Sunday, September 02, 2018

Sermon for Sunday, September 2, 2018 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 “Cleaning Solution”

I spent a week up in Vermont with my newborn grandson recently. I will state with utter and complete conviction that he is the most adorable baby ever… just as I said the same thing about each of my children when they were newborn and just as I said the same thing about each of my other four grandchildren when they were newborn. Grandmothers, you know?

Like most newborns, Wiley had that little umbilical cord stump, about an inch and a half long, slowly drying up. Sort of yucky to look at, and it was getting - how shall I put this? - ripe before it finally fell off. And when it did, Wiley’s mother said, “well, now we can give him a bath. The doctor told me no baths before that was all healed up.”

Now I had spent a good bit of time with him doing things like changing diapers, but when she said that, a little voice in my head said, “I’m amazed that he doesn’t smell stinky with no bath for two weeks, particularly with those diapers he’s been soiling.” But the only scent that he exuded was that beautiful milky soft smell of newborn baby. Is there any smell like that in the world? It’s better than new car smell, that’s for sure! Yes, we wiped off the dirty bits when necessary, but despite no bath, Wiley smelled clean and sweet.

Would that we could stay that way! We people who are no longer newborn have to follow a different pattern. We need our daily wash-ups, otherwise our aroma will not be sweet. We sweat, we get dirt on us, we eat something that disagrees with us…I go no further down that road – you know what I mean. We have to work a little harder to get clean.

Clean…what is clean? That’s the question that’s posed in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees were offended by what they saw as unclean behavior on the part of Jesus and his disciples, who didn’t wash up before their meal. Now this was a big no-no for the Pharisees, because, as the evangelist Mark suggests, this was part of Torah, the LAW. You were supposed to wash up.

A little sidebar here: this is not about the Pharisees only being about rule-following and being the designated enforcers of the rules. It’s more subtle than that. The biblical scholar Elisabeth Johnson writes:

[The Pharisees] understood that God’s choosing and calling of Israel was a gift. They also understood that God gave them the law as a gift, to order their lives as God’s people. Their observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them, to give glory to God.
In the book of Exodus, before the giving of the law, God tells the people of Israel that they are to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of the nations around them (Exodus 19:6). The Pharisees took this calling to be a priestly kingdom and holy nation very seriously. They interpreted the laws concerning priests serving in the temple to apply to all God’s people and all aspects of life. As priests serving in the temple were required to wash their hands before entering the holy place or offering a sacrifice, the Pharisees believed that all Jews should wash their hands before meals as a way of making mealtime sacred, bringing every aspect of life under the canopy of God’s law.
These “traditions of the elders” were seen as a way to “build a fence around the law,” to preserve the Jewish faith and way of life, especially in the midst of Roman occupation. The concern of the Pharisees and scribes when they saw Jesus’ disciples eating with unwashed hands was about something much more serious than proper hygiene. They suspected that the carelessness of Jesus and his disciples with regard to the traditions of the elders threatened to undermine respect for God’s law.”
So they really had a legitimate concern: were the followers of this new rabbi Jesus flouting the law in this, and would this mean that they would flout the law in other ways? For the people of Israel, oppressed by Rome, always under siege, Torah was not only a sign of God’s favor, it was a daily reminder of the fact that they were a particular and particularly blessed nation belonging to God in the midst of this crazy world they lived in. It was a survival tool in difficult times, because it reminded them that they WERE different, and they shouldn’t do things like the rest of the world.
And yet…was this the only way that they could signify their identity with and following of God?
This is the point that Jesus raises in his response to them. The LAW doesn’t stand alone. The LAW is one part of what it means to follow God, to be God’s people. But if it becomes an end unto itself, it’s just not good.
Jesus points out the sad truth: the LAW doesn’t address the state of the heart. God gave the LAW to govern the heart, not just set random rules out there. If you follow the LAW and your heart isn’t it, what good is the LAW? If you’re merely checking boxes, your heart can smell to high heaven even if your hands are washed.
And here’s the thing: the Pharisees have allowed the LAW to become something that isolates them from others, to make them extra special. “We’re clean and they’re not,” we can imagine them thinking.
But are we really clean? And are others really not?
We like to think, because we showed up here this morning, that we’re the clean crew…and maybe we passed by someone walking to brunch over at the restaurant around the corner instead of coming here and we think “we’re good and they’re not.” We may be following the letter of the LAW but is our heart in it?
And Jesus keeps saying, “it’s the state of your heart that matters, not merely adherence to the LAW. There are all sorts of ugly things that might be in your heart other than God, and you might be following Torah in a thousand ways but it’s for naught, because the defiling thing, the ugly thing, is sitting there in your heart making it all smell just like a dirty diaper.”
Well, maybe Jesus didn’t say that bit about the diaper, but you get my point.
So does this mean we don’t have to follow the rules of basic hygiene? Does it mean that we don’t need to show up at church on a Sunday morning? No, that’s not what Jesus says. It’s about the way we take what God has given us – God’s wisdom conveyed through his word, the spiritual joy that we feel in God’s presence, the food and drink for our souls that we share at this table – and how we respond to it. It’s about knowing that, given these gifts, we cannot desire NOT to share what we’ve learned, to offer these gifts to others, to serve…in other words, as our reading from the Letter of James says, to be “doers of the word.” And when we do that, it’s not about mere obedience to a law. It’s also not about measuring whether or not those whom we serve are clean enough to deserve it. It’s not about whether or not they’ve followed the LAW well enough. It’s about the gift of Jesus, given to us despite our own often unclean hearts. If we measured our own worthiness, we might not look and smell as clean as we’d like, but the best way to address that aroma is not a baby wipe, it’s Gospel love. Love without measure of worth, love without judgment, love without shame. Jesus gave it to us, this law of love. Now it’s our turn. And won’t that smell sweet indeed?
Ain't he sweet?

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sermon for Sunday June 10, 2018 Mark 3:20-25 “Who Are Your People?”

Well, we’re only three chapters into the Gospel of Mark and we’re already slapped upside the head with the high-risk, no-holds-barred radical nature of Jesus’ ministry. His relatives think he’s crazy and they’ve come to restrain him. The local religious leaders show up and say that he’s possessed by the devil. Then he spits on their theological pronouncements with a difficult parable about a home invasion that says, in essence, I’m the only one strong enough to conquer the devil. And his family once again reaches out, trying to protect him from himself, because in their eyes, this is all crazy talk. Reads sort of like Tennessee Williams, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, the crowd who came to hear him teach and preach is watching and listening and not saying very much. They have good reason to keep their mouths shut. They’ve come to hear Jesus because they are living in a world of pain, a world of oppression and a world that offers no justice or mercy. They have heard he’s got something to say about that. They are desperate people in desperate times, and they hunger for the words of this itinerant preacher. His relatives know that his words are likely to get him killed, and they think they need to protect him, but he turns them away and turns toward the distraught crowd.

A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Well, not so silent after all. At least they pass along the message. And he turns it around.

Now this is one of those passages that really chafes. His beloved mother, his dear brothers, all dismissed. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Sounds like he’s angry at them, rejecting their claim on him, rejecting their attempts to protect him from himself. His family is trying to quarantine him by saying he’s mentally ill, the scribes are trying to quarantine him by saying that he is possessed by the devil, but he will not be locked into a quarantine cell of silence.

Instead, he refuses the protection of those labels. He embraces those who want to be freed from labels like “troublemakers” or “violators of Torah” or “those stupid Hebrews whom we wring our taxes from.” He embraces those who just can’t stand the status quo anymore, because he is there to tell them that the status quo cannot stand, that it is of the devil, that it is of a broken world, that it is of worldly tyranny. He loves them, and he names them as family, these wounded hurting people.

Only three chapters into the Gospel of Mark, and he’s said “it’s time to turn the world upside down.” No wonder the scribes are nervous. No wonder his family fears for him. No wonder that this all will eventually lead to his death. He knows what the cost will be for him, but it’s early enough in the story that not everyone gets it.

Now I know there’s a temptation to hear this brief passage and imagine Jesus as a divine Bruce Willis yelling “Yippee-Ki-Ay, you jerks.” With a semiautomatic weapon in his hand. Smashing the bad guys. But there is no weapon except words. There are no bullets except truth. This is not necessarily about Jesus’ divine power, but about Jesus’  ….

Love…that’s not the word you were expecting to hear me say, right?

And yet this Gospel teaches us something about love.

Here’s what I’d like you to do: listen to those words about dismissing his family, who really does love and worry about him, in a different way. Imagine this is not the exclusion of family but the growing of family.

To set the stage for hearing those words that way, let me share a story.

My parents were married after their military service in World War II. They tried to have a child but it was not to be. Through a strange and wonderful series of circumstances, they were able to adopt me when I was four months old. They were not perfect parents. My mother was tough as nails. My father was a distant and troubled alcoholic. And yet they loved me and cared for me. I never had an urge to search for my birth parents. In fact, I felt special – I had been chosen. They had to work to get me.

Years later, when I was raising my own family, one of my sons had a medical problem that might have been genetic in nature. It was something that was not present in his father’s family. So I decided that it was time to try and find out something about my genetic history through my birth mother. I knew her name and I knew the agency through which I was adopted. So I reached out to her through that agency. The social worker was able to be in contact with her, and told her that I was simply looking for family medical history. She did not want contact with me, which was fine – I didn’t need another mother, and I guessed her story was one of pain and loss and sadness. She passed along some information that was helpful, and that was that.

I found myself reflecting with gratitude on what she had given me – birth – and what my adoptive parents had given me – life. A life. A grounding, an identity, love, an education. Values. Recipes. Traditions. Stories. A life.

Ezra Pound, Venice, 1963
And then, many years later, I saw a quotation from the poet Ezra Pound, from one of his Cantos, that summed up my story in a single line: “What thou lovest well is thy true heritage.”

And I think, in a strange way, that it sums up what Jesus is doing in this gospel reading as well. His birth heritage – who was his biological mother and brothers – mattered in that moment and in his ministry less than who was his prospective family – the world he had been sent to save. His past, while somewhat relevant to define him in the eyes of the broken world, was not as important as his future and our future, even though his was a future that would end in his physical death. Our future, our present, was what he loved well. Yes, he loved his biological family. But instead of turning inward in his love to be isolated and safe within that small group, he chose to expand his view of love and heritage to all of us. In fact, his love was so all-encompassing that we all have become a part of his heritage…

…something we affirm when we recognize that heritage in our baptisms. When we are anointed with holy chrism, holy oil, marked as Christ’s own forever. When we all say “we receive you into the household of God.”

We choose our heritage in baptism, because Christ has already chosen us as HIS heritage. Not just our immediate circle of family and friends, but also our family of love in Christ.

And just like families, particularly those families that we have chosen and been chosen by, it’s not always easy. Jesus certainly understood that. But the gift of this heritage of love is that it is always turned outward to that larger family of all humankind, of all of God’s creation.
That’s not to say that heritage doesn’t matter in our day to day lives.
You know our reality: when someone asks you about family here in the South, they’ll often phrase it “Who are your people?” They want to know who your mamma was, are you related to those Smiths that used to go to St Paul’s, didn’t your daddy go to St. Christopher’s?

But we know that the more important question, the heart of it, is “What is your true heritage?”

Ezra Pound, that crazy old expat poet, would say that it is that which we love.

But you know the answer too.
It’s who you love.
It’s how you love.
It’s why you love…because Jesus did first. And it’s why you will continue to love, because Jesus never stops loving us.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

Sermon for the Easter Vigil. Mark 16:1-8 “Broken[Open]Heart”

The social worker moved slowly, unlike her normal crisp trot through the hospital ward. The mother of the dead baby sat in a corner, looking like she had been scourged – what other way is there to look, when your son has died? The baby, born with a myriad of health problems, now lay even more still than he had in life, when he was tethered to whirring machines that pumped and breathed and vibrated through him. Now all was quiet.

And the social worker slowly, reverently made plaster casts of the tiny feet and hands to remember the baby by, so the mother could recall that this was not a dream, that it was real, that he was dead, but he had been hers, growing within her and then drifting away from life just a few days after his birth.

And then the social worker softly lifted the tiny feet and made inked footprints, and asked the mother if she wanted to hold her son, her tiny, still, dead son, in her arms for a picture. Oftentimes, in the feverish clutch of loss, mothers forget what their little ones looked like…and so, now that all the tubes and lines and cords were gone, the mother could hold her boy and a picture could be taken, all that mother’s love evident in her caress of his arm, in the kiss on the top of his head, in the gentle rearranging of the smallest hospital gown you can imagine, in the stillness of the moment, before his body would be taken away from her forever. It was a moment of ritual and it was a comfort and a reminder of holiness in the midst of pain.

One of the things we learn about death, about loss, is that it is too much to bear in the moment, and to help carry us through those first hours and days, rituals can be a gift. When the reality is crushing, ritual can structure our space and time enough so that we can survive. We can make some small meaning of what is happening by following ancient patterns of behavior that distract us from the pain for a moment, so we can catch our breath.

We need ritual in the face of death, so that we can live.

That is one of the reasons why ritual plays such an important role in the church, because we are always in the midst of deaths of one kind or another. Sometimes it’s the death of a beloved. Sometimes it’s the death of a dream, either our own dream, or the dream of a parish, or the dream of a nation. Sometimes we dream of a return to a past, happier time, then wake up and discover that we are in the here and now. And so we structure ways of dealing with those deaths to comfort us, to help us face the harsh reality, to begin to turn toward the future. We structure rituals to remind us we are still alive.

In this poignant reading from the Gospel of Mark, a ritual is playing out. The women who were a part of the community of disciples had been unable to attend to the rituals of death properly immediately after Jesus was laid in the tomb and the stone was rolled to close him in – such a finality to that! – but they decided they would go the next day to anoint him, to prepare his beloved body as had been ritually done for centuries, to comfort themselves even if they could not comfort him anymore. They arrived with the water to wash him, with the oils to rub into his skin, with the cloth to wind around him, with the spices that would be tucked into the folds of the cloth. They could hardly believe what had happened in all its brutality and viciousness. They could hardly believe what their eyes had told them, that their beloved, their rabbi, their Lord, had been killed, but they knew it was done. And yet there was one last thing they could do for him, for themselves, so that they might touch his skin one last time, so that they could honor him…to carry out the rituals of burial, so that they could live.

We can picture them walking in the early morning half-light, with the materials they needed slung in carrying-cloths over their shoulders, walking to the cave in which Jesus’ body was buried. Perhaps they walked briskly at the start of their journey, and slowed up, hesitating as they approached the tomb, wondering if they could manage to roll the stone away, wondering if they could bear it to see his broken body, wondering if they were strong enough for this holy and heart-rending work, but relying on the rhythm of it, a rhythm that what so familiar that they could do it with their eyes closed if need be, the rhythm of ritual that would help them face the death of one who meant so much to them.

And then they looked up from the path –they had been watching where they stepped on the uneven ground – and saw the stone had been rolled away. Did they wonder about that? Did they think that some of the men among them had come ahead, knowing they would need this? Did they think that perhaps someone had not rolled it into place the night before? But the cave was gaping open, and they bent and peered in. It should have been hard to see, but there was some source of light there, and a young man sitting there. Who was he? They shouldn’t talk to a stranger, and what was he doing in there? This was a tomb, Jesus’ tomb, but the body of their Lord wasn’t there. They were caught in that strange land between death and life and an interloper had interposed himself between them and their ritual work…

…and then he spoke. "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."

Incomprehensible. He has been raised? What did that mean? They were braced to see him in death. Now he wasn’t here and this stranger was telling them that he would meet them in Galilee.

There was no ritual structure to address this situation. Jesus had been dead but now, apparently, he wasn’t dead. They had been prepared to address his death with rituals that were prayer and comfort. It seemed that was no longer required, and there was no substitute to face this new understanding of what was happening.

The ritual had been broken open, cracked into a thousand pieces, since death was no longer the dominating presence in the tomb, in their lives…Jesus lived.

No, more than that: Jesus lives.

So what happens when rituals are broken apart, when presence and possibility collide and that which breaks our hearts open shifts and bends, and presents us with a wildly beautiful new reality? What happens when the finality of death emerges into the glorious infinitude of eternal life? What happens when the tomb cannot contain death, because life triumphs over it?

Perhaps a new ritual is called for in these rare moments when our hearts have been broken open and new life has flooded in…when resurrection – incomprehensible, mysterious, transcendent – supplants death.

In orthodox icons of Jesus transcending death, he stands atop the cross. He lifts the dead from slumber. He conquers what attempted to end him, but could not.

This night, this Easter vigil, is the ritual that takes our broken hearts – broken at the darkness of the world, at corruption and sin and oppression and pain – and shows what has been born out of that brokenness. This ritual is the retelling of the story of God’s love for us all through generations upon generation, through our repeated failures to honor the covenant that God made with us, through God finally sending someone who walked with us and looked like us and talked like us, through humanity killing that one who was sent to save us, to this one end: Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. The burial ritual is not the closing of a door.

This is the ritual that reminds us that Jesus’ death is the START of the story. Resurrection is not just possible – it is PROMISED. It is promised in that long and somewhat repetitive story of God’s persistent love. We live into our understanding of the joy of the resurrection in this ritual because we have experienced the power of ritual when we were in pain. Our hearts are broken open so that the light can come in. And we learn this night, above all other nights,that our ritual is not merely comfort, it is promise. Jesus conquers death tonight and all nights. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sermon for Sunday, March 11, 2018 Numbers 21:4-9

Good morning! I’m Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia, and I’m here to celebrate with you – your time in-between is just about over.
Next week you will welcome your new rector as he begins your ministry among you. I’d like to reflect on how this time of transition has been for you all, and where God has been in the midst of it…because God is always in the midst of it.
Let’s consider the Old Testament reading. We are with the people of Israel as they are guided toward the Promised Land by God. Here’s the thrust of what’s going on here. They don’t really remember how bad things were when they were enslaved in Egypt, and how God used Moses to get them out from under the thumb of pharaoh. They don’t really remember how hungry they were and how God provided them with miraculous food, fresh every single day, in the form of manna and quail. You know, you go to a high-end restaurant downtown and you get served roasted quail, you know it’s going to cost you $30 for that entrĂ©e, but God’s delivering it for free. But the people forget, and complain. They don’t really remember the provision for their care by God and they respond with something that feels like “Yeah, well, what have you done for us lately?”

And now as they continue to proceed through the desert, they’ve got a problem – they keep getting bitten by snakes. Not a surprise – it’s the desert, after all, and any creatures that can survive there are going to be tough and nasty. Snakes. And God once again provides, when he guides Moses to create of a talisman of sorts, a bronze snake that encircles his walking stick, and whenever someone gets bitten by a snake, if they look upon that talisman, they survive the snakebite. Great stuff! God keeps on providing even though these people of his are whiny complainers who seem to forget what has already been provided for their journey about fourteen seconds after they’ve received it. Before they get to the Promised Land, there will be a lot more of this, and they will keep complaining. But God continues to walk with them, because that’s what God does. God so desires to be in relationship with God’s people that God doesn’t step away, doesn’t refuse their cries for help, doesn’t abandon them, even when they abandon God.
I raised five teenagers. Five. Now those of you who have survived raising teens knows that when you are in relationship with someone you have created, made in your genetic image, they don’t always appreciate what you’re trying to do for them, and they sometimes treat you less than lovingly, but you still love them, and you still do not turn your back on them, even though they may have frayed your last nerve, because you love them, and these teens are going through their own journey to maturity, and it’s hard and there are poisonous snakes out there that threaten them at every turn. You love them through it all, even the most difficult moments. I wonder if God feels that sometimes, too, with us human beings.
This parish’s journey to get to this day has been a complicated one, marked by pain but also marked by grace. You wondered if you could survive the departure of a beloved rector who was, for some of you, the only priest you ever knew. How would you be spiritually fed? Who would comfort you? Who would inspire you to follow Christ?
God provided. You had two wonderful associate priests who remained. Thank you, God, for V. Thank you, God, for M.  You had  professional staff and lay leadership who were asked to take a larger leadership role, more in line with the way we now know that churches function best, in collaboration with the clergy. Thank you, God for the professional staff and the Vestries! Remember that, because it will be important in the future.
In addition, you had a gifted interim who came and did the difficult work of helping you to imagine how you might be church in a fresh way. It is a fact of life that there is always a need to examine the way a church functions, administratively, pastorally, spiritually, when there is a transition. Implementing best practices as they are now conceived, helping staff work together effectively, making the hard calls when change needs to occur: all of these are the work of the interim. Those priests who do this work know that they will probably step on some toes and skewer sacred cows – they do not do this work to win your hearts, they do it to prepare this fertile soil for the seeds of a new relationship with the next rector. And it is true that some of you didn’t much care for some of L’s decisions. But he did precisely what he was supposed to do – to reorient, to open hearts, to shift the manner of conversation between ordained leadership and lay leadership, to till the soil of this wonderful parish.
It did not always go smoothly, and here I’m going to name some hard truths that might make you a little uncomfortable.
The tension over the dismissal of an employee was not surprising – termination of employment in faith communities is never easy, but this was truly necessary. But I would point out one important thing to attend to: if your former rector had done the firing, there would have been no push-back, because he was R and you trusted his professional judgment. But it wasn’t R who did this, it was L. And you had not had the time to build up the trust relationship that would have allowed you to give permission to L to do what he was ordained and called to do. So there was tension. Remember that, because it’s important when we talk about what’s coming next.  But thank you, God, for L!
What happened in this time of change wasn’t forty years in the wilderness, and L would be the first to say that he isn’t Moses, but here’s the next thing I want you to remember: J isn’t Jesus.
For those who are happy that the interim is gone, and who think that J is the magic priest who will make all sorts of magical things happen, remember that. J is a priest who serves Jesus and Jesus’s people. He is not Jesus. He cannot do the work alone. If you have discovered anything during this journey, you have discovered that you are strong, capable, resilient people of faith who can imagine and plan and implement the next chapter of the story in this place and this time. You don’t get to forget that when J arrives. You don’t get to say “the priest is here now, I can go back to just sitting in the pew and listening.” You are the church. Each and every one of you, beloved children of God, created in God’s image, gifted, capable, loving…you are the church and you are all workers in the vineyard.
Here’s the secret you’ve discovered as a result of this time: priests come and priests go – we are all temporary companions on your journey – but the church is still the church, and you are this church. Priests have a particular role in the church, sacramentally, pastorally, as educators, as vision casters, but the church is the people, each and every one of you, which means you all have your roles as well. Thank God for each of you!
So what does this mean for you on the eve of the arrival of your new rector?
First of all, what joy and blessing to have reached this point! Your Discernment Committee did brilliant, prayerful, spirit-led work that matched the deep discernment work that J did, and that evolved into continued discernment between J and your wonderful Vestry.
…and I remind you that this was and continues to be a process of MUTUAL DISCERNMENT. If you’re still thinking of this as hiring an executive, let that notion go. The relationship between priest and parish is covenantal. This is someone who will walk with you on your most joyful journeys and in your darkest hours. This is someone who will be a part of a team who will be available in emergencies 24/7/365. This is someone who will be the keeper of your secret pain and the guide to your joy in Jesus Christ. You can’t write an employment contract that delineates that kind of relationship…
…which leads me to my second point: mutual expectations. In some ways, the relationship between priest and parish is closer to a marriage than employment. My husband is a therapist who does a lot of work with couples, and he often reflects on the fact that if one partner doesn’t tell the other what their expectations, their hopes, their dreams, their worries are, it’s a recipe for problems. If I don’t know what you think I’m going to deliver, I may offend you without even knowing that I’ve done so. And if you punish me for that offense, especially if you say something like “you should KNOW what you did wrong,” it’s not going to get better.
So what might the mutual expectations look like? I’d like to suggest that a way of approaching expectations runs something like this:
We love God and God loves us. We look for God in each other, and we treat each other with dignity and respect.
We share our hopes and dreams and listen for others’ hopes and dreams. Every voice has value and should be heard, but not every dream can be fulfilled.
It’s about God and God’s will for this place.
Priests are human. They occasionally make mistakes. Parishioners are human. They occasionally make mistakes. We show each other grace, offer forgiveness, and try to repair breaches.
We do not assume why things happen or are done in a particular way, and we do not ascribe motives to actions. We simply ask each other respectfully,”can you explain that to me?”
There is only one judge, and that’s Jesus Christ.
When it’s about winning, it’s not about God. We strive to fulfill God’s will, not win an argument.
Do think about what kind of covenant of mutual expectations you and J might share it’s a recipe for living as God wants us to live.
One last thought: God has sent you J. He has gifts, skills, experience. He is unique. If you start your time together looking backward to compare him with your prior rector, you deny yourself the possibility of looking forward to what God has in mind for you. You might miss what God is planning…and I have no doubt that God has great plans for you, and that with J as your spiritual leader, you can fulfill those plans.
The time-in-between is over. Put on a fresh pair of walking shoes, because the next part of the journey, the beginning of your work together, awaits. God bless this parish, God bless you for what has gone before and what will come to pass, and God bless your new rector!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Valentine's Letter (Slightly Belated Because of the Confluence of Ash Wednesday and said V-Day)

Valentine’s Day 2018

Dear Family and Friends,

In the 19th century the most famous piece of advice in America was “Go West, young man.”  Since it is now the 21st century, and we cherish an oppositional streak, and we are not young, and only one of us is a man, last year we did the exact opposite and went east. Far to the east. 

In early June Mary spent two weeks at St. George’s College in Jerusalem.  This was a Continuing Education trip, and Mary and several other female clergy were studying women in the Bible.  They explored a number of places, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Galilee, Jericho and the Jordan River, which was neither chilly nor wide (more like 115 degrees and about four feet across.) She found it a transformative time, learned a lot, and was grateful for the two or three words of Arabic she remembered from visiting Chuck and Leslie in Qatar and the seven or eight words of Hebrew she remembered from seminary. 

From the photos she posted on social media you might get the impression that Israel is inhabited primarily by cats, but she assures you there are plenty of people there to feed and pet the cats.  In addition to cat photos, Mary returned with a taste for the cooking styles of Israel, most of which seem to involve a lot of chopping of fresh green things.

A few months later we traveled east together, only this time we were headed to Greece.  To mark our 20th anniversary we joined a tour of Greece focused on icons.  In churches, monasteries, museums, shops and workshops we saw the stories of the Bible vividly portrayed through the rich iconography of Greek Christianity.  A trip to the icon workshop where this Theotokos (“God Bearer”) was created led to an animated conversation with one of the icon writers on technique, including their method for laying down gold leaf and polishing it to the high gloss you see in this photo. 
Visiting Meteora with its little monasteries perched atop sheer limestone cliffs, we marveled at the rich concentration of icons and frescoes in the chapels.

There is more to Greece than icons, of course, from ancient history and Biblical sites to contemporary culture.  We were moved by a visit, on the first anniversary of the death of Doug’s father, to the ancient therapeutic center at Epidaurus dedicated to the healing God Asklepios, whose name was invoked by physicians taking the Hippocratic oath for many centuries.  Although the Oracle at Delphi predicted only one thing - that our credit cards would get a workout -  we gave her high marks for accuracy. 

For Doug a highlight of the year came at the end of September with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care.  A year of celebrating, including an open house, a public lecture, and the publishing of a commemorative newsletter, ended with an elegant private reception at the Virginia Historical Society.  VIPCare was honored by elected officials at both the State and Federal level.  It turns out that some organizations turn 50 with none of the gray hair or aches and pains or bifocals or cholesterol that marked the same birthday anniversary for at least one of the writers of this letter.  

Here VIPCare Board president Frances Broaddus Crutchfield joins Doug in receiving a citation for VIPCare from Delegate Betsy Carr.

Mary continues to serve as the Director of Transition Ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, where she helps parishes find the right priest and helps priests find the right parish. On occasion, she gets a little testy when parishes are hesitant to listen to her wisdom, but more often than not, it is joyful work. She’s got plenty of other responsibilities as well, often called in the jargon of the church “other duties as assigned,” but if she told you what they were she’d have to kill you. Her hobby opportunity to spend money at art supply stores spiritual discipline is writing icons, as anyone who follows her on FaceBook has seen. Her Craft Cave in the basement is her silent place, where she writes icons, prays while she writes, sighs a lot, and blessedly doesn’t have cellphone reception.

The end result is a work that is dedicated to the glory of God, like this one in progress, a rendering of the 15th century Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity.

Our children and grandchildren are happy, healthy, and living exciting lives. This spring, we were delighted to attend Bryce’s graduation from law school. Matt and Jenny keep to a hectic schedule driving Katie and Ben to their various activities. Once again, Katie’s dance troupe danced at Carnegie Hall!  (Practice, practice, practice)  Bryce and Bambi and the boys are hip-deep into technology, robots, STEM learning and fiercely competing in board games. Christopher is mixing up a storm in the San Francisco bay area – he’s now in charge of the cocktail program at a restaurant called Hog and Rocks, after several years at a pair of high-end Indian restaurants. He still occasionally asks his mom for a recipe that somehow magically morphs into a cocktail. Not quite water into wine, but fine stuff nonetheless. Sam and Inanna are living the North Country life near Stowe, where Sam’s auto body business, just relocated to a new and larger location, is thriving, and where they are looking for a larger home to replace their “starter house” as they plan for the future. Alexandra is deep in the wilds of Bushwick with her pup JT, working in Queens, and teaching us how the world has changed (possibly even for the better) since we were in our late twenties.

We’re looking forward to a busy year, as we head south for a friend’s daughter’s wedding, north for another friend’s son’s wedding, and to Colorado Springs for our nephew Peter’s wedding to the lovely Carol. Should be an interesting year with lots of stories to tell – check back and see what we’ve got to report next year.

In the meantime, come to see us in Richmond. Now that Doug has completed the patio project, we can even lounge around the back yard and enjoy a cold beverage as we grill! Doug got a new bike computer for Christmas (after recording 31,000 miles on the old one) so he claims he’s going to get up off his knees and get back on his bike, but he promises to be around whenever you come by.

With our love and best wishes for a happy 2018,

Mary, Doug, Spooky the cat and the bees

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon for Sunday, November 12, 2017 Holy Comforter RVA 1 Thess 4:13-18 Matt 25:1-13 “Ready”

The email was circulated around Mayo House on a Monday. Its message was cryptic: “Expect a very special guest on Thursday morning.” I read it and promptly forgot it. I should, of course, have noted it on my calendar. My life is inscribed on my calendar. If I cannot find my IPhone, I am lost, because everything goes onto that calendar. But this time, I didn’t write it on the calendar. Perhaps a more pressing problem distracted me, perhaps I had a meeting to go to, perhaps I thought I’d remember this on my own – HAH! – but I made no note of it. Thursday morning came. I had no meetings scheduled either in the office or outside of the office so I dressed casually. Jeans, an open-collared blouse, sneakers. Neat, of course, and not sloppy, but certainly not what I would have chosen to be wearing when, later that day, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby showed up at Mayo House with his family. Our special guest, and I looked like a soccer mom on the way to Costco.
Ah, well, I wasn’t prepared. All my desires to stay on top of the five thousand things on my plate were for naught. All of my obsessive desire for control failed me. It’s my pathology, this need for control, but I suspect I am not alone.
How many of us here are willing to claim the fact that we are control freaks? How many of us make lists? Some of us even add things to our lists simply so we can check them off…hmmm, got up and washed my face: CHECK! We have our schedules, our calendars…I’ve now gotten in the habit of checking my calendar on my phone first thing every morning simply so that I can be sure I don’t inadvertently miss something, and so I’m dressed appropriately. Thank you, Archbishop Welby! So anyway, because I like to be in control, I now check that calendar, just in case.
But for all our desire to be in control, things happen that thwart our desire. Labor starts two months early. You’re asked to participate in a meeting you hadn’t been told about in advance. The doctor isn’t there at the time of your appointment because she is attending to another patient’s emergency. The big contract for your employer isn’t signed so you lose your job.
And then there is the truly heartbreaking stuff, like this: you go to church on Sunday looking forward to hearing God’s Word and a man comes in and kills or wounds many of the parishioners.
Things happen, and it’s out of our control. What’s a follower of Jesus Christ to do?
It certainly doesn’t help when we’ve got a Gospel reading like today’s, where the whole message is about being prepared. The thrust of the text is that we are to be prepared for the second coming of Christ, because in those early days of the church, the belief was that Jesus would be making his return trip pretty darned soon. You get the drift: Jesus is the bridegroom, the church is the bridesmaids, and the church had better be ready.
But here’s the interesting thing about this parable, the thing that might provide comfort to us control freaks who think “how can we possibly be ready for ANYTHING?”
All of the bridesmaids fall asleep waiting. They don’t need to be awake nonstop until the bridegroom shows up. They rest. The smart ones have prepared, but not by putting together a list. They simply have attended to the one thing that is necessary – to have enough lamp oil to light the way when the groom arrives. There is one thing that they need to do – be able to shine a light for the groom – and they’ve prepared for that.
That’s a whole lot more possible than the list with a thousand check boxes on it to cover every single thing that can go awry.
Imagine your list: Cipro antibiotics, a shield that a gunshot couldn’t penetrate, spare batteries for the cellphone, reading material, a down sleeping bag, extra socks, dried meals, first aid supplies…we could go on with the list for hours, couldn’t we? There’s a whole industry built around the possibility of doomsday and the need to be prepared to survive – adherents are called “preppers” and stockpile massive quantities of things in bunkers or storehouses, just in case.
But what is truly necessary? What do we really need to prepare ourselves for  any contingency?
One word: Jesus. One faith: Jesus. One hope: Jesus.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Epistle today: the message is clear. Stuff will still happen. We cannot prevent it. But we know that when it happens, Jesus is with us. And if the ultimate thing we fear happens – that we are going to die (and believe me, we will all die at some point, no getting around it) – if that happens, who is with us through it and on the other side of it? Jesus.
What does Paul write to the Thessalonians? “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
We cannot prepare for every eventuality, but we are assured that the one thing we most need no matter what happens will always be there: Jesus. He does not abandon us. He promises those who believe in him eternal life. It’s hard to imagine what eternal life will be like, but in my heart I believe that it will be infinitely amazing, infinitely joyous, infinitely filled with love. And it’s my belief in Jesus and in that promise that I try to carry me with me every day, even when I shake my head over the insanity of the world, even when I grieve the loss of 26 people in a church in Texas, half of whom were children and babies shot at point-blank range, even when I pray for a friend whose cancer has returned. I cannot prepare for everything, but I can prepare for the one thing I need and the world needs: Jesus, the savior and the promise.
But if you still want to prepare for any contingency, for a mere $269 dollars, go online. A company called Stealth Angel will provide you with a 72 hour emergency kit for two persons. Pretty fancy, complete with a backpack and a bucket.
Me? I’m relying on Jesus. He’s around for a whole lot longer than 72 hours, and all he asks is our faith and love.


Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Sermon for Sunday, September 3, 2017 Exodus 3:1-15 Holy Ground

They came to the communion rail barefoot. One woman, wrapped in a yellow sari with gold embroidery. A man with gray hair wearing a white kurta – that ubiquitous tunic shirt that men of the Indian subcontinent all wear. Two teenagers with painted toenails, giggling a bit. A young mother juggling her baby on her hip – how do those saris stay wrapped when your baby is trying to wriggle out of your arms? There were others in the congregation, Americans, Canadians, Scots, Brits, a few who had lived in so many places that it was unclear where they would claim as home. Those others hesitated a bit if they were new, wondering if in this church in this place, they too were expected to take off their shoes to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

But the old hands here knew the tradition. These Christians who were a part of the Church of South India, Christians whose tradition said that they were actually evangelized by St. Thomas the Apostle in 52 AD, understood that this school gym where we expats attended our weekly service was holy ground. And so they removed their shoes before coming to the rail, an echo of the story from the Old Testament this morning where God instructs Moses to remove his sandals.

Now when we have heard this story, we have usually concluded that God is commanding Moses not to bring his dirty sandals onto sacred ground. But those of you who have walked on hot dirty ground know that while the sandals you wear may have dirt on them, your feet aren’t exactly gardens of roses either. Sweaty, smelly, dirty, dusty. So maybe it isn’t about the shoes, per se. But what else could it be?

Anybody here ever participate in a foot-washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday? Some of you, yes. Is there anything that can make you feel more shy than showing your feet to a stranger who will actually bathe your feet? Our feet are not really the prettiest part of our body. As I get older, my feet look more and more wretched, and I’m shy about them. Did you know that nail salons do record business on Maundy Thursday with all those who want their feet to look nice for the foot-washing? We are shy about being barefoot, where everyone can see our bunions and hammertoes and that toe where the nail fell off after we ran the marathon, and the rough skin. When our feet are exposed, we feel vulnerable. Part of that vulnerability is the look of them, part of it is the fact that if we step on the wrong thing, they’ll hurt. Any parent who has stepped barefoot on a Lego in the idle of the night can attest to that. Vulnerable, open, showing a part of ourselves that we may not necessarily be comfortable showing. Taking away the pretense that we are in control…because in our hearts we know we are not.

I wonder if what God was doing when he had that conversation with Moses and told him to take his sandals off was to deliberately put him into a place of vulnerability. After all, taking off foot protection in a part of the world where the sand can be 120 degrees and where there are scorpions…that’s a risk, right? Is he willing to engage in a conversation with God while his feet are so vulnerable? Is he willing to engage in a conversation with God while his heart is so vulnerable? Perhaps God wants him to stop wearing a mask of a simple shepherd married to a Midianite woman and live in to who he truly is.

After all, Moses is something of an outlaw. He’s got more than bunions to hide. He had once had a great relationship with Pharaoh – he was a foster child in Pharaoh’s family, remember from last week? – but now he is a runaway and suspect by the Hebrews because he’d grown up in Pharaoh’s household and suspect by the Egyptians because he killed a slave master who had been beating a Hebrew slave. He is someone who is looking over his shoulder, even in Midian, wondering when his complicated past is going to catch up with him.

But it is not his past that catches up with him, it is his future. A future that he hears in the voice from the burning bush, giving him orders that he cannot imagine carrying out. And the only way he can live into the command he is given, to help the Israelites be free from the yoke of Pharaoh, to lead them to a new land, is to shed all the things that he believes protect him.

It’s no surprise that Moses’ response to this command is one we might identify with: “Who, me? The Israelites have no reason to believe me.”

And God gives instructions to this complicated and frightened man. He tells him what the future’s promise is, and it is being Moses’ imagining. He tells him to be vulnerable and brave. And so begins a chapter in the story of God’s people that requires all who are freed from the yoke of Pharaoh to be both vulnerable and brave.

They are to take off the familiar feeling of painful oppression – we sometimes cling to the present existence even if it is painful because at least we know what it is and that which is unknown is scary – and they are to go on a journey. They have no idea it’s going to take 40 years, but they must be vulnerable and brave if they are to be the people of God.

I think of that when I remember those sari-clad women in an Anglican church in the Middle East, where Christianity is not the dominant religion, taking off their shoes to come to the rail. And those feet, some old and cracked, some young with chipped nail polish…so very human, so very vulnerable…and so very brave.

They, like the rest of us in that church, were strangers in another land. None of us knew whether we would be viewed as friends or as aliens there. But in that church on the Persian Gulf, we all were vulnerable. We all were aliens. But we all were on a journey. Perhaps we were working there. Perhaps we were studying there. Perhaps we were teaching there. Members of that church ranged from ambassadors to taxi drivers, from nannies to deans of universities. None of us knew what the future would bring. And yet, we were together in that holy place on holy ground, stripping ourselves of all that we were using to mask our true selves, making our selves vulnerable and brave.

This church is on a journey. It has been wonderful and painful and eye-opening and difficult. Here’s the good news: we’re almost there. We’ve made ourselves vulnerable and brave. Sometimes we’ve shown our best selves. Sometimes, not so much. That’s part of being human, isn’t it? Even Moses messed up every now and again.

So stand on this holy ground. Know that the great I AM stands here with us. Know that Canaan awaits. Keep your shoes off so you remember what vulnerability feels like. Keep your hearts open so you can hear God’s voice, because our hearts are holy ground. Stand on this holy ground, and thank God for it, for all that has gone before and all that is to come.

Take off all pretense that you are in control. God is in control. Thanks be to God.