The Stories We Tell: Abortion and the 23rd Psalm

         I love the 23rd Psalm. They went from a pretty poem to words I could feel in my soul the night I read it by my aunt’s bedside moments after she died in 2000. I’ve read it to several people from their bedsides, and also at several funerals. I’ve even preached on it a few times.

         It resonates deeply with so many of us, I think, because we have so many deeply held memories around these words. And, I think it tells a story, and it tells the story in the way we want the story to be true. It tells the story of our faith in the way we want it to be.

         We want life to be great, to flow easily, to have enough of everything to make it through the difficult times, and for our faith never to waiver.

         We like it when the story makes it seem like God is in control, handling all the things, navigating the troubled waters for us.

         But that way of reading it takes away our agency; our role within navigating the troubled waters. Our role in creating the troubled waters.

         The 23rd Psalm is, for me, the story we tell as Christians, even though the 23rd Psalm was written long before there was a Jesus. It’s the story we want to be true, or a snippet of the story that is true, rather than the entire story of what it means to be a person of faith. Leaving out the details of what it takes to get beside those still waters, of how difficult it is to get into, be in, and get out of the valley of the shadow of death; of what it means to need to have your faith be revived.

         I ruminate, quite a lot, actually, on the stories we tell, and the way the stories we tell show a carefully curated story to the world. But that the carefully curated story isn’t always the real story.

         In the story of my family, for example, a family that arrived in the “new world” in the 1600’s, there are things we don’t talk about. A lot of things, really. We don’t talk about family fortunes made and lost, nor the reality that at some, or several points, we “owned” enslaved people. We don’t talk about the way previous generations have impacted who we are today, and how we continue to live in the paths cut by the most recent generations.

         It’s because my family has a great hurt caused from a great shame. My family has carried this shame for nearly a century, and today is the day I am going to share that shame, and attempt to reframe, reshape, maybe even set free, my family’s story.

         Because, we must name the evil in order to defeat it.

         The evil I call out today is that the stories we tell trap us. They trap us within their walls and force us to keep living into the lies they create. Even when we know they are lies.

         This week, the evil that has dictated my family’s story for nearly a century, the dark shame we have hidden for 90 years, was thrust abruptly and starkly into the spotlight.

         This story, the turning point in my family’s narrative, is really just a brief moment in time. A moment that happened somewhere between 1930 and 1935, when my Grandmother was 12.

         The story, the moment, that defined my Grandmother’s life, and deeply impacts my family to this day; the story as it was told to me was that my great-grandmother died in her mid 30’s following open heart surgery. That my grandmother was right outside the door as her mother died, begging, sobbing, and unable to go in to see her as she bled out; held back by the nuns carrying for my great-grandmother, Behne.

         My Grandmother told me this story when I was 12, and it was clearly still painful for her. I had questions, but I didn’t ask them. A picture was painted in my head, and I accepted it.

         My Mother was told that Behne died following an appendectomy. I don’t know exactly when she found out the truth from my Grandmother. But at some point, from the depths of the alcoholism where my Grandmother unsuccessfully sought refuge for several decades, my Mom learned the truth of what happened to Behne. And 3 or 4 years ago she told me that my great-grandmother didn’t die in heart surgery in her mid 30’s. Behne bled out in the moments after having had an illegal abortion.

         My great-grandfather, a man who’s first name I didn’t even know until Thursday, was an abusive, often absent, alcoholic who, during the great depression, drank nearly everything he earned, leaving my great grandmother to fend for herself and her 3 young children. At some point, when my grandmother was 12, Behne got pregnant.

         For reasons that must have been impossibly difficult to navigate in the context of the great depression and 1930’s Richmond, Virginia; reasons that must have been agonizing to come to terms with, my great-grandmother knew she couldn’t have that child.

         Knowing and weighing all of the factors, Behne knew she must end her pregnancy, and as a result, lost her life.

         Everything since has been impacted by that moment. That’s the real story of my family.

         I think it’s important to say that it’s not just my great-grandmother’s story I carry with me, 90 years later. I carry my great-grandmothers blood in my veins; I carry her DNA in my DNA. I carry her trauma in my heart and mind. And on Monday night, I cried her tears. I cried my Grandmother’s tears. I cried my Mom’s tears. I cried my tears.

         My story, my family’s story, would be remarkably different if my great-grandmother had been able to safely get an abortion.

         She made a choice, an agonizingly difficult choice, a choice that it was not her right to make at that point. But she made the best choice that she could in the circumstances she was in.

         She was poor. Alone. Abandoned. With 3 children, the oldest, my grandmother, was 12.

         Choices have consequences. And those consequences are felt for generations. They become the DNA of a family, or an institution, or a society.

         The still waters of the 23rd Psalm, the waters we convince ourselves we are walking next to, we don’t look at them. If we did, we would see how troubled those waters are. We would see the ripples, the waves, the storm clouds building over them.

         We would see that there is no banquet prepared in this life unless we prepare it; no one is anointed as God’s own unless we do the anointing. God doesn’t promise us to keep the waters calm.

         God promises to walk with us in the storm.

         I’d thought today that I would read to you a letter written to my unborn children, about why I decided not to bring them into the world; it seemed right for a Mother’s Day sermon less than a week after discovering that the reproductive right’s of childbearing people in this nation are about to be stripped, again. But the planet is dying, and every day our society becomes closer to the dystopian fiction of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” so there are a lot of reasons that don’t have to do with my great-grandmothers’ abortion for why I don’t want to bring a life into this world.

         Instead, today, I would like to remind everyone that there is often a difference between the stories we tell, even the stories we tell ourselves, and the truth. And until we acknowledge the truth and bring it to light, we will not be able to see the way those moments of time, be them yesterday or hundreds of years ago, we will not be able to see the way those moments dictate where and who we are today.

         The trauma carried by my family, the trauma my grandmother endured as her mother lay dying a closed door away, and how that impacted every moment for the rest of her life, I assure you, named aloud or not, that trauma impacts the definition of who I am and the decisions I make today.

         When we read the 23rd Psalm and say, hey! Everything is great! Look at how God has gotten us through this; everything is great and calm; when we read the 23rd Psalm that way we make it seem like everything is fine, history is fine, we don’t have to do anything to make things be more or less fine. We don’t have to acknowledge mistakes of the past in order to allow ourselves to move beyond the limitations those mistakes place on us.

         We leave out the realities of how awful and traumatic it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, or darkness, which is the more literal translation.

         When we tell stories this way, it allows for the legal reasoning used to overturn Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, the same legal standard for overturning segregation, and treating people of color as 2/3rds of a human, telling stories in one particular way allows us to use that same reasoning to say that impregnated people should not have the right to decide what happens to them and their bodies simply because they are pregnant.

         Justice Alito can honestly write sentences like “[u]ntil the later part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Zero. None.” He can write those words because the story as it was passed down to him is that there was no support for the right to reproductive choice.

         But there was. And there is. He just doesn’t have to look at it because it wasn’t true for him that there was support, that there is support, for the constitutional right to make decisions for our own bodies.

         Just because it is convenient to ignore the truth, doesn’t mean we should ignore the truth. In fact, we must NOT ignore the truth, especially when it is convenient.

         If we ignore the truth, we make it seem like this valley we are walking in has been lovely and great the entire time. Forgetting that we had to hike down a mountain to get there. That the wind HOWLS through a valley, the weather is unpredictable, and we have to hike up a mountain in order to get out.

         In my family, not naming, owning, nor dealing with the realities of the trauma of my great-grandmother’s death and what her death did to my grandmother, left in its wake a multi-generation tidal wave of alcohol and substance abuse, of failed marriages often to abusive and neglectful people, or of not marrying at all, and of waiting until very late in life to have children, if they are had at all.

         That’s the valley of the shadow of death that we are still walking through, because of the preventable death of a woman who was given no choice.

         We stand in a moment in time, where some among us are shouting to be heard. They are begging to have the realities of their life, which are the logical and reasonable consequences of decisions that were made long ago, they are crying out just to have these things be acknowledged as true. The voices of our neighbors who have been pushed to the margins, our neighbors of color, our queer neighbors, our indigenous neighbors, our poor neighbors, our disabled neighbors; their voices are ringing out, and still, usually, being ignored. Because it is easy and convenient to ignore them.

         The Episcopal Church has a long history of ignoring the voices it doesn’t want to hear; and of not choosing sides even when there was clearly a way of following what Jesus taught, or not. We didn’t choose a side on slavery, saying it was a political issue not an issue of faith, even though Christianity was used as a justification for enslaving other humans. We didn’t choose a side in segregation, saying it was also a political issue rather than an issue of faith, even though Christianity was used to justify segregation.

         The Episcopal church is even walking a fine line on abortion, saying that health care, including reproductive health care, is an integral part of asserting worth as a human being, but not outright saying childbearing people have the right to choose what to do with their own bodies.

         Today I wish to remind everyone that silence is not neutrality. Silence is assent to the loudest voice. Silence is a betrayal to the very people we think we are helping by being silent. The status quo does not need to be preserved at the expense of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed.

         By not choosing a side we can tell the story in the Episcopal Church that we managed to stay united in the Civil War. But that’s not the truth; the church splintered, right along the Mason Dixon line. By telling the story that we didn’t choose sides in segregation means we as a denomination can look beyond the balconies constructed in so many churches by the enslaved, to ensure they were segregated from the White people, so that we didn’t have to see or interact with them.

         The truth is, we can tell the story however we like, or, we can look at the truth. We can own the truth. We can see and admit how that truth impacts us and our neighbors to this day.

         The 23rd Psalm is a story, in and of itself. But my friends, we cannot ignore that something happened, even in this Psalm, that left the writer feeling as though their soul needed to be revived. That the author walked through the valley of the shadow of death. That evil surrounded and pressed in on them from all sides.

         The time to be polite, to politely listen, sit back, and not choose sides, that time is over. It is time to tell the real story of who we are, and how we got to where we are. As individuals, as families, as a church, as a nation, as a faith.

         Only then, only when the truth echoes as loudly as my grandmother’s screams as her mother lay dying a closed door away, only then, can we be set free, and can we set others free.

         Truth hurts. But we can no longer deny what is true in favor of what is comfortable.

Amen

The Path to Resurrection: Easter, 2022

         The part of the sermon writing experience that is the hardest for me, and it has always been this way, is the introduction. Because for my preaching style, the introduction is the thread that weaves through the entire sermon; it sets the tone for everything. Once I have an introduction, writing the rest of the sermon usually flows pretty easily.

But, sadly for me, there is no writing the rest of the sermon until I have the introduction in mind. And trying to write an entire message without an introduction usually produces a meandering journey through my thoughts, rather than a thought provoking intentional look at a theme.

Some weeks, grabbing an introduction feels like catching rain drops in my hands: harder than it sounds, and gone just as quickly as it arrived.

Sometimes, I have one of those weeks during Holy Week. And let me assure you, that’s so fun!

The problem this week wasn’t so much the lack of a strong introduction, which, as you can tell, I still lack. The problem was that one line of text just kept leaping off the page at me, over and over and over.

This line was so prominent to me that I haven’t been able to see past it.

All I could see was this one line, and then, like a tree diagram, I could see all of these different paths and potential things to talk about, because it is a great sentence. It’s just that none of those things are an introduction.

This week, the line “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” has been on repeat in my head.

A more literal translation from the Greek is “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

I translate it into modern language as, why are you seeking what is among what was?

It’s a good line. Very to the point. With just a hint of snark from the angels when they suggested it’s silly to seek Jesus among the dead, while he’s alive and headed to Galilee. It was such a good line that it was all I could see.

Every year during Holy Week clergy gather together to renew our ordination vows. This year when we gathered at the Cathedral on Tuesday, I realized that I haven’t been to church in like 3 years.

If there are any Christmas and Easter folks here who maybe feel badly about only going to church twice a year, please hear this: the priest hasn’t been to church as a parishioner in 3 years. So, you’re good.

And sure, I go to church most weeks, but I’m up here, working, doing things. It’s work. I like my work, but this is my job. I hadn’t been to church, to sit, listen, sing, pray, to just be, since 2019.

And I have to tell you all, I forgot how to church.

We were joined by a Lutheran Bishop and he co-presided over communion. Apparently, the Lutherans have a slightly different practice with the breaking of the bread, and he broke it early in the Eucharistic prayer. And I gasped, loudly, people turned around to look at me.

I had to take a bio-break in the middle of service because I can no longer sit still for 90 minutes.

I had no idea what to do during the passing of the peace. I was so confused.

I somehow ended up in the wrong line, and at one point on the opposite side of the church from where I started, during communion.

I sat next to a priest friend, Isaac, and he very kindly helped me play off the very loud gasp, and look around with me when we very correctly remembered the places to stand up and sit down, but were the only ones.

There are parts of how to sit in church that over the last 3 years have just sort of died within me. Those parts, I think, that died, those are the parts that maybe didn’t mean as much to me. Those parts mean a lot to a lot of people, but I guess the decorum and expected behaviors, I lost those in the long break.

What survived this time are the parts that are deeply meaningful to me. Communal prayer, community, communion itself, and a deeply interesting and thought provoking sermon.

Bishop Gates preached a lovely sermon on the tendency in church to “put things back where we found them” and how we should maybe reconsider this, as we return to life post-pandemic.

I think his idea of considering what needs to come back, and what doesn’t, I think the Bishop’s question is a very important one to ponder, and it tied in directly to what was already on my mind. This line, said by the angels, why do you seek the living among the dead?

Said another way, how are we embracing the world as it is today, rather than as it was 2 years ago?

The world has changed since 2020. A lot. Early on in the pandemic we all remembered the childhood lesson of the importance of washing our hands, and now. After a few weeks of social distancing, many of us remembered the importance of being able to hug the people we love. And, I think we all learned the valuable lesson of why we shouldn’t wait until the last roll to restock on toilet paper.

We also learned that zoom, while it isn’t the same as being together, it’s not so bad, and allows us to feel connected while being physically apart. For me personally, the idea of church meetings that happen after 5 pm in the church, died, and has been happily replaced by zoom meetings instead.

For a great many of us with white skin, we witnessed, perhaps for the first time, the violence continually being perpetrated against our siblings of color, with the death of George Floyd, Ahmed Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020. Our naivety at how the world works, and that just because the world works for us one way, doesn’t mean it works that way for everyone, that naivety died in front of a store in Minneapolis, or on the side of a street in suburban Georgia.

Throughout Lent we’ve been on an intentional journey, considering the various different paths that we are on, collectively and as a community. Today, we find ourselves on the path to resurrection.

And the path to resurrection begins when something dies. It’s often very startling, to find ourselves on the path to resurrection, trying to bring forth something new and beautiful or meaningful from our grief and despair.

When the unnamed women arrived at the tomb in the early morning hours of what would soon be known as Easter Sunday, they discovered an empty tomb where Christ’s body was supposed to be. The confronted with two angels the women very quickly realized they were squarely on the path to resurrection.

They expected to encounter death and sadness, because the path they had been on for years with Jesus had ended with his gruesome murder. The path they had been on took them through many different places, to see many different people. Most of whom cheered, and some of whom chased them out of town.

The path they had walked following Christ had turned sharply when it arrived in Jerusalem. Where there was betrayal by a friend. Violence. Grief. Hopelessness. And then surprise. Confusion. Terror. There was remembering, elation, then rejection by their closest colleagues.

Soon there would be reunion, joy, celebration, redemption.

It is from the pit of their grief, the most raw and heartbroken, disillusioned and confused that most of the disciples would ever be. It is from that place of utter uncertainty, that Christ is reborn, and they see with their own eyes who he really is. That all of the outward parts didn’t matter. What matters is the message and the love of God for creation that God would take on a human body, live a life, die a violent death, for us.

As a society, we are in a similar place to the disciples as we emerge a bit from out pandemic induced isolation. And I find myself curious about what life will look like next year. What will die, what will grow in its place, what will go back to where it was before?

Church, as a whole, not just our little green church, church is facing a similar question right now. Who are we, and who will we be going forward?

After sitting empty and mostly unused for a long time, life is slowly returning to our sanctuaries. Coffee hours are slowly resuming. Communion is being offered again. We’re even having an egg hunt today!

As I was considering the line, why do you seek the living among the dead, and holding that next to my own experience of forgetting how to just “be” in church, I found myself considering a very difficult question. And it’s a question that I would like all of us to ponder; not right this very second, because I’m talking and I like being the center of attention. But later, please, everyone, consider: why do we come to church?

Why are we at church, right now?

I don’t mean this to be a negative question, truly. Because, all of us are here. So I know there’s a reason and I bet it’s a good one.

But why are we here?

I would like everyone to consider this, whether you are here every week, or once a year.

I’ve heard from a few people that they come to St. Paul’s because of the community. And we do community very well around here. This is a church of people who just flat out cares for each other. And it is a beautiful thing.

But community, even loving community, that can happen anywhere. Why here? Why part of a faith community?

I imagine there are seekers and those who question. Some who appreciate the tradition; some of us who want to learn or to be challenged. For many generations people went to church because of a sense of obligation to something ineffable or to something as concrete as family. Church also offers an opportunity to connect with members of other generations; I imagine there are even some folks who go to church because they want to make sure they get in to heaven.

I pondered this question for myself as well. Why did I decide as a young adult that it was important for me go to church?

I think, for me, the answer was that I was seeking. I was seeking a connection to God and to myself. I was seeking to figure out how to follow God. I did not expect following God to lead me to the priesthood. Quite honestly, if I had known, I might not have done it. This can be a tough gig.

I was seeking God. Seeking wholeness, health, peace, justice, hope, mercy, liberation, forgiveness, redemption, myself.

         I think I’m still seeking most of those things. And, those are the things that were shared with me from within the St. Paul’s community about what we’re all journeying to as well.

         These are the things that I believe are what really matters at the heart of life and of church. The things that give our lives meaning, and give our faith grounding and purpose.

         These are the things that will survive the parts of the church that are dying. These are the things that will survive in a post pandemic world that looks similar and different to the world before.

         These are the things, love, hope, mercy, justice, peace, belonging, wholeness, liberation, forgiveness, redemption, these are the things that Christ taught us. Those are the words that echoed through the disciples as they found the tomb empty, and as they tried to decide what to do next.

         Friends, today is Easter. Whether you believe in a bodily resurrection or not, today marks the anniversary of something amazing happening. Something that forever changed the lives of a few individuals, and those few individuals would go on to change the world.

         Those few individuals spreading a message of a man who offered them belonging and purpose are why all of us are here today.

         We are at an inflection point in our society, in the world, and in the church. These issues are bigger than ourselves, but also, we have to start thinking about who we are as a community, and who we want to be going forward.

         I think, honestly, that starts with each of us considering why we go to church. And then, why do we go to this church?

         There are more things for us to consider, but that’s enough for today, I think.

         The really bad part about not having a solid introduction is that I don’t have something to circle back to so you all can be impressed at how well I tied everything neatly back together.

         But maybe that’s the point right now. We’re figuring it out. We’re all seeking the living among the dead, or the dead among the living, or we aren’t sure what’s dead and what’s alive.

         So maybe it’s time we all take a deep breath, and just be grateful that we get to be here today, together, for whatever reason.

         Let us seek what gives us life; what helps us live. Let’s seek what gives us purpose and belonging. Let’s seek to love, as Christ taught us.

Amen

Palm Sunday – The Journey to Jerusalem

         I really love Spring. Not so much the pollen. But, the sunshine coming around a bit more often, the green of the plants emerging from the ground, the colors of the flowers offering these bright spots among the gray backdrop of the retreating winter.

         And. Baseball.

         I love baseball. Opening day is massively important in my world, usually reserved as it’s own high holy day in my personal liturgical calendar. Though, when my personal high holy day falls this close to Holy Week, I am unable to take the day off to watch all of the baseball.   

         Usually, on Opening Day (which was Thursday), I am filled with the optimism and hope of a goldfish, or a golden doodle: completely forgetting what has happened in the recent past and so excited for new things to be discovered.

         This year though, my optimism is a bit lackluster. Usually opening day brings hope, and the idea that anything can happen. But for me, my beloved team, the 2019 World Champion Washington Nationals, hope is a fleeting idea. You see, my beloved team isn’t expected to be particularly good.

         We might actually be particularly bad. We’re in what’s known as a rebuilding year. Which is quite common after winning a World Series.

         It’s a strange feeling for me, as I celebrated opening day, while also having this sinking sense of dread that the season is actually going to be difficult for me to watch at times, compared to the way I have devoured games, even when we were mediocre.

         Palm Sunday kind of feels the same to me – filled with hope and also quite sad. It’s one of the most paradoxical days in the liturgical calendar. We start by waving our Palms around like we just don’t care. Welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem with a raucous parade.

         But then, we are reminded of what Jesus is walking towards as we read the Passion narrative.

         As I have been reflecting on Palm Sunday this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what must have been happening inside Jesus.

         Let’s reflect for a moment on what Jesus might have been thinking or experiencing as he took the last several steps on the path to Jerusalem.

         Jesus and the disciples have just left a complicated visit to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The early steps on the way from Bethany to Jerusalem were probably solemn, or at least quiet.

         The walk actually wouldn’t have been as long as what they were used to walking. Several hours, maybe a day. Bethany was an immediate suburb of Jerusalem, kind of like Cambridge to Boston; not a long journey to set out on.

         And Jesus knew as he started out on that journey he was walking towards his own death.

         That sense of “what am I doing?” or at least that thought, must be repeating through his mind with each passing kilometer.

         But as they reached the outskirts of Jerusalem, the streets began to be lined with people. At first a few here and there, then more, and more until Jesus and the disciples are surrounded by the throngs of people who are welcoming their fellow Israelites back to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover.

         And all most all of those people would have known who Jesus is by then. This was probably a pretty common scene for Jesus and the disciples when they arrived into a new town or region. They were Rock stars!

         This sense of dread would have been joined by the joy and excitement being pointed towards him as Jesus continued his march and eventually hopped on to the borrowed colt.

         One of the more paradoxical parts of being human, to me, is that we can feel completely contradictory feelings at the same time.

         Fear and excitement. Dread and joy. Love and sadness.

         Jesus was probably feeling all of the feels. It is moments like this that show how fully human Jesus really was. Fully God, fully human, marching intentionally towards a profoundly human death, while the gathered crowds cheer and make him feel loved and wanted. Like royalty. Like a god.

         The next time we hear the crowd they will be cheering again, but for his crucifixion. A reminder of how quickly everything can change. And how quickly things changed for Jesus. And, how awkward and difficult this must have been: to know what he was walking towards, and walk intentionally towards his violent death anyway.

         This path to Jerusalem is, to me, a reminder that in order for something to be resurrected, it must first die.

         His death causing another round of complex feelings: sadness at death, joy at resurrection.

         This week, I invite everyone to sit with the idea of complex emotions, and contradictory emotions. Especially if over the course of our individual Lenten journeys we have come across those contradictory emotions.

         I have definitely stumbled across some complicated and contradictory emotions on my Lenten journey considering redemption, what that means, what it means to me, and why this is so important in my life. Encountering difficult things is part of the journey. Faith happens when we walk intentionally towards those things, especially the things we don’t want to walk towards.

         A lot happens in our faith between today and Sunday. Please, everyone, be intentional this week. Consider what, if anything, this week, Holy Week, means in your life and your faith. Sit with the paradoxical emotions of fear and joy; confusion and clarity; love and betrayal.

Amen

The Journey to Discipleship

         When I preach, I try to be very intentional to share where I am in the process of whatever it is I’m preaching on. This can be a difficult and fine line to walk in preaching a sermon in which you are using yourself as an example rather than preaching about yourself. But there is a line that differentiates a sermon about God from a sermon about yourself. It can be a difficult line to walk. I don’t always stay on the God side of the line. But I try.

What I’m trying to show when I do this is that just because I’m looked at as being the one who has it all figured out, I’m still doing the work myself. And that sure, I’m the priest, I’m the pro, I don’t have to do this work, but I’m doing it anyway. Because that’s what God calls me to do. That’s what it means to be on the journey I’m on, to becoming an apostle of Christ, someone who spreads the message of God. As opposed to a disciple, who is someone who follows God (often spreading the message through behavior and belief). Both are important, and just slightly different. Everyone is called to be a disciple, not everyone is called to be an apostle. Paul is also trying to show he’s walking the path to be an apostle, even though he doesn’t have to in this section of Philippians.

What Paul and I are trying to show is that this winding path, this incredible journey to discipleship, has many distractions. What we do with those distractions, those missteps, those times when we do what we think we’re supposed to do rather than what God is calling us to do; those are part of the adventure of being fully human, and what we do with those distractions and decisions, matters, a lot.

But, it’s a choice to be on the path. It’s a choice we all must make and make every day.

         Every day I make the choice to follow Jesus; choosing his teachings over what society says I can or should do. It is genuinely amazing to me that a man who has been dead for so very long, is so deeply influential in my life. How he has encouraged me to be different than who society tells me to be. Paul, the Disciples, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, everyone who followed Jesus around or who has taken the time to truly get to know what Christ taught, it changes a person.

         But, even within Christianity, there are those who let society influence what they determine Jesus is saying and teaching. Ironically, at least to me, these tend to be the literalist and conservative readers of Scripture.

         The very people who read Scripture as being literally true, are the ones who are most allowing society and cultural expectations to influence how they understand Scripture. Because, they don’t separate how they read the text with what the text meant when it was first written or said. There needs to be an intentional effort to unpack our modern lenses and our personal lens and expectations from how the interpretation of Scripture.

         It’s easy and tempting to fall into this trap, this trap of being lazy with our faith. Of assuming that what Jesus taught is what we want too. Of reading Scripture to support the way of life we want to live.

         Especially when we lazily read Gospel stories like the powerful one we have today, and we see that ending line “you will always have the poor among you but you won’t always have me.” It is so easy to read that line and think you can focus on individual desires instead of caring for one another.

         But that isn’t, in any way, shape, or form, what Jesus was saying. Instead, Jesus was calling us, and the disciples, back from the red herring of helping the poor. The poor and marginalized were an integral part of Christ’s ministry. If Jesus was saying that the cost of this extravagant and seemingly unnecessary gift didn’t matter, there’s a reason.

         Look for it. It’s an important landmark along this path.

         So I want to set the scene for you a bit.

         Lazarus has just died in Chapter 11. Dead, dead; the corpse had started to stink, been embalmed and in a tomb for 4 days. Lazarus is dead. Martha was pissed at Jesus because Jesus was too busy doing other things to come save Lazarus before he died, but still faithful. Mary was heartbroken and a bit disillusioned, but still faithful to Christ.

         Jesus went to Bethany, and he wept at the loss of his friend. Then he stood up, in the midst of a crowd gathered to mourn and see what Jesus would do.

         The air would still have carried the scent of the embalming perfume that Mary and Martha would have lovingly covered Lazarus’s body with. But as Jesus demanded the tomb be opened, that perfume would have been overpowered by the stench of death the perfume was supposed to cover.

          With a prayer and a shout, Lazarus was no longer dead.

         People don’t come back from the dead. No one is supposed to have the power to raise someone from the dead. And Lazarus was dead. Until he wasn’t.

         This immediately took the ruling elites from concerned about Jesus to certain Jesus was a threat to the established order who needed to be eliminated. A plot was made to arrest and execute Jesus at the next opportunity by the Chief Priests and the Pharisees.

         Jesus sets off from Bethany to Ephraim to be in the wilderness for a while right before Passover. Having what is, basically, a Lenten period, a period of preparation for his pending murder and resurrection. He stays in the Wilderness until 6 days before Passover. When preparations for Passover would have begun.

         And then we get to this scene in the Gospel today. What we don’t know in this little snippet is that people are gathering around to see Jesus, and to see Lazarus, because honestly, it’s not every day that you get to see a man who was raised from the dead. The awe at Lazarus would also mark him for death by the same chief priests. Though, we don’t know from this text if Lazarus is ever executed. Based on how many of the disciples and apostles would be executed, which is nearly all of them, it is safe to assume that Lazarus was executed.

         But for right now, he’s reclining at dinner with Jesus and the disciples, while Martha cooks, and Mary anoints Jesus’s feet.

         What we miss from just reading this story with modern eyes, is, well we miss several things.

         But a huge thing we miss is the smell of this perfume or nard, the most direct translation is actual unguent, this smell would have been one that the original readers and hearers knew was a smell of death. And they would have been able to smell the unguent.

         This was the smell of the ritual of preparing a body for burial. Having the benefit of knowing the story that is to come, we know that Mary is anointing Jesus, in some way preparing him for what will happen in 6 days.

         But the gathered Disciples, they didn’t seem to understand what was happening. What they saw was a woman, a wealthy woman, wasting precious and expensive ointment for the dead on a perfectly living human.

         So they chastised her. We only have Judas chastising her, but even if he’s the only one who said anything, the others thought it. The others wondered why she wasted a year’s wages to anoint a living human as though he were dead.

         I think, often, we get distracted by arguments about money, because so many of us think about money so often.

         For example, a few years ago, when I was serving in Virginia, I had to go to their Diocesan Convention. A big issue that year was whether or not to hire an additional suffragan Bishop. They already had one, but also utilized a nearly fulltime retired Bishop, and quite honestly, there was enough work in Virginia for a 3rd full time Bishop. It’s the biggest Diocese.

         A group of older male priests, all White, straight, and over 50, stood up to say they were very worried about hiring, basically, me: a younger priest to become the suffragan Bishop. Younger nearly always means more liberal. Though they didn’t say that, what  they said this was they didn’t want to be responsible for paying another Bishop for 30 or 40 years.

         It was so obvious to me that what they were afraid of was hiring a young liberal person who would make changes they didn’t like; actually, who would continue making changes they didn’t like, because they already thought the then Bishop, Shannon Johnston, who was from Alabama, was more liberal than they wanted. And it was Bishop Shannon who would choose the Suffragan.

They made it seem like an economic argument. But it wasn’t.

I talked to one of my colleagues, and she, much to my surprise, only heard the economic argument. And that ended up being persuasive enough for the proposal for another Suffragan Bishop to fail.

I think it’s because the money argument played into the ideas that as a culture, we are predisposed to hear and understand. But it’s a red herring.

Red herrings can be remarkably persuasive.

It was persuasive that day in Virginia, and it was persuasive that day in Bethany.

Bishop Shannon, just so everyone knows, was a good man. He was forced out of Virginia, by that same group of people who were disappointed that he had the audacity to be at all liberal. And his replacement will be one of 4 straight, White, men over 50. Which is all that is on the slate of finalists for the next Bishop of Virginia.

This Gospel story makes it seem like the argument is being made that money shouldn’t be wasted on silly things like anointing a man for burial who is alive and in great health.

But really, the disciples are upset at the intimacy of this moment between Jesus and Mary; they don’t like the reminder of death; and, they knew danger was afoot.

And this moment, this anointing, this smell, it gave a visual and olfactory reminder that death was surrounding them; circling closer and closer to them all the time. Death was literally in the air.

But rather than talk about the real issue, the story blames Judas for being greedy.

Judas, interestingly, is also the only one whose motivations are discussed. We don’t know what Lazarus is thinking or feeling, having been brought back from the dead and now reclining at the table with the man who resurrected him. We don’t know what the disciples are thinking about that very thing either, nor what is stirring in their hearts as the experience this moment.

We don’t know what Martha is thinking, as she works to serve, at least not in this accounting of the story. We don’t know what Mary is thinking, why she is moved to this action, what her motivation is.

The story leaves all that out, and instead has us chasing this red herring, about Judas and money. Focusing on foretelling the betrayal, which is a major plot point to come.

But without directly mentioning it, this gospel story also shows that being a disciple doesn’t require being perfect. Disciples make mistakes, get things wrong, don’t even have to be particularly loyal.

I struggled a lot to come up with what this sermon would be on the journey towards. But honestly, I think it’s a combination of the Journey to being fully human with the journey to discipleship.

Because the journey to being fully human means getting distracted, getting it wrong, making bad choices, and then learning from those mistakes and bad choices. When we combine the journey to being fully human to the journey to becoming a disciple, then we see that what really matters isn’t the bad choices we may have made, what matters is what we do as a result.

As we sit here today, wherever we are, it’s important to remember that we don’t have to do this work. We don’t have to. Culture says were good. Even I’ve told you this: God loves you, as you are. You don’t have to do anything to earn that love, it’s there.

But, all of us, if we sit still long enough and listen deeply enough, each of us know that we are called to be something more than what this culture says we are supposed to be.

In order to do that, in order to be that, we have to be intentional. We have to look at our lives and our choices, we have to apologize when we hurt people, and we have to not make the same mistake twice if we can help it.

We have to look deeper than what is written on the page. We have to live into these words. And that means more than just reading them. That means living them. Living those words into existence.

It means making decisions based not on cultural expectations but doing what we know is right. Avoiding what is not quite right, in favor of what God is calling us to do. Doing what Jesus has taught us to do.

It’s hard. Faith, at least not the faith taught by Jesus, is not supposed to be easy. This is hard. And it is so easy to fall into the trap of not doing the work, because, at least for us, we don’t have to.

This week, as we approach the end of Lent, as we enter the period of preparation, I invite us all to consider what we’re avoiding doing? Changing? Looking deeply at? What, or where, is our faith calling us that we don’t want to go?

Becoming a Christian, genuinely embodying what these teachings are, they changed me. And made me a much better human. Not a perfect human, but better. And these teaching offer me the courage and support to keep looking at those dark places, to keep looking beyond the red herrings, to embody what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Choosing to follow Jesus is a choice I make every day.

If you haven’t made that choice I wonder and encourage you to consider what you need in order to be ready? What do you need to go from observer to follower? From member of the crowd, intrigued to see what miracle Jesus might preform next, to disciple, gathered at the table, sitting at the feet of Christ, even as the smell of death begins to fill the air?

What will need to die in 10 days to be resurrected within you in Easter morning?

Amen

The Journey to Becoming

         There’s a story I remember, very well, from the first time I ever preached in front of a full congregation on a Sunday. And it has absolutely nothing to do with what I preached on, and honestly, I have no idea what I preached on that day.

         A group of my friends came to see me preach, and they kind of clumped together in the area right in front of the pulpit at St. John’s Georgetown. I preached my little sermon, and my friends beamed at me, it was lovely.

         Service went on and it was soon time to pass the peace. And my great friend Jack Jenkins turned around to pass the peace to the person behind him, and he said “Peace be with you…Madam Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.”

         This would happen a couple of times, including once to my friend Madeline, who squealed a little.

         When you live in DC and you are an Episcopalian (or a Methodist), sometimes you go to church with famous political figures. Michelle Obama once winked and smiled at my Mom, I met George HW Bush and Barbara Bush at church.

         Usually, those meetings are just in passing though. Really fun, great stories, but a small moment in time. Things we remember, but they probably don’t

         But Madeleine Albright was a member of St. John’s, so I interacted with her on a regular basis. She was always kind and remembered my name.

         And then I started preaching.

         She made a point of making sure that I knew she was paying attention, and to offer me sincere encouragement. She understood the role that she played in the lives of young women my age, and she used her position to be kind, and lift me up.

         I preached the Sunday after the Paris shootings, and she hugged me. I preached a racial justice sermon the Sunday after the Dallas police shootings, and she put an arm around me and said “Cara, you did a good job preaching on a very difficult topic. Keep it up.”; that moment is filed away in my brain and brought out for those moments when ministry is hard.

         The thing about Madeleine Albright that I think is important to mention today though is that she understood how to use power in a way that is guided by love.

         Love, as we have discussed once or twice since I arrived here, isn’t some passive thing. It’s a verb, that drives us into action.

Love can motivate us to do all sorts of things. It motivates Mom’s to lift cars or fight of bears to protect their children. Love of country is why the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are fighting right now.

         Madeleine Albright used love to form the basis of her foreign policy, which centered around meeting the basic needs of people around the world, rather than using political influence to get more political influence. She was not a perfect human, nor is her record as Secretary of State pristine, and I will not say otherwise. But she was very good at understanding that her role was to, whenever possible, lift others up rather than tearing them down.

         Madeline did her best to be guided by love. I think that’s why she was so supportive and encouraging to me. And let’s be honest, she didn’t have to be supportive or encouraging to me. Just getting to say that I’ve preached to Madeline Albright is a good story on it’s own.

         But she made sure to tell me I had done well, that I had given her things to think about, to make sure I knew she thought I would be good at this.

         We should all be intentional to make sure we tell people they are doing well, especially if they are younger in our field. Offer support, rather than just ways and advice to be “successful.”

         Most of us have to find ways of becoming who we are, rather than who we are expected to be, rather than having a simple path laid before us. We must become, rather than be born a finished product.

         Inspired by Madam Secretary and the way that she helped and encouraged me to become the priest I am, and a person who is willing to lay her heart bare for the things she loves, I offer this installment of our ongoing series: the journey to becoming is long. There are MANY distractions along the way. And maybe it’s ok to be a bit distracted, as long as we come back to the path.

         I say that last part because that’s what happens in the parable of the prodigal son, in several different ways.

         When we look at this parable with modern eyes we lose a fair amount of the intricate societal details that makes this parable so interesting. We lost more when we simply cast the father as God, and then cast ourselves as one of the two sons.

         And we lose even more when we fail to put this parable in it’s scriptural context and historical context.

         Scripturally, this story comes as a response to the grumblings of a few Pharisees, and follows the parables of the lost sheep and of the poor widow and the lost coin.

         This week I read an article by a Lutheran pastor, Niveen Sarras, who is a Palestinian Christian (though she is now at a church in Wisconsin).

         And I would like to share a few things she said. Because she understands the culture of modern-day Palestine, and the way that modern day Palestine reflects the ancient world captured in this Parable. In the ancient world, and today, Palestine is an honor/shame culture. How you behave reflects not just on you, but also on your entire family. Your successes are shared and lift everyone. Your failures bring embarrassment and shame for yourself and your entire family.

Reverend Sarras tells us that the younger son, in looking at his father and saying “give me my part of my inheritance”, this son was saying, essentially, “I wish you were dead; you are dead to me.”

         By doing this, the son ostracized himself from his family and his culture. He would have had to leave the region. So he did. And his behavior in the foreign country only brings further shame on himself and his father.

         He leads a lifestyle that left him deemed him unclean, and a total failure. Broke. Far worse off than he started. The son then shames himself, and his father, further, by becoming desperate and feeding pigs to survive. Pigs, let us remember, were unclean animal in his culture. Basically, this son has become as lowly as a person can become.

         He goes home, a broken, broke, and shamed filled person. He’s humbled, penitent, and repents. He physically returns to his father, hopeful to be given even a job that will allow him to eat, not seeking forgiveness.

         Most parents at the time would have cut ties and turned their back once a child behaved like this. That is even what the older brother is expecting – it’s what society said to do. It’s still what society says to do.

         Instead, the father runs to his son. Systematic theologian NT Wright explains that senior figures in a family or community do not run; it’s undignified. But this father runs to his son. Embraces him. And then hears the son out.

         He hears the humility. He hears the change.

         And the father’s response is to welcome his son back into his household. Without an inheritance, but with love and security. A secure present, from which the son can try to build a future for himself.

         It’s floated around a bit that the message of Jesus is radically counter cultural. And this parable is a prime example of why.

         People hearing his words would have been astonished at many actions throughout this parable, the demand of an inheritance, the squandering and dissolute living, working with pigs, coming home, being embraced, the father forgiving all and welcoming him home.

         All of the parable of the prodigal son is radically counter cultural. It takes societal norms and expectations and turns them on their heads. And Jesus still demands that we be radically counter cultural when society isn’t living up to the standards that God requires.

         What God requires of us is to be accepting of others, and where they are in life. And, to help them up, rather than using them as stepping stones. In the journey to becoming, it’s important that we not hurt others as we are becoming who we are. We also need to lift others up, especially as we have been lifted.

         We also need to be willing to listen to people when they say we have hurt them, made them feel unsafe, or unwelcome.

         We need to be willing to listen in order to find places where we can be more embracing of where love is pointing us, and more aware of the places where love is pointing us in a different direction than societal or cultural expectations.

         If I were to try to pull away a single meaning from the parable of the prodigal son, it would probably be that this is a story about becoming, and then accepting who a person has become, especially when they become something different than what we expected. Sometimes this means being accepting of someone who society says you shouldn’t be.

         The son did some seriously wrong things; and eventually, did some serious growing up. He admitted he was wrong, in many ways and on many levels. He accepted that he had made mistakes, he owned those mistakes, and requested that he be welcomed back into relationship in a very different way; because the idea of being accepted back as a member of his father’s household was, to him and to society, closed off.

Instead, the father accepted him with open arms. And he did so before the apology came, but, and this is important, he still left space for that apology. He didn’t say it was all ok. But he did allow for a relationship to exist again where it was thought to be dead.

The father accepted that there was a past and that his son was ready to be different.

Is this a perfect, neat parable with clear and apparent correlations in modern life, no.

But, I think continues to be pretty common that society instructs us to behave in a way that is dismissive or harmful, rather than uplifting and supportive. Society tells us to do what we have to do to be successful. Society tells us it’s okay to dismiss or tarnish or use others to get to where we want to be.

But in the journey of becoming, and of allowing others to become as well, we cannot put our own ambitions above the humanity of others.

We are on a constant journey of becoming, and so is everyone else. It’s not an either/or situation, at least it isn’t when we are listening to the Spirit and being guided by love.

And when we get to where we’re going, or when our journey of becoming becomes less about where we are going and more about utilizing what we have learned and become along the way; when we get to that place we need to use what we have to help others along their paths.

Madeleine Albright did that for me. She put an arm around me and helped me in the early days of becoming a person who is following the call of God. My path hasn’t lead to being an ambassador or the Secretary of State, but she encouraged me to enter to a male dominated field, and showed me how I can support others by how she supported me.

There are things that each of us can do to help ourselves and others as they journey through life. I just sometimes wonder, and I invite each of us to wonder as well, why this is such a rare thing? It’s so impactful. Why doesn’t it happen more often? Is there something we can do, say, offer, to help someone else along their path?

The journey to Communion…

I dislike it when a show or movie ends and there’s something major that isn’t explained or resolved. I really don’t care for it when a movie ends but is clearly setting up a second or third movie, like the second StarWars film, Empire Strikes Back, which was clearly only setting up the 3rd movie, rather than being able to stand on it’s own.

I just prefer to know what happens!

And I have to tell you, that I don’t know what happens to the fig tree in this Gospel, really bothers me! Did the gardener save the tree? Was the tree sick? Did something happen to the tree to hurt it’s soil or chances at thriving and growing fruit? If it was replaced, did the tree that followed it thrive? We don’t know!

We are left to fill in that blank. The importance of the story is that things should bear fruit, and it’s okay to tend the soil and help the tree grow. But it does need to grow fruit. Otherwise it’s just taking up space.

This has nothing to do with anything for my sermon today. I just kept thinking it every time I read the Gospel this week. And if you’re thinking “well, just keep reading!” I tried that. And this is the end of the parable. There is nothing beyond “If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Well, the Gospel has something to do with what we’re going to talk about today, but not the part where the parable just drops off into nothing-ness, nor the need to bear fruit.

I want to talk about ground today.

Specifically, what makes ground Holy.

I was texting a bit with Gini, my mentor priest this week, and I told her I couldn’t figure out what to preach on. All sorts of ideas and thoughts were swirling around me, but I couldn’t quite grab on to anything specifically, or anything that I could realistically talk about for 12-15 minutes.

To which Gini replied, “preach on Holy ground. And when Holy ground gets turned into battle ground, how do we turn it back.”

Gini was referring to Ukraine, and we’ll get there. But I’d like to start in Israel.

I was fortunate enough to spend a month in Israel on an archeological dig 7 years ago, with a group of classmates from seminary. I was so excited to go. It took a day to get there, which is a long time for an extrovert with ADHD to be in a confined space. But I made it, I got there, and I was so excited.

I was so excited to be standing on the Holy Ground; the place where all these stories I had read in Scripture took place. The dig was in Yezerel, which is named after Queen Jezebel, and was an expansion of a dig that had previously found what was believed to be Naboth’s vineyard from 1 King’s 21.

On the first day we took a tour of the vineyard, and as we were walking back to the new dig site, I heard this BANG BANG BANG.

I was there with a lot of people from the suburbs, so I was one of a handful who knew to hit the ground of the group of 20. Most of them didn’t know the sound a gun makes when it goes off very close to you.

And this was a very big gun that was fired from somewhere nearby. The tour guide said it was just static from walking under powerlines. We found out a few days later that it was a rocket attack, launched from nearby and into the Gaza Strip.

Most nights I could hear fighter jets flying overhead. Military helicopters were frequent as well. There were air raid drills, and every single member of the military, and every police officer, even the antiquities police, carried a semiautomatic weapon. The cities, the holy cities, were also very different from what I expected.

After a couple of days I felt heartbroken, and disappointed, like I had been personally let down; and I couldn’t figure out why.

As I prayed that night a poem came to mind.

How to be a poet, by Wendell Berry.

Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill—more of each than you have—inspiration, work, growing older, patience, for patience joins time to eternity.

Any readers who like your poems, doubt their judgment.   

Breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air.   

Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensioned life; stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in.   

There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.   

Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.

         It was one line, one line that would play through my head for the rest of my days in Israel, nearly everywhere we went: There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.   

         Israel felt desecrated to me. A holy place, a place where God had walked, and the holiness had been replaced with the very human interests of power and money and control. These sacred places, the holiest of sites, had been replaced with an almost Disney like curated experiences, designed to make you feel like you have been somewhere special, but all that makes it special was stripped away, sold, and wielded for the benefit of a few.

         I know that some people go to Israel and have amazing experiences. I did not. There were parts of that trip that were amazing. But there were many, many parts that were not.

         When Gini texted me that I should preach on Holy ground, this was the story that came to mind, instead of Ukraine.

         And so I started thinking about what makes land Holy. Does God have to speak to me from a burning bush for it to be Sacred ground? Is it prayer that makes ground holy? Is there a specific action by a person who has taken holy orders that makes land Holy? Is it that all things and all places are holy?

         Is a sacrifice required to make a place holy?

As I heard stories and news reports from Ukraine, I wondered if the blood and tears of the innocent make ground holy, or maybe when the blood and tears of the innocent are mixed with the blood and tears of soldiers, which makes ground holy?

         I decided, ultimately, the easiest to define and conjure the words to explain is that what makes ground holy is a collective or communal action or belief.

         It is this communal action that I wish to linger upon today. For purposes of our sermon series this installment is “the journey to communion is long. There are many distractions along the way. Don’t be [distracted].”

         Communion felt fitting this week because we are resuming communion today, albeit via a teapot, and for the first time in two years, it feels like this foray into communion we might be able to do for a while.

         Everything has felt so strange, so unsettled, over the last few years. Communion is central to why I feel called to be a priest, and to not be able to celebrate communion for over a year was difficult. It made me reimagine my calling, broaden what it meant to be a priest, to me.

         Communion, the sacrament, has been celebrated in some form since the earliest church. By sharing in this same meal today, we are united, we are brought into communion, with every single other Christian who has ever taken communion.

         That’s a beautiful thought to me.

         It’s easy and beautiful, for me, to think of myself as linked, as in community, with millions of Christians over the last 2,000 years.

         It’s easy and beautiful for me, and probably for most of us, to think of ourselves as being in community and sharing a communal experience with our fellow members of St. Paul’s.

         It’s harder, for me and for most of us, I think, to think of ourselves as being in communion, as part of a human community, with people who don’t look like us or share our geography.

It’s hard to remember we’re in community with the 5.7 million Syrian refugees, fleeing a drought so bad their options were to stay and die, or have a slight chance at living if they left their homes.

         It’s harder to think of ourselves as in communion with the 4 million Yemeni refugees, fleeing political persecution and instability at a level we can’t even begin to comprehend.

         It’s hard to consider ourselves as in community with the climate change refugees who are amassed in squalid conditions at the US boarder, or those separated from their families, imprisoned and put in cages.

         It’s hard to imagine that we are all part of the same community of humans with Ukrainian civilians and soldiers. With Russian soldiers. It’s hard to see how a war, half a world away, has anything to do with us, beyond rising gas and oil prices.

         And yet, we are.

         It’s easy to dismiss, or avoid thinking about, things that are happening halfway around the world as being things that don’t impact us.

         Whether Christian or not, we’re all humans. When we dismiss the humanity of people who aren’t in our immediate orbit, or who don’t look and act like us, it becomes easy to forget that we are all part of the communal experience of being human.

         As I read the Gospel this week I kept thinking about how Jesus was taking a common belief at the time, that violence and tragedy was somehow a punishment from God, and turning it on its head.

         How those who gathered at Jesus’s feet that day were complaining that Pilate had ruined their sacrifice, by killing Galileans and mixing their blood with the ritual sacrifices. And Jesus said to them: you are no better than those who were killed.

         Friends, we are no better than those who are fleeing for their lives. We are no better than those whose blood is running through the streets of Kyiv, of Mariupol, of Odessa.

         We are no better or worse than the soldiers who are following commands, than the officers giving those commands.

         We’ve lost this sense of community, it has been replaced by this us versus them mentality. Where I must protect what is mine, claim what I want to be mine, and demand that others acknowledge my claim.

         And if we think, for a second, that we are not equally as culpable as the Russians, I ask this: do you know whose land we are on right now? I preached on it a little while ago, so I hope everyone remembers we are on the land of the Wampanoag tribe.

         Colonizers showed up with a meaningless piece of paper, signed by a king who meant nothing to the people who lived here, and they came armed to the tooth. They took this land, just like Putin wants to take Ukraine now: because they wanted to and they could.

         We stand in communion with the Christians who took this land from the people who lived here, Christians who believed God gave them and their King the right to do so.

         If you remember way back to the beginning of this sermon, I figured out what to preach on from a conversation with my friend and mentor, Gini. She suggested I “preach on Holy ground. And when Holy ground gets turned into battle ground, how do we turn it back.”

         But friends, this isn’t going to be one of those sermons where everything gets neatly wrapped up. Because I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to make desecrated ground holy again.

         Honestly, I’m not even sure I know what Holy ground means right now. Is this it? Can we make this ground Holy?

         Is it…

The journey to…the destination?

       So two things kind of banged up against each other this week for me. The first is that, quite honestly, my ADHD has been extra bad this week. I’m slogging through, but it’s been extra hard to do certain things, one of which is complex thinking. I’ve been very literal this week, and only able to focus on what’s in front of me. That’s the first thing. Nothing for anyone to fix, I’m on it. Brains are complex.

       The second thing is that the readings for this week are kind of hard and for whatever reason, this week they were also a bit uninspiring, to me. Every time I read them all I could see was a very intense, academic, or exegetical sermon. And those are great, but they aren’t generally my style. They certainly weren’t what I was capable of preparing this week.

       This combined with the very literal thinking week I’m having, left me drawing a big ole’ blank about preaching.

       I debated talking about Ukraine, because a number of folks have shared with me this week about the fear of going to war, and what this uncertain time brings up. But honestly, I’m too afraid for that right now myself, so I can’t. I will. I just can’t yet.

In search for inspiration, I decided to just read the bulletin and see if anything jumped out at me. And thankfully, something did!

       Quite quickly, actually. Our opening sentence threw itself off the page at me.

       “From wherever you have come, with whatever you bring, you are welcome here.”

I say these words when we start this service. You all have been saying it as part of the service for much longer than I’ve been here. It’s a beautiful line, though, I’m afraid, one that has become something we say, rather than something we stop to think about. “From wherever you have come, with whatever you bring, you are welcome here.”

       Before starting at St. Paul’s I actually had on a business card my version of this, which is: “God loves you, exactly as you are, for all that you are.”

       As we dive into our Lenten journeys, I think it’s important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with any of us. God loves us, all of us, as we are, for all that we are, with all that we bring. And, God welcomes us, offers to draw us near, surrounds and warms us with the Holy Spirit, just like the mother hen does for her chicks in the Gospel today.

       In sermons like what I’ve been preaching lately it’s easy to hear that you have to change, you have to be different, in order to be worthy of God’s love.

       But I want to say, clearly, we don’t have to change to be worthy of God’s love. God loves us, exactly as we are, no matter the things we bring. What we’ve done. Who we love. None of that matters.

       However, we also need to remember that to God, love is a verb.

       So, when we open ourselves to God’s love, when we are filled with God’s love, we don’t then find ourselves in a state of blissful complacency.

       When we genuinely allow ourselves to feel and be loved, we are invited and inspired to act, to change, to learn, to grow.

       We are invited to begin a journey towards something, a something that I can’t really put my finger on but that a number of people in this congregation seem to sense as well.

       It’s a journey towards love, to wholeness, to awakening, to whole heartedness, to belonging, to being fully alive, to living out the words of the Prayer of St. Francis, or the Lord’s Prayer. A journey to health, wellness, to peace. A journey to ourselves.

       Part of what makes the destination so ineffable is that the destination is just a bit different for each of us, and, the destination is also beyond our comprehension.

       I recognize that is a difficult thing for a group of very smart people to hear. But, God is, in fact, beyond human comprehension. People like me do our best to figure out what makes sense to us, based on our education, our inner knowing, our experience, our reason, and what our traditions tell us. We figure these things out and then try to share to help others along. We become “experts” by societal standards. And then many of us have a hard time admitting that being an “expert” on God, means we have no idea what God is like, and either we are willing to admit that, or we pretend like we have all the answers.

       I openly admit that I don’t know and all of this is my best guess, and what makes sense to me.

       And that’s why I don’t want to teach you all how to walk my path, because it’s mine. I’d like to equip you to find your own path to God. So that when you are on the path and filled with God’s love, what you are motivated to do and to be is what you need, not what I need.

       I’ve been contemplating this a lot this week. Along with some of the things we’ve discussed in the Tuesday night group. And one of the things that we talked about are the distractions, and the difference between a distraction and something that has come up along the path that we need to deal with.

       We are warned to avoid distractions in my summary of Paul’s teachings I’ve offered as the basis for this sermon series.

       To remind everyone, please look at the front of your bulletin, or at the nifty little cards we had made, and read with me: “the path to [blank] is long. There are many distractions along the way. Don’t be [distracted].”

       There are times when it is hard to differentiate between a distraction and an obstacle that we need to deal with along the path.

       I want everyone to know that I thought long and hard about this. I wrote 3 pages of sermon on the difference between obstacle and distraction. I had a fun metaphor, I went into all sorts of things.

       And after the whole thing was done. Every word was written. Every piece of grammar checked. I had an epiphany. And had to delete it all. Because:

       Obstacles are designed to distract you.

Obstacles and distractions are often the same.

       Obstacles you overcome. Distractions prevent you from going forward. Distractions can become obstacles you’ve overcome.

       And I just want everyone to know that I’m very sad about my 3 moot pages of obstacle versus distraction because I did some good writing. But it’s unnecessary. So, gone; and I replaced them with 1.5 fairly interesting pages.

       Now that we know obstacles are designed to distract us, which means they are basically the same thing with different outcomes let’s get back on our path!

       On this path we encounter all sorts of things, especially things from our past and or our present that we need to deal with. Sometimes these things from the past are referred to as emotional baggage.

I tend to think of emotional baggage as the unnecessary things we pick up along the way, or things we cling to long past when we no longer need them, like fear, anger, guilt, shame, even pain. These are things that hold us back or halt us all together. They are more like parachutes than bags. And these parachutes are hard to let go of, because they often make us feel safe by having them; by having something to cling to. Even though we don’t like them and we don’t like carrying them around.

       Emotional baggage sounds like a derogatory thing, like we’re carrying things that we don’t need to carry and it’s our fault for having them. That’s why I prefer emotional parachutes. By letting them go, we’re allowing ourselves to fly.

However, separate from emotional baggage and parachutes are those places of genuine lament that some of us encounter. Lament feels like a piece of us goes missing or changes forever. These are the wounds we can heal from, but we will always carry the scar. Often, a lament deeply impacts us, and alters our path, or our understanding of the path and the destination.

       For example, I will always carry the scar that my father left when I was very young, the scar from my grandmother dying when I was so young, from when my Aunt Pat died. Scars are tender to the touch. It hurts when you poke them. And that’s ok. I don’t need to forget about my loved ones, or about the pain of my father’s abandonment.

       But I do need to move forward anyway, carrying those lessons, but not letting the lessons and experiences dictate who I am going forward. Lament is there and we know it’s there, and while sometimes it will catch us unaware, we can and should do the work to allow ourselves to go forward in life as humans.

       Our emotional parachutes, anger, fear, shame, guilt, those are things that block our path or hold us back. Laments become part of the puzzle pieces that are us; they change us. Obstacles and those emotions and experiences that we must deal with, undo, reimagine; those are the obstacles designed to distract us.

       Don’t be.

       Remember though, the parachutes we carry, the things that define us, describe us, and allow us to survive, as well as the things that maybe hold us back; all that we carry, all that we are, all that we come to this place with, God loves all of it.

       God loves the saints and the sinners. The addicts and the dealers. The sick and the doctors. Priests and atheists. Soldiers and civilians. Everyone, and everything in between. God loves us.

       God offers love to us all. It is up to us to accept it.

       And accepting God’s love is a commitment to embracing and encountering all the obstacles that emerge when we are filled with this action inspiring love. Sometimes, and this is quite hard when it happens, sometimes we realize we’ve been on the wrong path, or maybe it was the right path for a season and now it’s time to switch.

       This can be awful. Truly. Very hard and unsettling. But don’t make the path into an idol that we chase. We live, we grow, we change. The path and the destination can too.

       That happens a lot when we start to let God in and start to allow ourselves to feel God’s love.

       Unfortunately, this process can’t be a head exercise. As Episcopalians we tend to get stuck in our heads, within the safety of our own intellects. We read books, understand problems, can have good conversations, but our day-to-day lives, those really don’t change very much.

       But God doesn’t just want our brains. God wants all of us, every single part, to be filled with God’s love.

       And when we let that love in, it changes us.

       Sometimes being filled with the Holy Spirit shows that us that we are on the right track! Sometimes God’s love reveals that we need to make a major change. Maybe even change the path altogether.

Sometimes God’s love shows us that we need help, even if we haven’t realized that we do. Needing help along the path is ok. Needing help and asking for help might even be part of the path, instead of being an obstacle.

       When we let God’s love in, when we allow ourselves to be surrounded and filled with the Holy Spirit, the one thing that doesn’t happen, is complacency. Complacency is not part of the path.

Instead, being filled with God’s love, being surrounded and filled with the Holy Spirit, we become aware of the work that we need to do, the things we need to change or alter, and, we are energized to do the work.

Sometimes, we are called to rest. But the thing to remember about rest is that sometimes, resting is work in and of itself. To rest is not the same as to be complacent.

       To rest is to repair, to recharge, to reenergize for what is to come.

       Being a person of faith means, to me, that we are willing to accept God’s love and all that comes with it. Even the things that we don’t know about ahead of time; can’t plan for or control, and even the things that we don’t want to do.

       Our invitation this week is to consider a few different questions while we continue to reflect on our Lenten words.

       What, if anything, is preventing us from accepting and feeling God’s love?

       What baggage are we carrying along this journey that we maybe don’t need anymore?

       How can we identify the obstacles we need to overcome and the distractions that try to pull us away?  

       What do we need to do to remember and act like God loves us, as we are, with whatever we bring, and welcomes us, always?

Ash Wednesday: The Path FROM Penitence

The first time I was condemned to hell it was because I told someone I enjoyed Harry Potter. She muttered something about witchcraft, informed me I was going to hell, and then proceeded to not talk to me anymore that evening. Which was awkward, because it was Thanksgiving and there were like 6 of us.

         I’ve also been condemned to hell for being gay and for supporting gay rights. As well as for having the audacity to be an ordained woman.

         The frequency with which I’ve been condemned to hell tells me that I have a very different understanding of what is and is not sin from many other people.

         And as such, I have a hard time with loaded words such as sin and penitence.

         And yet, as I was going through the liturgy and readings for today that word kept jumping out at me, over and over and over: Penitence. I toyed with titling this sermon, the Path to Penitence, but eventually decided against it, for reasons I hope become obvious in the next few minutes.

         For me and for anyone society has told is wrong, a sinner, an abomination, the idea of needing to be penitent before God is kind of a non-starter. I’m not going to apologize to God for the way that God made me to be.

         As such, I have a complex relationship with penitence, and honestly, it’s a word that I just try to ignore, or simply say when I need to in the performance of my job, rather than sitting with. Kind of similar to what a lot of people do with the teachings in Scripture that are less than gentle reading.

         So, in the nature of sitting with difficult things, and as part of this process I’m calling all of us to in these next 40 days, I spent some time with penitence.

         Penitence is one of those words that sounds to me like it is a huge and complicated thing. A loaded word with a deep and complex meaning. Just saying it feels like saying a heavy word.

         We will say penitence over and over tonight.

         Including an entire litany of penitence!

         And also:  

“Forgive the sins of all who are penitent.”

         “it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting”

         “Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence”

          “pronounce to God’s people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins.”

         And my favorite: “a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”

         That last one has topics and concepts and ideas to preach on for days!

         But for today I only want to focus on penitence.

         Because it was in preparation for writing this sermon that I had an Epiphany about penitence.

         But before I share that Epiphany, I want to share a bit about my previous relationship with penitence. Because I’ve always had a complicated relationship with penitence. It seemed to me that penitence was always a bit like what Jesus is describing in the Gospel as what not to do.

         To be penitent always seemed to me to be something that we do for others. For show.

         We look solemn, sorry. We say we’re sorry. We try to move on. That’s been my experience of penitence.

         Penitent seems like a thing that we are in church, and eventually the person in the white collar tells you it’s ok, and you can leave without further ramifications.

         As I started to prep this sermon I did a thing that I often do when a word keeps jumping out at me from the page: I googled it.

         I googled penitence just to make sure I wasn’t missing something in my understanding.

         And I was not. In fact, penitence has an even more simple and straightforward definition than I thought!

         Being penitent means being or saying sorry. Usually about something serious, but not always.

         The thing about being or saying sorry, the thing about the word sorry that makes me absolutely insane, is that it means nothing.

         My epiphany about penitence is that being penitent on its own, means absolutely nothing.

         Now I know there are lots of recovering Catholics in this congregation, and more than a few cradle Episcopalians, who will say I’m wrong. You are absolutely entitled to your opinion. But before you stone me, hear me out.

         Being penitent is a starting place, not a destination. But far too often, we treat penitence as a destination.

         You can be penitent without making a single change as a result. You can be penitent while knowing that you are not going to change a single thing. You can be penitent, you can say sorry, knowing that you are absolutely going to do the same thing again.

         We are all going to say words and prayers tonight, words about how penitent we are. And then we will leave here, and not change a single thing.

         Cause sorry is just a word.

         Penitence is a word. Not action. Not proof.

         Penitence without action does not meet the standard set by the early church that we are professing today.

         Penitence without action is exactly what Jesus is cautioning against in this Gospel. Jesus is saying, don’t do things for show or for social standing. Practice your faith in a way that changes you.

         Ash Wednesday and Lent are open invitations to engage in practices that are designed to change us.

         I’ve tried to offer a specific invitation to us all to dig deeper into our relationship with ourselves and with God, because, quite honestly, fasting and self-deprivation have never worked for me to grow in my relationship with God.

         Intentionality and openness, those are what help me grow in my relationship with God.

         Recognizing mistakes or missteps, places where my relationship with God isn’t great, or where there is room to grow in any relationship, that is much closer to the first step in this process of growth, rather than the last.

         That is why today I offer that the Path to repentance is long, and it begins with penitence.

         And repentance, repentance is a step along the path to forgiveness.

         Penitence, repentance, forgiveness.

         To repent, in it’s most literal translation from the Hebrew or Aramaic, means to turn or return. Specifically in Scripture when we see the word repent, they mean to turn or return towards the way and the path of God.

         Forgiveness carries a heavy meaning in Scripture, always. And the word Jesus uses for forgiveness has different meanings or connotations in different places. Most commonly, when Jesus says forgiveness he means a restoration to wholeness in relationship with God.

         This restoration is a result of an intentional process of walking the path of righteousness, and of creating a new relationship between yourself and the person, persons, or community you harmed, admitting you harmed others, owning that you harmed someone, saying you will change, then proving you will change.

         It’s a process that begins with saying and being sorry, then there’s a period, potentially a very long period, when we must show through our actions that we will be different and we will learn from our mistakes.

         Eventually, the process ends with a new and different relationship between everyone involved.

         There’s so much more to this than being penitent.

         In a few moments we will say the litany of penitence together. And that litany concludes with a prayer, a beautiful prayer that acknowledges the power of repentance and righteousness. But what it doesn’t say, what nothing we pray or repeat today says, is that we promise to do and be different.

         Lent is a time for us to prove that we will be different in places that we need to be different.

         My question to consider as we leave today is: are there places or things in your life where you feel as though you need to be different?

         And if so, what is preventing you from making the changes you need to make?

         Not the things that society says are bad. What, if anything, is standing in the way of being the person you want to be? And of having the relationship with God you want to have?

         And what are you willing to do to change?

The Path to Transfiguration…

         Most of the time, at least lately, writing sermons is fun. It’s work, and I work hard at producing good sermons, but it’s work that I enjoy. There’s an academic side, a deeply spiritual side; there’s a balance between prayer and study, which I really enjoy. And listening. There’s as much listening as thinking and writing.

         I often enjoy all of it.

         But there are weeks when the words just don’t come. Where the theme, topic, main point, or even starting words, just won’t present themselves to me.

         Those weeks are hard.

         This week was one of those weeks.

         I think part of the difficulty of this week is that there seems to be a collective lull descending over society right now.

         As the Pandemic approaches another anniversary, as spring toys with us, and then retreats behind a foot of heavy snow, as a war begins to be waged in Europe by an autocrat with a powerful military, as Texas begins to attack trans children, all of these things are creating this sense of “blah.”

         I say “blah” but it’s really more than that. Pandemic fatigue is more like a depression; like a heavy gray blanket that surrounds and pushes in on us. It’s simple and comfortable, in it’s own way, but the comfort comes from zapping all our desire and hope, and leaving us feeling dull, aimless, exhausted.

         And it is from within this cloud of societal lull and depression that we encounter the Celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration this year.

         Today I would like to talk about the Transfiguration within the context of our liturgical season, Epiphany.

         An Epiphany is that moment of idea, inspiration; when the puzzle pieces suddenly come together, the lightbulb turns on, or the missing link appears.

         It’s the moment when you finally get it.

         In society, in human nature, there are a lot of moments when we finally get something, and once we see the problem or a possible solution, once we see, often we will stop there. Mistakenly assuming that having had the idea is what matters most. Losing sight that the epiphany is the starting point, not the destination.

         To put this idea into the context of the last few weeks, the path to Epiphany is actually quite short. Epiphany is a starting point, not an ending.

         Paul’s Epiphany happened on the road to Emmaus. And then Paul began the path to redemption, to faith.

         Today I present to you all the idea that the path to transfiguration is long, and it starts with an Epiphany.

         There are several different stories I could share with you all about this from within my own life, about race, gender, sexuality, privilege, where I had an Epiphany and then set about doing the work of transfiguration. But instead, I’d like to talk with you all about mental health. Specifically about my mental health.

         It’s something I really should have done months ago, and I didn’t because I don’t want to; I still don’t. Even right now. But it’s important. And several months ago I said to myself that the next time the words or ideas for a sermon won’t come, I’ll check in to see if this story is appropriate, and it is. So, here we go.

         As you all know, I had my shoulder replaced in August. I have known for a few years that this would happen at some point in my life, I was really hoping it would be in another 5 or 10 years.

And for about a year after surgery number 5, I was doing really well. It was within this year that I found my way to be your Priest. I was physically very healthy when I started here a little over a year ago.

         And then in April, I noticed that something was wrong. The pain in my shoulder changed. As anyone who has chronic pain will tell you, when something is different, you notice. Chronic pain is a lot like a neighbor you grew up with. You never really liked each other, but you know each other really well, and you know when something is different.

         In April something was different. I went to see my surgeon, he told me it was time for a new shoulder. There was nothing else left to do.

         I was prepared for surgery and for recovery.

         But I wasn’t prepared for getting very, very sick. For the daily migraines that accompanied the increasing pain, and the way the physical pain caused stress and mental anguish. And I definitely was not prepared for what the constant anxiety, fear, and stress would do to my mental health.

         And I will tell you all, it was not good. The most noticeable way that I can point to for everyone is that my preaching really suffered. It became a chore to preach; to find the mental strength to write a sermon and then to deliver it.

         It was the first time in my professional life that preaching wasn’t something I looked forward to.

         But I thought all would be well after I came back from medical leave.

         But I didn’t really come back. I couldn’t focus, I had no energy, I had no desire to do anything. I was depressed and I was suffering. And I had been for several months, since at least April.

         And then I had an Epiphany.

         As I have mentioned once or twice, I have ADHD. When I was diagnosed I was told I have “textbook” adult ADHD. But what I wasn’t told when I was diagnosed, nor at any other point, is that there is an emotional side to ADHD.

         And that periods of prolonged stress, anxiety, and pain can make symptoms of ADHD change or worsen. That happened to me. But it wasn’t as simple as the pain influencing my brain.

         I had been controlling my symptoms with diet and exercise for 7 or 8 years. But early in the pandemic I noticed that I was a bit flat, as many of us did, from a lack of stimulation, so I took steps to make sure I was getting enough activity to help my brain have enough dopamine (dopamine being a happy drug that our brains make naturally, but that ADHD brains really struggle to have enough of).

         I realized in late September that I was struggling, badly. I was suffering, depressed, and feeling generally worthless. And that I had felt like this for many months, sliding further down a hill that I couldn’t get back up myself.

         Then I had my second Epiphany: I needed help.

         There is a great stigma around mental health and needing help and I was not immune to the shame of needing help; I took great pride in being the poster child for controlling ADHD with diet and exercise. But I am here in front of you saying it was not shame I felt when I called my doctor, I felt brave when I told her my honest truth: “I need help.”

         To her credit, my doctor didn’t hesitate. She got me in within a week and worked with the psychiatrists on staff in her office to get me on the right medication. This was done within 2 weeks of my reaching out for help.

         I also found a new therapist who specializes in ADHD to help me understand the way my brain works better, and to help me get past the stigma I have around my brain being wired differently.

         And she also encouraged me to take several different approaches to my ADHD, and the result, is that within a month I was doing much better, and now 4 months later, I am mentally as healthy as I have ever been. Still happily on my various medications, with no intention of stopping.

         I am transformed into a much better version of who I am and who I can be, because, I had an Epiphany, it was hard and not one I’m proud of, and then I did the hard work of walking the difficult path to transfiguration. I’m still on this path today. I guess in a way sharing my shame with you all is part of journey.

         As I am transformed, I hope that you all can see the difference. I know that y’all are still getting used to me and my preaching and leadership style, but I think it’s safe to say I’m preaching better than I was a year ago, and I know I am leading better and more fully.

         I’m still bad at emails and scheduling, but, I do usually write everyone back now, and I almost always show up to meetings within a few minutes of the scheduled start time, which is an improvement!

         Because my mental health is better, I’m also better able to work on my physical health, and the complications that have arisen following my surgery, including countless visits, many specialists, and a very fun test that involved shooting electricity through my right arm.

         But I’m doing it. I’m recovering and getting better. And I’m still showing up for you all, and for Amy, and for my friends, and for my Mom. I’m doing all of this while keeping an eye on when I’ve got too much, like I did this week when I canceled a coffee date with a colleague.

         So, why am I sharing all of this with you all?

         Well, I don’t want to hide things from you. I want to own that I was sick and for a period I wasn’t very good at my job. I also want to claim that I’m once again I’m on the way to being pretty good at my job.

         And I want everyone to hear that sometimes, this takes work. It takes an eye opening moment, an Epiphany that is often filled with shame or fear.

         But, and this is important, don’t look away from the Epiphany because of that shame or fear. Don’t run away from the journey because it’s hard.

         My epiphany was the first step, it’s what opened my eyes to the reality of how sick I was. The real work came after that. And so did the real rewards.

         If I hadn’t done the work, researched what I was feeling, found some possible reasons, reached out for help, advocated for help, interviewed 10 different therapists, if I hadn’t actually walked the path, I wouldn’t be transformed into a better and healthier person.

         Jesus, his transfiguration, it wasn’t just a thing that happened and that Peter, John, and James saw. The transfiguration was the conclusion of one path, and Christ being prepared to begin his final path, which would lead him to the Cross.

         We are about to start our own path to transfiguration, a path that we are invited to walk for 40 days every year when we enter Lent. This path begins with the Epiphany that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and it ends with tomb empty and a celebration of resurrection.

         There’s this idea that Lent needs to be about giving things up in order to draw closer to Christ, and if that works for you, great. But that has never worked for me. Giving things up has only led to feeling guilty if I fail, and there is enough guilt in this world.

         If giving things up hasn’t led you to be closer to Jesus also, I have an invitation. One that I hope will allow us to walk this path of Lent and come out transfigured on the other side!

         I would like everyone to consider whatever our individual answers to the question of “the path to ________ is long. There are many distractions along the way. Don’t be [distracted].”

         And I invite us to consider that word, that process, that end goal we fill in the blank with, every day, for 40 days, starting Wednesday.

Knowing that from dust we are made, and to dust we shall return. We enter the path to __________. Remembering that the path to ___________ is long. That there are many distractions along the way. We commit to try not to be distracted for 40 days.

         We commit to pointing our eyes and heart towards Jesus for these next 40 days.

I don’t know where our paths will lead. But I am inviting all of us to walk this path. Together. To support one another along the way.

I’m thinking that we should have small groups meet once a week during this time so that we can all check in. It’s short notice for this, I know. So I propose that if you are interested, block off your Tuesday nights at 6, and let’s meet to discuss our paths.

We’ll start this Tuesday, at 6, to discuss our words, and then have the Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras/Birthday party at 7. And then every Tuesday after until we reach resurrection, we’ll talk at 6 on Tuesdays.

I also encourage everyone to walk the labyrinth at least once during these 40 days. It’s a bit covered in snow at the moment, so we can wait till that melts a little. But a labyrinth is a great place to contemplate paths, journeys, epiphanies, and destinations.

What do y’all think?

Can we walk our paths together?

Amen

The Path to Resurrection is long…Don’t get distracted.

I was like 22, maybe 23. Living in Kennesaw, Georgia, getting my first Masters at Kennesaw State University (Go Owls!), the first time it happened.

         The first time I heard a Southern woman say “bless their heart” when she really meant, something very, very different.

         I’d heard this happened, this “bless your heart”, but I’d never heard it with my own ears. And I laughed, hard. The whole class did. Our professor, Ansley Barton, a born and bred Georgia woman, who had been among the early women sworn into the Bar of Georgia, was so annoyed at someone she uttered, sincerely, “bless their heart.”

         Now, I knew saying bless their heart was vaguely based on Christianity and the misunderstood idea that you shouldn’t cuss, but honestly, I didn’t know the specifics of where this specific turn of phrase came from.

There isn’t a rule in Leviticus nor within the proper context of the Epistles, an admonishment that says to say bless their heart instead of flipping them off. But I think we can get a whiff of it’s origins in the section of the Sermon on the Plain we have today.

         But I haven’t really thought about it. I bet a lot of people haven’t really thought about it. It’s just a thing that’s said to passive aggressively convey a point without directly being offensive to anyone, nor a literal interpretation of Scripture.

         I think “Bless their heart” is a really good example of yet another thing that I take a bit of umbrage with within society and religion. Sometimes, particularly in a ritual and tradition based denomination like the Episcopal Church, sometimes we say things, or repeat things, without taking in what we are saying. We just say them. They’re words, and nothing more.

         Not everyone does this, nor does everyone do it all the time. But for a lot of us, and I myself have been as guilty of this as anyone else, there are at least times when we recite words without appreciating what we are saying or what those words mean.

         “your Kindom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

         “God be with you.”

         “have Mercy on us”

         “Almighty God who created us in your own image”

         “The Peace of God be with you.”

         “O God, we bring you our failure, our hunger, our disappointment, our despair, our greed, our arrogance, and our fear. We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not truly loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are sorry, we are humbled, and we pray that you will strengthen us with your grace. We turn to you, O God. We renounce evil, we claim love, we choose to be made whole. Forgive us and renew us now.”

         “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

         It’s on this that I wish to linger today. A line from Eucharistic Prayer B, said in Anglican Churches around the world every Sunday. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

         If you read the newsletter this week you’ll know that I’ve been ruminating on the idea of what bodily resurrection might mean.

         If I were answering my own invitation from last week, I would be pondering the idea that “the path to resurrection is long. There are many distractions along the way. Don’t be [distracted].”

         The readings this week lend themselves to this rumination on resurrection as well.

         Paul is flat out talking about what he means by bodily resurrection (basically, he says, there are different types of flesh, and there are different types of bodies, and it is our spiritual body, which for him is a real body but one that hasn’t been maimed by sin or death, it is our spiritual body in which we will be resurrected).

         The Genesis reading has a different spin on resurrection, because, in this section of Genesis, we have Joseph’s brothers, who thought they had killed Joseph when they left him in a pit to die, then sold him to slave traders, we have Joseph coming back to life to his brothers.

         And, Joseph offering a path to life for his family.

         The Gospel is offering a glimpse of what the kindom of heaven is like, and, how to bring that kindom to life.

         I think we as Christians often think of God’s kindom as a thing to come, rather than a thing that is. But to be clear, the world that was and is and is to come, the kindom of God that Jesus talks about so much, that’s not a mythical thing that we find out about when we die.

         It’s a thing we are charged as Christians to bring into existence now, in this world, not the world to come.

         And that’s a huge part of why I’m stuck ruminating on the words Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

         Jesus lived, he died a profoundly human death, he came back to life in his spiritual body, and promises that he’ll do it all again.

         And, he left instructions for what the world should look like when he gets back.

         When he gets back, Jesus says, and Paul mostly repeats in his own way, when Jesus gets back he expects the societal structures that divide humans, the systems that subjugate many for the benefit of a few, the beliefs that tear us apart rather than unite us, these things, Jesus said, they need to be gone.

         Jesus stood on a level place, quite literally putting everyone on a level playing field, to say and illustrate that all of us are equal, we are equal to one another, and we are equal to him.

         And the words that Jesus said in this sermon on the plain: love your enemies; love those who hate you; do to everyone as you would do for yourself; do not judge; do not condemn; forgive; give back when you can – these were hard words to hear. Even harder to live into.

         These words were so hard to hear and so difficult to live into that a lot of people stopped following Jesus at this point, including some disciples. This is the point where there’s a noticeable difference between listening to Jesus talk, and continuing to listen to him and his teachings as you go forward in life.

         Really listening. Not just listening for what you want to hear. Not just pulling out the things that are easy to hear, easy to do, or confirm the lifestyle you are already living.

         This requires some aspects of life as we know it, as life as the first century followers knew it, hearing and incorporating the teachings of Christ requires some aspects of life as we know it to die.

         That’s a thing about resurrection that we don’t talk about much. But it’s true. In order for someone or something to be resurrected, first it must die.

         Death is the first step in resurrection.

         I recognize that conversations like this usually happen in Lent instead of the weeks before. But I think as we are looking at the third anniversary of life changing completely because of a pandemic, finally on what seems to be the downhill of the Covid pandemic, talk about resurrection feels right.

         Especially as the national refrain becomes more about “getting back to normal” or resuming life as it was before.

         Because, and I mean no offense to the very smart people who are saying these things, “normal” died 3 years ago.

         And there were things that needed to die.

         Saying and doing things for the sake of saying or doing them, needed to die. Being more intentional and appreciative of the moments and opportunities, those things are rising resurrected in the wake of these deaths.

         The ability to go forward in life like nothing is wrong when we know things are wrong, that needed to die.

         That we can be present for one another, and reliant on one another, even when we can’t be physically together, this is the resurrection following the death of the insulation and individualization of ourselves and our lives.  

         I said something last week, and when the words were coming out of my mouth they surprised me.

         I said “faith is supposed to be hard.”

         Resurrection is part of the hard.

         Loving your neighbor as yourself is part of the hard.

         Loving yourself is part of the hard.

         Being kind is part of the hard.

         Being respectful of people who wish you ill, is part of the hard.

         Not judging, not condemning, it’s part of the hard.

         And it’s part of the hard to know the difference between what’s right and what’s not quite right.

         And then doing what’s right.

         The kindom of God, it’s not a distant thing. It’s here, now, waiting for us to bring it about. Waiting for us to love God’s will into existence.

         Sometimes this means doing things that are hard, or that we don’t necessarily want to do.

         So to that end, our invitation for this week.

         I think, and the vestry agrees with me, I think we should throw Covid a birthday party. It’s turning three. I think it’s time to begin to embrace a new relationship with Covid, and for me, doing so is in the vain of loving those who have hurt me. It might not seem right, nor be a thing we want to do to throw Covid a birthday party. But hear me out.

         I wish to mark what has been, honor what has changed, and embrace that we’re on a path forward. Together, because we are together with covid, whether we like it or not.

         This party will of course be over Zoom, because really, how could a Covid birthday party not be over zoom?

         So please, everyone, save the evening of Tuesday, March 1st. Because we’re having a party! I’ve been told that the frog who Margaret found living in the undercroft walls will make an appearance, and he fits with this theme too! Tuesday, March 1st, at 6.

         I’m going to put together little goodie bags (and would love help getting those together if anyone wants to help). And those can be picked up next week or if you can’t get here by the 1st, we’ll send you one! Just let me know that you can’t get by the church on Sunday, or before but after Wednesday when I’ll try to get a few together, but you still want to participate.

         Really, just let me know if you can come so I know how many goodies to buy! Because there will be goodies. What kind of birthday party doesn’t have goodies?

         We’re also going to do an Ash Wednesday service, that I hope everyone can be part of. So please plan to attend or watch that, though I haven’t decided on timing yet. I will this week. After I buy chocolate for the party.

         If you haven’t done last week’s invitation, please still do. Please fill in the blank of “the path to ______ is long.” And let me know what you come up with!

         But together, together I want us to take an intentional step towards a different relationship with Covid, one that honors and marks where we have been, the people and things we have lost, and the lessons we have learned.

         It’s all part of turning societal expectations upside down. It’s all part of having intentional actions and understanding why we are doing things instead of just doing them.

         It’s all part of living into the commands of Christ.

         And if it doesn’t make sense, that’s ok. Sometimes faith doesn’t make sense.

         We just have to have faith anyway.

Amen