Sunday, May 01, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016 St Paul’s King George, John 14:23-29 “Because I Said So”


When my children were little – I raised five children, so that seemed like a very long season indeed – we had a system of sharing the chores. Most large families have them. Ours was called The Chore List and it included taking out the garbage, loading or emptying the dishwasher, walking or feeding the dog – you get the idea. There’s never enough time to get everything done around the house, and sharing the work makes it possible to keep the chaos at bay. It’s also a great way to teach children how to do the things that need to get done…at least in theory.
I say that, because the reality was that every time I had to enforce the Chore List, one of the children said “Why do I have to do it? Sam did a bad job of it last time, so now I’ve got twice as much work to do.” Or “Why do I have to do it? Allie didn’t have to do it last week when she was sick, and I’ve got a headache.”
I tell you this, because in our gospel this morning, we’re missing a key part of the story – the question that Judas (NOT Iscariot) asks Jesus that prompts our gospel passage. He says “Lord, how is I that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”
And that begs the question of why Judas asks this question…it’s because Jesus has just said, “I’m out of here. I’ll be supporting you, through the Holy Spirit, but now it’s your responsibility to share the truth and the way.” No wonder Judas asks his question! Even though it is couched in more formal language than we or our children would use, Judas is saying “Why do we have to do it?”
And the unspoken words behind that “why do we have to it” are “it’s hard, and we don’t want to have to do it.”
Sort of like my kids and emptying the dishwasher. Because it would be so much easier if Mom emptied the dishwasher – she knows how and it’s her job because she’s the mom, after all. Because it would be so much easier if Jesus kept on teaching and doing miracles – he knows how and it’s his job, right? But maybe my most important job as a mother was to teach my children to be self-reliant, and maybe Jesus’ most important job was to equip the disciples to be able to carry on the work, to share the gospel, to baptize, and even on occasion and with God’s help, to carry out a miracle or two. And that meant that on occasion Jesus might have to say "why? because I said so."
A couple of years ago I celebrated one of those big “round-number” birthdays. The children, all grown up now, asked what I wanted. I said that I wanted them to come down to Richmond and gather and cook me a meal, after all the meals I had served them over the years.
Now, friends, you need to know that the two eldest boys – they’re men, not boys, to be accurate – are the cooks for their families. Each is married and has two kids, and they love to cook, and they do it well. The next son also cooks brilliantly – and he runs the cocktail program at a high-end San Francisco restaurant – we used to call it being a bartender, but now it’s “running the cocktail program” since he invents all sorts of amazing drinks, including the Steph Curry, which is definitely a slam dunk. The next son is a fine cook as well, as his girlfriend will attest, and my daughter can more than hold her own in any kitchen anywhere, particularly when it comes to baked goods. The housekeeping education didn’t stick, but my goodness, the cooking lessons sparked a lifetime love of cooking for them all!
So when I asked for this gift of their presence and their cooking, what ensued was pretty similar to the planning of the D-Day invasion. Emails flew back and forth to decide on the menu and who would cook what- some trash talking about the others’ skill level as well, since nothing ever changes when it comes to sibling interactions – and eventually they came up with a plan for a feast beyond compare. They knew they needed to make food that not only showed off their skills, but was something the grandchildren would eat, and that would accommodate various allergies, food restrictions, and such.  Matt would make a pasta dish, Chris would grill a spiced pork loin, Bryce would do apps, Sam would serve as sous-chef and salad maker, and Allie would help my husband with the dessert and “other duties as assigned.” My daughters-in-law and I hid out in the living room as every bowl, every utensil, every pot and every square inch of the kitchen was put to use. Occasionally one of the troops would come in to say “have you got any____?” I’d tell them where to find it – they had sent a shopping list to my husband for most of what they needed but they knew I would have basics already in the house.
For several hours they occupied the kitchen, and I do mean “occupied,” and at the end of it all we gathered around the dining room table for an amazing meal, made all the more amazing by storytelling, by laughter, by shared experience, by the transformative power of lessons learned and possibilities come to fruition.
Late that night I thought about the wonderful evening, but I also thought about  the exhaustion of all the nights I had spent with the kids as they were growing up, saying “you need to figure out how to do this stuff, since I won’t always be there to clean up after you,” the push-back, the arguments, the “why do I have to do it?”, the “because I’m the mom and I said so,”  the eventual sullen compliance…
…and I thought about Jesus, sitting with the disciples, so often probably thinking to himself “are these folks ever going to get it? Will they be able to carry on when I am no longer with them?”
…and now I think about Jesus, having this conversation with them at the Last Supper immediately before his betrayal and death, and Judas, not Iscariot, saying “why do WE have to do it?”
…and I think of his gentle answer, when he says in essence, “I’ll still be with you, even if I am not with you physically. You will carry the lessons you’ve learned from me. It’s not really that hard and I know you can do it. Just keep on keeping my word, and you will be blessed and be a blessing.”
I expect for many of you, worry about the future looms large. The arrival of Padre Lee has been delayed by government paperwork – bureaucracy! – and it’s been a long time. When is he going to get here permanently? When will we have our ordained leader once and for all? But this reading from the Gospel of John is a wise reminder – it’s not about the leader, because you all have the capacity to be faithful leaders. You have learned from Jesus and from all the priests who have served you over the years. You all have pulled together to be the church, because the church is all of you. Those of us with the collars, we have a specific role to play in the life and worship of the church. Priests come and priests go, but the church is the people, not just the priest.
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ because you already are being church in so many of the ways that really count. Trust that Jesus is with you, that the Holy Spirit continues to inform and guide the work of God’s faithful people in this place.

You are meant to lead right now, and you are leading. Why do we have to? Because Jesus is the Lord, and he says so.

Amen.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 Acts 5:27-32; John 20-19-21 Holy Comforter, Richmond “Stand-Up Guys”

We make much of the fact that the disciples of Jesus – with the exception of the females, and in some tellings of the story, the Beloved Disciple – hid themselves after Jesus’ arrest. That is reiterated in this Sunday’s Gospel, where the disciples still appear to be hiding out in the upper room. They are afraid that they will meet the same fate as Jesus. It appears that one of them, Thomas, has some doubts about the resurrection, or at least about the reports that some of their number have made about Jesus reappearing.

Yup, Doubting Thomas.

We know this story. We’ve heard this story a thousand times. It’s been used as a tool to remind us that demanding proof of God and God’s power is a bad thing.

But this Sunday, when we hear this story of fear and doubt yet again, let’s juxtapose the gospel with the reading from Acts of the Apostles that is paired with it.

Here’s the starting point, one in which we can have no doubt: following Jesus is risky business.

The disciples had good reason to hide themselves, as John the evangelist reports, because look what happened. In Acts of the Apostles, this was the second time the disciples were brought up on charges by the religious leadership for preaching about Jesus’ resurrection. The leaders were clear: stop preaching this stuff, or you’re going to regret it. The first time they were hauled in, the leaders are described as having been “much annoyed” by it. This second time, the leaders were said to be motivated by jealousy. Whatever the reason, they wanted the disciples to stop, because it was fomenting unrest. Their authority and power was being challenged, and we know how that works, right?

So Peter and the disciples were called forward to answer for themselves, and they said something that sounds very little like the frightened men in the upper room: "We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him."

They said, “we have to tell really happened, not what you’re pretending. This matters. You were complicit in his death.”  These days, as the New Testament scholar Mitzi Smith says, the hashtag might be #ResurrectionMatters.

Peter and the disciples found their courage somehow. They had to speak out. It mattered. In the words of the rough streets of Jersey City where I grew up, they became “stand-up guys,” ones who told the truth, who did the right thing even if it was the hard thing, who were willing to take necessary risks.

We know the rest of their story – they continued to be stand-up guys and stand-up women (and yes, there were women among those disciples) and most of them ended up dying for it.

But I find myself wondering what the tipping point was, when they were converted from cowering and trembling weaklings to stand-up guys, risk-takers.

Was it when Jesus came back to visit them while Thomas was away? Probably not – they were still hiding out when the second visitation happened.

No, I think it was precisely that time when Jesus came back to prove himself to Thomas. Because the message of this gospel, and of the subsequent story in Acts, is this: Jesus loves us even in our doubts, because he understands our weakness. More importantly, Jesus loves us into courage, into taking risks for the gospel. He keeps coming back, saying “It’s time for you to be a witness to that which is evil in the world. It’s time for you to be a stand-up disciple. I love you and I will be with you, no matter what happens. You won’t get all of the work of witnessing done – it will go on until I return at the end of days – but I will walk with you every step of the journey, no matter how glorious, no matter how painful.”

Now that’s pretty powerful encouragement…great word, “encouragement” – it means giving courage to, right? Giving courage to do the right thing even if it is the hard thing, even if there will be a cost.

There have been countless stories of people who found the courage to speak out even when they were shouted down or when it meant personal risk. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sojourner Truth. Rachel Carson. Malala Yousefzai. Nelson Mandela.

Those are the famous ones. But there are countless others who have become stand-up disciples. In my youth, it was those who marched against the war in Vietnam. In recent days, it has been the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, decrying aggressive police action against black young men in particular.

Here’s is the sad truth that I will witness to today: this world is still a place of jealousy, of death, of oppression, of injustice. Jesus told us it would be this way. But Jesus didn’t give us permission to take a bye on fighting this.

No. Jesus gave us encouragement. He gave us the courage to do what he did, to name what needs to change to make this world a little closer to the world his heavenly father created for us. To be stand-up disciples, witnessing to the truth of Jesus’ powerful message of hope and love, of the death of tyrants and the power of the resurrection.

Hashtag “ResurrectionMatters.” Get your courage on. Say “we must obey God rather than any human authority, as Jesus taught us.” This is Resurrection Time. We must witness to its power and its promise, regardless of the risk. Resurrection matters, and so do our voices and the voices of all stand-up disciples.

Amen.




Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Vigil Sermon 2016 – Romans 6:1-11 “Pulled Into New Life”



The child was not yet five. She stood at the water’s edge, looking at the gently rolling waves as they lapped the shore.

Where were her parents? Momma was gone inside the little building a hundred yards away. Gone to get a key to a little cottage where they would stay for a week. It was the family’s first true vacation since the child was born. They had no money – Daddy drank it away – but somehow Momma had put aside enough to provide a week in a cottage by the seaside, so they could have a real vacation, like real families. And maybe, just maybe, it would be a good week, with no drinking, no yelling, no stomping out the door. Dreams die hard, you know.

And so Momma had ducked into the building on the bay to pick up the key to the cottage. She had said to the child, “You stay right here by the door. Don’t you go near the water. We’ll have time for that later on, once we get settled into the cottage. Daddy was sitting in the car, sullen at the thought of a week where he’d have to sneak out to get a beer and a shot. He was looking elsewhere, thinking of something long past, time during the war maybe, when he was building bridges across a foreign river.

Momma’s words had quickly faded from the child’s memory, because those waves, those rhythmic waves, were beckoning to her. “Come see! Come see!”

And now the child’s feet, clad in thin sandals, were feeling the tickle of the water. Her toes were cool on this hot day, and she was hot all over after two hours in the old car, so she decided to step in further.

Cool legs now, and knees. It was like the Saturday night baths, and yet it wasn’t, because it was cool, not warm. But the cool felt so good. So she stepped in a little further, and a little further, and a little further.

And then there was a wave, and an undertow, and she felt her cool feet slide out from under her, and she was in a wash of rushing water, churning in all directions. And she was tumbling, tumbling and there was no air, just water, and she thought for a minute, “Momma’s gonna be mad.”

And still she tumbled, and even though she was only four years old, there were pictures flashing through her mind, the Christmas tree, her teddy, sitting on Uncle George’s lap and being glad he was not yelling like Daddy, and Momma’s chicken gravy, and she didn’t know what was happening but now she was scared and she couldn’t breathe, until something shifted inside her and she was calm.

She wasn’t thrashing anymore. She thought, “fish breathe in water. Maybe I could too…” and then suddenly a strong hand grabbed at her leg and arm and pulled her up into the air and she gasped and coughed and the man was saying “where’s your parents, kid?” and she was still coughing and sputtering when Momma came running out of the building, her purse slapping against her side, and now Daddy was running out from the parking lot, not sullen but scared, and they were yelling, “Baby! Baby! Baby!”
 
Momma was crying and saying “I told you to stay away from the water. Why did you go there? You could have died.” And the man with the strong hands was walking away and fading from view, before Momma and Daddy could say thank you for saving our baby.

The child had died, or nearly died, in that bay. A few seconds more and she would have been only a memory. The child that this Momma and Daddy had prayed for for years in a childless marriage, until the child was given to them. But the child lived. She grew. Momma still struggled, and Daddy still drank – it would be the death of him – but the child knew…SHE KNEW IT as surely as she knew that Bella the cat would scratch her if she played with her tail … she knew she was loved and she had been saved. She remembered the feel of those strong hands pulling her up out of the water. She remembered her parents’ fear and love and anger and how they clutched her in her wet sundress and soggy sandals as she hacked the last of the water out of her tiny belly. She remembered being saved.

When St. Paul says to the Romans “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection” he is telling that little girl’s story. He is telling our story. It is a story of our death in the water of baptism – we get little sense of that in our Episcopalian baptisms where a genteel sprinkling of water is a faint memory of the immersion the early Christ-followers experienced – and then getting yanked out again, gasping and coughing and breathing in the air, that beautiful air, that knowledge that we have been given a second chance at life, a different kind of life. We cannot forget the death of our old way even as we celebrate our resurrection into a new way.

This night/day is a reminder of that death and rebirth. Jesus’ fearful crucifixion and glorious resurrection shows us that death is not the final word, because as Jesus is resurrected from the dead, so too are we. We sing praises to God on this night/day not because Jesus was resurrected from the dead, but because his resurrection is the story of our rebirth as well.

Because of Jesus Christ, we breathe again. We are grabbed by his strong hands and yanked out of our old ways, the ways of death, and pulled into new air, clean air, into our own new lives.

The child in the story went onto live the usual complicated life – don’t we all? – with moments of failure and sin as well as moments of grace. But she remembers still the feel of the strong hands lifting her out of the waters of death into new life. And in those memories, she finds peace and thanksgiving for what she was given. A new life, as we are all given new life. A grace to try again, as we are all given chances to try again. Abounding love, as we are all the recipients of God’s abounding love.

The Easter story is her story. It is our story too. Jesus’ death and resurrection serve as a constant spiritual memory that we are saved and that those around us and around the world are saved as well.

But with that salvation comes something more: obligation. Having been the recipients of grace, of strong hands pulling us up out of death into life, now it is our turn to be strong hands helping others. We show Christ’s love by pulling up others, by retelling this story of a better way, of Christ’s way. Will you be the stranger on the beach? Will you pull another child of God who is lost and drowning out of the ocean of despair? Having been given the gift of life, how can any of us do any less?


Amen.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Sermon for February 7, 2016 St Andrew’s Richmond Luke 9: 28-43A “After the Party”


It was a cold February afternoon – a Super Bowl Sunday, to be exact - just a few months after the priest had presided at the wedding of a wonderful young couple. The ceremony had been full of the formal words of commitment, with beautiful music to complement the words that were spoken. The bride had been radiant in a dress that must have cost more than the priest’s car did. The reception, at a nearby vineyard, had been luxurious, the finest hospitality that a whole lot of money can buy.

It had been a magnificent celebration of love. A pricey celebration of love, to be sure, but hey, if you’re in love and the parents can afford it, why not? Everyone thought it was a great beginning for a couple who were deeply in love with each other.

And now, only four months later, the bride was sitting in the wing chair in the priest’s office, crying her eyes out. “I thought married life would be the happily ever after! I thought he’d keep on courting me! I feel taken for granted! He expects me to do all this stuff, and he never says thank you! Nobody told me that marriage would be like this, so boring, so much WORK!”

The priest thought, “well, yes, we did talk about this in the premarital counseling, but mentioning that would probably not be helpful right now.”

Instead, they talked about the work after a big party, when you have to clear the tables and load the dishwasher and figure out how to fit the leftovers into the refrigerator. Parties only last so long. They end, and then the work begins.

In our gospel, we hear the story of an incredible party. It’s an intimate one, to be sure: just Jesus, a few disciples, a couple of surprise guests. And a surprising change in the host: Jesus glows like a June bride with an extreme makeover, complete with airbrushed makeup. It’s got another special effect: the cloud machine is on, enveloping them all in a holy fog. And there’s not just the cloud machine, there’s that Darth Vader voice, the voice of God saying Jesus is the Chosen One. The wow factor at this party is over the top. Peter wants to gussy things up with some tents, implying that they might want the party to continue on with the group staying up on the mountain in party land forever, but Jesus keeps it simple and short. And then, suddenly, like all good parties, it’s over. They may have wanted it to last, but always leave them wanting more, right? Jesus is back to being Jesus, the surprise guests are gone, the loud voice is gone, and they have to climb all the way back down the mountain. Good thing Peter didn't put up those tents!

No, now there is no more magic land with fog and mysterious voices and appearances by great prophets of ancient days.

So they slog down the mountain, this rabbi and his fisherman followers. My guess is that Peter and John and James were much more comfortable on flat land, hard by the sea they fished, than they were in the rocky crags of the mountain of transfiguration, so I can picture them slipping and sliding and scraping their hands maneuvering down the slope. Jesus could handle it because, well, he was Jesus, but those fishermen, the aftermath of the big party on the top of the mountain was not pleasant, it was hard work. They were emotionally and physically exhausted by what they had experienced.

And as if to reinforce that idea, the very next thing that happened was not a little rest and recovery after the big party, but a huge crowd and the cry of a man who begged for Jesus to heal his possessed son. And Jesus, sounding like he really needed a rest, muttered a brief word of complaint that his teachings were not really being taken seriously: “you guys! You only come over to me when you want something. When I tell you what to do you don’t pay attention…but never mind. Bring me the boy.”

And he healed him.

After the party, there’s not endless party, there’s work to be done. Not for radiant brides, not for transfigured Jesus, and most certainly not for disciples.

For me, the story gives me exactly what I need to remember about the week ahead of us.
This evening, you may be going to a SuperBowl party. You may be hosting one. There may be a Mardi Gras party, a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper, a last night on the town…
…because we need that to prepare for the fact that on Wednesday, we are reminded of the work of discipleship as we begin the walk to the Cross with Jesus Christ. On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we enter the season of Lent, and make no mistake, Lent is work.

I used to think that Lent was about giving up chocolate. I thought it was about a season without the word “Alleluia,” a dark season.

But it’s not dark. It is simply a time of focused work after the party of seeing the glow of Jesus Christ, the shine on the face of Moses. You can’t look into the lightbulb indefinitely. You have to come down from the mountain after the party, and there’s work to be done.
We become disciples of Christ not when we see the glowy shiny face of the Divine One on top of a mountain. We become disciples of Christ when we are filled with the recognition that Christ bids us to do His work on earth. We become disciples of Christ when we look and look hard at ourselves and reflect on the ways we have been lazy about serving others, or deluded about our own importance, or whiny about our needs being met when others’ needs are so much greater.

The work of the season we approach this week is reflection, recognition and recommitment. We reflect on who we are and how we live into God’s expectations of us. We recognize the ways we have been on the right path, and the ways we have failed. We recommit to serving God, glorifying God by living as God would have us live, caring for those around us, even the most unlovable. And why do we do that?

Precisely because we have seen his glory on the mountaintop. We have seen the possibilities in creation and in each other, and that glow, that shine tells us there is something more that we can do, to co-create a better world, to bring God’s reign to this corner of the earth. We recommit because we now understand that the possibilities are infinite because God’s love for us is infinite.

So we may need to climb back down from the party mountain to something that feels more quotidian, more like work, a little bit boring, a whole lot uncomfortable. Looking at ourselves is often uncomfortable. But that’s the work of this season, and again, I won’t pretend it isn’t work.

But we have the glow to warm our hearts, to comfort us in the midst of the work. We have the love of the one who created us, who continually calls us back into a more perfect relationship, who shows us we and the world can be better. We have the possibility of transfiguration of our world even as we await the resurrection of Christ at Easter. We can do this thing!


That February afternoon, the priest said to the bride, “Do you still love him?”
“Of course I do!”

“Does he still love you? Do you doubt his love?”

“No, I know he loves me. I just miss the romance.”
“Does he do things for you?”

She sniffed, “Sometimes.”

“Do you do things for him?”

“Well, yes, of course…sometimes.”

“Can you do the work and look for the wonderful silly moments of romance even in the midst of that work?”

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”

“Well, I’m not in your marriage, so I’m going to have to guess here, but has there ever been a time when the two of you were doing work around the house and something silly happened and you were laughing about it together, and you felt so warm and close in that moment? In my house, it’s usually when the cat throws up and we’re both avoiding cleaning it up...I kid you not!”


She laughed. “He chased me around the house with the vacuum the other day.”
“And what happened when he caught you?”

She blushed…

...”never mind!”

The conversation ended shortly after that. She was starting to realize that parties are short, and life is long. There is always work. But even in the work, there is the warmth and joy of possibilities in ourselves, in our church, in our world.

Let this Ash Wednesday mark the beginning of the work of reflection, recognition and recommitment, to remind ourselves of our possibilities and God’s possibilities, so we can respond to the glory and love of God with open hearts.


Amen. 

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, January 3, 2016 Matthew 2:1-12 “Journey”

I expect it is an odd feeling for some of you this morning, to be at church and not see T. in all her silver-haired and beautiful wisdom standing here. We are at the beginning of a new year, and as is always the case in a new year, there are differences between this year and last. This is most certainly true in this parish as it is entering into a time of change, a transition, and I, as your diocesan transition minister, will serve as your tour guide on your journey as you seek a new rector.
Journey is an apt metaphor for this time in your lives and it is also equally apt when we think of the gospel reading for today. It’s a familiar story from the Gospel of Matthew: there were wise men of scholarly learning and of significant means – it takes money to make this sort of journey, right? -  and they took a methodical journey based upon their interpretation of astronomical occurrences to see the king that those astronomical occurrences suggested had been newly born or crowned in a place to their west. No doubt they had the resources to make it as comfortable a trip as was possible then, but it was still not exactly traveling on the Orient Express.
The Journey of the Magi by James Tissot

The poet TS Eliot captures some of the wearisome expedition in his poem, “The Journey of the Magi:”

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

As I said, not exactly a luxurious jaunt.

So am I suggesting that your journey of transition to a new rector will be equally fraught? I pray that it is not so, and your Bishops and my colleagues and I at Mayo House will do all in our power to smooth the way. It is a fact of life, though, that change makes us uncomfortable even when we know it is coming, when we sense that we are in good hands, when we realize that there is a plan of action. We may not have fractious camels or gouging innkeepers to contend with, but we may have moments of fear and doubt, frustration with what seems like a long process, and confusion about what God has in mind for us. We may be just as tired and irritated as those three wise men in the story. And that’s usually the time when we start to see something unusual happening, that the star is no longer moving through the sky, but has stabilized over a particular place, and the journey is almost done.

But Eliot reminds us that the wise men might have thought they were going to see a king, that this was a diplomatic mission – why else the incredibly impractical gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, traditional gifts showing esteem for someone of great power from others who had great power? What they found was something unexpected.

Here's Eliot again:

"Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory."
Not a palace…

Not even a manor house with winter-dormant gardens…

Just a tavern on the side of the road, somewhat near where the star had settled overhead, and nothing in the way of useful information…

A strange prank of the stars, perhaps? Had they come all this way for nothing? But the wise men continued to a place closer to that great shimmering marker in the night sky, and found the child, the king, in a modest house, an utterly unsuitable place for royalty. In the Gospel of Luke much attention is paid to the fact that the child was born in a livestock shelter, but Matthew places the family in a house, probably some time after the birth. But the location is not as important as the effect on the wise men when they see the child at the end of this long trip.

Remember that this was a hard expedition – Eliot’s story of the petty uglinesses of a road trip meshed with the political maneuverings of the worried King Herod in Matthew’s Gospel – one marked by struggles of empire, of power, of astronomical signs of global change. Something was shifting in Israel, beyond Israel to the parts of the world that these magi came from. Something needed to shift, God knew, because the world was a broken place full of broken people, and this child was the seismic shift that would move the tectonic plates of the heart and soul of the world back to where they needed to align once again.

Something happened when the wise men saw that baby. Eliot names it in the voice of one of them: 

"…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death."

Wise men, realizing that they were perhaps not so wise. Men of power and standing and education, realizing that they were perhaps not any of those things. And their old way of looking at themselves, their world, their gods, no longer sufficed. Maybe that is true wisdom, then, seeing how we cannot know all, except the one true thing: that Jesus, the Son of God, took human form to heal the world, to heal us. But recognizing that is a painful truth, isn’t it? A sort of death, even in the joyful birth?

You may recognize that things here in this parish are changing. Aching like the wise men at the end of their long journey, you might say it is not a comfortable feeling. But even in the death of the former way of being God’s people together, you will find rebirth, new life.

What is ahead? We will guide you through a process of assessing who you have been, who you are – I assure you that you are not the same parish you were when you called T. to be your rector, even though it might feel the same liturgically and programmatically – and who God is calling you to be in this next chapter of your parish’s life. You will figure out what sorts of gifts and graces you will seek in your next rector and we will help you search for that individual. And here’s the interesting thing: just like the wise men, the one you find at the end of the road may be a surprise to you.

You will be transformed in this work, as the wise men were changed in Eliot’s poem. You will be surprised by what becomes truly important and what is mere window-dressing. But do it well, and what will be transformed is not only your heart, not only your parish, but also your community, and perhaps even the world. Denise Levertov, in her poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation” says that we need the moment when “awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.”

Your gifts to Jesus will not be gold and frankincense and myrrh. On this journey, they will be your prayers, your discerning hearts, your courage to ask daring questions about what the future may hold, and your willingness to help make that future a reality, in this search for your next rector and in this search for God’s will for this parish. On this journey, they will be those moments when awe breaks your rational thoughts into a thousand pieces and enters your heart.

God bless you on the journey. Bless your crotchety camels and your uncomfortable questions. Bless your overworked innkeepers and your ever-patient altar guild. Bless your dear hearts and questing souls and worried minds, and may He bring you to the place of peace you are meant to find, at the end of the road by the still waters, under the stars.


Amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, December 20, 2015 Advent IV Canticle 15 “Battle Cry”

Original
Art by the Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, Bishop Suffragan, Diocese of Virginia

Women in the Bible get short shrift. They rarely are identified by name, they frequently are victims of one sort or another, and – most importantly – even when they are mentioned, they do not speak.

But today, that pattern is broken in dramatic fashion, with one of the most powerful and beautiful songs in Scripture, the Magnificat.

Mary, a young woman of Nazareth, engaged to be married to Joseph and pregnant in a mysterious way, travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also mysteriously pregnant late in life.

When Mary approaches, Elizabeth rushes up to her and greets her with surprising words: “When I saw you coming and heard your voice, the baby in my womb jumped. Why did you come to me? You’re the mother of the Lord…I should come to you, because you are pregnant with the one who has been named in the prophecies.”

This was, of course, before Facebook and Twitter. Mary didn’t change her status to pregnant. She didn’t post a sonogram or have a gender reveal party. Elizabeth may have heard whispers from traveling family members of Mary’s situation, but she didn’t know much. Women were usually viewed as tools or chattel, not as smart and curious people.

But somehow, through the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth saw immediately what was going on. She cried out as a prophet in her own right…she wasn’t merely parroting what prophets had said before, she herself issued the prophetic  announcement as well as a blessing.

I’d note that the word that Elizabeth uses to name blessing is actually two different Greek words. When Elizabeth says that Mary is blessed among women, the word used is eulogemenos, which suggests that they will be honored and praised in future generations. No surprise in that – we know how the story goes. We also know that Luke is always about the long view, the historical perspective, so using that word gives us a sense of how this is a momentous event that will be cause for honor and praise for generations to come. But here’s the interesting part: when Elizabeth says “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” the word for blessed is makaria. Makaria , which can also be read as “happy.”  “Happy is she who believed.” And that is the same word that is translated as blessed in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who suffer…because God is about to turn things upside down. That would make you happy, right?

So here is this young woman in a socially precarious position, sitting with another woman who had had no social status in her community for decades because of her inability to have children, and God is turning everything upside down. Mary will not be shamed, she is blessed, she is happy because of what God has done and what God promises to do.

So she sings. Songs are powerful things in the ancient Middle East. There’s a whole book that’s a song in the Hebrew Bible – the Song of Solomon or Song of Songs. There’s another book composed of a series of songs: the Book of Psalms, which were written and designed to be sung, not merely spoken. And then there are some songs that we might take a look at because they  resonate so strongly with Mary’s song.

Here’s one from the Book of Exodus:
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” Miriam’s song is not about babies: it is in response to another kind of rebirth: the Israelites’ safe passage out of slavery in Egypt and the Pharoah’s troops’ destruction at God’s hand.

Now look back at Mary’s song: “He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.


Hmmm.

There’s another song we might recall in the Hebrew Bible, sung by a woman named Hannah, who suffered from infertility just as Elizabeth did, who conceived a child by divine intervention, just as Elizabeth and Mary did. Listen to Hannah’s words:

“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. 2“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 

Remember Mary’s song: "My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name."

Hmm.


Do you see the common language? All of these women are joyful at what God has done, and the interesting thing about their language is that it is not just gratitude for passive reception of a gift from God.

No, all these songs are, in essence, battle cries.

They’re singing it out loud, not murmuring it amongst themselves. They all say the same thing:

God is working through me, and the world is being turned upside down, and the old rules and the old rulers are being cast down, and I am the linchpin of God’s work.

These are battle cries, like Joan of Arc’s “I am not afraid; I was born to do this!” Like Rosa Parks’ “Memories of our lives, our works and our deeds, will continue in others…each person must live their life as a model for others.” Like Malala Yousefzai’s “When the whole world is silent, even one voice has power.”

And here’s the funny thing: women’s battle cries most often have to do with turning the power structure upside down. Men’s battle cries, sadly, usually have to do with gaining or regaining power.

So we approach the birth of this baby in this woman’s womb, a baby that should be a source of her mother’s shame, and instead we hear Mary’s battle cry affirming that this act of birth will rebirth the world. Before Jesus is even born, his mother is announcing in no uncertain terms that those who think they rule are about to be made as insignificant as worms in the soil.

Whose voice will speak the battle cry today, this week, next year? Is it a mother whose child was a victim of gun violence in Gilpin Court? Is it a woman like Rachel Carson who names the destruction of the earth and the waterways by strip mining or by industrial toxins? Is it a woman like Malala who says that girls should be educated just as boys are, or a woman like Kriti Bharti that child marriage is wrong? Is it a woman who has been a model of the power of economic opportunity for women and men of color, like Maggie Walker.

Whose voice do we need to hear to turn the world upside down, with God’s help and guidance? Remember the promise:

“God has helped his servant Israel,in remembrance of his mercy,according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Listen for the voice of change. Heed it. And don’t be surprised if it is spoken in a woman’s voice.

Amen.

Monday, October 12, 2015

In Honor of our 18th Anniversary...A Story I've Told Before

I share with you a true story:

Brides are crazy. This is a fact, not a judgment.

I know this, because I’ve been a bride.

I was crazy. How do I know? I made my own wedding cake.

You know all those “Baking with Julia” shows on PBS that have famous patissiers tossing off goodies with the venerable queen of the kitchen? Baking a wedding cake isn’t like that, although I did use Martha Stewart’s recipe from that series for the cake (not the filling or frosting or décor – that was Rose Levy Beranbaum all the way).

Here’s what happens.

A week before your wedding, when you are most insane, you buy a lot of sugar, and a very lot of cake flour, and a very, very lot of unsalted butter (it must be UNsalted, not regular butter), plus some other ingredients that require you to go to the extremely special cake and candy supply store way the other side of the universe.

You sharpen wooden dowels in a pencil sharpener to provide the support for the layers, which will weigh as much as Martha Stewart (her pre-menopausal weight, not her pre-jail weight, thank heavens), and then wash them for fear of giving your guests graphite poisoning.

You measure the quantities of ingredients. This is called mise en place but might well be called planning the D-Day invasion. Alternatively, one might call it the Bay of Pigs, at least in my kitchen.

You realize that your Kitchen-Aid mixer, although the ne plus ultra of mixers when you got it several years ago, cannot accommodate the very large quantities of ingredients you are going to have to mix.

You portion the ingredients into manageable amounts for the now-inferior Kitchen Aid mixer, organizing by layer size, since you’re making this cake in tiered layers.

You mix the ingredients, carefully following the directions.

You realize that you haven’t turned on the oven to preheat it, so you turn it on and have to wait.

You realize that you haven’t prepared your baking pan, so you spray it with a little Pam (should have used softened butter, but you forgot to get enough to meet that need), put in the parchment paper, which you didn’t cut as neatly as you wished you had, then spray it with Baker’s Joy . Will anyone know you aren’t using the butter and flour? Will this spell doom for the marriage?

You pour the batter into the pan and are on the verge of putting it in the oven when you realize you’ve forgotten to add the vanilla.

You pour the batter back in the mixing bowl, add the vanilla, re-prepare the pan, pour the batter back in and put it in the oven, praying that the leavening power of the baking powder hasn’t been compromised. (Do soldiers fear the power of their missiles is affected if there is too long a wait before they are fired? I think not. Baking is harder and more unforgiving than war.)

You hover over the oven. The rule about watched pots doesn’t apply to baking, where the art of the hover is finely tuned. You debate whether to open the oven when the timer rings, wondering once again about that faithless thermostat which is usually wrong, and how it might affect the cooking time. You test the cake with a cake tester, which took you ten minutes to find in your cooking tool drawer because it is so small, but it is better than a toothpick because it is EQUIPMENT.

You take the cake out to cool and wonder if perhaps you left it in too long because the cake has already shrunk from the sides of the pan and Rose and Martha told you not to let that happen. Will anyone taste the dryness of the overbaked cake? Will we be divorced by our first anniversary?

You repeat the process for the remaining layers. Timing must be adjusted for each because of the different sizes. But the change in timing is not a linear thing, and besides you’re miserable at math, so all you can do is hover and pray.

The cake layers cool. You drink a cup of coffee. You wish for a stiff shot of scotch, but fear the effect that might have on the cake.

Each layer must be torted, or split into two equal layers, so there is a place for the mousse filling to go. Getting the split even, so that the final assemblage doesn’t look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, requires a few technical tricks (or trucs, as the French patissiers might say). Your powers of concentration are waning, your mother and Julia never taught you the trucs, and one of the layers does not look quite perfectly even. You contemplate making a replacement layer. You burst into tears and jettison that idea.

The cake layers must be frozen, since it is four days before the wedding, and nobody’s recipe will last that long. There are too many other steps that must be completed.

You go to bed.

You rise to face the challenge of the mousse. In a descent into a deeper trough of madness, you decide to make two different kinds of mousse to fill the cake, one chocolate, one not. You are modifying someone’s mousse filling recipe, which is tricky even when sane. You don’t know if the mousse will freeze, which it will need to do to hold the cakes for the buttercream phase.

You make the raspberry base for that mousse. Making the base takes longer than you expect. You think this project will never get done.

You wait for the raspberry base to cool. You do not think of melting the chocolate for the chocolate mousse, even thought this will require a cooling period as well, because you are insane. Rational thought has left the building.

You finish the raspberry mousse, and take out the frozen torted layers to fill, rewrap, and put back in the freezer. You thank the gods of baking and your landlord, who had a big freezer in the basement of the house you are renting. The gods are smiling.

You start the chocolate mousse, melting the chocolate, doing all the whipping cooking tasting adjusting things that one does for the chocolate mousse. It is 7 p.m. and the child wants dinner. How dare she interrupt this process with something so mundane?

You stop and cook dinner for the child. It is 9 p.m.

You take out the layer that will have the chocolate mousse. You fill it, but realize that proportionally there isn’t enough mousse to make that layer the same height as the other layers. It will be ½ inch shorter. You burst into tears.

You dry your eyes, rewrap that slightly shorter layer, and put it into the freezer.

You go to bed.

Waking is not pleasant. Today is the day of the buttercream. This is not your mother’s buttercream, made with confectioner’s sugar, butter, and a little vanilla and maybe warm cream. No, this is a classic buttercream, made with an Italian meringue base per Rose’s Cake Bible ( the chemistry text for those who bake – Rose is the Marie Curie of the field).

This is not only classic buttercream, it is VAST QUANTITIES of classic buttercream. Rose takes pity on you and gives you the proportions of ingredients for a cake the size of the one you are making, but once again the iniquitous Kitchen Aid is unequal to the task. You must break the ingredients into smaller portions (mise en place times two) and pray that the two different batches are the same in appearance, so the finished cake doesn’t look like the Washington Monument, with a demarcation line where work stopped when they ran out of money.

Buttercream completed, you bring up the layers to be frosted. You unwrap each one, dust off any crumbs, and apply what is called a crumb coat of frosting to, logically enough, keep any crumbs from marring the final finish coat. Invariably a few stray crumbs manage to sneak by, but you are on a roll. The cakes, being frozen, take the icing quite well. You finish off each layer by running a hairdryer over it to slightly warm the frosting so you can smooth it. You think that you have truly descended into madness, using a hairdryer on a cake.

You put the layers, unwrapped, into the freezer for a brief time to harden the icing before you rewrap them. You put the leftover buttercream into a plastic tub and put it into the refrigerator. You think little of that act at the moment, but it will be your salvation later on.

After an appropriate time, you once again take the layers out for the assembly. Each layer is on a thick cardboard pedestal. Just layering them without supports will cause them, once the cake defrosts completely, to sink like the lava dome at Mount St. Helens. You hammer in the wooden dowels with a rubber mallet as you construct the layers. This is just as Martha and Rose have taught you. Baking as construction project. The assembly is now almost three feet tall and weighs as much as a six-year-old child. You put it back in the freezer.

You think about what ordering a cake from the supermarket might have been like.

You sigh.

You go to bed.

The prospect of making flowers from an odd substance called gum paste sounds crazy. That’s alright, because we have already established that you are crazy. Gum paste, an amalgam of gum Arabic, sugar, glucose and other household chemicals, gives you a material that you can use to create the most delicate of flowers. You have decided that you are going to make gum paste flowers because Rose talks about them, and you’ve seen them in wedding cake books, and you know you can make the most beautiful things that are just like the flowers in your bouquet. Somewhere, the notion of just getting more of your flowers to decorate the cake, rather than creating an imitation of them, has slipped away, perhaps with your sanity.

You make the alchemical mixture. You start to form it into flowers, many flowers, many different kinds of flowers, each tinted slightly differently. You make gum paste roses, gum paste jasmine, gum paste ivy. You dust them with bits of edible gold dust, a silly thing to worry about since these flowers, though made in large part with sugar, taste awful, and no sane person will eat them.. You use the same sculpting techniques Rose has taught you when you make roses from chocolate modeling clay; at least that tastes like a grown-up Tootsie Roll. This tastes like you might expect from something called gum paste.

At midnight, you are still crafting gum paste flowers and assembling little sprays of them for the cake.

You fear you have developed diabetes from all the sugar products you’ve used over the course of the cake-making. You’ve read somewhere that a chef said he thought all chefs were fat because they absorbed fats through their skin. Perhaps this has happened to you.

You wonder if you will still be able to fit into the wedding dress you made for yourself – another foray into madness.

You put the assembled flower sprays into flat plastic shoeboxes (clean, of course) with tissue paper to protect them and keep them dry.

You go to bed.

You rise the next day, knowing that various relatives are coming to town today. You start the day by making the frightening trip to church with the cake. It will wait there, slowly defrosting for a day, in the huge refrigerator where it will share space with the half and half for coffee hour and the apple juice and baby carrots for the children in Sunday School.

You pray no one will touch it. You leave a sign on the door saying (in a very Christian way, of course) “Don’t touch this cake or you will die a painful, horrible death.”

You go home, take a shower, and dress for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. Your back hurts from carrying the cake.

Your directions to the rehearsal dinner are fatally flawed: one of the key road signs has been stolen. The out-of-town guests drive miles out of their way before finally making it back to the gathering. You are mortified. The children are bored.

You go to bed wishing you had just gone down to Town Hall, gotten a damned marriage license, and went to Bermuda.

You wake up the morning of your wedding, and realize that the sky is blue and you are happy. For some reason this shocks you, perhaps because you are insane.

You dress in casual clothes to go to the church and finish the assembly and decorating of your cake. You do not have any coffee, because you want your hands to be steady.

It is Sunday, and you arrive during the normal Sunday service. The giant refrigerator is in the kitchen where the coffee is prepared for the post-service Coffee Hour. Edgar, the 92 year old man who has made the coffee since the Johnson Administration, is there. His moods swing between charm and curmudgeonliness. He is reasonably sane, though.

You are insane.

The cake awaits you in the refrigerator.

You will take it out and put it on one of the rolling carts, for final decoration and moving into the chapel, where your reception will take place. You reach in to take it out of the refrigerator. Edgar says, “Let me help you, dear.”

“No,” you say.” I’ve got it.”

He helps anyway, tipping the cake into your chest. Fortunately, this is as far as it tips, and you manage to get it onto the cart with no further problem…except for the two roundish dents in one side of it.

You contemplate killing Edgar, but realize this will not solve the cake problem and will distress your guests, not to mention your fiancé, who is opposed to murder on principle.

You realize that there may be enough extra buttercream to address the dents. You smooth it on, put the golden ribbon decoration around each layer, add some additional buttercream edging in swirls and flourishes, gently place the gum paste flowers, glistening with the gold petal dust, on the cake, and carefully move it into the chapel. You manage to safely transfer it to the top of the piano, where it will be displayed during the reception. You say a prayer to Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and Saint Honore, patron saints of bakers, to keep it safe while you go home to prepare for the evening wedding ceremony.

You go to the hairdresser, where Lucien has made a special trip to fix your hair. He makes it excessively poufy a la Priscilla Presley (the early, Elvis years), but you still feel lovely, particularly after the drink of brandy he gives you to calm your nerves. He makes the child look like a little princess, which she is anyway. You go home to dress and put on the makeup.

By now the boys are in their tuxes. They have relented after making cash offers to be spared the indignity, offers which you have refused. You complete your preparations. You are on some other planet now, watching yourself move through the various preparatory steps to making a marriage.

You think this is what hope is, doing this again, loving again after a disaster.

You go to the church, you see your beloved, you know that this is more than hope, it is belief in the essential rightness of this love.

You have the ceremony. The music is lovely, the flowers are lovely, the words spoken are lovely, you remember nothing of it but the quality of the light in the evening.

You are still floating during the reception. The toasts happen, kind words are spoken, people seem genuinely happy for you. People bring you food. You eat, but do not taste.

The time comes for the cutting of the cake. There it sits, in all its glory. The work of a week, of a lifetime, waiting to be sacrificed on the altar of love. You wonder, for a moment, if it will taste good. You cut, with the cake server your mother used at her wedding. You each take a bite.

It tastes sweet. It is sweet. All is good.

Happy 18th, dear PH. Eighteen more 18ths would not suffice.