Again & Again: We Find Ourselves Here

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Psalm 22 | Hebrews 10:16-25 | John 18:1-19:42

How did we get here? How do we arrive at this point year after year?

After the year we’ve had, we are thankful to come to this moment at all, overcoming insurrection, persevering in a worldwide pandemic (that is still ongoing), and surviving thus far all the risks and chances we face in life. As people so lucky, mightn’t we rather be celebrating? Rather than come to church when we know the grief we carry and the grief we enter into with the Passion, why would we submit ourselves to such torment and sadness?

We can’t even celebrate that there was a moment in time when the political authorities and the religious leaders agreed on something because the thing they agreed on was killing Jesus. If Jesus died, the rebellion would end with the people subdued. With Jesus dead, the priestly power prevails and the questioning of authority subsides. Everyone can resume cruise control, maintain the status quo, and stay in line . . . or this could happen to you.

We read through the drama and trauma of the Passion wondering, “Why can’t they see that Jesus is innocent?” We call for the release of Barabbas instead and shout with the crowd, “Crucify him!” while thinking that surely we would never be on that side of history. 

And yet. Here we are. Again and again we find ourselves here. If we have taken up the challenge to draw near to Jesus, even and especially through the suffering, to the cross, and to his last breath, we are more than a little uncomfortable.

The gift that is Easter awaits us, a safety net for the absence of Jesus that the disciples, friends, and his mother did not have. Can we stand beside and with them in their grief? Can we bear witness to the tragedy, like so many even this week who have to share testimony to watching a man be tortured and killed? Hopeless. Yelling into a void. Recording the moment that will be seared into their memories long after their phone becomes obsolete.

While the balance of what is good and evil teeters in the stillness of a moment, life for some carries on without noticing. Others watch the scales with bated breath or carry on bearing the burdens as they do, wondering, waiting, maybe even daring to hope.

Maybe we find ourselves at the cross more often than we realize, feeling an absence of God, of Truth, of Justice, of Goodness, in the world. Fear and grief and isolation and hatred can make it feel like it is finished, that there is nothing at all in the world to hope for. If Jesus had lived a long life and died naturally, we might have regarded him as a Saint or Prophet–the light and love he shared being contained to his lifetime. But he was killed. He couldn’t breathe. He breathed his last at the hand of his executioner, at the hand of violence, an extension of justice armed with fear and oppression ready to strike again to all who resisted.

As the sun eclipsed and the veil of the Temple ripped apart, God spoke when others couldn’t. Now can we see clearly? The Light of the world was extinguished by the cruelty of humanity that has the incredible gift of free will, even to self-destruct. But the presence of God will not be contained, not in one place, nor in one time.

But sit in the darkness. Don’t look away from shortcomings and failures, doubts and despair. Sit in the stillness and silence with all of who we are. What have we done? 

But don’t stop there. What, then, do we do next?

“He who has promised is faithful.” What all have we been promised? What all have we been commanded? Drowning in grief and sorrow, we can’t handle any tests or lists. Like the children we are, we need it spelled out simply, outstretched before us so it is as clear as possible. What is all this about? What is the purpose of everything? 


Good Friday is “good” because of Love, God’s love. We come to Good Friday year after year because we forget how to love, how to show love, how to be loved, and we lose our way. Maundy Thursday we’re reminded of the Eucharist and of the command to love one another. Good Friday we’re reminded of our failure to live in obedience to the command to love, and we’re invited to sit in the darkness because there, too, God’s Love prevails.

“Status Quo” | Hannah Garrity | paper lace | @sanctifiedart
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Again & Again: We are being Reformed

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 119:9-16 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33

In this week’s Lenten devotional from Sanctified Art, our theme is “Again & Again, We Are Reformed.” When I hear the word reformed, I tend to think of Reformed Judaism or the Protestant Reformation. So when I was reading and studying this week, the word transformation kept coming to mind and being used almost interchangeably with reformation. For both of these words, there is change. Transformation gets more air time, and this makes sense because it is the dramatic and thorough change in appearance or form–what we see or notice. When I was doing a search on these words, the usage of transform has increased exponentially since the 1950s:

Interestingly to me, reform has a different history of usage and has dropped out of favor, unlike its counterpart transform.

In the late 1990s, reform was at a peak, but then it went through a decline. I would pose the question: Does this reflect a truth about ourselves that we would rather not face? Because “to reform” means more than “to transform.” I might drastically change my appearance, and that would be a transformation you would all notice and comment upon, but I could fundamentally remain the same person. To be reformed, however, is to make changes to improve something. We don’t generally think of people as reformed but of systems, institutions, policies, government, and the like. During Lent, however, it is a good time to think about how again and again we are being reformed, how we are being improved by our dependence upon God, our relationship with God, and our life in faith. During Lent, at the end (we hope!) of a pandemic, it may also be a good time to think about how we as a church are being reformed.

It could very well be too soon. We are, after all, still in the midst of a pandemic. We wouldn’t be wearing masks together if things were the same as they had been before covid-time. It takes perspective, and usually hindsight, to look back and see all the ways we have been changed and hopefully for the better.

I watched a lecture by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, given at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina at the end of 2013. He’s a tenured seminary professor and proud Presbyterian, speaking of his church with love and wit like we do of The Episcopal Church. He references Phyllis Tickle’s 2012 book The Great Emergence, where her thesis is that the Church has a rummage sale every 500 years. What do we do at a rummage sale? Get rid of our old stuff, extra baggage. Dr. Nishioka said it’s not like a church rummage sale, where we get together and swap our stuff! In her book and his lecture, you can hit the peaks of the 500 year-marks: 590, the fall of Rome; 1054, the Great Schism of East (Orthodox) and West (Roman Catholic); and 1517, the Protestant Reformation. That brings us to the 2000s, the 21st century. We’re in another “rummage sale period,” Dr. Nishioka and Phyllis Tickle propose.

And in these periods, people are prone to think that the Church is going to die, they wonder if it can survive.

From our perspective we can look back and see how the changes that happened in the past, the reformation that occurred, resulted in a Church that emerged, yes, different, but also stronger, more faithful. Interestingly, it’s not just Christianity that is looking at these patterns. Some folks within Judaism and Islam are also looking at their history and patterns. We share with our Abrahamic siblings the core belief that the Almighty is faithful, through trouble, trial, and tribulation. It’s our responsibility to determine how we are being faithful. We can begin by discerning how God is revealing God’s faithfulness.

Again, it’s easier to look farther into history with our historical lens and evaluate everything from a distance to see how the arc bends toward the benefit of the greater good. I say it’s easier because we already have everything sorted out for us. We have the books with headings and subheadings. We have summaries and statues and epithets pointing us toward who’s who.

In our media barrage of information these days, with 24/7 news headlines, we’re getting daily summaries of what is important, critical, life-threatening. We have “influencers” guiding us toward what will best help us transform our lives into what we think it should be, what everyone else thinks it should be so we can appear to have our stuff together. Five hundred years from now, what do you think the archivists will be preserving? What do you think the historians will be teaching? What do you think the theologians will be discussing?

Will they note the ways we held onto tradition, keeping the vestments and liturgy of our ancestors? Or will the threads that tie us to the past and our tradition be part of the fabric, maybe even the part that holds us together and keeps us strong like interfacing, while the ways we wrestle and challenge and emerge reformed reveal our true colors of the time, the shape we take as we move forward?

In the gospel lesson today, we are told some Greeks wanted to see Jesus. They went to Philip. Philip, I guess, leaves the Greeks and goes to Andrew, sharing with him that even these Gentiles wish to see Jesus. News is spreading! Jesus is here! Even the Greeks have heard about Jesus. And here is Jesus, in Jerusalem after a triumphal entry, of sorts. We’ll get more next week about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, beginning the week of his Passion. But today we get more expectation, anticipation, and hope. There’s so much going on in their lives, and Jesus is stirring the hearts of all who encounter him in person or in story.

About five hundred years before the fall of Rome, Jesus walked the earth. Goods and power were being monetized and valued over human life. Systems of oppression and domination secured those in power, those who had the power to make changes. Violence was a way of life. Some tables needed to be turned.

Two thousand years later, goods and power are being monetized and valued over human life. Systems of oppression and domination secure those in power, those who have the power to make changes. Violence is a way of life. Some tables need to be turned or at least set out for a great rummage sale so we can get rid of all that binds us.

And it scares us. We’ll make things change and look beautiful on the outside all day long, but reformation means that something we’re clutching for dear life–even if it’s the devil we know–we’ve got to let go. We have to pluck the seed and let it fall to the earth so that it can die, decay, and be born anew.

We haven’t done ourselves a service in trying to make everything beautiful all the time, romanticizing or whitewashing the past (in more ways than one). Life and death go hand in hand. Jesus in all his humanity and divinity knew this, and we, like the disciples and apostles, try to understand. Jesus wasn’t of this world in that his priorities were never aligned with the powers and systems of the world in which he walked. Jesus’s economy of grace defied the emperor’s coin. God’s love for the world–for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the lost, the sinner–defied all oppression, seeking only liberation, not domination. The Love Jesus embodied, while capable of receiving the pain, torture, and violence of humanity, never inflicted harm on another. Maybe Jesus is talking about his own body when he talks about the grain of wheat, and maybe he’s also talking to us about all the potential we have to embody if we let go of that which we cling to so tightly but inhibits us from experiencing liberation, life, and love more fully.

As God inscribed on the hearts of our ancestors, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (I’m sure it’s in English! LOL!), we have the opportunity to reveal to our future how we live into the reformed lives God makes possible through Christ for us. With the power of the Holy Spirit, think of all that has and is being done in this century. Think of marriage rights for our siblings. Think of how hard folks are advocating for BIPOC lives, immigrant lives, women’s rights, trans rights, human rights . . . how hard folks are working to dismantle White Supremacy. Think on how tightly others are clinging to that which perpetuates objectification, monetization, oppression, and violence. This week we give ear to our Asian American/Pacific Islander folks, after the terrorism in Atlanta. When good work is being done, adversaries in the powers and principalities will surface to cling tight and fast and keep us bound, keep us from everlasting life.

If we can let go of all the barriers that we have built around our hearts, we might actually discover who it is God has created us to be. If we can share our experiences of grace, healing, restoration, and reformation without shame or manipulation, maybe we can help others to see how God is already at work in their lives. If we can look in our circles around us and see where God is calling us here in our communities to make a difference, maybe we will not succumb to temptations of grandeur or comparison. If we continue to encourage one another to discern and put into use our gifts and lean into the wonder, awe, and mystery of God, maybe we can let go of pretense and unrealistic expectations and be together mutually empowered and authentically present.

Our world is changing so fast that we may not need 500 years between cycles going forward. Who knows?! But right now, we can accept responsibility and hold ourselves accountable for being people of God. We can reach out to one another and to others, sharing a loaf of homemade bread and sharing how we are fed by the Bread of Life. This is the Church we are called to be, the people of God we are called to be, and we don’t need future historians to tell us that. It’s already written on our hearts. 

Written on our Hearts by Lauren Wright Pittman, inspired by Jeremiah 31:31-34. @sanctifiedart | #Lent2021

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Fulfilled & Unfinished

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 | Psalm 62:6-14 | 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 | Mark 1:14-20

“Now after John was arrested . . .” So begins our gospel lesson today, with a nod to the turbulence in the air, and so begins Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” The Gospel according to Mark isn’t one for elaboration or pleasantries. Let’s get down to business. (Even Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is conveyed in two verses!) Simon and Andrew are called out and immediately follow. Jesus goes apace farther and immediate calls James and John, sons of Zebedee. Leaving their father in the boat, they follow Jesus.

Do you sense the immediacy of the moment? Is there an urgency?

God has all the time, infinity beyond our comprehension, but our time on earth is limited. Don’t you know that Jesus knew this? That after wandering in the wilderness forty days, he emerged to walk among the peoples with clarity of purpose, unity of vision, not with the powers and principalities of the day but with God. He has work to do, and he needs others to share in this spreading of the Good News, that the kingdom of God is here. Folks need to repent and believe in this.

But times are hard. Working conditions aren’t so great. Meager earnings are taxed for the benefit of some. Armed forces increase suspicion. High priests care more about perception and position than well-being and compassion of and for all. The future, if one dares to cast an eye too far forward, doesn’t promise relief or change or give much cause for hope. Resignation, complacency, apathy, and isolation bring comfort, as we learn more quickly than we realize how to survive in darkness and despair, where at least we don’t suffer grief, pain, and loss of hope for brighter days, the warmth of joy, the nearness of the kin-dom of heaven. Ah! Now we have a name for what we seek, what we didn’t know we were missing. Jesus proclaims it at the beginning of his ministry and immediately begins to share it with others–simply in his presence and then by action. The kin-dom of heaven is near. “Follow me,” Jesus says.

Such an in-breaking we experienced this past week. Her life thus far prepared Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman to take the podium at the Inauguration Ceremony and proclaim words we Americans needed to hear. She took more than two verses to describe the wilderness we have been navigating not just these last four years but since this country began, the grief and hurt and weariness that has accumulated from the many times we failed to live into what we envision: a democracy where the united states share unity of purpose to provide liberty and justice for all.

Having experienced something of the divisions between denominations, let alone the sordid history of violence between faith traditions, our founding fathers of this country wrote into our constitution a separation of Church and State so that the liberty and justice for all might be realized. Unfortunately, a blindness to their current position in a society that condoned and enforced slavery, genocide, and gender inequality equally blinded them to the full meaning of “for all.” “All” to them–consciously or unconsciously–meant free, affluent, white men, and this foundation of white male privilege, even white supremacy, undergirds all that we are as a country, as Americans, a defect from our birth. To ignore this fact is a conscious choice to maintain blindness, to stay in the boat rather than follow the invitation to repentance (reparation and reconciliation?), to be “brave enough” to move toward a better version of ourselves, toward the light beyond what seemed before a “never-ending shade.”

That next step of moving toward liberty and justice for all, of moving more fully into the democracy we envision where the people–all people–count wholly, is that “terrifying hour” Gorman spoke of. Terrifying because we don’t know what it means to us in the status quo. What will we lose? What will we sacrifice? Will we leave our father in the boat, surrounded by others afraid to lose even the little they have in the moment? But what might we gain? Dare we believe the good news being proclaimed? That there is hope for a true democracy? That a Beloved Community is possible? That the kin-dom of heaven has come near?

Jesus said the time was fulfilled, and he proceed to work, to proclaim the Good News. And he called us to repent, echoing the words of the one who had been arrested, the one who had been a voice in the wilderness, the one whom we know will be beheaded because his truth-telling doesn’t please everyone, and people tend to be self-serving. Self-interested as we are, a call to repentance isn’t what we want to do because repentance demands we look at where we are in the moment, fully, without blinders to the unpleasant. Actually, repentance turns our gaze on the especially horrific truths. Like a father telling his son to “Look at me” when we are facing our wrong-doing, the call of repentance is to focus one’s gaze squarely on the sin. Where have we failed God? Where have we failed our neighbor? Lady Liberty, shed your light, for we Americans have much to repent. 

But we confess every day or at least every Sunday, we might say. Yes, my brothers and sisters. We do. I thank God for that. We hear the proclamation of the Good News, that Christ our Savior has forged the way for our union with God, and we breathe the air of one forgiven, redeemed, and sustained. How good it is. And how easy it is to abide is such blessedness.

Jesus proclaimed the good news and called folks to repent and believe in the good news.

What does it mean to believe in the good news? 

For the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote, it meant that they had all that they needed: they had professed Christ as Savior and confessed their sins. They were ready for the second coming of Christ, and they could turn their gaze from this worldly, fleshly mess of a life to focus on the glory to come. All is right with them, so stay the course until kingdom come–all shall be well. Paul was also writing this part of the letter to the Corinthians to try to save them from the stress of married life, not wanting to increase their anxiety so they could focus more on the Lord. 

Blessed Paul would have been in good company with our American forefathers, with all his good intentions. Truly, his admonitions for husbands and wives to love one another are foundational in our marital vows for mutual respect and joy, but other words, even penned pseudonymously, have led to much harm and distress for married and unmarried alike. Paul’s maintaining the societal status quo, especially regarding slavery, failed to convey the fullness of the kin-dom of heaven that the Glory of God promises and fueled the practice to the detriment of God’s children. Perhaps even for Paul it was hard to imagine “for all.” His world, too, was Jew or Gentile, master or servant, even if he believed there was neither Jew nor Greek, master nor slave, male nor female, the practices continued.

Likewise for us.

We believe equal education is right for all, but we want the best for our kids, so we make sure we live in the right neighborhood. I know. I’ve done it, consciously and subconsciously. We are all God’s children we believe, even as we’ve watched the disparity and poverty grow, incarceration rates skyrocket, affordable housing dwindle, debt soar, addiction kill, hatred fester, and hope fade.

But we’re saved. We confess over and over again. And we’ll stay in the boat, thank you. Jesus, you go do your thing. Everyone will come to the light . . . eventually.

How’d that go for Jonah?

Yes, Jonah was long before Jesus, but he, too, was called by God. He was given a task, one he tried to avoid, but after washing back up to shore, surviving the belly of a beast, he decided to do what he’d been told. His repentance maybe wasn’t as voluntary, but he believed. He believed in God. He told the people of Nineveh that the town would be overthrown, and he knew God would do it. It had happened before. To his surprise, however, the people believed him. They repented and fasted and put sackcloth on themselves and their livestock–they went above and beyond, even ridiculously so. And God changed God’s mind. The people were saved, and we know from the story that Jonah gets mad, temper-tantrum throwing mad.

The people had heeded his prophecy. Isn’t that a good thing? For the people who believed in a merciful God, yes. For Jonah who knew a mighty God, one prone to wrath and vengeance, not so much. Why hadn’t his people been spared? Why was he made to look a fool?

When we believe in the kin-dom of heaven, it’s important to remember who is the head of that kin-dom, who sits in the throne of Glory everlasting, whose will it is we seek to serve in unity. It’s not our will, but Thine be done, yes? When we acknowledge our sins and turn our lives to live in accord with God’s, we surrender our independence to a dependence upon a will for the Greatest Good, one we cannot fully comprehend, one that would allow us to choose to deny this Good in favor of evil because it means we have free will to choose to believe the good news, to follow the kin-dom of heaven, to choose Love with fullness of being.

For the people of Nineveh, the stakes were high, and they had mere days to correct the error of their ways. For Jesus, according to Mark, there was no time to waste. What about for us, for US? Now that we have a new administration, are things truly different? Can we sit back now in our homes and wait and watch for all to be well?

Does the lion lay with the lamb? Are the orphan, the widow, and the stranger provided for? Has sorrow ceased and joy prevailed? Time may have been fulfilled in the moment of God dwelling on Earth, but our work is unfinished. If we believe that the kin-dom of God has come near, then we need to act like it, repent of the many ways it is not in action, and believe that we have a part in realizing the Good News for others–not for our own glory or comfort but for God’s will to be done. There’s much unfinished work yet to do for all who follow Jesus.

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Call My Name

1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20) | Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 | 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 | John 1:43-51

Childhood, like life itself, is both particular and universal. With our life circumstances and experiences, we are unique individuals, but as human creatures in this world, we have inescapable commonalities written into our DNA and present in the forces of nature. While we may study our common characteristics in textbooks or watch about them in documentaries, the particulars of our lives are shared through story.

As a child, once I learned to read, my imagination was set free. Whether it was Bible stories or Richard Scarry, Nancy Drew or Little Women, I let myself immerse in the story as it was written, drawn to those who could bring a scene to life, pull me into the drama, and tune out the real world around me. There was a beginning and an end to the books that almost always ended with the character finding their way to joy, if not a “happily ever after.” That joy was a sense of fulfillment, of mission accomplished. Most of the stories I’ve read–and continue to read–are about triumph over obstacles, solving a mystery, some kind of goal achieved, no matter how trivial it might seem. At least one character in the story is going to come to a new awareness that makes them somehow different than they were at the beginning, and in the stories I’m drawn to, fiction and non-fiction alike, the transformation is going to be for the better, preferably not only for themselves but for everyone around them, too.

I know it dates myself a bit–too old for some, too young for others–but with cable t.v. and VCR’s, the stories I enjoyed weren’t only in my mind; I could watch them unfold on the screen in my home in movies. I cannot tell you how many times I watched The Neverending Story or even now how often my husband and I make reference to the “big, good, strong hands” of the Rock Biter. This movie, of course, combined things I loved: reading a big book on a stormy day, suspense, and a fantasy world. I realize now that it also spoke to me on subconscious levels, portraying a grief-stricken child who sought escape but who also possessed the power to make a difference. (After reading an online article, there are so many other aspects of the plot worthy of exploration!) 

Bastian, the child in The Neverending Story, saves the fantasy world of Fantasia and even himself by being just the human child giving a new name to the dying empress. The name he gives the child empress is the name of his mother who had died, giving prominence and acknowledgement to his own grief but also breathing new life into a name he loved so deeply. The journey from when Bastian first snatched and hid away with the magical book to when he’s flying around on the luck dragon himself to get even with the bullies who plagued him is full of moments of facing the reality of what is, even if it meant looking at what is true through a fantasy lens.

If that makes sense to you, then you understand how it is that we read our Holy Scripture. Even if everything is not completely literal, then even in the figurative sense, there is Truth to be learned, even Truth to be applied to our lives centuries, even millennia later.

While some have the luxury of time to immerse themselves in the full scope of the stories of the Bible, most get a little snippet on Sunday mornings. Some, and hopefully most of you, get a little every day, enough to chew on and engage with daily, to keep you fed yet still hungry for more. It takes time and practice, but we do get to a place where we can come to the stories and experience them deeply.

Remembering what it’s like to be a child, hungry to read more, to explore more, I come to the story in Samuel and experience it. I picture Samuel as an apprentice, relegated to stay in place and do what is told by an aging superior. Samuel is young and alive, his eyesight as keen as his hearing. One night he hears his name called out, “Samuel! Samuel!” and with obedience he responds, “Here I am!” not once but three times.

The fourth time, however, was different. The elderly Eli, to whom the Word and the LORD had already been revealed, perceived that it was the LORD calling to Samuel. The elder now hopes that all the instruction has not been in vain, that the child is ready for the encounter, that he will be deemed worthy. Like any parent or teacher, we hope that the younger will reflect well on the elder. Eli’s sleep was probably restless the rest of the night, racing through all the possibilities, but our focus remains on Samuel who receives the Word of God. It is not good news. The burden of what God has spoken weighs heavily on Samuel through the night.

At morning’s light, Samuel rises to open the doors of the house of the LORD, as he had many times before. Only now he has the weight of the Word in his heart and mind. Not wanting to tell Eli, afraid to share the vision with Eli, Samuel undoubtedly cast his gaze elsewhere, focused on everything away from Eli. But Eli summons him, tenderly, “my son.” “Here I am,” Samuel replies, and at Eli’s bidding, he does the hard thing of telling him everything, of hiding nothing. What a relief to unburden, to share with his elder, but now the story continues. We know that the life of a prophet is not one to be envied.

If we focus solely on Samuel, however, we miss an important aspect of the story. While Samuel’s story shows us his becoming a prophet, even at such a young age, we also have a glimpse into Eli’s story. The back-story is that Eli’s sons have blasphemed God, and Eli did nothing about it, allowing it to persist. Eli was elderly, his eyes growing dim, but there was widespread lack of vision, the word of the Lord rare. Acknowledging the significance of the moment, perceiving that the Lord was breaking into the world, Eli demonstrates great faith in stepping back, letting Samuel step forward. Eli demonstrates great faith in hearing the truth, encouraging Samuel to share what has been spoken to him in full detail. Eli demonstrates great faith in allowing God’s will, acknowledging the presence of God, trusting God to “do what seems good,” even though he knows that it means punishment for his house forever.

We know that it’s not an easy thing to face the truth, that we’re not always ready to see it. Bastian in The Neverending Story didn’t see himself as a hero for a long while. Samuel needed the instruction from his teacher to guide him. Eli, the adult in our stories, shows his humility in accepting the consequences of his actions–or inactions.

As a country, the United States is relatively young. In many ways we are a child, too, filled with hope and imagination but already struck by grief and trauma from our birth. Some of us bear the marks of the collective trauma having Indigenous or African foremothers and fathers. Some of us bear the marks of our individual trauma, having lived through any manner of abuse, loss, addiction, (insert your trauma here). Any one moment of our lives where we choose to keep going when the light seems to fade, when visions are few and God seems far away, our story reveals how we persist in finding joy, find some way closer to fulfilling what it is we seek.

At some point, with all that has been said and done, we accept where we are and what is to come with faith that God will accomplish that which seems to be good. Such acceptance and allowance comes with maturity of Spirit. Let us not forget that we are always children of God. Remembering that we are children of God, we are part of God’s story. We, like Samuel, are called by name, called to reveal something of God in the world, something True. Maybe it’s joyful and beautiful like a song. Maybe it’s terrible and sad, like the fall of a household. Whether it’s lovely or awful, however, depends on how you see it.  If we can’t stand rap, Hamilton might grate on our nerves.  If we’re a white supremacist, the demise of the Proud Boys is awful. We all have our preferences, just as we all have our prejudices. But with whom does ultimate judgement lie? And how do we make sure that our story leads us along the narrative arc aligned with goodness?

“Lord, you have searched me out and known me…” the psalmist writes. Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree before his friend called out to him. Something of our lives, of our stories is known, maybe even before we realize it ourselves. When we are called, it is up to us to step forward and do what we’re given to do–whether that’s to speak the truth, to call for civil rights, to step into a new administration, to keep light shining when we’re in a dark place, or to do whatever it is that God sees fit for us to do to keep the presence of God alive. We keep that presence alive in our faith, hope, and love–the greatest of these being love.

If you wonder where your story has taken you or where it might be taking you, look for the times in your life where you realized something new. Pay particular attention to those times when what you learned empowered you to live more fully, liberated you from a limiting worldview, and opened your whole self to love more generously. Chances are that these were not easy moments in your life but a time when tremendous healing, grace, and mercy were present. Look around those moments in your life-story and see who might have been the Jesus in that moment inviting you to “come and see” or asking you to “follow me” toward a fullness of life made possible by God alone. Those particular moments are part of your story but enrich the lives of us all, for the better.

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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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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 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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