Sunday, December 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, October 12, 2015

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

I share with you a true story:

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

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

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

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

Here’s what happens.

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

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

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

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

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

You mix the ingredients, carefully following the directions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You go to bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You go to bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You sigh.

You go to bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You go to bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are insane.

The cake awaits you in the refrigerator.

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

“No,” you say.” I’ve got it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, August 16, 2015 St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Herndon - 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 “Endings and Beginnings”

Good morning. I’m Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia, and I am honored to be here with you as you begin your time of transition from the leadership of Father Brad to the next rector whom God has prepared for you. I bring you the prayers and support of your bishops and your diocesan staff. My presence here today is an outward and visible sign of that support, and we will get to know each other better in the months to come.

But here we are today, and I’m sure it feels a little odd not to see Father Brad up front. Despite the farewell, despite the realization that it was time for him to have a well-deserved rest after serving here so faithfully for so long, today it just feels a little…abrupt.
It usually does. In our Old Testament reading today, we reflect upon a transition of kings. King David is dead, and his son, Solomon, the issue of his marriage to Bathsheba, now takes the throne.

It always surprises me when I read this passage how matter of fact the author is about the passing of David and the ascendance of Solomon to the throne. David was a mighty king and a very complicated human being. He did marvelous things in the name of God and he also did some pretty awful things – that whole incident with Bathsheba comes to mind. David is a big deal! Jesus’ lineage going back to David was cited as one proof of his kingship – he comes out of the root of Jesse, David’s father. So you’d figure that when he died, there would be more to the story than “yup, he’s gone. We’re on to Solomon now.”
Transitions in leadership seem to require more drama, more emotion, than a mere statement of the end of the man and the time of his tenure.

We know a little bit about that here, as we catch our breath and imagine the unimaginable – St Tim’s without Father Brad  at the helm. And yet here we are, and the sadness is still in our hearts, and the worry about the future of this place is hovering over some of us.

I’m here today to tell you that, in the wonderful words of Dame Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

And here’s where we can take our cue from the second part of the reading from 1 Kings: Solomon, David’s son by Bathsheba, ascends to the throne as calmly and as naturally as somebody getting on the Metro. And what’s the first thing Solomon does? He goes to talk with God, to offer sacrifices and ask God what God would like Solomon to do.

You’d think that Solomon would be feeling his oats, thinking, “wow, I get to be king just like dad, lots of power, lots of riches, lots of people fawning over me.” But his father has trained him well. His first task is not to put himself over everyone, it is to bow to the one who made him king, God Almighty. He offers sacrifices. God comes to him in a dream. Solomon speaks to God in humility: I’m just a child, really. How can I serve you, God? What do you want me to do? And God likes hearing this – humility is always a good starting point when taking on a new responsibility.  

So God plants within Solomon a wise and discerning mind. God gives him untold wealth and long life as well, but the most important thing is the first thing – the ability to be a good leader, to help the people through the transition from the reign of David to this new era.
Now, Brad was not King David, and Mark is not Solomon, but there’s some wisdom about times of change of leadership that may apply in the case of St. Tim’s.

You are a healthy and loving parish, full of vitality and possibilities. You were well-guided by Fr. Brad – he encouraged lay leaders to lead, not simply to serve as implementers of his vision alone. So you’ve got good men and women who participate in vestry and in other areas of lay leadership who will help things continue to go and to grow
With Father Brad’s retirement, however, there is a need for another priest to help this parish, as Father Brad helped this parish. Many things can be done by lay leaders, but some things really do need to be done by a priest.

You need your next ordained leader, your Solomon, who comes before the Lord with humility and says, “Lord, what do you want me to do to serve you and these people?”
The natural inclination is to look at Father Mark here, who came to support Father Brad in the last months of his ministry and who will serve as your interim priest during this time of transition, as your Solomon.

It is true that he is gifted, humble, and wise. But he is not your Solomon. To understand his role, think back on the prophet who served King David in the latter part of his reign – Nathan. Nathan, who had the strength to carry God’s displeasure about David’s taking of Bathsheba. Nathan, who had the strong, strong relationship with God to bear God’s words and wisdom to the king.

Father Mark is, in fact, your Nathan. Nathan means “gift” and Father Mark is indeed a gift to you all. He will lead you, guide you, offer an honest assessment of what is working well and what you might consider as you enter into the next chapter of your parish’s life. His role is to prepare you all for your Solomon, your next rector.

This is what will happen in the months to come: your vestry will appoint a search committee, a small group of wise and discerning and prayerful people who will gather information about this beloved place, help discern where God is calling you next, and identify the kinds of gifts and graces your next rector will need so that he or she can help you get to where God is calling you next. They will, with the affirmation of the vestry, publish a document that will tell prospective candidates who you are and what you are looking for and then receive applications, winnowing through them until they come up with a final candidate whom they will recommend to the vestry. The vestry will meet the recommended candidate and –we hope - affirm the person. Assuming that all necessary due diligence is done by the search committee and by my office, a call will be issued and the name will be given to the Bishop, who will approve of the call. The vestry will negotiate the terms of the letter of agreement and once all parties, including the Bishop, have signed it, you will have a new rector.

It’s not as quick as “David went to sleep with his ancestors and Solomon ascended to the throne.” We don’t have familial succession, as in the Davidic line. We need to discern and to seek, because in calling your next rector, it’s not like hiring someone. It’s much more like seeking a spouse. You are entering into a covenantal relationship, and as our sacrament of marriage says, “it is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and deliberately.”

This all may seem like you are entering into a long process, and I can tell you that it will take some time, but only as much time as necessary to do the work of discernment, of hearing the voices of the parishioners of St. Tim’s, of listening to the murmurings of the Holy Spirit. It will take only that amount of time – no more, no less.

In the meantime, you have the blessing of your prophet Nathan, Father Mark, who will lead you, serve you, guide you and be a part of your lives, until your Solomon comes to you.
You will also have the guidance of my team at the Office of Transition Ministry to help your vestry and search committee with their work and to do the kind of due diligence that will ensure that you will have a gifted candidate without issues that will hinder their ability to serve you well. You will also have the prayers and support of your Bishops and all of the diocesan staff.

Transitions are rarely as swift and uneventful as the hand-off from David to Solomon, but I assure we will do all in our power to make this a time of joyful self-discovery and a time of exploring possibilities rather than one of worry or slowing of momentum.

And where our power fails, then the strength of Jesus Christ, given to us each week when we kneel and receive the sacrament of his body and blood, will fill us with everything we need for the work set before us, this day and forever more.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 St Paul’s Hanover Courthouse Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17“The Mother Love of Jesus”

Happy Mother’s Day! It is so good to be with you on this glorious day. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia, and I am your travel guide through the wonderful journey of seeking your next priest. Every now and again, I have the privilege of being with you as the one who leads worship and preaches, and it is my delight whenever I do so.

So as I said, it’s Mother’s Day. It’s one of those really sticky challenges for us preachers – to take the lessons we have been given for a particular Sunday and somehow acknowledge the secular holiday without taking away the awesome power of these Eastertide readings. We don’t want to forget those we honor but we don’t want to twist the scripture into a pretzel to serve that end.

But today, the creators of the schedule of readings – the Lectionary – have given us a gift. 

All of these readings are about how God cares for us as a loving parent, invites us all into his love, baptizes us into relationship regardless of where we came from, and instructs us to share the love we have learned from all this.

Seems to align pretty nicely with our ideal vision of motherhood, doesn’t it? Just like on the cards we may have given our mothers, or have received, at breakfast this morning.

All the Hallmark cards talk about motherly love and gratitude and sharing and appreciation of love given and lessons learned.

But love is a complicated thing, and so too mother love.
Some of us may have had the painful experience of wanting to be a mother, and having nature refuse to cooperate. All that love, and the plan to have children in the time-honored manner goes awry. What to do with that love?

Some of us may have had the equally painful experience of having lost our mother early, or never having known our mother at all. I think of my husband’s uncle, whose mother died giving birth to him. That’s a complicated sort of love – love mixed with gratitude mixed with guilt.

A few may have had mothers who, for whatever reason, were unable to give love. 

Something was broken in their hearts, and they couldn’t be that Hallmark card mother. How to love someone who couldn’t love them back in the way that mothers are supposed to? It seems an impossible situation.

Others of us had the gift of a mother who was the embodiment of love. Not perfect love, to be sure – none of us are perfect – but heartfelt endearing caring. The quotidian tasks of motherhood were hard to be sure, and you might get snapped at if you misbehaved, but still you never doubted the love.

What are the lessons of the infinite variations of love that are possible within the overall rubric of motherhood?

First, love is rarely perfect, except the love of God. Mother love may occasionally come close, but even mothers do not do it perfectly. Mothers are human. My grandmother had a notorious temper and a sharp tongue. Woe be to her children if they misbehaved! Sometimes she was right to get so angry – they were not the easiest of children – and sometimes it was disproportionate to the crime. Looking back now, over a few decades and knowing more of her story, I understand why she was that way. Her children didn’t doubt her love but sometimes they were hurt by her outbursts…and yet I know she loved them in spite of it all. Would that she could have found better targets for her anger, but in her small world, there was nothing else. But even imperfect love is a start. This is why Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another." He knew we needed to be reminded to love one another, because sometimes we forget. Sometimes we don’t do it very well.

Second, love sometimes comes in an unusual package. My mother was 44 years old when she and my father adopted me. She looked like a grandmother, not like my friends’ moms. But her love was as fresh and intense – in some ways more, since she had to work so hard to get me. She wasn’t the normal package, but she loved deeply and well.  A friend who is married to another woman recently gave birth to their first child. It is not necessarily the way some of us may be used to seeing mother love – two moms – but seeing them with their child, there is no doubt that there is deep mother love from both of these dear women for this child. This is what Peter was talking about in the reading from Acts, when some people questioned whether the Gentiles should be baptized as Jewish Christ-followers were. In their eyes, the Gentiles weren’t the right people. They didn’t look and act like Jews. But Peter said "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" The package that love and faithfulness comes in may vary. Love does not.­­­

Third, love each other because God loves each of us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel so lovable. I may be cranky and short-tempered if I’ve worked too many days in a row without a break. And if one of my children call me with a problem or a question, I may be short with them. I’m not a perfect mother, not by a long shot. But when I see them, even at my worst or their worst, I can see a little bit of the light of God in them. I know God loves them. It reminds me that God loves me, too, in all my crankiness, in all my short-tempered comments, in all my imperfection. God loves me in spite of my failings. Jesus says so in the Gospel: "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” I’m not the only mother like that. Maybe your mother was like that, maybe you were, too. But God still loves us and encourages us, and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit to keep reminding us of divine love, the love we are to share with others, and how it marks us with that divine light to change the world.

Lastly, love can change the world. If your mom ever told you when you brought home a less-than-A+ paper from school “you can do it. You can do anything you set your mind to,” you know what I mean. Mother love at its best is all about building up one another, saying “yes, you can do it. I believe in you.” That is precisely what we hear in these readings today: God, through his son Jesus Christ, lets us know in a thousand different ways that God believes we have the capacity to love as God loves, a love so vast and all-encompassing that it can change the world. God gives us the tools to remember that love and to share it, to get back into the habit of love when we have fallen out of it, to offer it even to others who seem unlovable in the moment.

That’s the kind of love that can truly change the world.

Remember that story about when Jesus was twelve and slipped away from his parents to go and teach in the temple, and scared his parents out of their wits? When they found him, his mother said “where were you? We were looking everywhere for you.” He replied, as only a smarty-pants 12 year old boy can “I was busy doing what God wanted me to do.” In Scripture, we don’t hear anything more from that mother of that unusual boy, but in my heart, I can hear her saying, “we were so frightened. We love you so much. Please don’t run off like that without telling us. You can do anything, accomplish anything, but just don’t forget to tell us where you’re going.”

Jesus tells us where we should go – to the place of the heart where we love each other as a mother loves a child, as his mother loved him, as his heavenly father loved him, as he loves us. And sometimes, he even uses the language of a mother to remind us of his love: “How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings.”

If we remember nothing from this day when we honor mothers, remember how mothers love, how deeply and fiercely, remember how Jesus loves us even more deeply and fiercely, and remember Jesus’ wish: that we love in the same way, with the same passion, even loving the ones who are sometimes unlovable or who don’t look like the “right” people to love, or who cannot return our love. Love them all. Change the world. Because Jesus loved us and changed the world and each of us with nothing more than love.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, April 26, 2015 Celebration of New Ministry of the Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Brook Hill John 10:11-18 “A Different Shepherd”

This is Good Shepherd Sunday, when we focus on how lovingly and faithfully Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He cares for us, guides us, leads us to places of refreshment, rest, and restoration. We are forever grateful for how Jesus does this, aren’t we?

In many ways, the calling to the priesthood is one that instructs priests to serve in the same manner as the Good Shepherd. We are to care for our parishioners, teach them, preach to them, offer comfort when they are afflicted, encourage them to see their mission as extending beyond the four walls of the church, speak out for those in need…well, the list of things we’re supposed to do is lengthy and daunting. And here’s the challenge for any priest: Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is a hard act to follow.

And it goes without saying that if we priests think that we can be the clone of that Good Shepherd, it is inevitable that we will fail. There is only one, the one who died on the cross for us as the ultimate gift in shepherding the flock. We cannot be THE Good Shepherd, but we can aspire to be A good shepherd.

Sara-Scott, that’s good news – nobody around here expects you to give up your life literally, although on some days, you may feel like you’re giving up your life metaphorically.

The nature of the work of shepherding the flock hasn’t really changed much since the time of Christ, at least in a metaphorical sense. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she is often on a hillside or hospital in the middle of the night. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she occasionally has to herd the sheep with a little more force than that sheep might like. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she may need to go round up lambs that have gone astray. And in today’s culture, a priest knows that, like a shepherd, she may not always be respected, despite the sophistication of her education, the intensity and necessity of her work, and the personal cost it exacts.

So why would anyone want to be a priest, to shepherd a flock of souls?

Simply put, when God calls, no matter how much one may resist, eventually, one answers that call.

And similarly, when a parish calls a priest to shepherd a particular flock, one cannot help but answer that call.

And so we come to the reason why I am here today. Sara-Scott Wingo accepted your call three years ago to be your Priest-in-Charge. That title is an odd one – you’re a shepherd on a timetable, you’ve got a letter of agreement that is time-limited. Hard to think of a shepherd who signs on knowing that the time of tending the sheep will end on x date. But in our tradition, there is a possibility that the relationship may morph from one where there is a defined end-date – the Priest in Charge model – to one where you enter into a covenantal relationship which does not have a defined end-date – the Rector model.

When the relationship morphs in this way, it’s like a long engagement that results in marriage. Today is the wedding feast! Sara-Scott is now your rector. Thanks be to God!

Now I’m going to stick with the marriage metaphor here rather than the one about shepherds because marriage is familiar to many of us and I doubt we have many real-life shepherds in the crowd.  So on to marriage.

Those of you who have been married a long time know that after the wedding feast ends, the hard work of sustaining the relationship begins.

Therefore my challenge to you sitting in the pews today is this: the work of relationship with your rector is just like the work of relationship with a spouse. Sara-Scott has a particular role, defined by her ordination vows. She is to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel, to fashion her life in accordance with its precepts, to love and serve the people among whom she works, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. She is to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to preside at the sacraments and other ministrations.

But as in a marital relationship, both parties have a role and responsibilities. So let’s reflect on your particular role. Here’s your part of the relationship:

1.     Listen. She has much to teach you. She has much wisdom and learning.

2.     Respect her, even if and when you disagree with her. No mumbling out in the parking lot or grumbling on facebook. Just as such actions are harmful in a marital relationship, they are poisonous in church, and will cause pain to the whole Body of Christ. If you’ve got an issue with your rector, go to her and talk to her about it. She is a great and generous listener, and it is a sign of your respect for her that you bring concerns directly to her.

3.     Show her grace. She will have some rough days every now and again – everyone does. Be as willing to forgive her when she fails – and we all of us priests fail on occasion – as you want her to forgive you when you fail.

4.     Don’t expect your rector to have ESP. It’s like when your husband forgets your anniversary and you give him the cold shoulder, and he says “what’s wrong honey?” and you say “Well, if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.” The number of times I’ve talked to parishioners who say almost exactly the same thing about their rector is uncountable. And when I say, “Your rector can’t read your mind,” disgruntled parishioners tell me that of course the rector should know. Here’s the truth: rectors are not mind-readers. Tell your rector when you’ve got an issue with her, and give her the space and the grace to work with you. Tell her when you’re sick and in the hospital. Tell her if you’re having problems. Tell her your joys as well. She will not know unless you open your mouth and your heart.

5.     It’s not your church. It’s not Sara-Scott’s church. It’s God’s church. Everything she does with you is to serve God. Her gifts are at your service, not only for your edification, but for God’s greater glory. So if she challenges you to stretch out of your comfort zone, consider it the work of the Holy Spirit, and take a risk. We are called to take risks – Bishop Michael Curry says we are challenged by God to be “crazy Christians” who actually believe we can make a real difference in the world. If Sara-Scott speaks of this challenge from God, don’t immediately dismiss it because you may not have done this sort of thing before. She is teaching you as well as challenging you. Take the risk.

Five things. That’s your job description. Now back to Sara-Scott.

Shepherds have all sorts of jobs in their care of a flock of sheep. Priests, too, are required to be generalists – who else has the job description of preacher, teacher, prophet, counselor, liturgist, administrator, occasional maker of coffee, and rarely (we hope) plunger of toilets?

Jesus was able to do it all because he was, well, Jesus. Being divine is a helpful attribute. Sorry, Sara-Scott, you’re not quite divine, although we will admit that you’re fabulous.

But know that the one thing we all can do in this complicated, beautiful, difficult, joyful work of being the Body of Christ, whether we are priest or parishioner, Senior Warden or junior acolyte, soloist in the choir or hummer of hymns in the pews…the one thing that we can do that honors this covenantal relationship between Sara-Scott and Emmanuel Brook Hill is to love and care for each other, as the Good Shepherd always loves and cares for each of us and desires our love.

We can do no less, in thanksgiving for the Good Shepherd and in thanksgiving for Sara-Scott’s ministry in this wonderful place.

Let all of God’s people say “Amen.”