and varied and in moments and places we might otherwise miss, if we’re not anticipating the Presence to be there. The only thing we have to do is consistently be. Maintain wakefulness. Stay alert. Be aware. So that when we encounter those holy moments, we don’t miss them. Let our lights be dim at home this season. Turn off the notifications on our phones. Make space in our calendars to sit in silence or at least to seek stillness. (There are apps to help — Headspace and Calm are a couple.) Listen to the 1A podcast about silence from Thursday morning. Be alert enough to notice what surrounds us.

When we start to feel like we’re drowning in our own chaos, let’s not miss the Presence calling us into wholeness, casting out a cord of light, of hope so we don’t lose our way. This Advent season is about God restoring us through Christ, but we have to be open and alert to hear the message. It helps to slow down and get quiet to hear that still small voice. It’s okay to sit in the darkness, light a single candle, and wait in anticipation for the light to shine in expected and especially in unexpected ways. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, in this moment and the next. We’ve just been trying to get the timing and the light just right to illuminate what’s there all along: God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit.

Continue Reading

Allegiance, Servitude and Servanthood

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 | Psalm 100 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Matthew 25:31-46

In 1925, Pope Pious XI established Christ the King feast day in the Roman Catholic Church as a response to rising secularism and especially as a counter to the Mexican government that was demanding ultimate allegiance. Those of us following the lectionary get the associated propers to remind us to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance: the King of kings and Lord of lords. As Americans, we have a complicated relationship with allegiance, with to whom or what we pledge our loyalty. We revolted against England to establish our own governance, and we pride ourselves on our independence. One of the reasons Anglicans had to expedite a new prayer book was because we had to remove allegiance paid to the English monarch, who also stood as defender of the faith. Today we are, however, expected to pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands. Loyalty to the nation is a serious matter, and we’re still not sure how to conduct civil discourse when that loyalty is questioned or challenged.

I kept hearing Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody” in my head this week. In it, he’s basically saying it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody” so the song goes.

Whom do we serve? Can we say with full confidence, like Joshua, “as for me and my household, we … serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15)? If someone looks at our bank account, does it look like we’re a cheerful giver, not just to the church even but to worthwhile causes, too? If someone looks at our schedule, does it reflect times of prayer? If we believe in God, are we loyal to God? Do we pay allegiance to God?

And maybe a better question is “How do we serve God?”

Because, yes, we serve the Lord, we give, and we pray, but how do we do it? Because we’re told? Because we have to? Because we’re supposed to, so we do what we gotta do and be done with it and live our lives the way we want the rest of the time? You don’t have to tell me, but I bet you can come up with at least something you do that you just have to power through. You don’t want to do it, but it’s good for you, like my going to the gym. Or eating all those vegetables that are so good for you, like celery. There may be other things, too, that you do that are hard but you don’t want to admit but that just are, like going to funerals or nursing homes or even going to parties and special events. Maybe they just aren’t your thing. But you do it. You’re loyal. Sometimes that brings with it a sense of servitude. We don’t like it, but we do it. We push through it. We get it done, and we can probably describe in methodical detail every aspect of our tasks because we’re very conscientious about what it is we have to do, unless we’ve let ourselves develop a habit and stopped paying attention to why we do what we do. If we lose our conscientiousness about it, then we’ve become little more than an automaton going through the motions.

“Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands;/serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song” (Ps. 100:1) (I always think there should be an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence.) I don’t think an automaton makes a joyful servant. Do we serve God with gladness, with gladness and singleness of heart? Maybe not all the time but even sometimes?

Maybe you do this more than you know. When you are doing what you’re good at, when you’re settled into your groove, and when you’re humming or smiling or focusing so intently that all else fades away, that’s it: you’re serving with gladness and singleness of heart because you are being fully you. So often we try to complicate a sense of being a wholehearted person or someone fully restored to God, but it’s really quite simple. You be you to your fullest, and in that moment when you think you can’t hold anything else, be joyful that God has created you for this moment. Be glad that you are restored to your Creator through our Lord Jesus Christ, for however far away we’ve strayed, every moment we have the chance to return.

It doesn’t sound like we have infinite opportunity when we’ve heard so much about being cast out or accursed, with all the weeping and gnashing of teeth. But things aren’t always what they seem. Jesus wasn’t the stereotypical Messiah; I don’t expect him to be the typical King. How many kings liken themselves to shepherds?

God in Ezekiel likened God to the ultimate Good Shepherd, and then appointed David as prince and shepherd. Jesus likens himself to the Good Shepherd, one of my favorite Godly Play lessons. We want to be sheep of the Good Shepherd, loved, protected, known, and sought after. As archaic as the image seems to us, we get that a good shepherd is what the sheep want.

But what about strength and might, power and dominion?

Even the nations become like sheep and goats when the Son of Man returns, our gospel today imagines. Nations who may have persecuted the early followers of Christ, nations who may persecute the poor and weak today–all are judged by the rule of Christ the King. That rule, that measure isn’t about power; it’s about how well you loved. How well did you love God? How well did you love others? How well did you love yourself so you could reflect that love of God in the mobius strip of holy communion, no beginning, no end?

Ultimately, what matters most is how we are living into our servanthood. As faithful, loyal followers of Jesus Christ, how’s our servant’s heart? Are we humble, merciful, pure, strong, peacemakers (with God’s help, of course!)? Not because we have to but because it’s the right thing to do: do we feed the hungry, water the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned? Not just as individuals but as a nation? If not, why not? Whom are we serving?

In any of the advocacy work I’ve been a part of or causes I’ve supported, the bottom line in all of them is that true change starts at the ground level. It starts at a point and reaches a critical mass until it becomes a groundswell that changes things, forcing the top to move as the masses mandate. It doesn’t take an expert sociologist to tell us that we’re not a united people right now, not even united as Christians, I’m sorry to say. Some of us would probably rather see the face of God in another religious tradition than work with other members in the Body of Christ. What does that say about our heart? Our faith and love?

“We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” We have the ability to serve with gladness and singleness of heart, to be joyful and sing. We also have the ability to go out and be a guiding light for our community and our nation. God’s will for us all is to be restored, to be returned to our fullness of glory in the image of God. What each of us does to that end is going to vary, but it’s something we get to do. We can ignore it, do it begrudgingly, or do it with love and joy. I promise it’s so much more rewarding to do it with love and joy. Not easier! Just ask the Ephesians. Ask those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They wouldn’t describe their allegiance to God as bondage, a servitude suppressing their freedom. Rather, in their oppression by the powers of this world, their allegiance to God through Jesus Christ bound their hearts in solidarity to the Sovereign of all ages. The mutual love and affection to achieve glory not only fulfilled their best selves but also fulfills God’s will.

And Paul gives us a beautiful prayer for our servant-heart:

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”


Continue Reading

The #blessed, the righteous, the thankful

Deuteronomy 8:7-18 | Psalm 65 | 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 | Luke 17:11-19

The last time I stood in this pulpit to preach, Lowell spied my iPad at the ready and asked me just before the sermon if it received text messages. I wanted to say “no,” but I knew it could. Lucky for me, it wasn’t connected to the wi-fi, and I got his message that I was doing a good job after the service.

Cultivating a sense of humor, being able to take–or even play–a prank every now and then, and learning how to juggle many things at once are just some of the things I’m grateful to St. Paul’s for teaching me along my path of discernment and formation for ministry. When Suzanne asked if I would be willing and able to celebrate on Thanksgiving Day, my first thought was “of course!” What better way to express my gratitude for all St. Paul’s has been for me than to celebrate the Great Thanksgiving in this place at this time? Whether we’re familiar to one another or not, I’m sure we could agree on many things for which we are grateful to St. Paul’s and The Episcopal Church.

Like Psalm 65 offering thanksgiving for the earth’s bounty, we could count our many blessings, creating a beautiful, bountiful list. Many of us today will do this, likely go around our tables, sharing what we’re thankful for, and I heartily encourage you to do so. Share with family and friends your gratitude, your hopes. Perhaps we could also share our awareness of those less fortunate and what it looks like to take action on their behalf. Perhaps we could also consider our responsibility for the abundance we have and what we do as good stewards of our bounty. I make these suggestions because the Gospel never really tells us to sit around and linger in our comfort.

We could be tempted, of course, to count our blessings and marvel at how #blessed we are. All of us here this morning are definitely blessed. We don’t have work today (well, most of us, anyway; thanks, Jack!). We’re safe. Preparations for our feasts are made. If I could gaze into your hearts, I’m sure I would hear the sound of love coursing through your being: love of God, love of others, and hopefully love of yourself. We’re here offering thanks to God for the ultimate sacrifice. We are praying for those who are less fortunate. We’re living the good life.

When we’re feeling so grateful, why do we get the story of the ten lepers today? Leprosy, a disease that eats away at the flesh, is a most unappetizing sort of image. Could it be that we in blessed comfort, if we’re truly honest, have our own dis-ease eating away at us?

If the greatest self-help guru came to the Town Center, imagine the crowd that would gather. He might call to the crowd for ten volunteers, choosing from the multitude those waving their arms most frantically, desperately: “Pick me!” He calls to the stage those whom he chooses:
~A corporate woman always wanting the next bigger, better thing,
~A warehouse worker who just never has enough,
~A waitress who can’t get ahead and hoards every little thing she has,
~A struggling musician who just can’t get a break,
~A minister who knows he’s struggling to practice what he preaches,
~A stay-at-home mom wrestling with the super-mom syndrome,
~A doctor with a god-complex,
~An entrepreneur who just lost his savings,
~A teacher whose voice is never heard,
~An undocumented day laborer who sends most of his money to his family out of country.

To this group he tells them simply to go somewhere safe, to someone they trust, and to tell that person the truth of their discomfort, their dis-ease. “Go! Go now!” he says. So they run off stage, rushing on their way. He smiles after them, knowingly.

The one most used to being pushed aside and left behind, the one used to waiting for the chance to do a bit of work for a bit of cash, finally makes it to the doors at the back but pauses. He feels it. What has ailed him has left him. The burden he has been carrying has been lifted. Instead of dis-ease, he feels a tingling of . . . Light? Joy? Love? With tears in his eyes, he returns to the guru, falling at his feet, making a complete scene and everyone else incredibly uncomfortable, but he can’t stop thanking this person.

Everyone else is looking on, confused.

“Better already?” the guru asks the laborer. He showingly spans the crowd. “Is this the only person made well? Where’s everyone else?” He helps the laborer to his feet and looks into the questioning eyes with all wisdom and love. “Faith,” he says. “Carry on and keep the faith.” He sends him on his way.

All ten came to the guru believing something could be done to make them well.

But only one had the presence, the awareness to realize that the healing wasn’t necessarily a result of an action he himself had to do.

How beautiful it is to me that seeking healing with an honest, humble, helpless heart puts us in a unique position to be most fully restored to wholeness by “the surpassing grace of God,” “an indescribable gift” (2 Cor 9:15).

Even as we are counting our blessings, giving thanks for our blessedness, what eats away at our joy? What prevents us from living into the fullness of love of Christ? What blinds us to the truth of reality that we are in community with one another, no matter how different we think we are from everyone else?

What is our dis-ease?

Our current and present hardships are real. I affirm and validate your struggles because I know each and every one of us has more than one we’re dealing with. And I hope you can go to a safe place, a trusted person–and maybe that’s a paid professional–to help you figure out what your next steps are. But spiritually, from a place of faith, you bear God’s favor. The very image of you from your DNA to the reflection you see in the mirror bears God’s blessing.

Because God made a covenant. God promised to see the people to the Promised Land. God promised abundance upon abundance, plenty of everything, wealth and health, and all things delicious. There seems to be this condition, though, that our being #blessed is conditional upon our giving thanks to God, not forgetting that all things come from God, remembering to uphold God’s commandments, ordinances, and statutes. Putting God first above myself and all else

That’s where righteousness comes in. Ps. 112 describes the blessings of the righteous, those who are gracious, merciful, and just. Generous. Steady of heart. Unafraid of evil. They rise like light in the darkness. Yes, they, too, have a rich and wealthy house, are blessed and honored, but their homes might look more like a one-bedroom apartment than a mansion complex. Just because people are struggling doesn’t mean we aren’t blessed. Just because we’re going through hardships doesn’t mean we aren’t righteous. Like the ten bridesmaids from last Sunday where the only reason we know five were wise and five were foolish is because we’re told, we know that all the lepers are healed because we’re told. If we were only going by what we saw, we’d only think that one was healed. But only one was aware enough to turn back to the one who showed mercy and healed fully then and there. The rest thought they had to go someplace and do something special. We can go seeking grace and find it in unexpected places, but the most astonishing discovery of all is when we realize it’s right where we are. Because God made a new covenant, one of unconditional love and mercy and grace, through Jesus Christ.

Right here where we are, we practice remembering all gifts come from God. Right here where we are, we bring our dis-ease before God, allowing grace to fill our spirit with renewed seeds faith and hope and especially love, that we might sow them bountifully wherever we go from here. We do go from here, to love and serve the Lord, but first we acknowledge our faith, pray for all, confess our sins, make peace with one another, and, of course, give thanks to God.

Continue Reading

Risking a Different Narrative

Judges 4:1-7 | Psalm 123 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Matthew 25:14-30

This Sunday is the only time in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary that we get to look at the book of Judges. This provides a great plug for Bible study, thanks in part to our prompting from the collect to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. We’ll talk more about doing this in Christian Education after the 9:15, but let me point just a few things out for you, especially why I prompted you to read at least all of Chapter 4.

After Joshua died, Israel got a series of judges, of which 12 are presented in the namesake book. This is important because the Israelites don’t have a good track record when left to their own devices. (Even with judges, they’re not perfect.) The Israelites had a tendency to go along . . . and then pull a little like a car out of alignment, drifting out of line. They do wrong, anger God (expressed by oppression by enemies), then plea for repentance for which the LORD sends deliverers, or judges. This is a pretty predictable pattern that plays out time and again.

With Deborah, the fourth judge we’re given, we hear that the Israelites have displeased God. They’re being given over, sold to an enemy. Defeat is certain, what with the fancy iron-clad chariots and all. But Deborah, prophetess and judge, gives then an alternative, their hope for repentance and for getting back on the right road. She offers a teaser to their victory, that Sisera, the opposing military general, will fall at the hand of a woman.

Will it be Deborah? We’re mindful, of course, that Deborah may be judge and prophet, but she’s not the military commander; that’s Barak’s role, the one she’s directing. We could be left with the mystery, but I think it’s worthwhile to know that we get a more complicated, detailed story. There’s the basic pattern, but we have more (which is why I encouraged you to at least read all of Chapter 4).

Looking at what follows Deborah’s outrageous command, Barak basically says, “Deborah if you’re not going with me, I’m not going.” It sounds almost endearing, like President Obama saying he wouldn’t take the Oval Office without Michelle (like I’m sure he did!). Or like Moses not leading the people without Aaron to speak for him. Or like Jacob not letting go of the angel he wrestled with until he had the angel’s name. When we’re heading into battle, into stormy territory or rough water, we want to know we go with God’s assurance and blessing, especially when the prospects look grim.

So of course Deborah goes with him, and they’re victorious over the army, and they sing a song like Miriam did after they crossed the Red Sea (because we so often repeat our stories). But Sisera fled, commander as he was, and he hid in a tent where he happened to find the smith’s wife–the smith who had likely forged the iron for Sisera’s chariots. Surely at this tent, Sisera would be safe, Jael the wife providing him refuge. But she doesn’t. She gives him milk, not water (which would have indicated true hospitality–maybe like our coffee?), and when he sleeps, Jael drives a tent peg through his head–a graphic scene of violence (of which Judges has many) our lectionary opts to omit from our comfortable Sunday mornings.

Except maybe our Sunday mornings aren’t as comfortable anymore. There’s nothing that says our churches are a guaranteed, promised violence-free sanctuary. Another pattern has emerged. A headline appears. Multiple fatalities. Details about the town, the place, the victims, and the perpetrator. An investigation that lingers longer than our attention span, not bloody enough to lead the news anymore. We wring our hands and lament the loss of life, the senselessness of it all, hug our babies close and send them back to school, go back to work, go back to church, and lock our doors at night. All this in an effort to keep safe.

I spent three hours at a seminar on Thursday, a Safe Worship workshop aimed toward clergy to get us to see how or why our church might be vulnerable. They offered practical steps to keep ourselves safer, and at vestry this next week, we’ll talk about which things we’ll implement: some are simple, while others will require your help, too. We’ll keep you posted.

But I wonder what Deborah would say. When violent crimes at churches have increased about 870% from 2004-2017, where would she lead us? What would she tell us to do?

Let me offer one more insight I shared at the Continuing the Conversations on Wednesday. Tuesday night I attended a lecture at the UofA. Professor Carol Anderson, who teaches African American Studies at Emory University, shared with us the story of how in 2014 all the news stations were showing Ferguson on fire. All the anchors were saying that the African Americans were burning their home. She repeated this, as she heard it repeated over and over again. In the midst of this narrative, perpetuating that there’s something wrong with the black folk–obviously–because they’re destroying their home, she stopped.

Wait a minute. Folks don’t just burn up their homes.

She said that we were so focused or maybe even distracted by the flames that we forgot to look at the kindling that sent the flames sky-high. She talked about patterns of systemic oppressions, where profiling, incarceration, and voter suppression–thus lack of representation–were destroying the fabric of their society. Finally a match was struck, and the flames revealed the rage that was already in the offensive position. Only the narrative was focused on the reactive. And if we only ever respond to the reactive, does anything ever change? If we only get the homeless a hotel room every once in a while . . . or only treat those without insurance in the ER when they’re very sick . . . or only look at mental health or gun reform when people are gunned down . . . what will change?

When we’ve gotten off track, what do we do?

Deborah would say we’ve got to listen to and follow God.

Dr. Anderson would say we’ve got to wake up to the facts and imagine a different narrative than the one we’ve bought into.

And the Gospel? The Gospel tells us it’s complicated.

The Gospel is complicated because we want to think and believe that if we just listen to our master, our commander, the voice of justice, then we’ll be rewarded justly. But we’re given instructions, and then we’re left to our own devices. What do we do?

The parable today rewards those who took risks, and the one who thought he knew the master’s nature and did what was safe, was cast out. This surprises us because the master apparently isn’t the best of guys. But the servants are getting a lot of money–a bag of gold, 15 years’ wages, or $1.25 million are descriptions I’ve read of what a talent is. The third guy played it safe and didn’t do anything but hide his treasure. He had a choice. Barak had a choice. He could have disobeyed Deborah or tried to hide, but then as in Matthew, there’s an inevitable accountability to God. And we just don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. It’s complicated. We won’t always get it right, and we won’t always know how it’s going to end.

But a good combination of listening to God and taking risks for the sake and love of God, that’s worth our all. Stopping in our tracks to ask questions, standing at the brink of disaster and asking, “What’s going on here?”–that’s a hard and scare place to be . . . but so worth it. We know it’s worthwhile because we’re not the same person afterward. We have new knowledge about the world, our community, and ourselves. This knowledge fills our vision with awareness and clarity we didn’t have before, as if we’ve woken up to see another dimension. We see a way we can take all our talents and use them to make a difference in the world around us.

What we realize is that listening to God and taking risks transforms us into the people God needs us to be so that the world God imagined, redeemed by the Son, could be made manifest.

Continue Reading

The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)


Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.


Continue Reading

Homily for All Saints’

(Sermon during bilingual service at All Saints’/Todos los Santos for All Saints’ Sunday)

Padre Guillermo draws our attention toward the importance of living the life the beatitudes prescribe, and I love considering what Jesus thought as he ascended the hillside to give his sermon to the crowd gathered to hear him teach. They gathered en masse because this was someone who was going around curing every disease and sickness, healing the demoniac, epileptic, paralytics–everyone. If there was a physician today who had 100% success rate, he or she would have a large following, too! Jesus had to go to higher ground logistically so people could see and hear him, but isn’t it significant that he is the one elevated during this sermon, that he–the Son of God, the one who speaks with utmost authority–is the one who speaks from on high?

We’ve heard or read how all of us are accountable to living into the beatitudes. We don’t have to be canonized like the Saints to live righteous, holy lives, and our ordinary lives do have extraordinary potential, thanks to the power of Love. Our ultimate sanctification is when we are fully glorified in God through Christ, and for most of us that will be when we die. But we have every reason to believe we share glimpses of glory here and now, and it takes all of us together to make known the presence of God here on earth. I usually say we are working toward beloved community, and we are. Today, however, I think we can consider our work to be manifesting a community of saints.

Again, the beatitudes are a recipe Jesus gives for those who follow him. The community organizer who spoke at Diocesan Convention last year used the beatitudes to illustrate how Jesus shows us a community working together to build up the kingdom. It’s almost a formula, really. 

Verses 3 and 10 are the bookends; notice how the promise is the kingdom of heaven. That’s for all of us. The poor in spirit, as Padre says, means we know we need God in our lives, and to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake is a badge of honor we get for carrying the Cross.

Now look at verse 4 (Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.), and verse 7 (Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.). The merciful comfort those who mourn and in turn receive mercy.

Verse 5 (Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.) and verse 8 (Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.); the pure in heart see the meek (the submissive, the marginal, often those who are oppressed) and know that Creation is as much theirs as anyone’s. In the meek, the pure in heart see God.

Verse 6 (Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.) and verse 9 (Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.). Those who make peace fill those who hunger for righteousness, for what is just and right and true, and they are children of God who bring such peace. And all who bring this kind of righteousness, who fulfill this yearning that comes from the heart, that bears the image of God, theirs is truly the kingdom of heaven.

As much as it sounds idealistic, these are considered more the internal beatitudes. For more tangible, actionable items, we get the corporal, the physical beatitudes in Chapter 25:31-45, where we are judged by how we treat others being how we treat Jesus (feeding, clothing, welcoming, visiting in prison, etc).

These beatitudes are applicable now, but they are also a promise of the kingdom to come. Acknowledging the suffering we face, the persecution, the judgment. Nowhere does Jesus promise that following the way of the Cross will be easy. It might get easier as we grow in our faith, as we strengthen our roots in Christ, knowing deeply in our being whose we are so we know who we are as a child of God. Knowing who we are and who we want to be ignites that light within that shines like a watchtower. Others notice and attracted to it, curious and maybe even seeking. We radiate with a joy that others want to know, too, or maybe they’ve experienced it and want to know where it comes from. This is evangelism, when we get to share our stories and experiences in our life of Christ. Others who notice us might not have such a positive intention. Standing out in a crowd means we are vulnerable both to praise and persecution, and Jesus showed us that to the extreme. Even if the reality of our blessedness isn’t manifest here, it is promised.

And maybe Jesus doesn’t give us the specifics of our life of glory, but he does show us the triumph of life beyond death. Jesus promises us that we have reason to rejoice and be glad–not naively but with certainty of faith. Our blessedness in following the way of Jesus Christ is a promise that we are walking, living, believing that the suffering of this world is not the end of our story and that we are not passive observers as trials and tribulations unfold. We are a community of saints, part of a larger community of saints, bonded to the Communion of Saints through our life in faith. Ours is the kingdom of heaven to manifest now, with God’s help, and the kingdom of heaven is ours in time to come.

Rejoice and be glad! Amen.

Continue Reading