Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2016 Holy Comforter, Richmond “A World Turned Upside Down”

For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing a series of teachings and parables. We’ve heard about healing on the Sabbath. We’ve heard about invited poor people to our table rather than worrying about how close to the host we get to sit. We’ve heard about how we need to turn our back on familial relationships. We’ve heard about lost coins and sheep. We’ve heard about the shrewd but dishonest manager. We’ve heard about a poor beggar at the rich man’s gate getting rewarded and the rich man having an unpleasant surprise at the other side of eternity.

A whole laundry list of teachings…what’s the common thread?

It’s a world turned upside down. That’s the thing about Jesus’ teachings. He seemingly never goes to the expected place in his teachings. He takes the conventional wisdom – even the conventional religious wisdom of the day – and upends it. Not surprisingly, that makes people uncomfortable, because we like to think we know how things work and what being a good and righteous person looks like.

I’ve had a week of uncomfortable-ness. My world was turned upside down. I was called to jury duty.

Now I know that it’s our civic duty to do it. I know that I’m not special and don’t get a bye on doing it. I know all that. But my schedule is horrific. There’s an endless stream of work in my in-box and voice mail, and I can barely keep up.

So I wore my collar to the courthouse in hopes that it would give me a pass. After all, wouldn’t the attorneys believe that I would be too bound by religious beliefs to be a good juror? Wouldn’t one side think that I would be an angel of mercy and the other think I would be an  avenging angel, so either of them might say I couldn’t serve?

You know the saying. You make a plan and God laughs.

The one trial that was starting on Monday was a civil trial. They needed nine jurors. There were almost 50 of us. “Piece of cake,” I thought. “I’m outta here.”

They called 17 people for initial screening. Not me. “Sweet,” I thought. “I’m off the hook.”

The lawyers quizzed folks. Several were relieved of duty. “Hmm,” I thought.

They called a couple of other people to be asked questions. Not me. “Thank goodness,” I thought. “That was close.”

We broke for lunch, with orders to come back at 1:30. When we reconvened, there was a problem. One of the jurors had not returned from lunch. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, they went to their list to call one more name.

Mine. Dang it!

Short story: I’m on the jury. I’ve been on the jury all week. I can’t talk about the case, but I can talk, I think, about worlds turned upside down. My world, where my schedule was blown to smithereens. The world of the defendant, who, it goes without saying, had to defend himself. The world of the plaintiff, who filed this case because the plaintiff’s world had been turned upside down and thought the defendant was responsible. The world of battalions of lawyers who have to do this for a living, and despite all their carefully constructed strategies, could not predict some of what was said from the stand. The world of my fellow jurors, some of whom were missing work, one of whom was 7 months pregnant, all of whom had other places to be. Even, perhaps, the world of the judge, whose docket of cases was interfered with by this long case – after a full week of testimony, we will finally begin deliberations on Monday – and the times when his administration of this case was interfered with by emergent needs on other cases on his docket.

But even in worlds turned upside down, there is grace. I’ve met some wonderful people, particularly my fellow jurors, who are a motley crew, but we laugh and share our stories freely in the stuffy little jury room. I’ve heard moments of tragedy but also moments of deep caring and love in that room and from the witness stand. I’ve seen experts turned to mush and ordinary folks be voices of wisdom.

You turn a rock upside down, you might not like what you see. But if you turn the world upside down, you may see things that surprise you more positively.

This is what Jesus has been talking about these past few weeks. If you are stuck in one view of the way things are supposed to be, whether it’s that the poor get a lousy deal because their parents sinned, or that the conniving manager gets a bye for his cleverness (remember that one line in last week’s gospel that says “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” – we’re supposed to be less shrewd, not more)…if you’re stuck in one view of the way things are supposed to be, you aren’t looking at the whole picture, you’re missing something.

Jesus turns the world upside down so that we can see the whole of God’s love for us, the whole of the dark and the light of the world. We are intended to look for the places where we can be bringers of light by seeing things differently. We are not intended to simply move through the right-side-up world like zombies following rules without thinking.

Here’s the thing: it’s easier to keep the world right-side-up where we think we know what we’re supposed to do. It’s easier to follow a recipe. But if the only recipe we receive that truly matters is “Add love,” it requires that we look in all aspects of the world to see where we’re supposed to add it. If we turn the world upside down, we may see all sorts of places where behaving differently from what our right side up world means that we are the love-bringers. And those who bring us love may be the ones we least expect. It is, after all, upside down world!

I don’t know what our jury will decide on this case we’ve been hearing all week. I don’t know what the impact of our decision will be on all who are involved. But I do know this: it turned my world upside down and I saw things I didn’t expect to see. I felt God’s love in our work and in my personal reflections. There was a moment here or there when I may have been a symbol of God’s love – I hope I did that as God would want. As disorienting and disturbing as being in upside down world this week has been, I’ve learned something of what Jesus asks of us: look and really see. Don’t simply follow rules blindly.  Questions are not bad things, they are critical. Look for the love. Look for the light. And trust that you will know, through God’s Holy Spirit, what you are to do. Both sides of the world need it. Both sides of the world need you.


Monday, August 08, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, August 7, 2016 Trinity, Little Washington, Luke 12:32-40 “The Call”

Good morning! It is good to be back with you all on this wonderful day when you welcome your new rector, Miller Hunter. You all should be feeling very good: your leadership has completed its work in seeking your new rector with prayer, integrity, and alacrity. You had time to reflect properly on all that had gone before, most particularly the long and faithful tenure of Jenks Hobson, and to begin to imagine what the future might hold with your interim, the Rev. Bill Queen. And now you are here, and the wait is over…
…and we could not have asked for a more appropriate gospel reading for today.
We begin where we ended up last week, with the reminder of the proper role of that which we have – our money, our goods, our skills – in God’s economy. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Hold on to that thought, because I’ll be coming back to it.
We move from the guidance about disposing of what holds us back to guidance about how we should be ready at all times. This is not necessarily about being ready for the end times, as some evangelical commentators have suggested. It is, at its heart, about vocation, about the way we should look at our place in the world. Be ready, just as the staff in the ER at the hospital in Fauquier or Winchester is prepared for not just the broken bones or cut thumbs, but also for mass traumas.  Be ready, just as a teacher is ready to explain a new concept in more than one way so that the student who is having difficulty understanding will be able to grasp the idea of it.
Be ready, because you never know what’s coming your way and you had better be prepared to step up and do what is required in that moment.
I focus on this notion of “be ready” because, as you know, it is at the heart of the priestly vocation. We never know when we will get a call in the middle of the night telling us a parishioner is taken ill and is near death. We never know when someone walks through the door and says “I’ve discovered my spouse is having an affair. What do I do?” We never know when we will be faced with two weddings and three funerals in the same week, and the copier gives out. And yet our vocation requires not that we handle it all perfectly and with great aplomb, but with as much grace as we can muster even when we are feeling overwhelmed, as much attention to detail even when we feel we’ve run out of energy, as much care for those involved as we can offer, even or perhaps especially when they are not the nicest of people. That’s what vocation means for us folks with the collar.
But you folks without the collar have a vocation in this faith community as well. You are called to be ready just as your priest is called to be ready.
What does being ready look like? It means saying “yes” when your priest asks you to help out with something. Church is not the Inn across the street, where the professionals hand you up a delicious product on a silver platter. You are not only a diner at the table. Church is more like the Thanksgiving dinner where one person cooks the turkey, others bring vegetables and other side dishes, and still others bring the pies. You dine, but you serve others at the same time. And if there is an unexpected guest, you welcome them as if they were another member of the family, with joy and generosity.
I know it’s a little odd to be talking about Thanksgiving dinner in mid-August, but I think it is worth staying with for another minute or two. Here’s the one thing I know about the 63 Thanksgiving dinners I’ve participated in: there is always enough for everyone. IN fact, there is usually more than enough – who hasn’t had that turkey sandwich the Monday after the big day, or had containers of soup made from the turkey carcass in the freezer. Who hasn’t had pie for breakfast, one of the greatest of guilty pleasures?
If you remember only a few of my words this morning remember this: God gives us what we need to do what needs to be done. God is abundant, and expects us to use that abundance to bring a little heaven to earth, especially to those who don’t have as much as we do. And when we have abundance, whether it is in pies or money or talent, our response must be to always be on the lookout for ways that we can use that which we have – God’s abundant gifts to us – to make the church, the community and the world a better place. That is OUR vocation. It is not the job of the priest, although gifted priests are the best of coaches in this work. It is not the work of the government, although there are times when the government has resources we do not have, especially in times of crisis. It is our work, our vocation, our calling to always be awake and aware that we may be called upon by God at any time to help change the world – each and every one of us.
And Miller’s vocation? To help us discover within ourselves the resources that God has already given us to do this.
So don’t be surprised if your priest pushes you a little into uncomfortable places, into doing things you didn’t expect. Don’t be surprised if you discover you can do more than you ever did before.
That’s when you know what is truly a treasure, and where your heart truly lies: in your vocation, in his vocation, and in God’s abundance. You can change the world, if you’re paying attention when God calls.
Answer the call, challenged by God and your new rector, and you will be a blessing and you will be blessed.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon for Sunday July 31, 2016 St James, Richmond, Luke 12:13-21 “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”

Good morning! I am Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia. It is my privilege and pleasure to work with your leadership as you begin the journey toward your next rector. I have met with your vestry and your staff, and once the search committee is commissioned, I will work with them in this holy and joyful work. Consider me your tour guide on this pilgrimage to the future! It is our hope that this will not be a time of anxiety but rather a time of spiritual exploration and transformation.  The process of transition is done a little differently these days from when you called Randy Hollerith, and that is because the world is a little different than it was sixteen years ago. In fact, you know that the world is very different.  The ubiquity of internet, the loss of the assumption that everyone goes to church on Sunday mornings, the culture that seems to devalue our Christian beliefs – all of these are shifts that were not present when you called your last rector. Time, too – we are so much more impatient than we were before! Remember faxing things? Now that isn’t fast enough – they must be transmitted in nanoseconds. And so with a changing world, our work together in parish transitions has changed as well, more oriented to the unique qualities of each parish, more flexible, with more parish input in the design of the process. Our new approach has been used successfully in many parishes in this diocese, from Christ Church Alexandria to Christ Church Glen Allen, from St Paul’s Hanover Courthouse to St Paul’s King George, from St James the Less Ashland …now…to St James in Richmond. We look forward to sharing the work with you all.

But in the meantime, we are still the church in this community and in this beautiful building. We are still the church in the spiritual formation programs, in the music, in the worship, in the incredible outreach to help others. And the Gospel still speaks to us as it has across the centuries. So let’s turn toward that Gospel we just heard and spend a few minutes with it.

I’ll begin, though, with something that is not in the Gospel. It has been a surprising phenomenon over the past two years: a thin little book, written in whispery little girl prose by a Japanese woman named Marie Kondo, has been sitting on the New York Times best seller list for a year. Its name? The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

In it, Kondo lays out her organizing plan, decluttering your home by the removal of all things that do not spark joy. You’re supposed to gather all your clothes in one gigantic pile, and go through them one by one. Touch each one. If it doesn’t spark joy, toss it, either by donating it if it is still usable or by consigning it to the dump if it is too ratty.

The underlying thesis is one that we probably could all admit: we have way too much stuff. And every day, we are encouraged to acquire even more stuff. I will own that I like retail therapy as much as the next person, and if I’ve had a hard week, I’m tempted to go shopping, especially if there are sales in the stores I most enjoy.

I’d like to think that I keep my clothing, at least, at bay by sorting through them with each change of seasons. We live in an old house with small closets, so come spring, I put the winter clothes in storage and hang the spring and summer ones, and in the fall, I put away the lightweight garments in favor of the woolens. Anything I haven’t worn gets donated or tossed…mostly. I have a hard time disposing of shoes and scarves, and unfortunately my closet looks like it. So maybe I’m a little like the acolytes of Marie Kondo, imperfect at tossing my excess stuff, but working on it.

You’re also supposed to do that with books, which to me is like getting rid of children, and kitchen gear, which to me is like lopping off a limb, and so on, decluttering your house until it achieves an Orientally spare and spacious aesthetic. Good luck with that.

We do have a rule in our house that nothing comes in the door unless something else goes out, be it a new small appliance or a pair of boots, but the rule seems to be ignored on a regular basis, which is why my stash of yarn continues to grow and my husband’s collection of tools seems to be procreating in the basement.

Stuff. We do love our stuff. It’s comforting, having that stuff. For my mother and other children of the Depression, it could rise to near hoarding levels, because they suffered through the time when they had next to no stuff. They would no more throw out a rubber band as spend money on a book they could borrow from the library, because that would be wasteful! We of younger generations, though, want what we want when we want it, and  my goodness, we do accumulate it and want even more. We’re blessed with the abundance of being able to get even more stuff.

And that is not only a 21st century phenomenon: look at the Gospel. A man asks Jesus to tell his sibling to share the family inheritance with him. In that culture, the eldest inherits it all, so younger siblings must fend for themselves or rely on the generosity of the eldest son to help them. And apparently this man’s big brother is not inclined to share. We don’t know the backstory here: was the younger sibling a wastrel or a jerk? Was the elder brother always the greedy one?

We’d like to know the whole of the family story, but we don’t get that. We get a parable from Jesus instead: a rich landowner has an abundant crop, and rather than giving his abundance away, he builds bigger silos so he can hold onto his surpluses. He’s feeling very pleased with himself, isn’t he. But God comes to him in a dream and says “you think you’ve got it all figured out, but you die tonight and you can’t take that surplus of crops and goods with you. How did that whole plan work out for you?”

In other words, the follower of Christ can’t hang on to stuff, particularly the excess stuff. Whether it’s clothing, money, or privilege, God demands that we share, that we declutter our souls of that which distracts us from the one true thing: Almighty God. Stuff isn’t true comfort. Only God is what salves our souls.

Now, I imagine that this makes many of us a little uncomfortable, we people who live comfortable lives and who have retirement plans and a few too many pairs of shoes. What are we supposed to do? 

Well, if I’m more worried about the year over year growth of my 401K or whether I can afford a trip to Europe next year than I am worried about young people in Gilpin Court who think the only option for success for them is through illegal activities, I’ve got some soul decluttering to do. I’ve got excess baggage to get rid of. And that is never easy to do, just like jettisoning my extra scarves and shoes. I’ve got to force myself to let go of the things that distract me and focus on that which God requires of me. I’m still working on that.

There’s another kind of excess baggage that is even more difficult to release: the past. In many parishes in transition, the past is the golden memory of simpler times or the rector we all loved best. 

We rarely remember some of the challenges of the past. And I expect even here, in the marvelous parish where so much has been working so very well, the one or two memories of a time when you were unhappy with something Randy Hollerith did is rapidly fading into the most distant corner and he is rapidly achieving saintly status. Not the he’s not deserving of praise: St James, under his leadership, has become an iconic faith community which lives deeply and richly into its name, a place of Doers of the Word.

But Jesus calls us to live forward to bring God’s reign to earth, and the doing of the Word is not a one-time thing. So as St James prepares for the next chapter in its existence, part of our work is to name what of our possessions and traditions we carry forward, what we build upon into something fresh, what we honor and lay to rest as part of the past. There’s no room in the closet for that new pair of shoes if we’re not willing to give away or throw away the ones that have no more life left in them.

So the challenge is the same one that Our Lord made to the complaining sibling: your stuff is only stuff, after all. Your baggage weighs you down. What are you willing to discard? What are you willing to repurpose in fresh ways? What are you going to build upon, so that you can continue to be what Randy helped you become, and who will the person be who will bring different gifts so that you might do that? That’s not just hiring any person with a collar and a warm smile, it is the hard work of discernment and prayer. Your Search Committee will do that work, but they will not do it alone. Each and every one of you who loves St James will be called upon to share ideas, hopes, dreams, and worries. Each and every one of you who loves St James must soak this process in prayer. If it is simply an exercise in hiring it will fail. But if it is a spiritual journey to seek God’s will – and make no mistake, God already knows whom your next rector will be – you will discover what God has in mind, and all will be well.

Know that your Bishops pray with you and for you in this time of change, and your diocesan staff stands at the ready to assist you. We bring our expertise and experience of supporting more searches than you can imagine – forty, currently. You bring open minds, keen ideas, and discerning and prayerful hearts. God is waiting to show his rich love for you if you listen, tidy up,  and keep at being doers of the Word.


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.