Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, July 10, 2016 Holy Comforter, Vienna, Luke 10:25-37 “Justice and Mercy in a World Turned Upside Down”

How many lawyers do I have here today? Raise your hands! No, I know who you are – you’re the ones who are cringing because the Gospel starts with what could seem like yet another lawyer joke…

Now, why might I say that? This lawyer is doing the very thing that lawyers are trained to do: to clarify the law by asking questions. But this lawyer is violating a cardinal rule for trial lawyers: Never ask a question unless you know what the response is going to be. In a trial, of course, you want to shape the jury’s perception of what has happened. So you pose questions that are narrowly drawn and designed to elicit precisely the response you desire. Thus, we have the infamous loaded question “have you stopped beating your wife?” There is no real desire to figure out a time line of when the beatings stopped – the intent is to make sure the guilt of the man as a wife-beater is established. And there’s no good way for the person to protest and say “but I didn’t!” That loaded question makes the image stick.

So maybe this lawyer thinks he already knows the answer: follow all the laws in Torah! Perhaps he’s looking for an “attaboy” from Jesus, since this lawyer is a good guy and he knows he’s already doing that. He knows his responsibility as a faithful Jew: to love and obey God, and to care for his neighbor.

But now the story turns a little, this familiar story, because the lawyer asks a follow-up question that is a doozy: “who is my neighbor?” At this point, my inclination is to think maybe his question is genuine, that he really wants to know. Maybe he’s tired of participating in petty arguments over land transactions and marriage contracts. Maybe those who are his neighbors expect him to side with him and use the weight of his learning to win the day, even if another neighbor has the same expectation in the same dispute. How far do we carry this whole “neighbor” business anyway?

And here’s where Jesus smacks us upside the head, by telling a parable, an illustration of who our neighbor is. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, the stranger who cares for someone wounded by the side of the road, when the wounded man’s everyday neighbors passed him by. Yes, we know about it, or think we do. But here’s the deal: The Samaritan is not just a nice guy passing by who isn’t a Jew, it’s as if a Sunni gave a Shiite a great big kiss. The Samaritans and the Jews are two groups of people who don’t get along at all. In fact each thinks the other is heretical, hateful, worthless. I’m telling  you this just so you have a feel of how shocking this parable would have been to a lawyer, a man committed to following the proper order of things, which says that Samaritans are the enemy.

It’s sort of like a Trump adherent who’s also a Tea Party member running up to Hillary Clinton after she fell off a stage, giving her first aid and putting her in his own car to rush her to the ER.

Or like police officers under attack protecting those who were protesting excesses of other police officers in other places where African-American men were shot during routine traffic stops.

Or like a “Black Lives Matter” protester trying desperately to stem the bleeding of a downed Dallas police officer. We don’t see too much of that kind of crossing of socio-political boundaries in today’s culture.

So, too, in the ancient Near East, where there was a long tradition of “we keep to ourselves, away from those others, who aren’t like us.” Some of that was self-protective – Jews were regularly oppressed by other nations – Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans – and keeping together was a way to be safe. But it also morphed into something more, a pride in one’s identity that made others less than us.

And that’s where the story sets the stage for the even more important message: our identity is grounded not only in our blood, but in our religious identity, and the laws that are part and parcel of maintaining that identity. But if we get it backwards, where it’s all about the law and not about the reason for identity, we fail as people of faith.

So take a look at the last exchange between Jesus and the lawyer. Jesus, in good rabbinic fashion, asked the question “which of these three passers by was the true neighbor?”

The lawyer’s a smart guy. He gets it in one: “It was the one who showed the wounded man mercy.”

Mercy. We tend to slide past that word in this passage, but let’s sit with it a little bit.

Mercy. There can be no true dialogue between people of different backgrounds, different traditions, different laws, unless there is mercy. Unless we are willing to grant someone who is different the same mercy we would like given to us. Mercy: a disposition to show kindness or forbearance. Mercy: if one is in a position of power, to show clemency. Mercy: a virtue that is a spiritual practice.

I focus on mercy for a very particular reason, and it’s not the horrible stories in the news this week. Mercy is not something that is reserved for crisis: it is a manner of being, a way of looking at the world and at those round us. Even  in how you look at a Trump supporter if you like Hillary, even I how you look at a Hillary fan if you  believe Trump can make America great again. If you’re a Bernie fan…sorry, I got nothin’…

No, I’m talking about mercy because it’s a spiritual discipline that I pray you will all commit to in the days and months to come, as you move into life without Father Rick at the helm here at Holy Comforter. I know some of you are still hurting. I also know that some of you did your grieving over the months that you knew he would be leaving. But now the reality has set in.

Here’s what sometimes happens after a priest retires at the end of a long and fruitful season of ministry: someone who doesn’t like something that the priest did says “Finally we can change that one thing I didn’t like!” And then the person lobbies or pesters to IMMEDIATELY change it. The former priest’s chair is still warm, but it’s got to be changed now.

And then someone else, who really liked that one thing, decides that the person who wants change is THE ENEMY, and a whole bunch of pain and bad words and stress explodes. And your senior warden goes out to buy the industrial sized bottle of Advil…

But imagine how different it would be in times of stress and change if the guiding practice were one of mercy?

What if the person who didn’t like that one thing said “I really didn’t like that thing, and I hope that it will change. I know there’s a process where I can speak my mind and that we can, as a community, discern the direction in which God is moving Holy Comforter. And I will speak up when those opportunities occur. I can be patient and trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us all in this process, and I can also respect that mine may be one of many different points of view.”

And when the opportunity comes for that person to share his or her feelings, others who disagree will similarly practice mercy and say or think “well, that’s an opinion I didn’t realize was out there. I’d like to hear more before I immediately dismiss it, even though I feel differently.”

Nobody’s insisting they must have their way. Nobody’s calling people who feel differently colorful names. No parking lot conversations or FaceBook private messages, or rump caucuses. Mercy. Mercy, because God shows us mercy at all times, and we want to try to be a little bit more like the God who created us every day.

Mercy. Speaking up when appropriate and listening hard when appropriate: those are the two keys to the spiritual discipline of mercy. If someone is hurting because they haven’t been heard in the past, don’t ignore them – reach out. Bind their wounds of feeling ignored. Pour the healing oil of friendship and respect on their hearts.

I say this because you are embarked on the amazing pilgrimage to seek your next rector. There will be moments when showing mercy comes very naturally and times when it is a struggle. That’s why we call it a spiritual discipline, because we have to discipline ourselves to do it not only in the easy times, but in the hard times, too. This pilgrimage you’re on  will take some patience and a whole lot of discernment. Right now you are still adjusting to life without Father Rick. In a little while you will welcome an interim rector who will help you get in the best possible shape for this process and for welcoming the next priest who has the privilege to serve you. I will be helping your vestry and the search committee – sort of a Rick Steves for the trip – so it is more like the spiritually transformative Emmaus Road walk rather than a 40 year wandering in the desert. I’m glad there will be some time after the 10 a.m.service for me to chat with you all, answer any questions you might have about how different this process will be from other transitions you may have experienced in the past, and to assure you that you are not on this journey alone. Your bishops and your diocesan staff are praying for you and with you at this time, and we will help you every step of the way. So whenever you get tired, or overwhelmed, or anxious, think mercy. Mercy for others on the journey with you, mercy for yourself as you recognize that none of us is perfectly merciful (except God!) You may be surprised how you will feel God’s love as you share God’s mercy with each other.

So my prayer for you in the time to come is this: May you feel the blessing of mercy shown to you and that you show to others. May you practice mercy in the hardest of times and may you receive it when you most need it.  May God bless the Church of the Holy Comforter as the pilgrimage goes forward!


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2016 Grace, Goochland, Luke 7:1-10 “Amazed”

Welcome to this season of change! I imagine it is strange not having Rhonda here up front – it will take some getting used to. I’m Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry here in the Diocese of Virginia, and it is my privilege to be with you today. I bring you the greetings of your bishops and diocesan staff as you prepare for the future.

In this season of change all around us, it is easy to go to a place of “hunkering down.” In the larger world, there are continuing acts of terrorism and struggles for power. In our own nation, there is one of the most surprising political seasons in our history, with people on both sides of the political spectrum shaking their heads in shock. In our state, we’ve got felons running for office, accusations of misconduct on both sides of the aisle, children being killed in the crossfire of drug wars and dying as a result of human misery. And here, at Grace, we might worry what the future holds in the wake of the retirement of the rector.

We may think it is a new phenomenon, this gothic litany of a world of pain, distrust, loss and worry, but in fact it mirrors much of what was going on in the world when today’s Gospel story came to pass.

As we enter into the season called Ordinary Time, in this year we will be walking with the Gospel of Luke. Luke was a historian – he begins his Gospel with a preface that tells someone named Theophilus , a pseudonym meaning “friend of God,” that he is writing this down to make sure everyone gets the true history of Jesus – but rather than thinking of him as a writer of dry and boring facts of history, he is really more like a political reporter, the Jeff Schapiro or Dana Milbank or Cokie Roberts of his age. Yes, there is reporting of facts, but there is also the richness of those adjectives and adverbs that move the story from simple statements of events to something deeper, more textured, something that gives us an insight into the feelings and motivations of the participants.

When we get to this point in the story – today’s Gospel reading – Jesus has just finished teaching the people the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the grieving, blessed are those who hunger for justice…this is akin to a political platform, a statement of principles for his ministry, lifting up those who are hurting, oppressed, the least and the lost, and saying that eventually these souls will be given the richest reward and the mighty will be brought down.

Given the political climate of Rome-dominated Israel in this period, this message is both highly risky for Jesus to say and incredibly comforting and exciting to the Jewish people. Rescue is coming, although Jesus’ idea of what that looks like may be different than that of his listeners.

So now we come to this story, and with whom are we confronted? Not one of the listeners to that sermon, those oppressed, overtaxed, underserved people…instead who is the center of the story?

A Roman soldier,  a centurion. A middle-manager in the Roman army. The enemy.

We know little of this man except for his role and his employer. He might not be ethnically Roman – there were some soldiers in the army who came from previously conquered states, but he represents the kinds of Romans with whom the Jewish people interacted most – they were the local muscle, the occupation force, making sure that everyone complied with the laws. They would commandeer a Jewish home to house some of the soldiers. To say they were hated would be an understatement.

Now it is odd enough for a Roman centurion to be the protagonist in this story of Jesus, but it is even stranger for the Roman centurion to show weakness. And yet this is exactly what he does. He comes to Jesus, a Jew with a reputation for healing gifts, and admits that he is afraid that his servant, his slave, is ill and may die, and he seeks Jesus’ aid.

Now here’s the interesting thing in Luke’s reporting: he shows first how different THIS centurion is from everyone’s perception of Roman soldiers – others say “this one is a good one – he even built a synagogue for us” – and the centurion doesn’t even approach Jesus directly asking for help. He sends others to ask for the healing, and his message is an interesting one:
“I know you can do this, and we both know you don’t need to come here to do this. Just attend to this from afar.”

This centurion does something that is both strategic and surprising. I don’t think we notice because we are dazzled by the healing.

He says “I know you can do this from afar, because you are someone of authority. I get that. I am a man of authority as well, who can order others from a great distance and they will do what I tell them. You don’t need to come to my home.”

Yes, he is attesting to Jesus’ power. But he is also naming the political reality: Jesus cannot come and interact with a Gentile because of Jewish purity laws. A Gentile military leader cannot interact with a Jewish leader because it will appear to undermine his authority, particularly to his fellow Romans. This is a delicate diplomatic mission.

But diplomacy cannot hide the facts: this military leader is submitting his authority – secular authority – to Jesus’ divine authority, for the good of someone who is not respected by society, a slave who serves a Roman soldier.

And Jesus gets that. He knows the risk for this centurion. He also knows it is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of Almighty God. The centurion, that representative of Roman empire, is bending his knee to the authority of a teacher and miracle worker who is a Jew, and not even a Jerusalem Jewish leader, a power player, but an upstart rebel from a backwater town out in the Galilee.

And so the healing occurs. From a distance. No touching. No prayers directly over the hot, prone form of the slave. No, a healing from a distance that doesn’t compromise the Jewish laws of ritual purity. A healing form a distance that doesn’t politically compromise the position of the centurion.

And then there is amazement, but the funny part is that Luke reports that the amazement is not in the people who were with Jesus. It is not even with the people who were with the slave who suddenly was cured.

It is Jesus who was amazed. Amazed at the trust the centurion placed in him. Amazed that a centurion would recognize his authority and power when the centurion had been trained for years to view the Roman empire as the ultimate power. Amazed that Jesus’ word could reach across the boundaries of convention, of law, of military might, so that this centurion would place the life of his slave above the rules of empire and society.

I would imagine that political reporters of today would have a field day with this story – “Rebel rabbi crosses political boundaries to save his enemy!” – but the reality is that what Jesus did in that healing act was the logical extension of what he had just taught in the Beatitudes. Relationship…caring for each other, even those others who we view as less than us or as our enemy, is our primary value, because God, who is so much greater than us, values us beyond reason.

Perhaps Jesus was amazed that his message took root, and that it even took root among the least likely of people, that centurion. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “I haven’t found faith like this ANYWHERE, not even among my own people.” He has reason to be amazed.

But perhaps the message of this story is that we too need to be open to amazement, to the possibilities that whisper even in this most difficult of times. We too need to hear that Jesus has a word for us, a word that says “You may feel like things are just impossible, that the world is crashing around us, that terrorists lurk at the airport, that lowest-common-denominator politics will lead to the collapse of all we hold dear, that all is being turned upside down and it is frightening. But it will turn, and it will turn toward justice, respect and peace.”

And even here at Grace, where there are questions about what the future may hold, there will be surprises that Jesus will offer, comfort and support from afar. He doesn’t have to physically stand here to make it happen. We know he is a man with authority, that he can tend to our needs even from the furthest reach of the heavens.

But perhaps we can surprise Jesus by NOT being amazed when something wonderful happens. Perhaps he can say “nowhere in the land of Israel have I seen such faith as that which the people of Grace Church had in me and my authority.”

Let’s amaze Jesus…and thank him, too.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sermon for Trinity Sunday May 22, 2016 "Inhabited"

Friends, it is Trinity Sunday, and you know what that means – your preacher has sweated bullets over what can be one of the most worrisome sermons of the year. Now, there are other texts that cause us to fear and tremble. Preaching on divorce,as we do when Mark’s Gospel is central to our summer readings in Year B. The problem of Jesus asking the disciples to bring him a donkey and a colt to ride into Jerusalem for Palm Sunday in Year A- does he ride on both of them? Does he ride into town with one foot on each like a circus performer? All those problem passages are nothing compared with the challenge of preaching on Trinity Sunday. That’s why it is often assigned to seminarians, who love to share what they learned in systematic theology class, or to deacons – you dodged the bullet today, Joe! – or to priest associates like me when the rector is away.

 Thanks, Hilary. Have a nice retreat, pal!

Here’s why: no one knows how to explain the Trinity. Even St Augustine, a great Father of the Church and brilliant theologian, couldn’t get it done in his 800 page long book on the Trinity. The only tools we seem to have at our disposal are metaphor and simile. The Trinity is like words that can be verbs, adverbs, nouns and adjectives. The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover – thanks, St Patrick! The Trinity is like a dance – my boss says he’s got a sermon that says the Trinity is like the Hokey Pokey. Haven’t heard it yet, and the concept scares me a little. What IF the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about?

And yet this is one of those essential doctrines of Christianity that we are expected to believe. That’s why the words of the Nicene Creed which we will recite in a few minutes, references the persons of the Trinity.  Now, I will stipulate that the words do describe a little bit of the relationship of the persons of the trinity – that key phrase about the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son is actually such a description, and it’s one that the participants at the Council of Nicaea argued about for about 50 years – but the creed really doesn’t explain it all to you in a way you can understand…

….or at least in a way that I can understand.

It’s true confessions time. I do not understand how the Trinity works.

Who else is willing to say they don’t understand it either?

Good. I’m not alone.

But here’s the thing: I have no problem at all standing up and reaffirming my faith by saying the Nicene Creed, because I don’t have to understand how it works to sense in my heart and soul that the Holy Trinity's presence is real and alive. I don’t have to understand it to know that God reaches out to me through creation, through the salvation I received through Christ and through the relentless nudge of the Holy Spirit to keep me doing what God wants me to do rather than what I’d prefer to do.

Does that sound contradictory?

Maybe a little bit, but work with me here…

Some of you may know that I write icons, those pictures of Christ, his mother, and the saints from the Orthodox tradition. We call it writing rather than painting, because painting sounds like a creative endeavor.  This is anything but creative. When we write icons, we generally copy other icons, following the rules of color, shape, facial and physical structure, and symbols of the ancient iconographers. It is, in a way, paint by numbers for the spiritual. We copy these images much as the monks of the Middle Ages in the Western world copied the Word of God in scriptoria, carefully doing precisely what their predecessor did, not changing words, just copying so that some others might be able to have access to a copy of those words.

Each time I go to my work-desk to write an icon, I begin with a prayer to St. Luke, the patron saint of iconographers. And then I begin. I start with a blank white board covered with layers of gesso to give a smooth receptive surface for the paints, be they egg tempera or acrylics. 

Cartoon copied onto gessoed board
I copy the drawing of the key lines of the icon I am writing from a black and white image called a cartoon. I start coloring the image by laying down a dark and dense base coat, the deepest colors in our palette. I build the image by adding additional layers of color, each a little lighter, a little smaller, a little more translucent than the one before. I attend to the direction of where the light seems to be coming from in terms of the brighter features…more layers of lighter color there, until I have constructed an image from the darkest most incomprehensible shape to something with dimension, with light, with movement. And at each step of the way, I think to myself, “This looks awful. This looks nothing like what I am trying to copy. This is ugly.” And it’s the truth. But I keep praying, and I keep working.
Lines colored black, base layer of skin (senkir) added.

Other base colors added

Adding layers of color to face and hands

Gold leaf for halo applied, many more layers of color on the chiton (undertunic), skin and hair.

Scripture started, layers on outer garment, more layers everywhere else. Identifying name (Hagios Pavel in Cyrillic) in red.

At various steps along the way, it DOES look amateurish and ratty and full of mistakes, some of which cannot be corrected. I may do a piece of it and think, “well, I really like those hands,” and then I turn to the folds in a garment and think “well, that’s not right.” But I keep praying and I keep writing.

Eventually, after layer upon layer of color – sometimes the face will have as many as 20 layers – I hit the point where there is nothing more I can do. It is done. All I can see at that point are the thousands of small mistakes, a line that wiggled, a color that is not quite right, lettering that looks clumsy, an expression on an angel’s face that looks like she has indigestion.

I can’t fix my past mistakes, so I pray for forgiveness for the imperfection of my work, and for grace to do it better the next time.

And then I coat it to protect the image. Polyurethane if it was rendered in acrylics, olibas – aged linseed oil – if it was rendered in egg tempera. I can no longer go back and try to tweak things I don’t like, it just has to be what it is.
As finished as it was going to be, and coated in poly.
And invariably, once it is dried, it looks different. The whole, the finished icon, is greater than the sum of its parts, even with all those mistakes, with all those imperfections. God – the Holy Trinity - has inhabited the work, and made it more than my human hands and eyes can do. And if anyone asked me what happened to cause that icon to be something more than I could have done, I would have no words for it beyond that thought: God has inhabited it.

And I thank God for God’s patience with my humble work, not understanding the “how” or “why” of it all, but being grateful for that inhabiting.

And that’s the way, I guess, that I feel about the Trinity. I will readily admit that I do not understand the how and why of the Trinity, but I sense that I – that WE – are inhabited by the Trinity, and it makes us more than we are capable of being without it. And I am immensely grateful when I realize that.

So if this gave you any ideas that you now understand the theology of the Holy Trinity, my apologies: none of what I have said should be construed as a systematic theology of the Trinity. It is just the reminder that sometimes we feel God inhabiting us in strange and wondrous ways – in hearing a beautiful piece of music, in the look in a person’s eyes as they lift their hands to receive Communion, in the wrinkled and delicate skin on the back of the hands of a dying great-grandmother, in the cry of a newborn, in the whisper of the wind, in the fact that my peonies cannot open unless little ants chew away the nectar that keeps the buds locked up tight. We cannot put words to it. We don’t understand it. But it is there, and that is enough.

The explanation awaits us on a further shore, and there is time enough for that. For now, know that God loves us enough to make Godself known to us in a thousand thousand ways, and be grateful. The Trinity doesn't need us to understand, the Trinity just wants us to rejoice in it.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Sermon for Tuesday, May 17th Evening Vespers/ Lutheran-Episcopal Conference ShrineMont/ Ezekiel 11:14-25

Ah Ezekiel! My favorite Old Testament heretic!
Heretic, you say? A chosen speaker of God’s word? A part of the canon of the Hebrew Bible? How can this be? Am I the heretic here?
Maybe, maybe not. Let’s explore this a bit.
What do we know of Adonai, of YHWH, the God of the Hebrew Bible?
Well, if we agree on nothing else, we know that this is a God of following the rules. The Deuteronomist spills much ink on rules, rules, and more rules.
And rules are, indeed, a needful thing: how else to keep a fractious and frightened people together in the midst of continual cultural and political assaults, across the desert, in captivity, in battle? There must be rules to keep the community distinct from those who are not the Chosen People, and to keep them from behaving as badly as they seem inclined to do.
And in this passage from the book of Ezekiel, set in the midst of the Babylonian captivity, we see how when God’s people do not follow the rules, there are consequences. There is conquest, diaspora, separation from the spiritual heart of Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem.
Okay, so far we are following the normative role of covenantal relationship with the Lord – you mess up, you end up in a bad place.
But then something happens in the midst of the misery of people who cannot even sing their own songs anymore because they are so depressed. Ezekiel dreams and prophesies: redemption is coming.  Actually, redemption has come, perhaps not in a way that was always recognizable to them, but it has been there: God has been with them. If the people could not go to the Temple, the Temple came to them. God was abiding with them. It may have seemed just a pale shadow of the glory of the Temple, but no matter. God was with them. Even if the people failed in abiding by the covenant, God – and God’s covenant - abided with them.
But wait! There’s more! These sad souls will be back in Jerusalem soon…but the rules may have shifted a bit.
God proclaims that the people who have been scattered abroad will be gathered together.
A sidebar here: Ezekiel reminds us that the folks who DIDN’t get dispersed, who remained in Jerusalem, have something of the attitude of those modern people who say “I’ve got the good stuff because I’ve been faithful and God loves me for it, and if you don’t have the good stuff, it’s clear you offended God.” Those who got to stay in Jerusalem thought the Temple belonged to them – possession is 9/10s of the law, right? – and the others, well, tough luck for them. They deserved their fate.
And here’s where the strange and wonderful and slightly heretical glance of Ezekiel comes into play: God says “never mind.”
God says, “yes, we will clean up the messes you folks left, but it isn’t about the Temple. I’m going to set up shop near it, but no longer in it – take that, you pompous self-righteous prigs in Jerusalem – and we’re going to repair not the Temple, but our hearts.”
For what seems like the first time in a long time, this Creator God starts with the heart rather than the rules.
“I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. When they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” 
The work of the Heart precedes the work of the rules. Both are needed, but the sequence matters.
If the sole focus of our common lives together is following rules, we become diminished, parsing out every jot and tittle. If the sole focus of our common lives together is warm and fuzzy feelings, we become undisciplined and unclear. We need both, but the sequence matters.
When relationships are broken, the various sides in the story are judging each other and themselves. It’s the human condition, isn’t it, trying to prove we are in the right and others are not? Trying to prove we have God’s favor while others are lower in the pecking order?
When we work at the hard and beautiful work of reimagining relationships, one of the first things we have to do is to put aside the rules that divide us and fall in love with our brothers and sisters again.  How we live into that love requires that we figure out some operating principles, some rules of the road, but unless we enter into a rule of life starting with a rule of love, because God loves us first and fiercely, the rules will continue to divide us.
This is why a slightly heretical apocalyptic prophet is the perfect voice for what we are trying to do here, years after the signing of “Called to Common Mission” document. It has to do with the very nature of apocalyptic literature: odd and strange words from a fever dream, challenging and prodding and awakening people to some new understanding of what God is doing. What is god doing here?
Ezekiel, speaking for God, strips down the legalities to what is most important…
Three things: God is with you. God will return you to a place of conjoined spiritual nourishment. There will be a new relationship between God and God’s people.
And how does this happen? God removes hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh, drawing them into a sweet embrace. Beating sometimes in unison, sometimes in complementary rhythms.
A relationship. The disparate parts of God’s people drawn back together. Later, then, some guidance as to how the relationship will work – rules to be together as righteous children of God – but that guidance doesn’t come until the relationship is rebuilt.
Love. Relationship before rules.
If we do nothing else in our time together, we must – MUST – fall in love with each other through the shared love of our sovereign and loving Creator. The other stuff? Rules and such?  I won’t call them “adiafora” – that’s above my pay grade – but it seems to this occasionally heretical preacher that unless the rules serve the love and the relationship rather than the other way around, we’ll be stuck in Babylon, and that’s nowhere for God’s people to be. No more hearts of stone. No more rules that divide. Love. God’s love. Our love. Nothing more. Nothing less.


Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, May 8, 2016 St John the Baptist, Ivy, John 17: 20 -26 “Mothering God”

Good morning! I am Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia, and I am delighted to be here with you on this Mother’s Day as, together, we begin our journey of transition to your next vicar. I bring you the greetings and love of your bishops and diocesan staff, who pray for you and with you in this new chapter of your lives together.

I suspect that for many of you, this feels strange, not having Kathleen at the front. But here we are on this last Sunday before Pentecost, continuing being God’s people in this place, and that’s a good thing.

We are in the midst of some readings that are a little confusing. Just 7 weeks ago, we had Easter. Christ had died, was buried, rose again, came back to talk the the apostles – a final pep talk  – and now we are here in this reading, which contains Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples BEFORE he dies! He is at the Last Supper, and the last thing he does in John’s version of the story is to pray: first for himself, and them for those whom he leaves behind to carry on his work. And now, at the end of this prayer, he says this:
“…you, Father, are in me and I am in you… may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

It is a prayer. It is a benediction. It is a reminder to the disciples that God is with them as they continue to do the work of revealing God’s abiding love. God continues to nurture them, to guide them, to “have their backs,” as the saying goes. God continues to give them strength through God’s love.

The disciples may not fully realize everything that is about to happen, but they know as they have known nothing else before, that they are loved and supported at that moment and until the day when Jesus finally brings them together with the Father.

…not just like a father, but like a mother.

It IS Mother’s Day, after all. We do know that this secular holiday that honors the love our mothers have shown us aligns with God’s love. Our mothers aren’t God – although when I was seven, I thought my mother had the all-seeing eyes of God and the power to smite if I misbehaved – but at their best, our mothers give us a glimpse of the enduring power of God’s loving presence.

Dame Julian of Norwich- Statue at Norwich Cathedral
This is the vision the 14th century mystic Dame Julian of Norwich wrote about:  “Mothering God, you gave me birth. Mothering Christ, you took my form. Mothering Spirit, nurturing One.”

Her imagery is not new: Jesus himself lamented in Matthew’s Gospel “Jerusalem, often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” 

Even in the Old Testament, God speaks to Israel in the Book of Isaiah in a maternal voice: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” And when, in the Old Testament, the wisdom of God is spoken of, God’s wisdom is a “she:” “does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”

So we’ve got this notion threaded throughout Holy Scripture, that God has a feminine nature as well as a masculine one, and that feminine nature is lifted up as virtuous, prophetic, wise, enduringly loving, emotional, strong….rather like some of the mothers in this room.

Now you all know about women who meet that description – certainly I would count Kathleen S as one of those women, and I know that you grieve the loss of her as your vicar.

But here’s the good news: God’s feminine nature, that nurturing, loving, strong nature, continues to be present with you, even in a time of change, in a time when you wonder what is coming next.  God remains with you. That is what Jesus is talking about in poetic language in the Gospel today. Hear what he says: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus is not only with you, he is saying that he is IN you and you are IN him…like a baby nestled in his mother’s womb, you are that close together.

And that will be the greatest of comforts, this loving connection, womb-close. As you begin this journey of search for your next vicar, Jesus will never be apart from you. He will send his Holy Spirit to comfort, guide, and strengthen you. He will not leave you, just as mothers never leave you, even when their physical presence is no more and you have only memories.

And as the Lord is with you, in our own smaller way, my colleagues and I will also be with you, guiding you along the way in a process that will help you discern what gifts you most need in this next chapter of St. John the Baptist’s story.  We will work with your leadership in many different ways so that you can seek and find that vicar whom God already knows will serve you…we will pray and listen for God’s voice even as we seek input from you all.

My prayer for you in this time of transition is that you do not feel lost or abandoned. Your vicar may have received another call – God does have plans for us clergy that sometimes require that we leave one beloved group of souls and go to serve another – but your call, to be the people of God in this time and place, remains. You are strong, you are creative, and you are blessed by this place and by each other.

Know that the mothering God is with you always, that there is a plan to follow in the days ahead, and that in God’s good time, you will pass from the state of being pregnant with possibilities to being delivered of a new priest who will serve you with love and faithfulness.

A last word or two? These words may be the most fitting, once again from Julian of Norwich: "May God’s love wrap and enfold you , embrace you and guide you, and bring you comfort"….just as a loving mother does.


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.


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.